ART / athens / creativity / exhibitions / greece

An exhibition stripped bare of its boundaries

The philosophical stance of ‘All in good measure’ (Cleovoulos), or following the ‘middle way’ (Buddha), is something that the majority of humanity tends to believe as being  the road to happiness, harmony and balance. But is it?

Our world today is anything but balanced and harmonious, and Greek society in particular, still in the dark abyss of the crisis, is finding it hard to keep any form of balance. It is at times like this, that people (and art) tend to tip the scales – as a cry for help, or of  revolt, or as an attempt to find something new. The ‘ametria’ (or ‘dismeasure’) show could be seen as such an example: a negation of the accepted norm, but also the creation of a new artistic measure.

Although the ‘ametria’ show at the Benaki Pireos closed its doors to the public on October 11, it has certainly opened some new doors in terms of what an exhibition is, and what it should be. The show’s radical nature, evident in  its overturning of exhibition rules , will certainly keep us pondering on the matter of what ‘measure’ and ‘order’ really are – and who knows, maybe we will see other such experimental enterprises being realised in the future. No doubt the show’s catalogue which is still in the making, will be in the same vein.

Seventy works by 67 artists comprised ‘ametria’, which was the culmination of a joint venture between the Deste Foundation of contemporary art, and the Benaki Museum.  Pieces from  both establishments’ collections were carefully chosen and arranged to create an intriguing mix of ‘young’ and ‘old’, ‘past’ and ‘present’, reflecting  in this way, on the very different character of the two collections. But the whole concept of the show, was where the real innovation was at: In a sense it stripped bare the whole notion of an art exhibition as an easily digestible – or dare I say even consumer-friendly – presentation of clearly labelled and categorised artefacts aimed at informing and educating the public (and predominantly the middle-class). Instead, what we got, was a questioning and a reordering of the whole shebang. The show worked more as an artwork itself – a massive installation, with smaller installations within it – complete with some mirror tricks to add suspense, shock. Was there even horror ?  Maybe for some viewers with strict ethics and religious zeal but many would argue that this kind of ‘beliefs bashing’ is now pretty common in contemporary art, although one wonders if it is there simply to outrage a certain class of people or if it serves some other purpose. However in the case of ‘ametria’,  all this controversial curatorship did create an exciting adventure into the nitty-gritty heart of art and Greek civilization.

The show’s conceptual seed was sown by artist Roberto Cuoghi – known for his original acts of ‘hybridization’. For you to get an idea of his character, let me just mention that in the past,  for one of his ‘live works’,   he transformed himself into his aging father  for a few years (putting on weight, even dying his hair grey to look the part). The curatorial team of the show which then worked  with Cuoghi’s concept,  also included architect/university lecturer Yorgos Tzirtzilakis, whose avant-garde perspective  has also coloured the realisation of other  controversial  exhibitions, most notably  the ‘Outlook’ show (part of the cultural programme for the Olympic Games, 2004).

Are you experienced?

Let me first of all describe the experience that I had when I went to see this show: Upon entering the exhibition space, instead of meeting with the classic white walls of a show, one is confronted with a dimly-lit, black-walled maze. One is handed a map, which is meant to guide you through the labyrinth.  However, the works in the show  are  neither numbered or named. Instead, you have to find this information on the map provided – a tad difficult in the dim lighting, and even more difficult if you have forgotten your reading glasses at home (as was my case). It is indeed a very hard feat to actually get your bearings in the show, and to follow the map, and to find the works’ ‘name and number’ on it, so much so, that you start questioning the whole cumbersome impracticality and total ‘non-user friendliness’ of the whole situation.  (But that’s the point.)

When I went, there was a couple before me who had entered the maze, and who had gotten so frustrated with the whole affair that they started shouting at the poor girl who was there to hand out the maps at the entrance – as if she (a humble Deste foundation employee), were to blame!

”What on earth is this all about! And to think that we even paid to see this total rubbish!”, that was just one of the many comments they showered her with, as she tried to explain to them (with a nervous laugh) that it just takes a little getting used to… (an understatement). For a moment, I thought I was at some kind of Dada-inspired happening, designed to provoke the masses…

My first reaction was to ditch the map, but instead, I folded it and put it in my bag (for  later analysis), and decided instead to experience the exhibition as a purely visual experience, free of ‘name tags’. And this, was indeed liberating. It’s a bit like becoming a child again, and going to a museum for the first time. Labels don’t matter, they are meaningless. What matters is the experience of art. (A deeper dive into visual stimulation.) And this has definitely influenced the present  ‘critique’ of the show, where I have tried to recapture this feeling (and so have omitted a lot of the historical details of the actual artefacts in the show) with the aim of transferring this visual experience to the reader.

And what an experience it is: On the outskirts, a bit ‘crusty’, seeing as one starts with lots of old maps – of Athens and quite a few of Crete – and lots of old town plans (many of them unrealised) and even prison designs. You move on to an old Quran, and more architectural drawings and propositions –among them Friedrich Schinkel’s proposal for the creation of a palace inside the Acropolis’ Parthenon (1862).

Let’s skip a bit, and go to the ‘textile installation’ or the ‘red heart’ of the show: here, a variety of textiles – red or white – cover the walls, creating a kind of Rothko feel to the space – a kind of ‘woven womb’. The textiles are mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries. But just before them, one comes face to face (literally, because the work is enormous but the space to view it is very narrow) with a giant phallus by Judith Bernstein (1975). Oh, and before that, there are some orgy scenes by Paul Chan (and some intricate drawings that take doodling to another level, by Antonis Donef and Dominic McGill). So, you get the ‘drift’ of the general message from this section of the show…

Let’s move on a bit to some of the show’s other highlights: The two post-byzantine silver collars that were used as a cure for mental illness, which have been placed under two artworks by Friedrich Kunath – one that focuses on the subject of ‘pure love’, while the other one focusing on ‘madness’. And now we enter the dark heart of the exhibition, where Greek myth and history are combined in mysterious ways. Take for example the work by Urs Fischer, ‘Skinny Afternoon’, where a skeleton leans on a wooden cabinet and kisses its reflection in a mirror. However the work has been given added meaning in this show, seeing as what is also reflected in the mirror this time, is the flag of the chieftain and priest Papamalekos (a hero of the Cretan revolution which took place 1895-98), inscribed with the words ‘Union or Death’. The tongue-in-cheek humour here (something along the lines of ‘patriotism kills’?)  is indeed macabre.

Let’s now move onto another interesting little ‘arrangement’ of works: a male, headless, funerary statue (1st-2nd c. AD) is placed to stand opposite a mirror, so that  when you look in the mirror, you see that the statue’s reflection has now been provided with a new head – a woman’s head with bull’s horns. This image is one of Nelly’s photographs from her Masks series – in this case from the performance of Prometheus Bound at the Delphi Festival of 1930. There are quite a few photographs of masks by Nelly’s in the show, each one of them harking back to primordial, Jungian universal archetypes. Myth is indeed given a special place here, in what could be called the ‘dark heart’ of the show. Furthermore, one could also say that we move from the Apollonian spirit of light and reason (at the beginning of the show, with the architectural reasoning and town plans), towards Dionysian darkness in the show’s core.

Apart from the examples already mentioned, there were also meticulously painted religious icons next to the contemporary satire of religion, or Hadjikyriakos-Ghika’s cubist-style painting of the severed head of Medusa next to a classic 18th century painting of John the Baptist’s head.  The last work you meet with just before the exit, is a large face (by Jim Shaw), that has been almost hidden behind a screen. It stares at you enigmatically, questioningly, even looking slightly scared or apprehensive… (it could well be the look on your face after seeing the show).

As you can see, this exhibition was packed with symbolism and association, making connections and comments on civilisation, sex, love, madness, religion and myth via the juxtaposition and arrangement of  contemporary  art with artefacts ranging from antiquity, to the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.  What at first hand appears to be a chaotic show,  is actually pretty ordered. Or is that just a case of the human mind creating meaning? No doubt this element is also part of  ‘ametria’, seeing as the show also allows the viewer to arrive at their own very personal reading, because it also functions as a giant art installation.

What the organisers say

Yorgos Tzirtzilakis explains to ‘Art Scene Athens’ that the exhibition’s radical nature  attracted viewers from as far as Princeton University. And the organisers are in the process at the moment of producing the catalogue. That will also be an interesting and groundbreaking venture no doubt  (I’m curious to see how the titles of the works will be dealt with here).

In an interview with the Greek Huffington Post’s Yorgos Milonas, Tzirtzilakis discussed how the exhibition functions as an organism, like a stretched out body with various organs, he also claimed that the works are not robbed of their identity through the associations with other works created in the exhibition. For example, one can still marvel at the painted beauty of the post-byzantine icons – examples of post-medievalism and a long painting tradition – but their associations with newer works now adds strength to their ‘aura of energy’, giving  them a whole new dimension.

As for the ‘philosophy of measure’, Tzirtzilakis believes that this concept was invented in Greece in order to protect the Greek population which had a tendency to go beyond the boundaries of measure. It was created in order to protect us from our impulsive natures and our tendency towards extremes. But he also argues that excess and measure go hand in hand – ”next to Apollonian melancholy lies Dionysian ecstasy”. Tzirtzilakis sees it as a bipolar relationship which runs through the entire history of Greek civilization. In a similar fashion, the ‘ametria’ show combines these two different poles, which are ”different but not always opposite”.

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