IT WAS RIGHT under the Acropolis, on the stone pathway of Dionisiou Aeropagitou, where a group of long riders set off on April 9, for their 100-day journey to Kassel on horseback. The event, part of an art project by Ross Birrell, realised for documenta 14, gathered tourists, journalists and the art crowd under the Ancient Rock. One of the riders stated “We are really happy and proud to be standing in front of this symbol of civilization” and then went on to speak of how once upon a time “everyone had the knowledge of how to look after a horse”, and how without horses no continent of Europe or any other continents would have been discovered. Horses have given humans power in many realms: in battle, trade, mining and of course agriculture.
Maybe the most famous relationship between man and steed is that of Alexander the Great and Bucephalus. But the story of the relationship between art, man and horse goes back to the beginnings of the history of humanity itself: From the 16,000-year old paintings of horses in the Lascaux caves, to the ancient Greeks’ knowledge of the equine anatomy as it evolved in their art of the 5th century in particular, which inspired later the depictions of horses in ancient Roman art, and also in Renaissance works. From the magnificent bronze horses of St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice (that could have Chiot origins), to the 18th century equestrian paintings of George Stubbs, or the 19th century racing scenes of Edgar Degas – there are horses everywhere in art. But live ones? How about Jannis Kounellis’ use of real horses, placing 12 of them in a gallery in 1969 (an installation which was repeated in New York, in 2015). Perhaps Ross Birrell was inspired by this Greek artist’s gesture, when he thought of his own art project for documenta 14. But Birrell decided to put live horses back where they belong – in the natural landscape.
Birrell’s project, entitled ‘The Transit of Hermes’, was 3 years in the making, and was inspired by Aime Felix Tschiffely’s 10,000 mile ride from Buenos Aires to New York (1925-1928). Documenta 14 director Adam Szymczyk explained in his speech that they had to buy the horses for the project, and emphasized that “it’s a physical act before it becomes a metaphor or allegory”. Yet the long equine history of art cannot but come to mind.
The four long riders undertaking the current 3000 mile journey through Europe (and who are riding according to the Charter of Reken), are Tina Boche, Peter van der Gugten, Zsolt Szabo and David Wewetzer. Among other things this project speaks of the preservation of equestrian cultural heritage, of the protection of nature, of the treatment of horses with respect and of the preservation of the historic postal and trade routes as part of our cultural heritage. Plus, the Charter of Reken’s aim towards “the freedom to travel the world with horses”. The riders will be travelling through Greece, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and Germany.
Criollo, Haflinger, Kabardin and Karabakh are the horse breeds used, but there is also a six-year old Arravani stallion from Arcadia, named Hermes. He’s the ‘messenger’. The Arravani breed is in decline here in Greece.
As we watched the horses and riders under the Acropolis, on a wonderful sunny day, a sprinkling of leaflets suddenly came down on us. On the one side they read ‘WHO IS LEARNING FROM ATHENS AND WHAT?’, and on the other: ‘European states are learning from the refugees crisis how to control and manage populations’. In the corner, a black five-pointed star was surrounded by more words: ‘Against art as a neo-colonialist mechanism’. This documenta, and its working title ‘Learning from Athens’, has come under a lot of scrutiny, and has ruffled a lot of feathers. However I must be an idiot, because I just want to enjoy the incredibly diverse art experience it has to offer, in an Athens that on the one hand is severely crippled from the crisis, but on the other hand, is in dire need of some kind of resuscitation. How this cultural injection will help, remains to be seen.
• To be continued in ‘the documenta diaries (part 5)’