12 Οκτ 2008

Αντί προλόγου: Notes from oblivion

On the evening of 13 August 2004 (a Friday, too!), a gigantic Cycladic head emerged from the waters of an artificial lake built in the heart of the Olympic Stadium in Athens. The city was hosting the twenty-eighth Olympic Games of the modern era, and this was to be the centrepiece of the opening ceremony. This epiphany of sorts was followed by a state-of-the-art, hi-tech spectacle combining men and machines, schemes and ideas, all masterfully visualized and staged by choreographer Dimitris Papaioannou.

The Cycladic head cracked open, Zeus-like, to produce a colossal kouros, which then gave way to a Classical torso:

A procession ensued, presenting life-like statuary and Leitmotiv ideas, references to familiar images, a celebration of a culture through the spectre of its own beauty. A ‘precession of simulacra’, in short, to remember Jean Baudrillard, whereby Greek culture was represented through its art, where idea was subjugated to form, where history as experience was paraded as Motivgeschichte.

Papaioannou’s scheme was brilliant, striking just the right notes for the occasion: emphasis on continuity (though with a certain antique bias), a celebration of the all-time-classic Greek ideal (albeit in its consummation through art), an allusion to some of the eternal Greek values – such as democracy, the theatre, or Christian faith – all suitably packaged for worldwide broadcast and PG audiences throughout (with the exception of nudity, certainly, which seems mandatory when it comes to things Greek). A confirmation of Hellenic identity overall, through a rehearsal of Greek history based on tangible archaeological evidence and its aesthetic appeal, and moreover a reaffirmation of this culture’s connection – past, present, eternal – with the land (and the sea, needless to add) that gave birth to the peerless Hellenic spirit.

Remarkable attention was paid to historical accuracy throughout: the Cycladic head of the Olympic show, for example, was a hyper-blown up copy of an actual ancient artefact, one of the most treasured masterpieces exhibited at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens. It was readily recognizable to anyone even remotely familiar with the 39 cm tall figurine, even though the replica of its head alone in the stadium stood 17 metres high. (Another replica of the Goulandris statuette, of the kind marketed by the Museum of Cycladic Art Shop, is featured in the opening and closing scenes of Alexander Payne’s 2004 film Sideways, presumably as a tongue-in-cheek reminder of the Greek-American director’s own ‘Hellenic’ roots.) The procession of statuary was crowded with effigies of well-known kouroi. and korae, Classical grave stelae, a replica of the Parthenon, and so on, all the way down to Byzantine frescoes and mosaics, Greek folk art and shadow puppet theatre.

Every motif, each portentous symbol, had its place: Cycladic art at the forefront, to be sure, since, from as far back as the last decades of the nineteenth century, it has been being used as the first milestone in the long and fascinating saga of Greek (‘Hellenic’) Culture, as this has been constructed by the modern Greek state. In this continuum, ‘Cycladic’ plays counterpart to ‘Modern’, by standing as the far bookend in a sequence of arts, ideas, and the men who expressed the latter through the former. This idea of continuity in itself, from Cycladic to Classical art, then moving through Byzantium to modern Greece, was essential to the construction of Greek national identity in the late nineteenth and throughout the twentieth century, and remains in use with no signs of subsiding. Greek culture (as monitored through its expression in art) and history (as evidenced by its manifestation through culture) are emphatically poised to begin in the depths of prehistory and culminate in the here and now, on the much celebrated threshold of the third millennium AD. Thus, in order to commemorate its hosting of the Olympic Games, Greece (that is Athens) chose to dress up and, in shamelessly self-worshipping mood, admire her image in the mirror: that is Greece’s own Hellenic view of her own Hellenic (mostly ancient, mostly Athenian) art.

Admittedly, Papaioannou ‘redeemed’ himself with his closing ceremony for the 2004 Olympics, where he presented a show based on post-classical Greek history and present-day experience – from folk dances to plastic chairs at the beach and from gypsy water-melon vendors to bouzouki night-clubs. In contrast with the opening ceremony, here there was only a passing, sarcastic reference to classical antiquity, alluding to its touristic exploitation by modern Greeks. Needless to say, the closing ceremony received a more lukewarm welcome, from the nationalists and the ‘purists’.

The scheme proposed by the Olympic procession is, needless to say, an old one, which has been tried and tested by Greek and Western scholars to represent, by way of explanation, historical developments in ancient, medieval, and modern Greece, a reading as good as any other – contrary to the opinion of many of its critics – and one that has arguably proved much more successful than some might have done. Yet it is a representation that the ancient Greeks themselves would have found difficult to come to terms with: they, for one, would have been mystified by the pristine whiteness of their paraded statuary, by the strong violation of proportion, context and function. And as for the ancient Cycladic islanders themselves, they would very likely find the grossly inflated head, severed from the body of one of the small-scale (presumably) human effigies so familiar to them, positively grotesque. Be that as it may, we – modern Greeks and Westerners – have learned to recognize ourselves in Greek art, have been taught to reflect on the classical past as our own, and have been instructed to see Cycladic art as beautiful, inspiring, and as a forerunner to our own aesthetic values of simplicity, sophistication, and abstraction. Since the days of Winckelmann, Greek art has been made, through an emotive leap of faith, to function as an emblem of the totality of Greek culture, and this has facilitated its use, as the logo, so to speak, for Hellenic culture in total, in the familiar process of (self-)colonizing one’s past in order to promote one’s rights to the present. These images are vital therefore: ostensibly, they are broadcast worldwide even though their primary function is introverted, aiming to touch the nation’s collective imagination so as to ‘give the nationalist struggle something to revive and admire’.

The conviction that life speaks through art permeates Greek archaeology, surreptitiously having acquired the status of a self-evident truth. Modern Greece thus undertakes its own archaeology as an exercise – often painstaking but ultimately rewarding – in deep soul-searching and courageous self-cognition. We are reminded of Christian Zervos, the Greek-born art critic and influential patron of modernists such as Picasso, who, in his efforts back in the thirties to promote the idea of a culturally continuous and intellectually luminous Hellas, wondered whether ‘a Cycladic figurine, a vase or a bronze artefact of the Geometric period, a statue or a pot of the Archaic period, do […] not already contain the essential elements of the style of the Parthenon’. His anachronistic understanding of Greek archaeology strikes a note of magnificent absurdity in backdating the notion of Hellenism to a time prior to its actual presence. At the same time, it offers a splendid illustration of the ideological premise underlying the modern narrative of Greek archaeology, expressed in its atemporal – and heavily aestheticized – view of ancient Greek culture.

Such readings, like the linear arrangement of the Olympic procession, serve as vivid reminders of the task undertaken by modern historiography: to produce a straightforward, authoritative, and objective account of the past, inspired by the scientific values of rational assessment and empirical reasoning; in short, a safe, sane, and consensual version of history suitable for a wide, largely uninformed but extremely demanding audience. In the case of Greece, it reminds us that archaeology has been conscripted into establishing a new cultural and political identity for a new nation-state, anxious to broadcast its own singular antiquity.

This is part of my introduction to A Singular Antiquity, a volume I co-edited with Dimitris Damaskos earlier this year. Here's a review by Dimitris Papanikolaou and one by Kostis Kourelis (also here for my text).

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