I have just returned from an exhilarating week in Brisbane, Australia where I attended ‘The Classical and the Contemporary’, a conference organized to coincide with the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial (APT8) by the Postclassicisms network at Princeton University, The Queensland Art Gallery, and the University of Queensland. It was a multi-faceted affair, including two public events (a round-table and lectures), as well as an intimate symposium among the participants.While I will write a future Minus Plato post about my own intervention in these events and about APT8 more directly, for now let me offer a general description of the events and some of my recollections of the discussions with Classicists, artists, art historians, actors and others, on the interaction between ‘the Classical’ and ‘the Contemporary’.
The round-table on Wednesday night was called Into Pan’s Cave: Ancient Greece Meets Contemporary Art and it brought together Classicist Brooke Holmes, curator Polina Kosmadaki, and artist/producer Asad Raza, who all responded to well-curated questions offered by our host, Classicist Alastair Blanshard.
For good reason, the majority of the discussion at the round-table was focused on Athens. Asad Raza, whose recent project about Pan’s Cave was part of the Frieze Art Fair last year, discussed his role in producing two works by Tino Seghal (This Progress and This Variation) in the Roman Agora. During the round-table, Asad not only described the former, which took place in the day, as the more Socratic work, and the latter, night-time work, as the more Dionysian, he also memorably recalled how visitors to the archaeological site would seem to have been visibly put out by Seghal’s participatory works, and in turn, by this intervention of the Contemporary into the Classical.
Polina Kosmadaki, Curator of Paintings at the Benaki Museum, described the challenges facing the art scene in Athens, as well as her role in the recent exhibition called Ametria (based on an idea by artist Roberto Cuoghi) as a direct challenge to certain stereotypes about ‘the Classical’, by exploring ideas of excess, hyperbole, hubris and exaggeration. (I visited the exhibition last year and it was an incredible, labyrinthine adventure!).
While both Asad and Polina discussed past Athenian projects, Brooke Holmes offered a brief description of her exciting and ambitious upcoming project Liquid Antiquity that will comprise a book, an exhibition (at the Benaki) and an event next Summer, each working together to explore the circulation of antiquity in the contemporary world.
The Q&A from the audience was lively and included the memorable image of ‘the Classical’ as a cockroach in its dogged ability to survive!
The following day, after a wonderful tour of a small part of the APT8 exhibition by the curator Tarun Nagesh, we had two lectures in the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA). Asad Raza responded to my lecture, which I will report back on in a future post, while Christian Blood delivered a lecture, with the art historian Rex Butler responding. Christian’s talk, called Seamless Syncresis, focused on the compelling work of the American Korean artist Debbie Han. Exploring two of her series of digital photographs that meld together contemporary Korean women’s bodies with Classical heads of Venus, Christian (who teaches Classics and Humanities in Korea) emphasized the way in which such cultural hybrids were received by his classes and by art historians. By observing how ‘the Classical’ interacted with ideas of the taboo in terms of the contemporary body and images in the media in Korea, Christian provoked Rex Butler’s response to include a striking image of his own from Australian tabloid media (you can Google ‘Todd Carney’ and ‘bubbling’ to see for yourself).
‘The Classical and the Contemporary’ ended with an intense and intimate symposium which included a wonderful range of approaches and sharing of perspectives between speakers and respondents. Jane Griffiths, an actor, professor and expert on Greek Tragedy, especially its performance in the original ancient Greek and creative contemporary adaptations, made an impassioned call for heeding practitioner’s voices and for a reconsideration of the personal voice in scholarship. Responding to Jane, Emilio Capettini reiterated the truism that Classical works like Sophocles’ Antigone have still not finished saying what they have to say and adaptations and re-performance are testament to this fact.
Polina Kosmadaki discussed some amazing exhibitions, two at the recent Venice Biennale and others at the Benaki, that explored ideas of simultaneous temporaries. Her analysis of Danh Vo’s Mother Tongue was especially exciting and her respondent, Erik Frederickson, picked up on its particularly nuanced approach to cross-temporal assemblage.
Sally Butler, an art historian and professor at the University of Queensland, did more than anyone at the conference to challenge and expand our conception of ‘the Classical’ by engaging with the relatively recent discovery of the ‘Classical’ Lapita culture of the South Pacific and the resistance of contemporary artists of the region to claim inspiration from their work out of respect for the dead. Kay Gabriel’s challenging response then opened the floodgates for an intense discussion about the ethics of comparative classicisms. Finally, Brooke Holmes presented a paper on two contrasting Greek ideas of time as explored in an essay by artist Paul Chan, followed by an amazing (and moving) response by Constanze Güthenke, that ranged from Erich Auerbach to Agnes Martin.
All in all, it was an incredibly stimulating and challenging few days and I felt honoured to be a part of it. As to how these debates about ‘the Classical’ resonated with the works on display at APT8, I’ll address this question head-on in my next post.