Condemned to Live in the Ruins of Heaven: Athens between Antonis Theodoridis, Aristide Antonas and documenta 14

I just read Mirela Baciak e-flux post Footnotes from Athens which begins as follows:

I spent four weeks in Athens starting in early February 2017. I conducted thirty interviews with people, some of whom have been living in Athens and working in the field of art for at least a few years, and others who, like myself, only recently moved there because of the interesting momentum the city finds itself in. Drawing on documenta 14’s premise of taking the position of a guest, my aim was to understand what the presence of the institution means and does for its hosts. Is an uninvited self-invited guest still a guest with full rights? What kind of hospitality is possible within the context of the so-called crisis, which has become a permanent condition for Athens? How can one be a guest and stage an exhibition under conditions of globalized capitalism, in which social relations are based more on competition than conviviality? During my conversations with protagonists from the local art scene, apart from asking many general and at times obvious questions (which to me seemed to relate to specific “Greek matters,” but which are perhaps international ones), I also asked my interviewees to draw a map showing how they visualize relations within the local art scene, including its problems and conflicts and where documenta 14 fits in. The following text is a selection of drawings and footnotes that I collected during my stay in Athens. I have collaged them together in a search for friction, resistance, or difference, to see how they might generate an interesting clash without creating a hierarchy among them. I do this from a position of someone who moves around in search of more than one perspective and struggles with and within the conditions in which I am implicated.

The first of Baciak’s footnotes and drawings comes from the photographer Antonis Theodoridis:

In Greek, ‘crisis’ means it is a time of judgment. It is a moment after something bad has happened, before one will start to live in a new reality, but in our case, it feels more that people are trapped in this moment, in living in the consequences of the crisis, not a new reality. One is not condemned to hell, but one is condemned to live in the ruins of heaven.

I was immediately struck by this idea of being ‘condemned to live in the ruins of heaven’ and it lead me to wonder how ruins – ancient and modern – were part of both the conceptualization of documenta 14 as a project and the reaction to to it as an exhibition. This thought took me to an essay I had read a while ago in the first documenta issue of South as a State of Mind published in the Fall/Winter of 2015 by Aristide Antonas called “The Construction of Southern Ruins, or Instructions for Dealing with Debt”. Antonas begins his essay by showing how ideas of ruin and text are related both in Greek language and in the city of Athens:

In Greek, the word κείμενο (keímeno) has a double meaning. As an adjective, keímeno describes something that has fallen or toppled over, but the ancient adjective is also the Modern Greek noun for “text,” for words put down in writing. Hidden in the ground of Athens are many strata of foundations from the area’s different epochs: ancient Greek, Roman, Hellenistic, Byzantine, Ottoman. Indeed, in Athens, an accumulation of disparate foundations form diverging extant texts in the ground (decipherable by multiple archaeologies). The modern city can also be conceived as such reading material. When it was inaugurated in its modern version as the capital of Greece, the city was proposed as a single reading of this palimpsest of texts; nevertheless, the palimpsest offers more readings than just this one.

In this Minus Plato post, inspired by Baciak’s collage of notes and drawings, I have juxtaposed a selection of passages from Antonas’ essay with Theodoridis’ photographs from a project called Untitled 01 (which I discovered on his website here).

What was considered to be the center of the old provincial Turkish town—on the top of the hill, around the monuments we see now, where more than forty houses stood, and also on the northern slope of the Acropolis hill—had to be demolished so that the ruins might show the glorious epoch to which they belonged.

Athens carries specific debts to its remains from the time of its inauguration as the capital of modern Greece. By prematurely draping a ground of ruins in the robes of urbanity, the pavements and asphalt streets of Athens owe more than just the act of uncovering a number of finds.

If one reads the ground as the field par excellence for the realization of contemporary Athenian life, another reference comes to mind: Jacques Derrida’s repeated refrain in his book on the city, Demeure Athènes (1996; Athens, Still Remains, 2010), “We owe ourselves to death.” (One might call his discourse on photography and meditation on the city a performance of the ruins as well.)

For it is obvious that the infrastructure of Athens detests the idealization of its ruins. The ruins obstruct its paths and hinder its growth. A few meters below the street surface a system of different acts concerning the ground reveal an invisible war that might schematize an internal conflict of modern culture. The ruin and the infrastructure determine two systems that differently describe modernity.

Thus the geometry traced an immediate relationship between the newly planned capital and the ancient Greek ruins, with the triangle casting the city as a regulation of a reference to the remains of ancient Greece, a material performance of a Greek and European origin.

Among the ruins on the island of Makronisos, where Greek political dissidents were banished during the dictatorship in the second half of the twentieth century (and which was named the “New Parthenon” by the Generals, in the argot of the army officials and military programs of political “rehabilitation” of the Themistoklis Sofoulis government in the late 1940s), there is a former police headquarters where the words “Η ΤΑΝ Η ΕΠΙ ΤΑΣ” are written—“Either as Victor or Dead.”

If “Greece” is the name designated to the concept of a Europe comprising texts and ruins, it is necessary to investigate the contrast between the immaterial presence of these keímena, and the ubiquitous material presence of Athens’s “ruins,” which, in various states of disarray, negate any ideal configuration of what ancient Greece might have been.

Indeed, it was not Hesperia that desperately called for a Greek past, in order to close the gap in their own origin story. It needed the image and the material existence of distant ruins to establish in Western thought the gap of origin as such.

The act of destruction materialized the inability of the visible to measure up to the expectations of the foreign gaze. The mania for a glorification of the lost, which archaeology realizes as a ritual to homelessness, happened in Athens as a literal act of demolishing. The power of the hidden ruin to support an imaginary world alienates the visible earth.

The secret completion of found fragments did not present the absent world but it did abolish the “real.” By dismissing the existing, by rejecting the living, and by giving precedence to the uninhabited ruins, archaeology became a subversive power able to distort extant values.

One finds parallels here in the fact that the very act of digging in order to implement its infrastructure in the underground of Athens was untranslatable and estranged from the Athenian earth of ruins.

We owe to the Athenian remains of ruins and infrastructure, to these keímena, different readings.

As much as the city’s normative functions tend to be understood as the construction of the infrastructure’s ruins, Athens is not yet to be found in the invisible codes or the inaccessible corridors of this ever-growing entity.

One thought on “Condemned to Live in the Ruins of Heaven: Athens between Antonis Theodoridis, Aristide Antonas and documenta 14

  1. Pingback: Athens Documenta Diary, Day 4: Unauthorized Ruins at Athinaiki Techniki – Minus Plato

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