Athens Documenta Diary, Day 4: Unauthorized Ruins at Athinaiki Techniki

Dear William and Andreas,

I hope this finds you both well and that you don’t mind me writing you this joint message. I wanted to let you know that I had spent the morning here in Athens looking for you both, first missing you and then finding you in some unexpected places. I know this sounds somewhat odd (almost spooky), so let me try to explain.

I awoke early so that I could take your advice, William, and go to the National Archaeological Museum when it opened at 8am to beat the crowds and to retrace your steps from your recent film Fall into Ruin, which I must admit has been on my mind during my whole time in Athens.(Here is the excerpt from a a few years ago so the other readers of this post can have some idea of the film – let me know if you want me to update it with a clip of the finished project):

As I walked to the Museum, for some reason I felt a sense of reluctance. Perhaps it was because I didn’t want to contaminate my memory of your creative itinerary through the museum in your film, where you juxtapose shots of the chronological sequence of Greek artworks with your voice-over describing the time you met Iolas at his house. Or maybe my unease came from the fact that visiting this museum felt somehow out of step with my general modus operandi here in Athens to combine an investigation into ancient sites with the contemporary artworks of documenta 14. Of course, there was one contemporary work there to look forward to seeing in the museum – documentation of Dainel Knorr’s unrealized proposal to bury the sculpture Boy with a Dog for the duration of the exhibition -, but still I wasn’t so sure where museums of ancient art fitted into my own project. As you know, I’m no art historian and my interest in antiquity is firmly rooted in ideas not objects e.g. philosophy, literature and mythology. For example, whenever I lead a group of students around Rome, I am more excited to lecture at the sites, even ones with barely anything left (e.g. the Temple of Veiovis) and quoting passages from Ovid, than leading them through the museums from one hallowed object to the next. (I guess, Andreas, you could say that I share your interest in psychogeography as an architect of the virtual (which sometimes Minus Plato feels like!) and so the museum as a space, in its neat compartmentalization into a system of objects, sometimes leaves me dissatisfied).

Anyway, I tried to ignore these nagging thoughts, especially as I knew that today was going to be my only day to do it, so I headed off to the Museum thinking about how it would all be worth it so I could to take a photo that recreated the first shot in your film, post it on Instagram and write some witty comment like: ‘On the set of William E. Jones’ new movie, Fall into Ruin‘. But when I got there, the Museum was closed (in spite of what my documenta map booklet told me, as on the closed door it clearly stated that on Mondays it opens at 1:30pm). So there I was at 8am on a Monday morning, with 4 full hours to spend before meeting a friend for coffee. As you know, Andreas, the majority of other sites or documenta venues are either closed this early or not yet open (is it the same in Kassel?). I was at a loss as what to do, so I wandered around, resorting to visiting the closed sites that were somewhere in my vicinity (the area of Victoria/Exarcheia, according to my now somewhat untrustworthy map booklet).

First I peered into the barred courtyard of the Epigraphic Museum where I knew that Gauri Gill had a series of photographs set in dialogue with the displays of inscriptions (this was the subject of one of me preparatory documenta 14 posts before I was onsite in Athens – you can read it here). I then wandered past the Polytechnion (NTUA) where supposedly there was a Pope. L whispering piece (yet to be activated as it was too early) and the oak tree planted by Sokol Beqiri with branches grafted from an oak in Kassel (I’d seen a video about this work when I visited ASFA on Saturday). Somewhat despondent, I traced my steps back to Kotzia Square which I’d passed on my way to the National Archaeological Museum. There I found the tables and chairs set for Rasheed Araeen’s Shamiyaana – For for Thought, Thought for Change which someone I met a few days ago told me was an incredible experience – sharing free food and conversation with all types of people from the homeless to the art crowd from across the city and beyond.

Feeling hungry and lonely I debated simply meandering back to my hotel for more breakfast, when I realized that it was not too long of a walk to Maria Eichhorn’s Bulding as unowned property. This was one work that I knew would be the same to visit, open or closed, so off I went. So I walked all the way up 28 Oktovriou Street (named to commemorate Ioannis Metaxas’ defiant “No” to an ultimatum made by Mussolini to allow Italian forces to occupy strategic locations in Greece) and took a left into the quiet and multicultural neighborhood where the artist had bought the property for it ‘to remain unused and protected against gentrification, real-estate speculation, and acquisition for commercial purposes’. There wasn’t much to see – it was empty, locked and someone had stuck a sticker saying ‘KUNST’ on the door. I sat outside and read Eichhorn’s entry in the documenta 14 daybook (she has the 26th of April) in which Alberto Alberro writes about meeting her outside her studio door and inviting him up for tea. Alberro describes how the artist was somewhat reticient in talking about her work so instead asked him to read a paragraph from her catalogue raisonne, which begins:

Maria Eichhorn’s art, which is often punctuated by displacements and redirections, by interruptions that develop over time and destabilize normative forms, troubles the imaginary relationship of artworks to the field of art that is their context.

From there I walked back down 3 Septemvriou Street (named to commemorate the 1843 uprising in Athens to demand a constitution) and headed to Victoria Square. Like many places on the documenta 14 trail (including some ancient sites), this was the location of a performance (this one by Regina Jose Glindo) enacted long before I arrived in Athens. I stood transfixed at the sheer number of pigeons on the impressive statue of Theseus rescuing Hipodamia, the new wife of his best friend Pirithous, from the clutches of the drunken centaur Eurytion and header up Elpidos Street hoping that Rick Lowe’s Victoria Square Project had for some reason opened its doors earlier than the 11am stated in my guide.

I was in luck, it was indeed open and then the weirdest thing happened. I caught sight of a series of photographs that I had written about on a Minus Plato post before I’d arrived in Athens called Condemned to Live in the Ruins of Heaven: Athens between Antonis Theodoridis, Aristide Antonas and documenta 14 (see the whole post here). The post was based on Mirela Baciak’s e-flux post Footnotes from Athens in which she shares drawings and comments by various people she met in the run-up to the opening of documenta 14. One of these people was photographer Antonis Theodoridis, who drew a map of the city where documenta, galleries and the Parthanon share the space with closed banks, empty apartments, refugees and burned trees. Theodoridis also wrote the following text:

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.

Now, during documenta 14, here at the Victoria Park Project I was confronted with a series of Theodoridis’ photographs that I used in my post to illustrate a text I had read 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”. On discovering these photographs in the flesh and being reminded of my previous blogpost about ‘ruins’ (both ‘for’ and ‘against’ documenta) once again brought me back to your film William, especially the ending sequence in which you finally reveal the photos from your visit with Iolas.

At the same time, however, it also made me think of your work, Andreas, on the same subject of Iolas – the short digital animation of 2008.

On encountering Theodoridis’ images that I had only seen online, stuck up on a board within this collective, neighborhood project, I was reminded of the moment, about half-way through Iolas, after all the gigantic black hands are seen taking the artworks from the abandoned villa, and then we see a smaller hand reach down to open a notebook lying in the dust. Then on opening the book, the subtitles read:

quickly the villa became a legendary ruin, famous for the treasures that disappeared

At this moment you show the architecture of a museum space, with visitors walking through it, seeing the works that had just been stolen and the narration continues:

his spirit was still there. Some nights Alexander Iolas returns to his villa, rearranges rooms and objects, continues to build, his legendary ruin.

It was at that precise moment that I realized that it was already past 11am and that the project in your apartment Unauthorized (Athinaiki Techniki) would now be open. So off I ran and immersed myself in your wild and surreal installation.

I must admit, as I rang your buzzer, I felt your absence, knowing from your Instagram feed that you had re-located to Kassel.I asked your friends there what you were up to? If you had already prepared your ‘report’ and if any of the works in your apartment would be sent to join you in Germany? Being in your space I was taken back to Iolas once more, the ending sequence with the building of the imaginary museum. Given your installation questioned authorship and the authorization of buildings, I wondered who was the ‘author’ of this fantastic museum: was it Iolas’ ghost building his ‘legendary ruin’ or you, mirroring your other work Building an Electronic Ruin?

I had run out of time and was going to be late for my coffee meeting, but as I made my way south, as I went past Kotzia Square, I passed some real ancient ruins that I hadn’t noticed when I was there earlier. The description was very uncertain as to what exactly they were, but it did show a the map giving the full extent of the excavations, even though only one small section was now left for curious ruin-obsessed tourists to gaze on in wonder. I couldn’t help think that unauthorized ruins like these, that cannot be placed within some ancient literary framework, go abandoned and ignored. Of course, the flip-side is that they are left open to interpretation and for us to make something else of them, just as you have both done with the ruins of villa Iolas.

Anyway, I am sorry to have missed you both here in Athens. William, I know I owe you an email and, Andreas, perhaps we can Skype sometime, as we’ve not yet met in person.

All my best,

Richard

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