We Must Take Narcissus By Surprise: Symbolic Classical Debt and Everyday Collective Action

I finished my good friend and fellow Classicist Johanna Hanink’s brilliant new book The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in the Era of Austerity before boarding the plane from Madrid to Athens.

I am here to experience, research and write about the documenta 14 exhibition, specifically how both ancient sites and themes are activated by the contemporary artists, curators, institutions and participants according to the challenge posed by the title: ‘learning from Athens’. In light of Hanink’s’ acute and timely study of the symbolic debt that Europe and the West has owed to (and imposed on) Modern Greece for the legacies of Classical Greece (with an emphasis very much on Athens) amid economic and political debts from Greek independence to the Greek debt and refugee crises, documenta 14 could be seen as just another in a long line of German and European intervention in this country and on its people. At the same time, throughout the planning of the exhibition and in the series of events and publications released ahead of its opening (e.g. The Parliament of Bodies, South as a State of Mind), the curatorial team of documenta 14 have focused attention away from any simplistic negotiation of the ancient city and its cultural legacies, focusing on the impact on financial austerity, immigration, colonialism and race and the role of the collective and the commons in contemporary Athens. Of course this hasn’t thrown out the deep roots of antiquity – yes, there are numerous references to the Parthenon, myths, history and ancient philosophy. But unlike the crass political cartoons of European and US newspapers and magazines that Hanink analyses in their simplistic conflation of the suffering of the Greek people and ideas of tragedy, myths of hubris and so many white columns, the artists of documenta offer more oblique and intriguing pathways back to the past and its role in the present and the future of Athens and beyond. I take it as my mission over the next six days to highlight these moments of engagement between the artists of documenta 14 and Classical antiquity, but to do so in way that is responsible to both. Speaking of responsibility, Hanink’s book ends with a chapter called ‘Epilogue: a Note for Educators’  in which she offers three suggestions for Classicists to take the arguments of her analysis and bringing them to bear in the classroom:

  1. Acknowledging the considerable role played by ancient Athenian propaganda in constructing “Western” views of the city and its achievements (this is the lesson drawn from her compelling second chapter ‘How Athen Built Its Brand’)
  2. Encourage students to recognize how the notion of an ancient “Greek miracle” contributed to the predominant origin myth of “Western civilization” (even though the majority of the book is concerned with the very construction of this myth, looking back to her third chapter, Hanink does offer alternative perspectives, specifically of an Islamic version of the ‘Grand Tour’)
  3. Encourage students to consider alternative views of and approaches to heritage appreciation and management. (of course the central thread of Hanink’s project is the Parthenon marbles debate, but she also undermines the orientalizing idea of ‘barbaric’ destruction versus ‘Western’ care of ancient sites and monuments)

Aside from the nuances of these recommendations, what really hit home for me with this epilogue was how Hanink was calling on an ‘us’ to work together to transform the way in which antiquity is taught and not just among the knowing cohorts of specialized Classicists. Of course, there are moments in her book that Hanink plays her Classicist hand (e.g. when she catches language to denigrate Modern Greeks for being in ‘cloud cookoo land’ for calling in the symbolic debt others owe them for antiquity as coming from Aristophanes’ Birds or when the ‘new movement’ of Seisachtheia (‘shaking off of debts’) is aligned with Solon’s policy of the same name), but that does not mean that her call to collective action is undermined. Writing Minus Plato I am well aware of how many of my interpretations of contemporary artist’s engagement with the Classical rely on teasing out connections that the years of a Classical education and research have primed me for. At the same time, I do hope that such interpretations are not simply idiosyncratic musings and actually do have a potential to impact both Classicists and artists. In many ways I take the lead from Hanink’s work (and that of other Classicists) in writing for the online journal EIDOLON which is the most challenging and responsible forum for the discussion of the tough and timely questions swirling around the teaching, study and appropriation of antiquity in the contemporary world open for us today. Hanink and I recently had an email exchange about the way that he work and that of other EIDOLON contributors do in generating what she dubs a ‘Critical Classical Reception Studies’ could join forces with a ‘Creative Classical Reception Studies’, which Minus Plato aims to do, and that is why I am here in Athens.

I am here to align my posting on Minus Plato (every day) with that of documenta 14, which as the introduction to the ‘Athens: Day Book/ Map Booklet’ claims, wants:

to move away from the spectacle and instead approach the transformative potential of the everyday, the real. Working together with its partners, documenta 14 points to a public sphere that is non-exclusionary and defined by personal and collective encounters and possibilities – a precise public realm in space and time.

Over the following days I am here in search of responsible and collective action that demonstrates how contemporary artists can engage with the Classical without it turning into another chapter in Hanink’s story of ‘metaphorical colonization’, whereby Modern Greeks are held captive to an imposed Classical ideal. To do this I need to find the meeting points of ancient ideas, sites, institutions and venues of ancient Athens and contemporary art. I also need to talk to people – both visitors as well as Athenians working at documenta 14. This has already begun, during and following, my first experience of Social Dissonance (which I wrote about a few days ago from Bilbao) at the Athens Conservatoire (Odeion).

But, to follow Simone Weil’s powerful focus on attention, I also need to spend my time here in Athens alone – looking closely, experiencing multiple times and using the space of Minus Plato to be open and direct about my experiences here. When I think back over the period of time that Johanna Hanink wrote her book and challenges that she faced as much as those that faced Greece during the debt crisis, I am convinced that all collective engagement and calls to action must begin with an inner questions, drive and responsibility. Just so long as, in the words of a snatch of dialogue from Hiwa K’s spellbinding film Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue) that I saw tonight, spoken by the artist as he travels around while balancing a stick attached to multiple mirrors, we still work together to ‘take Narcissus by surprise’.

One thought on “We Must Take Narcissus By Surprise: Symbolic Classical Debt and Everyday Collective Action

  1. Pingback: Athens Documenta Diary, Day 5: Good Vibrations at the Odeion – Minus Plato

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