The Pantheon in the Sky and the Pyramid in the Basement: Imagining Monumental Shifts

When I take students to Rome, I try to get them to to visualize the immense scale of what the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus must have looked like on the Capitoline Hill by asking them to imagine a ‘Pantheon in the sky’. According to our typical itinerary, we would have seen the Pantheon the previous evening, our first in Rome, jet-lagged and tired, before dinner. Each and every time, the students are awe-struck as they turn to corner to see the huge temple built by Agrippa and then remade by Hadrian, although still maintaining the original inscription:

In Pliny the Elder, we discover that for the original temple, the Athenian sculptor Diogenes had designed caryatids as columns:

The Pantheon of Agrippa has been decorated by Diogenes of Athens, and the Caryatides, by him, which form the columns of that temple, are looked upon as master-pieces of excellence: the same, too, with the statues that are placed upon the roof, though, in consequence of the height, they have not had an opportunity of being so well appreciated. (Piny 36. 4)

I thought about Diogenes’ caryatids, not only after seeing what was probably their model, those on the Erechtheion on the Acropolis in Athens (well, seeing in Athens the 5 that remain and seeing the lonely 6th sister in London), nor because of Tracey Rose’s red caryatid in the EMST as part of documenta 14, but because of a thread that is running through my preparations for visiting Kassel next Tuesday, for the second half of documenta 14.

As I research the art that I am going to see, I am comparing the list of sites used for the current exhibition with that of its previous manifestation back in 2012. At the same time, I am re-reading Enrique Vila-Matas’ The Illogic of Kassel and focusing my attention on the works of art described by the Catalan author (and also participant in dOCUMENTA (13), as a ‘writer in residence’ at the Dschingis Khan Restaurant). I didn’t visit dOCUMENTA (13) and I have never been to Kassel before, so mapping my experience of the present exhibition onto that of 5 years ago is mediated heavily by the testimonies, written and visual, of those who had been there. Of course, it may seem like a perverse assignment to go to an exhibition looking for traces of artworks that are no longer there, however, I am convinced that there is something comparable to visiting a modern city and looking at its ancient sites for traces of activities that happened there, whether specific events (e.g. I get my students in Rome to re-enact the murder of Julius Caesar in the street on the precise spot it happened, where the Theater complex of Pompey once stood) or ongoing practices (here I am especially interested in sites of learning, e.g. Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum and the Stoa Poikile). Furthermore, as with Hadrian’s reworking of Agrippa’s Pantheon, without Diogenes’ caryatids, I am curious as to how the current documenta 14 team want us to both recall and forget what happened in the same city 5 years ago at dOCUMENTA (13).

One of the works from that exhibition that made me think that they were asking us to make such connections is Agnes Denes The Living Pyramid, 2015/2017, which I have yet to encounter in Nordstadtpark.

When confronted with Denes’ work (perhaps also reminded of the drawings of pyramids in AFSA back in Athens) were those visitors who remember 2012, meant to think of an inverted variation of Renata Lucas’ ‘invisible’ pyramid structure spread across Kassel, with fragments of the corners in four basements of the C&A store, a parking garage, the Fridericianum and the Gebrüder-Grimm-House?

Or is a pyramid just a pyramid, with no connection between the two? Another potential reference, closer to the Pantheon example, came mediated by rereading The Illogic of Kassel, when Vila Matas describes his experience visiting The Brain in the rotunda of ‘the mythical’ Fridericianum.

After musing on the intense and otherworldly experience of Ryan Gander The Invisible Pull (I will write about its absence when I have visited the building in person next week), Vila Matas describes The Brain as ‘a microcosm representing the puzzle posed by the whole huge exhibition. It seemed to me perhaps an excessively arbitrary brain‘, referencing Morandi’s bottles, Penone’s sculptures, objects from the Lebanese war, books of stone from Afghan valley and a bottle of Eva Braun’s perfume. It is this last object that really disturbs Vila Matas (or at least his avatar in the novel), as he muses on the question of the relationship between ‘contemporary art and a war criminal’. He even confronts his guide during his visit to the exhibition, a member of the dOCUMENTA curatorial team, who he describes as getting angry and frustrated by his questioning of this object.

On re-reading this passage I was reminded of the work of Israeli artist Roee Rosen Live and Die as Eva Braun (1995–97), which I saw in Athens at the Benaki Museum Pireos Annexe as part of documenta 14.

The bridge between the perplexing and disturbing object of Braun’s perfume bottle and Rosen’s installation as intense experiment in historical identification, in which the spectator is asked to imagine themselves as Braun in her last moments and even after death, seemed too important to be a coincidence. Did the curators of documenta 14 also have trouble with Braun’s perfume bottle as a fetish, but instead of abandoning it, expanding and digging deeper into the problem via Rosen’s work? To return to the Pantheon, by maintaining the monumental inscription on the temple, in spite of the missing caryatids, Hadrian wanted to acknowledge, rather than erase, its previous builder Agrippa (and the emperor he worked for, Augustus). While I am yet to see it for myself, I cannot wait to think about these ideas (and especially Agrippa’s Parthenon inscription) in relation to the work of Banu Cennetoğlu BEINGSAFEISSCARY (2017) in Kassel (I will tell you about my experience with her work in Athens some other time).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *