Antony Gormley and antiquity: positioning the body in time and place

‘Art is about reasserting our first-hand experience in present time’ (Antony Gormley)

Antony Gormley’s sculptural installations are now-familiar additions to landscapes, from the Angel of the North to the beach at Crosby. Two recent exhibitions of his work extend the temporal dimension of his work, engaging with the human past. They reconfigure iconic spaces and works of art that represent two important moments in the history of the sculptural representation of the human body, archaic Greece and Renaissance Italy. Each era offers a distinctive view of the male body as a universal ideal, a central theme of Gormley’s work. By installing his sculptures within the Uffizi gallery in Florence (Essere, February-May 2019) and on the archaeological site of the sacred Greek island Delos (Sight, May-October 2019), Gormley engages in a dialogue with these sculptors of the past.

Antony Gormley Shore exhibited on Delos
Antony Gormley’s Shore (2012) looks out across the harbour of Delos.

The Delos installation, a collaboration with Greek contemporary art foundation Neon, characterises itself as a repopulation of a depopulated space. The population of Delos was removed in ancient times, first by the Athenians as they sought both to gain the favour of the gods and to assert their imperial strength, and later as the once-flourishing Roman trading community abandoned the island, not long after it was sacked by Mithridates in the first century BCE. Only archaeologists and site staff now live there, amid the stacks of sculptural and architectural fragments that hint at what is now lost.

Discussing the exhibition in a video accompanying the exhibition, Gormley likened these fragments to pixels and the simplified elements that make up his own sculptures. He also noted that his sculptures, cast in solid iron, are materially different from their bronze and marble classical predecessors, and cannot be seen as replacements; asserting this difference perhaps forecloses possible resistance to Neon Greece’s installation on the island, and also sidesteps claims that Gormley’s work has a direct affinity to the archaic kouros. The exhibition guide notes that a figure installed outside the island’s museum is seated on a replica, not an original column drum. In the fine print, a boundary between ancient and contemporary is asserted.

Another Time XIV in the sea at Delos
Another Time XIV (2011) on rocks at the northern end of Delos, passed by approaching ferries from Mykonos.

The first of Gormley’s figures, from his Another Time series, looks out from the island, one standing in the sea as the ferry from Mykonos rounds the northern edge of the island. Another stands in the harbour, one greets visitors as they enter the site, and others can be glimpsed on its higher ground. They produce a sense of isolation as they watch ships pass the empty island; these figures are, in Gormley’s words, ‘[bearing] witness to what it is like to be alive and alone in time and space’.

In antiquity, communities from across the Greek world dedicated kouroi, idealised sculptures of the youthful male body, within the sanctuaries on Delos, recognising the island’s status as the birthplace and sanctuary of Apollo. Cult figures of Apollo himself were also placed in the temples built by cities such as Athens on the island. Gormley’s abstracted versions of his own body seem in dialogue with this tradition, which raises some questions. Is it hubristic of a sculptor to place images of himself on Apollo’s island? Can Gormley’s figures be equated with the idealised archaic kouros? In a 2013 interview Gormley identified the kouros with its characteristic pose as an important moment in the history of sculpture.

The abstraction and severity of the figures that result from Gormley’s meditative and intellectualised artistic practice, and his repetition of types, suggests his continuing engagement with the kouros, but also a development. While the Another Time figures are recognisably casts of Gormley’s own body and features, the more recent figures constructed from blocks, rods and spheres, often mathematically calculated and computer-generated collocations of simple solids, are only visibly so through their continuing proportions, rather than their surface appearance. One might apply Nietzsche’s categorisation of art in his Birth of Tragedy; Gormley tends to the austerity that Nietzsche associates with Delphic Apollo and archaic sculpture. perhaps Delos, the other Panhellenic centre of the cult of Apollo and still home to many kouroi, is an appropriate location for Gormley’s project.

Shift II (2000) lying prone in the main gallery of the Delos museum.
Shift II (2000) lying prone in the main gallery of the Delos museum, looking towards sculptures from the classical Athenian Temple of Apollo.

Gormley’s account of the relationship between his sculptures and their archaic forebears is perhaps given by Shift II (2000), a figure prostrated on the floor of the Delos museum, offering itself in an imagined gesture of proskynesis towards the remaining sculptures of the classical Athenian sanctuary. Within the museum, the dark iron figure contrasts starkly with the light stone of the temple and votive sculptures, although a different contrast would obtain if those sculptures retained their original polychrome surface and applied decorations, hinted at by the remaining attachment holes in the statue of Athenian princess Oreithyia.

Signal II (2018), site-specific installation at the top of the ancient path ascending Mt Kynthos, Delos
Signal II (2018), site-specific installation at the top of the ancient path ascending Mt Kynthos, Delos

The sculptures placed within the most sacred locations – Chute II (2018) in the mysterious grotto of Heracles on the slopes of Mount Kynthos, Signal II (2018) at the final turn of the main path leading up to its windswept summit, home to sanctuaries in antiquity – represent perhaps a nervous system, perhaps a lightning strike, but hint at connections between the soul and the divine, a spiritual rather than physical body.

These recent works were produced for the site; finding them takes you away from the short circuit of the ruins of Delos town trod by tour parties. There is much fun to be had spotting the many sculptures resting in the houses and shops of Delos’ Roman town, but only a few of them offer such a rewarding connection between site and artwork. Again, the site-specific Water (2018), gazing mournfully into a cistern at the edge of the agora, suggests the sense of loss that Gormley aimed to invoke.

Water (2018), site-specific sculpture installed overlooking a cistern at the edge of the Italian agora, Delos.
Water (2018), site-specific sculpture installed overlooking a cistern at the edge of the Italian agora, Delos.

Before the Delos installation, the Uffizi in Florence hosted a small retrospective as well as sprinkling a few sculptures around its galleries (February-May 2019). In this show too, signature Gormley figures looked out from iconic viewpoints, a figure from Another Time from the corner of the galleries to the Ponte Vecchio, barely noticed by tourists looking at the same view, and a fibre-glass Event Horizon figure on the roof of the Loggia overlooking the main piazza, with his back to the café’s outdoor terrace. While Gormley suggested that this ‘Event Horizon’ intimates the meeting of sky and earth, its position in this significant space also sets it over the many iconic sculptures of the Loggia and piazza, including Michelangelo’s David, that Renaissance reimagining of the classical figure.

Event Horizon (2012), fibreglass sculpture installed on the parapet of the Uffizi galleries, overlooking Florence towards the campanile and dome of the Duomo.
Event Horizon (2012), fibreglass sculpture installed on the parapet of the Uffizi galleries, overlooking Florence towards the campanile and dome of the Duomo.

Just as with the Delos installation, the figure installed in a less prominent location suggests a dialogic encounter with a past culture, but that of classical antiquity rather than the Renaissance context of the Uffizi collection. A small side-room contains a Roman sculpture of a hermaphrodite, and for the duration of the exhibition Gormley’s Settlement IV lay alongside it. The Uffizi’s display prevents one from engaging with the classical hermaphrodite sculpture as originally intended, by walking around the figure to encounter first its female and then its male attributes. But placed next to the male figure of the Gormley, the hermaphrodite’s designed ambiguity and playfulness offers a counter to the austere masculinity of the pixellated but recognisably gendered modern work. Arguably Gormley’s adaptation of his own body into a universal is politically problematic – some critics (such as Skye Sherwin in the Guardian) have questioned whether it is an appropriate stance for a privileged white man to take – but in positioning a sculpture derived from his own body next to the Roman type of the hermaphrodite he anticipates the critique of the gendering of his work and invites debate on the construction of gender and its reinforcement in visual art.

Two sculptures side by side - Antony Gormley's Settlement IV (2018) and Roman hermaphrodite
Two sculptures side by side – Antony Gormley’s Settlement IV (2018) and Roman Sleeping hermaphrodite, Uffizi galleries, Florence

Gormley is now taking over a third iconic space, the Royal Academy’s main display galleries, for a major retrospective. Here too the reduction of the complex human form to groupings of simple solids (even Platonic ones) is on display in groups such as Slabworks (2019).

  • Meanwhile, Gormley is not the only contemporary artist whose work is on show in the Cyclades. Organisers Neon have a further installation, The Palace at 4am, in the Archaeological Museum of Mykonos, in which work by several artists is displayed alongside its collection. Some of the works make a profound and telling connection with the ancient objects; Rena Papaspyrou’s set of ‘Small Samplers from the Urban Landscape’ assemble found materials from the city streets into aesthetically pleasing collages, which complement the museum’s fragmentary pots and grave goods, excavated from the Delos Purification Pit. The placement of these works together highlights the transience of settlement in the ancient and contemporary Mediterranean.

References

  • Jessica Hughes (2014) ‘Antony Gormley’, Practitioners Voices in Classical Reception,  – interview with Gormley covering an earlier museum installation at the Hermitage.
  • Nietzsche, F.W. (1999) The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, eds R. Geuss and R. Speirs, trans. R. Speirs Cambridge.

Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party: an anachronistic community of its time

‘Who would you invite to your ideal dinner party?’ is a familiar stock question from magazine celebrity profiles, usually eliciting an anachronistic assemblage of historical and even fictional figures who could never possibly have shared a meal at the same table. The creation of such groups goes back to classical antiquity, with the anachronistic groups assembled as the cast of dialogues such as Athenaeus’ Sophists at Dinner and Macrobius’ Saturnalia. More recently, in the 1970s the artist Judy Chicago (1939- ) used the idea of the fantasy dinner party to construct a celebration of often untold stories of women’s history and skills, in The Dinner Party (1974-79), an installation now on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum. The monumental work presents table settings at a celebratory banquet for 39 women from the past, a refreshing and informative alternative to male-dominated groups, and a visible version and expansion of new feminist research into women’s history. Chicago has described the work as ‘an imaginative picture of women’s long struggle for freedom and dignity’, which she hoped would help both men and women to develop ‘an understanding of the full history of the human race’. The imagined women diners stretch back into mythical prehistory – the ‘Primordial Goddess’ of a posited matriarchal past society – and reach to the present, to the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), who was still alive when the work was created.

The organisation of the Dinner Party repays attention for its simultaneous subversion and deployment of historiographic and genealogical structures from literature and art. It challenges some cultural practices – the traditional focus on male achievement in historiography, and the privileging of fine art in art history – while replicating others. Its strict periodisation of the past is not the only hierarchy in play, although it is the most visible. The triangular arrangement of the table groups the women into three periods: from ‘prehistory to Classical Rome’, from the beginning of Christianity to the Reformation, and from the American Revolution to the Women’s Revolution.

This periodisation itself is strongly marked, suggesting a traditional connection between the Roman and American republics, and also the privileged position of Christianity in historiographical organisation, also suggested by the choice of 13 seats at each table, as at the Last Supper. The first group shows how historical periodisation can overwrite other forms of organisation of the past. The Primordial Goddess is the first in a sequence which moves from women identified as ‘mythic’, including named goddesses Ishtar and Kali, to the ‘legendary’, Sophia and Amazon, to the historical, starting with Hatshepsut, one of few women to have ruled Egypt as pharaoh, and including Sappho, Aspasia, Boadicea and finally Hypatia, who appropriately marks the boundary between the pagan and Christian pasts.

Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party on display in Brooklyn
Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party is now displayed in a custom gallery at the Brooklyn Museum

The ends of each table meet, so Georgia O’Keeffe is also sitting next to the Primordial Goddess, which implies a cyclicality and an achronic view that surmounts the temporal divisions; but the plates in each place develop from flat surfaces to the fully three-dimensional and non-functional ‘plate’ representing O’Keeffe. The imagery of the vulva and the butterfly which runs through the plate designs links them to Chicago’s own artistic practice, in turn criticised for its essentialist emphasis on the body by later feminist critics such as Rozsika Parker and Grizelda Pollock in Old Mistresses (1981: 127-130). The plates also led to controversy, being described as ‘pornographic’ by politicians seeking to deny funding for the work’s continuing display.

Another hierarchy emerges from the installation’s ‘Heritage Floor’; as well as the 39 women seated at the dinner, the names of 999 ‘women of merit’ are painted in gold on the floor, organised into ‘streams of influence’ and each related in time and action to one of the seated diners. In a similar way, Judy Chicago as creator represents the many women who worked on researching and making the installation, many of them working the intricate embroideries that customise each place setting. Photos of each originally appeared on ‘Acknowledgement Panels’ which are an integral part of the work, but not currently on display (though accessible online). The impact of Chicago’s attempt to make visible the collaborative labour of making art has been lessened.

Mary Wollstonecraft place setting in Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party, with plate and embroidered table runner
Mary Wollstonecraft place setting in Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, with plate and embroidered table runner

Feminism has moved on since the creation of the Dinner Party, and some of its juxtapositions present imagery jarring from present perspectives. The idea of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) and Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) as dining companions is an intriguing example of the work’s creation of an anachronistic community, but their adjacent place-settings point to some limitations of feminist analysis of the 1970s. The English writer and campaigner Wollstonecraft is depicted with a particularly fine instance of the embroidery skills she despised, showing her calling girls to exercise their right to education, and featuring embroidered versions of her words; the back of her place setting uses the same techniques for a moving depiction of her death in childbirth. The plate for Sojourner Truth, the black and formerly enslaved American campaigner for the emancipation of slaves and for women’s rights, on the other hand, puts images of African art on the table, acknowledging an important connection – but the central image is a mask; Truth’s runner is entirely non-figurative, drawing on the traditions of African textile art but making no direct personal connection with her works. While this represents the original cultures of African Americans and responds to the experiences of the enslaved, it turns Truth into a cipher for the suffering of slavery, gazing on her otherness rather than representing her unique campaigning voice.

Sojourner Truth place setting from the Dinner Party
Sojourner Truth place setting from the Dinner Party

The monumental installation was first exhibited in 1979, and toured the world during the 1980s, but was not then exhibited again until it became the centrepiece of the Elisabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at Brooklyn Museum in 2007. The temporary exhibition galleries surround the triangular space in which the Dinner Partyis displayed; they surround its permanent and anachronic narrative with changing questions. This is particularly true of the Center’s current exhibition, ‘Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall’, which offers a very different history of a liberation struggle, that for LGBT rights. The contrast between the two displays materialises changes in debates on women’s and LGBT liberation struggles in the past fifty years. The protagonists of the Stonewall Uprising are not a presence at the Dinner Party; but in the temporary Stonewall exhibition, titled after the words of activist Marsha P. Johnson (1945-92), the complex temporality of queer liberation struggle is evident in works recognising the impact of social precarity and the AIDS crisis on queer communities and celebrating their activism. This complicates artists’ urge to connect with a past beyond that told by conventional histories, both to explore the historical context of the Stonewall riot and its cultural legacy, and to reach into a deeper mythic past. The rich range of media deployed by artists includes textile banners, which in this display context can be seen to converse with those of the Dinner Party.

Instructions for a Freedom (2015) by Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski (1985- )
Instructions for a Freedom (2015) by Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski (1985- ), on display at the Brooklyn Museum in Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall 

And one colourful and optimistic work in particular connects the present with the mythic past, Instructions for a Freedom (2015) by Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski (1985- ). In this painting, a femme figure – perhaps a primordial goddess like those Chicago evokes? – mounted on a rainbow-tailed horse leads a riotous assembly of bodies across the cosmos. While Chicago’s structure offers a closed loop of history, and other queer art on display reflects a crisis of futurity, Moleski’s figure points joyfully into a colourful future.

  • The Elisabeth A. Sackler Center’s web page for the Dinner Party contains all the images and detailed, thoughtful commentary, often pointing towards some of the issues discussed here.
  • Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski web site, https://www.amaryllisdejesusmoleski.com
  • Chicago, J. (1996) The Dinner Party (New York and London).
  • Edelman, L. (2004) No Future: queer theory and the death drive (Durham, NC).
  • Gerhard, J.F. (2013) The Dinner Party: Judy Chicago and the Power of Popular Feminism, 1970-2007 (Athens, Georgia).
  • Lynne, J. (2015) ‘From the Mythic to the Personal, Two Artists Envision Womanhood’, Hyperallergic, 28/4/2015.
  • Parker, R. and Pollock, G. (1981) Old Mistresses: women, art and ideology (London).

 

Alexander Boris de Pericles Johnson

Alexander may be the given first name of the United Kingdom’s new Prime Minister, but he prefers himself to look to Athens rather than Macedon for political inspiration. During the Tory leadership campaign, at least, during the now famous TalkRadio interview in which he professed to a hitherto unsuspected bus-painting hobby, Johnson said (to use the transcription on the TalkRadio website):

I’ve always greatly admired Pericles of Athens because he was the guy who said, uh, that politics was about the many, not the few. He was the first to use exactly that… a great orator. And, uh, he, uh, it was said that he thundered and lightened when he spoke. But what he did is he used great infrastructure. He invested in fantastic infrastructure. Uh, he developed the, the, not just the Acropolis, but the Piraeus port which was integral to the success of a lot of Athens.

Nor was this the first campaign during which Johnson invoked the name of Pericles. According to a feature in the Spectator magazine in May 2016, Johnson ‘contends that Pericles, the great Athenian statesman he so often cites, would also have been an Outer. Boris argues that “to stick up for democracy is entirely Periclean” and that the referendum ultimately comes down to whether you believe in “rule by the many, not the few”’. Johnson is said, moreover, to have a bust of Pericles in his office.

Boris Johnson admiring bust of Pericles
Boris Johnson has been eager to play up his classical connections, as in this 2011 Mail on Sunday article

Johnson’s Periclean self-projection has unsurprisingly been picked up ‒ and tweaked ‒ in newspaper discussion on his leadership. Patrick Kidd in the Times wrote a piece the other day entitled ‘Boris Johnson could prove more of a chancer than his hero Pericles’. In this column he referred to the TalkRadio interview, writing: ‘Asked recently why he so admires Pericles, Johnson said that the Greek believed government should be conducted “by the many, not the few” (a phrase subtly different from “for the many”), that he was a magnificent orator who “thundered and lightened when he spoke” and that he “invested in fantastic infrastructure”.’ Kidd then develops the thesis that Johnson may be more of an Alcibiades ‒ arrogant, spoiled, charismatic to some, a disaster to Athens. The same suggestion is made by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian. The more learned of the online comments go a bit further and invoke the name of Cleon.

Two names stand out in these discussions for their absence: Thucydides and Plutarch, the two key authors through whom we derive our varied pictures of Pericles and his successors. The public debate carries on as if we have unmediated access to the world of Athenian politics. Our main sources, however, make Pericles central to strong historical plots, and it is they who are responsible for the words which are sometimes attributed to Pericles himself.

Plutarch’s Life of Pericles adds a dimension not found in Johnson’s idealization of Pericles: time. Plutarch posits a change between the early and the late Pericles – a change from a more demagogic to a more aristocratic mode of government. This change solves the problem of the divergence between the Thucydidean and Platonic image of Pericles: the negative Platonic image of Pericles’ pandering to the people is restricted to the early portion of Pericles’ life; for the later stages, Plutarch explicitly supports the Thucydidean picture of a Pericles who resists the people’s whims.

Johnson recuperates as positive much that in Plutarch is highly ambivalent. The imagery of thunder and lightning applied to Pericles’ rhetoric is taken from Plutarch, via the comic playwright Aristophanes’ Acharnians. In Aristophanes, the presentation of Pericles’ powers of persuasion is highly negative. He is arraigned for using his linguistic skills to foist the disruption of the Peloponnesian War on the Greeks, and all for petty personal motives. Similarly ambivalent in Plutarch is the presentation of Pericles’ spending on infrastructure. Though Plutarch acknowledges the beauty of the temples that Pericles had built, he also reports strong criticisms of Pericles for spending the allies’ financial contributions on beautifying Athens like a ‘vain woman’.

As for the language of the many and the few, the source for that lies in the famous funeral speech that Thucydides places in the mouth of Pericles during the first year of the Peloponnesian War. In this speech (written up by Thucydides perhaps a quarter of a century or more after it was supposedly delivered), Pericles is made to say that Athens is called a democracy because it is governed ‘for the many rather than for the few’. Pericles’ language is in fact evoked most closely by the slogan of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party in the party’s 2017 election manifesto. But in Thucydides’ speech Pericles grants democracy this definition as a concession. He explains that Athens’ constitution is called a democracy because it respects the interests of the many, but he immediately qualifies this claim by stressing that it allows individuals to achieve a status that matches their personal excellence. It is a definition that prepares for Thucydides’ own claim that Athens under Pericles was in name a democracy but in fact rule by the first man. Pericles, on Thucydides’ reading, had the strength to resist the changing moods of the people (he notably fails to call an assembly when he sees that they are angry at the immediate results of the Peloponnesians’ first invasion of Attica).

800px-Pericles_Pio-Clementino_Inv269_n2

Would Pericles have been an ‘outer’? Obviously not … but perhaps it is better to dismiss that question as an anachronistic absurdity. A more productive use of anachronism may be to explore the similarities and differences between Pericles’ imperial Athens, imposing standardized measures on the subject allies that she (in Thucydides’ view) tyrannically enslaved, and the fantasy image of Brussels cooked up by irresponsible journalists like the young Johnson. Anachronisms aside, it is worth dwelling on (Thucydides’) Pericles’ boast that his generation handed down a city more powerful than the one it inherited, and wondering on the prospects that future historians will say the same of the United Kingdom during its current rule by a Conservative and Unionist Party controlled by the products of 1980s Oxford.

References

• In a 2011 feature for the Mail on Sunday, as shown in the screenshot above, Johnson offered a section of the Funeral Speech given by Thucydides’ Pericles as one of his favourite Greek quotes, although readers should note that in this ghost-written piece placed to support an educational initiative, the task of finding the actual Greek quotes was outsourced to a member of the Anachronism team.

Writing Plato’s Republic in the 21st century

Plato’s Republic might seem to be the ur-canonical literary and philosophical text. It is regularly reported to be one of the most frequently assigned literary works in US undergraduate education (as in this Washington Post report; there’s also a lively debate as to whether that place is merited). But assuming that the Republic is a timeless text with a timeless status turns out to be something of an anachronism, albeit one that has proved extremely productive for those responding to it.

Plato’s Republic hasn’t always been the top text. For many centuries, his other works, notably the cosmogony of the Timaeus, were more cited and central. When Raphael wanted to identify Plato in his School of Athens fresco, he showed him holding a copyof the Timaeus, while pointing upward to show his focus on the divine and the cosmic. Political and educational reforms in the nineteenth century led to the re-evaluation of Plato’s works and a new role for the Republic (including taking its place in a reformed syllabus for ‘Greats’, the final exams taken by students of Classics); increased citizen participation in politics, as democratic reforms were extended, and calls for women’s right to participate, made Kallipolis, with its equal roles for men and women, look all the more interesting. For Plato and reform advocate Benjamin Jowett, the Republic’s advocacy of a political role for women made it an important addition to the Oxford curriculum.

Any assertion of the timeless validity of the Republic and its argument for the role of knowledge in ordering society has to contend with its inherent strangeness, and the huge presence of aspects of Plato’s own society within it. Even in antiquity, the Republic needed explanation and reframing to address the political concerns of different societies, from the pseudo-Platonic Seventh Letter applying Plato’s political thought to monarchical Sicily to Cicero applying it to the Roman republic in his own De Republica. In the present day, however, the role of philosophy has been challenged, often by scientists working in branches of science that have replaced Plato’s Timaeus as guides to the cosmos. Hasn’t empirical scientific knowledge replaced the abstract speculations of philosophers?

Book covers for Alain Badiou's Plato's Republic, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's Plato at the Googleplex, and Jo Walton's The Just City.
Three recent books which use Plato to think about contemporary political and social issues: Alain Badiou’s Plato’s Republic, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex, and Jo Walton’s The Just City.

A paradox emerges in which Plato’s text is revered for containing timeless truths and for heading a philosophical canon, but requires constantly changing exegesis to render it comprehensible or useful. Part of the reason for undertaking the work of updating it is to gain access to those truths, and to participate in the continuation of that canon. Seeing how authors address this, and which issues they feel need attention or change, can itself be a productive exercise.

Three writers working in very different genres have addressed the problem by writing works which draw heavily on Plato’s dialogues, in some cases to the extent of rewriting the Republic. Alain Badiou’s La République de Platon uses the dialogue form, adapts some of the characters, and tweaks Plato’s politics and philosophy. Badiou introduces a female interlocutor, Amantha, modernises Platonic metaphysics into mathematical theory, and updates political references so that recognisable twentieth-century events and leaders replace the wars and rulers of Plato’s Greek world. Badiou described his rewriting as a form of ‘hyper-translation’ and explained its necessity:

he is the one we need first and foremost today, for one reason in particular: he launched the idea that conducting our lives in the world assumes that some access to the absolute is available to us … because the materiality of which we are composed participates … in the construction of eternal truths. (Badiou, Plato’s Republic, Preface, xxxi)

Philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein departed further from Platonic structure in her Plato at the Googleplex, but tackled the question of philosophy’s continuing relevance (under assault from scientists who see their discipline as replacing it). If philosophy has anything to offer, Plato is a limit case; she argues that he could attend present-day graduate philosophy seminarsand understand what was happening:

[Plato’s] antiquity removes him to a time and a sensibility that some have argued are all but irrecoverable to us. And yet, despite the historical distance, Plato could stroll into almost any graduate seminar in philosophy, seat himself at the elliptical table around which abstractions and distinctions would be propagating with abandon, and catch the drift in no time at all. (Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex, p.18)

In our seminar discussion, it was suggested that this table might be the ‘Harkness table’ associated with a Socratic method of teaching in US schools and colleges; Goldstein might be subtly suggesting that Plato belongs to an elite. However, she does not place Plato in a conventional academic setting in her book, but imagines him on a book tour, presenting his ideas as a public intellectual, in ten chapters which alternate between exposition and dialogue, and very loosely follow the argumentative structure of the Republic. We first meet him as a guest lecturer at Google’s headquarters, about to give a talk to the assembled staff. The dialogue we read is narrated by Rhonda, the friend to whom book publicist Cheryl unloads the details of her eventful day; the conversation is between Plato, Cheryl, Plato’s publicist, and Marcus, a Google programmer. The replication of Socratic dialogue in this structure, even down to an interruption by Rhonda reminiscent of Crito’s in the Euthydemus, is a delight:

I could tell… how traumatic this whole business with his friend Socrates must have been for him.
So I asked him: How long ago did this happen to your friend?
Oh, it’s ancient history, he said. I was a young man, not yet out of my twenties.
That’s interesting, I said, breaking into Cheryl’s narrative, which she doesn’t exactly encourage. It’s rare for a man to care so much for a friend, I said. (pp.64-5)

Goldstein’s point, in both this dialogue and the closing, is to assert that philosophers still have something to offer. Marcus aims to program an ‘Ethical Answers Software Engine’ which will crowd-source answers to ethical questions; but Plato points out that his ranking of the information gathered and control over the algorithm that develops the answer puts him in the position of being a philosopher king.

Novelist Jo Walton has had a life-long fascination with Plato’s Republic. Explaining how she came to write her version, she wrote:

Writing about Plato’s Republic being tried seems to me an idea that is so obvious everyone should have had it, that it should be a subgenre, there should be versions written by Diderot and George Eliot and Orwell and H. Beam Piper and Octavia Butler. Of course, it simultaneously seems like a crazy idea that makes people roll their eyes when I describe it.

Walton’s Thessaly trilogy imagines Kallipolis as Kallisti, a real rather than thought experiment, set up by the goddess Athena. In the trilogy’s opening novel, The Just City, some of the problems of Kallisti are caused by the reception of Plato itself; the masters are those who’ve prayed to Athene for Kallipolis to be real, which means many old men from pre-modern times. We see the city largely through the eyes of two female characters, Maia (formerly Ethel), rescued from a life of superfluity and intellectual frustration in Victorian England, and now chafing at the gender politics of Kallisti, and Simmea (once Lucia), one of the children bought by the masters in time-travelling raids on ancient slave markets, in her case from the northern Africa of late antiquity. Women masters are handed responsibility for maternity matters, as a new generation of citizens is bred from the children; at times the city starts to seem a little like Margaret Atwood’s Gilead.

Like Goldstein, Walton uses encounters with technology to examine issues of identity and personhood – while Goldstein gives Plato an MRI brain scan, Walton’s Kallisti is serviced by futuristic robots, which her Socrates engages in conversation (Walton’s descriptions somewhat resemble this prototype robot from the University of Osaka in Japan).

Yellow robot with caterpillar tracks and two arms, developed by the University of Osaka
This prototype robot, developed at the University of Osaka in Japan, features the arms and tracks of the robots in Jo Walton’s The Just City.

Although all three works operate within different literary genres, they suggest that Plato’s Republicrequires the updating Badiou identified, at which point it might help us to understand the problems of our own societies. These works also suggest that any dialogic encounter with Plato’s text which applies it to a specific situation could generate a similar transformative rewriting. Acknowledging the need for such a transformation, and the productive forms it might take may offer a fruitful way to read current academic scholarship on Plato, inevitably engaged in similar if less explicit or imaginative reworkings of Plato’s ideas.

  • I will be considering the political implications of engaging with Plato’s Republicin my talk at the Anachronism and Antiquity panel at the FIEC/CA conference in July.
  • Observant readers will have noted scenes from Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ on two of the book covers featured; it also makes an appearance in these blog posts on Scholarly Communities and Anachronistic Communities, as well as in our forthcoming book Anachronism and Antiquity.

References

  • Badiou, A. (2012) Plato’s Republic, trans. S. Spitzer (Cambridge: Polity).
  • Burnyeat, M.F. (1998), ‘The past in the present: Plato as educator of nineteenth-century Britain’, in A. Rorty (ed.), Philosophers on Education: historical perspectives (London: Routledge), 353-73.
  • Goldstein, R. (2014) Plato at the Googleplex: why philosophy won’t go away (London: Atlantic Books).
  • Walton, J. (2015) The Just City (London: Corsair).
  • Weinberg, S. (1993) Dreams of a Final Theory (London: Hutchinson Radius), ch. 7 ‘Against Philosophy’.

 

Banal Antiquity: Koons and Anachronism

Jeff Koons at the Ashmolean

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

February 7 – June 9, 2019

Team Anachronism recently took some time to gaze into Jeff Koons’ highly polished surfaces, oversized steel trinkets and eye-wateringly expensive blue balls. The show comprises seventeen artworks from one of the most notorious figures in the contemporary art-world, split up into three rooms – “Banality”, “Antiquity” and “Gazing Balls”. Across these sections is a fairly idiosyncratic selection from Koons’ back-catalogue. There is none of the controversy-courting “Made in Heaven” series,[1] though “Rabbit” (1986) is here, Koons’ first major foray into the steel balloon aesthetic for which he is best known. For viewers, looking at the brilliant reflection of a shiny bunny and seeing themselves, it’s hard to fight a sense that the only responses possible here are ennui, hermeneutic and historical.

Screenshot 2019-04-08 13.36.46
“Rabbit” stainless steel
41 x 19 x 12 inches 
104.1 x 48.3 x 30.5 cm
© Jeff Koons
1986

In 2019, the art world loves to hate Jeff Koons.[2] As the living embodiment of its bad conscience and the man who has most successfully exploited the irreconcilable logic of turning art into commodity, Koons is all the more irritating because he appears to sleep soundly at night undisturbed by the nightmarish contradictions of such an existence. His practice might be best described as Warhol on steroids, and the kind of critiques of Warhol are ramped up accordingly when directed at Koons. He is the investment banker turned artist who sells art to investment bankers and the rest of the one percent. He is the maverick who either exposes the worst contradictions of capitalism or just materializes them to make a quick buck. If we take the holy marketing doctrine that “sex sells”, what better realization of that reasoning than to make explicit and phenomenally unnecessary art featuring you and your pornstar wife? All surface, no depth – good clean post-modern fun. And yet, in a dawning age of new global fascism, Koons’ erotics of nihilism make him the artist of the age. It is this apposite distillation of culture (one kind of timeliness) together with an on-going interest in the materials and aesthetics of classical antiquity, that make Koons a particularly choice artist to think about under the rubric of anachronism.

Antiquity has become a core part of Koons’ practice: the works in the second room are mostly drawn from a series in 2008 called “Antiquity”. In addition we have the works in the third room, the “Gazing Balls” pieces. So Hal Foster is quite right in his observation that “classical statuary” is one of Koons’ three categories (the other two being “kitsch” and “porn”)[3]. Antiquity is primarily an aesthetic in Koons’ practice of radically transforming ancient form into modern medium (as in his “Balloon Venus (Magenta)” take on the Venus of Willendorf) or superimposing antiquity as collage (as in his Aphrodite riding a dolphin, in which a Bettie Page model is rendered as the goddess straddling a dolphin about to fellate a blow-up monkey).

Koons does, however, engage conceptually with antiquity too, particularly around the idea of representation and authenticity. In a recent interview, he comments on the transcendental in his practice: “If I’m working with a copy, I’m doing it as reference because what I’m really interested in is the Platonic idea of the piece”.[4] Koons deals with the concept of aesthetic originality through the extreme practice of reproduction. He is deeply invested in the copy: for example, the painting of an Old Master that appears identical but is not quite to scale or the ancient sculptural group that is reproduced from its Roman copy in place of the original. These are copies that revel in drawing attention to their iterability. Koons’ mimetic practice constitutes a transcendence of sorts, but that is a term so featherweight in its critical purchase that it sails out of the window. This practice is glib:  you can barely construe this as a response to the nexus of problems that have accumulated around mimesis in the history of philosophy in the last two thousand years. Walking out of the cave might make you very rich indeed.

Screenshot 2019-04-08 13.33.44.png
“Ballon Venus” mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating
102 x 48 x 50 inches
259.1 x 121.9 x 127 cm
© Jeff Koons
2008-2012

Antiquity is the loose thematic unity of the second room. It has several large canvasses displaying almost exact replicas of oil paintings on which Koons has enacted his collage of art history techniques. You are confronted immediately however with three enormous steel statues. Two are oversized replicas of ballet dancer figurines, the kind that might appear on a suburban mantelpiece. The third figure is Koon’s response to the Venus of Willendorf in “Balloon Venus (Magenta)” (2008-2012). The accompanying signage for “Rabbit” indicates what steel means as a medium for Koons, and why he might have chosen it to represent Venus: “The surface of my stainless steel pieces is pure sex and gives an object both a masculine and feminine side: the weight of the steel engages with the femininity of the reflective surface”. The totalitarian undertones of purity as the rubric for sex is evident in this zero-sum of erotic relations. “Balloon Venus (Magenta)” transforms the ancient stone fertility symbol from a handheld talismanic object of sexual meaning into a larger than life, multi-ton steel structure. Her highly polished reflective surfaces throw the viewer back on themselves a hundred times, perhaps so you might avoid thinking how neutered the goddess herself has become. Here is Venus translated for the twenty first century: she could have been a gloriously vital magenta sex symbol – but she’s cold to the touch.

Venus and satyr
“Antiquity 1” oil on canvas 108 x 84 inches/274.3 x 213.4 cm © Jeff Koons 2009-2012

In the same room as these sculptures are selected parts of the series called “Antiquity”. On some of these, Koons and his army of technicians have recreated almost stroke for stroke the oil paintings of a little known early twentieth century painter Louis Eilshemius, over which various images of Greek sculpture are placed. Other canvases have landscapes, as gaudy and generic as a screensaver, serving as the background to the same jumble of ancient images. On top of some of these are diagrammatized female genitalia, recalling Gustave Courbet’s frank and full-bushed “The Origin of the World” (1866). All these canvasses display a statue group in which a Venus is about to strike a groping satyr and raises her shoe in consternation.

Balloon Venus in front of painting from Antiquity series
Balloon Venus and Antiquity series on display at the Ashmolean. Photo C. Atack.

Koons scours his own back catalogue for inspiration for the collaging, providing a monkey and the dolphin for the final canvas. “Antiquity 2 (Dots)” shows the model Gretchen Mol, made up as the early twentieth century pin-up Bettie Page, astride the dolphin and about to seduce an inflatable monkey. In the corner of this canvas is the image of another satyr, ithyphallic and menacing behind the central three figures. Does this rockabilly Aphrodite disinter given logics of sex? Did it matter that Koons only found out after the making of this piece that the ancient myth included this scene or is the sum total of what’s on display here just a fluency with the visual idioms of mainstream porn, ancient and modern? Koons’ mixing of media and imagery is bold – the point could perhaps be construed as a parallel between sexual ethics, ancient and modern, and thus anachronistic. But in Koons’ world, sex, and antiquity for that matter, appear exclusively in the commodity state with no room for the messy realities of (desiring) the past, people, and things.

Screenshot 2019-04-08 13.42.08
Gazing Ball (Belvedere Torso) plaster and glass 
71 1/2 x 29 7/8 x 35 1/8 inches
181.6 x 75.9 x 89.2 cm
© Jeff Koons
2013

In the next room, “Gazing Balls” has replicas of iconic paintings and sculptures from the history of Western art to which Koons has added polished balls in electric steel. Any pun one could make about blue balls is anticipated by Koons – it is so knowing of the irony, it has already undercut itself a thousand times. The overall visual statement that Koons makes with the addition of these balls is so self-congratulatory that he has almost no need for a viewer to gaze into them. Once more the attention to detail in making replicas advertises technical mastery. The reproduction technique of the ancient sculptures is particularly disturbing. Koons gives us replicas of the plaster casts in all their un-patinated white purity – even if he was aware that the original sculptures were colorfully painted, it is not clear to me that this would trouble his vacuous fetish of the replica. The sheer laziness of this practice is breathtaking given the contemporary scholarly and public conversations around the politics of colour and race in the aesthetics of antiquity. In the virtuosic display of reproduction, Koons’ aesthetic calculus of purity implicates race as well as sex.

Among the replicas of Theodore Gericault’s “The Raft of Medusa” (1818-19) and an everyday American postbox, Koons makes his blue ball steel additions to the Belvedere torso and Praxiteles’ Silenus with Baby Dionysus. It could be anachronism in action: the familiarity of ancient artworks thrown into disarray by being re-positioned and re-situated. Or, the gazing balls could invite us to reconsider how our relationships with antiquity are mediated by subjective notions of value. Or they could require us to review the ideological frameworks of spectatorship of which we might be more of less aware. There’s nothing here though to prompt such critical thinking – this is art that armours itself against theory.

Koons would like us to walk away with the idea that history of art is radically democractic – open to all, no prior knowledge needed. And yet in the market place of value, the ideologically suspect parts give the game away. His uncritical porno-historiography allows us to understand that cultural value is not under examination here, however bold the juxtapositions of ancient and modern artworks seem to be. In an aesthetic worldview where sex is pure, and reflections provide insight only into yourself, history runs exclusively in one direction. Koons might appear to be the anachronic artist par excellence. Anachronism and Antiquity has sought to construe relationships between past and present in surprising and critically energizing ways. We have paid attention to works of art that create relationships across time that challenge expectation or arrest assumptions about the linear flow of time. In Koons’ sterile world the multi-temporal potential of art points only to history as glossy abyss. Here, only the logic of the commodity reproduction is untouchable.

  • Images sourced from jeffkoons.com, except for installation shot.

[1] http://www.jeffkoons.com/artwork/made-in-heaven

[2] https://www.dazeddigital.com/art-photography/article/43261/1/jeff-koons-ashmolean-review

[3] https://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n15/hal-foster/at-the-whitney

[4] https://032c.com/berlin-review-jeff-koons/

 

Magdalene Odundo’s anachronic journey

In the first gallery of ‘Magdalene Odundo: Journey of Things’ at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, is a case containing three objects, an anachronic assemblage of vessels in dialogue across time and space. On the far right is a beaker from the Kerma culture of Nubia, almost 4000 years old, which the potter saw in Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum. In the centre, a tiny dipper vessel from archaic Cyprus of similar antiquity, once owned by the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, whose studio Odundo visited, and now part of the Wakefield permanent collection. On the left is an example of Odundo’s own work, a glass ‘Drinking Vessel’, made in the year 2000, its shape, twin handles and name recalling, for classicists at least, a Dionysiac kantharos, associated with ritual.

Three drinking vessels: from left to right 'Drinking Vessel', Magdalene Odundo, 2000; dipper bowl, Crete, c. 1900-1650 BCE; beaker, Kerma culture, Nubia (Egypt) 1173-1650 BCE.
Three drinking vessels: from left to right ‘Drinking Vessel’, Magdalene Odundo, 2000; dipper bowl, Cyprus, c. 1900-1650 BCE; beaker, Kerma culture, Nubia (Egypt) 1173-1650 BCE.

These three objects and their histories exemplify the connections across time and space that the exhibition’s reference to a ‘journey’ suggests. Odundo’s selections of pots and other artworks for the exhibition, and the connections she makes between them, represent a post-colonial perspective in which there is no simplistic conflation of the ancient and the traditional. The objects she has chosen to complement her own pots illuminate both the aesthetic and technical influences on the physical form of her work, her standpoint as an artist of colour understanding her own lived experience of colonialism and its relation to her training and work, and her appreciation of the crafts of many cultures. Each piece on display contributes to telling the story of her discovery of objects and craft techniques from different cultures and times during her studies in Kenya, Nigeria and the UK (where she is now Emerita Professor of Ceramics at the University for the Creative Arts), as well as her developing understanding of the socio-political conditions under which she gained access to those techniques. She recently told Apollo magazine:

‘Whether I’m looking at what is contemporary, or looking at the world while I’m walking, or looking at other art, landscapes, or whatever’s in front of me, I’m looking at history – and at the human need to make things and to become part of a history of being human.’

Some of the objects Odundo has chosen come from studio artists, others from makers ; some from the distant past, others contemporary. Those from classical antiquity connect with the allusions to that past in her work – from the shapes of vessels and their handles, to the severe and minimal figurative elements of Cycladic sculptures.

Vase by Magdalene Odundo
Magdalene Odundo, untitled; the mixed red and black surface is characteristic of her work.

While the techniques of modern studio potters are distinct from those of ancient ones, Odundo’s use of strong red and black colours, generated by oxidising or carbonising the surfaces of her pots in the firing process, offers a strong visual echo of Roman and pre-Roman pottery, of red terra sigillata and black Etruscan bucchero ware. In her re-use of classical elements combined with her other influences, Odundo’s work exemplifies a post-colonial engagement with the material cultures of classical antiquity, in which they are not valued above elements from other cultures of the past and the present, but set in a productive dialogue.

Black and red vases
Two untitled vases, Magdalene Odundo

This combination of influences contributes to a highly recognisable aesthetic, particularly grouped forms of red and black vases. Odundo has connected the angled and flared openings of vases like this pair to the costumes and head-dresses of Mangbetu women of the Democratic Republic of Congo; Odundo has said ‘You can imagine when you’re coiling that clay on to a vessel this woman laboriously binding her head’. The complex relationship between contemporary art and the colonial history of African peoples is also represented by ‘Janey Morris’, a clothed figure by Yinka Shonibare which uses African printed textiles to create a dress as if for the Pre-Raphaelite muse and craftswoman.

The story of how Odundo came to incorporate all these elements in her work is a case-study in the intersection of colonial history with an individual life. Odundo, born and educated in Nairobi, did not set out to be a ceramicist, but a graphic artist. But her initial experiences as an art student led her towards less commercial art and design. During a year studying graphic art at the Cambridge College of Art, she got to know the classical holdings of the Fitzwilliam Museum and the modernist collection of Kettle’s Yard, both represented in this exhibition along with modern art responding to the ancient world, such as Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s Wrestlers (1914). The ancient and contemporary ethnographic collections of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology introduced her to the artistic traditions of the Americas and Australasia.

Wrestlers bas relief, red vase by Magdalene Odundo, archaic black-figure Athenian amphora
Objects with a Cambridge connection shown with Magdalene Odundo’s work (right): above, Henri Gaudier-Brzezka’s ‘Wrestlers’ bas relief, 1914, Kettle’s Yard; below, black-figure neck-amphora from Athens, with Ariadne between dancing satyrs, c. 550-540 BCE, Fitzwilliam Museum.

Studying art at the West Surrey College of Art and Design brought Odundo into contact with teachers from the British studio pottery movement. One might perhaps have expected her work in ceramics to have settled into the styles and practices of makers in that tradition, but the potter Michael Cardew (himself an Oxford Classics graduate, before making his career in craft) encouraged her to explore the pottery heritage of African peoples, particularly those of West Africa. Odundo then studied at a training centre Cardew had earlier established in Nairobi on behalf of the colonial government, intended to preserve and disseminate African pottery techniques. Here Odundo learned the traditional Gbari techniques for hand-building rather than throwing pots, from teachers such as Ladi Kwali, whose work is also on display in the exhibition.

Odundo has a particular interest in the ritual use of pottery; her thesis related Kenyan women’s pottery traditions to the use of vessels in rites of passage. Vessels are put to ritual and ceremonial use in many cultures and times – whether for serving drinks, from the mixed wine of the ancient Greek symposium to the English afternoon tea (exemplified here by a Lucie Rie tea-set), or for carrying and pouring offerings in ritual and commemorative settings. Odundo has reflected this in work which evokes the role of vessels in funerary and commemorative practices. In recent years she has made pots that echo the form of the kigango, vertical memorial sculptures which form part of the funerary practices of the Mijikenda people of Kenya. Here, three of her kigango vessels are grouped with memorial works connected to other times and cultures; a model of ‘Single Form’, Barbara Hepworth’s iconic memorial sculpture for her friend, United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hjammerskjöld, and a fourth-century BCE Attic funerary lekythos, used for funerary and graveside rituals, as well as an original kigango (not pictured). Like Hepworth, Odundo has marked personal loss through her art.

Rear left: model for 'Single Form', Barbara Hepworth; centre: three kigango vases, Magdalene Odundo; front, white-ground lekythos, Athens, fourth century BCE.
Rear left: model for ‘Single Form’, Barbara Hepworth, 1961; centre: three kigango vases, Magdalene Odundo, 2010-13; front, white-ground lekythos, Athens, c. 470-40 BCE.

Odundo’s simultaneous centring of local craft traditions from Kenya and her use of elements from Graeco-Roman antiquity, as well as other ancient cultures, in her pottery challenge ideas of the incorporation of African cultures as providing primitivist elements in art which should be displayed separately from ‘Western’ art. In her work she has established a post-colonial aesthetic in a discipline in which Graeco-Roman classical antiquity has often provided a dominant reference. Interviewed by Monique Kernan in 2003, she said:

Debating who or what culture or nation or ethnicity one is for purposes of exhibiting is a non-starter, because one is who one is. Critics are the ones who pigeonhole the art and artists by calling art “primitive,” applying an anthropology that’s fifty years out of date. [African] artists are fed up with being seen as exotics.

  • Magdalene Odundo: the journey of things, at the Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield until June 2, 2019, then at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, from 3 August to 15 December 2019.
  • For an expert view on ancient Cypriot elements in Odundo’s work, see Anna Reeve’s post in her Ancient Cypriot Art in Leeds blog.

References

  • Berns, Marla C. (1995) Ceramic Gestures: new vessels by Magdalene Odundo (Santa Barbara).
  • Hardwick, L., & Gillespie, C. (eds.) (2007). Classics in Post-colonial Worlds (Classical presences, Oxford).
  • Kerman, M. (2017) Contemporary British Artists of African Descent and the Unburdening of a Generation (London), Chapter 2.
  • Slater-Ralph, Anthony (ed.) (2004) Magdalene Odundo (Aldershot).

 

New perspectives on Rome’s multi-temporal cityscape

The city of Rome has been identified as an ‘eternal city’ since the poet Tibullus labelled it so back in the first century BCE, and also by subsequent visitors as a multi-temporal city in which past and present offer an intoxicating mixture. Visiting the city as it is now, two millennia later, is to encounter a multiplicity of past Romes, overlying each other and competing for attention as you traverse the city, from the classical past through the heritage of the church and the visions of early-modern visitors such as historian Edward Gibbon, who was quite overwhelmed by the experience of standing in the Forum where Cicero had once stood, writing in his memoirs that ‘at the distance of twenty-five years, I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the Eternal City’ (Memoirs of my Life, p. 141).

Last month, while visiting the École Française de Rome for a workshop on the application of a modern political concept – Weber’s model of charismatic leadership – to the politics of the ancient world, I was able to do some sight-seeing of my own, and see how Rome’s museums and archaeological sites are using new approaches to connect visitors with the classical past and those who rediscovered and interpreted it, and how contemporary art contributes to this conversation.

Not all Rome’s monuments are as visible as the Forum. One remnant of ancient imperial Rome is invisible from street level, buried underground and forgotten until its rediscovery in the Renaissance. The Domus Aurea is the only remnant of the enormous palace built by the emperor Nero during his short time in power, and swiftly dismantled by his successors after his death in 68 CE. It survived the destruction of other parts of the palace complex when it became the foundations for the public baths commissioned by the emperor Trajan – the Colosseum itself, that most recognisable of classical ruins, had already been built over the palace’s ornamental lake by the Flavian emperors, starting soon after Vespasian cemented his power. To visit the underground ruins of the Domus Aurea is already to take a journey back in time, but the current hard-hat tours of the underground site use a range of audio-visual technology to give visitors a multi-temporal experience and to reveal its hidden past. As you enter, the bare brick walls of the vaulted cells supporting Trajan’s building become a screen for images of Nero’s Rome, and of the palace as it is imagined to have been in its brief heyday.

Domus Aurea video projection
Reconstruction of the Domus Aurea projected on to the Roman walls

But further inside the ruin it becomes difficult to imagine the dark galleries and passages as a light-filled golden palace, even though there are tantalising glimpses of the frescos that decorated those parts not adorned with marble, long since lost. But new technology is here to help – one chamber is now equipped with Oculus Rift headsets so that you can experience different layers of the building’s past through a virtual reality recreation.

Virtual reality room in the Domus Aurea
Virtual reality stations await visitors within the Domus Aurea

After seeing the frescoes lit by the flickering torches of the palace’s Renaissance explorers, who thought they’d found a cave, you are tumbled back in time to the full sun-lit glory of the original rooms. Then you can walk out and look across the city to the other parts of Nero’s palace on the Palatine, with no Colosseum in sight. Don’t forget to look back at the building you’ve just left… After returning to the present, and putting your hard hat back on, it perhaps becomes easier to visualise the remaining rooms, including the astonishing octagon with its dome, as they once were.

The competing layers of the classical past are further overlaid by the city’s Christian heritage, as Gibbon noted; he was inspired to write Decline and Fall by hearing Franciscan friars singing in the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter (Memoirs, p. 143). The classical and Christian past come together in the Vatican Museums, home to a remarkable collection of antiquities, assembled over centuries from finds within Rome and gifts to the Pope. At the moment, the feeling that you are viewing antiquity through a past sensibility, when walking through its galleries and courtyards, is heightened by the museum’s celebrations of the anniversaries of the birth and death of the German art critic Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68), who for the latter part of his career held a range of curatorial roles at what would become this museum. In a display spanning the whole museum, key objects across the collection, those that attracted Winckelmann’s scholarly and aesthetic attention, are marked by a large Gothic W, and his interpretations of objects and critiques of others’ views are posted on accompanying sign boards.

Belvedere Hermes and giant Winckelmann W
The Belvedere Hermes tagged as part of the Vatican’s Winckelmann display

We are encouraged to see what Winckelmann saw in the Vatican’s collections, although given the enduring influence of his aesthetic response to classical art, many visitors may already be primed to see greatness where he once saw it; of this statue, now known as the Belvedere Hermes, but then thought to represent Antinous, Winckelmann commented that ‘the head is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful youthful heads of antiquity’. Given that art historians and archaeologists of the present are often more concerned with escaping or revising Winckelmann’s views on ancient aesthetics rather than with embracing them (as is Sarah Bond in this critique of the ‘whitewashing’ of ancient sculpture), the effect of the Vatican’s intervention is to reassert a very traditional perspective on aesthetic value, as well as to highlight antiquarian debates about the identification of the subjects of statues. The placement of major works in the collection already accords with Winckelmann’s evaluation of their artistic importance – the octagonal courtyard where the Belvedere Hermes stands is crowded with letters and signs – but the reminder that we might ourselves be seeing the classical past through mediating filters such as Winckelmann’s aesthetic is an important one.

While the halls of the Vatican Museums resist change, the Roman cityscape surrounding the Vatican is not timeless, but subject to renewal and to new interventions. In Largo Goldoni, a small square on one of Rome’s prime luxury shopping streets, the installation of Giuseppe Penone’s sculpture Foglie di Pietra (‘Leaves of Stone’), raises questions about the relationship between the city and nature and about change over time.

Giuseppe Penone, Foglie di Pietra, Rome, 2017
Giuseppe Penone, Foglie di Pietra, Rome, 2017

The sculpture was placed there in 2017, with sponsorship from Roman fashion house Fendi, outside whose flagship boutique it stands, an intriguing location for a work by a sculptor who emerged from the Arte Povera movement of the 1960s. In this monumental work, two bronze trees support apparent sculptural fragments in their branches; one stone fragment recalls the reuse of Roman decorative elements in Renaissance buildings, while a huge marble block contains a Corinthian capital entwined in tree roots, suggesting both the grandeur of Rome and the temporal distance of its classical past.

Penone, Foglie di Pietra, detail of marble block with Corinthian capital and tree roots
Penone, Foglie di Pietra, detail of marble block with Corinthian capital and tree roots

The sculpture contains familiar elements from Penone’s artistic practice (there’s still time to catch a major retrospective exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which closes 28/4/19), especially his interest in natural materials and fragmentation. Its placement in the Roman cityscape underscores Penone’s interest in revealing change over time through natural processes; at the installation of the sculpture, he commented:

“In Foglie di Pietra, archaeology and ruins, history and biology are grafted one on the other, creating a permanent bond between nature and culture, and celebrating a deep synthesis between the flowing of natural and human time where a sense of longing and a romantic nostalgia for lost civilizations are brought to the surface.”

Penone’s complex construction materialises the experience of the encountering the multi-temporality of Rome and incorporates it into the fabric of the city. Even outside the formally curated spaces of its museums and monuments, artistic interventions like Foglie di Pietra negotiate Rome’s continuing relationship with its classical past and the long reception history of that past.

  • Gibbon, Edward (1990), Memoirs of my Life, ed. Betty Radice (London: Penguin).
  • Winckelmann, J. J. [1764] (2006). History of the Art of Antiquity, tr. Harry Francis Mallgrave (Los Angeles: Getty Publications).
  • Coulson, S and Lilley, C. (2018) Giuseppe Penone: A Tree in the Wood (Yorkshire Sculpture Park).