In the entrance of an elegant Neo-Classical mansion in Athens a security guard sits beneath a video of a sunset supposedly filmed by a security guard in Beirut. The video is, in fact, a fictional document from an imaginary archive: I Only Wish That I Could Weep (Operator #, 17) (2000). As with all work by The Atlas Group, the question of what is fiction and what is fact becomes secondary to questions about the nature of historical veracity itself. That the imagination can intertwine with information to create new histories may not be a particularly new concept, but it’s still one with plenty of mileage. In this, I Only Wish That I Could Weep is an apt introduction to ‘Her(his)-tory’, an exhibition that hoped to inspire, via history’s flexible springboard, ‘wonder about the connecting elements linking art and people of different cultures’. In this it succeeded.
‘Her(his)tory’ is not, as its title may initially suggest, a show about Feminism (in fact out of 29 artists only six, disappointingly, were women) but rather a survey of video work by a cross-section of international artists displayed in a museum devoted to art from the Cycladic islands of Greece, made between 6500 BC and AD 395. Despite its antiquity, the simplified naturalism and distinct abstract forms of much Cycladic art is, via its influence on early-20th-century Modernist sculpture, vaguely familiar to a contemporary audience – it has inspired artists from Pablo Picasso to Constantin Brancusi and Barbara Hepworth. It makes a skewed kind of sense, then, to reflect, via the video monitor’s flickering screen, 29 contemporary works back on a past that, however inadvertently, has never been indifferent to inspiring the present. Nonetheless, in such a context videos are as startling as astronauts: time travellers to remnants of a past as remote as Mars. It was appropriate, therefore, that in her introductory essay curator Marina Fokidis should quote the eponymous protagonist of Italo Calvino’s novel Mr Palomar (1983): ‘The universe is the mirror in which we can contemplate only what we have learned to know in ourselves.’
The achingly beautiful and sparsely inhabited Cycladic islands float in a sea as blue as smashed sapphires between Greece and Turkey; long used to invasion and isolation, in the 20th century they were almost emptied by mass migration to Australia and the USA and then invaded by that peculiarly 20th-century phenomenon of the tourist. It makes sense, then, that works were included in the show that reflect not only on broader questions of history but also on specifically 20th- and 21st-century preoccupations with themes of place and placelessness, often via slapstick, absurdity and repetition. While some of the works were displayed effectively in spaces purpose-built for the show, many others, like smart, delinquent teenagers, lurked around the furniture, paintings and stairwell of this grand mansion. Paolo Canevari’s Burning Skull (2006), for example, was, somewhat literally but to startling effect, displayed in a gloomy fireplace, while Annika Larsson’s Pirate (2007) dangled from a chandelier like a jewel from a brigand’s ear and Anri Sala’s elegiac projection Uomoduomo (2000) was positioned above a melancholy 19th-century painting in a dim, lovely drawing-room. Similarly, Rodney Graham’s video of the travails of an archetypal pirate, complete with parrot and palm tree, Vexation Island (1997), may be well known by now, but its circular storytelling and intimations of thwarted journeys and time travel were never more at home than in the midst of such Neo-Classical grace. Some works were helped by a sense of disorientation. Aernout Mik’s film of a group of people behaving ambiguously in a park (Park, 2002), Victor Alimpiev’s study of children in a Russian schoolroom (Summer Lightnings, 2004), Yorgos Sapountzis’ irreverent approach to porcelain collecting (knock knock monument, 2004) and Stefanos Tsivopoulos’ fine meditation on migration and loss (Land, 2006) were as startling in these surroundings as coal-miners at an aristocratic ball – and all the better for it. Classic elements of slapstick and its relationship to disruption – be it cultural or personal – were served well by Peter Land’s painful video The Staircase (1998), DeAnna Maganias’ deadpan portrait of a gorilla Say Goodbye to the Monkeys (2003) and Corey Arcangel’s desperate video fan letter to Art Garfunkel, Sans Simon (2004).
Two major, if well-known, works were highlights of the show. In Isaac Julien’s extraordinary film True North (2004) – a dreamlike meditation inspired by the black American Matthew Henson, who, despite being a co-discoverer, with Robert Peary, of the North Pole in 1909, has been largely written out of history – the explorer is played by a statuesque black woman who moves forcefully through a land that is literally and symbolically white. Similarly, in Doug Aitken’s lush Electric Earth (1999) a young man drifts through the nocturnal spaces of LA: his fractured refrain – ‘it’s the only now I get’ – served as the perfect coda to ‘Her(his)tory’. Echoing through a museum of very old things, I doubt his words have ever sounded more urgent.