Athenians like to conduct their lives outdoors. It’s a trait that goes back to ancient times when the agora was the cultural and commercial centre of the city, where philosophers debated their theories under its shaded colonnades and porches, and tradesmen bartered goods.
It is appropriate, then, that the first exhibition by the Athens-based Neon foundation, curated by the Whitechapel Gallery director Iwona Blazwick, was partly installed in the elegant formal gardens of the Gennadius Library of the American School of Classical Studies, as well as in every nook and cranny of its interior.
If the exhibition, titled ‘A Thousand Doors’ (a nod to Jorge Luis Borges’s 1941 short story ‘The Library of Babel’), had a logical start it was in a ground floor reading room, where book works were displayed in glass vitrines as if they were part of the rare manuscripts in the library’s 120,000-strong collection. Behind the glass, the classical and the radical sat side by side, with Edward Allington’s Standard Ideal Forms (1981), a ledger embedded with cubes, spheres and cones sculpted out of plaster, shown next to examples of John Latham’s iconoclastic work. Consisting of fragments of books intersecting shards of glass, Anonymous Books (1987) and History of Time (1988) are extensions of sorts of Latham’s famous chewing and spitting out of Clement Greenberg’s 1961 treatise, Art and Culture, for which Latham was fired from Central St Martins in 1966. The Athens works perhaps lacked such bite.
Several works came to life outside of the display cabinets. Most affecting was Michael Rakowitz’s politically charged What Dust Will Rise? (2012) – stone copies of books destroyed when the Fridericianum in Kassel was bombed in 1941, originally presented there as part of dOCUMENTA(13). Carved from the remnants of the Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, the sculptures were displayed on a glass table alongside handwritten accounts of book burning and the destruction of libraries.
In the upper rooms, one of the most talked about (and handled) pieces was the fifth incarnation of Meriç Algün Ringborg’s The Library of Unborrowed Books (2014). The artist presented hundreds of books that have never been borrowed from the Gennadius. Overlooked gems included a small red pocket book, The Origin of the Kiss and Other Scientific Diversions, and the less endearing Men of Achievement.
Outside the library, in the garden’s sunken courtyards, hedge-lined avenues and colonnaded walkways, the exhibition blossomed. Perhaps because there had been plans to install the show in the National Garden of Athens, which fell through because of a legal dispute between Neon and the Friends of the National Garden Association, or perhaps because of the public nature of Athenian life (‘you don’t have to find public space, it’s just there’, says the art collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos who founded Neon), the exhibition felt like it was always meant to be experienced in the open air.
Here, some excellent examples of public works of art from the past 20 years were on display. Among them were Daniel Silver’s Dig (2013), a series of sculptures and fragments commissioned by Artangel and originally installed in an abandoned multi-storey car park in west London to coincide with Frieze London last year. A work in several parts: six oversized bearded ‘father’ figures were installed between the marble columns at the entrance to the Gennadius. They looked as if they had stood there since antiquity. Another section consisted of white sculptural fragments, displayed on trestle tables like the ossified spoils of an archaeological dig. Appropriately enough, the tables were erected near to the home of an archaeologist who lives in the library’s grounds, though rumour had it he disapproved of the exhibition. Athenians are also often said to be argumentative.
Adrián Villar Rojas’s Return the World (2012), a series of large-scale figures made from unfired clay and cement, was also originally created for dOCUMENTA(13). In Kassel, the figures were displayed in the vineyards of the Weinberg Terraces; in Athens, a solitary figure resembling an astronaut who has fallen from the sky was installed under a low hanging tree. Like a character from a Manga comic or sci-fi movie, the astronaut appeared to have come from another time and space.
It was exactly this mind-bending oscillation between the future, present and ancient past that made ‘A Thousand Doors’ so compelling. Jane and Louise Wilson’s sound piece, The Silence is Twice as Fast Backwards (2007/2014), perhaps captured the sensation best. Inspired by Georges Auric’s score for Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée (1950), eight bell peals, played backwards, were activated when you moved from the upper level of the garden to the lower, signalling your descent into a mythic, Greek underworld.