March 2, 2015

At the show with the artist: Allyson Vieira experiences the Acropolis Museum

Athens, August 2007: the Acropolis Museum was not yet completed.


The sun broiled the sky, cloudless, but hazy with trapped heat and smoke. I stood on a skillet of pink limestone high above Athens. It was 43 degrees and the Peloponnese was burning. This was my first trip to the Acropolis.


The columns of the Parthenon rose over me, stark and honey-white like thick thighs against limitless blue. Undiluted shadows raked over the massive, feminine body of the temple, describing its form in graphic relief. It stood under the punishing sun in a perpetual contest against time. Though a ruin, it felt complete–I couldn’t imagine anything missing from all this hot golden stone enmeshed with the sky. It had the power of a god incarnate, and I was an awestruck mortal.


London, March 2009: the Acropolis Museum was not yet open.


As I walked into the British Museum, the drizzly grey outside shifted to an echoing grey within. I noticed the sound of my feet on the polished stone floors. It was finally time for me to see the Parthenon Marbles.


I expected that my ecstatic memories of Athens from two years prior and these missing pieces would synthesize happily in my mind.


But light and sound became mush. The impenetrable stone of Gallery 18 reverberated the visitors’ chatter into gruel. Diffuse grey light dribbled in from the skylight and seeped evenly over every contour of sculpture and architecture, rendering it colorless, flat, and inert. The frosted skylight created an eternal cloudy day. The room was cool as a crypt.


Instead of soaring overhead in a recess between two colonnades, in London the frieze sits at eye level, accessible and demystified under the uniform light. Its architectural relationship has been inverted; what should face out faces in. A procession that should unfold during a long perambulation has been turned in on itself, forced into navel gazing. Truncation and false juxtapositions force the frieze into the British Museum’s Procrustean bed.


I understood then that the Parthenon stood naked, stripped bare but defiant and undiminished. This place was cold storage for its finery.




During my first visit to Athens I found something that keeps me returning. Each time I try to understand it, to expand it, or at least to exist within it. Each time the nuance, the color, is different. This is the first time I have tried to articulate it.


In Athens, I found a contemporary city sandwiched within its history – the Parthenon overhead and ruins underfoot. Sometimes the city feels lively and lived in, a modern world sparking with the electricity of time. Sometimes it feels crushed by it. Today’s great, sprawling metropolis floats on a soap-bubble membrane of the present.


It’s a low city; buildings rarely exceed five or six stories, most are lower. The Acropolis is roughly in the city center; from many streets near and far, the Parthenon is visible above the rooftops. It’s a marker, like the Empire State Building or the World Trade Center in New York, that helps you orient yourself amid the tangled streets. But unlike those buildings, the Parthenon is not an exultant, if fleeting, triumph of modernity, not a monument to the contemporary society that lives at its feet, not a commercial site used by thousands of citizens every day. This building is nearly 2,500 years old, and it is a shell. It’s an icon of a great civilization, but one long extinct and never recovered. To live under this constant peripheral presence of the ultimate symbol of previous cultural greatness celebrated not just by its own descendants, but by the entire Western world, seems like a lot of pressure.


While working on an exhibition during my first trip, another artist and I asked about the possibility of digging into the basement floor of the gallery for a collaborative work. We were told that it was illegal to put a spade into the ground in Athens without baroque permit processes, including a survey by a state archaeologist, in order to ensure that no unexplored archaeological sites would be destroyed in the process. As a resident of a new city in a perpetual state of rebuilding and redefining itself, wiping its city blocks clean of all previous structures before inventing new ones, this fact, though, of course, known to me, came barreling into my gut. Every place I have ever called “home” began as a tabula rasa. Here there was no such thing. Beneath every footfall, beneath every ground floor, were other roads, other ground floors, and beneath those were even more. Seven thousand years of cities were under my feet.


Athens, January 2, 2011: the Acropolis Museum.


Athens was grey this time, too. On my first morning I walked from my hotel on Lofos Strefi to the Acropolis Museum.


The museum sits at the southeast base of the Acropolis on a still used ancient access road. The top level is identical in size and orientation to the Parthenon. But I did not realize this at first. All I knew was that it felt so right.


The floor of the sunken plaza before the museum’s entrance is transparent. Beneath my feet previously un-excavated sites, Byzantine and Classical, lay visible. This is not Disney World, not a simulacrum, or even a simulation; this is time and place, this is site. I meandered, stooping and shuffling, ignoring the museum entrance, lest I miss a square meter of the homely city below me.


Eventually I did go into the museum. The glass floor extends inside, sloping upward into a ramp, below which the visible excavations continue. Lining the ramp, all manner of objects, tiny and grand, quotidian and rich, ascend in chronological order. Every piece in the museum was excavated from the Acropolis; these are from its slopes. Each object bears a small truth from the past, as simple as “I existed and I exist!”. Together they create the seductive contradiction of historical inquiry: tiny absolute truths sweet-talking us into believing we know the past. Looking back at my sketchbook from that visit four years ago, I see I drew a terracotta model of a ladder, no more than thirty centimeters long, from the 6th century BCE; a bronze sculpture of male genitals small enough to hold in the palm of my hand, flaccid and truncated with finely incised curls of hair, from the 5th to 4th century BCE; and a tall marble cult stele with a undulating serpent and a footless sandal carved in low relief, from around 350 BCE.


The ramp opens onto the sun-drenched, open-plan first floor. The light outside is the light inside. The clouds had broken.


I came upon the haunting and fierce pedimental sculptures of the 6th century BCE Hekatompedon, a poros temple which first occupied the site of the Parthenon only a few decades before its construction. In the pediment’s center, in high relief, lions savagely attack a calf. Owl and snake finials stand guard. On the right crawls a triple-bodied monster: three man-torsoed, serpent-ended, blue-bearded, figures intertwine their polychromed tails into a rope-tight irregular triple spiral. This was utterly new to me. What received history do these terrifying and bizarre sculptures fit into?


Just around the corner stands a score of archaic kouros and kore statues, standing male and female youths in white marble – their vivid polychromy now all but gone – each more impossibly elegant and serene than the next. Contemporary with the Hekatompedon, these placid votive offerings feel antithetical to the brutal, animistic, pediment sculptures, yet they are from the same time and place. More questions.


The floor plan moves me slowly, imperceptibly, forward through the past. Rigid figures relax. The female body emerges from beneath heavy gowns. Classical beauties of all sexes abound, thickening with Hellenism, finally coarsening with the rise of Rome.


Interspersed through it all are objects that disallow the writing of easy narratives. A 2nd century BCE carved stone sphere, lopsided, is crudely incised with magical symbols and an unnamed sun-headed god. In one area sculptures disappear altogether, replaced by a group of pedestals with rough depressions for missing statues’ feet. They are inscribed in neat, square letters, perhaps about the sculptures’ donors, perhaps about the missing figures whose bodies we will never see.


The museum is true to its site. Everything on this floor is from the summit of the Acropolis, from the Archaic through late Roman and early Christian periods: a study of one place over approximately a thousand years. We normally exist in the workaday three physical dimensions of the present. But here time is the dominant dimension; when space is restricted, time unfurls backwards and forwards. We feel space-time in its fullness, uncrumpled.


Here, layer upon layer of objects confound and complicate the received story of the ancient world, for which the Parthenon is the ultimate symbol, and over which the whole Western world feels ownership. But that story was written by the Western European intellectual class between the mid-18th and early 19th centuries, a time when Greece still suffered under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire and Athens was a backwater. These men invented the contemporary notion of Classical Greece as a pure and enlightened society governed by inquiry, rationalism and good male citizenship, an idealized alternate history of Europe to which they could be the heirs, thereby legitimizing their political and intellectual positions. That is not the story in this museum.


There is one more floor. The central stair ends in a large interior atrium. From there, daylight draws one outward to the single room that occupies the entire perimeter of the floor. Uninterrupted panoramic glass walls connect the interior and exterior worlds, modern and ancient.


This floor is the same size and orientation as the Parthenon. The museum is not a tall building, but it is taller than all its neighbors, allowing for blunt and uninterrupted views of the Acropolis, the only thing higher. Above the massive fortification walls the south side of the Parthenon rises broadside against the museum, both bigger and smaller than you remember it.


Facing outward toward the glass and the city beyond, the metopes hang overhead in simple bays punctuated by steel columns at intervals corresponding to the Parthenon’s marble ones. Below and behind them, inset into the atrium’s exterior wall, the frieze encircles the gallery. The fragmented pedimental sculptures perch on steel armatures. Every piece is placed according to its original orientation. The Centauromacy metopes face south. The riders of the frieze gallop eastward along the south and north faces, and action turns around corners. The pedimental sculptures crown the eastern and western ends. All now face the same shifting light that they did for two thousand years before their removal.


The original marbles still in Greece are installed with casts of the missing pieces. Together, the casts and marbles present a complete picture. Collated from museums around Europe, each replica piece of the frieze, metopes, and pedimental sculptures is labeled with the archive number from the institution which holds the original (most notoriously the British Museum, but pieces are also in the Louvre and the Vatican). The missing originals are traced and the outside institutions held accountable to visitors. Each cast fragment is meticulously installed with separate custom hardware. When the originals return they simply need to be popped into place.


The sun set while I was on the top floor. The sky turned to marbled slate. Suddenly the Parthenon was spotlit, bright yellow on deep blue. As the daylight failed, and it became brighter inside the museum than out, the function of the panoramic glass walls shifted. Before, they erased the visual boundary between interior and exterior, seamlessly connecting sculpture and landscape. Now the glass reflected those sculptures, creating a double vision.


Looking out the east, west, and south windows of the top floor, the marbles hover above the modern city at night, over the bright shop windows, streetlights, and passing cars of Plaka and Koukaki. The east pediment sculptures perch on tchotchke shops and apartment buildings on Makrigianni. The brightness of the reflected sculptures blocks swaths of the city from view. My dark silhouette and those of the other visitors are caught in a third plane between, obstructing the reflected interior’s projection outward, allowing the cityscape to re-emerge through our shadows.


But from the north windows of the museum, the illuminated Parthenon is an oblong moon, always the brightest thing in the sky. The frieze and metopes project onto the glass, blanketing the Acropolis with their relief. Everything is projected on one plane, out of scale. Here, the Parthenon and its marbles are reunited every night: repatriation through reflection.


The light was dim, my camera was cheap, and I’m not a very good photographer. But here it is.


                                                                    Allyson Vieira