‘Anti-monuments are not erected to honour ‘great men’ but to honour the great power encapsulated in small moments’
Interview by Argyro Mpozoni
Art historian, exhibitions and event curator and collaborator of the City of Athens Culture, Sports and Youth Organisation (OPANDA), Christoforos Marinos is behind the open-air group exhibition ‘Unhappy Monuments’, running between 10 and 20 October at Parko Eleftherias.
Drawing inspiration from iconoclast Marcel Duschamp’s pivotal work ‘Unhappy Readymade’ (1919), Marinos invited 14 of the 45 artists selected by ARTWORKS for the 2019 Stavros Niarchos Foundation Artist Fellowship Program to tackle the notion of the anti-monument. If ordinary monuments exude permanence, monumentality and reverentiality, an anti-monument is ephemeral, fragile and does not actively seek out the attention of the viewer whose participation, however, is often one of its prerequisites. The artworks suggested by the artists enter in conversation with the character and aesthetic identity of the park, which is a favourite spot for Athenians looking for respite or entertainment. The exhibition ‘Unhappy Moments’ aspires to stage encounters with a rather unfamiliar type of monument and create the feeling of a chance discovery in the course of a leisurely walk.
As someone with a keen interest in the city and its aesthetic, social and political identity, Christoforos Marinos talked to us about the ways in which we connect to Athens and its monuments and about the extent of our familiarity with the contemporary artworks that already form part of the Athenian landscape.
The issue of monuments, public art and statues is at the moment very topical all around the world, especially as concerns their symbolism but also the influence they bear on our reading of history. I would, therefore, like to know your opinion on the subject of Athenian statues and also ask to what extent you think we connect to these monuments and public art in general.
Athens is full of monuments — ancient, Medieval, Byzantine, modern and contemporary. There is an overabundance of monuments. The city itself is a monument. Whether we like it or not, consciously or unconsciously, we create bonds with the monuments of the city. The question is to understand how much, how but also why this happens. Are monuments and statues a source of pleasure? I believe very few among them are joyful. Monuments dedicated to love or happiness are scarce. The majority commemorates, or tries to dissimulate, victims and a lot of blood shed. They are linked to violence, trauma, mourning, faith, intolerance, vanity and, more than anything, power. On the other hand, there are people for whom Athenian statues provide a kind of refuge, soothing the soul and having an uplifting effect on the spirit. In addition, statues serve as time capsules through which we can travel back in time, connect with our history and with well or little known stories about the city we live in. Finally, let us not forget that one of the monument’s main functions is to bring people together, as was made manifest by the emotional response, on an international level, to the fire that destroyed the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Οn the other side of the spectrum, as we also witnessed recently, a monument erected to honour a colonialist oppressor can ignite the fury of the people — who, in that case too, came together on account of the existence of a monument, although for the exact opposite reasons.
Athens has statues that can cater for every taste, some of which are, in actual fact, copies. In other words, we are invited to admire statues that are replicas, which is interesting in its own right. However, the dialogue between statues, monuments and sculpture installations forming a network within the public space, but also a web of narratives and mental trajectories, is probably the most interesting thing about public art. For example, as you stand outside Zappeion Megaron contemplating Lord Byron’s charming statue, a horse-mounting Alexander the Great riding just across enters your visual field. In my eyes, the pedestal designed by architect Pantelis Nikolakopoulos for Yannis Pappas’ sculpture resonates with American minimalist sculpture and could -strange as this might sound-stand as an artwork in its own right. This combination of figuration and abstraction gives great energy to the sculpture. Heading down towards Syngrou Avenue, you will first meet Nikos Alexiou’s sculpture To Peplo tis Amalias (Amalia’s Veil) at the Athens Gate Hotel before you arrive at Achilleas’ Apergis imposing Skales (Ladders) in Palaio Faliro and Nella Golanta’s sculptured quay in Flisvos marina. In my opinion, these three works are the most important public space artworks currently on display in Athens.
Athens is in no position to boast over its contemporary public artworks. Οnly a handful among them are noteworthy. As far as contemporary monuments are concerned, I would distinguish Dimitris Pikioni’s intervention at the Filopappou Hill. Furthermore, DeAnna Magania’s Holocaust Memorial on Ermou street is a sound and complete proposal, and one of the few contemporary monuments that truly worthy of attention. Every time I walk by the Rizari Park I am happy to be stepping on David Harding’s Desire Lines, a path carved by the artist in 2017 as part of documenta 14, with references to Beckett and the uprooted populations of the world. The work’s title provides an excellent account both of our relationship with the city’s public art and of the way in which we connect with the monuments and artworks displayed in the public space. This connection, as I understand it, cannot but be of a personal nature.
You have selected 14 artists to reflect on the notion of the anti-monument, as inspired by Duschamp’s readymades. Could you tell me a bit more about this idea and about the materials the artists chose to use, shape and transform?
I chose 14 out of the 45, in total, artists who were chosen to participate in the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Artist Fellowship Program in 2019. Among the 14 contributing artists, there were some whose practice had already crossed paths with the ideas of monumentality and the public space or had previously produced sculptural installations. Initially, the exhibition was scheduled to take place at the Stavros Niarchos Park during the Summer Nostos Festival. Unfortunately, however, the latter was canceled on account of the pandemic. As soon as I took up duties as OPANDA’s curator, I immediately decided to include ‘Unhappy Monuments’ to our programming. Besides, one of the goals we have set at OPANDA is to create synergies with other cultural bodies. I discussed my idea with Eleni Chronopoulou, head of the Municipality’s Department of Museums, Collections and Cultural Spaced. She was the one who suggested Parko Eleftherias, which turned out to be an excellent choice.
The idea of the anti-monument emerged in response to the constrains posed by the transitory nature of an artwork installed in the public space. We know that the reactions of the people and the weather conditions are factors that cannot be predicted in advance: artworks can be destroyed or fall subject to vandalism. In addition, the very character of the park imposes further constraints, as any intervention needs to be discrete so as not to alter its identity. While contemplating, then, different ways through which an artwork could circumvent all these constraints, I arrived to the anti-monument, that is, the idea of an ephemeral artwork that does not lay claim to the permanence, grandiosity or prestige ordinarily associated with monuments. The anti-monument is a gesture whose implications are of a more symbolic and enigmatic nature, as was also the case for Marchel Duchamp’s Unhappy Readymade (1919). A monument of this kind may be humble, funny, discrete, even invisible. It may also be performative and actively invite an interaction with the viewers. Why shouldn’t a monument take the form of a performance, a sound installation or a participatory, interactive work?
The materials the 14 participating artists chose are varied -visitors will encounter sculptures made out of ceramic, concrete, marble, and even stone from the island of Nisyros. Nonetheless, in an exhibition like this, dealing with anti-monuments, the material is not the main protagonist. Here, the concept behind the work is key.
What definition could we give today to the concept of an anti-monument and what could a construct like this be reminiscent of, its transitory nature notwithstanding?
The anti-monument is not a recent invention. It bears close links to conceptual art and to artists such as Hans Haacke and Jochen Gerz. For me, the key feature of the anti-monument is that it embraces chance and makes an ally of it. It goes against the idea of the spectacle and occasionally against the institutions. Anti-monuments are not erected to honour ‘great men’ but to honour the great power encapsulated in small moments. The anti-monument stands critically against the world, often while mobilising irony. As opposed to monuments glorifying national ideals and ideologies, the anti-monument focuses on everyday relations and life in the public domain. In this sense, what we are dealing with is an artwork falling within the domain of ‘relational aesthetics’, to revisit the term coined by Nicolas Bourriaud.
In our days, could an anti-monument be viewed as a monument? Are there any examples to this effect?
Any counter-proposal has also a positive content. The same holds true for the anti-monument. Even if its nature is to be transient, it can still be imprinted in our conscience. Vlassis Kaniari’s sculptural installation In Glory (1993) is a very good example of this. This work, presenting bags of concrete wrapped in Greek flags, is the anti-monument par excellence. As far as I am concerned, the fact that I don’t get the chance to see it every day doesn’t change my experience of it. The effect it had on me when I first lay eyes on it on Omonoia Square in 2011, was very powerful and, as it turned out, long-lasting. Furthermore, as this mesmerising anti-mounument relies a lot more on concept than it does on matter, it is completely immune to vandalism and extreme weather conditions. The bags filled with concrete and the Greek flags are readymade materials, and can therefore easily be replaced by others. In Glory is here for all eternity.
In the public space, what do you believe more easily captures the viewer’s attention when it comes to art? A piece that is impressive, surprising or one that invites interaction and thus familiarizes the viewer with the notion of modern art?
Monuments are made to grab the passerby’s attention but in the end they achieve just the opposite. In 1927, Robert Musil wrote an excellent text precisely to this effect, where he argues that the most extraordinary thing about monuments is that people don’t even notice them! ‘Everything permanent immediately ceases to be impressive,’ Musil writes, and goes on to suggest that monuments are ‘retrograde’ artworks.
A monument or a modern artwork intended to be permanently installed in the public space needs to reflect its own time first and foremost. In most cases, the work comes to respond to a certain need or collective demand. Both the form and the subject of the work are pivotal for its reception. For example, a monument in honour of Zak Costopoulos, the queer activist killed in central Athens while in police custody, would be undoubtedly popular and capture people’s interest. But would it also be visually modern? This, perhaps, is the challenge here: monuments need to be also visually interesting and executed by talented contemporary artists.
How familiarised is the Athenian public with contemporary art? What do you think are the elements that could make us get used to something we do not necessarily understand? In other words, what do you think needs to be done for public art, be it ephemeral or permanent, to become part of our everyday life?
Athens is full of ugly, artless statues that definitely merit to be studied for the liberating effect they have on people. In other words, it would be ill-advised to treat these works with snobbery or disregard their unfamiliar existence. Undoubtedly, the artworks in the Athens metro stations helped Athenians get used to the idea of seeing contemporary art in public spaces. Nikos Kessanli’s work The Queue (1999–2000) at Omonoia station is, in my opinion, the one best serving this purpose. Its strategic positioning at the passenger transfer level helps passersby understand it better. The work is part of a series called ‘Phantasmagoria of identity’. I believe this is perfectly suited for this bustling and transitory space, this melting pot where thousands of people of many different, no less, nationalities, rub shoulders with each other on a daily basis. Kessanli’s Queue does not impose its presence on the passerby. You can choose to notice or ignore it. The human shadows in the work serve as reminders of our ephemeral existence, presenting life as a shadow theatre. Whether we know it or not, public art is part of our every life.
Open-air group exhibition ‘Unhappy Monuments’ | October 10–20 | Parko Eleftherias
The exhibition was organised jointly by the City of Athens Culture, Sports and Youth Organisation (OPANDA) and ARTWORKS and sponsored by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF).
Participating artists: Panagiotis Vorrias, Theodoros Giannakis, Appolonas Glykas, Anastasia Douka, Spiros Kokkonis, Katerina Komianou, Karolina Krasouli, Konstantinos Kotsis, Virginia Mastrogiannaki, Aggeliki Bozou, Margarita Bofiliou, Maria Nikiforaki, Marina Papadaki, and Maria Tsagkari.
ARTWORKS is a nonprofit organization exclusively supported by its founding donor, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. Our aim is to create a fertile and nurturing environment for Greek artists through funding and public engagement opportunities. You can always learn more about our Fellows at www.art-works.gr
*The interview was initially published in Greek at ελculture.