Contemporary works of art shine light on the past

Once an object enters a museum’s collection it becomes a part of history. Yet museum acquisitions were not originally made for the purpose of being displayed and examined from the distance of an historical perspective. They were integrated into people’s lives and were understood not necessarily through the intellect but in a more experiential, direct way. The installations that Costas Varotsos has designed for different spots throughout the exhibition halls of the Benaki Museum and for the courtyard of the Benaki Museum’s Pireos Street annex bring back something of that lost vitality of museum objects by pairing a select number of them with contemporary art which acts as visual cues. In the project «Future Seen through the Past,» curated by Charis Kanellopoulou, Varotsos creates imaginative associations and fosters a sense of cultural continuity that is firmly rooted in the past as well as looking forward to the future. Most of the art is meant to arouse the senses. In «Feast,» the artist has placed glass vessels in an early 19th century wooden press from northern Greece and filled them with wine. The scent of alcohol brings to mind images of rural life and connects the cauldrons and wine presses on display with their original function. In the same room, the video image of the surface of the sea as it glitters under the light is projected on a 19th century drawing of a Greek vessel. The visual effect of a floating boat enlivens the past and brings about a fairy-tale sense of magic. The most exciting video projection has been placed in the two «period rooms» of the Benaki Museum that reconstitute the mid-18th century interiors of northern Greek mansions. In each interior, Varotsos has combined light and video to create a ghostly hovering presence. Other works are more conceptual. The rock-like glass formations that appear underneath the small opening of a wooden, hand-painted trunk from 19th century Northern Epirus may be taken as a sad reminder of life’s ephemeral quality. It is likely that they symbolize the earth to which our treasured personal possessions we keep for posterity will all return. Another example is a wire construction placed in front of an Attic grave stele. The intersecting lines of the construction are probably meant as an abstract rendition of the axes that define the sculptural composition of the ancient Greek stele. Blending contemporary art with the past can be a risky task, yet Varotsos has pulled it off with skill and discretion. Arranged in a way that avoids distracting one’s attention from the original artifacts, his installations evince respect for the past but also suggest a concern with making this past more interesting and familiar to the contemporary viewer. «Costas Varotsos: Future Seen through the Past» at the Benaki Museum (1 Koumbari, 210.367.1000) through June 3. On Thursdays, the museum is open until midnight.

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