A different approach to history

The rare collection of archaeological artifacts owned by the Museum of Cycladic Art traces the course of prehistoric Greece in a chronological, linear fashion. The display moves from one period to the next in a way that assumes succession and continuity. In «Her(his)story,» an exhibition of contemporary video art which just opened on the museum’s premises and is curated by Marina Fokidis, the intention is to offer a completely different understanding of history. The exhibition includes works by 21 international and Greek artists, most of them well-known names in the art establishment. (Victor Alimpiev, Cory Arcangel, Paolo Canevari, Douglas Gordon, Rodney Graham, Garry Hill, Isaac Julien, Peter Land, Annika Larsson, Aernout Mik, Toni Oursler, Oliver Pietsch, Anri Sala, Zineb Sedira, the Atlas Group, Charis Epameinonda, Lina Theodorou, DeAnna Maganias, Miltos Manetas, Angelos Plessas and Yorgos Sapountzis. More artists are included in the exhibition’s second part which will open in early September). In the accompanying catalog, Fokidis writes that the main idea of the exhibition «was to present – at a museum which visitors think of as the inner sanctum of our archaeological roots – works which trigger our interest about multiplicity and our perception of the concept of ‘historical truth’ through a variety of solitary journeys towards the understanding of oneself within this world. Its aim was to contribute to the broader debate about the subjective development of ‘History…’» In that same essay, Fokidis adopts the well-known argument of how history develops in a non-linear fashion, of history not as grand narrative but as constructed by interpretations and a variety of different, personal stories. References to Foucault, among other thinkers, are used to analyze the idea of a fragmented reality that replaces an absolute truth. Fokidis makes an attempt to analyze an intricate, philosophical debate and raises issues that spark one’s curiosity for further reading. Yet, the concept – even in this general outline that the curator has presented – does not come through via the actual exhibition in a forceful and direct manner. This is why looking for proof of an a priori intellectual construct is probably the wrong frame of mind to visit «Her(his)tory.» The exhibition is better enjoyed when approached in a more relaxed, open way. One of the exhibition’s strong points is that it sensitizes the viewer to the notion of time. Video art in itself has that temporal quality (unlike static imagery, it unfolds in time) but the fact that the works are placed in an exhibition space connected with history is also part of the overall effect. Another strong point is the actual arrangement of the works throughout the museum’s premises. The spot that has been chosen for each work has been carefully thought out and the outcome succeeds in bringing out not only aspects of each work but also of the museum’s holdings. An example is DeAnna Maganias’s video «Say Goodbye to the Monkeys,» which shows the image of a gorilla eating inside his cage and uses the crying sound of a young girl as an acoustic background. The screen that projects the work is positioned outside the glass corridor that links the museum’s two buildings. The choice of that particular spot enhances the play between the spectator and the object of his gaze and blurs the concept of inside and outside, making one feel both in the position of the caged animal and the voyeur, the victimizer and the victim. A large screen that shows «Nemesis,» a video by Cypriot artist Charis Epameinonda that plays with double imagery, is placed diagonally in the stairwell of the museum’s Megaron Stathatos building. This unusual positioning offers a view that, especially when seen from the top of the staircase, is quite impressive. «Her(his)tory» should also be noted for including some wonderful works. «Saphir,» a work by Zineb Sedira, a French artist born to Algerian immigrants, is a poetic contemplation on issues of identity, immigration and memory. Set in the area around the port of Algiers, the story told in this double-screen projection features a solitary man who wanders along the harbor and looks out toward the sea and a woman in a hotel that dates from the colonial rule of Algeria, who also also looks out at the port from the room of her hotel. The images unravel slowly, showing minimal movement and zooming on the protagonists’ facial expressions. Atmospheric in mood, the work puts across a feeling that is caught between entrapment and escape. An emotional tension is also the mood in «Summer Lightings,» a video by Russian artist Victor Alimpiev in which the nervous, noisy movement that young schoolgirls make by tapping their fingers on their desks is suddenly interrupted by silent, closeup images of their facial expressions. The work combines a feeling of menace with the tenderness and innocence of youth. Video art can be tiring and at times unpleasant to follow, yet in this particular exhibition, it is most likely that one will find himself watching most of the works from beginning to end and leaving the exhibition with a feeling of gratification. The fact that the exhibition is held in a museum that holds archaeological artifacts adds to the positive experience. Although the idea is to distinguish between a traditional and a more contemporary way of perceiving history, one does not necessarily obtain a sense of rupture but rather the warm feeling that usually emerges when the contemporary is seen in relationship with the past. «Her(his)tory,» at the Museum of Cycladic Art (4 Neophytou Douka, 210.722.8321) through 29/9. The second part of the exhibition will open in early September.

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