ATHENS — How do you define your national identity? Adrián Villar Rojas‘s new installation/intervention, “The Theater of Disappearance” (2017) at the National Observatory of Athens seems to ask just that, prompting thoughts about what the soil beneath our feet contains and represents, and how far we should dive into the depths of our own past.
The Greeks have a very deep past to dive into, of course. To stand on this land is to stand within the cradle of Western civilization. History lives here in plain sight. The National Observatory is no exception; situated on the Hill of the Nymphs, it has an unrivaled view of the Acropolis. I am informed that it is difficult to build on or excavate this land, in case anything precious in the soil is disturbed. As the installation’s commissioner, NEON director Elina Kountouri, states in the exhibition catalogue, establishing the observatory in 1842 was fiercely opposed. It was argued that any digging would “disrupt the tranquility and the architectural purity” of the hill. Thus, Greek people lay their identity in earth that remains loaded with the debris of past events. Who should have authority to excavate it, I wonder: any of the archaeologists, politicians, or astronomers who have previously made their mark here, or an artist like the Argentinian-born Villar Rojas?
An additional subtext to “The Theater of Disappearance” is Greece’s current national debt. Athens is a city that reveres its past, yet fears for its future. Meanwhile the other, concurrent large-scale art exhibition set in Athens, documenta 14, has been heavily criticized. Complaints leveled against “Crapumenta” include calling out the insensitivity of hosting an expensive festival in a place where residents are suffering financially, plus their initial underrepresentation of Greek artists. Villar Rojas is brave for questioning the foundations of national identity in the midst of this crisis.
Essentially, Villar Rojas’s “Theater” manifests itself in three ways: a large-scale landscaping of the observatory gardens, a complete re-staging of the observatory’s interior, which is now a museum, and a transformation of wasteland at the back of the building into what can only be described as a dystopian, outdoor museum. Villar Rojas developed it over a four-month period, with the assistance of a large crew sourced locally and from his studio in Argentina.
Upon entry, I was surprised to encounter a lush vegetable garden. Athens is arid at this time of year; yet, plump, fleshy stalks of corn tower over beds of artichokes, pumpkins, and asparagus. The original gardens have “disappeared,” replaced by 46,000 edible plants. Yet he hasn’t dug directly into the earth. Instead, a meticulously planned second level of soil sits on raised, irrigated beds. He spent at least two months clearing out dead trunks and leaves in preparation. Would the importance of this process of transforming a fiercely protected heritage site into a “theater” of food production be understood as acutely in any other city?
On the very top of the hill, the observatory’s dome gleams in the sunlight. Inside, it is church-like: cool, very dark, and soundproofed by heavy grey curtains covering every wall and window. Again, some of the original archive has disappeared, edited down to a spare selection of objects placed carefully in each room — one large telescope, a case of books, a clock. By peeping through a slim gap in the drapes, you can see the nearby Pantheon — a Greek emblem and a grand backdrop that clearly indicates the locale. Villar Rojas is stage dressing. In the foyer, a plaster white, 3D-printed model of the observatory as it was in 1842 reminds visitors of the rocky hill it used to sit on before any landscaping — an origin story, if you will. Villar Rojas is directing our attention to what he wants us to see, albeit things from the past that were already there, but now beheld in sharper focus.
Onwards, and I’m instructed by an assistant to follow a winding path around the back of the building. The terrain suddenly becomes sandier and more precarious — where am I heading? I start to see glass vitrines, embedded at impossible angles on a steep outcrop. Various objects are preserved behind the glass: the Curiosity Mars Rover, guns from the Falkland Islands war, medals from the Ottoman Turkish Empire, iPod wires, charred bones, tattered flags, a graffitied statue of what looks like the goddess Nike. The relics are placed on top of and within layers of pink and terracotta archaeological stratification, as if just unearthed. The work manages to be culturally sensitive and incendiary at the same time, bringing together familiar echoes from the past — like mythology — and rather more grubby ones that we’d rather forget — the Falklands, for example, which saw 649 Argentinian soldiers and 255 British soldiers die over just 74 days in the early 1980s.
The overall effect of “The Theater of Disappearance” — the changed gardens, bare museum and somber vitrines — is initially bewildering. Yet the longer you spend on this hill, the more that Villar Rojas’s piece prompts you to consider history, autonomy, and identity. Yes, this is already a site of historical importance, but the artist has directed our focus to questions about what is chosen to be preserved, and why the references made — to the Space Race, recent armed conflict, defunct technology, and dead soldiers — imply man’s aggression, and how selective we can be in deciding which histories to cherish.
For example, one vitrine contains a deflated replica of Neil Armstrong’s space suit, Ottoman military emblems, and a layer of moon dust: there’s a footprint in the dust, and one plastic bag of seeds signifying man’s colonization of the moon. Colonization is embedded in the Greeks’ development — they founded outposts from Italy to North Africa, and were themselves under Turkish rule for 400 years. Theirs is a saga of magnificent achievement, and also of failure and death. The Greeks, says Villar Rojas in a public talk later that evening, have a dual history of being colonists and refugees. He paraphrases an anthropologist: “When we dig, we find the enemy.” When we dig, we also decide what ancestral experiences are significant to our personal and national identity — important enough to conserve. My impression of Greece’s history, from this exhibition, is one that is as complicated and contentious as my own British one. There are things that lie within my country’s soil — cultural artifacts, gold, bones, blood — that symbolize both pride and shame. I can relate.
I also get the impression that “The Theater of Disappearance” is unresolved. It is one of four exhibitions sharing the same title, showing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (April 14–October 29), Kunsthaus Bregenz, Vorarlberg, Austria (May 6–August 27), and the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, Los Angeles (October 22–February 26, 2018). Seen together, these theaters might give more insight into Villar Rojas’s views on history, autonomy, and identity. In short, this artist hasn’t finished digging yet.