Occupying a space two basements deep in the underbelly of the National Conservatory, the museum’s lodgings were always meant to be a temporary home. In the cavernous hull that lay under the inclines of the concert hall, gypsum boards were used to carve out more intimate viewing space, like make-do sleeping quarters in a vast cellar. It is not so much a white cube as a bunker surrounded by earth.
It is one of my favorite spaces in the city. I am drawn to the rawness of the dimly lit, hulking void, with its exposed concrete ceiling and heating ducts, which were never an architectural statement but a matter of expediency. Perhaps I like it most because it was never widely loved. I can usually expect to share it with only a handful of other visitors.
By the end of this year if all goes well (the anticipated opening has been at least twice postponed), the National Museum of Contemporary Art will have taken up new quarters in a renovated brewery a few stops from the center of Athens. Hyped by the media blitz of publicity that will no doubt precede its inauguration, the pristine airy space of the new museum building will soon draw many times over the visitors the current space attracts. I should be happy that so many will make the effort to see art they would otherwise never seek out, and for the sake of the artists, I am. But I will miss the old building.
To mark its departure, the museum has mounted a retrospective exhibition of works by artist and architect Andreas Angelidakis. Entitled “Every End is a Beginning” and curated by the artist himself, the show is a fitting choice. In his video animations, installations and miniature 3-D printed bricolage houses of (real and digital) found objects, Angelidakis has often dealt with notions of impermanence and shelter.
And this is very much a show about leaving. I know that even before I get to the art. The entrance to the staircase leading down to the main exhibition space is arched with scaffolding; at its base a sheaf of plasterboard panels lies stacked against the wall. The space seems to be saying: “You’ve caught us at a bad time, you see, we’re moving out, but since you’re here you might as well take a look around.”
In the darkened central hall Angelidakis has set up a dozen or so packing crates, each high enough for a person to stand in, like the booth of a circus fortune teller. As I make my way across the hall, motion sensors set off spotlights that momentarily illuminate my path and then turn off, like stairway lighting on a timer. Even the light is transient in this field of steles.
We are leaving. In his video animation “Troll”, a visionary Modernist low-income housing project built in the 60s around a rare core of interior gardens, now fallen into disrepair and fed up with the neglect spreading through the city, gets up and walks away to the mountains.
The most poignant statement of leaving and loss, however, is to be found in a suite of rooms that house the artist’s visual essay on the fate of the Iolas villa.
One of the most influential art dealers of the 20th century, Alexander Iolas is perhaps best known for his pivotal role in introducing Surrealism to the United States and for organizing Andy Warhol’s first show. The catalog of artists whose work he championed and exhibited reads like an index of modern art.
The villa he built on the outskirts of Athens was intended after his death to house an art center with his collection of more than 10,000 works of art. He offered to donate the land and building to the Greek State. Fearing perhaps the political cost of accepting a bequest from an openly gay man who at the time was the victim of a vicious smear campaign by an Athens tabloid, the government declined his offer (the villa has since been listed as a national monument and the government has committed itself to acquiring it from its present owner). After his death, the villa was slowly looted, first of its precious contents of paintings and sculptures, then of its copper pipes and eventually even the wallpaper.
The room I sit in is outfitted with two chairs covered in a gold vinyl-like upholstery, a sign not only of the theatrical décor in which Iolas decorated his villa but also a symbol of its evisceration. Off to the right is an empty open crate lined with paper drapes bearing the imprint of works of the villa’s lost art, and illuminated by the light from a single orange light bulb.
I watch a video in which an invisible hand turns the water-stained yellowed pages of the gallerist’s address book. The images of the turning pages are interleaved with stills of Iolas’ vandalized villa , with its graffiti-sprayed walls and peeling ceiling, and its garden, now given over to a sprawl of vines and weeds.
The front page bears the word Repertoire. I know this is French for address book, but I think, how apt. We are in a way a theater company mounting reenactments and reinterpretations of more or less familiar works. We know the quirks and passions of the characters in each and how each will end, though if we are good friends and lovers, we will continue to discover unexplored aspects of these texts. We broaden the repertory as we change and age, retiring older works from which we can no longer squeeze any meaning or, more sadly, of which the circumstances of life have deprived us of repeat performances. We try out new ones. Of these some will find a more permanent place in our Repertoire, others will depart after a few performances.
I try to read the lines of names, but the pages skip by too quickly. Among the entries of shipping agents and insurance brokers and bankers I imagine the book contains are surely the names of the artists whose friend he was and whose work he did so much to promote: Warhol, of course, and Max Ernst and René Magritte, whom he represented in the States. Yves Klein and Joseph Cornell, and artists such as Yannis Kounelis and Takis. I wonder at first whether he had a separate book for tricks and boyfriends, as some men now have second phones but then I notice a few entries which were only a first name.
The first names and numbers at the start of each letter are written in the same ink, perhaps transferred from an earlier address book, but most have been added later. Iolas must have kept this book for decades, adding names as his acquaintances grew. Some of the entries are neatly penned in ink, others scribbled in the gauche letters of a flair pen or written in red. Some are crossed out, a deletion occasioned perhaps by death or a falling out, but if there is a history here it known only to the record-keeper.
A few names in the Repertoire have been written on a diagonal. Around a few others a box has been drawn. Some disclose only a phone number, a few look more locker combinations than a phone, like Dan’s—0705. And then on the last page, a sole entry, a number without a name: 6168.
How unlike the glossy address book on my phone. The elegantly framed entries in my own Repertoire, friends and brief affairs alike, are all set with equal billing in a crisp Helvetica Neue. There is no variety of ink, no strikethroughs, no irregularities save for the absence here and there of a last name, or the presence of a handle instead, like skinmusc and vers34, for who could distinguish one Nikos from another? Sandwiched between a dermatologist and a second cousin or languishing uncalled in the P’s or F’s, keeping company with my accountant and a locksmith, these entries are an aide-memoire to adventures past.
I’ve left them there undisturbed for years. They were not reminders for a reunion, for these men have long been retired from my repertory and I know I will never see them again. The entries were simply pointers to an earlier self, like photos pinned to a corkboard. Or driftwood washed up on shore after a storm. I haven’t decided which, though perhaps it is both.
The evidence of our memories no longer ages. Photographs never yellow. Songs are free of hisses and cracks and never skip. These perfectly preserved relics appear to be all of a single, unchanging set. It is as if all were captured, fixed and sealed on the same day.
The songs and names and pictures we now store on our phones and tablets and laptops leave no evidence of their arrival. What’s more, they will no leave no trace of their departure. Deletion is clean and easy these days. Unlike the ectomies of surgery, no scar tissue remains after excision, no sign of the destruction that lies within the root of this word delete. We need only strike a key and then one more, a perfunctory nod to the request for confirmation. And then it’s gone, without any sign of its effacement: no gaping space on the page of a photograph album, none of the mess of strikethroughs, no empty frame, no shadow on the wall.
Later that evening I sit on the tiles of my terrace under an olive tree that refuses to bear fruit. Like the museum, it is another space to which I retire in melancholy or modest happiness to do nothing more than let my mind wander. I think of Matthew, who transformed this space from an ordinary warren of tiny rooms into an airy, light-flooded loft, a new space for us and the life we would begin in our fourteenth year of marriage. A few years later he moved out. Like Angelidakis’ giant, frustrated with the stasis in which we had become mired, he got up and set off for his own mountain.
Matthew’s number remains in my address book, and we still talk on our birthdays and namedays. Sometimes as I sit here peering through the French doors into the loft I can imagine him sitting on the sofa. But I don’t ordinarily dwell on his absence.
We lose a museum, we lose a lover. Angelidakis once said a ruin is simply a building in transition. Perhaps that is true of love, as well. Perhaps all love is a ruin waiting to happen, even when we love well and true. Whether by choice or circumstance, we are bound to move.
When Sir John Soane presented his drawings for the new Bank of England building he included a perspective of the proposed structure as it might appear a thousand years later, in stately ruins as beautiful as the remnants of Antiquity. Though the last years of my relationship with Matthew were difficult, enough of the memory of joy and companionship that preceded those years have remained intact to allow me to revisit with pleasure the ruins left behind.
Featured image: Page from Alexander Iolas’ address book Repertoire, from Andreas Angeladikis’ video Phonebook.
More information on Andreas Angelidakis and his work can be found on the artist’s site and blog. See, too, his arresting manifesto on the contemporary ruin.The exhibition at the National Museum of Contemporary Art runs to September 7th.