An exhibition organised by King’s College, London in partnership with the Musee de l’Art Classique de Mougins, The Classical Now challenges its visitors to think about the status and role of the art of Greece and Rome in the contemporary cultural imagination. It is an insightful and ambitious show, thoughtfully organised and thought-provoking.
Spread over two of King’s locations on the Strand, the exhibition is best entered by the displays dubbed its ‘overture’ in Bush House. Here, you find etchings from Picasso’s ‘Vollard Suite’, sculptures by Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn, and Edward Allington’s 1987 work ‘Victory Boxed’ – in which the ‘Winged Victory of Samothrace’ is reduced in size and replicated multiple times in ranks of blue and yellow figurines. Taken outside of its setting in the Louvre and looking more like a trinket found in a museum gift shop, we are reminded both of how recongisable Classical art is, and how our culture has sometimes tended towards a packaging of its complexity to serve our own needs. The success of the exhibition, though, is in its capacity to make the viewer think through this process again, and in doing so to open up new areas for discussion. If we affirm the continued relevance of the Classical, we may need to question what we want it to mean.
Alongside those works in Bush House the visitor can pull up a chair and enter into the video installation ‘Liquid Antiquity’: a series of video interviews with artists discussing their own usage of Classicism as a resource for the present. The consensus view, one might say, is that artists today are as intrigued by the Classical past as artists have always been: far from being a sign of a backwards glance in their own work, it is more often a way of unlocking ideas for future innovation, a near-limitless repository of ideas and narratives that can be re-imagined for other ages than their original ones and lose nothing in the process. Damien Hirst’s 2013 golden head of Medusa startles the viewer with its blend of aesthetic beauty and horror, but as readers of Mary Beard’s recent book Women and Power may recall, Medusa herself is a Classical figure more recently recycled by supporters of Donald Trump to represent the ‘danger’ posed by the ostensibly Gorgon-like Hillary Clinton. Hirst’s work predates the rancourous 2016 US election campaign, but the echoes seem to bounce back off his shining artwork, reminding us that the Classical is never wholly free from what our own age seeks to make of and with it.
Across the Strand, in the Inigo Rooms of Somerset House, thematic displays on the nature of ‘place’, on the importance of ‘myth’ and, in the final room, on the idea of a Classical ‘pose’ and a corresponding view of the human body, guide the viewer through a series of interactions and engagements between antiquity and the present. Statue heads, mosaics, and funerary urns are complemented by modern sculptures, paintings, and video work. Whether pushing the material into areas wholly modern (Mark Wallinger’s video piece Prometheus, for example, recasts the titan’s eternal punishment as a man forever strapped in an electric chair and undergoing repeated ‘executions’) or simply responding in kind to the issues posed by the originals, we see modern artists probing their Classical indebtedness and, at the same, time, looking closely at themselves and the times in which they are working.
In an exhibition so carefully curated it might seem counter-productive to single out a representative work or artist, but for me the most thought-provoking content was from Christodoulos Panayiotou whose work looks, at first glance, to have come down from Antiquity only, upon closer inspection, to reveal its contemporary essence. In his 2015 fragments (the works displayed in the exhibition are called ‘74.51.2474’ and ‘74.51.25870’ respectively) we are scrutinising blocks of limestone, the broken appearance of which suggests pieces from long-destroyed statues or buildings. They are, it transpires, nothing of the sort: blocks, rather, selected and worked specifically to look like the pieces of the past that they themselves are not. Their numeric titles employ the cataloguing system in use at New York’s Metropolitan Museum to label antiquities, but they only become part of a Classical past if our imagination assumes that their current state is indicative of their having once been something else. In another part of the exhibition, though, there is something even more unsettling. The 2013 work Untitled sees Panayiotou constructing a wall mosaic from brown, black, white, and gold tesserae. There is no discernible pattern, although within the exhibition the design finds a correlative in a 1st century Roman design in an adjacent room, but we learn that these modern tesserae are themselves copies of ancient originals found in Syria before the outbreak of the civil war there. It doesn’t come from Palmyra, but it could easily have done and if it did its survival in a museum would be interwoven with the story of how its original location is ruined again by the recent fighting over its remains. Thus, the ancient past – and its fragmentary survival in the face of destruction – confronts the visitor of 21st century London with a reminder of why we can never escape our fascination with it. Its survival and/or ruin is, uncomfortably, a reminder of our own.
‘The Classical Now’ is at King’s College, London, until 28th April. For more information visit: http://modernclassicisms.com/exhibition-2/