Visit to Altes Museum, Berlin

Outside the Altes Museum, Berlin, 15 June 2012. Photo: Ben Pestell
Outside the Altes Museum, Berlin, 15 June 2012. Photo: Ben Pestell

The Altes Museum now holds the Greek Art collection recently relocated from the Pergamonmuseum. The building has an imposing approach from the south end of Museuminsel to the Lustgarten, but obscured by a peculiar modern blue structure. On the way, I passed what appeared to be an archaeological dig in a building site. History, modernity, and transition fill the air today. Room 1 in the Altes Museum contains about a dozen hoplite helmets of differing design, and I paused to imagine real heads inside them. There is a great collection of vases: mythological, erotic, humorous. Hermes’ phallus – and the bird perching on it – has to be seen to be believed. In the museum’s Greek Vases book, this vase is brought under the heading ‘Everyday life’. I liked the vomiting symposiast too (‘A small naked boy holds his slightly balding head’). And upstairs, in the Etruscan and Roman art galleries, I was on the look-out for characters from I Claudius; Augustus didn’t look much like Brian Blessed. A small room on this floor contains the garten der lüste, much of which was hidden from public view until only a few decades ago. The most baffling items here must surely be the phalluses which themselves have genitalia. There is fun to be had in the Rotunda in the centre of the museum. Here a host of sculptures of significant gods is arranged in a circle, and I indulged my childishness weaving around these divinities.

Visit to Acropolis Museum

Acropolis Museum, 18 May 2012

View of Acropolis and Museum from Lykavitós
View of Acropolis and Museum from Lykavitós, May 2012
Moschophoros (calf-bearer), c. 570 BC.
Moschophoros (calf-bearer), c. 570 BC. Photo: Acropolis Museum.

The forecourt of the beautiful Acropolis Museum is suspended over the remains of ancient buildings, so it imparts a sense of great historical significance before we even enter the building. Visitors follow a path through a sequence of galleries, beginning with the Gallery of the Slopes of the Acropolis, which itself gently slopes upwards. At the top of the slope is the staggeringly rich Archaic Gallery. Here are the remains of the archaic Parthenon, and all that was buried after the burning of the Acropolis by the Persians in 480 BC. The main room contains many korai and other votive offerings; I particularly liked the Μοσχοφόρος (calf-bearer, c. 570 BC) – a man carrying a content-looking calf to sacrifice: it reminded me of Picasso’s L’Homme au mouton, but a very different style. Picasso’s lamb was sketched, then cast in bronze in 1943 in occupied Paris. The archaic calf is the very image of the assenting sacrifice victim, an implicit blessing of the rite that will see its death. The war-time lamb is an image of struggle, dissent, and anguish, but the construction of the two sculptures reaches across the centuries to each other.

Picasso, L’Homme au mouton, 1943 (Picasso Museum, Paris).
Picasso, L’Homme au mouton, 1943 (Picasso Museum, Paris). Photo: March 2008

The museum route then leads to the Parthenon Gallery, but before encountering the frieze, metopes and pediment sculptures, we are encouraged to watch a short film about the Parthenon (it was nice to sit down, too). The texts in the gallery and the commentary in the film do not mince words when discussing Elgin and ‘his crew’. Upon entering the Parthenon Gallery proper, the reason behind the sniping language is clear. The museum is designed so that the angle of the top floor is parallel with the Acropolis itself, and is glass from about three feet from the floor to the very high ceiling. Visitors are thus encouraged to observe the Parthenon through the great windows, and then turn around to see the sculptures. It is an undoubtedly powerful experience. Duplicates of the British Museum’s collection are pointedly flagged up; some remains are also in the Louvre, and one or two other places. When I first heard about the new Acropolis Museum, and how part of the intention was to ‘shame’ the British Museum into returning the Parthenon Sculptures that it keeps, I thought that such an emotional appeal was a whimsical idea. Once, when I voiced this opinion, I was mocked for preserving a stereotypical British John Bull mentality, but I countered that it was purely sentimental to hope for the re-unification of all the surviving pieces. On my last visit to the British Museum, in April 2011, I had been persuaded to support the sculptures’ retention in London. The ‘Elgin Marbles’ are a part of the world’s shared history, and the British Museum – relic of Empire as it is – should not be compelled to whitewash the sins of the past, but should be encouraged to present the nation’s plunder in as unbiased a manner possible in a state-funded institution. The portion in London tells the story not only of the Greek collective genius, but of the accidents, follies and arguments of the intervening two and a half thousand years. This was my reasoning: that to attempt to recreate a fixed point in the past risks wiping the history – however regrettable or dispicable – of the intervening time. The Acropolis Museum completely reversed that attitude: it presents the sculptures so perfectly in its context that it indeed puts the British Museum’s Parthenon gallery to shame. But there are two levels of argument: the rational or political argument is the one that the British Museum deploys, and, in its documents and public statements, it ties complex legal and pedantic knots. What fails to be acknowledged in public often enough is the real threat of the precedent that the return of the Parthenon sculptures would set. If the British Museum returned everything it has acquired by dubious or dishonourable means (aware of the anachronism of applying today’s standards to historical transactions), it would be largely empty. Art should not attempt to join rational arguments, though – it need only appeal to emotions: something that the present Athens museum does amply.

Dionysos: cast on the east pediment of the Parthenon; cast in Acropolis Museum; original in British Museum. Photo: Ben Pestell, 2012.
Dionysos: cast on the east pediment of the Parthenon; cast in Acropolis Museum; original in British Museum. Photo and collage: Ben Pestell, 2012.

Situationists at the Aquarium

The S.I. and After: What is Living and What is Dead in the Situationist International.
The Aquarium, 10 Woburn Walk, London WC1H 0JL
1-31 August 2003 (visited 27 August)

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Chalked on the doorstep of The Aquarium was the legend: ‘Nostalgia Stops Here’. This was a good sign: stepping over the threshold of a gallery which is excavating an organization that aimed to transform the individual’s experience of society should be seen as entering a new world. A world, or even a couple of rooms, without nostalgia in a land obsessed with it is no small aspiration, and displays an awareness of the problems in disinterring the artefacts of a movement which officially ceased to exist more than thirty years ago. Hence the exhibition’s subtitle: ‘What is Living and What is Dead in the Situationist International’; it is not a question, and there is a didactic element to the exhibition – ‘here we explain what matters and what does not matter’ – an attribute shared with many of the original S.I. texts.

Like many who were born or came of age after the late nineteen-seventies, and who came to the S.I. not through academia, I first became aware of them through Punk. I was in my teens when Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming was first published, and reading it at that age, I was more concerned with the human drama of Sid Vicious’s demise than the broader political and intellectual background to the music, although some elements were ineluctably appealing. And while I became vaguely conversant with the ideas of the Situationists through England’s Dreaming, it was not until my punk reading took me to Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces that my mind was irrevocably opened. Reading Marcus’s book in conjunction with the accompanying album was revelatory. I had imagined that I would be reading another fairly straightforward history of the Sex Pistols and was impressed by the sleight of hand by which Marcus referred across time to the S.I. and to Dada. It was Dada which struck me first with the descriptions in the book and the sounds on the record. Phonetic poetry revealed to me a form of vocal or written expression reduced to its most basic component. The radical possibilities of art had never before been clearer to me. Through the post-Dada Lettrists, it seemed to me that the S.I. was able to theorise this radicalism.

In the evening of the day that I visited the Aquarium, there was to be a talk on King Mob, which I had half intended to attend, but — in tribute to Debord, of course — I was too busy drinking to make my way back there. That same night I also missed the Crass Collective evening at the Vortex in Stoke Newington where they were, among other Dada-inspired events, reciting Hugo Ball’s Karawane. I abstained from this event for the same reason, aided by the fact that it the entry fee was £7 (see forthcoming broadside, ‘the gentrification of radicalism: punk’s not dead, it just lives in Hampstead’). I wonder if there were any other Punk/Dada/S.I. events occurring that same evening that I have also quite clearly missed. I occasionally think that one’s diary can best be filled by detailing all the things that were not done, especially those missed opportunities that should have been a pleasure.

Appropriately enough, information about the Aquarium exhibition was not easy to find: an A6 flyer taped to the window in nearby Skoob Books, a very small article printed in a free magazine called Nude, no mention in Time Out. Before I visited the gallery, I found its website. Aside from the perfunctory descriptions of the exhibits and events, it contains notes to the exhibition and ‘The Opening Address: TOWARDS A NEW CRITIQUE OF MODERN CAPITALISM’. These articles attempt to replicate the confrontational and allusive style of the pieces written for Internationale Situationniste. ‘The Situationist International is DEAD and the grieving is over. It is imperative for us to come to terms with this reality and to move on.’ To have to state this in 2003 suggests an extraordinarily long period of mourning. Why are we still in thrall to this ghost? What, indeed, is living in the Situationist International? The Aquarium address continues, ‘Guy Debord once said that the Situationist International would be superseded. He welcomed the idea! It is thus important for everyone who visits The Aquarium to try and contribute in this direction. Nostalgic positions will be met by the Silence of the Sea.’

The accompanying web page, ‘Notes On These Events: WHAT IS LIVING AND WHAT IS DEAD IN THE SITUATIONIST INTERNATIONAL’ also pilfers freely and wittily from Debord’s style of détournement, or, should I say it recuperates the corpse of the S.I. for the ironic amusement of urban gallery visitors? Here is a sample warning:

WE FEEL IT IS OUR DUTY TO WARN ANY CIVIC MINDED PROVO CYCLISTS TO MAKE SURE THEIR BICYCLES ARE SECURELY LOCKED AS OUR ELITE GROUP OF ART HISTORIANS WILL BE PATROLLING THE GALLERY OUTSKIRTS IN SEARCH OF DUCHAMP MEMORABILIA.

This is followed by a statement of putting theory into practice:

We will also be seeking to offer diversion from the poverty of our organizational skills by instigating investigations into detournement, psychogeography (people will be dropped off in areas of London, or if we don’t like them Dartmoor, to track down the cheapest bottle of absinthe). At the end of each evening a derive will be organised for those wishing to participate. (Those who are still sober or who can guarantee to find their way to the 73 bus stop in Euston please contact the organisers who have participated in this particular derive on numerous occasions).

This is, of course, just a bit of fun, but if the concept of dérive depends upon being led to the 73 bus stop at Euston to get home, then it takes on the character of a particularly uncommitted historical re-enactment society, and hardly scares off nostalgia.

In the gallery itself, there are amusing insults directed towards such S.I. heirs as Stuart Home and Malcolm Imrie, scattered among détourned art, or, rather, bits of The Guardian that have been written on. One such extract derides renowned S.I. translator Ken Knabb for translating Dérive as Dérive, preferring ‘drift’ and conjugations thereof. Exhibit captions are bilingual: English and Welsh; but the most exciting exhibits are not even to be looked at. This is not directly the fault of the gallery, but is in accordance with the wishes of the collector who supplied them. I understand the curators’ obligation to honour the wishes of the donor, but there is a sense of failure and missing the point in a pristine copy of Asger Jorn and Guy Debord’s Mémoires. This book was famously housed in a sandpaper jacket: a gesture of violence towards other books on the shelf. The copy in the exhibition had seemingly never so much as scratched another book. Downstairs, a small television continuously broadcast the bootleg video of Debord’s film of La Société du spectacle. But here it competed with unrelated artefacts, and I confess to being distracted by a copy of Mark E. Smith’s English-German Fall lyrics book.

So did nostalgia stop? Was it greeted by the Coleridgean Silence of the Sea? Or are such hopes met instead by Baudelaire’s laughing ocean? Was it a celebration of the living or just a belated wake? It quickly became apparent that the exhibition was only a small part of the Aquarium’s contribution to life. A great pile of empty beer cans was stacked in a corner, dedicated to Debord. It may contribute to a romantic, and adolescent revolutionary ideal, but the debris from previous revels also indicates where the exhibit takes off: in the inebriated socialising that occurs around the evening presentations. As such, by failing to attend any of these, I understand that I only witnessed half of the exhibition. What is dead are the pristine editions locked away in the cabinet, what is living are the possibilities which may haunt us beyond the life of the exhibition.