Thirty four Artists Flying Over the Abyss at the Athens Conservatoire
To enter the exhibition Flying Over Abyss one has to descend the stairs that lead to the first basement – closed and unfinished for four decades and now refurbished and uncovered for the needs of the exhibition– of the Athens Conservatoire. An emblematic building that is among the supreme expressions of the radical modern spirit of Bauhaus and was designed by the architect and professor Ioannis Despotopoulos, who studied under Walter Gropius in Weimar.
The exhibition organized by NEON –the nonprofit organization founded in 2013 by collector and entrepreneur Dimitris Daskalopoulos- reflects upon the panhuman, fundamental philosophical issues of birth, death and the space in between – “the luminous interval life” as Nikos Kazantzakis, the important Greek writer and philosopher, names it in his book The Saviors of God, which is the exhibition’s epicenter and source of inspiration.
This is the first time that the manuscript of The Saviors of God is presented along side an exhibition. We read Kazantzakis words from the book’s prologue:
“We come from a dark abyss, we end in a dark abyss, and we call the luminous interval life. As soon as we are born the return begins, at once the setting forth and the coming back; we die in every moment. Because of this many have cried out: The goal of life is death! But as soon as we are born we begin the struggle to create, to compose, to turn matter into life; we are born in every moment. Because of this many have cried out: The goal of ephemeral life is immortality! In the temporary living organism these two streams collide: (a) the ascent toward composition, toward life, toward immortality: (b) the descent toward decomposition, toward matter, toward death. Both streams well up from the depths of primordial essence. Life startles us at first; it seems somewhat beyond the law, somewhat contrary to nature, somewhat like a transitory counteraction to the dark eternal fountains; but deeper down we feel that Life is itself without beginning, an indestructible force of the Universe. Otherwise, from where did that superhuman strength come which hurls us from the unborn to the born and gives us – plants, animals, men – courage for the struggle? But both opposing forces are holy. It is our duty, therefore, to grasp that vision which can embrace and harmonize these two enormous, timeless, and indestructible forces, and with this vision to modulate our thinking and our action.”
The brilliantly orchestrated excerpts from Kazantzakis’ manuscript and works of 34 international and Greek contemporary artists by the two exhibition’s curators, Dimitris Paleocrassas and Maria Marangou, are settled into Five Rooms: Room1- Genesis/Trauma, Room2 – Life Struggle: An Affirmation, Room3 – Creativity into Eternity, Room 4 Touching The Other, Room 5 – Return to the Abyss; this is also the root that the visitor is advised but not obliged to follow.
There is a sixth Room where a site-specific, sound installation is presented under the title Passage through the Abyss (it is a commissioned work by NEON to Giorgos Koumendakis and Stavros Gasparatos).
Through this bittersweet flight over the abyss visitors are driven to recall and contemplate over personal memories, experiences, feelings, fears. They encounter artists that address issues of identity, gender and mortality through quite powerful works like the ones that unfold traces of Louise Bourgeois’ (The Birth, 2007) and Hans Bellmer’s (La Demi-Poupée, 1972) traumatic childhood and Marina Abramović’ s (Cleaning the Mirror #1, 1995), Aliki Palaska’s (Breathing Space, 2015) and Kiki Smiths’s (Untitled, 1980-2) struggle with the human condition.
Alongside, Ioanna Pantazopoulou’s R.E. Reconfigured Etiquette, 2012, the violently shuttered dinner table captures the creative force struggling to turn matter into life, ephemeral life into art. That in this struggle we humans have each other and that we ought to fight for that “other” as well as for our selves, Savvas Christodoulides’ (Ladders Joined Together, 2012) and Bruce Nauman’s (Untitled/Hand Group, 1997) works refer to; “Love man because you are he” says Kazantzakis.
Is this a fight in vain? Maro Michalakakos seems to wonder through her Happy Days (Oh Les Beaux Jours, 2012) the juxtaposition of two mountains of shaved velvet next to each other – the two mountains are yearning to lean over and touch each other but sadly are frozen in their rock solid state.
An L-shaped corridor leads visitors to the Room5/Return to the Abyss. As we enter the room, Mark Wallinger’s Threshold to the Kingdom –“a compelling visual metaphor on mortality”– stands right before us and literary dominates the space and the senses. We read in the exhibition’s leaflet: “In a strange twist of conspiracy theory meets serendipity, the soundtrack is Gregorio Allegri’s (1582-1652) Miserere, which for years has been performed in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week. The Same Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo painted the famous ceiling, a detail of which is on the cover of the edition of The Saviors of God, surely all this is not a coincidence”.
One work however best captivates Kazantzakis’ spirit and seems to be the soul of the exhibition: the emblematic large scale installation by Vlassis Caniaris, that urban marginalized angel ready to jump of his wooden swing, ready to fly over the abyss at The Big Swing, 1974.
The exhibition FLYING OVER THE ABYSS by NEON at the Athens Conservatoire will last until the 29 of January 2017.
 Kazantzakis, Nikos. The Saviors of God. Spiritual Exercises. Trans. Kimon Friar. New York: Touchstone / Simon and Schuster, 1960.