Η Αθήνα, μια μητρόπολη (Athens, a metropolis)

THE Parthenon! © Darryl Smith.

This past month I have been a literal sponge soaking up all the culture, language, food, and art in the beautiful city of Athens (yes, hi from Athens sorry I have been MIA). I don’t even know where to begin! Well…to start things off, I am here for another residency called Athena Standards Residency, and I must say this entire month-long experience has been a blast. This residency really is about community building and fostering great relationships as much as it is about creating work in the studio. And I thankfully had the opportunity to leave Athens a couple of times to travel to 2 islands and twice to the ancient theatre of Epidaurus!

While in Athens, I visited the Acropolis because obviously and I heard a tour guide explain the etymology of the word “metropolis”. It comes from the Greek words “mother”, μητέρα (mitera), and “city”, πόλις (polis). Once I heard this explanation, all I could think about was the symbolic mother-and-child relationship and what that meant for me being in this city with the art that I make. Athens, for me, is a mother-city–it gave birth to all of my artistic inspirations and this entire month it has nurtured me. It has been absolutely extraordinary to come to this country to listen to the language and see that the art continues to exist in situ within a contemporary setting.

And that is essentially what fascinated me this month. One of the founders of this residency asked me why I wanted to be in Athens and whether it was because I loved Ancient Greece so much to the point where I may have had a preconceived notion about this city. Let’s just say that he was glad to hear that I didn’t think that the city was covered in marble (almost true actually), or people spoke Ancient Greek in the streets…it’s 2019. This time is contemporary, and so what I really wanted to see was how this ancient culture manifests itself in today’s Athenian society, or whether the ancient history and culture are no longer relevant in Athens. The questions I often asked myself before coming to Greece were: “Do Greeks today still like Ancient Greek theatre?”, “Are Greeks still moved by their ancient history?”, “Do contemporary Greek artists still reference Ancient Greek art?”, “Is there a good amount of contemporary Greek artists who work in realism?”, “Does the landscape of Greece play a part in the Greek mindset?”

The Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus. © Darryl Smith.

Though I am nowhere near being an expert, after being here for a month, I think the answer may be yes to everything. Within a couple days of being in Athens I was told about the Theater Festival held at various ancient theaters in and around Athens, with the main theatre being in Epidaurus, a town about 2 hours by car from Athens. I saw two beautiful tragedies by my favorite playwright Euripides, The Suppliants and Iphigeneia in Aulis, and it felt like going to the movies but more dramatic because the play started at sundown. And then talking to Greeks about their favorite islands was also another magical experience because each person had their own favorite island. Paros, Mykonos, Patmos, Antiparos, no matter who I talked to, I always got a different answer. One Greek artist told me that each island is like a tiny world with the chora being the center.

Temple of Isis in the Archaeological Site on Delos. © Darryl Smith.

One island I went to was Delos, an uninhabited island, where there is a famous archaeological site that pretty much takes up the entire island. Delos, in mythology, is the birthplace of Artemis and her twin brother Apollo, so seeing these temples, and sculptures, and just existing in time on that island was a truly inspirational experience. Delos was particularly interesting because there was, for the first time, a contemporary sculptor, Antony Gormley, who exhibited works within the archaeological site. This exhibition called SIGHT was extremely influential on my own philosophy and artwork. I was talking to one of the guards on the island, half in English and half in Greek, about the fact that I was excited to see these two exhibitions exist together in the same space. The guard, then, started to talk to me about both the mythological and historical importance of Delos while also giving his own personal and spiritual connection to the island (he was actually the second person to tell me his spiritual connection to the island).

Every little moment in this city really exemplified the fact that so many cultures and worlds coexist in Athens. Assisi was, more or less, similar in the fact that the common piazza was right above the ancient Roman forum of Asisium, but Athens was a huge extreme. Unlike the layout of Assisi, the contemporary city of Athens, from what I have seen, does not seem to be built on top of the ancient city of Athens. In other words, the ancient city, the Byzantine empire, and the metropolitan hustle-and-bustle of Athens have found their home in the same area. An example (and there are many) of this is when I went to the ancient cemetery in Kerameikos, there was a church right outside of the site which also overlooked a busy street with cars and large, modern buildings. Or taking the metro that goes through the ancient Athenian agora which is right by the Monastiraki flea market.

And I can’t forget about the art. THE ART! Wow. The contemporary art in this city has a special place in my heart. I have never felt a strong connection to an artistic hub such as the one I found in Athens. Whether the work was completely figurative or completely abstract, there is a certain energy here in the arts that I definitely connect with. I appreciate that I didn’t need paragraphs of text to aid me or persuade me to feel a certain way about any work of art I have seen in the galleries or streets around the city. The feelings were very raw, very human, and also touched on other deeper psychological concerns regarding time, life and death, subjectivity and objectivity, and beauty. I feel I got a good taste of the art scene here and I definitely want to interact and be a part of it in any way I can! Check out the gallery of images at the end of this post!

One of the studies I made during the Athena Standards Residency. Study for the drawing “Σαρπηδών” (Sarpedon), part of the ongoing series based off of red-figure vase paintings, silverpoint and gouache on paper, 2019. © Darryl Smith.

An old professor of mine once told me, after looking at the white spaces in my drawings, that my figures would probably be situated best in the landscape of ancient Roman ruins. I feel like Athens is the proper place for my figures. The word “ruins” for me implies a land that is barren. But here in Athens, every part of the land is still very much alive. Το ξέρω πως θα γυρίσω στην Αθήνα σύντομα!

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