Andreas Angelidakis mixes classical ruins, nightclubs and the gay scene to explore Athens ancient and modern in his show at the Espace Niemeyer in Paris
Andreas Angelidakis’s Center for the Critical Appreciation of Antiquity is quite unlike any study centre I’ve been to. Assorted large soft blocks resembling parts of ruined classical columns are strewn all around like some sort of classically themed soft play, while disco music, disco lights, dry ice and a video projection set the night club ambience. Giant books in the form of chairs tell stories about the gay scene in late twentieth century Athens. And that’s just for starters.
Commissioned by Audemars Piguet Contemporary, this immersive artwork is Angelidakis’ largest installation to date. It would be a lot to take in even without its amazing setting of Paris’s Espace Niemeyer, designed by Oscar Niemeyer as the French Communist Party Headquarters, and now also an events and exhibition venue.
Athens-born Angelidakis qualified as an architect after studying in California but has mainly worked as an artist, ‘using my architectural tools in a slightly different context’.
He was delighted when Audemars Piguet Contemporary suggested the Espace Niemeyer, a building he already admired as ‘a science fiction version of a future that never came’. It adds, he says, another layer to what is an already complex installation, which he conceives as a social space where people can sit around, relax and immerse themselves fully.
This latest work is both playful and serious, and continues Angelidakis’s interest in ancient and contemporary ruins in society. Given carte blanche to do what he liked within the domed conference room venue, Angelidakis didn’t hold back in his exploration of how Greek culture, both that of antiquity and of more recent times, is consumed today. This involves him metaphorically excavating not only the ruins, but, he says, himself as well.
A recurring theme is consideration of who controls the narrative, starting with archaeologists and their presentation of the ruins of antiquity. Although archaeology is often presented as scientific, it can be, considers Angelidakis, more of a story-led ‘branding exercise’.
A key spring point of this dazzling concoction was Angelidakis’ fascination with the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, a colossal structure in the centre of Athens begun in the sixth century BC, but abandoned mid-construction. It had, says Angelidakis, in effect been ‘cancelled’ after a political shift from the rule of tyrants to democracy led to it being deemed too hubristic. The temple was finished many centuries later under Hadrian in the second century AD, but soon fell into ruin, with much of its stone repurposed for other building projects.
A 19th century photograph shown at large scale in the exhibition captures the temple around the time archaeologists began studying the site, which subsequently became a popular visitor destination. Through his extensive research, Angelidakis discovered how archaeologists began influencing the narrative of their site. Photos cropped out the existence of a shelter on top of the few remaining columns, occupied for many years by a stylite (from the Greek word for pillar). Stylites were ascetics who stood on a column in isolation as a demonstration of their religious devotion, their height allowing them to get closer to God. The stylite’s off-brand addition was also removed from the ruins.
Angelidakis’ installation delights in making this visible again, but with a few twists. He has constructed a scaffolding tower beneath the apex of the dome. On this hangs a printed fabric image of a single monumental column, while a structure at the top indicates the stylite’s abode. Every few minutes, dry ice puffs out to indicate he’s in residence. But there’s more. Mattress-like foam pads from the same family of soft ruins strewn elsewhere in the installation are in the process of being dragged up the scaffolding – the stylite is, explains the artist, planning to make things a bit more comfy. And then at the back, there’s a bright yellow construction waste chute – a nod, says Angelidakis, to the controversial flood of Airbnb-inspired refurbs in the city. During the original temple’s interrupted construction, the order of columns changed from the original Doric to Corinthian; here, Angelidalkis changes it to Ionic and says the chute could be called a new ‘Airbnb order’.
Another soft-sided structure in the space is a nod to the temporary huts typically found on active archaeology sites. Inside is a mini-exhibition of five small, 3D printed stylite figures on plinths – a reference to souvenir shops at these sites. Angelidakis has had fun here. One is wearing an ionic capital as wacky, and quite fetching, trunks. Another wears it around his shoulders, another as VR goggles. Pride of place goes to the stylite who is now merging into the column itself and becoming stone. These also have a starring role in the installation’s large video projection, in which Angelidakis muses on contemporary experiences of isolation, meditation and AI, including how social media algorithms respond to how we behave, and how in turn our lives are influenced by them.
Angelidakis is interested in other readings of Athens beyond those defined by its antiquities. As a young man, he knew the Temple of Olympian Zeus ruins as a gay cruising area, but was aware that his experience of the city was very different to that of his parents. At the same time, he became fascinated with the appropriation of classical themes in the décor of gay clubs and drag. This installation celebrates this through its nightclub vibe, with visitors encourage to sit and interact with the classically themed soft furniture. They can also read the personal stories on the book-armchairs, which bring this scene vividly to life at a time when it was very much outside mainstream society, in sharp contrast to classical times. These are shown printed against a background of archaeological pamphlets collected by Angelidakis when a student. Klaus Nomi’s melancholy take on the disco anthem I Feel Love further sets the tone for what Angelidakis calls a ‘disco-archaeological memory excavation site’.
He considers the installation to be open-ended rather than finished, and is pleased when visitors get stuck in and reconfigure the soft furniture. People have apparently been spending a long time inside, encouraged no doubt by both the very comfy seating, and because there is an awful lot to take in. Angelidakis hopes they enjoy the space, and will perhaps start ‘excavating’ some of the subject matter within it.
‘I’m sharing my curiosity. If they receive some of that curiosity and if it somehow translates, then I’m super-happy,’ he says.
Some of the many intersecting elements in this heady ensemble are easier to grasp than others. But it’s enjoyably stimulating, and will certainly get you thinking about Athens in a new light, both in times past and more recently, and much more besides. Combined with the extraordinary venue, it’s something of a winner.
Andreas Angelidakis, Center for the Critical Appreciation of Antiquity, until 30 October 2022, Espace Niemeyer, 2 Pl. du Colonel Fabien, 75019, Paris, France
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