Chance at Sculptural Freedom

Although it appears to be going from bad to worse, that is, that the British Museum (BM) is in apparent negotiations with other institutions to loan them their captive Parthenon Sculptures, I suggest that this can be seen as a positive move for the campaign to reunify the sculptures in Athens.

Letting the sculptures out for the world to see might be just the catalyst for other peoples and other countries to connect with their plight. It affords a wonderful opportunity for people to ask questions about their history and their current bondage. They might start to question the legitimacy of the BM’s continued possession. They might start to raise their voices and add them to the ever-growing global campaign for unification in Athens. These peoples might see into the agalma and hear an inner voice. They will engage in their own aisthesis and connect with, not only a general aesthetics, but with the politics of aesthetics and the poetry of emancipation that is spoken through the sculptures.

What’s the alternative, that the Parthenon Sculptures remain incarcerated in the BM, kept like a dirty secret in their mausoleum, or as Nikos Kazantzakis noted in his otherwise anglophile travelogue of 1939, “In her sooty vials, London stores these marble monuments of the gods, just as some unsmiling Puritan might store in the depths of his memory some past erotic moment, blissful and ecstatic sin.” What’s the alternative, that we say to the BM, no, keep them interred in gallery 18? That we acquiesce to their peonage, forever working under their master’s whip?

To be clear, I do not advocate for the legitimacy of lending the Parthenon Sculptures in some permanent to and fro. Nor that these proposed loans be an example that the Acropolis Museum should ever welcome. Nor either to the acceptance of any claim for the sculptures to remain in, or beholden to, the BM. Quite the opposite. I advocate for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures to the Acropolis Museum now, and in full. I am aware of the fragility of the sculptures and the risk of damage involved in any travel. The question of whether potential damage is a limit to any travel, or a necessary risk for emancipation, is one that needs further attention. Yet the BM has decided that it’s time for touring; for a regime of loans and its accompanying narrative. There is really only one journey the sculptures need to make.

The point is that I expect that any loans regime will be, of itself, short lived – that it will bring about a change in the attitude for those that, a) learn of these proposals today, b) come into direct contact with the sculptures, c) can rehabilitate the BM’s position, and, d) see that this loans regime is likely to never get off the ground at all, given the challenges it faces. I suggest that we exploit the opening, this crack in the edifice, that the loans propose. I imagine that the loans regime will have a short life and a natural end, and that the approach to this limit will escalate the reunification to Athens.

Of course the BM has contradicted itself regarding objects that are ‘never to be loaned.’ Why the change? Of course there is hubris in the BM dispensing favours with things that belong elsewhere. Will the sculptures forever travel in clandestine security operations, as Ilissos did to the State Hermitage? (Imagine the sculptures in hyper-security vans…then imagine them in the light, space and dialogue of Athens…) Of course the power-narrative of the BM becomes more illegitimate with time. Of course these proposed loans might be dangled in front of the Acropolis Museum as a temptation to submit to such a regime. Of course there is the risk that such a global travelling parade becomes the norm; the sculptures as stateless but yoked. There might also be the inevitable apology to the world for a just a little damage in their cartage. Of course the BM will perceive this flaunting of the sculptures as a legitimacy for their claim. Of course the BM can do as it likes, despite its mandate to the public. Of course we will hear tales of neo-enlightenment, ‘of the world for the world’. Yet, and here is the central thread – might the BM have noticed its umbilicus? The BM has for some time now been decrying its inseparability to the sculptures – is it time to cut the cord, as every cord must? I would commend the BM for what looks like an attempt to understand its addiction to these sculptures. I suggest that these loans hint at a possible subconscious urge by the BM to free the sculptures. I think we can encourage this maturation.

Let the sculptures out to see the sky, to hear other voices, to smell other lands – let them dream of liberation and of their home. For though they will be freed only temporarily from their incarceration, they will be wiser for their journey, as will we. And if the chorus of wise voices rises? If Ilissos swells it into a turbulence? Then there is the chance for a break. A chance for a new global engagement, a chance for a new story. It is risky for all, but risk is itself a chance at freedom.

 

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Ilissos to the Hermitage

British Museum loans the Parthenon Scuplture of Ilissos to the Hermitage

For the first time since their Enlightenment abduction, one of the children of Pheidias has been allowed out of bondage to glimpse the outside world. Ilissos, the river god, has been temporarily freed from the British museum and allowed to travel to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. He has been given a gift, allowed to witness the world outside his vault. Although he’s only really travelled from one institution to another (an inter-asylum temporary sleep-over), and is likely to experience those familiar feelings of alienation in Russia as in England, he nonetheless is the first of his kin to step outside the centuries of confinement in the British museum.

The excitement lay in what he will see and experience on this journey. So far, he would’ve looked out of the bus window, possibly talking with strangers, even asking about his home in Athens. I imagine Ilissos to be starry-eyed, in awe at the wonder of the world he will glimpse, and the brief freedom he will taste. He, a river god, to get his feet wet, to bring his mesmerising Socratic idyll to St. Petersburg. Regardless of how the Russians treat him, and I’m sure he will be absolutely adored by them, sadly, this trip can only end in the return to his enlightenment bondage. Will the god weep?

Unless…this brief jaunt in the world will want to make him break from his alienation and yearn for emancipation. Will he seek asylum in Russia? Will he plot from this distance the liberation of his siblings? Will he feel pangs to see his homeland again? Will the Russians listen to his story, deeply moved, and be the agents of his liberation?

We must applaud his keepers for the risk they take in allowing Ilissos out…Enjoy Russia Ilissos. And if I learn of your escape from there, and hear your mournful homesick murmurings in the flow of the Merri Creek, I too will sing a song to struggle.