Issue 59 Summer 2009
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'Let the Stones Speak!'
One day in the early nineties, I was passing through the life room at Newport School of Art when I noticed some plaster casts leaning against a wall. I recognised them as copies (many times removed) of the frieze that once ran round the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis in Athens. Installed for students to work from, the casts were now largely ignored, though at some point they had been painted in garish colours.
A few years later, the School moved to a new steel and glass building; the fragments of the frieze were repainted white and installed between the beams (notches had to be cut to accommodate a couple of heads). Somehow, they seemed to fit.
The original marble frieze was of course taken from the Acropolis by the British Ambassador, Lord Elgin, in the early years of the nineteenth century. Its removal has been controversial ever since, but for the moment it resides in the British Museum. The 'Elgin Marbles', as the Parthenon sculptures came to be called, had an enormous effect on public taste and many casts and copies were made at the time.
After that initial encounter, I started to wonder how many other versions of the frieze there were and where they were situated. I discovered a few in books and articles about the arrival of marbles in London. Others I came across by serendipity, sometimes just by walking into a building and looking up. Some I visited several times before the light was good or a bus passed at the right moment. Some required negotiation to gain access and an effort to make the most of what I found on that one opportunity.
A number of pictorial tactics established themselves early on as central. From the very first photo in the life room, I knew the images had to be in colour in order to convey as much culturally specific information as possible. And I also decided that they should be photographed frontally, centering on the frieze itself, to retain a classical sense of symmetry (even if this sometimes meant leaving out of frame some fascinating detail).
These pictures examine the way that the stones have changed their meaning as they have changed location from Athens to London; from London to Liverpool, Cambridge and Bristol. The range of buildings where they are to be found is significant; museums, monuments, civic buildings, country houses and art schools predominate. But I have also found them in some unexpected places, the seafront at Blackpool and a back garden in Cardiff among them.
'Saxa loquuntur!' ('Let the stones speak!'). With this phrase, Sigmund Freud invoked the ruination of the ancient world as a metaphor for the layering of the human unconscious. At the same time, though, one might say that the history of culture specifically, the history of architecture has its own unconscious.
By considering the place of the Parthenon marbles within a British context, one can start to unpick something of this hidden history, which turns out to be complex and contradictory. The actions of Lord Elgin have variously been regarded as salvage and as vandalism, while the place that the marbles came to occupy in British culture can be seen as either a homage to Hellenism or an Imperial takeover of it.
However one reads that history, it may now seem that our contemporary culture has lost the connection with the classical world that for so long was crucial in sustaining Western civilization. Yet we still live with the relics of Classicism our cities and landscapes filled with buildings and sculptures reworking ancient models invented in a different culture (and one might add, a different climate).
Frieze is another chapter in my ongoing fascination with this presence, which was also explored in two earlier projects: Civitas, commissioned by Southampton City Art Gallery in 1989, and Caryatid, shown in Thessaloniki, Cardiff and London in 1995-8. Through these different projects, I have explored what happens to this Mediterranean style when it is transplanted to northern Europe. The process is usually hardly noticed, so deeply have classical values influenced our sensibilities. But once one starts to observe more closely, its presence can seem uncanny, rather out of place. It belongs and it does not belong (and it's there that these pictures might connect with my enduring interest in the surrealism of our everyday environment).
Such a project must always remain unfinished and there are more examples out there than I can ever find and photograph. But new research tools have provided an additional impetus and Google and Flickr (though they require a good deal of wading through) have revealed more places to visit. I know that I need to go to photograph friezes in Macclesfield, Edinburgh, Eton and Cork. There is also a further European dimension that has only been touched on. Maybe (who knows) I may eventually get to record the examples I now know of in Montreal, Seattle and Nashville. And other suggestions are always welcome, for collective memory surely consists of lots of individual memories.
Where the actual Parthenon marbles should be located today remains a fraught question, and of course it is a question that hovers behind this work. But it is by examining the contradictory impulses of the past that we might better understand where we are now.
Other articles by Ian Walker:
Other articles on photography from the 'Institutional' category ▸