Winter 2015–2016

Artist Project / Wor(th)ship

Ad hoc spaces of devotion in Athens; introduction by George Prochnik

Tassos Vrettos

We’ve seen the repertoire of gestures and expressions in the news: the hands reaching out and upward; faces clenched in hope and anguish, or wreathed in bliss upon the assumption of arrival; bodies pressed to firm ground; the beleaguered, yearning fervor. Dense throngs and solitary individuals, motionless; masses blurred in urgent movement. All the varieties of waiting and expectancy—the panoply of attitudes that people muster in hope of relief, admission, and some ultimate embrace, all under the threat of expulsion. These are migrant populations—refugees and persons otherwise displaced from their homelands, often in extremis, in the original Latin sense of being “at the farthest reaches.”

Only, we will almost certainly not have witnessed these sorts of gestures in conjunction with so much color. Lavenders, pinks, reds, greens, and golds strung in lights, gathered in folds of fabric, and blazing from flowers, carpets, flags, painted walls, artworks, and ceremonial dress. For the migration represented here reflects a different order of journey: between this world and the next, or between distinct states of spiritual illumination, rather than between nation-states and disparate geopolitical fates. The aesthetic grace manifest in many of these tableaux indicates the degree to which the passage itself has here become the axis of ritual devotion. Indeed, we might suggest that if there is a common feature to this constellation of images, it’s the way that the condition of being “in migration” is precisely what confers, and demarcates, holiness. Rather than the familiar case of a photographer aestheticizing subjects he determines to be exotic, what we see here in Tassos Vrettos’s images are scenes that have been intensely aestheticized by the subjects themselves, in opposition to straitened circumstances and in anticipation of acquiring sanctuary in some still-distant home. The makers of these spaces have intentionally rendered them exotic, in a manner jibing with the word’s root definition: “belonging to another country.” Not this confinement, then, but that plenitude. Not here and now, but there and for eternity.

Ancient Greek temples were conceived to enshrine images of the gods, not to cater to the physical aspect of humankind. The harmonies of the external forms themselves embodied divine attributes. More consequential than its interior spaces was the temple’s careful positioning in relation to surrounding landscape features that resonated with the god to whom a given sanctuary was dedicated—blocks of marble constellating with bodies of water, groves, and mountainsides. The Homeric hymn invoking “well-founded Earth, mother of all, eldest of all beings” connotes a sequential elaboration of faith in which, as the art historian Vincent Scully once noted, temples appear belatedly, in part as responses to elements of the natural setting that carried precedence as loci for worship. Herman Melville’s four-line lyric summary of Greek architecture conveys this pattern: “Not magnitude, nor lavishness / But Form, the Site; / Not innovating willfulness / But reverence for the archetype.”

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