Tag Archives: ancient Greece

Jinks @ the Hellenic Museum

The shock and awe of encountering the goddess Iris, apparently in the flesh. Not that the woman with golden wings is delivering a message, her usual role. Installed in a darkened room in front of a large pool reflecting like a mirror. Why is Iris pouring a jug? Nectar for the gods to drink or water from the River Styx to swear by? Or simply watering the clouds for rain?

Sam Jinks, Iris

Imagine if you were an ancient Greek and encountered Sam Jinks life-sized statue of Iris in a temple. Jinks is a Melbourne-based, super-realist sculptor. The ancient use of polychromatic paints on statues, ivory eyes, gold leaf, and other elements that have been largely destroyed by time. There are even reports of animatronic sculptures in temples in ancient Greece. We have been taught to forget all the colour looking at the white marble remains. And the unpainted white marble has become a racist symbol of ‘civilisation’.

However, there were no temples to Iris, a minor divine figure, a servant of the Olympian gods, sent to deliver a handful of messages, to collect water, and pour drinks. Some say that she the mother of Eros, others that Iris carried the young Nemean lion in her girdle from the sea to the mountains. Her appearance on the Parthenon is her most glorious moment; a running woman, her light linen chiton rippling with the movement.

Why show a messenger in a contemplative and static pose? Was it just an excuse to make a winged woman? These questions beat like the wings of Iris, rattling like wings of pigeons, around the quiet galleries of the Hellenic Museum. Why? Was it just an excuse?

The Hellenic Museum in Melbourne is an odd mix between art, antiquities, history and cultural exhibitions. It describes itself as “inspiring a passion for Greek history, art and culture”. It is also located in Melbourne’s old mint, which, apart from its Neo-classical facade, has nothing to do with Hellenic culture. The old mint is an attractive nineteenth-century building with an impressive walk-in vault, as you might expect to find in a mint.

Jinks is not the only artist with an exhibition at the Hellenic Museum. In front of the building, there is Renegades, a street-art/graffiti-inspired installation out the front of the building by a Spanish urban artist, PichiAvo. Inside, along with Iris, there is a photography installation by Bill Henson, Oneiroi, in an attractive dark nineteenth-century room. However, the photographs of Greek landscapes and backs of women’s heads were bland and uninspiring. As well as a room of contemporary icon paintings. There was also a room of contemporary icon paintings.

Most of the Hellenic Museum is not art but exhibitions of archaic Greek and ancient Greek antiquities: pottery, jewellery, statues, marble carving, helmets and weapons. There are even some Roman marble carving and enough red-figure vases to satisfy most people’s interest. The rest of the exhibitions are about modern Greek history and culture, much of it donated by the local community members. These are focused on establishing the modern Greek nation with folk costumes, jewellery, pistols and other antiques.

One curious feature of the Hellenic Museum was that there no signs in Greek. After visiting many antiquities museums in Greece that had signs in English, it felt odd. They would be of no use to me, but as Melbourne has one of the largest Greek-speaking population of any city in the world, they would be helpful to some people. For all the talk of multi-cultural Australia, there is almost no public paid signs anywhere in languages other than English.

Historic Graffiti

Although the rest of Athens and other parts of Greece are covered in tags and graffiti the practice of writing or scratching your name on ancient Greek or Roman monuments has past. It has declined since the mid-1960s. Sgraffiti of historic significance can still be found on many buildings in Greece. The letters scratched into the marble might be more legible than current taggers but it is still tagging.

There is the sgraffiti scratched into the marble by the 18th and 19th century English lords and gentlemen on their grand tours. Lord Byron, young British architects and their companions exploring classical Greek architecture carved their name on the marble remains of the major temples in Greece. There is a block of marble, preserving a good example of this sgraffiti for the future, in the small museum at the temple of Aphaia on Agenia.

Historic tagging on ancient Greek marble

There is the sgraffiti scratched by WWII British Navy crew: “BAM 44 ETON 11” in the back of a Greek Church on Agenia. It appears to be is from the BAM class Area Minesweepers in use by the British in the eastern Med in 1941-45. The AM class minesweeper was given the prefix B to designate British when they were on loan through the US lend lease for the duration of WWII. The connection with the Eton 11 cricket team is something for the WWII history buffs.

WWII tagging?

And what about the tourists who did it in the 1960s and 70s that will soon become antique?

Not yet antique tagging

These and many other examples of sgraffiti are different from the defacement of statues carried out by the barbarian Christians, who actively sought to destroy ancient Greek sculpture. The sgraffiti just tagging, in a relatively harmless way, like the kid writing his tag on a wall. Antique tourist sgraffiti in Greece amounts to the one of the least damaging human actions that these ancient buildings have suffered over the centuries. It is insubstantial compared to the damage by war and deliberate damage by Christians and Muslims.

The historic significance of the sgraffiti on ancient Greek and Roman ruins raises new questions about the claim that permission is the difference between the difference between graffiti and street art. (And Lord Elgin had permission, from then owners, to take the marble frieze from the Parthenon. But did the Ottomans have permission to damage ancient Greek sculpture just because they had won a war?) What happens to the discourse when we are talking about street art, history and permission?

These examples are just discussing historically significant tagging in Greece. There is antique and historically significant sgraffiti and graffiti in many parts of the world. The whole point of tagging is to mark your presence at a location and people have been doing that for centuries. There was controversy over the preservation of graffiti by Soviet troops in the Reichstag.

Of course, with the vast numbers of modern tourists, like myself, visiting these antique ruins, this unrestricted tagging had to stop. Along with the increased numbers of modern tourists came new attitudes towards tagging and new levels of preservation and security were added for the antiquities. The end of the sgraffiti will mark a distinct historical period on these buildings; further adding to the historic value of what sgraffiti survives.

I first mentioned historic graffiti in my blog entry on Athens Graffiti.

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