Francis Alÿs The Fabiola Project at The Menil Collection on exhibit through May 13, 2018
The Stones Talk book
Editor: İlkay Baliç
Design: Esen Karol
A few days ago, I read a story about the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York being served with a warrant alleging that a vase in the Met’s extensive collection was in fact a stolen artifact. The vase, a mixing bowl used to dilute wine and believed to be from circa 350 B.C., does not have any known provenance or record of ownership prior to the 1989 date when the museum purchased the artifact at auction. The museum, which according to the story had cooperated with the 3 year-long effort to divine the origin of the vase, immediately relinquished ownership, submitting it to the D.A.’s office for eventual return to Italy.
This pursuit to return the artifact to its home, which has become a regular occurrence in the art world, was begun by the forensic archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis who recognized the piece from a series of Polaroid images detailing the many pieces stolen and resold by the notorious Italian art thief Giacomo Medici. This initial claim set the wheels in motion for a larger investigation, with the determination that the vase should reside in its original home.
Reading this story made me think back to mid-April of this year when I found myself in Texas giving readings in Austin and Houston. Whenever I’m in Houston, I always try to take a trip to the Menil Collection, which is perhaps most widely known for the Rothko Chapel that is housed on the museum’s campus. The Menil campus houses a number of buildings: the main museum collection, the Rothko Chapel, the Twombly Annex, and the Byzantine Fresco Chapel.
Originally opened in 1997, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel is a separate building that was designed to present the remaining fragments of two frescoes from Lysi, Cyprus in a space that mimicked the context of the original church. The frescoes, dating from the 13th century, had been stolen, chopped up, and sold. The Menil collection in the 1980s gathered the known pieces with the purpose of restoring the fresco. In conjunction with the church that claimed ownership of the piece, the Menil built the chapel on its Houston grounds and presented the frescoes from 1997 until their return to Cyprus in 2012.
With the return of the frescoes, the chapel space was emptied of its intended purpose. Rather than tear down the building, the Menil chose to use the space as an additional gallery space. Since, the space has been filled primarily with focused, specific installation projects designed for and in conversation with the space. On this last trip in April, I walked into the chapel to view the current installation: The Fabiola Project by Francis Alÿs.
The Fabiola Project, which covers an entire wall of the chapel from floor to vaulted ceiling, is a collection of paintings that are amateur copies of Jean-Jacques Henner’s painting Fabiola. Alÿs began collecting these many copies, made by unknown hands, during trips to various flea markets. In market after market, he kept seeing this one image reproduced over and over again at the art stalls. At some point since its original production, Henner’s painting had become an iconic image to recreate during amateur painting classes, and, over time, those paintings had found their way to markets throughout Europe.
Alÿs’s collection runs from highly-accomplished amateur to complete novice. The paintings are crafted in a range of mediums, from oil paintings to sketches, embroidery, and mosaics made from beans and seeds. This collection of women’s faces, veiled in red and looking to the viewer’s left, sits in place of those two Byzantine frescoes that have now been sent back thousands of miles home. The fact that I found most remarkable about the collection is that the original painting by Henner is lost. Yet, somehow in a collective unconscious, his image has been brought back into the world through these endless communal reproductions, now haunting this displaced space. It is as if the original image is being divined within this consecrated space. According to the handout provided by the Menil, Alÿs specifically chose this gallery space of otherness and transience in order to historicize the collection, “to center attention on the image of Fabiola, that is, on the elusive prototype somehow ever present among the myriad approximations.”
The Alÿs collection made me think back to another exhibition, which I never saw myself and only experienced through a book published in conjunction with the exhibition: Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s Taşlar Konuşuyor (The Stones Talk). In this exhibition, shown at Arter in Istanbul in 2014, Çavuşoğlu begins with seventy-one archaeological artifacts that have been “deemed either ‘incomplete’ or aesthetically ‘insignificant’ and thus unworthy of display in museums.” Instead, these pieces are used by archaelogical students as practice pieces.
Çavuşoğlu took these supposedly worthless pieces and created precise copies of each one. She then incorporated the fragments back into larger sculptures that diverged from the original artifact’s intended purpose. Through reproduction and recreation, the process fashions “a new ‘whole’” embedded within a new contextual situation. The pieces were then presented in Arter as if they were a historical museum installation, though one whose curation cannot be read in a typical way. Any attempt to discern the usual lineage from primitivism to civilization is disrupted by the play with lineage, with originality, and with function. As Özge Ersoy writes in her introductory remarks to the book, Çavuşoğlu is “interested in the production of meaning by means of selection, display, and installation. When is an archaegological artefact not considered museological, when does it simply become a document of the past?”
Though the exhibition focused on these refashioned pieces and the book reproduces a selection of them, the bulk of the book turns its focus elsewhere: to the original pieces themselves. Rather, the majority of the pages are dedicated to a compilation of sketches of each artifact rendered onto seventy-one pieces of translucent tracing paper. When the book is held and viewed normally, a reader can see beyond the sketch on the immediate page as the tracings of subsequent and preceding pages bleed through. Each image is overlaid and underlaid, each object can only be seen in relation to the other objects. To see the one piece clearly, a reader must set the book down on a table and hold a single page up perpendicular to the book. To see just one image, the reader must perform an unnatural reading action.
In a second introduction to the collection, Aslı Gür describes the exhibition as:
“This exhibition, which is an invitation to recognise the creativity encapsulated within the act of completion, tells us that holding a mirror to an object is not as much about showing it than it is about imagining its wholeness. […] What actually talk in Çavuşoğlu’s objects are the footprints left in our psychic worlds of acts of modern institution and knowledge-making—the fragments of our memory that have been formed and petrified by political discourses.”
As Çavuşoğlu reinvigorates these lost pieces, her reproductions also bring to light another aspect of archaeology: that the most valuable pieces are thousands of miles from their homes. The history of archaeology is intertwined with the history of removal, as anyone who has walked through the Met or the British Museum or the Louvre or the Pergamon or any other countless museums throughout Europe and America can attest to. Çavuşoğlu’s artistic work not only questions the story that museum curation and exhibition of artifacts presents within the space of the museum gallery room, it also forces us to ask about why these great pieces are where they are. How did the most valuable marbles end up traveling from their homes to these other countries? Why, when we walk through a museum in Berlin, do we see the great altar from Pergamon, in what is now Turkey? Why is the Venus de Milo in Paris? Why are the items from the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos in the British Museum? Why are columns from the Temple of Artemis at Sardis in the Met? Why, if we were to walk into Arter to see this exhibit, would we be greeted with the reproductions of castoffs?
A 2011 exhibit at SALT Galata in Istanbul, just down the street from Arter Gallery, interrogated these questions, in particular questioning the impact of the rise of archaeology on the now-former Ottoman Empire and archaeology’s relationship with imperialism and colonialism. In conjunction with the exhibition, a collection of essays Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, 1753-1914 was published, edited by Zainab Bahrani, Zeynep Çelik, and Edhem Eldem. The essays in this collection offer a chronology of the movements of the vast findings from East to West as well as question the ethics, outcomes, and power dynamics of the process.
As a whole, Scramble for the Past posits that the concept of scientific archaeology itself was at best a tool used by select bad actors as a power grab and at worst as a concept specifically designed to enact that power grab. While in a sterile museum, the preservation of artifacts can seem like a pure calling, when the history is examined it becomes clear that “[t]he increased thirst for possession of antique relics was involved in the major challenges of the era: western ambitions for colonial expansion and cultural supremacy; the rise of nationalism; and the growth of bourgeois society.” What previous centuries in Europe had discarded, ignored, or even destroyed, became in the era of imperialism a valuable and exploitable commodity in the race to claim national power.
The chapters chronicle many treasures that were stolen outright or under quite dubious premises. And in the process of reexamining this history, it surfaces that many artifacts purported to have been legally acquired are in fact the result of bribery or counterfeit documents. The Elgin marbles, plundered from the Acropolis in Athens, are perhaps the most notable of these. The legality of Britain’s claim to these artifacts is rooted in two fırmans or legal permissions given to Lord Elgin to conduct archaeological work by the Ottoman Empire, which at the time ruled Greece.
The first fırman in 1800 allowed for sketches, paintings, and some select casts to be made of the Acropolis. The second, in 1801, expanded Lord Elgin’s project into a more full production, including the ability to erect scaffolding, excavate sections of the site, and remove at least some select items. However, as George Tolias outlines in his chapter:
“Modern research disputes the authenticity of the fırman, as the original has not been found in the Turkish archives. Whatever the truth, this fırman permitted the plundering of the Athens Acropolis and the antiquities of Attica, Delos, and Argolis. Indeed, the team of British artists did not fail to take advantage of the unique opportunity offered. Using the fırman and bribing Ottoman officials, they hastily removed sections of the pediment, the metopes, and the frieze of the Parthenon, plundered the sculptured decoration of the Temple of Nike Apteros, and broke off architectural elements and sculptures from the Propylaea and Erechteion…Elgin’s people thought of transporting entire monuments: the Erechteion was proposed, the Lysikrates Monument, the Lion Gate of Mycenae, but no ship large enough for their transport was available.”
As one reads through this reappraisal of these supposedly-great archaeological triumphs, the great pieces that attract millions upon millions of visitors become removed from the museum’s context of preservation and returned to their actual present state: one of decontextualization. To a select few, they might exist as objects to be studied. But in their presentation, they are objects taken from their time and place and set forth as things to be consumed. Mythologies are built up around these objects as new façades, as chronicled in Philippe Jockey’s examination of the Louvre’s Venus de Milo that highlights the lengths to which the museum has knowingly presented a false narrative around the statue in order to support its status as an icon of Ancient Greek sculpture and culture.
Scramble for the Past provides no firm, final answers. The sense one gets, as one can easily get when thinking of the history of the world, is that this specific scramble to grab a past is a microcosm of the general scramble to grab some sort of power. Archaeologists are seen less as noble heroes and more as ambitious men attempting to do something within the world they live to get ahead, gain fame, make money, and secure themselves and their families regardless of who or what gets in the way.
What becomes clear through these reexamined histories is that even items of supposedly legitimate provenance and legal ownership exist in their current spaces only tenuously and due to the vagaries of power and mythology. Why the provenance of one piece sold dubiously in 1989 is deemed questionable while a piece taken dubiously in 1800 is not cannot be satisfactorily explained. But the work of Çavuşoğlu and Alÿs at least gesture toward a resolution of some sort. Not necessarily a resolution that answers—as if there could be a final answer for great injustice—but the creation of a space that calls these thoughts of originality, origin, and ownership into question and allows them to dissolve at least momentarily into the air filling the gallery space, allowing us to simultaneously see how our desires to be physically connected to history are problematic and to imagine, if fleetingly, a way out of our mad scramble.