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Issue 135

Adrian Villar Rojas: The Theater of Disappearance
by Aisle 4

It’s a 30-degree June day in Athens, Greece, and we are climbing a long, winding path to the Hill of the Nymphs in anticipation of a large-scale site-specific installation by Argentinian artist Adrian Villar Rojas. The Theater of Disappearance is the result of a multi-year collaboration between the artist, a state institution (National Observatory of Athens) and a local non-profit contemporary art foundation (NEON). Villar Rojas mounted two monumental installations under the same title earlier this year, one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and the other at Kunsthaus Bregenz in Bregenz, Austria. In this third iteration, the artist continues to mine the fraught and complex processes of preserving, recording and interpreting histories, transforming the National Observatory of Athens and its grounds into sites of inquiry.

The site of the National Observatory of Athens is one of ultimate national significance, home to the first astronomical observatory (built in in 5th century BC), with inscriptions of mythological nymphs in the surrounding caves. The present-day Observatory and grounds were constructed in 1842 following the country’s independence a decade earlier. As Greece’s first research institution, it was the most advanced cosmological laboratory in the world at the time. The elevated peak on which the landmark sits is ideal for stargazing, but also offers a panoramic view of the city, and a direct sightline of the Acropolis. Villar Rojas considers these historical, mythological and geographic facets in his installation, layering new meanings that extend from the political to the poetic. Villar Rojas is known for his elaborate, often immersive, sculptural installations that combine imagery from disparate realms – sci-fi, post apocalyptic, prehistoric and futuristic – to challenge the authoritative narratives of history. In this iteration of The Theater of Disappearance, the artist shifts our focus from the stars to the ground, prompting us to reflect on what significance the soil beneath our feet might carry. He considers the act of digging as political: what histories are uprooted from the earth? What is the social function of remembering?

We reach an ornate set of steel gates and pick up a map marking each component of Villar Rojas’ installation. The project stretches throughout the grounds, inside the Observatory, to the caves beyond that comprise the Hill of the Nymphs. Passing through the entrance to the grounds, we are engulfed by maturing stocks of corn, field grasses and other unfamiliar cultivated vegetation. The Neoclassical details of the Observatory building can be admired at a distance at the end of a modest gravel path, partially obstructed by mounds of eradicated roots that disrupt the grounds’ natural navigation. Docents kindly ask visitors not to stray from this narrow route: everything outside of the path is the installation.

46,000 plants from 26 different species of grains, fruits, vegetables and graminaceous shoots have been transplanted throughout the grounds, bound to survive and coexist for four months in Villar Rojas’ installation. Rather than digging, the artist has constructed a system of raised beds in which a dense layer of fertile soil rests. His unorthodox system of cultivation emulates the balance between harmony and struggle as a symbol for culture. It speaks, too, to the anthropomorphic binaries of nature, prompting us to question our active and passive relationships with our “natural” surroundings.

We pass into the shade of the Observatory with the compounded garden behind us, to enter a museum void of artifacts. Villar Rojas removed the scientific instruments and objects of civic and national pride that are normally on view. What remains is a constellation of selected telescopes and reference books from the museum’s collection, positioned throughout the heavily curtained interior, steering us to observe specific areas both inside and outside of the building. A docent invites us to peer through the telescopes positioned at the Acropolis; however, we cannot find an unobstructed view.

Villar Rojas’ experiments in editing continue when, upon exiting the building, we find a large-scale model of the Observatory that reveals its original landscaping, sparse and austere. As the silent director of this theatre, the artist challenges the institution’s authority by staging all aspects of the site. He employs museological strategies to undermine powerful national narratives, deconstructing the significance of objects displayed and preserved in official collections. In doing so he contradicts the original purpose of the site, questioning the city’s lineage and inserting physical barriers that render the landmarks of Athens invisible.

Outside, our awareness of the horticulture as an artistic intervention, and the ecosystems created as a result, is heightened. A bright orange pumpkin emerges from the lush groundcover, and we all gasp in a way that our recent Venice Biennale and documenta 14 experiences couldn’t conjure. We later learn that through Villar Rojas’ temporary, diversified environment new species of animals have migrated to and inhabited the site.

We follow a lush path to the final site of Villar Rojas’ inquiry, the dusty and somewhat treacherous Hill of the Nymphs. This cavernous landscape is an unlikely one to host 11 museum-quality vitrines, which sprawl across the steep terrain like stars in the sky, tucked away in caves or precariously planted on rocky hills. There is a dress code for this portion of the exhibition: “Those wishing to explore the full site-specific installation are advised to wear flat shoes, preferably trainers.”

Collectively, the contents of the vitrines hint at disparate historical or futuristic moments in a non-linear timeline. Each contains an unusual collection of cultural, historical or military artifacts mixed with organic materials – plants, moondust, stalactites and stalagmites. These multilayered ecosystems suggest a cross-section and evolution of time and space. But this is a fabricated authority, boasting a false authenticity. Relics and objects from different periods are displayed uneasily, side-by-side. By obscuring the boundaries between fact and fiction, Villar Rojas addresses the problematic nature of recording history: how war and violence tend to be misrepresented; how political agendas inform the way history is presented.

Attuned to how nations interpret their histories, Villar Rojas highlights an ever-present paradox of Greek politics – the tension of being pulled between East and West. Greek identity, of course, finds roots in the soil, dense with physical traces of thousands of years of human civilizations. By contrast, Argentina has a low historic density. Conscious of this disparity, Villar Rojas characterizes his home country as “a modern biopolitical experiment of self-denial and self-edit- ing with the ultimate objective of constructing a white European identity.”1 Soil, in both countries, is tied to struggles of identity and ownership. For Argentina, soil is a means of production: crops and cattle, progress and prosperity. In Greece, soil is a document, a source of pride, longevity and perseverance.

Villar Rojas’ metamorphosis of the Observatory and its grounds is a colossal task, as the site occupies an overall area of 4,500 square metres. The scale of this project challenges expectations of what is possible for contemporary public art in discourse with sites of historic significance. It also represents a rare relationship where state, private foundation and artist come together to create a highly sensorial experience free of charge to the public. Ultimately, The Theater of Disappearance focuses our gaze on Villar Rojas’ cunning acts of transgression: he silences authoritative historical narratives while generating a vast ecosystem that disconnects the earth we stand on from the central axis of the city.

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