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The British sculptor has, controversially, been commissioned to create works for the island of Delos, a sacred classical site
by Helena Smith
In all seasons the elements rage on Delos. In winter, salt winds pound its granite rocks; in summer the sun beats so heavily that the tiny outcrop, treeless and bare, almost vanishes in a haze of heat.
But it was here, on the ancient Greek world’s most sacred isle, that Apollo, the god of light and his twin sister Artemis, the moon goddess, were born. And it was here in the heart of the Aegean that, in the 9th century BC, one of the greatest sanctuaries emerged. Today, the remains of temples, altars, sculptures and votive offerings, the markers of the myths and rituals played out on Delos, stand alongside the magnificent ruins of a later period when the Cycladic island became a commercial centre, teeming with merchants and slaves.
Arriving visitors see, on their left, what was once the sacred court dedicated to Apollo and Artemis; to the right are the wall paintings and mosaics of uniquely preserved homes from the Hellenistic age. It is an extraordinary legacy for an island barely 5km long by 1.5km wide. In the absence of human contact – only guards and archaeologists have inhabited Delos in more recent times – the remains of a sanctuary and entire city have survived like nowhere else in Greece.
It is in this unspoilt idyll that Greek authorities have undertaken an experiment as exciting as it is ambitious. At its centre is Sir Antony Gormley. The British sculptor has created 29 iron “bodyforms”, several cast from his own body, that are to be the first artworks to be installed here since the outpost was inhabited more than 5,000 years ago.
“If this works, our hope is it will help change how people approach ancient monuments,” says Dr Demetrios Athanasoulis, who heads the department of antiquities in the Cyclades. “There is no past without the present, and we live in times where there are any number of windows through which to view the past.”
In an open-air archaeological site such as Delos, time travel may come easily. But he adds: “To be limited to the academic reading of any site’s historical significance is rather old-fashioned.”
Wearing jeans and a sports shirt, Athanasoulis could have passed for one of the hundreds of visitors to Delos as he sat outside its archaeological museum last Friday. So, too, could Gormley. A straw hat pulled tight on his head, red socks peeking from under beige slacks and walking boots, the artist had the old-school air of an adventurer-academic as he expounded on the relationship of his sculptures to space and time.
But it is precisely these qualities that made Gormley perfect for the job. Few artists, Athanasoulis contends, would be able to conceive of works that could amplify a visitor’s experience of the lost civilisation – animating the island’s geological and archaeological features – without being tempted to compete with Delos’s landscape and history.
Now, the descent into Gormley’s world is instant. Before visitors even alight from the ferries that shuttle daily from Mykonos, they are greeted by one of his bodyforms. On a rock at the water’s edge stands a lone figure, gaze firmly fixed on the horizon. Silent and still, it has an eerily electrifying effect.
The invitation to show his work in a place where no artist has set foot for thousands of years was both “an amazing privilege and extraordinary responsibility”, he says. Five pieces were specially commissioned for the site-specific exhibition, which is entitled Sight – one in which the Briton has sought to radically reinterpret the function and purpose of sculpture as seen in the ancient world.
“It’s been a huge challenge but what a place to think about the human project,” he says.
Around 165,000 holidaymakers made the trip to Delos last year – a fraction of the 2.5 million who visited Mykonos, but not inconsequential for a remote site that requires time and money to get to. In Athens, there have been fears that the modern-day sculptures could overshadow the antiquities.
“Persuading the central archaeological council that the sculptures would neither distract nor offend wasn’t easy,” says Athanasoulis, bees and butterflies whirling about him on a brilliant spring day. “It took me some time to convince people of our goal to offer a new way of interpreting our relationship with antiquities through artworks that can act as a catalyst to facilitate diverse readings of the past.”
From the outset it was a goal that also concealed concerns. Fears for the ancient monuments’ safety were such that Athanasoulis and his colleagues spent 18 months working on an implementation plan with Greece’s pre-eminent contemporary arts organisation, Neon, which oversaw the installation.
There were still dissenting voices even after the Central Archaeological Council had approved the project.
“Changes had to be made,” says Elina Kountouri, who co-curated the show as Neon’s director. “Eight of the sculptures had to be brought in by helicopter to be installed, and artificial cement stone was added to rocks because in Delos even the rocks are considered sacred.”
One sculpture, Rule, was mounted on a custom-made replica of an ancient column and capital fragment following concerns that the original could be damaged.
No one is more aware of the magnitude of the moment than Gormley. As always, his aim has been to use art as an instrument to mark space and time.
“In this atmosphere of light there is a feeling of timeliness, of being outside industrial time,” he says. “Sculpture is a threshold to another attitude to time; it provides the invitation to escape mechanised time as we know it.”
In August when he last visited Delos, the island was so parched and barren that only an emaciated hermit like St Jerome would be banished there. Now, after a winter of record rainfall, it is blanketed by wildflowers and is the exclusive preserve of seemingly joyful larks, frogs and giant lizards, the latter introduced to the island from Africa by followers of the cult of Apollo.
In an era when art has become institutionalised and commodified, there is no better place to exhibit, says Gormley, whose work has from the outset been heavily influenced by his interest in Buddhism.
The sculptor spent months studying Delos’s topography to ensure the works resonated with its statuary, temples, squares and vistas. Exposed to the elements, placed amid the ruins and at the site’s periphery, the pieces, he says, are small things in a much bigger tale, whose stillness and silence should be deployed to stop “our endless need for distraction”.
But, though seemingly effortless, Gormley’s art is not for everyone. Visiting the site with his wife Michele on Friday, Ted Bryant, an Alaskan pilot, said that he really couldn’t see the point of it. “Each to his own but I just don’t get it,” he complained, gesticulating behind aviator sunglasses as frogs croaked in the background. “Why mess with all the ancient stuff? One of them, I don’t know if it was the god of poop, but it was the oddest thing I’ve ever seen.”
In the land that produced classical wonders like those by the Acropolis sculptors Phidias and Praxiteles, Gormley is the first to confess that competition has not been uppermost in his mind.
“Look at those splendid penises in full erection,” he says, pointing to marble carvings on the edge of the sanctuary. “Look at how tight the little buttocks are! How can you compete with that?”
For Athanasoulis, only time will tell whether the experiment has worked. “It’s only natural that some won’t like what they see in Sight,” he quips. “It will end in October, and only then will we really know how successful this has been.”