History of Absence at AMA House / Spetses Island, Greece

History of Absence

Agata Ingarden, Malvina Panagiotidi, Chloé Royer 

Curated by Elina Axioti

Organized and produced by: 
AMA House 

09 July – 11 September 2022

Anargyrios & Korgialenios, 
School of Spetses Foundation 
180 50 Spetses, Greece 

Following a year-long artist residency program in Greece, AMA House is reclaiming the emblematic building of the former Anargyrios & Korgialenios Foundation all-boys boarding school on the island of Spetses with the exhibition History of Absence and newly commissioned works from Agata Ingarden, Malvina Panagiotidi and Chloé Royer. Starting from AMA House’s exhibition Tactile Ghost last year, with works by Eva Papamargariti and Marios Stamatis, the History of Absence continues the investigation of visibility and context, once again referring to a certain “fantasmography”, as a means of collecting the uncollect- able when the uncollectable can turn into the spectre of ghosts. Three speculative installation works present history through re-collections, meaningful ways of reading them and attempted distortive perspectives. The works are driven by investigations of local histories, attempting an inversion, where the ghost-like is reinstated as a present element voiced by feminist practices. Absence becomes evident as the show prioritises impossible views. The installations are set up as ensembles of sculptural ob- jects, operating on local narratives. They are inspired by musical compositions by Iannis Xenakis, who attended the former board- ing school as a child; English writer John Fowles, who taught at the Anagyrios School; the work of a local taxidermist, who hunted in the surrounding pine forest for animals to stuff; and, finally, the mythological figure of Medusa and other sea creatures from local marine life. They treat history as an idiosyncratic loss of balance between remains, where the narrative emerges as this precise struggle in equilibrium. History is rarely challenging enough in itself if it operates in the visible mode, searching among conspicuous factors alone. The most important side of history deals with salvaging those elements that have disappeared from it. Bringing forth that which has vanished can be understood as the driving force of historical creativity. This could be synonymous to forcing absence to become something that it is not. A set of instances referring to an invisible missing presence becomes more accurate than absence, crystallising the local, hidden side of the generic social sphere while resisting it in different ways. Three female artists have contributed to this show with solo presentations of commissioned installation work in an attempt to create three individual narratives that will be brought together for AMA House’s summer show.

The Greek composer Iannis Xenakis spent his childhood in Spetses as a student at the Anargyrios and Korgiale- nios School. The post-modern English writer John Fowles worked as an English teacher there and used the school as the setting for his emblematic novel The Magus. These two ghost figures influenced Agata Ingarden’s perception of the place, as Sleeping Beauty Corp. converses with them. Ingarden’s work portrays a hybrid object: a bed, a musical instrument, and a coffin—one single object in the form of a combination of the three while one dissolves into the other. Its material-linguistic structure transforms these commonplace objects into a palimpsest of dislocated significance. The final object is shiny gold, supported by long metallic legs on wheels, and within it are layered parts of the human spine cast in bronze, copies of an anatomical model attached with strings to the walls of the hybrid; the spine has a performative aspect, able to produce a certain musicality. The general character of Ingarden’s work is well described by curator Attilia Fattori Franchini as “a journey into materialism, fiction and science fiction, and the domestic, unravelling the evocative power of places, objects, and interior design.” Sleeping Beauty Corp. seems to align with this description while entering into a dialogue with Fowles’ The Magus. The school building and its mirrored history as the setting of the novel has a corresponding significance to the piece per se. The protagonist of Fowles’ novel, Nicholas Urfe—who worked as an English teacher on this Greek island (renamed Fraxos in the novel)—struggles with loneliness and depression and loses the ability to distinguish reality from fiction; his mind is tricked by illusions and nightmares. We could read Ingarden’s work as an immediate crystallisation of the imaginary world of the protagonist’s state of mind. Reality “distorted while remembering itself” is seen here as a compound removal from the world. The venue itself becomes as much a protagonist in the show as the sculpture; the reference to it is a recognizable return to the phantasmal setting of the novel. But the building also remains the material place inspiring both the novel and the sculpture. Ingarden’s “bed/instrument/coffin” seems to be part of the novel’s world but is also valid as a simple material intrusive installation within it.

Malvina Panagiotidi’s works form a series included in the installation A Bird in Search of a Cage. They are consis- tent with her ongoing explorations of the cultures and traditions of spiritual ramifications and conceptions of death and dying, grief, mourning, funeral rituals, and post-mortem transitions to ghost forms of existence. Panagiotidi noticed the presence of taxi- dermy specimens displayed on the wall of a local souvenir shop, the specimens belonging to the family of Dimitris Katsoris, who still holds a small private collection of the remaining stuffed animals: for the most part, a variety of local birds preserved by Katsoris. She instrumentalises his work with her installations, which explore humans’ complex relations to animals, nature, and form. At the same time, they comprise an homage to Donna Haraway and her essay “Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936”, published in 1984, where she observes the making of the American Museum of Natural History’s col- lection through the story of Carl Akeley, the father of modern taxidermy. As Haraway fondly puts it, Akeley’s story is recomposed by her “to tell a tale of the commerce and power and knowledge in white and male supremacist monopoly capitalism”, a “history of race, sex and class” in Western culture and the manifestations of colonial violence. Panagiotidi’s installation, which is purposely displayed in the former chemistry laboratory of the school, juxtaposes small-scale animal parts sculpted in copper and their inner organs moulded in wax, together with photographs (taken by the artist with a polaroid camera) of scenes of the local pine forest and of the display of the taxidermy specimens at the local shop. Taxidermy techniques include animals being skinned, stuffed and allowed to dry in an act meant to produce permanence. The latent violence of the taxidermist’s anatomy table is what remains literally unseen and is here transposed through the sculptures. Panagiotidi forces a re-enactment of the ghostly scene of the taxidermist laboratory together with references to the scenic local pine forest—the animals’ habitat. The narrative continues into the courtyard of the school with a sculptural complex whose form is based on Xenakis’ musical composition Evryali regarding his study of trees by means of a technique called arborescence, one more reference to the pine forest and, for Panagiotidi, an artificial crystallisation of its landscape and spirit. 

“Bearing foreigners” is the literal translation of Xenophora, the sea snails found in the Argosaronic Gulf and the sea of Spetses. With the example of Xenophora, Chloé Royer focuses on a species that creates “unorthodox” dependencies. Xenophora is a particular kind of sea snail that behaves as a carrier to a great variety of foreign objects: pieces of rocks, debris, bones, animal secretions and other shells become attached to the shell of the Xenophora. The snails select the foreign objects themselves, clean them, fit them accordingly and glue them to their shells. Enhancing their shells in such a way is believed to be a camouflage technique or a protection system to strengthen them. Xenofora were often hosted in natural curiosity cabinets due to their eclectic appearance in order to showcase shell assemblages in underwater realms. Similarly, Royer forms body parts by constructing an anatomy that bears a skeleton, flesh and skin with references to both human and animal anatomy. The skin is meticulously sculpted by a technique of attaching and detaching a variety of small objects on plaster: shells, pearls and pieces of jewellery, collected or fabricated by the artist, take position in these assemblages. In a parallel move to assembling, the act of detaching decorative elements leaves visible traces of some sort on the skin of different limbs. Jewellery detachment can be read here as a violent action of subtracting adornment, which relates to the strongest socio-cultural constructions of femininity. Detachment from these surfaces creates a type of new skin or a new miniature field that speaks of the impossibility of going back to nudity. The impossibility of a bare body transforms the constructed skin into a supporting score of cultural elements produced by subtraction. We could say that Royer’s surfaces offer the grounds for an archaeology of detachment. Interconnected species paradoxically coexist as volatiles in relation to bodies suffering the discontent of prior female identities. An artificial naturality is under construction, mocking the state of an ornamented body that could discriminate against femininity although it is glorified. Trauma of a specific cultural past underlies a fake natural history. Balancing on top of the three limbs placed in a tripod arrange- ment we find an abstract version of the hair of the gorgon Medusa (whose snake-like skin is made with artificial nails). The mytho- logical figure of the Medusa—from which the names of the jellyfish Hydromedusae and Scyphomedusae derive—has been used by activist feminists as a representation of women’s rage. 

For a history to be recorded, an explicit way of reading it has to transform some remains into significant elements. In cultures where writing did not exist or did not yet exist in the past, the sciences of the art of memory introduced us to a specific ordering of objects able to create memorable collections, gathering stories and organising them in linear paths. Elements that bring back or indicate absence in this context are the same ones organising the reference to our more real past. The forensic character of these types of remains makes up the materiality of historical evidence. History of Absence deals with this other option of forensic investigations, the one that does not correct wrongly narrated stories but that creates them from the field of the forgot- ten. The meaning of this reconstitution of the past seemingly resists a unification of the visible; it is also meant to resist an always enforced, ever stronger neutrality of the public sphere. But still, the creation of new historical horizons of the insignificant and the forgotten—as elements belonging to a broken materiality— serves as a call for further investigation and a more advertently rein- vented reading of invisible local storytelling.