PIRAEUS, Greece – When archaeologist Stella Chrysoulaki was investigating the mass grave of 80 young men buried in shackles in the Faliro Delta in 2016, she never expected that her findings would serve as the foundation for a decidedly modern art installation two years later.
Returning to the Onassis Fast Forward Festival – 5 (FF5) for the second year with the audiovisual project “The Primary Fact”, artist and film-maker Hikaru Fujii explores the deaths of the 80 prisoners unearthed during the construction of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Culture Centre, who had died in the late 7th century B.C. in ancient Athens.
In a carefully researched project produced in collaboration with choreographer Patricia Apergi and the people in charge of the excavation, Fujii turns the spotlight on a “dark” period of pre-Golden Age Athens, before democracy had emerged in the city-state.
The audiovisual installation is mounted in the former Chemistry building on the corner of Mavromichali and Solonos Streets in central Athens, which is now the Law School library, and includes interviews with people in charge of the excavation – from archaeologists to dentists – and the re-enactment of the execution and the burial by a chorus of young Athenians.
Admission is free and the exhibition will run until May 16, between noon and 19:00. Visitors must present proof of identity at the entrance and leave large bags for storage. It also features English sub-titles.
In a note about his work, Fujii said the mass execution was an act committed at a time when Athenian society was in chaos, before democracy was established, and raises the question whether the event itself had some impact on what followed.
“The work examines the physical causes that led to death, by studying each of the skeletons, while it also attempts to investigate, using art, the actual physical experience,” he says.
The Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA) spoke with Chrysoulaki, who was in charge of the excavations at the Faliro Delta, and choreographer Patricia Apergi.
“The most important thing for me about this project was the approach of the people at the Foundation: with incredible respect for the archaeological information and the excavation team,” said Chrysoulaki.
She pointed out that the finds had not been released to anyone, including the BBC and other major media, but Fujii made an impression on her because of his great sensitivity, while it intrigued her to see the topic handled by someone from an entirely different area of expertise, an artist, and a completely different part of the world, without Greek prejudices about antiquity.
An important part of the project was to re-enact the execution of the 80 prisoners, which was done using a basic team of 10 dancers and 80 men in total. “We tried, after a great many trials, to understand why these people were found in that position, to answer questions that neither archaeological nor anthropological inquiry could resolve,” she noted.
Important anthropological clues, she said, were that the 80 prisoners were dressed when they were buried but also that they were dehydrated almost to the point of death. This placed them very near to the Cylonian affair, she pointed out, since during any other conflict they would have drunk water.
For the purposes of the project, however, the investigation focused on how the executioner had done his work, how the bodies had ended up where they did, Chrysoulaki said, visibly excited at the opportunity to use living people to conduct this form of “experimental archaeology”.
“I am now much closer to describing the burials, to being certain and not using the term ‘possibly’…we tried all positions, all options, whether these people had kneeled, what height the executioner was at, how the last blow was struck and how they fell, how many were dead and, if not dead, how many were dealt a finishing blow. We understood the entire sequence of movements from the moment they arrived at the burial site to the moment they were buried,” she said, noting that she would never have had an opportunity to find these things out any other way.
Apergi was similarly enthusiastic about her own contribution to the re-enactment of the events, noting that it was not purely historical but also had an artistic approach, trying to recreate the atmosphere of violence these men had experienced in their final moments.
“One of the most exciting experiences was the level and the degree to which an investigation of movement can have application to something that is tangible and real,” she said.
“It was important for us that, while we had only one result, the find, we tried through cooperation with scientists, archaeologists and especially Ms. Chrysoulaki and her team, to provide answers to what could have happened in relation to the final bodily result. And this, the way that art can be linked to history and converse with a science, such as archaeology, was something of great interest for me, artistically and personally,” she added.