British Sculptor Gormley’s Ironwork Reshapes Ancient Delos Site

FILE - Reconstruction of the marble Stoa of Philip V, a major ancient public building on the island of Delos. (Photo by Ministry of Culture)

It will seem like artistic sacrilege to classicists but British sculptor Sir Antony Gormley has put a modern spin on the ancient Greek island of Delos, a barely-inhabited essentially open museum, one of the most world’s most mythological, historical, and archaeological sites.

Gormley, who in 2008 was ranked by the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph fourth on their list of the 100 Most Powerful People in British Culture, has created 29 iron ‘bodyforms’, several cast from his own body.

They are the first artworks to be installed on the island since it was inhabited more than 5,000 years ago, The Guardian wrote in a feature about the works, and Gormley, 68, who is known for works like the Angel of the North, a public sculpture in Gateshead in the North of England, and Event Horizon, a multi-part site installation featured in London, New York City, Sao Paulo and Hong Kong.

Now he’s put his distinctive rusty, iron mark on an island of marble, ruins and wonderment and where excavations are still going on to discover the treasures and mysteries of one of ancient Greece’s most noted holy sanctuaries.

It was also home to the Delian League, founded in 478 BC, an association of Greek city-states under the leadership of Athens, whose purpose was to continue fighting the Persian Empire after the Greek victory in the Battle of Plataea at the end of the Second Persian invasion of Greece. Congresses were held in the temple.

Gormley’s style is at once distinctive and yet in harmony with the surrounding landscapes and ruins.

“If this works, our hope is it will help change how people approach ancient monuments,” Dr. Demetrios Athanasoulis, who heads the department of antiquities in the Cyclades told The Guardian. “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, wrote the paper’s Helena Smith. “To be limited to the academic reading of any site’s historical significance is rather old-fashioned,” Athanasoulis told her.

It can be a forbidding site at times, sun-sparkled in the summer with the light rays bouncing off glistening white remains resisting the ravages of time, with salt winds biting away in the winter, even eating into granite and the treeless outcrop exposed to the heavens and gods.

Few artists, Athanasoulis told the paper, would be able to conceive of works that could amplify a visitor’s experience of the lost civilization, bringing back to life the geological and archaeological features, without challenging its mystical landscape and history.

OUT OF THE PAST

Visitors now see not just the glory of ancient Greece, but Gormley’s bodyforms and sculptures, foremost among them an iron statue looking like a kouros of the past, a naked young man standing alone, this one bearing the sculptor’s rusty-like handwork.

It’s called Another Time XV and it does, indeed, look almost like it was sculpted 5000 years ago and left to the weather but to stand defiant, unbowed, quiet, calmly keeping watch on the waves and those gone past.

Its gaze is firmly fixed on the horizon. “Silent and still, it has an eerily electrifying effect,” wrote Smith. It’s also looking at the tourists and visitors who still come to a place where almost no one lives in a country where millions flock to islands for vacations.

Around 165,000 holidaymakers made the trip to Delos last year, miniscule compared to the 2.5 million who went to the tourist-gouging Mykonos, where college girls dance on the tabletops of night clubs charging 1,000 euros ($1119) and more. The shuttle takes you from that scene on Mykonos to the antithesis on Delos.

There’s curious worries too that Gormley’s works will be too successful and overshadow those of the ancients still enduring for eons.

“Persuading the central archaeological council that the sculptures would neither distract nor offend wasn’t easy,” said Athanasoulis. “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.”

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 said.

Five pieces were specially commissioned for the exhibition, which is titled Sight – and in which Gormley tried 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 said.

Delos now shows the remains of temples, altars, sculptures, and votive offerings, magnificent ruins of a later period when the Cycladic island became a commercial center alive with merchants and slaves – all gone.

There’s what’s left of the sacred court dedicated to Apollo and Artemis, wall paintings and mosaics of preserved homes from the Hellenistic age on a rocky island less than 3.1 miles long and less than a mile wide.

Gormley said he was keenly aware of the challenges of trying to meld the modern with the ancient on a revered classic site.

“In this atmosphere of light there is a feeling of timeliness, of being outside industrial time,” he said. “Sculpture is a threshold to another attitude to time; it provides the invitation to escape mechanized time as we know it.”

Athanasoulis said he knows there will be skeptics. “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.”

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