NEW YORK – Hundreds of people filled the Atrium of the Olympic Tower in Manhattan eager to view the inaugural exhibition of the renovated Onassis Cultural Center: “Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus” curated by Dr. Dimitrios Pandermalis, President of the Acropolis Museum, and comprised of the remarkable finds from his 45 years of excavations.
The first visitors after the ribbon-cutting and reception on March 23 who enjoyed a multisensory experience – sculptures glowed with a heavenly light, guests were immersed in the sounds of nature recorded in Dion – told those on the long line that it is well worth the wait, and the two-month long run from March 24 through June 18 will be appreciated both for the many opportunities offered to busy New Yorkers to visit, and for those who will wish to see it more than once.
The enthusiasm cascaded from the dignitaries to the guests of many backgrounds and nations in attendance – Antonis Papademetriou, President of the Onassis Foundation USA, who was introduced by Executive Director Amalia Cosmetatou, Greek Minister of Culture Nikos Filis, Minister of Culture Aristides Baltas, and Archbishop Demetrios of America took turns at the ribbon cutting ceremony and the dinner that followed praising the vision and work of Pandermalis, his colleagues, and the Onassis foundation staff.
Cosmetatou declared “I am deeply grateful to the exceptional team who made this exhibition possible.”
At the dinner held in the Rainbow Room, Papademetriou presented an overview of the Foundation, which he said was established 41 years ago with mission of supporting Culture, education, the environment, health, and social solidarity. He emphasized that the intention was help release the creative [energy] in society.
“By taking cultural initiatives, especially during the last few years, we ensure that the values which maintain social cohesion will remain alive and a better future will indeed be attained,” he said.
“Today’s event marks a new era in the era for the Onassis Cultural Center in New York,” he continued, “which will have two aspects, its renovation…and new leadership, led by Amalia Cosmetatou and Maria Sereti following in the able footsteps of Ambassador Loucas Tsilas.”
Speaking to the press, earlier in the week, he acknowledged the role of the Foundation’s Board members who supported the renovation of the Center and its transformation into “a state of the art, museum-quality space.”
Papademetriou, in turn, was praised from the podium and among the guests for his vision and leadership.
Papademetriou spotlighted another new initiative, the Center’s annual Festival of Arts and Ideas. He discussed the inaugural theme “Narcissus Now: The Myth Reimagined,” and emphasized that “the concept of individualism was a challenge even” in Ancient Greece, long before the advent of the selfie.
Expressing how pleased he was with the first exhibition since the renovation, he said that the aim was “to the experience and the feel of the place. You almost feel like you are in Dion.”
He said visitors should not miss the exceptional video by Konstantinos Arvanitakis, which combines fascinating scenes of the discovery, preparation, and installation of the excavation’s discoveries with breathtaking vistas of cloud swept Olympus and the Dion environs.
“You see them getting the marble sculptures out of the soil,” where they were covered with dirt, and then see the cleaning and installation process that culminated in the wonderful artworks the guests enjoy today.
Pandermalis, who is Director of Excavations at Dion on Mount Olympus and Professor of Archaeology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, told TNH “this is a great day for Dion because it is making its first appearance in New York…I believe that presenting the artifact along with the physical environment…it gives provides an important dimension for the exhibition and its special objects.”
Pandermalis was very pleased to note that the work involved the residents of Dion, who participated in the excavations and celebrated the discoveries with the archaeologists.
He is especially pleased to present numerous objects that will fire the imaginations of young people, including those that reveal something of the everyday lives of the people who lived at Dion centuries ago. There are door keys, and tools, writing implements, and glass vessels.”
The exhibition, which displays the findings from a single excavation of the area around the Sanctuary of Zeus in the foothills of Mount Olympus – mosaics, sculptures, jewelry, ceramics, coins, glass, and implements dating from the tenth century BC to the fourth century, AD – offers a unique and moving vista of ancient Greece that reveals the interaction of people, nature and the divine and illuminates the cultural miracle known as Ancient Greece.
Each guest will have favorites, but the biggest impressions will be made by the majestic statue of Zeus, named “Ipsistos Dias – Highest or Heavenly Zeus – the King of the gods whose statue is the first encountered by visitors, and the specular mosaic of the Epiphany of Dionysus rising from the sea that dominates – but only barely – the space it shares with a remarkable collection of four Stoic philosophers.
A statue of Isis in the show illustrates how the gods of other nations began to be identified with Greek elements with its symbols of the goddess Demeter like a stalk of wheat and a scepter.
The timing of the opening combined with the horrific events in Europe and the wanton destruction of humanity’s artistic heritage in the Middle East seemed to inspire the Archbishop, Papademetriou, Pandermalis and the two minsters to touch on philosophical and social themes.
The archbishop reminded that Plato described philosophy as “meditation on death” and while Christianity added the leaven of the resurrection of the soul and body, the works of modern writers like Eugene O’Neil demonstrate than man’s inner conflicts continue – externally his Long Day’s Journey into Night like a headline from Brussels.
Many of the objects were created as expressions or celebrations of the multiculturalism triggered by Alexander the Great. A statue of the goddess Isis – her name now a harrowing coincidence – in the show illustrates how the gods of other nations began to be endowed with elements of Greek deities reminds that thinkers began to believe the gods of different nations just had different names.
The first part of the exhibition’s theme opened prompted the speakers to comment on the relationship between people today and their religion. Regarding, “Gods and Mortals,” Filis noted “both sides need each other” but he continued “During these days of murderous terrorism, the question that arises is, which God? The God who divides and proclaims war against the infidels, who attacks Democracy? Who blesses the crusaders and the jihadists? The necessary dialogue between civilizations goes through the dialogue among religions.”
Baltas shined the spotlight on at least one current of humanitarianism. Noting that in response to the waves of refugees triggered by ISIS he said “the whole population of Greece has opened its hearts to the refugees.”
GREAT CARE, GREAT RESULTS
Cosmetatou said that from the beginning the Center reached out for the very best talent Manhattan had to offer. Exhibition Designer Daniel Kershaw, Graphic Designer Sophia Geronimus and Lighting Designer David Clinard staged “one of the most beautiful exhibitions we have ever presented,” she said.
Also featured are specially commissioned artworks, a video by Maria Zervos and sound pieces Kostas Ioannides, whom Cosmetatou said “has bridged the past and the present with sound,” recording the streams and birds that called 2500 years and today.
There will be peripatetic gallery talks with philosopher Simon Critchley, Family Sundays at Onassis, a Secrets of the Past video game, and online resources.
ART AND HOPE
Perhaps the power of the exhibition lies in its whispered hope that if the ideals of the ancient Greeks can take a diachronic journey vertically to us and unite us across time, perhaps with greater imagination and care they can also move horizontally to other cultures – cultures that seem to be aligning into a futile clash of civilizations – and engender harmony across space.
Thinkers like Carl Jung would say that what move across time and space are expressions of ideas and feelings common to all mankind, the shapes they take, the archetypes, molded by the experiences of individuals and nations. They find expression in art – and practices like dialogue, democracy and tolerance.
The Greek genius was in touch with that universality and was able to put those ideas and feelings into forms best suited for that journey, magnificent vessels that would carry them down that river through time into our museums – and hearts and minds.
“Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus” reveals the power of archetypes, and suggests that we might still be able to build the shuttles between cultures needed to preserve civilization and hope.