Of Roots and Cultures

 

by Eleana Yalouri and Elpida Rikou

 

 

What seeds are sown and which ones take root in any given place? How do plants spread and which soil is ready to accept them? What ideological constructs distinguish the “native” from the “imported”, the “self-sown” from the “cultivated”, the “weed” from the “flower”? These are some of the questions raised in the artwork, A Plan for Planting by Natasa Biza, which echoes themes present in some of her earlier work grappling with the power of institutions, the fragility of social relationships, and the politics of collecting and archiving. In addition to these issues, however, in her current work Biza raises questions more familiar to Greek history and society, highlighting the paradoxes that arise out of the national and international significance of the ancient Greek classical heritage, as well as the politics of memory and oblivion accompanying the national search for “roots” and “continuities” in time and place.

The starting point for this work is a landscaping project undertaken in the mid-twentieth century, organized by the American School of Classical Studies and involving the planting of the ancient Athenian Agora with native species that had grown there in antiquity. This particular School – one of several foreign archaeological institutions in Greece – had staked its claim to the excavation rights in respect of this ancient site after putting pressure on the Greek government in what was an economically and politically difficult period of Greek history and had been working on the site ever since the 1920s (Σακκά 2002, Sakka 2008, Hamilakis 2013). Following the excavation, the School also set itself the goal of reconstituting the archaeological landscape in general terms, not just through the reconstruction of monuments such as the Stoa of Attalos (Sakka 2013), but also by “restoring” the ancient flora of Attica (see Loukaki 2008). 

Today, nearly a century later, visitors can walk about this archaeological site and read the names of the ancient Greek plants inscribed on labels set in the ground. Nevertheless, these plants are part of a wider “community of plants”, many of which remain anonymous: plants that are not indigenous and did not exist in antiquity, but “migrated” to Greece many centuries later, spread by birds, or carried on the air, or through human intervention. Biza’s visual art seeks to name these “out of place” plants, giving them an identity and presence.

Having made tags similar to the existing ones, she engraved on them the names of these “immigrant plants” and placed them at their base. Her intervention on the archaeological site itself was accompanied by a similar intervention in the small guide book available at the museum shop outlining the history of the landscaping project (Thompson & Griswold 1963). Just as she attempts to “fill in” the names of the “anonymous” plants that are absent from the official narrative of the archaeological trail, she adds images and texts from the history of the replanting to the booklet, thus intervening in the dominant narrative and highlighting its “silences”. Her final visual installation is based on the mapping of these actions, as well as on an exhibit of archival photographs capturing moments of the replanting process, carried out with the help of boy scouts, archaeologists, Athenians and Americans, as well as the then king and queen. Thus she reveals the political, local and national aspects, as well as the international scope of the task of the original planting. Finally, the installation includes the letter Biza sent to the current Director of the American School of Classical Studies inquiring about his position on the landscaping project.

Biza’s art project appears at first to target the “(crypto-) colonial” gaze of the West over Greek antiquity (Herzfeld 2002), which (re)constructs the Hellenic topos (Leontis 1995) and with it the Greek national past and present. Nevertheless, the landscaping project and the logic driving it emerged not just from the research and aesthetic pursuits of one specific Archaeological School, but also from certain national trends, aspirations and feelings of nostalgia in Greece that supported this project.

From as far back as the early nineteenth century under the influence of Bavarian neoclassicism, the newly formed Greek nation had been looking for its neohellenic roots in its classical ancestry. The Greek land became a reference point in the effort to prove and showcase the autochthony, “continuity”, and “revival” of the Greek nation (see Σκοπετέα 1988). Archaeological excavations and archaeology in general constituted a national and patriotic project, signifying the rebirth of a nation which had been buried for centuries. At the same time, the renovation and restoration of ancient Greek monuments (Μαλλούχου-Tufano 1998) and the reconstruction of archaeological sites as a whole, came to signify the actual process of building the Greek nation-state which was attempting the reterritorialisation of ancient Greek glory and with it Greece’s  place in the modern world (Yalouri 2001). Under this regime, both monuments and sites which for centuries had been part of the “social time” of everyday life (Herzfeld 1991), were fenced in and “purified” of anything incompatible with the dominant Greek national narrative, so that they could be declared “ancient sites”. It is no coincidence that it was for the specific purpose of allowing the American School of Classical Studies to carry out their archaeological excavations of the Agora, that the old district of Vlasarou had to be demolished causing many residents to lose their homes in – as archaeologists and politicians of the time claimed –the “national interest”.

The relationship between land or landscape, territory and nation is nothing new, nor does it apply only to Greece. The conflation of peoples with “national homelands” becomes systematically visible through botanical metaphors of everyday language, such as those that liken the nation to a large family tree rooted in “the nourishing home soil”. This naturalization of the conflation between people and land leads to the conceptualization of displacement as a pathological condition and is perceived in terms of the “botanical and quasi-ecological” metaphor of uprooting (Malkki 1992).

In this context, landscaping choices, and the process of naming certain plants while excluding others are not “innocent” acts. From the 1970s onwards, social anthropologists and other scholars have analyzed the political forces behind the power to name, and the ways in which a “name” can become a tool for the establishment, the rejection and negotiation of identities. Moreover, the relationship between archaeology, names and national identity has been revealed through research in Greece and elsewhere. Abu-El-Haj (1998, 2001), for example, has analyzed the involvement of archaeological projects in the renaming of the Israeli landscape with “real” biblical names, in an attempt to erase Palestinian history from the landscape. Similarly, the use of archaeology to certify the “authenticity” and the “ownership” of the names of “national” sites and monuments is familiar in Greece as illustrated in the case of the well-known conflict over the name of Macedonia (Danforth 1984; 1993; 1995, Karakasidou 1993; 1994, Sutton 1997; 1998), as well as the debate over the name “Elgin marbles” vs “Parthenon marbles” (Yalouri 2001). Names do have ideological significance. They “carve out meaning” and “create a nowhere in places” (De Certeau 1986: 104). They can even outline (national) territories and (re)write histories (Yalouri 2001).

Despite Biza’s clear references to key national and international issues, she prefers to frame her work in narratives of personal wanderings that lead rather to a philosophy of gardening (Zήκα 2012, see Μπιζά 2014) than to a serious polemical confrontation with the current political scene or the politics of the past. And for this reason her work –  coherent, polysemous and charming – graciously undermines the foundations of institutions and destabilizes the stereotypes they promote, at the same time creating possibilities for new narratives about our daily lives. Ιn that sense it is deeply political. With her unique "gardening", this visual artist undermines conventions and dominant narratives, plants the seeds of defiance, and cultivates new ground by highlighting the supposedly "minor" forms of life. 

 

 

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