Mnemosyne by Matteo Lucchetti

Mnemosyne Was a Greek Muse.

Greek mythology has it that Mnemosyne, the muse of memory, was the mother of the other muses, thus making her the parent of all the arts. A whole humanistic genealogy was built up on the understanding that the exercise of memory was an art. This started with Aristotle and led on through the works of Cicero, Campanella, and Giordano Bruno, to mention but a few authors, and in 1966 it was reconstructed by Frances Yates in her The Art of Memory. Starting out from a view of memory as an art based on mnemonics, the book focuses on the creation of memory through the formation and manipulation of mental and physical images. Prior to printing, the historical source that came before the written word was the image – coupled with the ability of artistic processes to give form to it – and it has always constituted the basis for building up a collective historical imagination. The links between image, memory and history are thus to some extent connected to the works of artists and to the underlying thread that inevitably binds them to the historical episteme to which they and their art belong. And in this sense the constantly evolving processes of the production of capital and political power that makes its development possible, appear as inevitable elements in any analysis that aims to reaffirm the historical nature of art as a phenomenon, just as when Hauser decided to rewrite the social history of art in the light of historical Marxist materialism.

Stefanos Tsivopoulos adopts a paraphrase with poetic overtones to entitle one of his recent works. It is an ekphrasis that appears to use other words to describe the relationship that binds the image to the historical perspective of the imagination that produced it. The title – An Image Dies When the Gaze That Lights On it Has Disappeared – is part of a study carried out in the Spanish region of Murcia. In the first half of the twentieth century the area was famous for its mines, which today appear to have transformed the town of La Union and places linked to that age into a great collective suppression of memory. This is then meticulously investigated in another work, Amnesialand, which is of the deepest, Tarkovsky-like cinematic scope. The first work is a three-projector slide show of archive photos from the early decades of the twentieth century, dating from the economic flourishing of the local middle classes which arose as a result of the intense mining activity. The photos of impeccable, pristine interiors in the fashionable style of the time show the housing spaces of a social class that wished to portray them just after these homes had received a Catholic blessing, but before they stepped into them. The aim was to show their affluence and the conceit that came with their newly attained social status, with the highest level of cleanliness, and a studium ready to enter history. The Casau archives are packed with photos like this, because the demand for pictures that illustrated the new socio-economic status that had been attained was enormous, just as there were countless views that came with a desire to be part of history that needed to be satisfied, even if only for the time of a photograph. This visual capital built up by photographic libraries reveals a recent history which has apparently disappeared, and it illustrates the relationship of the land with the creation of its own history through the use of photography.

Tsivopoulos is aware that an image dies when the gaze that alights upon it disappears, together with the memory and knowledge of the desire that made it possible, and this is why he chooses to focus on this disappearance, and on this loss of context which is required for the historic pigeonholing of the document and of the archive, and ultimately of the past itself. One of the first works he created with this in mind was undoubtedly Lost Monument: a complex tale that is built up around a real statue of the US president Henry S. Truman located in a square in the centre of Athens. He uses a series of cinematic and photographic archives that illustrate some of the salient moments in the life of the monument. These range from the time it was put up to the repeated attacks it received in protest against the Greek authorities’ blatant celebration of the Truman Doctrine in the repressive lead up to the Cold War and the invasive response to the Greek Civil War of 1946-49. Accompanying this re-presentation of the documents, with a partitioning that is similar to the one we later see in Amnesialand, there is an important cinematic work that epitomises the core concept of the research. Before examining this in detail, I should like to point out how the considerations about Lost Monument do not just concern a key passage in the history of Greece but also, in a broader sense, a particular post-war moment in Europe, which is undoubtedly still closely linked to the present. The symbolic start of the Cold War with the intervention of Truman in 1947 and its corresponding historicisation not even twenty years later with the erection of a monument dedicated to him in a public place in Athens, both reveal a desire to superimpose one memory on another in an antagonistic manner. This takes place within an area of discourse in which the conflict remains open and where, by its very definition, the artefact of power shows the signs of its visual ineffectiveness.

While the disappearance that the artist is interested in is generally that of the historical timescale that makes it possible to interpret the visual material concerned, its loss in Lost Monument is induced and sought with a view to making an issue of the monument based on its status as a work of art. In the first sequences, the statue of the American president appears as though it were a still unidentified archaeological find: two farm labourers in the Greek countryside discover it and decide to get rid of it when, from a purely material point of view, they consider its low value and the fact that it will be impossible for them to make a profit from it. Similarly, in the following sequences, two young middle-class Greek couples confirm its ugliness and reject the idea that the object may have any aesthetic value after it has fallen from the sky into their private swimming pool. The people and landscapes we see in Truman’s Homeric wanderings are absolute, and bordering on stereotypes, in order to highlight the metaphysical dimension of displacement which the four views that constitute the film take forward and intertwine. In the third scene, the statue is caught in the nets of a little Turkish fishing boat. Here the fishermen speculate on the Greek or Turkish origin of the item, also suggesting that it might come from some American cruise ship. The brief and apparently insignificant dialogue helps introduce the geopolitical triangulation with Turkey, the third country involved in the Truman Doctrine and one that was also considered by American politics in those days as a potential and awkward ally of their Soviet enemy. The fishermen appear to sense the burden surrounding the subject, and they get rid of it by throwing it back into the sea. At this point, Truman appears to have completed another sort of voyage, possibly through time, for in the fourth scene he finds African immigrants washed up on the beaches on the Greek coastline, just like himself. It is a journey through time, for the new arrivals on the Mediterranean shores of Fortress Europe are in all likelihood the new labourers for the material side of the European economy. This somehow closes the circle made by Truman in the contemporary world. He is now mistaken for the statue of a Hellenic divinity, as though he had gone back to his original status as sculpture, and as though from here he were observing the sea that had witnessed his retrogression within a historical allegory. This sequence brings to mind the classic statues which look at the sea, as though it were the infinity of time, in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (Contempt), another form of Odyssey. As they do so, they reflect their non-historical belonging to the present time. In Lost Monument, on the contrary, a statue that cannot be eliminated keeps rising up again from the sea, because the historical context that produced it is still acting on the present time.

In the brief closing sequences, the statue is shown in its original setting, in the square next to the Acropolis in Athens. It stands on a pedestal which once again shows  that it really is a monument, and it bears a plaque, from 1963, which describes the American president Henry S. Truman as a humanitarian and pro-Hellenic statesman. The last caption tells us that in 2003 the monument was added to the national programme for the protection of works of art.