Friday 22 September 2017

The Theatre of Disappearance, Adrian Villar Rojas

'What we call nature is not natural thing. Nature is a concept that we created to have a passive/active relationship with our surroundings. Wherever one sees vegetation, one tends to intuitively to think of it as nature, as the presence of nature in a certain landscape, but the idea of 'nature'  is not something naturally given. It is a social construction, a sort of discursive technology we have developed over ages of evolutionary pressure to reach an Anthropomorphic binary (artifice/nature, human/animal, active/passive), an efficient relationship with our surroundings. And, of course, a technology to set us apart as the privileged interlocutor of that discursively-unified phenomenon called nature'. Acrian Villar Rojas.

The Theatre of Disappearance,

by Adrian Villar Rojas,

at the National Observatory in Athens.

It is very difficult to convey the feelings that this stunning, life-affirming, imaginative, awe-inspiring exhibition has on its audience. It's a very long time since I experienced an exhibition that has made me think so much, given me so much pleasure, or left me confident about the effects of art on the individual and on society at large. As I am writing this post, and I know it will take a while to complete it, I am planning another visit to the Observatory to look again, to ask questions that have arisen since the first visit, to explore some more with the extremely helpful guides that were dotted all around the 4,500 square metre site.

This site-specific installation is an open-ended investigation of cultural traditions, national norms and stereotypes, learned preconceptions, and most of all, received histories of conquest and exploration.

The exhibition is organised by NEON, an organisation founded and funded by collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos, whose aim is 'to bring contemporary culture closer to everyone. It is committed to broadening the appreciation, understanding and creation of contemporary art in Greece and to the firm belief that this is a key tool for growth and development'.

This is the second exhibition we have seen organised by NEON and you can see the first one here

Furthermore, The Theatre of Disappearance is an umbrella title and part of four separate exhibitions taking place across Europe and the USA through new independent commissions by all institutions involved: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Kunsthaus Gregenz, Austria, and the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, Los Angeles.

The planting:

In this site-specific installation Villar Rojas has altered the entire grounds of the National Observatory of Athens. He planted 46,000 thousand plants from 26 different species; a mix of wild grasses like bamboo, seeds and grains alongside fruits and vegetables such as artichokes, watermelons, asparagus and pumpkins.

The open spaces of the Hill of the Nymphs where the Observatory is situated

are transformed into a densely planted area where physical borders are not clearly defined allowing visitors to wander and lose their way.

(images of 'before' are taken from the exhibition booklet - the rest are photographs were taken by me  when we visited)

Corn that rises to a height of 160 centimetres dramatically alters perception of the space

and the memory of what it used to look.

For Villar Rojas corn is a symbol of culture, a powerful commodity in the competition between poor and rich countries, farming, economic depression and food deprivation, reflecting capitalist exploitation and the hardships of rural life. 

How did he achieve this transformation? Rather than digging down into the ground, (the Hill of the Nymphs is an archaeological site and digging is prohibited) Villar Rojas planted densely on top of it, in a constructed, artificial second level of soil. Special wooden structures were built above ground that protect the soil beneath.

To ensure the plants' survival, an independent irrigation system was installed with water tanks filled from trucks that arrive twice weekly.

1,983 bags of soil were brought in to fill the raised beds,.

I will now take you on a photographic tour of where we wandered, losing our way in the maze of paths in this wondrous installation

pumpkins were growing everywhere, all along the paths

This is art about national identity, borders and our relationship with the land and soil

For Villar Rojas, although the international power game in which Greece's independence became entangle, continues, the land and the soil resist - and survive: they have always been connected with ideas of identity and claims of ownership.

'I come from Argentina, where essentially soil is a means of production. I think we Argentinians equate soil with fertility and this of course is a geopolitical construct made by Europe, the Western  world and the global economic powers in general. No doubt the strongest features of our national identity are our crops and cattle, endlessly provided by a 'God-blessed' soil upon flat grasslands whose only limit is the sky. 

So, when I arrived in Greece, I immediately understood that for Greeks what is below their feet was a constitutive of their national identity as it is for Argentinians, but in a completely different way. What was beneath their feet was culture: thousands of years of human civilisations'.

Through his site-specific intervention Villar Rojas asks, 'what does it means to have soil beneath your feet?' Through his work he implies that change - social or political - comes only if we perform the 'act of digging'. The Theater of Disappearance in Athens becomes an open-ended investigation of cultural traditions, national norms and stereotypes, learned preconceptions and received histories of conquest and exploration.

This installation interrupts the status quo of artistic practice and behaviour within a museum, a site of cultural heritage, a rooftop or public space. This is an unpredictable setting for the visitor to explore, where we might feel uncomfortable of are astounded by the alternative histories it suggests.

Concerned with ideas of disappearance, extinction, the passage and volatility of time, Villar Rojas creates a new, and often disconcerting visual language.

The act of planting serves as a symbol of liberation, co-existence, struggle and reparation.

'What if - by chance - we dug a bit deeper and found something unexpected? What if we found at those turbulent borders hints that the West's roots lay in the East or that God was dark-skinned or that enlightened philosophical discourse was, in fact, buoyed by bloodshed? What if we found - a few inches deeper than the depth to which we were supposed to dig - evidence suggesting that we're not so white or rational or democratic as we'd thought? What if we found that events - and our identity - could have turned out very differently?

Both Argentina and Greece were built on bio-political race selection; the elites of both nations shaped their cultures to fit in with the emerging Brave New World of Europe. Following the Industrial revolution late 19th century Britain had an increased population to feed. It invested in Argentina, converting its grasslands to fields for crops. But Argentina was not a wild, uninhabited land, a 'desert' to be conquered; it had a native population and culture. Only by forgetting this past could we make the present work'.

This is conceptual art at its best.


Suddenly the fertile area gives way to a barren zone., a slope. 

This is a neglected space unfamiliar to the Observatory staff and unknown to visitors. Usually neglected, this area is not easily accessible. It's steep, rocky, sandy, the ground is not stable, the earth is dust that made us slip and lose balance.

A number of caves are to be found in the rocks.

Villar Rojas envisages a 'war zone' here: eleven glass vitrines, embedded at impossible angles on a steep outcrop,  in which he has placed relics from the past alongside artefacts that evoke the future. These expose the brutality of years of conquest and expansion and the human quest for colonising new territory on earth and beyond. He furthermore, directs our focus to questions about what is chosen to be preserved, and why the references made - to the Space Race, recent armed conflict, defunct technology, and dead soldiers - imply human aggression, and how selective we can be in deciding which histories to cherish.

Does the conventional record of history reveal the true winners and losers of imperialism?

First investigation, the first cave at the top of those steps.

A glass vitrine with two glass shelves

On the top shelf the skeleton (replica) of an albatross, a bird that is threatened with extinction, a result of the destructive human intervention on our environment.

on the bottom shelf a replica of 'Lucy', the collection of fossilised bones 3.2 million years old that revealed how evolution did not follow a straight line as ape developed into human.

Good views of the city from here.

Inside the vitrines Villar Rojas presents an alternative to the accepted narrative of history. He questions deliberately edited narratives and deconstructs the significance of the objects displayed in the vitrines. Cultural, historical and war artefacts, remnants of past civilisations have been painstakingly researched and gathered by the artist then placed uncomfortably alongside relicts from later times. They nestle amongst organic materials - moon dust, stalactites, stalagmites and stromatolites - the oldest living bacteria in the world.

He addresses the politics of space and territory and its control. He highlights how war and violence and their causes tend to be misinterpreted or to fade over time, and questions the moral political order. Sticking a flag on the surface of a territory and shaping its borders is conquest, whether here, on the Moon, or, in the future, on planets yet to be explored.

In the 'war zone' we become witnesses to a history of absurdity, conquest, greed, propaganda and patriotism.

Too much reflection on a sunny day means that my photographs of the vitrines are not very good to useless. So, I will have to explain what is in most of them.

In this first vitrine, the replica of a dinosaur skeleton, mixed together with military boots from the Falklands War, medals from the Ottoman Empire. The relics are placed on top of and within layers of pink and terracotta archaeological stratification, as if just unearthed. The work manages to be culturally sensitive and incendiary at the same time, bringing together familiar echoes from the past and rather more grubby ones that we'd rather forget.


A toppled Winged Victory of Samothrace, no longer upright and victorious is covered in graffiti, posters and leaflets taken from the streets of Athens. What defines Greece's identity now?


The NASA Curiosity Mars Rover sits alongside a space suit of the kind worn by Armstrong and Aldrin when they planted the American flag on the moon. There is something cartoonish and outdated about this six-wheeled piece of technological wizardry that sits on a bed of red dust. Butterflies flit around.  There is a footprint in the dust and one plastic bag of seeds signifying humankind's colonisation of the moon.A rearranged narrative of history is presented here, commenting on the violence of humankind's drive for conquest.

The Byzantine flag juxtaposed with the flag of the Ottoman Empire.

A faded, damaged Argentinian flag rests on British muskets.

A bird's nest with eggs in the middle, as a sign of hope.

We left the 'war zone' and walked through the planted area

towards the building of the Observatory itself.

To the left of the entrance is a mound of the chipped, curving, intertwined root crowns of fallen trees.

Villar Rojas has removed almost everything from inside the building, keeping just a few telescopes. Heavy blackout curtains have divided the large space into small dark rooms. Some of the curtains have been left partially open to reveal chinks of light and give way to distant views of the Acropolis and the city. The observatory becomes a temple, a sanctuary to contemplate the contrast of the lush vegetation and the vitrines' stark images.

P.S.  I have left this post unfinished as I experienced enormous technical difficulties. Every time I tried to edit something or tried to delete some of the large gaps between images everything would disappear and I would be informed that there was a problem re-loading the page. At one point (before we left for Amorgos) I lost everything and could not retrieve it. I started again, wrote most of the post then the same things started happening again.  So, I have given up. I am publishing this without even re-reading it as there seems no point - any attempts to change anything might lead to me losing the whole text again.


  1. I am so glad that you persisted with this post despite the technical annoyances. (I know how one wants to tear out one's hair and chuck the wretched machine through the window when they happen!) This installation, work of art, thought provocation is quite something, and I know how the world can stop when the mind is gripped in fascination and questioning. It is always so difficult to convey how a piece like this can take one over - the joy of discombobulation! Something that is definitely needed from time to time. Thank you for passing on your encounter, and your enthusiasm.

    1. Thank you, Olga. I had no other option but to persist as this installation was quite an experience. I visited twice and could have easily gone a third time. It was awe-inspiring: so much pleasure I got out of it, so much thinking and questioning.... And feeling I was in the midst of greatness. I had to have a record of it. I lost the first draft just as I had finished it - went to delete a full stop, and ... it was gone. I spent two hours with the help of Ken who is much more computer literate, trying to retrieve it but to no avail. The first draft was so much more comprehensive, but never mind, at least there is a record of it now.

  2. Fascinating piece, sorry that it caused so much pain to publish.

    1. It was absolutely wonderful, and I have to say, once published all the hassle was forgotten.