Performing Fictions of Origin in the Greek Bicentenary Celebrations
24 May 2021
Philip Hager Canterbury Christ Church University
In The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, performance scholar Diana Taylor studies embodied practices that produce cultural memory by virtue of repetition and adaptation. In doing so, she proposes a shift in the focus of cultural analysis ‘from the discursive to the performatic’ and a conceptualisation of performance as a ‘system of learning, storing, and transmitting knowledge’ (16). Performance, she demonstrates, is not only or primarily an act of representation. Rather, performative repertoires produce, adapt, reproduce and transmit cultural memory and knowledge. The repertoire is then an arena where cultural memory and knowledge are constantly (re)made and a repository where such gestures are stored through repetition. The study of the repertoire unsettles the hegemony of the archive as a privileged site of memory but does not replace it as a dominant system of knowledge; it merely aims to democratise the understanding of cultural practices by disturbing what we might understand as knowledge and our relation to it. Put simply, if archival knowledge exists in the darkness of the archive –the house of the archon– independently of the people that have access to it, the repertoire requires the knower’s presence in the act of making and transmission of cultural memory and knowledge. If the archive favours durability and the knowledge it contains is assumed to be fixed (a rather misleading assumption in itself), the repertoire is predicated on the malleability of the knowledge produced anew with each repetition. Taylor proposes, then, the study of what she calls ‘scenarios’ – cultural tropes that draw both on the archive and the repertoire.
In what follows, I trace the scenario that was rehearsed in the recent celebrations for the Greek bicentenary and ask: what knowledge is produced and transmitted through the specific embodied repertoires? What part of the archive comes out in the light of day? How did the historical circumstance affect the nation-state’s fiction of origin in its latest iteration? What Greece is evoked and enacted? Starting from Taylor’s suggestion that such scenarios often seek to enact fictions of origin as formulaic and devoid of complexity, the idea I want to entertain here is that the (re)enactement of the celebratory scenario was destabilised as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic: as the current state of emergency unsettled ‘fantasies of participation’ (Taylor 54), this year’s iteration failed to produce a consolidating glance; rather, it revealed some of the latent complexities of the nation’s foundational myth.
If one had taken a look at a map of Athens, they would not have failed to notice that the geography of the 25 March 2021 celebrations produced a single straight line: the festivities started with the (re)opening of the National Gallery, continued at the dinner offered at the Presidential Residence to the notable visitors (in the order they were addressed by the Greek Prime Minister: the President of Cyprus, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall and the Prime Minister of Russia) and reached their climax with the military parade in front of the Greek Parliament the next morning. Only a few blocks from end to end, this journey through the Athenian cityscape, which was inaccessible to the general public during the celebrations, was meant to enable visitors to (re)discover Greece and its achievements. In this scenario, Greece, as staged in a stretch of a few hundred meters, becomes visible again through the gaze of our European ‘friends’ and so does its architectural history from the (renovated) modernist architecture of the National Gallery to the mid-nineteenth century Parliament, first built as King Otto’s palace and completed in 1843, and everything that stands in between. Similarly, the opening sections of the military parade, that adapted the celebratory repertoire specifically for the bicentenary, enacted a history of modern Greece through the use of traditional dresses and costumes from various periods and parts of the country. The subject of history in this act of transfer was the dress, not the body that allowed it to march and whose only purpose was to present an archive of Greek traditional culture to the foreign dignitaries and the local authorities.
The geography of the celebrations is (and was staged as) a geography of power: not only is it inhabited by institutions of power (the National Gallery, the Presidential Residence, the Greek Parliament etc.), but also the broad avenue that connects the two ends of the celebratory journey as well as the great plaza in front of the parliament are examples of voids in the urban grid that, as Henri Lefebvre observes, serve as stages where ‘ever since its origin, the State expressed itself’ (109). In addition, the vast COVID-inflicted and heavily policed emptiness of the streets of Athens further informed the scenario performed: the only bodies allowed in this exclusionary geography other than the visitors, were ones whose role in the dramaturgy of the celebrations was derivative as their only purpose was to bring the archive in the light of day. The ‘native’ body, then, either enables its own subjection to the colonising gaze of the state and its guests by participating in this scenario or, through its exclusion from the celebrations, falls out of the frame of visibility: the honoured guests must not discover (again) that two centuries down the line we Greeks are still not European enough. Yet the corporeal sense of urgency of the present moment seems to reframe whatever symbolic act might be staged next to it: along this path stands Evangelismos, one of the biggest hospitals in the Greek capital and, while the festivities were unfolding, invisible bodies were waiting for a place in intensive care in a hospital that has already endured a decade of austerity and, a year into the pandemic, appears completely overwhelmed.
In the (re)opening of the National Gallery, the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, suggested that the history of the museum mirrors the history of Modern Greece. Moreover, its permanent collection that is ‘for the first time presented in such splendour’ stands as a document to these histories. He also spoke of the important and long-standing ties with Britain, France and Russia, that date back to the war of independence, as a matter of historical determinism: ‘history wants us fellow warriors in humanity’s great struggles’. Finally, he observed that the works presented in the National Gallery reveal Greece’s shared political, cultural and artistic histories with its European allies. To illustrate his point, he mentioned some of the works by Greek and European artists that demonstrate the aesthetic loans and the historical co-dependency that binds Greece and its protectors. Three paintings in particular, ‘The Reception of Lord Byron at Missolonghi’ (1861) by Theodoros Vryzakis, ‘Episode from the Greek War of Independence’ (1856) by Eugene Delacroix, and ‘The Burning of the Turkish Flagship by Kanaris’ (1881) by Ivan Aivasowsky, all tell tales of philhellenism and frame the Greek War of Independence as a shared struggle. At the same time, the Greek subject is being looked at by the discoverer and determined by his gaze. The first painting depicts a representation of the discoverer’s gaze – we look at Byron looking at the Greeks looking at him. In the other two paintings we observe how Delacroix and Aivasowsky saw the Greeks. Two more works Mitsotakis referred to were ‘Greece Expressing Gratitude’ (1858) again by Vryzakis where Greeks kneel in front of a neoclassical impression of Greece wearing a white tunic and ‘After the Destruction of Psara’ (1896-1898) by Nikolaos Gyzis that portrays the victims of the events, but also pays tribute to Théodore Géricault’s ‘The Raft of Medusa’ (1819). The selection of examples indeed demonstrates the close ties between the Greeks and their allies.
The scenario of the ‘discovery of America’, Taylor points out, enacts Columbus’s claim of the new continent in the name of the king of Spain as it was recorded to have happened upon landing at the shores of the Caribbean island of Lucayos in 1493. An act of possession, the scenario’s repertoire, drawn from the archive, is performed when a new land is ‘discovered’. The ‘scenario of discovery’, thus, claims ‘itself to be foundational, but by simultaneously assuming its place as one more act [of possession] in a long tradition’ (58). Every ‘discovery of a new world’ is at once a new beginning and a re-enactment of a whole tradition of colonial acts of possession. The reciprocity of the exchange taking place between the discoverer and the wild Other is predicated on the passive consent offered by the latter – the discoverer performs the act of possession and the wild Other is watching. This scenario, Taylor writes, ‘simultaneously constructs the wild object and the viewing subject – producing a conceit that discovery is still possible, that “undiscovered” peoples still exist, without questioning the obvious: Undiscovered by whom?’ (54).
Looking at the Greek celebrations in light of Taylor’s analysis, one might suggest that the esteemed visitors were invited to Athens and to the renovated National Gallery to discover the admirable Europeanness of Greek artists anew. This ‘scenario of discovery’ situated the Greeks in the position of the wild Other (though Greeks are neither ‘wild’ nor ‘Other’ in the sense that they already are ‘European’) that, contrary to Taylor’s example, actively consents to the gaze of the discoverer in the vain hope that it will achieve recognition. But, by seeking recognition as European, the Greek subject is revealed as not European enough.
A scenario sets the frames of visibility and legibility. As Greeks watch their (re)discovery take place through their televisions, they are assumed to play their silent part in the production and transfer of memory. As they look at the foreign dignitaries exploring the brand new National Gallery, a space inaccessible to the general public, they ostensibly offer their consent to the enunciating gaze in this ritual of (re)discovery. This privileged enunciating gaze appears as the standard of Greekness (and Europeanness), but remains off limits for the ‘natives’ as, in this scenario of discovery, the one who watches can only be part of the frame as long as they do not exist in the frame. They are, thus, implicated in the scenario by the mere fact that this scenario stages their exclusion.
Yet the pandemic has created a crack that renders such complexities of the Greek War of Independence and its memory visible and legible. If the military parade sought to rehearse repertoires of national pride and prowess, the (re)opening of the National Gallery performed Greece’s apparent outward looking and liberal European identity; it declared that ‘we are ready at last to become European’. However, as a result of the (often erratic) COVID-induced restrictions in civil liberties, this declaration was predicated on the exclusion and silencing of the very people who were supposed to utter these words, as opposed to a small group of dignitaries who were the actual actors in this scenario that enabled them to (re)discover Greece in the empty streets of its capital. As such, the birth of the Greek nation was revealed as a (re)discovery of Greeks and Greece amidst the ruins of the Ottoman Empire by European philhellenes; an act of possession whose commemoration in 2021 was unmasked as an act of (voluntary) subjection to the colonial gaze.
Lefebvre, H. 2003 . The Urban Revolution, trans. Robert Bononno (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).
Taylor, D. 2003. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press).
Dr Philip Hager is associate lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University. He has published work on contemporary performance theory and practice with a particular focus on questions around citizenship, urban space and cultural memory in European contexts. He is co-editor of Performances of Capitalism Crises and Resistance: Inside/Outside Europe (Palgrave, 2015) and ‘Dramaturgies of Change: Greek Theatre Now’ (Journal of Greek Media and Culture 3:2, 2017).