For the first time, an exhibition of 15 replica sculptures of the Acropolis are on display. With the support of the South Australian government and as part of the annual Adelaide Festival of Arts, the sculptures can be seen in the foyer of the Adelaide Festival Centre.
The life-size plaster casts — poorly sculpted to reinforce their replica status — include samples of friezes and metopes of the Parthenon, Poseidon’s bust, Horses from the chariot of Helios, and a two-metre-tall Caryatid. The confrontation between sculpture and viewer outside of the traditional encounter of a museum proves a powerful statement of artistic, architectural and political merit.
Since 2013 the Foundation for Hellenic Studies has been petitioning a #returnthemarbles on social media, and has attracted legal support from Geoffrey Robertson QC and International Human Rights lawyer Amal Clooney, and verbal statements of support from Stephen Fry and George Clooney, respectively.
Ahead of the exhibition’s original opening in March, South Australian Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis spoke of Australia’s “long held a fascination for the Parthenon Sculptures … This is a tremendous opportunity to see them [the sculptures] in the heart of South Australia’s cultural space and understand why it is such a tragedy that the originals are spread all around the world.”
A key point of interest in housing the Sculptures of the Acropolis within the Festival Centre is the interaction provided between the sculptures and the original civic ambitions of the Festival precinct itself. The cultural ideals imported by the sculptures of the Acropolis import arrive at a critical time for Adelaide as the Festival Precinct tries to reclaim it’s original ambitions as a public forum and cultural heart of the city.
The exhibition unites the city of Adelaide with Athens (the home of the original sculptures) and London (the home of the looted Parthenon Marbles). Most critical to the architectural discipline, the campaign to return the marbles has helped produce a built-outcome. After decades of competitions, Bernard Tschumi’s New Acropolis Museum (2009) was completed to provide a political statement rendered in architectural form.
Designed as the physical home of the campaign for the return of the Elgin marbles, the New Acropolis Museum exhibits rough plaster cut copies in place of the Elgin marbles (located in the British Museum in London). Reciprocity is also commanded in the architecture, with the large glass rectangular gallery at the top of the Museum in dialogue with the Parthenon as an exact geometrical mirror. The housing of the rough, plaster cut replicas alongside their historical originals — directly adjacent from the Parthenon — is a bold statement of artistic and national identity.
Like the exhibit of the marbles themselves, the New Acropolis Museum is a simulacra of the Acropolis. The museum is dominated by the Parthenon Gallery on the top floor which mimics both the geometry and orientation of the Acropolis. To reach the Parthenon Gallery, visitors follow a processional path up various levels of the museum alongside a chronologically progression of sculptures.
Tschumi envisaged the building as a superimposition of three shifted geometric grids in a similar vein to his most famous project, the Parc de la Villette in Paris. As with la Villette, the abstract geometric constructs that generated the project have minimal effect on the actual experience, but provide a symbolic capacity. The geometry of the New Acropolis Museum, positioned alongside the Acropolis at the base of the hill (the most modern and largest building in it’s vicinity), suggests a precise understanding of an architecture as experienced event. In such an encounter, movement becomes a measure of temporal rhythms in the promotion of programmatic encounters. The interiority of the museum as a type (a traditional container for historical artefacts) is seceded by its relations to its geographical neighbour in the Acropolis.
The gaze across to the Acropolis through the glass windows of the Parthenon Gallery presents the Parthenon as a static object of exhibition, returning active political motivations to the rough, moulded plaster sculptures within the museum. This consequently allows the politics of the museum to be governed within the architectural form that controls the encounter.
Returning back to Adelaide, locating the famed sculptures of the Acropolis in the Adelaide Festival Centre brings the faux-marbles in dialogue to a new architectural encounter. The sculptures positioning at the entrance to the Festival Centre, metres beyond the distinctively Adelaide-brown glass sliding doors, promotes accidental encounters with visitors. Ticket transactions and cafe patrons transect with the sculptures in passage to performances and events. The faux-marbles unique combination of sculptural provocation and exhibited neutrality (amidst the everyday programmatic function of the Festival Centre) lends them greater artistic identity and delivers an exhibition that speaks towards how architecture operates within the field of its programmatic insertion.
Democratising access to the sculptures reinforces the power of art when presented in a public forum (and no doubt a weakening in the support for the the U.K to continue to limit their viewership by the Greek population). The sculptures of the Acropolis allow architecture to be viewed as the product of political structures both importing and constructing cultural, artistic and architectural identity.
The exhibition ‘The Sculptures of The Acropolis — A Retrospective’, has currently been in exhibition at the Adelaide Festival Centre from March, and finishes on Tuesday.