Maria Loizidou, Pelage, 2018 Handwoven stainless steel surface, suspended from a metal structure, 180 x 160 x 40 cm Courtesy the artist and Kalfayan Galleries, Athens-Thessaloniki Installation view ©Panos Kokkinias, Courtesy NEON
Maria Loizidou’s ‘Pelage’ (2018) © Panos Kokkinias/Neon

“That same winter the Athenians purified Delos . . . ” So Thucydides chronicles the fate that befell the eponymous Cycladic island in 426-25 BC when Athens’ rulers, “in compliance . . . with a certain oracle”, decided to exhume the graves on Delos and bury the bodies and burial gifts in a pit on the neighbouring island of Rheneia (now called Rineia).

The Athenians didn’t stop there. In an effort to stem a human story that stretched back to the Bronze Age — and thereby gain control of the Sanctuary of Apollo, which made Delos so symbolically significant — they also forbade the people of Delos to give birth or die there. The prohibition resulted in a mass migration, leaving the island deserted and its residents homeless.

The tale’s melancholy echo with contemporary migrations fuels the subtle passions that course through The Palace at 4am, an exhibition of contemporary art in the Archaelogical Museum of Mykonos that is a collaboration between the Athens-based Neon Foundation and the Ephorate of Antiquities of Cyclades.

Normally, the museum is a splendid repository of ancient artefacts — jewellery, statuary, urns, stele — excavated in the late 19th century from Rineia’s so-called “Purification Pit” and the nearby Delian necropolis by Demetrios Stavropoullos, the then ephorate of the region. These remnants of a devastated civilisation are in riveting conversation with the more recent arrivals, several of whose makers are also too familiar with war and injustice.

The show takes its name from a 1932 Giacometti sculpture. Predominantly in wood, the mysterious mise-en-scène shows strange figures, a prehistoric bird and a vertebral column framed by scaffolding, bisected by a pane of glass. Arriving in a dream, it was (or so Giacometti believed) his unconscious response to a love affair with a woman known as Denise, of whom he wrote: “We constructed a fantastical palace in the night . . . a very fragile palace of matches; at the least false movement a whole section of the diminutive construction would collapse; we always began it all over again.”

The artist Petrit Halilaj Photograph ©Panos Kokkinias, Courtesy NEON
Artist Petrit Halilaj installing one of his works at the Archaeological Museum of Mykonos © Panos Kokkinias/Neon

This show can be read as a metaphor for resilience in the face of essential vulnerability. Running from gallery to gallery is a series of enigmatic installations by Petrit Halilaj, who spent his early years in a refugee camp, having fled the war in his native Kosovo. Now based between Berlin, Mantua and Runik in Kosovo, Halilaj has created spindly birds out of Neolithic pottery shards from his native country, and placed vast earthy nests for them in various corners. There’s also a giant moth inspired by the Kosovan Qilim carpet, which he made with the assistance of his mother.

More unequivocally joyful is “Passions, Fictions, Demokratia” (2019). Suspended in the opening gallery, this gorgeous, 3.5-metre long textile by Nigerian-born, London-based Duro Olowu was inspired by the Hellenistic mosaics of Delos, some of which survive. Olowu’s homage, which weaves patterned strips of textiles found in Africa and Europe into a sumptuous waterfall, is a jubilant reminder that while artisans die, their crafts live on across the centuries.

Indeed The Palace at 4am underscores that strict hierarchies between art, design and craft are crumbling as unstoppably as Delos’ ancient temples. Olowu, himself best known as a fashion designer, is just one of a host of artists here — including Lynda Benglis, Ian Law, Maria Loizidou, Simone Fattal — who express complex truths with confidence in textiles and ceramics, mediums that were once relegated to the status of “decorative arts”.

Proof that such taxonomies are foolish is provided by the stoneware of Simone Fattal. Born in Syria in 1942, Fattal grew up in war-torn Beirut, which may account for the sensitive eye for destruction she exhibits in glazed ceramic sculptures such as “Broken Temple II” (2018), where a lone pillar is all that remains of an architectural bid for glory.

(front to back) Simone Fattal, Broken temple I, 2018 Glazed stoneware, 30 x 33 x 14 cm, Courtesy the artist & Simone Fattal ,Pyreus, 2018 Glazed stoneware, 21 x 34 x 18 cm, Courtesy the artist & Simone Fattal, Broken temple II, 2018 Glazed stoneware, 32 x 42 x 34 cm, Courtesy the artist Installation view ©Panos Kokkinias, Courtesy NEON
Simone Fattal's Broken temple I © Courtesy the artist/ Panos Kokkinias / NEON

In millennia-old company, ceramic artists have the advantage of a material that looks timeless. Nowhere is this truer than in the case of Ian Law’s display of funerary urns. Designed in the Etruscan style to resemble the person who has passed on, their stern, hieratic dignity is in synergy with the ancient vessels, dug up at Rineia, which surround them, while their ash glaze makes them a memorial to loss that is at once metaphorical and material.

The boldest contemporary works, however, are those which dare to countermand the aesthetics of their elders. Hats off to curators Elina Kountouri and Iwona Blazwick for risking a gallery that incorporates the Figurine of a Dancer (2nd-1st century BC), a Lilliputian terracotta figure whose sturdy, elegant athleticism prefigures Degas’ ballerinas, and the Mykonos Pithos, a 1.35-metre-high storage vessel from the early 7th century BC on whose sides are carved scenes from the Trojan war, alongside contemporary works such as Daria Martin’s 2000 film In the Palace — a contemporary ballet inspired by Giacometti’s sculpture whose stylised choreography creates an appropriately Hellenic tension between control and decadence — and Paloma Vargas Weisz’s “Falling Woman, Double Headed” (2004), a vast, wooden figure clothed in prisoner grey, suspended from the ceiling.

Ian Law, Untitled, 2018 Reduced stoneware with Nuka glaze, 57x23x11.5 cm Courtesy the artist and Rodeo, London/Piraeus Installation view ©Panos Kokkinias, Courtesy NEON
Ian Law's reduced stoneware with Nuka glaze © Courtesy the artist and Rodeo, London/Piraeus / Panos Kokkinias, Courtesy NEON

Is this the Gothic sister of Walter Benjamin’s doomed angel of history, her wings trapped in the storm of our so-called progress? Or is she nearer to Wim Wenders’ sweet-natured Berlin saviours in his 1987 film Wings of Desire, floating to Earth to tell us, as this show seems to, that while all that is solid melts into air, a few fragments of beauty always survive long enough to inspire the next generation?

Let the last word go to Greek Cypriot artist Maria Loizidou. Her “Pelage” (2018), a silvery textile woven from stainless steel and metallic thread and splashed with a scarlet stain, hangs in the corridor between marble headstones carved with images that commemorate Delos’s deceased. Surely Loizidou’s shimmery net has been designed to catch the memories of those displaced ghosts. Purification is, of course, another word for ethnic cleansing. Let’s be grateful we have art to muddy the waters in the Cyclades and beyond.

To October 31,

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