Art Alone Cannot Save the Greek City of Elefsina

ELEFSINA, Greece — Every few minutes at the newly reopened Archaeological Museum of Eleusis, visitors are treated to a divine revelation. A darkened room houses a cast of the seven-foot-tall “Great Eleusinian Relief” (c. 440–30 BCE), a towering depiction of the Greek goddesses Demeter and Persephone imparting the secrets of agriculture to mortals. Suddenly, a cresting wave of brilliant white light from an LED panel washes over the room, a curatorial interpretation of Plato’s description of the visual revelation that once occurred here — ancient Greece meets James Turrell. 

Eleusis, a half-hour’s drive from Athens and now known as the city of Elefsina, was once the heart of Demeter and Persephone’s worship in ancient Greece. Throughout antiquity, the site was fabled in pan-Hellenic religion for the “Eleusinian Mysteries,” an initiatory cult in which devotees from Athens would process out to Eleusis, hoping the rites performed there would provide them with a favored afterlife. By now, the popular theory that hallucinogenic fungi were mixed into the ritual drink kykeon has largely been disproven. More likely, the heart of the mystery’s power was simply the potency of religious theater. Initiates guarded the enigmatic ceremony so well that it wasn’t until the 2nd century CE that a Christian writer claimed to reveal the secret formulas of this ancient pagan tradition.

Despite its mythical status in ancient Greece, the city was hit hard by 20th-century industrialization. The production of paint and steel, oil refinement, and industrial shipping severely polluted the water and air around the city. Mid-century photographs depict billowing smoke stacks looming behind scattered marble fragments. In 2005, Elefsina, a city of blocky cement houses and overgrown sidewalks, was identified by the European Environmental Association as a “major environmental concern.” Today, the rusty skeletons of industrial ships still scatter the beach at Vlycha.

In 2023, the reopening of the site’s archaeological museum following an extensive renovation coincided with Elefsina’s appointment as a European Capital of Culture (ECoC), for which the organization Eleusis 2023 planned an ambitious program of contemporary art exhibitions and performances exploring the city’s layered past entitled Mysteries of Transition. Now, Elefsina is faced with a new mystery: What happens next? Can contemporary art harness history to revitalize a city struggling both economically and ecologically?

Mysteries of Transition was led by Eleusis 2023’s CEO Soultana Spyropoulou and General Artistic Director Michail Marmarinos. Millions of euros were poured into the project — including major contributions from HELLENiQ Energy Holdings and Titan Cement, both of which operate facilities at Elefsina. HELLENiQ is formerly Hellenic Petroleum, the once state-owned oil refiner that produced much of the oil spewed into the Saronic Gulf by the improperly certified tanker Agia Zoni II in a 2017 incident. The irony of HELLENiQ’s sponsorship in particular is difficult to miss. But both Eleusis 2023 and HELLENiQ’s press releases about the company’s involvement avoid acknowledging the company’s historically exploitative relationship with the people and environment of the Saronic Gulf. 

Yet the history of Elefsina, both ancient and modern, was a major theme of the Mysteries of Transition. The opening ceremony explored the relationship between ancient Eleusis and industrial Elefsina through a procession from Athens to Eleusis and the raising of a great mechanical whale out of the harbor. In order to house an extensive program of art shows and live performances, termed “mysteries,” former industrial spaces were renovated into galleries, a cinema, and performance venues. These venues, which may continue to draw artists and tourists, play a key role in Eleusis 2023’s hopes for the future. Looking towards that future in daunting language, Marmarinos noted that the real payoff of Elefsina’s year as an ECoC would be “its afterlife.”

Nearby Athens, with its increasingly international art scene, offers a window into what this afterlife might look like. After Documenta 14 in 2017, the Athenian contemporary art scene seemed poised to become a center for the global art community. This has taken real form, particularly in spaces such as the Breeder Gallery. When the gallery opened a physical space in 2019 in a renovated ice cream factory in the Metaxourgeio, it seemed to mark the beginning of the neighborhood’s revitalization. Metaxourgeio has historically welcomed migrant communities, but also struggled with high rates of drug addiction. Despite the Breeder’s community outreach, the gallery’s presence has corresponded with rising real estate prices without ameliorating the neighborhood’s pre-existing challenges. In response, Metaxourgeio residents held a funeral for their neighborhood last March.

Thousands of years ago, the Eleusinian Mysteries helped initiates make sense of their relationship with the more-than-human world. In the years to come, it’s very possible that Elefsina’s new art infrastructure will draw more tourists and artists to the city, addressing the dearth of human and economic resources that the Elefsina Municipality has identified as a major challenge to developing and implementing environmental policy. A series of self-assessment workshops are aimed at laying the foundations for a long-term strategy. But until a clearer plan emerges for turning art into action, Elefsina’s reign as a European Capital of Culture risks merely romanticizing the city’s ancient history and aestheticizing its current environmental devastation and economic hardship.  

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top