Andrew Arnaoutopoulos

Consignment
Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane & Central Station, Brisbane; Eagle Street, Brisbane

In Consignment, Andrew Arnaoutopoulos applied his preoccupation with Greek ancestry to the repatriation of displaced cultural heritage, preparing a fictional scenario that contested the fate of the Elgin Marbles. Allegedly assembled for reasons of preservation, this collection of frieze sections and metopes (high relief panels) was removed from the Parthenon around 1801 by agents of the British Ambassador to Constantinople, Lord Elgin, and alter protracted negotiation purchased for the British Museum in 1816. Though the legality of Elgin's actions and the proposal to reunite the marbles with the Parthenon are not new issues, the current climate of post-colonial reparation allowed their treatment within the installation to assume a fresh relevance.1

In keeping with Arnaoutopoulos's wider concerns, the question of the Elgin Marbles was situated against an industrial backdrop. Taking up the themes of transportation and storage that structure much of the history of the marbles, he exchanged his more characteristic painterly emulation of industrial surfaces for the trademarks of industry supplied by the readymade: mass serial production and standardisation.

The installation consisted of 360 identical, empty (though not perceptibly), prefabricated cardboard freight cartons that were stacked into the gallery to produce a labyrinthine space of monumental walls. Set against the already sparse amenities of the Institute of Modern Art, this arrangement convincingly simulated the crammed interior of a transhipping warehouse. To secure the illusion, each carton was dutifully labelled with the type of mundane, perfunctory information that is routinely expected of such articles. Printed up as consignments of Parthenon frieze or metope bound for the Acropolis Museum from the British Museum, they exhibited almost caricatured handling instructions (this way up, handle with care, etc.) and recycling logos, but also unceremoniously handwritten invoice codes and hastily scrawled corrections-hieroglyphic markings peculiar to the work space of freight distribution. As such, the cartons were for Arnaoutopoulos a further rumination on the industrial surface, focused this time on inscriptions accumulated during the transit process.

It seemed at first that through the serial repetition and surface simulation of these boxes, Arnaoutopoulos might be engaged in a post-modernist style critique of the myths of singular perfection associated with the marbles. (Debunking, for example, the early British assumption that they all derive from the hand of a sole genius creator, the sculptor Pheidias.) But it gradually became apparent that the freight cartons were related to their pretended contents more by formal analogy than critical disclosure. For one thing, the frieze sections and metopes are themselves serial objects. Accordingly, the installation was better construed as an analogue of the Parthenon itself. Integrating a series of sculptural units with architectural space, Consignment enacted the same discipline as that monument and, by force of comparison, pointed to the internal disjunction imposed on it by Elgin's intervention.

Yet Arnaoutopoulos's phoney cultural cargo was most notably a site for polemical speculation. Despite the confidence implied by its precise and unequivocal forwarding address to Mackrygianis, Athens, Greece, the aim of Consignment was not to suggest that the return of the Elgin Marbles would be inevitable, or that cultural reconciliation can be an unconditional exercise. Rather, the maze of empty boxes functioned to propagate a sense of indefinite delay. Indeed, the format of the installation could be understood to reflect the tokenism or 'emptiness' of most British parliamentary concessions to the patrimony of the marbles: producing all the signs of accord but, in the end, failing to deliver the goods. In this respect, Consignment also served to remind us that the transfer of the Elgin Marbles has effectively been delayed by the repatriation debate itself. While there is more or less universal agreement that the Greek people have a legitimate claim on moral grounds, the rightful place of these relics remains unsettled both legally and politically. As a result, the marbles have been left to occupy a kind of discursive limbo, their cultural specificity postponed for the duration of the diplomatic tug-of-war.

Moreover, it is possible to argue that even if fully restored to Greece and the Parthenon, the marbles would continue to be displaced. A point inadvertently brought out by the debate is that the Elgin collection now participates in two distinct cultural traditions, each premised upon a different reading of the sculptures' aesthetic nature. The foremost of these is of course classical antiquity, according to which the marbles are judged inseparable from the parent architecture of the Parthenon. However, an alternate British neoclassical tradition also came to exist after the 1800s. This was principled, by contrast, upon the fragmentary condition in which the marbles were seen in the Elgin collection. Interpreted as autonomous monuments to ideal form, figurative Greek artefacts like the frieze and metopes formed the crux of a minor renaissance in British fine art and aesthetic theory. This is not to say, however, that the British Museum's case for retention should assume precedence over the Greek bid for restitution, but merely that in the wake of the marble's significant influence upon a second, surrogate culture the task of assigning them a stable pedigree has become necessarily problematic.

To a large extent, the choice of environment for Consignment was an attempt to figure these patterns of dislocation. It was not only the themes of transportation and storage that made the warehouse setting an appropriate vehicle for a statement about the Elgin Marbles. As an intermediary zone that lies between destinations, the warehouse neatly epitomises the concept of a placeless limbo. In addition, by comparing objects of cultural heritage with the serial uniformity of freight packaging, this setting introduced the commodity status of the marbles to the displacement question. Having been the coinage of financial barter between Elgin and the British government in 1816 and now of cultural barter with the Greek nation, the marbles possess a 'value' that is less a natural endowment than the effect of their circulation within these transactions and discourses. Ultimately, however, Arnaoutopoulos wanted the extensive inventory of his mock warehouse to recall the historical stockpiles of the museum. Far in excess of the 56 frieze panels and 15 metopes that actually comprise the Parthenon marbles, the surplus of boxes in Consignment were there to admonish us of the museum's role as a bulk warehouse facility, stocking the wayward and misplaced property of cultures.

By setting up this simple homology between formal strategy and cultural polemic, Aranaoutopoulos managed to abbreviate the predicament of the Elgin Marbles (and indeed all stray heritage material) to a single industrial motif without sacrificing critical severity. However, saying more about suspension than restitution, his installation was not so much a blueprint for reconciliation as a yet unanswered question: a resounding 'When?' cast on a monumental scale.

notes: 

1 . Official dissent over the removal of the marbles has existed since the Philhellenic poetry of Byron of 1812 and manifested periodically up until the 1 980s. For a full history and analysis of the repatriation debate see Christopher Hitchens, "The Elgin Marbles: should they be returned?", Chatto & Windus, 1987.