Discovering A Society. Or rather ... Imagining it?

TRAVEL JUST FOUR MILES from Heraklion International Airport on the Greek island of Crete, and you have gone back four thousand years to the Minoan Civilization.

You appear to have arrived in the heart of a ritualistic society devoted to fearful reverence for the bull. I say ‘appear’, since just about everything you know and much of what you are told on-site concerns a monstrous mythological creature, the bull-headed Minotaur (above).  That beast’s awesome purported presence, deep in an impenetrable maze, evidently pervaded the culture of a society that possibly marks the beginning of our own. The Minoans, after all, have been labeled the first link in “the European chain”, by among others Will and Ariel Durant in their magisterial 11-volume “The Story of Civilization”.

Appearance isn’t everything, though … and neither is even the most detailed study and informed speculation. It often remains simply speculation – as is made very clear in a new and challenging exhibition at New York’s Institute for Study of the Ancient World.

As we head into the city’s frothy season of holiday exhibitions, this show offers crisp and chunky fare. It’s solidly based in a rigorous examination of known and demonstrable facts. What whimsy there is (and there’s actually a lot, at times delivered in a clever winking manner) serves the cause of creative questioning, poking into some conventional wisdoms that may not be so wise.

We owe most of our established perception of the Minoans to Sir Arthur Evans (below), the very model of a swashbuckling archeologist, since he bought the land at Knossos, Crete at the turn of the 20th century and led a dig that unearthed thousands of structures and artifacts. He called the site the “Palace” of Knossos, though we’ve no clinching way of knowing if that’s what it really was.

The ISAW exhibition displays many of those artifacts and showcases Evans’ grand efforts at preserving the “Palace” for the benefit and understanding of his contemporaries and of future generations. Significantly, and to his credit rather candidly, Evans didn’t call that process “restoring” – he preferred to say he was “reconstituting” the location.

There’s a response from those future generations, too – the Institute stirs the mix with a striking digital-age installation by Turner Prize-winning video artist Elizabeth Price. She titles it, in a question-begging way, simply “A RESTORATION”. It doesn’t rehearse in detail the inevitable arguments about Evans creating (through new technology of his time) iron-reinforced concrete columns to freshly support the Bronze-Age edifices – or about his color-choices, which included an especially vivid red for the columns (top picture). But Price’s electronic vision does wrap up her delivery of the ambivalences and contradictions associated with Evans along with some very sharp satire – pointed but never exactly unkind.

In the video and in “reconstituted” pieces of the palace itself, we see the inescapable influence of modish aesthetics from Evans’ own time. Think Edwardian editions of Vogue magazine.

Evans commissioned colorful geometric friezes (above) from the Swiss father-son team of decorative artists both named Émile Gilliéron.

They imagined – perhaps over-imaginatively, we might think – full swirling patterns and some elaborate illustrative scenes, based on the limited fragments of frescoes that were found during the excavation. Such inventiveness also extended into some (not entirely supportable) detail that the Gilliérons provided of athletes’ gymnastic moves, said to be performed with bulls. (And framed them within distinctly Art Deco-ish borders.)

Evans and his team’s imaginativeness is gently skewered in possibly the most archly entertaining pieces of wall-text I’ve ever seen in an exhibition.

Although much of the re-creation was soundly based on the ancient evidence, elements of it were fanciful, leading some to consider the palace at Knossos the best-preserved Art Deco structure in Greece.

Restoring the Minoans: Elizabeth Price and Sir Arthur Evans” runs until January 7th, 2018 at The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, 15 East 84th Street, New York City.

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