There’s something of the twisted genius at work in 'Ametria', the fascinating exhibition currently on show at the Benaki Museum in Athens. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the genesis of the idea came from the almost unclassifiable Italian artist Roberto Cuoghi – arguably most famous for a seven-year-long performance piece that saw the artist, then in his mid-20s, alter his physical appearance, his daily routine and almost his entire lifestyle to (convincingly) resemble his middle-aged father. Appearances can be deceptive.
Set in a dark, maze-like display area of looming pillars that map out a linear (but disorientating) space, the exhibition is a collaboration between the museum and the Deste Foundation, combining works from both collections. At first glance, the show could be a straightforward chronology of a civilisation’s evolution, but deeper immersion sends the viewer on a strange journey.
'Ametria' is defined as an expression of a purposeless drive; the rejection of an overall vision; the error that turns out to be right. And so the exhibition begins by presenting various beautifully drafted antique maps of Athens; maps that visibly display the signs of centuries of wear, along with the ideas and ambitions of generations of cartographers and civic planners. (The exhibition map, echoing the display space, seems deliberately confusing, so the viewer struggles to work out what exactly they are looking at since the walls are free of labels. Numerous visitors seemed lost within minutes of entering the show and could be seen closely studying their maps, like tourists lost in a new city.)
The walls of the exhibition space soon close in and different avenues of works appear, leaving the viewer unsure which way to head. Unexpected pieces begin to sneak into the mix. A 1960s proposal for improving the streets of Copenhagen, diagrams of ‘human energy’ in a city and then more contemporary, loaded works appear – Peter Nagy’s cryptic faux histories, Dominic McGill’s politically charged and nightmarish pencil drawings. The initially subtle juxtapositions gradually become more pronounced until, in the space of ten minutes, the viewer has been led from plans of ancient cities to the apocalyptic visions of artists such as Dionisis Kavallieratos and Ralf Ziervogel. These strange associations and sequences work – the ancient and new pieces sparking off one another and suggesting alternative histories (civilised or otherwise).
Nearly all of the work in the exhibition possesses a conspicuous intensity – almost hallucinatory in places, as with Dominic McGill's, Jakub Julian Ziolkowski's or Matt Leines’ work – but every so often the space unexpectedly opens up to reveal an area devoid of any art, in which to gather your thoughts. At one point, a simple, large gold panel provides a reflective contrast to the darker work; at another the walls split to reveal two gigantic floor-to-ceiling columns of solidified melted chocolate, by the American artist Terence Koh. The sweet smell of chocolate lingers in the air as, around the corner, the self-regarding skeleton of Urs Fischer’s Skinny Afternoon gazes at its reflection in a vanity table.
The curators who have realised Cuoghi’s idea have picked an incredibly powerful selection of work, one that shows the deep power of both establishments’ collections. With over 150 works shown in this bold way, unexpected and unforeseen connections appear and the ‘purposeless drive’ presents a dark and absorbing alternative path.