On Visits and Visitations

Why do we visit museums ? Is it for recreation and entertainment ? To expand our knowledge ? In ‘Valéry Proust Museum,’ an essay included in the bibliography of any reputable museum-studies curriculum, Adorno directly addresses this question– and does so in a way that makes one indeed wonder about the underlying motives of one’s visit: ‘One does not know why one has come [to a museum] – in search of culture or enjoyment, in fulfilment of an obligation, in obedience to a convention. Fatigue and barbarism converge. Neither a hedonistic nor a rationalistic civilization could have constructed a house of such disparities. Dead visions are entombed there.’1

Remarking on Valéry and Proust’s positions on museums, the German philosopher contemplates the experience of visiting these ‘houses of disparities, ’only‘ to apprehend in the same moment a portrait and a seascape, a kitchen and a triumphal march, or, worst of all, styles of painting completely incompatible with one another.’ In a vast and wonderfully chaotic museum such as the Louvre, the visitor feels alienated, and art becomes mere information in the service of education. Museums, in other words, can be compared to filing cabinets. ‘Venus becomes a document. Education defeats art,’ Adorno writes in this often-cited essay.

One might argue that it is these dissimilarities, differences or ruptures, characteristic of museums in general and those in Attica in particular that Yiannis Hadjiaslanis examines in Visitations (rather than Visits).2 In Hadjiaslanis’s research project, which involved visiting more than 50 museums in 5 years (2016–2021), each museum is a station – that is, the ‘bearer of a death symbolism.’3 In a way reminiscent of the Benjaminean concept of the flâneur, Visitations attempts to capture the elusive diversity of Greek museums. The task might seem insurmountable, interminable: Here, each photograph becomes a piece in a mosaic that can be expanded ad infinitum.

In a March 2020 email, while still in search of a venue to host his project, the artist emphasized the element of an open narrative: ‘In terms of display, I envision this project as structured around groups of images – some larger, some smaller – in a venue in Athens where several different rooms would be available. An open narrative, one able to change in response to the setting. Similarly, with regard to the possibility of publishing a book/brochure, I'm exploring a design approach, not of a conventional coffee-table book, but a sort of presentation in which one would be able to alter the flow and interplay of the images.’4 At that time, therefore, Hadjiaslanis conceived Visitations as an interactive game, an imaginative juxtaposition of images which speaks to ‘the paradoxes of what we call Greekness today’ and interrogates the function of photography, which ‘renders all moments equal.’

Disparate objects, artefacts, relics, spaces and fragments unrelated to each other feature in the photographs that make up Visitations. What is a mineral from the Goulandris Museum of Natural History doing side by side with a portrait from the Drossinis Museum, a Numismatic Museum room and an alphabet book from the Museum of School Life and Education? By October 2021, the artist had settled on the structure and display design of his project and arrived at the sections that make up Visitations:5 ‘Curiosity and unexpected encounters certainly played a big part during shooting, but the work as a whole invites many different readings, which for me as a creator are equally important. These are highlighted by the way the collection is structured and displayed. On the one hand, the images are presented in their entirety in a large mosaic of small images (some 160-170 images), which encapsulates the multitude of stories and time. On the other hand, the groupings of selected photographs in personal and imaginary taxonomies present alternative narratives, which eschew art-historical or academic interpretation – narratives and configurations within a synchronic field. In other words, they play with the concept of a formal taxonomy and attempt to make sense of the world through a coexistence of the real, the imaginary, and myth. Something like Borges’s taxonomy, without exoticising museum exhibits though. Let’s not forget that, in many cases, cabinets of curiosities have been problematic for this very reason.’6

Through a process of selection, comparison and contrast, Hadjiaslanis eventually realised his core role as a photographer: beyond being a discreet visitor, he is first and foremost a collector of images. Here, too, Walter Benjamin helps us to see more clearly the photographer-visitor-collector relationship. Hadjiaslanis handles these photographs in a way similar to how a collector handles curios in their cabinet, or books in their library. For the artist-collector, photographs of museums visited – where they ‘found so many things’ – eventually become memories, while their goal seems to be ‘a renewal of the old world.’7

Evoking angel and spirit appearances, the exhibition title mentally prepares one to expect to see images on display at the Melina that fuse an oneiric style with the elements of surprise and unexpected encounters. Fundamentally, however, the message they convey is that (our) museums not only bring delight, nor are they only associated with education and posterity. Indirectly, Hadjiaslanis’s photographs encourage us to (re)visit these museums, here and now. In this way, through a series of actual visits (rather than visitations), through our physical presence, we will capture spaces and exhibits, playfully making our own perpetual groupings. After all, everyone is a photographer now.

Christoforos Marinos
Art Historian
OPANDA Curator of exhibitions and events

1 Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Valéry Proust Museum’ (1953), in Prisms, Samuel and Shierry Weber (transl.), Neville Spearman, London 1967, pp. 176–177.
2 These museums include: Athens Railway Museum; Tactual Museum of Athens; Computer Museum; Epigraphic Museum; War Museum; Museum of the City of Athens; Jewish Museum; National Archaeological Museum; Criminology Museum, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens; Yannis Tsarouchis Foundation Museum; Museum of Folk Art and Tradition Angeliki Hatzimichali.
3 Adorno remarks: ‘Proust compares the station to a museum. Both stand outside the framework of conventional pragmatic activity, and, one might add, both are bearers of a death symbolism’ (p. 178).
4 Email from Yiannis Hadjiaslanis to the author, 18 March 2020.
5 The 27 sections, each containing 2-10 images, have original English titles as follows: Onomatopoeia, The Hold, As Related to the Epic, Plato’s Cave, The World Without Time, Dimensions of Weight (Memory Is Gravity), True Colors, Rooms - Red Spring, Vessels, Symbiotes, The Ones that Bend, The Ones Pointing to the Sky, The Ones who Can Remember Everything, Belonging to the Ones who Landed, Transporters, City of Dreams, The Marching Ones, The Chorus and the Song, From the Party Member’s Office, The Ones who Argue, Wounded Healer, Hecate’s Dream, Used by the Artist whose Grave Is Unmarked / Memento Mori, Decks of Atropos, Pantometria (Geometry of Spirit), Reflections (The World Is a Mirror), What is to Come (The Future Is Ancient).
6 Email to the author, 20 October 2021.
7 Walter Benjamin, ‘Unpacking my library,’ Illuminations, Harry Zohn (transl.), Hannah Arendt (ed.), Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston - New York 2019.