Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Train exhibition: a journey from Ancient Greece to modern Athens by Hatto Fischer

From Ancient Greece to modern Athens - Socrates goes on a trip by train through Greece

Athens 1966



Some write with their eyes in the wind,

while children recreate archaic signs in the sand,

until tabloids made possible writing

in a coherent way from left to right,

and Aristotle would explain these

as being 'lessons of categories',

grammatical rules so as to show

what belongs to logical dispositions

to unite human reflections not in the winds,

but in the shade of man's own eyes

organized around inscriptions first on stones,

then written onto something very light, like the wind

to illuminate upon the imagination, so that dreams

can come true, true as man to life,

altogether a measure of things

provided he can read and write.


hatto fischer


This exhibition in a freight train off on a journey in May 1997 came about due to a unique combination of things.

It starts with having come to Greece for the first time in 1966. It was not easy back then to understand the political history of this country. The land was going through internal turmoils due to difficult adaptation processes. The latter became necessary once leaving behind poverty became a general social and political goal. But then Greece was never free from outside interference. Immediately thereafter came the military dictatorship (1967 - 74) which not only buried its writers and poets like Ritsos in silence, but kept 'democracy at gun point' (Andreas Papandreou).

This silence stretches in reality all the way back to Ancient Greece. Too often the link between then and now is made as if nothing had taken place in between. These breaks need to be thematized.

One of them is the period after the Byzantine empire fell under Turkish rule. Greece stayed silent for 400 years until 1821. Education and culture was more often transmitted in under ground schools. The church played a huge role in upholding a continuity of identity.

After the emancipation from the Turkish rule, the romantic spirit of Lord Byron became one of the leading factors by which Greece equated national sovereignty with 'freedom'. As a result of the misunderstanding between these two very different concepts, Greece entered a turbulent twentieth century with governance always on the brim of top down rule leading in times of danger to the power holders to coup attempts and forms of dictatorships. Again the contradiction to the democracy lived and experienced in Ancient Greece as exemplified by the period under Pericles was silenced although of such a grave magnitude. It contradicted ever more so this link between then and now.

The country suffered during Second World War a lot of hardships under German occupation, but more so during an ever harsher civil war which followed the end of Second World War in 1945. It lasted until 1948 with brothers killing each other. The outcome was a polarization between the Extreme Left and Right not resolved until 1981 when the newly elected Papandreou government institutionalized redemption by granting the Left equal Rights to have their pensions.

Already back then in 1966, there could be felt something was brewing. When we drove three Greek farmers from Evia to Athens, whenever we passed in our VW bus an army truck on the national road, the Greeks in the VW bus shouted ‘opa, opa’. They seemed to sense something and showed in their shouts both dismay and fear.

The Junta surprised even the trade unions with their planned coup. The dictatorship lasted until 1974. Besides the book by Andreas Papandreou with the title ‘Democracy at gunpoint’, that period was filled with many Non Greeks rallying in solidarity with the Greeks suffering torture and imprisonment. Pablo Neruda read the poems of his brother Ritsos when at the round house in Camden Town in London 1999. Günter Walraff chained himself to a post on Syntagma square. Melina Mercouri visited all the European capitals to protest with her voice known to everyone through the song 'Never on Sunday' against this contradiction to have in the birthplace of democracy dictatorship. Many Greeks lived in exile, whether now Toronto, London, Paris or Berlin. There were brilliant minds like Cornelius Castoriadis and many others. In Athens Goethe Institute supported those who had the courage to speak out. Some important links between Europe and Greece were created during that time.

But to return to that time in 1966, when for the first time in Athens. The photo above tells already a story of its own. Upon arrival in Athens at the old airport beside the sea early in the morning (it was around 6.00 but my uncle Tillo Kuhn and his wife Naomi picked me up), the light was already amazing. My uncle and aunt took me for a greeting not up the Acropolis itself but vis a vis to Philopapia where a business man had erected a statue out of love for his wife. Looking from there over to the Acropolis, the remnants of Ancient Greece stood there high above the roof-tops of the many ordinary houses in Athens. The city itself appeared in comparison to the Parthenon as if everything had been constructed in a rush.

When I returned home to where we lived at that time, namely in Ottawa, Canada, I discovered that my mother was already very ill so that her death was pending. But while she was lying in bed, she was reading Robert Payne's book on 'Ancient Greece'. She admired especially Pericles, as if she sensed that the human pride was still there, audible in his voice connecting forever the past and ongoing present of Greece. Melina Mercouri would echo that insofar her famous slogan was ‘now as then’. This book by Robert Payne became for this train exhibition an incredible source of inspiration on how to retrace this journey from the Ancient Greek past to the present.

Many years later, that is after the death of my mother in 1970 and studies in Berlin, I came to Athens not for a short summer period as in the past like any other tourist, but in 1988 to stay and to found a family. It is true that I came back to Greece due to the recognition of the importance of light for my sense of life. To live here, outside, in the streets of Athens, near the Acropolis, is like having a daily dialogue with this ancient past. When taking daily my daughter Maya to her Kindergarten located just underneath the Acropolis, we would say every morning: 'Good morning, Acropolis! Guten Morgen, Akropolis! Kali Mera, Acropoli!'

I am grateful for this opportunity to exhibit my thoughts about how it would be conceivable to travel from the Ancient Past to the present. Robert Payne points out always the Athenians wished to test and to hear their voices. They can be heard daily in the crowded streets of Athens. Especially the loud voices at the fish and meat market are a constant reminder that there is this magical connection between the past and the present.

The opportunity to do this exhibition was given thanks toJula Gavala and Spyros Mercouris. They wanted  an outsider, a stranger, to tell how he sees this most important part of man's history.

The exhibition was inspired by Robert Payne's book about 'Ancient Greece', a book my mother read before she died. Hence I would like to dedicate this exhibiton to my mother who loved this book so much and found in it so well described the free spirit of man’s thoughts based on a wisdom which is unmatched in history.

May the texts I wrote for this exhibition be worthwhile the effort. They try to explain many things in so many words, even though at the risk of leaving many other things worthwhile to be mentioned, really unsaid. That then is the focus of such an exhibition in a train: an inspiring metaphor for man going on a voyage to find himself, or rather to discover the measure of things. And just to make sure one metaphor would stick out as poetry and philosophy intertwined between nomos and physis, there hung from the middle of the wagon a suitcase on a chain and on it were written in chalk the words ‘Socrates going on a voyage’.


Hatto Fischer

Athens 15.5.1997






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