A mysterious neighbour to the party island of Mykonos, the island of Delos is a granite rock of no more than 5km in length and 1.5km in width that is filled with myths of rituals and mythical trade. Despite ongoing excavations, a site-specific exhibition, titled SIGHT, will be held on the island by renowned British sculpture Antony Gormley from 2 May to 31 October.
This is the first time, since the island was inhabited over 5,000 years ago, that the Greek Archaeological Council has unanimously approved a contemporary art installation to take place at the site. The move is unprecedented, which makes the exhibition all the more unique.
Gormley conceived a display to resonate with the sanctuary, temples, squares, vistas and the topography of the island of Delos that was once a holy place and commercial area, making the island a cosmopolitan Hellenistic town.
According to mythology, the island was known as Άδηλος (A-Delos), meaning ‘the non-visible’ – as it was perceived by the ancients as a floating rock with no fixed location. It became Δήλος (Delos), ‘the visible’, when Zeus arranged for Leto, his mortal lover, to find refuge there, safe from the wrath of his wife, the goddess Hera. When Leto gave birth to twins Apollo, god of light, and Artemis, goddess of the hunt, the island’s destiny and future prosperity was assured. This unique character was marked on Delos’ architecture, sanctuaries, houses and through rituals to celebrate the gods and protect the island.
Historical narratives show that humans occupied Mount Cythnos, the highest point of the island, from 2500-2000 BC through to 69 BC when it stopped being a vital commercial port in Mediterranean routes. The island was then abandoned, and has remained isolated until today, barring the archaeologists who are drawn to the island for scientific research.
The new installation consists of 29 life-size iron ‘bodyforms’ made during the last 20 years. Restoring a human presence and creating a physical path connecting to the mythology and human activity of Delos’ past, Gormley invites viewers to imagine human form on the now abandoned site. Gormley’s approach evokes a radical reassessment of the traditional statue or totem of the pre-modern world that once adorned public squares, temples and private dwellings but which are now absent, sequestered instead inside museums.
Since the early 1980s, Gormley’s sculptures, installations and public artworks have challenged our perception of space and the human body. At the University of Cambridge, he studied Archaeology, Anthropology and Art History, equipping him with a deep understanding of the diversity of human nature and its origins. To connect the geological environment of Delos with its human history of myths, politics, commerce and ritual, the sculptures are installed at various locations throughout the island.
The first connection between visitors and the work is established before they even set foot on Delos. The human presence on the island can be sensed and seen from the boat: approaching the rugged north-west coast, passengers will catch sight of a lone figure (from Gormley’s 1998 series Another Time), standing sentinel in the sea at the edge of the island. Two more sculptures stand at the edge of the commercial port and on Mount Cythnos.
Gormley explains his bodyforms are a conversation between the sacred and profane architecture on the island, the past and future, the myth and reality, the visible and invisible as the works appear and disappear. “Art is about reasserting our first-hand experience in present time.’ He sees the installation as a form of acupuncture, a way of catalysing what is already there, allowing it to be reflexive and present in the viewer’s experience. This interaction can lead to an intense physical and mental connection with time, space and nature,” Gormley says.