Pyrrhichios Flight is the latest monument to the Pontic genocide, unveiled recently in Piraeus. The work of sculptor Panagiotis Tanimanidis, it has engendered some controversy because to many, it appears incomprehensible. An installation of barrel-like segments of steel springs in the shape of a vast arch, it is markedly different from the classicising or socialist realism style of sculpture or monument that peppers the urban landscape of modern Greece.
Most Greek monuments depicting massacres take the form of a classical stele, invariably in shining Pentelic marble, with pensively draped figures depicted in bas relief. Further, at first glance, Tanimanidis’ treatment employs none of the common vocabulary generally used for all matters pertaining to Pontus. Ostensibly there are no blatant displays kemenches here, no Pontian eagles or Pontian dances. There are no eternal flames burning centred, as is the case with the Armenian Genocide monument in Yerevan. Nor are there any funerary inscriptions by way of explanation. Instead of the obvious, the port city of Piraeus is treated to the sight of an oversized metallic arched tapeworm that appears to have been excreted from the fundamental orifice of inhumanity. If this is the artist’s intention, it would be a poignant metaphor for the nature of the crime of genocide and, the place of its derivation. In such an interpretation, the segments that comprise the work could be seen as being in danger of breaking off, as tapeworms do, if left untreated, to infest humanity again and again, as they have consistently done, ever since.
With the scatological as my primary point of reference, I marvel at all artistic attempts to interpret the human condition. Given that Tanimanidis’ installation purports to be a public monument to the victims of a crime that is still unrecognised by the perpetrator, I pondered whether that said public monument had to articulate its message more clearly. Its position, overlooking the sea, from which the Pontic genocide survivors had crossed, seeking sanctuary, but also tucked at the very edge of the polis, seems to be both inviting interpretation and understanding while simultaneously marginalising itself. If this was the sculptor’s intention then it forms a brilliant piece of social commentary about the place of the Pontic genocide within the broader Modern Greek historical narrative and within Modern Greek society itself.
Having deliberately chosen not to expose myself at the outset to the artist’s own interpretation of his work, which he was compelled to provide to the multitudes of Modern Greeks who could not cope with artwork of a non-prescriptive nature, I did not know what to make of this piece of sculpture. Its hunchbacked shape evokes the traditional stone bridges that can be found all over the Ottoman Empire. Is the monument therefore a bridge that not only symbolises the passage to salvation for genocide survivors but also, the necessary path that needs be crossed, by victims and perpetrators alike, in order that we may heal the wounds of the past? Is it a powerful evocation of the hunched backs of refugees, bent with burdens, either of pain, loss, or bowed down physically by the few possessions they are able to carry with them to their place of safety, or is it in actual fact a rainbow, a symbol shared by the Armenians, symbolising God’s covenant to Noah never to destroy humanity ever again?
The segments that comprise the arch also invite interpretation. Are we looking at a conglomeration of prison bars or cages to show how the non-recognition of the crime of genocide makes the victims captives of history? Are these barrel-like contraptions coffins, symbolic of the fact that the narrative of our modern history rests upon the corpses of the massacred? Is it, in actual fact an accretion of rubbish bins that denote how the perpetrators and genocide deniers alike will be consigned to the dustbin of history as more and more people around the world become sensitised to this heinous historical crime?
Or do they simply form part a narrative featuring the physical passage of the refugees themselves, with some of the smaller cylindrical segments placed on top of beside the larger ones suggest infants being carried by their mothers?
The name of the installation is also laden with significance. ῾Πυρρίχιο Πέταγμα᾽ has been tenuously translated as “Pyrrhic Flight.” This mistranslation lends its own interpretation to the piece. The word pyrrhic generally has to do with Pyrrhus, the ancient king of Epirus, not with Pontus. Although, if a pyrrhic victory is one which actually is considered a loss because the price of victory is so high, than a pyrrhic flight may be considered by analogy to be a triumph of the human spirit in that the refugees survived and the memory of those massacred is still preserved.
However, Pyrrhic is a bad translation of Πυρρίχιος, an ancient Greek war dance, which purportedly has been passed down and preserved exclusively among the Pontians, even though the Kurds and Assyrians of Asia Minor have similar dances with broadly the same movements. The Pyrrhichios is thus a war dance, casting the victims and survivors of the Pontian genocide, as ‘battlers’ and ‘fighters’, either with history, memory, pain or the world itself. Interestingly the English rendition of ‘flight’ is tantalisingly more polyvalent than πέταγμα, which denotes flying with wings. The English also has connotations of fleeing, which juxtaposed against the portrayal of the Pontians as warriors, lends itself to interesting perspectives.
The artist himself states that his work is a sculpture within a sculpture, a sculpture that changes depending on the position of the viewer. Anyone who has studied the Genocide in all its depth and complexity can see how Tanimanidis’ statement forms the embodiment of their experience. The more we study the Pontic genocide, the more our understanding of the time in which it unfolded, of ourselves, its victims, the perpetrators and even its commemoration peddlers, accretes and changes. As a monument to the capacity of study and introspection to transform perspectives, Pyrrhichios Flight is a masterpiece.
In the photograph in which I first saw the monument, which was at its launch, I particularly appreciated the way it was augmented with crimson textiles spread before it, symbolising how memorials and debates about them are built on the foundation of the blood that has been spilt and can become a stylised motif if we use them for political purposes only and become desensitised as to their true importance. The Assyrian flag is emblazoned with similar rivers of crimson blood, and this augmentation of the monument, albeit inadvertently, references the history of the other inhabitants of Asia Minor who were subjected to the same genocide, engendering and entrenching, a spirit of brotherhood.
Tanimanidis himself views his arch as a wave, one which emanates in Pontus and breaks upon the shores of Greece. The segments, made of coiled springs, symbolise perpetual tension and rage at injustice, as well as remembrance. He embeds within those segments, coded retellings of the experience of the Pontian people before and after the genocide, all of which tell a story. A kemenche, predictably enough, is the first thing the Pontian refugee takes with him, and along the way, various symbols denote, locks, drums, The Bible, a flag, wells, evoking memories of desparately looking for water while fleeing, docked ships, church bells, churches, looms, the kemenche as a javelin, binoculars, the kemenche as a plough and finally, the kemenche as it arrives in Greece, ready to be transplanted into Modern Greek culture. This kemenche, a symbol done to death and dragged far beyond the borders of the land of kitsch by the Pontians themselves, becomes in Tanimanidis’ hands, an instrument of a bard, reciting an Homeric epic.
I am incensed that the artist was compelled to provide such a thorough exposition of his work by irate and impatient Greek viewers. In contrast, Peter Eisenman’ hauntingly beautiful but deeply disquieting Berlin memorial to the Holocaust and Daniel Libeskind’s bold abstract design of Berlin’s Holocaust Museum has provided no such explanations. Instead, the viewer is invited to ponder its significance and by corollary, that of the event it commemorates, itself.
If true art is that which makes one think, challenge, enlighten but ultimately feel, then Tanimanidis’ monument to the Pontic genocide is exactly that, a worthy depiction of a horrific event but most importantly, of its complex, conflicting and often disturbing after-effects. It compels thought.