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The open space

The open space

Walter Grasskamp

The academy, founded by Plato in the fourth century Before Common Era, is neither named after a building nor an educational programme. The name source for many educational institutions of the modern age that moved into magnificent buildings was a tree garden, or, as is in the rhetoric of classical education to this day, a grove. It lay outside the city wall of Athens and had previously been dedicated to a hero named Akademos, whose name was transferred from the property to the philosopher’s circle.
Decisively for the philosophical rhetoric of the Western and Middle Eastern cultures (where ancient knowledge survived the rabid censorship of the early Christian Middle Ages), the Platonic conversations took place in the shadow of the trees, as if only the city outskirts could provide clear thoughts, thoughts able to look beyond typical urban life.
Perhaps part of the reasons for deciding on the location also related to precautions taken concerning the city’s population, whose lack of confidence and rejection had cost Socrates, Plato’s teacher, his life a decade before. Before Plato had erected a building on the site, freethinking was tested first in the context of tree-lined suburban land.

On the other hand, the school of Plato’s successor Aristotles, the Peripatetics, is said to have acquired their name from the column-supported covered “Walking Hall” (Peripatos) in which they met. According to another tradition, it goes back to their “wandering around” while conversing. The Peripatetics were not the only ones to be named after a building type, since the Stoics, grouped around Zenon, owed their proprietary names to the place of their conversations, the Stoa, as well. The Stoa is a colonnade, which, in Greek antiquity, was a public space in which one could move freely and meet, away from the sun’s rays. In this case it was right in the market square of the city, in the centre of Athens.
The meeting points of the Peripatetics and Stoics were, architecturally, significantly articulated through the columns, which supported the roof as sun and rain protection. They simultaneously afforded the halls and corridors a sense of openness and thus a favourable atmosphere for anencounter to take place. As the columns opened up the space, the conversations behind them opened up to the freedom of increasingly unbiased discussions. If one considers these columned halls to be public space in the modern sense, one must, of course, take into account that their communicative function was confined to free men and that women as well as slaves were withheld that opportunity. Only the great Athenian garden of Epicurus is said to have been an exception in this respect.

In later returns to classicism, the column was quoted not only as bearing a load, but also as conveying meaning. Here the simultaneous openness of architecture and thought was rather seldom meant, instead it concerned other peculiarities of antiquity. After all, columns bore the porticos of some of the 18th century villas, whose inhabitants owed their wealth to the slave trade, as was the practice in ancient times. Particularly since the “Greek Revival” of the young USA monumentalised the pillar as an element of a white classicism, which was also a political colour theory. In classicism, the philosophical legacy of antiquity did not always continue, rather it was the glorification of violence and inequality that did. Hardly any modern artist has made the ambivalence of these regressions the subject of their work quite like Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006). Between the liberation of the French Revolution of 1789 and the terror of the National Socialists after 1933, he took up the traditions of an architectural language in which the pillar played a leading role in various respects (it was especially the phase of the terreur of theFrench Revolution fascinated him).

Finlay’s practice and reflection, through the forms of sculpture, graphic art and literature, did not occur in the city, but in the country. His secluded property in Scotland was a territory of sovereignty, which was, as Little Sparta, temporarily armed against the rest of the world.

At the border of his property was a freestanding column, the pedestal of which borethe inscription The World Has Been Empty Since The Romans, with which Finlay relativized the importance of the tradition in which he himself stood, that of classicism. As a symbol, a bearer of text and a sculpture, the column stood for a unity of philosophical reflection, literary writing and artistic form. It was typical of the work of Finlay, who sought to mediate a thought not only as a text and a book, but above all as a place that is occupied too.
Besides the museum-like fossilisation of classicism, one can view Finlay’s engagement with thecolumn as an emblem of a lively tradition that is less related to the architectural space of rhythm,openness and elegance, rather to the freedom of thought. At the same time, his column articulated thought that was bound to place, as reflected not only in the philosopher’s school buildings of the of the antiquity, but also in Friedrich Nietzsche’s mistrust of every thought ‘which is not born in the open and in free movement,’ (which certainly did not relate to the wandering about of the Peripatetics, but to his own hikes in the mountains of Engadine).
Unlike the Greek philosophers, Finlay also preferred the open landscape, which he occupied with his collection of philosophical remarks and classicistic reminiscences. The unity of terrainand thought became for him the epitome of territorial sovereignty and independent thought.

In Bernd Zimmer’s project STOA169 the column is not meant to be an architectural load carrier, nor a sign of power. Rather, it is a carrier of meaning, but not in the sense of an individual coding. Instead, it is about a project that brings artists together from all over the world to articulate a common thought by assembling their static representatives, in which peace is theresult of a meeting of people in freedom and equality.
It is, therefore, less a classicistic reference to the pillared hall as the staging of free discourse inthe antiquity, but rather a political work of art, which, in its form, is meant to bring forth thesynthesis of many artistic approaches as common ground. Can contemporary art still be something other than the fleeting neighbourhood of the biennials, or the stand landscape of art fairs, the stock exchanges of the market? Bernd Zimmer’s project STOA169 is about a utopia of art that occupies a location for it to take shape.