A visitor wandering the British Museum may notice that a security guard shadows his steps as he enters gallery 20b in the Greek antiquities section. If the patron approaches the great marble sculpture at the far end of the room the guard will warn him to keep a distance of 10 feet. The guard is armed with a truncheon; the visitor is inclined to obey. Perversely, this makes it impossible to read the label at the base of the sculpture, which looks to be nothing more than a block of raw quarry stone. The text says:
Phidias, “Pandora.” From Athens, Classical Period, circa 447 BC. According to Plutarch, Phidias claimed he saw the crouching form of Pandora in this stone but was unwilling to “release” her.
It’s not the first time Pandora has been under armed guard. In the 60’s the sculpture had a revival when it was cited as a classical forebear of Conceptual Art and in a notorious stunt of 1970 Christo wrapped it in nylon and rope. Shortly after Christo’s intervention a minor London artist and prankster, Hagop Haledjian, announced he would do Christo one better by performing the waiter’s tablecloth trick on the twenty-ton rock. Haledjian’s “micro-levitation” was never realized, but the artist’s true objective, no doubt, was the “happening” he provoked by attracting security guards and onlookers as he unfurled his cloth at the base of the rock, a performance repeated for months with identical results until the young man was barred from the museum.
The latest spotlight on Pandora dates from June 30 of this year, when, after months of bitter and chaotic wrangling with its international creditors, Greece defaulted on a scheduled IMF payment. The country suddenly fell into a political-economic limbo. That day an unidentified man entered gallery 20b with a pickaxe hidden in an aluminum crutch and aimed a blow at an exposed seam in the marble block. Before he was tackled by a security guard the man shouted a slogan in Greek: “Φέρτε Πανδώρα Αρχική,” or “Bring Pandora Home.”
Anyone who has followed the protests in Athens over the past year will recognize the would-be vandal’s slogan. The phrase is seen on banners and placards alongside denunciations of the EU, the World Bank and the IMF and calls for Nazi-era war reparations from Germany, its words scrawled in red paint from Athens’ poorest neighborhoods to the Acropolis. If the slogan is ubiquitous it is also the object of misinterpretation. “Bring Pandora Home” is thought by many to express nationalist feelings linked to the broader movement for the repatriation of antiquities, an understandable error, since the Elgin marbles, the most controversial of “pirated” Greek artworks, are housed near Pandora in the British Museum. But the secretive activists militating for Pandora in fact have completely different motivations. Formed of a political group once allied to Syriza, but which broke with the party when it claimed power, the Pandora militants have taken a political tack unlike any other in Greek politics today, advocating ever harsher austerity measures so as to deepen the country’s economic misery. An anomaly in radical Greek politics, the group backed a Yes vote in the July 5 referendum. The militants believe that only sheer ruin can promote the goal of purging the country, and Pandora would supposedly enable Greece’s rebirth from chaos. As is well known, Pandora loosed all man’s ills upon the world, but she shut her eponymous box in time to keep hope safely preserved. One might conclude that this message of hope is what Pandora’s militants want to see brought about on the contemporary Greek political scene — and made possible by a stealth attack on Phidias’ sculpture.
But this would mean Pandora’s militants take the sculpture in the British Museum perfectly literally: as the stone prison of a character from Greek mythology. If this is true, the militants’ aims may be more devious than we think and more dangerous even than the idol-smashing fanaticism of Isis in Palmyra. Clues to their program can be found in Plutarch’s Lives. Plutarch says that when Phidias first saw the block of quarry stone, “his hand was stayed as if petrified.” A pupil of Phidias expands on the meaning of the sculptor’s petrification.
Pandora holds her vessel close and the knowledge of her error is written on her face. But her pose says something else. As she crouches and turns aside she is trying to evade our prying eyes. Pandora, in other words, has succumbed again to temptation. She is ready to open the box once more and let human hope fly away forever.*
The prospect of lost hope in politics is perhaps no cause for despair. Last January Tsipras claimed that “hope begins today” and the sitting US president was elected on the strength of that single deceptive word. Writing in the wake of Greece’s latest submission to austerity, Bifo Berardi has pointedly advocated “withdrawal, abandonment of the political scene, and defeatism” as strategies for the disempowered. In this light, Phidias’ sculpture may be the ultimate civic monument and Pandora the muse of contemporary politics. “Pandora” is a memorial for the future, a hoped-for time beyond the horizon of hope.
* Plutarch, Lives, Vol. III, Pericles and Fabius Maximus. Nicias and Crassus. Bernadotte Perrin, trans. (Loeb Classical Library), 465.