Temporary urban garden: teasing Adonis

Ivana Wingham

Research output: Other contribution


In Greek mythology, Adonis was a spirit of vegetation, an annually-renewed god, mirroring the decay of nature in winter and its revival in spring. He was born from a myrrh tree, the oil of which was used at his festival. His cult belonged to women, and occurred at the cultural margins. In Athens, the celebration of Adonis had a special feature, the so-called "Adonis gardens". Women planted seeds in pots. When the plants sprouted, they placed the shoots on the rooftops of their houses. There, they withered in the sun, and women lamented Adonis’s fate. While the ephemeral plants left no archeological evidence, ‘Adonis gradens’ left their trace as a metaphor for any transitory or short-lived pleasure, the antithesis of the steady husbandary of agriculture or marriage. Many authors have discussed the relationship of gender, space and smell in festivals of Adonis. The women of Aristophanes' Lysistrata hold a sort of Adonis festival atop the Acropolis, which becomes, in a sense, a private rooftop. The notion that women hold an Adonis-like festival at the very heart of the polis forces us to rethink the distinction between public and private festivals (Reitzammer, 2005). Another interpretation has suggested that the Athenian womens’ festival was in mockery of Adonis (and ephemeral male sexuality in general), using spices, and their smell, associated with women and their sexual activity (Detienne,1994). In the current context of Greek politics, public space is often used for private gain – large buildings restricting to private pleasure spaces previously open to public enjoyment. The excluded public is left only to its own, private terraces. In ancient Athens, women responded to exclusion by celebrating the transitory Adonis with spices and plants. In the proposed project, forming part of the ‘Unbuilt 2008’ event hosted by the Athens Byzantine and Christian Museum in November 2008, we will re-interpret the Athens festival of Adonis in the context of the occupation of public space in modern Greece. The project explores exclusion zones through practice-led research on three levels: Excavation of original images of spice in the area of Attiki (the area of Greece in which Athens was situated) from the Goulandris Natural History Museum of Athens. These are transformed through image-based time media (animation). The animations transform the static archival pictures into ‘live’ plants, blown by the Mediterranean winds, that blow today much as they did in ancient times, alluding to the female role in ancient Athens In the myth of Adonis, spices feature as women. Adonis’s mother, the goddess Myrrha, was turned into the myrrh tree from which Adonis was born. Spices in ancient times were also as valuable as gold. Within the project, hanging nets of gold thread from the Museum ceiling, connected to the walls, represent the rooftops of Athens. The walking topography of the exhibition is enhanced by essential oils from test tubes that generate strong, pungent smells. The smells of spice, while invisible, introduce a strong spatial demarcation of the public space The etymology of ‘archive’ is associated with public space: ta arkheia "public records," arkheion "town hall," arkhe "government". Benjamin (1940) saw the past as carrying with it a ‘secret’ index. Archival material is an index connecting elements of the past with issues of relevance today. The index of this project is formed of the images of spices associated with female sensuality. Through the public display of original images presently housed in museums, a critique of exclusion is pursued visually (through the hanging ‘rooftops’) and phenomenally (through smell). The images and smells are a transitional tool to expose, and tease, ideas of privatisation of Athenian public spaces such as Eleniko and Goudi
Original languageEnglish
PublisherScott Brownrigg
Place of PublicationAthens Byzantine and Christian Museum; Greece and Scott Brownrigg, London
Publication statusPublished - 2 Nov 2009


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