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Anja Kirschner & David Panos present "Ultimate Substance" at Vienna's Secession
Kirschner-Panos, Ultimate-Substance, 2012. Photo: Wolfgang Thaler.

VIENNA.- Anja Kirschner and David Panos filmed their new video installation for the Secession during a one-year stay in Greece. With associative references to archaeology, philosophy, mathematics, and ritual, Ultimate Substance departs from the hypothesis that the introduction of coinage in the ancient Greek world effected a profound cognitive shift that was key to the emergence of western philosophic, scientific and dramatic traditions.

The video projection is complemented by rocks and a model of a Platonic solid. Taken together, the three elements point to the separation of physical and mental activity that took place in ancient Greece with the dawn of a money economy. In Ultimate Substance—as in previous works like The Last Days of Jack Sheppard (2009) and The Empty Plan (2010)—Kirschner and Panos deal critically with historical material. But as Kirschner explains, rather than reconstructing it, their aim is to “actualize” it in the sense of Walter Benjamin: “We don’t want to represent the events of the time directly, but to open up a longer historical perspective.”

Ultimate Substance was filmed in and around the Numismatic Museum in Athens and in Lavreotiki, a nearby mining district, which provided the silver from which the Athenian coins were struck, constituting the material base on which the classical Athenian city-state was founded. In contradistinction to the popular image of the Acropolis, the vast mining galleries propose an inverse image of antiquity. Abandoned in Roman times, the mines were re-discovered in the nineteenth century, making Laurion the first factory town of the modern Greek state. In the 1970s the local mining industry was again dismantled. Today the factory ruins house an educational museum on mining history.

As Richard Seaford, Professor of Ancient Greek, shows in his catalogue essay, the advent of the money economy not only rendered the individual dependent, but also promoted the development of abstract thought. “Moreover, with the unprecedented pervasiveness of (coined) money, social power could seem to belong not so much to people as to money.

For the first time in history, systematic power could seem to be impersonal […],” writes Seaford, describing the processes set in motion by the introduction of coinage. The step into “monetary abstraction” was followed by further “modes of abstract thought,” he continues, such as “pure arithmetic, pure geometry and the abstract rules of thinking (logic).”

These historical processes that reach into the present, as well as the fact that tens of thousands of slaves had to work in the silver mines, are reflected in Ultimate Substance by a number of heterogeneous elements. The work forgoes explanatory dialogues or overly bold statements, relying on powerful presentation and stylization, formal elements that also symbolize the development of philosophy, mathematics, and drama in Ancient Greece. Kirschner describes their working process as follows: “In this work, we wanted to let the pictures, the editing, and the bodies speak. So, for example, we decided to work with dancers as a way of deliberately stylizing the scenes in the mines.” According to the artists, the continual presence of historical and modern-day everyday objects also has a clear function, pointing to the question of how far one can “deduce historical developments from material objects.”

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