a painting of Maria Papadimitriou's project will be shown at the Blow de la Barra stand in Artathina
Maria Over Mount Athos
By Jennifer Allen
Maria Over Mount Athos
A hot air balloon floats silently over Mount Athos... Not just any balloon but one carrying an image of Maria's face. Much to the surprise of the monks living on the peninsula, the face does not belong to the Blessed Virgin Mary but to the artist Maria Papadimitriou. With this visitation from above, Papadimitriou questions the centuries-long ban that bars women from visiting Mount Athos to see its cultural and natural treasures.
Over 1000 years ago, the Byzantine Orthodox Church ruled that the monasteries on Mount Athos should worship the Virgin Mary, who is said to have taken refuge on the mountain during a storm. To eliminate rivals for the monks' attention, all females - including animals - were banned from the Athonite peninsula. While Mount Athos is famed for its Byzantine icons of the Virgin, her face is the only female countenance to adorn the monastary walls since all images of other women were also prohibited. Apart from the Virgin, the only other females to grace the peninsula are birds.
Nothing has changed since 1060 A.D.: All women, images of women and female animals still remain absent. Officially known as the Regime of Aghion Oros, Mount Athos is a self-governed monastic republic whose autonomy is protected by Greece and guaranteed by the Greek constitution. The twenty Holy Monasteries are under the spiritual jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, which appears to have more say in Athonite affairs than Greece itself. Although Greece provides public services, including police and customs, the Greek governor of Mount Athos has only an advisory role and reports to the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While Mount Athos can turn away women at its borders, it has the right to give Greek citizenship to foreigners who dedicate themselves to a monastic life on the peninsula.
When Greece joined the European Union in 1981, Mount Athos was specifically excluded from the jurisdiction of EU equality legislation, although the monasteries were not excluded from applying for EU funding. By 1998, the EU had poured 23.4 million euro directly into the monasteries to conserve and to restore their buildings and cultural heritage. While the EU funds have been legitimated on the basis of the monasteries' "monuments of exceptional importance in Europe," many Europeans who supplied these funds - European women taxpayers - have no right to see the monuments, let alone walk on the peninsula.
Light as Air
Maria Papadimitriou's hot air balloon is a light intervention that openly challenges Athonite tradition without breaking Greek laws. The hot air balloon, bearing an iconographic image of the artist's face, recalls the monks' veneration of the Virgin Mary's face on auratic icons. Papadimitriou also takes her cue from the birds, approaching the peninsula by air, albeit without landing. Both appearance and apparition, her hot air balloon will create a highly-visible image that can be seen from afar for one entire day: not only by monks and men on Mount Athos but also by spectators in boats and planes circling the peninsula. Given the balloon's spectacular nature and the political implications of a religious ban on women, the event is sure to gain attention from the international media as a non-violent action against gender discrimination.
In terms Papadimitriou's oeuvre, the hot air balloon project is yet another attempt to undo the border controls that link mobility with identity. Defying the passport control, Papadimitriou has used aesthetic forms - from music to hotel rooms - that promote nomadic, ephemeral and collective ways of experiencing identity. It is no surprise that her Autonomous Temporary Museum for All (T.A.M.A.) centered upon a Roma community living a semi-nomadic life at the edges of Athens. At Mount Athos, Papadimitriou will take on yet another border control with a moving image of Maria: visible to everyone, regardless of gender.