Beth Morrow, Kallos Gallery Registrar & Manager, reflects on the role of the artist, as well as the art, inspired by the Attic Black-Figure Amphora, the only known to bear the potter Pamphaios’ signature.
I find one of the most striking pieces at Kallos Gallery is the attic black-figure amphora depicting the god Apollo playing the lyre before a goddess, perhaps his sister Artemis. The amphora is of the elegant Nikosthenic type and beautifully proportioned with long, slender handles and is signed by its maker – the potter Pamphaios. But the pot isn’t signed in the manner with which we would declare authorship today, for Pamphaios has written (or had the vase painter write, for these were two distinct roles and specialisations) ΦΑΝΦΑΙΟΣ ΜΕΠΟΙΕΣΝ “Pamphaios made me”.
It is an interesting thought to give the object a voice in order to proclaim its maker, but at the same time a very direct way of declaring the artist/maker. In the contemporary art world I often wonder which holds greater import – the art or the artist, and evermore frequently it is difficult to distinguish between the two. Performance art has always blurred these lines, but the recent movement towards durational performance further obscures any distinctions. In 2010 Marina Abramovic enacted the now seminal performance The Artist is Present at New York’s MoMA. For 736.5 hours, Abramovic performed her art piece – she sat immobile in the museum’s atrium while a member of the audience sat opposite her at a small table for a half hour interval and so on throughout the day and duration of the performance. Abramovic’s body became both the subject and the object, while the “art” existed in the experience of the participants and audience, and the residual documentation of the event. Following this performance Abramovic seems to have become a strange mixture of celebrity and prophet; it is an identity in which we the viewer must actively participate in order to create the art.
In a similar vein during January and February 2015, visitors to London’s Somerset House purchased tickets to watch PJ Harvey record her new album. In a newly opened wing of the grand Neoclassical building on the banks of the Thames a studio had been created in the form of a simple box. Viewers watched Harvey, her band, producers and engineers through one-way glass as she recorded her latest album, a process that is was both a mutating, multi-dimensional sound sculpture and one that became an album of the same title – Recording in Progress. Sound sculpture, creative act, and commercial enterprise, all neatly rolled into one.
These examples of durational performance art purport to offer viewers, or perhaps more correctly the audience, a devotional and quasi-religious religious experience. At the very least, they give the illusion of intimacy with the artist. The Kallos amphora makes no such claim, and Pamphaios the potter remains frustratingly elusive by these standards. What does remain, however, are his wonderful pots – vases, cups, amphorae of various shapes and types – all beautifully proportioned and elegantly crafted. We may not be able to watch him throwing his vessels at a wheel in his Attic workshop, but do we need to in order to recognise and appreciate their beauty today? Do we need to see and connect with the artist in order to valorise his artistic practice? In the case of Pamphaios no, for the object has a voice and asserts the identity of its maker in a strange reversal of the contemporary concern for the artist. Pamphaios empowered his object to speak for itself and that strength resonates within it even today, some 2500 years later.