Ancient Metropolis in the Digital Age

30 March 2012

Last week I posted a review of ‘Pergamon. Panorama of the Ancient Metropolis’, currently on show at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. In a follow up to this, I want to introduce the ‘Pergamon Poems’ penned by German lyricist Gerhard Falkner, in which he explores the question of what connects the ancient metropolis Pergamon with today’s modern age.  Falkner’s poems are dedicated to the giant frieze on the Pergamon Altar, the highlight of the exhibition. He has tried to capture in words the chaos of the dramatic scenes which are depicted on the frieze, subsequently interpreted by members of Schaubühne Berlin’s ensemble and filmed (Produktion: BROXXFILME). On the occasion of the exhibition’s 500,000th visitor last month, the five video clops were then published on the Pergamon website and the National Museum Berlin’s YouTube Channel (the YouTube ones include English subtitles).

In some of the poems, Falkner connects the ancient era of the past - the monolithic altar was constructed in the 2nd Century BC - with the digital era of the present. In ‘Pergamon Poem I: Asteria & Phoibe’ he asks, “And yet how many gigabytes lie in this frieze, what giant archive must be hiding in this stone?” The frieze is indeed gigantic. It adorned the plinth of the altar, which was 35.64 metres wide and 33.40 metres deep, and portrays the battle between the Giants and the Olympian gods. 

In ‘Pergamon Poem IV: Apollon’ on the other hand, Falkner reflects on the Olympus and beauty “that we have barely known”- a prompt, perhaps, for our smartphone generation who at best catch “downloaded from heaven a few ring tones”, to take the time to appreciate the beautiful things in life instead of always floating along on a digital stream. 

Thanks to the digital age, however, visitors to the exhibition can view a reconstruction of Pergamon in the year 129 AD, in the 360° panoramic view constructed by Yagedar Asisi and his team, side by side with the surviving ruins. At the end of the exhibition, a number of tablet PCs are available on which visitors to switch between images of the panorama and the ruins, and compare them with each other. Furthermore, the tablets show a 3D model of the ancient city, allowing visitors to virtually view some of the exhibition sculptures in situ. 

I wonder whether the citizens of Pergamon ever looked in to the future, just as we are now looking in to the past, and wondered what would be? That one day, thanks to technology, it would be possible to reconstruct a past civilisation and go on a virtual time travel in to the past? And that reflections on it would be viewable around the world via digital video clips on the internet? Falkner concludes his ode to the Pergamon Altar with a final bridge between the past and the present in ‘Pergamon Poem V: Kybele’, in which he considers whether it would have been more appropriate had “the old gods put the people of today into a museum”. The fact that apparently no one would have gone to visit, should give us something to think about.

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