How Greek society benefits from political art (various artists) – Olga Ioannou
This past year Athens has experienced unprecedented cultural activity related to contemporary art. Starting from this year’s major cultural event, Documenta 14, to the already established Athens Epidaurus Festival and the more recent Fast Forward Festival of the Onassis Foundation, the capital of Greece is at the center of the contemporary artistic European scene. What is more, many of the artworks were events realized in an urban context, hence relating this kind of activity to the city and to its daily routines. Olga Ioannou retrospectively observes that art which claims public space and the public gaze has become increasingly more political.
Adam Szymczyk, chief curator of Documenta 14 (D14), took the initiative to split the exhibition in both Athens and Kassel. The title, ‘Learning from Athens’, was indicative of his intentions; Athens was to provide the counter paradigm, an alternative field for cultural discourse that was called upon to destabilize the exhibition’s established setting in Kassel. By introducing a new context, the team of curators hoped for the creation of different meanings. In this exotic landscape split between West and East, artists and visitors were to engage in an act of mutual recognition and to reacquaint themselves with each other through the artworks.
D14’s consistency however, was compromised by its scale; the almost 40 different venues made it difficult for visitors to attend all events, let alone succeed in producing any meaning. The physical and temporal distance between exhibitions and special events interfered with people trying to consolidate their experience. Or, perhaps it was the artistic work itself that sometimes failed to express the modern condition effectively, provoking a feeling of awkwardness instead. In fact, some of the artworks displayed were static; others were self-contained; some were tokens of nostalgia for a very distant past; or even self-referential, quasi-idiomatic expressions that made learning from one another – D14’s main objective – a highly demanding task.
On the other hand, what was really intriguing about D14 was that some of the projects were closely related to urbanity and were enacted/performed out in the open, within the urban context. One fine example of this approach took place in the most central metropolitan areas: Ibrahim Mahama’s Check Point Prosfygika. 1934–2034. 2016–2017, in Syntagma Square, where unsuspecting passers-by witnessed the gradual transformation of the square’s area into a work of art. The Ghanian artist laid jute fabric from old sacks – used for shipping coffee and similar merchandise – to cover the entirety of the square’s pavement in an attempt to denounce capitalist labor practices.
There were also a number of events that occurred within the city’s more derelict areas, such as Victoria’s Square – a former impromptu refugee camp – where the American artist Rick Lowe organized the eponymous Victoria Square Project, designed to remain active long after the end of D14. The artist’s intention is to form a social sculpture by inviting refugees, immigrants, and the indigenous population to connect and interact, thereby creating an open network of exchange and collaboration.
These multiple encounters with various forms of artistic expression may not all have been as much fun, but at least they signalled a critical point in the Athenian cultural landscape where contemporary art uses the city not as a background image, but as an active space where individuals can meet, reflect, and share views on a series of matters involving the current human condition, such as immigration, gender discrimination, and the economic crisis.
ATHENS EPIDAURUS FESTIVAL
This institution is one of the oldest and most celebrated cultural events, occurring each year for the past 62 years and consisting of multiple theatre, dance, and visual arts events from artists from all over the world. This year the German artist and cinematographer Julian Rosenfeld presented his film, Manifesto, starring Cate Blanchett. In this special installation that was on for almost two months, Blanchett recites thirteen filmed monologues based on cultural manifestos of the 20th century, screened in synch by different monitors. Visitors can drift around the dark space and watch the videos in any given order. The result was striking; as the numerous axiomatic sentences from all of the selected texts were being heard in the room, annihilating and contradicting each other, there emerged the incessant effort of individuals to understand and explain human nature through art.
On another note, the open-air, large-scale projection of William Kentridge’s More Sweetly Play the Dance, smartly placed along the pedestrian axis of Dionisiou Areopagitou Street, at the foot of the Acropolis, had a much more immediate effect. The constant parading of endless people clomping away from their homes acted both as a reminder for all that is currently happening around the world, in Syria especially, but it also invoked memories of the – not so very distant – Greek past and the native population’s own pains. The 40-metre-long caravan of shadows of people walking while carrying their most cherished belongings was ingeniously tuned to the carefree strolling of the thousands of citizens and tourists who flood the street daily, thus creating an overwhelming amalgam of human suffering and carelessness or indifference while raising questions about people’s short-term memory and their tendency to evade when confronted with the pain of others.
FAST FORWARD FESTIVAL
Running for over a fortnight in parallel with D14, during the beginning of May, the annual Fast Forward Festival (FFF) organized by the Onassis Cultural Center for the fourth consecutive year, was an artistic event focused on Foucault’s concept of heterotopia: set around the idea of home and/or its violent deprivation, the festival sought to connect some of the most marginalized spaces of Athens with the public. It did so by juxtaposing physical locations to unexpected narratives, as in Gregor Schneider’s Invisible City project. The artist made Omonoia Square ‘disappear’ by completely covering its trace with a cloth. The fabric was hand-painted on its upper side to represent a natural landscape, camouflaging the square when viewed from above.
The eponymous Heterotopia project was perhaps FFF’s most representative event. The Japanese director Akira Takayama designed a site-specific acoustic event in Piraeus, where participants walked a three-hour itinerary moving among seven discrete sites, unlocking an equal number of auditory narrations available to them through an application on their smartphones. Texts were written by foreign writers who had never visited Piraeus before, but were given research material related to the sites picked by the artist. Despite the apparent randomness, the double layering of simply being in a physical location while listening to someone else’s story rendered these sites as places of virtual encounters with the ‘other’, the ‘foreign’, and at times visitors even found themselves sharing their thoughts and feelings.
The Onassis Foundation was also responsible for Tomorrows, a separate exhibition presented at Diplareios School in downtown Athens that focused on the future of cities. The call made to artists from all over the world asked the question of how cities will sustain themselves in the future. Curators eventually picked up 33 individual and group projects that raise issues of dwelling and infrastructure, data management, nutrition, and the role of the individuals in the hybrid reality created between nature and technology. Among these utopic – or at times even dystopic proposals – lies the designs of Electronic Urbanism by the Greek architect Elias Zenetos and the project Ecumenopolis by Constrantinos Doxiadis, both created during the 1960s.
The rich mosaic of artistic events that took place in Athens this summer has contributed greatly in establishing a connection between Greek society and contemporary art. D14, in particular, not only directed the interest of an international art audience toward the contemporary Greek art scene, but has also stimulated a local audience that is currently less familiar with events of this magnitude. Let us not forget that the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens is an institution established as late as 2000, and has been temporarily hosted all these years in the inconspicuous underground exhibition space of the Athens Conservatoire, until its most recent relocation to the renovated Fix brewery (after a design by 3SK Stylianidis Architects, I. Mouzakis & Associate Architects, Tim Ronalds Architects, and K. Kontozoglou, who won the competition for the project). In fact, the new building’s inauguration was expedited after years of bureaucratic delays because of D14.
The artistic turbulence that was created by the numerous events within the city fabric however, illustrated how contemporary art is constantly challenging the limits of museum space toward the urban space. Thus the sudden, unwitting encounters with contemporary art become more frequent and people are therefore more often confronted with the alluring effects of artistic exchange. On the other hand, art that claims the public space and the public gaze, or the active participation of individuals, aims at becoming more than the mere expression of a sole creator. In this context, artworks are becoming increasingly more political, as they are more often presented as opportunities of exchange and social dialogue. This is a rather interesting implication from which Greek society can deeply benefit.