For most of November 2017 I was based in Athens. During my time here I delved into the history of Athens and Greece via all the sites and museums in this city. Yet I endeavoured to set aside ample time to visit many of Athens’ contemporary art galleries. The city has a very healthy art scene. In spite of the economic and social problems facing the country and the lack of funding some artist spaces may be experiencing, there is a veritable buzz here. A number of international artists have moved to the city attracted by this buzz and more affordable rents. As Berlin (long popular with artists for its cheap rents and artistic spirit and history) has become less affordable, some artists have already been looking to other cities across Europe to base themselves in. Athens is one of those cities, seen as a compelling cultural alternative to Berlin. So much so that in 2017 the Documenta art event held in the German city of Kassel every 5 years, was also held in Athens. As a city with over 2,500 years of history and the landmark Akropolis site beaming across the landscape, that can’t be a bad thing to blossom the imagination.
The Exarcheia district
For a strong taste of alternative Athens, the Exarcheia district is the place to be. This is a raw and unsanitised part of the city. Its streets are caked in graffiti and there’s a heavy anarchist spirit in the air. The scars of the country’s economic problems are very noticeable as you walk the streets. Frequent demonstrations take place here and often without warning. I’ve written a separate post about this district with several photos.
Mural of a homeless person in Athens’ Exarcheia district
EMST National Museum of Contemporary Art
Athens’ National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) opened its doors in the hip Koukaki neighbourhood only two years ago, after a plethora of legal and political difficulties. When I visited it was only partially open. It was not possible to access the museum’s permanent collection of art works, which was a great shame. Hopefully that will be possible soon. On a positive note, I viewed two impressive temporary exhibitions. The first of those was a photography exhibition of contemporary Greek artists entitled What We Found After You Left, which was made in response to a related film, Tripoli Cancelled, by the film maker Naeem Moheiaeman about his father being stranded in Athens’ now defunct Elinikon Airport for nine days without a passport in 1977. The recent photographs created in response are taken in Elinikon Airport, which shut down in 2001. The airport is now a crumbling disused relic. In the photographs one can sense desolation, wilderness and decay. A true feeling of distressing alienation, which is what Moheiaeman’s father experienced during his ordeal. A re-visit to a traumatic period of time made even more poignant by the airport’s neglected and forlorn state.
Photograph by Christos Kanakis from the What We Found After You Left exhibition at EMST
The second exhibition, Chinese Xieyl, located on the bottom floor of the museum features a selection of works from the collection of the National Art Museum of China in Beijing as part of a collaboration with EMST. It is a brilliant exhibition and an excellent sampler of important painting and sculpture works from China during the 20th century.
‘Miners’ by Li Shinan (1940-) from the Chinese Xieyl exhibition at EMST
State of Concept
State of Concept is a not for profit space also located in the Koukaki neighbourhood not far from EMST. It was founded in 2013 by the art critic and curator Iliana Fokianaki and is an integral component of Athens’ contemporary art scene. I visited on the opening night of a solo show by the Czech artist Zbynek Baladran entitled Difficulties To Describe The Truth. On display are short films and installation works by the artist. Through his work he explores the very notions of what is often passed of as truth. This is especially pertinent in this current politically tense climate of fake news, information wars and cheap noisy rhetoric masquerading as facts. Through this deluge of corrupted information, especially in the digital world of limitless over-saturated free content, getting to the real truth and facts is mired with obstacles. It’s less challenging to remain tranquilised with easy truths.
Contingent Propositions (2015-17) by Zbynek Baladran from his solo show at State Of Concept
In addition to this exhibition, in the lower level of the gallery there was another separate solo exhibition by the Russian artist Anton Vidokle comprising of a trilogy of his films entitled Immortality for all: A film trilogy on Russian Cosmism. Cosmism was a movement, which developed in Russia in the late 19th century, before the 1917 October Revolution, by the Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov (1829-1903), who was a champion of life extension, human immortality and transhumanism. He even believed in the resurrection of the dead. As wild as all this may have sounded back then (and even today), current emerging technologies, especially Artificial Intelligence, more than 100 years later are working towards these realisations. In fact the Life Extension industry is poised to be huge in the future. Google have a department called Calico which is focused on life extension and one of the leading visionaries in this field, Dr Aubrey de Grey, has a not-for-profit foundation called SENS, which is completely dedicated to life extension and anti-ageing. The futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil has gone on record to state that the Singularity (the event when AI will be on par with human intelligence and when both will merge) will occur in 2045. Both Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were influenced by Fedorov’s writings. Russian Cosmism was a transformative movement striving to transcend art and philosophy by creating a new world. A world where one is universal and not cemented to one planet – where one is fully connected to the universal cosmos and astral metaphysical world; free from micro societal constraints and mores.
Still from the film Immortality for All: A film trilogy on Russian Cosmism by Anton Vidokle
The Breeder Gallery
Located in the Metaxourgio district the Breeder Gallery is one of the city’s most cutting edge art spaces. It is a large multi story gallery. I visited one evening at an opening featuring three separate exhibitions. The first of these exhibitions, In Search Of Happiness, by the local art collective Arbit City was made up of an installation of flags on the outside front façade of the gallery.
In Search Of Happiness – flag installation by Arbit City at the Breeder Gallery
The ground floor and lower level of the gallery featured the second exhibition, a minimalist solo exhibition entitled Nearly Inaudible Breathing by the Portuguese artist Joana Escoval. Yet it was the third exhibition on the upper floors that was the highlight; a group exhibition featuring emerging Greek artists called Athens And Its Periphery In Regards To Contemporary Painting curated by Hugo Wheeler, a young independent British curator who recently moved to Athens from London. For me this show was one of the most vital shows I witnessed during my time in the city with works by local artists projecting the zeitgeist of Athens as a developing and increasingly important and exciting global art city and hub attracting artists from around the world just as Berlin has been doing over the last several years.
Work by Orestis Lazouras as part of the ‘Athens And Its Periphery In Regards To Contemporary Painting’ group exhibition at the Breeder Gallery
Ileana Tounta Contemporary Art Center
The Ileana Tounta Contemporary Art Center is a large warehouse space over two floors dating back to 1988. It has hosted many important exhibitions in the city. During my visit I attended the opening night of a new exhibition, Integral II, the second part of a two exhibitions themed around not just the current political and economic situation enfolding Greece, but also the situation throughout the world. In the first room I enter I am greeted by a giant installation created by the well known Greek born artist Jannis Kounellis who was one of the main figures of the Arte Povera movement in the 1960s and 1970s in Italy. The installation features a large square industrial steel plate resting on one of its edges surrounded by burlap sacks containing charcoal. In the background to the right of the installation are a series of paintings by George Stamatakis and to the left is a tall vertical relief by Socrates Fatouros comprising of bitumen sheets and elastic liquid membrane.
Works by Jannis Kournelis, George Stamatakis and Socrates Fatouros at the Ileana Tounta Contemporary Art Center
The exhibition continued upstairs featuring another smaller work by Kournelis as well as more works by contemporary Greek artists. Of those works it is George Lappas’s Traveller (2013) work, which stands out. It is a great red sculpture made of iron and red felt. The ‘headless/dislocated’ traveller reflects Lappas’s own experiences as an eternal refugee.
Traveller (2013) by George Lappas
Gagosian Gallery (Athens Branch)
The Gagosian Gallery is probably the largest art gallery empire in the world. The Athens branch is quite modest in size spread over just a few rooms on one floor in a building in Athens’ Kolonaki district. On my visit there was a solo exhibition by the American artist Sally Mann entitled Remembered Light: Cy Twombly In Lexington of black and white and colour photographs of the late Cy Twombly’s studio taken from 1999 to 2012.
Remembered Light, Untitled (Flamingo Profile) (2012) by Sally Mann
Twombly was a friend and mentor of Mann’s. They both grew up in the US state of Virginia. The photographs of his studio featuring miscellaneous objects, art works, paint marks on the studio floor and walls, and light and shadow tones perpetuate his memory and spirit. Cy Twombly may be gone in body, but his energy continues to radiate strongly as if he never really left.
Touring the art galleries in Athens’ Kolonaki district
The Kolonaki district in Athens where the Gagosian gallery is based is conveniently home to the greatest concentration of art galleries in the city. Of course it is impossible to visit every single gallery (although I almost did succeed!) but I did visit a good number. My first port of call was Gallery 7 and a solo exhibition of realist portrait and figure paintings by the Greek artist Maria Hatziandreou. Her paintings are mature, emotive and atmospheric with a gift for empathy and getting to the emotional core of her subjects. She uses the medium of paint and colour very skilfully to achieve this.
Painting by Maria Hatziandreou at Gallery 7
At the Eleftheria Tseliou Gallery there is a group exhibition, Conditions of Production, of mixed media works by emerging international artists. The focus of the exhibition is on materials with meditations on where they stand and how they fit in in the world of contemporary art. Of those works I am particularly drawn to Tina Tahir’s ‘Xenos (welcome mat)’ made of soil.
‘Xenos (welcome mat)’ (2016) by Tina Tahir from the Conditions Of Production exhibition at the Eleftheria Tseliou Gallery
The Christina Androulidaki Gallery (CAN) is a small but notable art gallery, which plays a vital role in the city’s contemporary art scene. At the time of my visit I caught a group photography exhibition of young Greek photographers entitled The Sense of an Ending. It is a strong show and the space is perfect for the works on display. Definitely a gallery to follow and keep abreast of the most promising emerging local talent.
Freewheeling (2017) by Dimitris Mylonas from the exhibition The Sense of An Ending at CAN
Afterwards I head to the Kalfayan Galleries space, originally established in 1995, and with a space in Thessaloniki too, focusing on Greek contemporary art. I visited the gallery to catch a solo show called The Cheat by the established Greek artist Antonis Donef. The central part of his exhibition is a large installation work entitled Cheating In Art History comprising of 370 neatly rowed lidless black pens across four black rectangular tables ending at an open book. On closer inspection, the pens contain pieces of text from E.H. Gombrich’s book ‘The Story Of Art’ (which is the open book on the final row) engraved very small scale with a needle. This alludes to the title of the work of memorising parrot-fashion style segments of information rather than fully understanding and absorbing it.
Antonis Donef’s solo exhibition The Cheat at Kalfayan Galleries
The Zoumboulakis Galleries is one of the oldest galleries in Athens dating back to 1912. Nevertheless it is an important promotor of contemporary art in Athens. When I visited there was a solo exhibition of paintings entitled ‘Future’ by the Greek artist Christos Kechagloglou. His paintings are colourful, childlike and optimistic. His dreamy impressions of landscapes and seascapes invite the viewer on a happy journey of magic colours and limitless imaginary possibilities free from social straitjackets. The artist Paul Klee springs to mind when I focus on Kechagloglou’s paintings.
Painting by the Greek artist Christos Kechagloglou from his solo exhibition ‘Future’ at the Zoumboulakis Galleries
One of the biggest surprises for me though was the two exhibitions I saw at the Astrolavos Dexameni gallery. I stumbled upon this gallery in the Kolonaki district by chance not knowing anything about the gallery beforehand. It is a large space over two floors where I was rewarded with a solo exhibition of polemic paintings by a young Greek artist called Stathis Mavridis and a separate show of atmospheric experimental paintings by a female Greek artist called Iles Xana.
Painting by Stathis Mavridis at the Astrolavos Dexameni gallery
Stathis Mavridis’s paintings are powerful and very relevant. His painting featuring the former German Federal Minister of Finance, Wolfgang Schauble, and the words ‘Schuld abladen verboten’ (Literally; ‘Guilt unloading prohibited’) is particularly prominent. Schauble’s period as Germany’s finance minister from 2009-17 coincided with the unfolding of the crisis in Greece and in other countries across the Eurozone. Schauble is a very controversial figure in Greece as he is seen by many as responsible for the draconian austerity measures imposed on the country since the crisis first erupted.
Painting by Iles Xana at the Astrolavos Dexameni gallery
The separate exhibition of paintings by Iles Xana are a delight. Whilst Madrivis’s paintings are external and time-based, Xana’s paintings are internal and timeless. There are like dream worlds one can float and get lost in. As well as paint she incorporates other materials such as glue to realise her visions
Important contemporary art related places I missed
One important place I really wanted to visit was the DESTE Foundation Center For Contemporary Art. Unfortunately there were no exhibitions on at the centre when I was in Athens, which was a shame as this place is one of the beacons of Athens’ contemporary art scene. The DESTE Foundation For Contemporary Art is a not for profit foundation originally established in Geneva in 1983 by the Greek art collector Dakis Joannou who is one of the most important figures in the world of contemporary art. The exhibition space in Athens is focused on promoting emerging and established contemporary artists.
The Onassis Cultural Center is a leading arts centre located outside of the city centre, which I didn’t get round to visiting. It’s an enormous place though with a wide and diverse program of activities, exhibitions and events.
By Nicholas Peart
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