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|report from athens
by Gianni Romero
|Supercollector Dakis Joannou has reopened his Deste Foundation in Athens in the fast-growing commercial area known as Neo Psychico. The new Deste Centre for Contemporary Art is now housed in an old paper warehouse renovated by New York designer and architect Christian Hubert. The three-story building features one floor for exhibitions, a video screening room, a cybercafe, offices and an art store, as well as a restaurant and bar named Cosmos.
Joannou established the Deste Foundation ("Deste" is a Greek word that stands for "to see") in 1983 to promote contemporary art. It has gained major international attention with exhibitions such as "Artificial Nature" and "Post-human" (both curated by Jeffrey Deitch).
The idea of a restaurant and bar in a space devoted to contemporary art -- both open till very late at night -- has made Cosmos one of the trendiest clubs in the city. Obviously, Deste avoids the traditional formality of a museum space, a necessity in a city where public support for contemporary art doesn't exist. Only three or four resourceful private galleries -- such as Jean Bernier, Rebecca Cahmi and the newly founded Unlimited -- provide the necessary art context.
The new building has been renovated to provide clean and contemporary spaces. Hubert stripped the existing building down to its bare structure. The main interior spaces are defined by the structural bays and the exterior bays are either fully glazed or filled in and clad with metal panels.
Last spring the Deste Foundation began an ambitious series of exhibitions by new director Katerina Gregos. "Global Vision: New Art from the 90's" included works by a wide range of international talents, from Nikos Charalambidis and Kcho to Chris Ofili and Shahzia Sikander. The third installment of the series, which opened Nov. 24, 1998, featured works by Matthew Barney, Anna Gaskell, Mariko Mori and Pipilotti Rist. Rineke Dijkstra has two rooms, one installed with her well-known portraits of young people and another with a multiple-channel video projection called The Buzzclub.
Another kind of portrait was provided by Dimitrios Antonitsis with Asian Sleaze, a series of digitally manipulated found photos of '70s go-go dancers from a Tokyo music hall, while the Black Box of Alexandros Psychoulis aimed to provoke some sort of interaction between the audience (invited to speak into a mike connected to a computer) and the iconography of the everyday life.
The Deste is now preparing a CD Rom that provides information on the Foundation's activities and exhibitions as well as a Deste Foundation website, but for any further information you can contact press officer Natasha Polymerous at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The following interview was conducted with Deste Foundation director Katerina Gregos by Massimiliano Gioni and Gianni Romano.
Q: While organizing "Global Vision," did you notice anything that reflected a move towards a global art market?
A: Today pluralism rules the art world, which has opened up to include many different cultures and references. "Global Vision" brings together artists from both Western and non-Western countries, and juxtaposes work from the center and the periphery. The center still plays a crucial role, especially concerning market decisions. But the artists from the so-called periphery now have a stronger voice in the art world. Now the challenge that curators face is that of trying to make sense of this cultural pluralism.
Q: What are the strategies that tie all these different artists who come from backgrounds as diverse as Japan, Jamaica and China?
A: It is difficult to pinpoint just one attitude, but most artists share a liberating sense of laissez-faire, and cross over boundaries at will. As a result, cross-fertilization and hybridity are key words for artistic production in the '90s. What I think the artists in "Global Vision" share is a renewed interest in narrative coupled with an anthropological approach to art-making. One could speak of the return to humanistic values, so I would say that the artists share a common sensibility rather than strategy. That is why many of them are also moving away from object-based work and deliberate shock value, and concentrating more on the creation of an open-ended rather than academic or didactic experience. Nevertheless, it is difficult to generalize because globalization itself is about so many different, often conflicting issues.
Q: I remember an interview in which Chris Ofili said something like "Only the artists that follow the Western stereotype of what is peripheral actually get through." How do you avoid stereotyping identities?
A: You look for a sense of awareness of identity and roots, as a reference point, but also for work that is sited within a broad international framework, that avoids simple appropriation of folklore. The language employed to articulate these issues is also crucial. It helps to have a critical stance.
Q: As the saying goes, "Think globally, act locally." What is it like to be a young artist or curator working in Greece?
A: Working in Greece has some advantages, first of all because this is a really virgin -- and therefore fertile -- territory. Greece has been cut off from international contemporary art discourse for many years, but lately we have been opening up to foreign influences. Now we have a regular influx of international exhibitions; and a new generation of dealers, galleries and curators who have lived abroad and bring with them their experiences. We have a renovated School of Fine Arts, which boasts an impressive exhibition space. And artists themselves are beginning to create spaces for dialogue: Unofficial Language, Radar and Unlimited are independent artist-run spaces that provide a fertile ground for new developments. It's really important to be here now because it gives one the opportunity to be part of this amazing change.
Q: Do you plan to address a Greek public or are you working for an international audience?
A: Obviously we plan to highlight contemporary artistic developments here. At the same time we want to function as a kind of ICA bringing in international exhibitions, and inviting other curators to work here, building bridges between Greece and other countries. Since there are no public spaces devoted to contemporary art in Greece, Deste is one of the few institutions that can promote contacts with the international art world. So, even though the foundation was created by a private individual and is privately funded, we find ourselves acting very much like a public space. That is why we have to keep in mind that we live in a society where we have to address the needs of a new public, and one of our main goals is to try to broaden and inform this public.
Q: What are your future plans?
A: We plan to branch out from the field of visual arts into popular culture, and create a broad-based platform for the exchange of ideas. Our program for 1999 will include exhibitions by several guest curators. A historical exhibition documenting the Greek avant-garde is being curated by Yorgos Tzirtzilakis; a show entitled "Super-Conductor," curated by Panayotis Hadjistefanou, will examine street fashion and culture; Andrea Gilbert will organize an exhibition entitled "Skin" that will look at how the concept of skin functions in art literally and metaphorically; Dan Cameron will organize an exhibition of new Greek contemporary art; and I will curate an exhibition entitled "Women," which will examine the development of women's art from the '70s until today, charting the transition from feminist to post-feminist strategies.
GIANNI ROMERO is a critic and curator based in Milan.
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