In four unusually rainy days right before Christmas, I was able to cram in a long weekend of contemporary art in Athens. The post-Olympic city, with its renovated roads and new stadium, ancient monuments and a considerable amount of chaos and congestion, remains one of my favorite places to see art.
One important stop on my tour was "Monument to Now," the survey of Dakis Joannou's impressive contemporary holdings at the supercollector's own museum, the Deste Foundation, which has been extended until the end of January 2005. It didn't disappoint and was one of the most entertaining exhibitions I've seen, packed with works by well-known international stars. Martin Kippenberger, Maurizio Cattelan, Takashi Murakami, Tim Noble & Sue Webster and Urs Fischer are just a few of the names that stood out on a list of 61 participating artists. The enormous Deste space, a former warehouse, has been transformed into multiple galleries of cutting-edge, high-production-value and blue-chip art. I wish I had this much fun at the new MoMA.
Although overshadowed by the Deste Foundation, the contemporary art scene in Greece includes plenty of younger Greek artists worth keeping an eye on. One focus in a regional capital like Athens is always the nature and prospects for native contemporary art. When it comes to local artists, I would say that the overall assessment is cautiously optimistic. Greek artists have a strong desire for more international attention, of course, but no consensus on how to achieve it. You can definitely sense something simmering beneath the surface, as I found at several spaces I visited.
Ileana Tounta Contemporary Art Center was presenting two solo shows of younger Greek artists. The large gallery space is quite impressive, having recently opened after a two-year-long renovation, with two floors, a bookstore and restaurant. In the first-floor project room, Dimitris Foutris presented an installation that was an homage to heavy metal music, featuring guitars smashed through amplifiers, a huge wall painting, scratched walls and punctured digital photographs. The walls were scraped and vandalized with the intensity of an angst-filled teenager.
Foutris' digital prints are made from photographing and altering found object sculptures, which are later destroyed or combined to form a new hybrid. Entitled "A Patriot & A Rock Star," the show reminded me of the recent death of former Pantera and Damageplan guitarist "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott, who was shot in the head on stage by a deranged fan in a concert in Ohio in December 2004. In fact, Foutris' video projection showed an interview with the drummer from the death metal band Deicide, proudly displaying his handgun collection. The works ranged in price from $2,200 to $5,200.
Upstairs was "Future Athens," an exhibition of Dimitris Tsoublekas' digitally altered photographs that propose a new vision for the Greek metropolis. Skyscrapers appear where there are currently none. An enormous park area of green magically meets the blue sea. A huge geiser spurts water in the bright, clear sky. Tsoublekas' photos create a yearning for change, while at the same time preserving the past. In much the same way Athens had to renovate its infrastructure and embrace the new for the Olympics, Tsoublekas' photos retain the key elements that make the city familiar, while opening a window for the unexpected.
The exhibition and a book, titled Future Athens (Kastaniotis Editions), is collaboration between Tsoublekas and Think Tank company, a PR agency promoting the city internationally. Photos range in price from $1,900 to $5,600. Both exhibitions at Ileana Tounta remain on view until Feb. 19, 2005.
Athens' hip Psirri area, a maze of streets packed with an odd mix of shops, cafes and storefronts of every description, also includes several smaller galleries. The Breeder, a gallery opened in 2002 by George Vamvakidis and Stathis Panagoulis, has a fairly laid-back, experimental atmosphere -- the reception area includes a refrigerator -- though it is also one of two Athens galleries taking part in the Armory Show in New York in March.
On the ground floor, the American artist Luke Dowd presented "The Gem Collection," using cheap materials to create work about form, color and line. Dowd's gem-shaped paintings are made from colored paper, are adhered directly to the wall and have a hand-made quality. Dowd, who lives in London, also showed sculptures jutting from the floor with geometric, black and white patterns. The works were selling for $2,700 to $5,400, not a bad price for a precious stone. . . and the ones here are much larger.
In the Breeder's downstairs space was "Cactus," a video installation by Greek artist Loukia Alavanou. The humorous work consists of a projection of edited footage taken from Let's Make Love, the 1960 George Cukor film in which Marilyn Monroe famously seduces Yves Montand while performing the song My Heart Belongs to Daddy. Placed before the screen is a cactus, whose phallic shadow is cast on the faces of the iconic performers (and whose surface also contains a blurry image of the film, of course). Charming and a little juvenile, the installation held my attention, since I'm a sucker for screwball humor. Available in an edition of ten, the first five can be had for $1,400 before the price goes up to $2,400.
The Breeder is bringing Greek artists Kostis Velonis and Ilias Papailiakis to the Armory Show in New York in March. Velonis had a sold-out exhibition, entitled "Bauhaus is not our House," which ended in November, with prices ranging from $6,700 for smaller pieces to $11,000 for medium to large pieces.
Els Hanappe Underground, a basement-level gallery also participating in the Armory Show, brought together a young Greek artist, Nina Papaconstantinou, and Corrina Peipon from Los Angeles in a two-person show called "con(text)ure." The gist of the show was the written word. Papaconstantinou superimposes layers of text by copying entire books on single sheets of tracing paper using ballpoint pen, creating an indecipherable, dense layering of blue ink. The idea of copying books is an age-old practice, but in this case the meaning of the text becomes secondary to the visual effect and surface texture.
Peipon showed drawings of words taken from Shakespeare, specifically contrasting characters of Juliet from Romeo and Juliet and Richard II. The main theme is time and how objects are affected by time. Also on display were a number of artists' books, with a larger presentation of Gagarin, a publication dedicated to original texts of international artists. Papaconstantinou's drawings sell for $750, while Peipon's small mixed-media works begin at under $100 and go up to $2,000 for a larger piece.
Unlimited Contemporary Art, while closing its doors on its current space, is promising to present projects at other locations, including at the 12th edition of Art Athina, the international art fair in Athens, scheduled for next April. The final exhibition at Unlimited featured a tabletop installation of dozens of fragile structures and objects made from paper, reeds, thread and wood by Nikos Alexiou, in addition to drawings and prints. The work reflects the artist's fascination with chaotic and noisy cities, as well as his experience at Mount Athos, a city of Christian monasteries, with its mosaics, paths and maps.
The delicate and obsessive nature of Alexiou's constructions was amplified in the larger sculptures on the second floor, whose fragility contrasted with the architecture of Athens, which has literally stood the test of time for centuries. The smaller pieces sell for around $680 up to $6,800, while the large works can be had for $10,900.
Twenty-four Greek artists, including Dimitris Foutris, Nina Papaconstantinou and Kostis Velonis, also participated in "Manderley," an exhibition in the rooms, corridors and reception area of the Hotel Astoria in Thessaloniki, curated by Xenia Kalpaktsoglou. The original artworks in the hotel were removed and replaced with a mix of paintings, drawings, photos and sculpture. The two pay-per-view channels on the hotel's televisions were replaced with artist's videos (the running complaint was, of course, about the absent porno channels).
The artworks themselves were viewable to the guests of the hotel, who happened to be critics, curators and other art world personalities attending the fifth Forum for European Artistic Mobility during the weekend of Dec. 17-19, 2005. I hope that spirited projects like these, despite their humble budgets, can continue to flourish and supplement the existing galleries in Athens, so as to provide additional venues for younger Greek artists.