It's not easy to love a country that is spending over 4.4 billion euros on a single sporting event but hasn't a functioning public contemporary art museum in its capital. That was the situation in Athens earlier this summer, where the pre-2004 Olympics frenzy was turning the city into a dust bowl and giving it the feel and appearance of a badly organized building site.
Fortunately, Athenians are blessed with a handful of smart, young commercial galleries and a group of world-class collectors, most prominently Dakis Joannou, as well as a growing number of shrewd younger art lovers willing to buy emerging work. As I found on a visit earlier in the summer, it's quite possible to spend an afternoon looking at contemporary art.
The newer commercial galleries in Athens cluster around Koumoundourou Square and are within an easy walk of each other. First stop was Breeder Projects, a gallery that opened about a year ago with a show of the peripatetic Scottish artist Jim Lambie. The current show, called "Strange Messengers," is loosely based around the notion of the artist as a collector of found objects, words or information. But much of the work -- by two Greek artists and three from the U.K. -- is deeply confrontational, and this exhibition could equally be labeled a show about politics.
That would be sexual politics in the case of the 27-year-old artist Daniel Sinsel, born in Munich and currently an MA candidate at the Royal College of Art in London. His work is becoming familiar, as it was included in "Bloomburg New Contemporary 2002" in London as well as in "Exploring Landscape, Eight Views from Britain" at Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York in February 2003.
Sinsel's expertly painted Arcadian scenes are undoubtedly seductive, though the homoerotic nature of the subject matter might to create a sense of unease for some. Perhaps that is the artist's intent. The strongest work on view at Breeder depicts three naked men, one performing fellatio on another with the third urinating on the scene. For good surreal measure, a horsetail hangs from the small canvas.
The other U.K. artists are Brian Griffiths and Mark Titchner, artistic colleagues who both went to Goldsmiths College and show at Vilma Gold gallery in London. Griffiths, who makes tight, neo-Cubist constructions out of cardboard and found objects -- sometimes he makes photographs of the constructions, and then destroys the actual objects -- was included in "Neurotic Realism (Part I)" at the Saatchi Gallery in 1999 and the "Beck's Futures 2001" exhibition at the London ICA.
But Griffiths' work may have been its most memorable in curator Linda Morris' "East" exhibition in the country town of Norwich in the east of England. Griffiths often portrays powerful institutions, such as a large computer facility, in a crude and almost slapstick manner, as if to play on our anxiety towards new technology. In the context of Luddite Middle England, Griffiths' work takes on a special resonance.
Griffiths' central work at Breeder Projects is an image of a defeated knight, a symbol with a certain amount of art-historical baggage, which is here constructed of found, cheaply made objects. As a metaphor for both the substance and eventual fate of modern imperialism, this piece functions well.
As for Titchner, his text-based work, which was included in the recent "Tate Triennial," is normally painted or fabricated on commercial signage. The Breeder show features smaller works on paper as well as a large commercially fabricated sign taking up most of one of the front walls.
The young Greek artist Vangelis Vlahos provides a powerful political metaphor with his work documenting the 1996 mortar attack on the American Embassy in Athens by the November 17th terrorist group. Beside a scale model of the embassy, originally designed by Walter Gropius in a spirit of optimism as a kind of modern-day Acropolis, is an extensive collection of documentation of the attack and the subsequent ugly security measures surrounding the building. It serves as a cautionary and sad testimony, implying the incremental retreat from the American dream.
Vlahos' model includes a small arc of wire indicating the trajectory of the mortar attack on the embassy. Due to the flimsy nature of this detail, the model seems not to glorify the terrorists but rather to document the fragility of their gesture.
The semi-abstract painter Ilias Papailiakis, who originally hails from Crete, juxtaposes elements drawn from Northern European still lifes with abstract forms in a rich palette of earthy tones. His works are awkward and idiosyncratic -- in fact, a certain lack of resolution is the central paradox that breathes life into the paintings.
Breeder Projects is an offshoot of Breeders magazine, a publication that comes out twice a year and takes the form of a boxed set of individual artists' projects in a run of about 2,000. In order to attract new subscribers, the editorial team -- George Vamvakidis and Stathis Panagoulis -- are currently offering an audio CD by Sean Landers called becoming great, an ironic monologue, lamenting the difficulties of having an art career. The edition is limited to 200. For more info, see www.thebreedersystem.com.
Els Hanappe Underground
The next stop is Els Hanappe Undergound, a gallery on the lower level of a commercial building in a neighborhood of garment merchants and immigrants. The Belgium-born art dealer dedicated her spring shows to a trilogy of exhibitions by European women artists -- Hayley Tompkins from Glasgow, Katja Strunz from Berlin and Valerie Mannaerts from Brussels. The ingenious arrangement calls for each artist to leave one work behind, to be integrated into the next show to give a sense of continuity.
Midway through the series, the prevailing esthetic seemed to be fairly minimalist. Tompkins had left a work based on a single matchstick, and the show by Strunz consists primarily of a group of triangular structures attached to the wall, perhaps representing sails. At first they seem inspired by Ellsworth Kelly's works, though on closer inspection it becomes clear that these works are not canvases but are fabricated in different mixed mediums and have a rough-edged quality.
Several works on paper -- one in hung quite low of the wall -- use the same triangular form as well as found images of boats. On the floor is a small brass ornamental sailing boat, an object that might be found at a flea market. This item neatly pulls together the disparate elements of the show (and might also be a nod to Katharina Fritsch, who often integrates similar kitsch in her work).
Lab Arts Projects
For its June show, Lab Arts Projects, founded by Niki Georgakopoulou, had re-united three artists who formally worked as a collective called Radar and are now tackling the thorny subject of mid-life crisis, as they have all recently turned 40 and do not yet have children. Predictably enough, the themes are sex, lost youth and monotony. The sex takes the form of a series of photographs showing the underside of what looks like aquatic snails and a large funnel. It's a little too easy to see the simplistic intent behind these photographs and there is nothing particularly imaginative or beautiful to be found here.
One of the artists works with wool, knitting articles such as a baby's bootie, though the knitting is left unfinished. The left-over wool forms a long, seemingly endless cord, aptly suggesting a state of abandonment. Another Radarite contributes a video work that shows a computerized figure with a shopping trolley with one foot out of synchronization with the body, a work that might remind some of Mona Hatoum's photograph of her bare foot pulling a Doc Marten boot behind it. More successful is the pair of mechanical sculptures depicting oversized toys, whose slow movement gives a sense of menace, a device borrowed perhaps from the work of Jonathan Borofsky.
In the accompanying text, the Radar collective acknowledges that their strength lay in the diversity of their interests and working materials. Overall, the exhibition is at least visually stimulating, which is no small accomplishment. The gallery commands a direct view of one of the world's most important historical sites, the Acropolis, and how many artists could hope to compete with this scene and still win our undivided attention?