Like the little engine that could, the Greek art scene continues to go full steam ahead, despite its less-than-central position in the global art world. For my visit to Athens this fall, the weather was quite warm during the day, and the only obstacle I faced in my quest for contemporary art was the rather pleasant distraction of the city’s natural beauty and ancient sites. By purchasing daily passes for the Metro, Athens’ impeccably clean subway system, I was able to travel everywhere and save money for lunches of meze (an assortment of starters) in outdoor cafés in the Psirri area -- the perfect fuel for a full day’s gallery going.
While younger galleries continue to create a lively discourse in Athens, two established spaces, Eleni Koroneou Gallery and Bernier/Eliades, have paved the way for the international art scene in Greece. Both are located near the Acropolis area, and had shows of American artists on view during my visit.
At Koroneou was Gregory Crewdson’s first solo exhibition in Athens, a show of his "Production Stills," which provide a behind-the-scenes look at the staging of Crewdson’s newest series of photographs, "Beneath the Roses." The stills reveal some of the secrets of Crewdson’s Hollywood-like productions, while at the same time retaining the atmospheric, mysterious quality of typical Crewdson works. The exhibition coincides with a traveling Crewdson retrospective the next stop of which is the Museums Haus Lange and Haus Esters in Krefeld. Koroneou, whose gallery is 18 years old and going strong, was featured in kunst.investor’s list of "33 Top Women" in the art world.
Bernier/Eliades, founded in 1977 and sometimes like the elder statesman of the Athens art scene, showed several different works by Cameron Jamie, an artist who was born in Los Angeles but currently resides in Paris. "Studies For Three Films: BB/Spook House/Kranky Klaus" filled a two-room installation documenting backyard wrestling, Halloween in Detroit and "Krampus," part of the celebrations for St. Nicholas’ day in Salzburg’s Gastein Valley. The Krampus masks are quite intricate, designed by Jaime with accompanying drawings (the carving is attributed to others.)
Jamie’s work deals with issues of imagined violence and ritual that seem foreign to outsiders, but the practitioners of these performances are creating their own reality, however dysfunctional. (I related most to the wrestling work -- I have had an embarrassing interest in the "sport" ever since the Masked Superstar "broke" the late Eddie Gilbert’s neck in 1983.) The art in the two rooms at Bernier/Eliades was being sold as a whole, but additional photos and drawings were also available.
The "Athens Contemporary Art Map" is a free publication that is quite useful when navigating the streets of the Psirri area -- or anywhere in Athens for that matter. AD gallery ("AD" standing for "alphadelta"), celebrating 20 years in business, has been at its Pallados Street location for the past six years. The sculptural installation by Stefanos Tsivopoulos displayed on the first floor, titled Bachelor Pad, made even New York apartments seem spacious. The work is an architecturally accurate reconstruction of Tsivopoulos’ last Athens apartment -- except it’s been reproduced 30 percent smaller.
On the AD gallery second floor was a three-channel video installation based on an improvised performance featuring four actors dressed in military uniforms. The artist constructed a confined space with two cots and gave them minimal directions, which resulted in the development of relationships and interactions similar to those in a real military barrack. (Tsivopoulos was also included in the Athen’s Deste Foundation’s "4th Deste Prize" exhibition this year.)
Dodging cars, people and assorted merchants, I headed down boisterous Sofokleous Street, where I found the pristine Galerie Xippas hidden behind a nondescript entrance. On view there were large paintings by Apostolos Georgiou, a Greek artist born in 1952. A master at describing the figure with a unique combination of swift, assured brush strokes and muted color, Georgiou, with his economy of means, daringly leaves the viewer to fill in the gaps. Many canvasses left a strong impression, especially those with multiple figures, which suggest an odd narrative or a moment frozen in time.
Within walking distance is Lab Art Projects, the outdoor terrace of which offers a striking view of the Parthenon and the rooftops of Athens. On view was "Soldier Sailor," an exhibition of photos by Nicholas Pavlidis. Pavlides takes photographs of Action Man dolls, adds small accessories, such as a cigarette, and enlarges them to human scale so that they appear more life-like. The result is a slick mix of fashion model and military stud, as if to inject an element of glamour into the current wave of global conflicts.
Machiko Edmondson’s solo show at The Apartment featured small portrait paintings of PJ Harvey and Nick Cave, as well as Johnny Depp. Edmondson, who lives and works in London, previously created work with an airbrushed, photo-realistic quality. These new paintings appear more spontaneous, with loose, brushy backgrounds of ochre and highlights of jewel-like color on the faces. They have the feel of an obsessed fan, and indeed, she sounds exactly like one in her artist’s statement, where she admits that after befriending Cave, "I just crumbled into some 14-year old girl and I think he got bored of me."
The Apartment is situated on the fifth floor of one of the earliest modernist buildings in Athens, built in 1939, and is located near the Syntagma metro stop. The gallery showed new work by Edmondson at the NADA Art Fair 2005 in Miami this December.
Vamiali's, established by Sofia Vamiali and artist Dimitra Vamiali in 2003, is just minutes from the Metaxourgio station. Sofia joined us in watching the intriguing ten-episode cartoon animation Briannnnnn & Ferryyyyyy, by Liam Gillick and Philippe Parreno. Projected on a wall in the middle of the gallery, each episode was only a few minutes long, yet layered and dense with meaning. Every aspect of the work is appropriated from somewhere, from the typeface and music to the opening credits. The title itself is a riff on Tom & Jerry cartoons, as well as the singer Brian Ferry of Roxy Music fame. The parasitical project is anything but straightforward and the questions it raises fall under the radar of a quick viewing.
Another new space on the scene is gazonrouge, which has a gallery, café, bookstore and publishing company all under one roof. Located in close proximity to Vamiali’s, gazonrouge merged with Futura, the main publishing house for the arts in Greece, in 2005. Yiannis Christakos showed mixed-media paintings based on real and imaginary maps, complemented by his use of lines and doodles. Titled "Personal Geographies," the paintings and drawings on view gave the impression of an obsessive intellectual charting his own imaginary territories. Considering we live in a world with the Global Positioning System and such time-savers as Mapquest, Christakos makes one contemplate a return to the personal, hand-made quality of cartography.
Speaking of a throwback to simpler times, the photography of Gilbert Garcin at Ileana Tounta Contemporary Art Center was just that. Garcin, a 65-year-old French photographer, creates his surreal, atmospheric silver prints by constructing small, minimalist sets made of simple materials. He then photographs himself, prints this image, adds it to the set, and photographs the assemblage. This process results in a unique print featuring the artist as protagonist. The stressful adventures portrayed in Garcin’s photos appear both fantastical and autobiographical, and reminded me of a Fritz Lang movie set or Charlie Chaplin’s "Modern Times." Garcin’s show coincided with the 12th International Month of Photography, which included 21 exhibitions throughout Athens, as well as lectures, seminars and discourses.
At The Factory exhibition space in the Athens School of Fine Arts, the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and the National Museum of Contemporary Art presented "Videographies, The Early Decades." Installed in a cavernous space, the extensive exhibition was divided into five separate sections that outlined the history of video art from the 1960s to the 1980s. Curated by Anna Kafetsi, the show included a wide array of video projections and single-channel works categorized under the titles "Deconstruction-Transculturality," "Body Art," "Feminist Art," "Language Centered-Art" and "New Narrativity." A primer on video art, representatives included Nam June Paik, Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, Marina Abramovic and Ulay, Dan Graham, Rebecca Horn, Carolee Schneemann, Martha Rosler, Dara Birnbaum, Lynda Benglis, Mona Hatoum, Gary Hill, Bill Viola, Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Wilson.
The contrast between the multiple hanging screens of Bill Viola’s installation versus the single-channel video documenting a Chris Burden performance made it crystal clear that video art has taken great technological strides over the last four decades. But judging from this exhibition, the raw immediacy of early video art can still be effective. An accompanying catalogue gave extensive information on the works on view, as well as a chronology on the early development of video art. "Videographies" remains on view until Dec. 31, 2005.
The abovementioned Deste Foundation, founded in 1983 by art impresario Dakis Joannou, is the biggest supporter of contemporary Greek artists. Focusing on the younger generation this time around, the 4th Deste Prize featured six artists, each given one room to convince a jury that one of them deserved the top award of €10,000. Christodoulos Panayiotou, a Greek Cypriot, was awarded top honors for his three-channel video installation Truly, featuring synchronized water fountains and airplanes making smoke hearts. The soundtrack consisted of the song (Feels So Good) Slow Dancin' by John Travolta and edited material from Hollywood movies, in particular dialogues between couples when breaking up.
The other Deste artists included Dimitris Foutris, whose heavy-metal-inspired exhibition at Ileana Tounta Gallery was a highlight of last year’s trip. This time around, Foutris presented a shrine to the weapon of choice for metal gods -- the electric guitar. Flanked by gothic banners, one featuring lyrics from Obliteration by the band Mortician, Foutris’ installation emanated a loud feedback hum that was audible throughout the space. Poka-Yio created a giant, life-size garbage truck covered in chocolate praline that hung from the ceiling. The delectable work looked good enough to eat, although a sign advised you not to touch it or step under the truck.
Stefanos Tsivopoulos’ two-channel video projection featured a couple interacting in an average apartment on one screen, contrasted with another image of them in the midst of rummaging through a grungy pile of debris in a humdrum room on the other. Dora Economou’s sprawling mixed-media installation was quite impressive and held the attention with its seemingly random yet beautifully decorative assortment of paper, stickers, drawings, sculptures and manipulated art materials. Finally, Kostis Velonis presented several sculptures made from humble materials that have a mystical, Rube Goldberg quality. Velonis puts Richard Tuttle and Miró in a blender and serves chilled. This year’s Deste Prize was the final exhibition before the foundation relocates to its new space in Nea Ionia.
Curator, writer and Deste archivist and researcher Xenia Kalpaktsoglou and art critic Augustine Zenakos organized "ProTaseis" at Action Field Kodra 2005, the fifth annual visual arts festival at the former military barracks Kodra, in Kalamaria, Thessaloniki, Greece. Taking place August through September, the 16-artist exhibition posed the question whether a group of young Greek artists could coherently describe an art scene with non-uniform characteristics. I think the answer is yes, considering the art scene in Athens itself can’t be considered uniform -- and why should it be?
CHRIS BORS is an artist living in New York.