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by Kimberly Bradley
While most of us were gearing up for Art Basel, a smaller fair on the periphery of the European Union dealt with its own issues of being off-center, if not off the map. At the second edition of the revamped Art Athina, May 22-25, 2008, at Athens’ Helexpo convention center in the city’s Maroussi district, a lot of talk centered on the ideas of what’s in the middle and what’s on the edge of an increasingly fragmented (or, looking at it from another angle, all-encompassing) global art world.

"Center and Periphery" was in fact the subject of Art Athina’s first "art talk," where the still-controversial Documenta 12 curatorial duo Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack from Germany discussed the art world’s center with Greek curators Marina Fokidis and Alexandros Georgiou, along with fair’s energetic, Thessaloniki-based artistic director Christos Savvidis. (Another globetrotting supercurator, Catherine David, scheduled to appear, was stuck in a less peripheral European airport.)

"It’s important to get away from the fixation on objects and to think about center and periphery," said Buergel. "You have something like a central vision as well as a peripheral vision." Okay, an inclusive view of smaller movements and markets is great, but isn’t an art fair supposed to be about objects?

The fair featured 70-odd galleries with plenty of objects on offer, spread over four levels in a mix of curated and non-curated sections, with the "basic plan" (i.e. nonsubsidized and commercial) booths on the topmost level. Greek up-and-comer Yorgos Saspountzis had embroidered wall hangings and a blurry build-and-destroy video at Athens’ Loraini Alimanti / gazonrouge. Peres Projects, which maintains an ongoing relationship to Athens as well as galleries in Berlin and Los Angeles, showed glitter-bedecked C-print stills from Terence Koh’s epic film God, as well as Spanish artist Antonio Ballester Moreno’s graphic drawings (one includes stylized apes on ships) and a large abstract work from Danish artist Kirstine Roepstorff’s "Black Bitch" series, in which she cuts and weaves black paper into sculptural collages.

Trendy Athens gallery The Breeder’s booth was dominated by the Marc Bijl sculpture Triumph: proposal for a memorial to the Iraq war (also seen at the Frieze art fair in London last year), comprised of three imposing stacked stars, one sporting the saying "to serve and protect." This work was flanked by three slick Lisa Ruyter paintings depicting people who appear to be partygoers or fashion-show spectators. The UK’s Blow de la Barra added a dose of hipness with small drawings by Matthieu Laurette. The French artist hand writes statements like "I am an artist," on hotel letterhead from around the world.

Athens-based artist Andreas Angelidakis also did an intriguing solo installation at Istanbul’s Rodeo, a new space run by Greek dealer Sylvia Kouvali. The half-Norwegian, half-Greek artist-architect snapped some research shots of the dilapidated villa near Athens that once belonged to the seminal 20th-century dealer and Surrealist collector Alexander Iolas (1907-87). In the 80s, the Greek government refused Iolas’ donation of the villa and his formidable collection of modern and contemporary art, which included pieces by Pablo Picasso, René Magritte, Joan Miro and Andy Warhol (whose first and last exhibitions he’d sponsored). The villa has since been entirely looted and stands in disarray. Angelidakis didn’t originally intend to use the photographs as artworks in themselves, but here they function well as a haunting documentation of an art-world ruin.

The Berlin connection
In some ways, Athens’ peripheral scene was fed by Berlin’s arguably more central one. Berlin-based dealer Isabella Bortolozzi invited nine galleries from around Europe -- including the UK’s Ancient and Modern, Oslo’s Standard, Vienna’s Andreas Huber, along with Berlin’s Micky Schubert and Croy Nielsen -- to the fair’s "basic plan 9+1" section, which was designed to let "dynamic international galleries" breathe some outside air into the Athenian scene.

New Yorker-gone-Berliner Sarah Belden was also charged with inviting galleries from New York and Berlin to the fair, as part of a subprogram that was initially going to be called "First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin." According to reports in Greece, however, slow sales at Chicago’s Next art fair prompted several of the invited New Yorkers, including Lower East Siders like Rivington Arms and Fruit and Flower Deli, to pull out at the last minute, and the program was recast as "Berlin Now."

The change wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Berlin’s contributions were exceedingly international on their own. Belden’s Curators without Borders displayed a Buckminster Fuller-inspired installation in rope and neon by the Berlin-based Puerto Rican artist Luis Berríos-Negrón; a colorful bouquet-like sculpture made entirely of dead batteries by provocative Quebecois artist Michel de Broin; and humorously tactile silicone udders and "nipple candies" by 32-year-old Cypriot newcomer Maria Lianou.

Other Berlin picks were just as young and fresh. Twenty-four-year-old dealer Desiree Pitrowski of Pitrowski Berlin shared a booth with Gillian Morris (both come from Berlin’s Brunnenstrasse) and, in her first fair, sold a work by 31-year-old German photographer Damaris Odenbach to a young Greek collector couple for €2,500. And the two-year-old Galerie Air Garten -- run by the affable 26-year-old Parisian Daniel Lima -- showed French painter Renaud Regnery’s linear, neutral-toned canvasses in a one-person booth.

Also from Berlin was the curator of the fair’s "Open Plan" section, in which artists display larger works in a huge open space on Helexpo’s ground floor. Curator Bettina Busse (who currently has a Julian Opie show up at the MAK in Vienna) easily mixed local and international artists. Standouts included Greek artist Danae Stratou’s The Soma, the Psyche, the Spirit, the Self (2005), two facing projection surfaces featuring a film of an Asian monk moving in front of the Berlin Olympic stadium. The German artist Ulrich Strothjohann, who is represented by Eleni Koroneou gallery in Athens, dominated one corner of the space with a multiple-dustpan installation called Cleaners, and Italian artist Antonio Riello’s Ceramic Crest 2 wall installation in porcelain offered an oddly decorative commentary on weaponry and war.

Adding both an ephemeral and earthy touch to the show was Michael Hoepfner, a Viennese artist who suspended two semi-transparent plastic tents from the ceiling using thread and strategically placed duct tape. A slide show running inside one of them offered insight into the inspiration behind the delicate structures. "My work is about walking as perception," says Hoepfner, who has trekked across Asian and African desert landscapes, shooting striking black-and-white images of horizons on a Hasselblad. The tents are riffs on transient nomad shelters in China and Tibet, where Hoepfner’s most recent adventures took place. Hoepfner has won a six-month ICP fellowship in New York for 2009.

"Athensville" and more
Downstairs in Helexpo’s garage/parking lot was another curated section, but here it was all Athens all the time. "Athensville," as it was appropriately dubbed, focused entirely on artists based in or closely connected to the Greek capital. The native vibe was enough to attract Greek Culture Minister Georgios Voulgarakis to bestow his blessings on section curator Marina Fokidis on opening day, and attract revelers to multiple parties taking place around a cubically sculptural, functional bar (another creation by Andreas Angelidakis)

Here, some of the most eye-catching or thought-provoking pieces seemed to have been made by Athenians who were really from Cyprus. Socrates Socratous’ massive collage of striking photographs extended around one corner of the rear of the space, 30-year-old Christodoulos Panayioutou’s Wonder Land slide show featured archival images of a traditional Cyprus parade in which children dress as Disney characters, and Nikos Charalambidis’ large furniture-like construction contained hidden Communist undertones. Not everything in "Athensville" was newly produced, nor did it have a definitive curatorial direction. "I wanted to show that art can be timeless; I chose things that aren’t necessarily 100 percent new," said Fokidis.

Adding some levity to the proceedings were small posters by the Erasers, a film-based artist collective savvy enough to have purchased web domains with the names of major collectors for as little as €15. Then there was Athenian conceptual artist Angelo Plessas, whose Angelo Foundation is "a shelter, a sculpture, a sensual multispace, a consulting center for Internet hookups" and much more, according to its online manifesto. The foundation has a fictional board of directors, whose members have stylized-logo faces and clever names like "Oliver Rollover." "It’s a bit of a social experiment," says Plessas, whose oversize tongue-in-cheek "sale" signs on Helexpo’s façade made the fair’s purpose perfectly clear. Interested parties can check out the foundation and its upcoming activities, like the International Sharing Day, Robot Poetry Reading or even an architectural competition, at

Off sides
Beyond the fair was the requisite VIP program, which included a dizzying array of tours to offsite exhibitions, private Greek collections, and even the imposing new Acropolis Museum, designed by New York architect Bernard Tschumi and many years in the making.

Sited at the foot of the Acropolis, the understated museum -- in concrete, stainless steel, marble and lots of glass -- was in the throes of its initial installation during the fair. Copies of the Parthenon Frieze panels will be displayed just above eye level on the museum’s uppermost story when the building opens in 2009. Excavation sites beside and beneath the museum are visible through glass floors with black dots that, according to our guide, "reduce vertigo and provide a non-slip surface." Thanks, Bernard.

Megacollector Dakis Ioannou opened the doors to both his private home and the Deste Foundation. In the latter, the long-standing "Fractured Figure" show, curated by Jeffrey Deitch, features a sculpture-heavy array of, well, lots of bodies by David Altmejd, Pawel Althamer and Maurizio Cattelan, among others. At Ioannou’s home, a Marcel Duchamp Fountain in the entry ushers visitors into a heavy presence of Jeff Koons and white marble on the first floor, then to a good selection of work by Kiki Smith, more Koons and lots of funky mid-century furniture upstairs. With its panoramic views, lush courtyard, white shag rugs, and even a group of attractive people who looked planted but turned out to be interior designers, Ioannou’s pad was drippingly mod.

Young Greek collector Iasson Tsakonas also unwrapped and displayed works from his enviable private collection, including a trio of Ryan McGinley photographs, phototransparencies by German artist Frederick D and lots of Franz West chairs. The real-estate developer was instrumental in the "ReMap" gallery project during the first Athens biennale last year and is allegedly working with some of the world’s hottest experimental architects to revamp about 35 of his buildings in Athens’ Metaxourgeio district, where Rebecca M. Camhi Gallery (noticeably absent from the fair) just opened her new space in early June. Stay tuned.

Other shows connected to Athina were the lovely "Lion Under the Rainbow: Art from Tehran," which showcased emerging Iranian artists in a downtown space, and the fantastic "Five Seasons of the Russian Avant-Garde," which fills the ground floor of the Museum of Cycladic Art with works by Kazimir Malevich, Ivan Kliun, Alexander Rodchenko and other Russian modernists. The paintings and graphics date from 1900 to 1940 and stylistically range from Cubism and lushly pigmented graphic renderings to Malevich’s monochromes. The show was gleaned from George Costakis’ collection and is on view until October. If you’re in Athens, don’t miss it.

But what of the market?
Back at the ranch, sales weren’t stellar, but also not nonexistent. "I’m happy," said Berlin-based Greek-born dealer Helena Papadoupolous of Nice + Fit. But a slight hesitation indicated she was not as happy as last year, when "everything sold out the first day." Angelidakis’ photos of Iolas’ villa, installed with a group of gold-wrapped chairs, was for sale for €7,800, but only portions of it had sold. Peres Projects reported selling four of the Kohs at €25,000 a pop, while hours before the closing bell, Germany’s Christian Nagel seemed downright bored.

"At this fair, everything happens at the last minute. It sounds kind of dramatic but that’s kind of how it is," said Nagel, a sentiment echoed throughout the dealer ranks. Bortolozzi quipped that more than a few dealers were buying from each other during the slow periods. Sure enough, the last hours of the fair saw HelExpo go from snail-paced to packed, with a few last-minute buyers mixing with people heading to "Athensville"’s closing party.

And periphery or not, a good portion of the aforementioned galleries popped up in the art world’s springtime epicenter in Basel a week later (Rodeo, Peres and the Breeder were at Liste; Bortolozzi and Loraini Alimanti / gazonrouge both put up "Statements" at Art Basel). According to Fokidis, "Athens wants to import its works into the center. But in a lot of cases it’s about garnering local attention." At least the former doesn’t seem to be so much of a problem.

KIMBERLY BRADLEY is a translator and writer working in New York and Berlin.