In the basement parking level of the new five-story Helexpo building located about 10 kilometers outside downtown Athens, where the 13th installment of Art Athina set up shop May 31-June 3, 2007, curator Nadja Argyropoulou installed a ramshackle, expressionistic exhibition of new art titled "I Syghroni Elliniki Skini," which is "Contemporary Greek Scene" written not, of course, in the native Greek alphabet but in the Roman one used in Europe and the West.
This orthographic anomaly -- a half-translation, so to speak -- marks an effort to bridge the local and the international, though the message remains cryptic, a condition, as Argyropoulou points out in her note in the Art Athina catalogue, that applies both the fair and to the Greek contemporary art scene, as it strives to take its existing position in the global art world and kick it up a notch.
For this, Art Athina seemed notably well designed, with several various and complementary parts, as if the mechanics of the art fair have now been fine-tuned. Indeed, the fair was more curated than any to date. In addition to the exhibition in the basement, it also featured on its third floor an "Open Plan" show of 27 mostly large-scale artworks selected by freelance curators Cecilia Canziani and Sotirios Bahtsetzis, and, slotted here and there throughout the fair in odd, leftover spaces, an exhibition of contemporary Russian art titled "Critically in Between," organized by Viktor Misiano.
One feature of this last was a series of editorial comments, like "very funny" or "everything is mysterious," spelled out on the wall with letters made of the red dots that typically mark an artwork as sold, courtesy the artist David Ter-Organian.
Misiano also organized a second exhibition for the fair of about 35 post-Soviet artists, titled "On Geekdom: Artists from the Former USSR," and located off site at the Benaki Museum downtown. Including works by Victor Alimpiev, Olga Chernysheva and Anatoly Osmolovsky, the show is a "defense of eccentricity," the curator explained, inspired by a "reaction to the ideology of stablization prevalent in post-Soviet countries today."
The core of the fair was the "basic plan," a grid of about 34 booths for galleries on the building’s second level -- but even this section had its curatorial component, with the central aisle featuring ten newer galleries in a section called "Contemporary Club," invited by Stathis Panagoulis and Giorgos Vamvakidis of the Breeder gallery in Athens. With galleries like John Connelly Presents from New York, Galerist from Istanbul and Blow de la Barra -- opened by Detmar Blow and Pablo León de la Barra -- from London, this section gave the fair some youthful international buzz.
One installation there with avant-garde panache was by the rising art-star Pierre Bismuth, who recently made a splash in New York at Mary Boone Gallery with an installation of huge freestanding walls doubling as replicas of full-page ads in Artforum magazine. At Art Athina, he filled the booth of the Cosmic Galerie from Paris with a red rug cut with his signature 50-cm holes, a work titled Something Less, Something More (2007), and spray-painted graffiti of male artists’ names on the wall, a piece titled Most Wanted Men (2007). As far as I could tell, the booth was generally unmanned, however.
A level up was still another section of invited galleries, this one featuring 11 Russian dealers, including Aidan from Moscow and Dimitriy Semenov Gallery from St. Petersburg, presented under the rubric of "Guest Country." This section was organized under the aegis of the Stella Art Foundation in Moscow, which started as a gallery but is now morphing into a nonprofit, "because the commercial form is too limiting," said artist Anastasia Dokuchaeva, who was representing the foundation at the fair.
Stella itself installed a series of what could be called red-figure drawings on paper by the Russian artist Alexander Djikia (b. 1963), a kind of epic starring a quixotic figure who carries a staff topped by a cross and seems to be in a permanently priapic state. Like several works at the fair, some notion of "Greekness" seemed to be in play. Though irresistible to tourists newly smitten with the country, "performing your Greekness" is viewed more dyspeptically by some natives. "It’s a little old," noted the art historian Nikolas Drosas, who was moonlighting as the fair’s VIP director.
In all, Art Athina presented 70 exhibitors (about 30 of them Greek), and was mounted by the ministry of culture and the Panhellenic Art Galleries Association. Christos Savvidis was the overall artistic director of the fair.
Complementing the art exhibitions was a program of talks and, on a mezzanine level, a series of booths devoted to Greek art museums and cultural organizations that managed to give a hint of a broader national context for the fair. Thus, one booth touted "The Fractured Figure," the current exhibition at megacollector Dakis Joannou’s Deste Foundation (curated by New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch), while another was dramatically closed off with a large "X" made of hazard tape to advertise the forthcoming Athens Biennial 2007, Sept. 10-Nov. 18, 2007, which has the theme "Destroy Athens" (meant in the best way, we’re sure).
Still another booth advertised the first Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art, on view May 21-Sept. 20, 2007, a show organized by French super-curator Catherine David under the title "Heterotopias" at several venues in the Macedonian capital up the coast (for more details, see www.thessalonikibiennale.gr). And it was gratifying to see a booth devoted to the Greek section of AICA, the international association of art critics.
So, what of Greek art? How did the Greek gallery scene acquit itself at Art Athina? Pretty well, considering. It’s a shame that several Greek galleries that already have an international following -- Bernier / Eliades, Ileana Tounta, Xippas -- did not participate. But several newer galleries moved to take up the slack.
Qbox, which was recently opened in Athens by dealer Myrtia Nikolakopoulou, made a fairly dramatic statement in its booth with a single large-scale installation by Georgia Kotretsos. The floor of the stand was built up with a low wooden platform, and a small, slightly antique school desk was placed in its center. In the desk sat, typically, the dealer. The platform was on a fulcrum, so that when a visitor stepped up on it to approach the desk, the floor would shift a few inches with a startling bang -- a metaphor for awkward beginnings. For €15,000, you could take home the entire booth.
Now a resident of Athens, Kotretsos has spent time in the U.S., notably at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago, where, in 2003, she gradually took enough individual candies from a Felix Gonzalez-Torres candy spill on exhibition there to "reconstitute" the work as part of a show in South Africa, where the AIDS crisis is still acute. "I’ve never eaten one of the candies," she said, "because it represents the contagion."
Away from the fair, in Athens’ funky and ethnic (and newly gentrifying) Psiri neighborhood, one can find the city’s contemporary art district, cheek by jowl with drug addicts, clothing importers and Muslim immigrants. There, at the Qbox space on the second floor of a building smack in the middle of the local produce market, the 61-year-old Greek artist Dimitris Alithinos had installed a dense maze of scaffolding and portentous objects, such as a papier-mâché eagle, a baby doll in a swing wearing a terrorist’s hood and a live snake (a symbol of wisdom).
Titled My Melancholy’s Lullaby, Alithinos’ construction of temporary scaffolding invokes both the erection of civilization and the execution of wrong-doers. An independent artist who has lived in Paris and Rome, and who hasn’t had a show in Athens in ten years, Alithios is perhaps best known for his "Concealments," in which the artist buries forever unknown items -- conceptual actions taken in 148 places to date, including in Central Park, Harvard Yard and under the Greek pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Another exciting new Athens gallery is called Potnia Thiron, which translates as "tamer of beasts," a nickname of the deity Artemis. The gallery is headed by Elisavet Lyra, a former director of Christie’s Athens, who has rendered the gallery website (www.potniathiron.eu) in seven languages -- "our seven target markets." At Art Athina, Potnia Thiron is presenting Alecos Fassianos, a widely known, 71-year-old Greek pop artist whose paintings take up Greek narrative themes, from ancient times to the present, as well as classically inspired decorative designs.
And in something of an international coup, Potnia Thiron has also teamed up with Haunch of Venison to present a V-hull racing boat by the contemporary art world’s premiere design artist, Jorge Pardo. Originally built in 2005 and premiering at the Haunch of Venison space in Zürich, Pardo’s Untitled (Pleasure Boat) has a stylized burnt-orange hull and detailed woodwork, and can be accessorized by a burgundy red Pardo-crafted canopy and cushions.
An American collector at Art Athina was intently considering purchasing the work, which is priced at $500,000. Installing a motor -- a Volvo Penta Diesel would cost about $25,000 -- is up to the new owner. "We offer it as a work of art," said Lyra. "The buyer must get it certified himself."
Another Athens gallery is the five-year-old Loraini Alimantiri / Gazonrouge, which featured several younger Greek artists in its booth, including Diamantis Sotiropoulos (b. 1978), whose large Neo-Goth ink drawing, highlighted with gold and depicting a masked satyr playing dice while flanked by demons, was sold at €5,500. Sotiropoulos only had his first solo show at the gallery last September, but he got a major career boost after Deutsche Bank bought a work and exhibited at the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin in a "new acquisitions" show. The waiting list for his drawings now numbers 15 people, said gallery director Evita Tsokanta.
Tsokanta noted that Athens has no state museum devoted to contemporary art, and that as a rule most Greeks aren’t engaged with it, either -- though the country does have its share of major collectors. As a consequence, Alimantiri is specifically attempting to make international connections, and has participated in art fairs in Berlin, Brussels, Turin and Vienna.
Back at Art Athina, other Greek artists making an impression included Callas, a pair of performance artists who several years ago won the Deste Prize for living in a store window in downtown Athens. At the fair, as part of one of the several parties held in the basement space, they donned superman outfits and sunglasses and put on rock-fashion show featuring models dressed in t-shirts decorated by hand with magic marker. Their theme seems to be "do it yourself or die," and the music sounded like a quite serviceable Britpop version of Iggy Pop’s I wanna be your dog.
The "Open Plan" exhibition also offered a mural-sized work by Nikos Alexiou (b. 1960), who is representing Greece at the Venice Biennale (and who is represented by the Dodo Gallery from Thessaloniki). Dubbed The Gates, the piece consisted of a row of 12 vertical forms constructed of irregular triangular grids. Constructed by hand out of black paper and installed on the wall with simple straight pins, they resembled fisherman’s nets, or perhaps a row of misshapen columns.
"A measure of the distance between concept and practice," suggested curator Sotirios Bahtsetzis. For Venice, Alexiou has made a computer animation inspired by a floor mosaic in a 12th-century monastery on Mount Athos.
The avant-garde’s devil-may-care spirit apparently animates Poka-Yio (b. 1970), one of the three curators of the forthcoming Athens Biennial, who contributed to the "Open Plan" a trio of chunky giant figures, constructed out of lumpy cardboard and riding on cardboard wagons. The entire ensemble -- which resembles the costumed Greek soldiers who can be seen kick-marching on embassy row -- is painted a fetching brown.
Another artist in the "Open Plan" was Kostis Velonis, who is represented by Zina Athanassiadou gallery in Thessaloniki. His forlorn structures made of found wood are rather more melancholy than the assertive metal works of David Smith, whose sculptural esthetic they borrow. Velonis gives his works comically politicized titles, such as Lenin’s Podium & Stalin’s Falsification.
An artist with works at several spots in the fair was Alexandros Psychoulis (b. 1966), whose easily recognizable, highly graphic style consists of vaguely cuboid, black-and-white images made from stuttering parallel lines and trippy concentric forms -- as if bending the techniques of Op Art to figurative use. His You Bear (2007) -- whose subject reflects his recent fatherhood -- was in the booth of A. Antonopoulou Art from Athens. The price: €8,000.
Fair-goers were also stopped in their tracks by a suite of three videos by Aliki Paliou (b. 1975) at the booth of Selini Gallery from Athens. The artist, who studied at London at St. Martin’s, is seen showering her baby boy with lipsticky kisses, as he wails and fusses. People weren’t quite sure if they approved. The videos are €2,000 in editions of three.
The Breeder’s expressive, rock ‘n’ roll esthetic was well expressed by a giant mask painting titled Silver Horn Monsterhead (2007) by Los Angeles artist Mindy Shapero -- whose paintings are indeed "blasts of color," as New York critic Jerry Saltz wrote in a review some time ago. The Breeder recently showed her works at its gallery in Athens’ Psiri district, and also took them to the last Frieze Art Fair (Shapero shows in Los Angeles with Anna Helwig). The price for this particular devil was $16,000. "We will sell it, no problem," said the gallery’s Stathis Panagoulis.
We have time before we go for a few more notes on some non-Greek artists. Pius Portmann, a graffiti artist who was born in Zurich but now lives in New York, made an impression with a spirited wall installation that combined small works on paper, a large painting and a drawing directly on the wall, courtesy of Artrepco Gallery in Zürich. The painting, in which images of a large female profile and a dancing female figure are intertwined with an ornamental arabesque, was €9,250.
The three-year-old Berlin gallery Nice & Fit featured an insouciant work by the German artist Hannes Schmidt (b. 1974), in which the several parts of picture -- frame, stretcher, mat, glass sheet -- are separately propped up against the wall by slim pieces of lumber. The price: €2,500. "It’s the only work in the booth that hasn’t sold yet," said gallery director Helena Papadopoulos. Something of a Duchampian, Schmidt plans "to revive Duchamp’s Blind Man magazine and do a third issue," Papadopoulos said.
Last but not least is Arc Projects, a gallery with plans to open spaces in both Edinburgh in Scotland and Sofia in Bulgaria -- though in fact it has no physical facilities as yet. Launched by independent curators Chris Byrne (the Scottish one) and Iliyana Nedkova (the Bulgarian one), Arc is nevertheless off to a promising start, representing the three artists who are in the Bulgarian pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
In the booth at Art Athina, for instance, is a video by the Paris-based Bulgarian artist Stefan Nikolaev titled Minouk the Fish Painter. A goldfish swims about its bowl, the very picture of incomprehension, as the water is gradually colored by red dye. You gotta love the fish’s blank expression as it goes about its bug-eyed business, basically blind to the growing hazard. All three works in the edition have been sold to French collections, including regional museums, Nedkova said. The price was €8,000 each.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.