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Destroy Athens or rebrand it? October 14, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Arts Events Greece, Arts Exhibitions Greece.
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Discovering the dark underside of the 1st Athens Biennial 2007

“Art is a remedy for the improvement of life.” Or so Athens Mayor Nikitas Kaklamanis told the crowd gathered at the opening of the 1st Athens Biennial, “Destroy Athens”, on September 9 at Gazi’s Technopolis.

Will this new venture, predominantly sponsored by Deutsche Bank at a cost of around 1.3 million euros, with over 60 artists from around the globe, deliver on that promise? Or will it be a travelling artistic circus that comes and goes with no lasting legacy?

As is so often the case, the curation is laden with jargon-loaded pseudo-philosophy. At one end, we are told that the aim is to make art more inclusive, to cross cultures and boundaries. But at the other, the written information from the event seems to be deliberately indecipherable. This is an extract from the curators’ catalogue:

“One could put it like this: we never want to be what we are; we claim the right not to be what we are. Under certain conditions, both unexpected and intricate, between those two dimensions of the entirely consubstantial, there is no division of any kind, subject, there is a rupture… The rupture is potentially there, lurking in the possibility of claiming refusal: at every instant, we are entitled to deny the precondition of collectivity and abolish any connection or relationship.”

Right. Did you get that? What I think they are trying to say is that art should challenge our preconceptions, make us look at the world afresh.

In which case, there is no doubt that the show at Technopolis does just that. It is not for the faint-hearted. Some of the exhibits are deliberately provocative; they will cause controversy. As Mayor Kaklamanis said, “Art cannot be censored.”

As you wander through the labyrinth of lanes created by the curators in the old factory, there is a sinister sense of adventure, like entering a Grimm’s fairytale. You wonder what you will find around the next corner. Will it be a magical garden of balloons and flowers, or a creepy film set of ghostly white figures by the neo-Gothic Lithuanian artist Aidas Bareikis?

Many of the exhibits are on a scale to match the industrial landscape in which they are set. Some, such as the Norwegian artist Narve Hordennakk’s film of a sexually abusing policeman masturbating, will shock and revolt. On the other hand, Australian-born Bjarne Melgaard’s work provides gaily coloured furniture as a respite for weary limbs, it does, after all, take at least an hour to walk through the exhibition.

But for me this is an after-dark show, best seen at night, not just because the form of the building itself comes to life with its backlit lighting and brilliant red chimneys, but because the contrasts of the various spaces and galleries, from darkened claustrophobic rooms to brilliant white walls, create their own mood.

As I wandered into an old pump room to see the young Norwegian Martin Skauen’s contemporary cartoon vision of hell – like a scene from Dante’s inferno tumbling down a wall to the throbbing sounds of machinery, it was easy to imagine the heat, pressure and claustrophobia that must have existed when the building was used for its original purpose. There is no doubt that this is a world-class exhibition: it is exciting, original, it assaults your senses and it does, indeed, challenge preconceptions.

But major events such as this need to have more than just a “wow” factor; they need to be a powerhouse for artistic and creative regeneration throughout the city. This is where the ReMap KM Project comes in. Running parallel to and in conjunction with the Biennial in the Kerameikos and Metaxourgeio districts, it encourages you to walk through the old city following a provided map and discover events in unlikely places: derelict buildings, beautiful old tenements, vacant lots.

A total of 16 internationally acclaimed galleries from the USA, Turkey, France, Germany, Greece and the UK are showcasing young talent, like graffiti artists, literally taking you through the keyhole, behind the scenes of work and walls.

One such event is presented by a British group of young artists from Edinburgh called Young Athenians, which is curated by Neil Mulholland and so named because of the ironic reference to Edinburgh as the Athens of the North. Using this title, they comment on the urban environment they live in through multimedia exhibits. Theirs is a whimsical show that is as interesting for the fading fin de siecle house it inhabits as for the quality of its work, but, nevertheless, its humour and originality work as a catalyst for discussion. Like one of the screen installations that lets us voyeuristically watch the painful argument of a young couple on Scotland’s streets, the open doors of ReMap allow us access to the underbelly of Athens and relate it to other cities, reflecting on the common human experience that unites us all.

That is the strength of the biennial. It will rebrand Athens, allow it to show that its treasures are not just the stereotypes of ancient antiquities but that it is a contemporary, artistic capital, vibrant and rejuvenative.

Certainly, the main Technopolis event is worth a day or two of your time. It is impossible to walk through the exhibition and not be challenged by the pure scale and visual impact. But the fun is to be had out in the city with a map in your hands, discovering hidden Athens and its cultural underside, from revisiting old friends like the Museum of Cycladic Art with its first-ever video exhibition of “Her/(His)tory”, which examines the subjective development of the historical condition, to joining a Karaoke Poetry event.

Will the biennial destroy Athens? No, with luck it will create a new adventure for the city, adding yet another layer to an amazing history. But the proof will be in the future. One biennial does not a biennial make. But based on the evidence so far, it deserves to be a huge success.

Let us just hope that in the future they let the art do the talking and not the curators. If you get the chance, go to Gazi, and judge for yourself, or grab a ReMap and follow the treasure trail to discover what lies within.

The 1st Athens Biennial is showcased in a series of parallel exhibitions at Gazi’s Technopolis through to November 18, Tuesday to Sunday from noon to 10pm. For more information, visit www.athensbiennial.org/. For information about ReMap, visit www.remapkm.com

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