Art Under Austerity – Contemporary Art Abides Amidst The Greek Economic Crisis

In his 1965 novel The Magus, John Fowles describes the way in which so many Greeks “wished to leave Greece never to return, yet never learnt to accept their exile”. This condition, Fowles ruminates, is “the cost of being born in the most beautiful and most cruel country in the world.”

At the risk of sounding redundant, Greece really is beautiful. Stunningly so. Much ink has been spent already in trying to provide an adequate description of both its physical beauty and cultural significance, so I will not attempt to recapitulate such a discussion here. I wish instead is to describe the dynamic and multifaceted contemporary art scene which I found to be much alive in spite of the considerable economic woes that are afflicting just about every aspect of everyday life.

Walking through Athens, I would witness for myself the extent of the hardship wrought on a people reeling from ruthless austerity measures, just as Greece became the first developed nation in history to default over a missed € 1.7 billion bailout payment to the IMF. This suffering was exacerbated by widespread pension cuts and long queues for ATM’s outside eerily vacant banks. In the days running up to the referendum held in order to decide on the acceptance of the bailout conditions on the country’s government debt crisis, the miasma of uncertainty clung to the streets like the sticky midday heat.

However, against the odds, a host of passionate art professionals are still striving to provide a platform for unmitigated creative expression. In the looming shadow of the so-called ‘Grexit’, Kappatos Athens Art Residency, View of Santiago Sierra’s  “The Trilogy of Pigs Eating Peninsulas” at the Kappatos Gallery (Top Photo), independent venues and artist-run-spaces across Athens continue to host exhibitions, debates, events, performances and film-screenings. In a country that is paradoxically associated with the romantic ideal of summer vacations, yet experiencing a severe humanitarian crisis of starvation and soaring suicide rates, art is providing a way to register, comprehend and respond to what has become a daily reality of humiliating sanctions inflicted by a deeply flawed system.

The subsequent shift of critical attention onto the Greek art scene has not passed unnoticed by the wider art world, with its affiliation to a broad network of interconnected institutional and market-based subsidiaries. The next Documenta will be held concurrently between Kassel and Athens in 2017, marking what Artistic Director Adam Szymcyzk describes as “a strong political context for the next project. However, we don’t want to illustrate the crisis. We believe the real image of the crisis doesn’t exist and perhaps should not try to be imposed. We just try to exist in this state of crisis, every single day – in Germany as well as in Greece.”

The relationship between the two nations has come under intense international scrutiny in recent years, however Szymcyzk insists that the focus of the show is on Athens’ status as a metropolitan base of contemporary cross-cultural interaction owing to its geographical location and issues of immigration from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The dual exhibition is being developed under the working title “ Documenta 14 ; Learning From Athens”, outlining a clear curatorial remit that places attention squarely upon the the city as a sort of portal through which people of various backgrounds and histories can claim visibility.

What seems less likely, though, is a system of widely-applied integration between the Documenta programme and existing commercial galleries in Athens, indeed, Szymcyzk himself has stressed the importance of keeping Documenta at a reasonable distance from the gallery scene and instead try to engage instead with public institutions in the city. While bringing much needed exposure to these severely underfunded institutions is certainly beneficial, it would be a pity for Documenta to overlook entirely the widely varied and exciting gallery circuit in Athens, with many of the up-and coming and high profile names there already being a established presence in plenty of other large-scale international art fairs such as Frieze and The Armory Show.

One such gallery, The Breeder, was showing an ambitious group show centred around contemporary approaches to painting. Curated by Frédéric Bonnet, the exhibition (entitled Fresh Painting, French Painting), dealt with exclusively French practitioners; raising interesting questions about the status of ‘nationalised’ art in an increasingly globalised world as well as the cross-cultural reception of foreign artists in such a politically-charged environment. Certainly a case could be made for the importance of supporting young Greek artists by displaying their work on such a platform, however The Breeder gallery show lays down an equally persuasive argument in favour of injecting top-quality international talent within the local art scene and so enabling a continued discourse and exchange of ideas and opinions across geopolitical boundaries and financial states. By doing so, they also help cement Athens’ reputation as a lively and dynamic player on the international art scene.

The Breeder Gallery, located in the edgy Metaxourgeio district, does in fact prioritise the promotion of emerging Greek talent, representing a large amount of highly talented practitioners such as Jannis Varelas, Dora Economou, Stelio Faitakis and Socratis Socratous; as well as recently offering an international residency program. The inaugural artist-in-residence will be the American practitioner Ben Wolf Noam, who will be showing a series of visually scintillating works based on on particular site in Athens; The Field of Ares park, one of the largest public spaces in the city dedicated to the remembrance of Greek Independence. Even as it memorises historical heroes through typically bombastic monuments, at night the park houses scores of homeless people dispossessed by the ongoing financial crisis.

The Kappatos Gallery in Athen’s central Monastiraki district was presenting Santiago Sierra’s expansive “The Trilogy of Pigs Eating Peninsulas” project. This trilogy of videos, presented as three projections across the gallery space also showing large scale austere photographs, are taken from documentation of a series of performances first initiated by the Madrid-based artist in 2012 in Hamburg. Equipped with Go-Pro cameras strapped to their backs, a group of pigs was let loose within an enclosed space in which the cartographic outline of three successive peninsulas was formed on the floor out of some sloppy edible material. Using footage recorded on the cameras attached to the pigs themselves, or that recorded by the hand-held cameras of Sierra’s team, the first of the videos (shot, with no small degree of poetic irony, in a Hamburg gallery) documents the gradual devouring of first the Hellenic Peninsula, the second (recorded in a gallery in Luca) the Italian Peninsula and finally (recorded in Milan) the Iberian Peninsula. The fact that financial entities that are currently ‘eating’ less stable territories provides a sharply underlined socio-political context for this work, which Sierra extends – with all his characteristic caustic directness – through a new project entitled simply “Athens Stray Dogs Project”.

Created specially while living as artist in residence at the Kappatos project space, two floors above the gallery space in the same central Athens block, this sprawling endeavour follows the movements of a group of street dogs of which the artist adorned with canine t-shirts bearing politicised Greek messages and slogans such as the plaintive cry “I AM HUNGRY”. This could be understood as a literal invocation of the dogs’ situation as much as a metaphorical representation of vulnerable segments of Greek society.

As in Sierra’s earlier work, such as the much-debated “160 CM Line Tattooed on 4 People” (2000) in which the artist paid four substance-abusing sex-workers the price of a single dose of heroin each in order to tattoo a line across their backs, the work raises many uncomfortable questions. Sierra uses the dogs as an instrument of political dissemination, released into society precisely in order to unveil hard-hitting truths about social imbalance and the distribution of wealth across class systems. It is refreshing to witness such difficult issues addressed so directly, and in such a timely manner.

During Sierra’s residency his film entitled “NO, GLOBAL TOUR” was also shown at the Mikrocosmos Cinema and the artist delivered a lecture at the Fine Arts School of Athens, investigating points of intersection between the arts and the public sphere by means of public interventions and educational programmes. The first official Art Residency in Athens; the“Kappatos Athens Art Residency” was launched by the non-profit organisation “Pantheon” in 2013 and is supported by a European fund (NFRS: National Strategic Reference Framework 2007–2013), the Hellenic Democracy Ministry of Culture and Sport and the public art programme “Publicscapes: Art and Curatorial Practice in the Public Sphere.” Located in the historical center of Athens, overlooking the Parthenon, the programme supports artistic research and production for art professionals from around the world and will select established and emerging artists to share a
live/work space for a six-week programme followed by a four-week exhibition in the Exhibition Space.

This programme is designed to have a positive impact on Greek contemporary culture by addressing both local and international audiences. Inevitably, such programmes also highlight the relationship between institutions and public funding bodies often directly supported by European cultural schemes, further widening the problematic discrepancy between politically sanctioned funding and the anti-capitalist rhetoric of many Greek practitioners. This conflict of interest remains a sore sticking point for many of the young Greek artists I spoke to in Athens, who generally felt that their work was being overlooked in favour of the ‘sure thing’ provided by a bankable foreign name. Under the difficult conditions imposed by economic policies, many smaller galleries were unwilling or unable to take a risk in showing a relatively unknown newcomer. However, others were sceptical of this somewhat oversimplified viewpoint. “Nothing has really changed,” one painter in her late twenties told me, “the galleries didn’t look towards emerging Greek artists before anyway.”

Without the same economic and institutional infrastructure, the Greek art market has suffered substantially, as local mid-level collectors either shift their focus abroad or lose interest in buying all together. However, a pervasive sense of romanticism seems to underline the current situation, and those buying into it believe that the unrest (along with the laid-back lifestyle and inexpensive accommodation of Athens) had opened up a new surge in artistic expression in reaction to and defiance of a state of bankruptcy and civil unrest, akin to the cosmopolitan New York art scene of the 1970s. Athens (at least for the considerably better-off artists from abroad) has become the affordable alternative artist-friendly city in contrast to other trendy, but increasingly gentrified, hotspots such as Berlin.

Outside of Athens, a small number of Greek islands have also recently become something of a pilgrimage site within the contemporary art world. It is as if the glamour associated with an island such as Hydra, where Greek mega-collector Dakis Joannou has set up his DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Arts, inadvertently seeps into those who frequent it – imbuing them with the same sort of invigorating life-force otherwise gained by commissioning Jeff Koons to paint your boat. The late Martin Kippenberger’s humorously displaced MOMAS (Museum of Modern Art Syros), an empty concrete shell of a building on the remote island of Syros, no longer seems as implausible as it must have done nearly three decades ago. I was unable to visit Hydra and see the Paul Chan show “Hippias Minor” on display at DESTE. Instead I took the hydrofoil ferry to the annual Mykonos Biennial, this year entitled ‘Antidote’ in relation to the alleviating nature of artistic expression during the hardship of the financial meltdown; art as an antidote to social unrest.

Only in its second year, the Biennial had seemed blighted by the economic crisis from the start, but has managed to incorporate it uniquely into the conceptual and curatorial remit of the project overall. Founded by artist Lydia Venieri, the aim of the Biennale is to counteract the wave of depression wrought by the crisis through the holistic nature of art, as a cathartic and rehabilitative force fully integrated within the unique cultural and social fabric of Mykonos – an island otherwise known for its wild and decadent party scene. For all its picturesque windmills and whitewashed, sea-sprayed buildings, the town has been rendered somewhat ludicrous for its overt commercialism, set within a position of privilege through its intimate connection with wealth and status Mykonos seems to have overridden the economic crisis at large, existing within a self-contained yet gaudy bubble. Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Versace, Cartier, Rolex – the gleam of moneyed excess brings its own aesthetic value with it. Small contemporary galleries have sprung up alongside the fashion and jewellery outlets, hawking the same cookie-cutter commercial art as could be found on almost any Mayfair street.

Which is why it is all the more commendable that the young Greek curator and artist Lydia Andrioti should have chosen to tackle such difficult issues as economic crisis in the exhibition she has organised at the School of Fine Arts, situated in a beautiful building overlooking the old town.
Following an open-call to both Greek and international artists, Andrioti realised that the funding in place would be insufficient to cover the cost of shipment for much of the artwork from abroad.

Instead, she resourcefully requested that each artist send a work that could fit inside the size of an A4 Manila envelope. A surprising diversity of submissions ensued, alongside some very accomplished pieces by Greek artists including Konstantinos Patsios’s surprising totemic structures contrived of various combined artefacts that often refer to popular culture and Stathis Alexopoulos’s arresting monochrome anatomical head, which looked like a Damien Hirst sculpture dipped into a pot of International Klein Blue. Andrioti’s own work consists of large-scale drawings that act like blueprints incorporating binary references to Greek society, a schema for an order in crisis that is rendered as appropriately schizophrenic.

The biennial was spread across the town, incorporating various venues such as the archaeological museum, were the sculptural works of well-known figures such as Lydia Venieri, Takis and Danae Stratou were interspersed with classical monuments in the museum courtyard. The old amphitheatre became the site for a special presentation of film-screenings of short films from international filmmakers and video artists. Video-art was also projected throughout the town as a kind of ‘kinetic graffiti’, bringing the walls of the old buildings eerily alive with movement, sound and colour.

Katerina Georgopoulou’s ‘Submerged’ presented an escapist vision based on the concept of fluidity and the need to break free of urban constraints, while Thomas Apostolou’s ‘Breath’ dealt with the interconnectedness of the human body and technology – the artist manipulated the focus of the camera fixed on an abstract geometric form in time with his rate of breathing, creating an effect of inhaling and exhaling by visual perception.

The Biennial seemed indicative of the fighting spirit that had kept Greek art alive, and helped maintain a sense of solidarity and critical discourse throughout what have been undoubtedly overwhelmingly difficult conditions. This might also have something to do (at the risk of being grossly over-generalising) with the Greek character itself, which is inherently logical and always keen to debate and discuss, as well as the characteristic subversive sense of humour and inquisitive spirit that marks out these resilient people and has helped them carry on through many difficult times. I left Greece, in spite of the hardships I had seen, filled with a sense of cautious optimism. I felt a reinvigorated belief in art as a social force, a force for the kind of beneficial change called for by the generation that has and will continue to grow up under the auspices of economic collapse. Austerity has revealed the worst in the privileged few who preside over others from a position of power, but has also brought out the best in a people who continue to abide and create in the face of catastrophe. Truly it is here that art can find its purpose, can speak truth to power, and function as a vehicle for the kind of fundamental human empathy that will carry over the boundaries solidified by Europe’s unsustainable economic project. If it does not, all that will be left with is the deathly legacy of our capitalistic ventures, art as a frivolous commodity; empty gestures to fill empty rooms.

Words: George Micallef-Eynaud © Artlyst 2015.