June 24, 2021
THE MAD FLURRY of art openings in the wake of Greece’s six-month lockdown began with a showdown: an exhibition of sculptures by Blind Adam (Thanos Kyriakidis) in the catacombs of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity was shut down at the last minute by the head priest, Father Synesius Victoratos. “I do not know much about art, but all the works are black and look like pagan talismans,” he reasoned. “We apologize for the inconvenience, but our patrons are conservative.” Funded by the NEON Organization, the show, titled “The End. After Before,” had already wended through a rigorous approval process by the Archaeological Service and Archdiocese of Athens, but the Ministry of Culture deferred to the autonomy of the church. The chief object of concern was Metamorphosis—a squamous, shimmery serpent poised to pounce in a corner of the former temple to Apollo.
“It is censorship, but I don’t feel a victim,” Kyriakidis said. “The works gave off a strong energy like they belonged there, and that is what freaked them out.” People showed up anyway, either to support the artist or oblivious to the situation, while the art remained locked behind the heavy wooden doors of the Byzantine church. Someone asked, “But isn’t there a snake in the Bible?”
A few days later I made the trek to the Deste Foundation for the opening of “Anti-Structure,” the first exhibition hosted on the premises—located in a northern suburb formerly known for carpet production—since 2014. Curated by Andreas Melas, the show of works by twenty-one artists was structured around resin sculptures slithering throughout the space by Urs Fischer, as well as his Death of a Moment, 2007, a wall of mirrored panels that move almost imperceptibly, inducing a sense of uncertainty. Artist Thanasis Totsikas demonstrated the razor sharpness of one his handmade Knives, 2020-2021, and described his invention of a bikini that couples as a charging device. It occurred to me that survival has replaced luxury as the key to happiness.
It was a subdued affair; Dakis and Lietta Joannou waved as they fled early. Outside we found the ersatz Gagosian Gallery, installed by Wrong Gallery (Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni, and Ali Subotnick) in 2006. The real Gagosian boldly opened a palatial outpost in the city center last September with a show by Hydra resident Brice Marden. A lot of foreigners have waited out the pandemic in Athens, moving here by default, just as many Greeks relocated to rural settings. Curator Alexios Papazacharias described his new life in Larissa: “I walk five minutes in one direction to the city center and in the other to find unspoiled nature.” Artist Alessio de Girolamo and I headed for Athens’s neighboring hills, where we found spectacular views of the sprawling city and a man named Lykourgos and his dog Thelma, who showed us where to pick sage and fennel.
A surprising number of people woke up early enough that Saturday to catch Pierre Bal-Blanc’s 10:49 a.m. lecture-performance for the show “I Got Up,” at Hot Wheels, inspired by On Kawara’s diaristic series of postcards (on display are four addressed to Dan Graham). The following Friday evening, Georgia Sagri and Delia Gonzalez donned captioned garments by local designers Serapis Maritime and acted out an intense ritualistic performance before the crowd moved up the street to the lively MatchPoint for outdoor drinks.
Biblical fury interfered again when a reception scheduled for the NEON show “Portals” was postponed due to a flood caused by unseasonable torrential rains. Organized by the nonprofit in collaboration with the Greek government, the exhibition occupies newly retrofitted spaces at the Hellenic Parliament Library, a historical research archive in the former Public Tobacco Factory that occupies the entire city block. Last Tuesday evening, NEON director Dimitris Daskalopoulos spoke from a podium in the vast glass-ceilinged atrium, his figure tripled almost comically in video screens to either side. Hovering on the wall behind was the neon Babel of Glenn Ligon’s Waiting for the Barbarians, 2021: variously translated versions of the oft-cited phrase from Cavafy’s eponymous poem. The stunning space’s play of exposed industrial elements suits the monumental works, even if the overly wrought wall texts didn’t manage to bind the show’s scattershot, if often compelling, selection together as a coherent whole. There were resonances between installations such as Do Ho Suh’s 348 West 22nd St., 2000–01, a diaphanous fabric recreation of the artist’s New York apartment, and Kutlug Ataman’s Küba, 2004, a sprawling assemblage of forty television sets with living-room tables and chairs—both evoking displacement and longing for a safe home.
In fact, the inauguration of this new public cultural center coincides with this year’s bicentennial commemoration of the Greek War of Independence, which led to liberation from the Ottoman Empire and the exodus of millions of Greeks and Turks from their homelands. In that context, nearly everything in NEON’s show seemed to carry a double meaning. Although “Portals” implies openings and exits, Europe has yet to honor its humanitarian duty to refugees and challenge, in every language, the perception of barbarians at its borders. (Kader Attia’s concurrent presentation at State of Concept, “The Museum of Repair,” clearly revealed the fault lines underlying the facade of liberal democracy.) At NEON, the elephant in the room was embodied in a couple of untitled installations by Jannis Kounellis, constructed of materials like iron, clothing, burlap, and earth: reminders of how the Greek artist had to leave his own country to find his language. One of the most eloquent works was striking for its incongruous smallness: Eirene Efstathiou’s Choose Your Flag, 2005: three tiny grayscale paintings of a Greek flag broadcast on public TV during the dictatorship; an ominous hand gesture from a street riot; and a glittering mirror ball, a nostalgic symbol of indulgence.
Some tides seem to be turning in the art world at least: The Greek Ministry of Culture has, at long last, established a new department of contemporary art and appointed Katerina Gregos as director of the EMST (National Museum of Contemporary Art) after an agonizing series of mishaps and false starts that have plagued the former brewery building since its completion. Hopefully this signals a new model where Greek art is supported by the state, rather than beholden to the interests and intimates of private foundations. The Acropolis has finally been outfitted for disabled access with concrete walkways and an elegant new elevator ascending the rock, eliciting unwarranted criticism in light of the alterations and invasions over the centuries—if only the whole city were as easy to navigate. Let’s just hope that when we are finally unmasked, the smell in the air is one of change.
As the sun set that evening, a group of artists and dealers gathered outside the former factory, where a lone performer treated us to a wistful yet resolute interpretation of Brendan Fernandes’s A Solo for When We Can Dance Again.
— Cathryn Drake