Since the start of the Greek debt crisis in 2010, austerity measures have had a profound impact on life in the country. From biennials to occupations, Ben Davis and Ara H. Merjian reflect on how the art scene in Athens has responded
Ara H. Merjian
Writing in September 2012 on the Greek news website Ekathimerini.com, one journalist hazarded to dub Athens the art world’s ‘new Berlin’, on account of its relatively low rents and dynamic youth culture. ‘Greek art has become somewhat sexy since the crisis erupted,’ Margarita Pournara noted, paraphrasing (with a healthy dose of cynicism) collectors’ sudden interest in the aesthetics of the Hellenic dilemma. That same year, the Architecture Biennale in Venice found Panos Dragonas and Anna Skiada curating a special kiosk titled ‘Made in Athens’, which Maria Cristina Didero, writing in Domus, described as ‘an austere overview that also shows great hope for the future in its fascinating (albeit disintegrated) and striking (albeit decadent) capital’. A more conditional and qualified hope in the Greek future could not be asked for.
Just three years later, much has changed. The country’s lot has tilted from economic precariousness to intermittent emergency. With many galleries shuttered and collectors in retreat, a number of artists – like labourers in numerous other sectors – have found themselves obliged to pursue their trade abroad (when they can afford the move, that is). In the spring of last year, the bozar Centre for Fine Arts Brussels mounted an exhibition titled ‘No Country for Young Men’, curated by the Greek-born Katerina Gregos, which underscored some of the difficulties faced by young Greek artists – as well as by citizens at large. Though perhaps symptomatic of the ‘sexiness’ detected by Pournara, the works in the exhibition – like Dragonas and Skiada’s biennale installation – also ventured some remedies for Greece’s social and economic predicament.
The precise dimensions of that predicament keep shifting. Anyone who has followed Greek politics (and its global repercussions) over the past six months knows what a roller-coaster ride the country is on. With a fresh-faced, 41-year-old Alexis Tsipras at the helm, the Syriza party – victorious in January’s national elections – promised to defy the harsh cuts to social programmes and pensions demanded by the ‘troika’ of Greece’s creditors (the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund). Yet, in mid-August, Tsipras’s submission to further austerity demands to secure a third Eurozone bailout – despite a national referendum calling for their refusal – witnessed the breakaway formation of a new leftist movement, Popular Unity (named after Salvador Allende’s party), as well as Tsipras’s sudden resignation in a gamble for a new mandate. It remains to be seen what the next months will bring.
But what, if anything, can be gleaned about the relationship between art and austerity? In the wake of the country’s dire economic problems (and worsening refugee crisis), are aesthetics – and culture more broadly – seen to count for much? What are the short-term prospects for the arts in Greece, whether as symptom or solution?
Without a major museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art in Athens, the city has long lacked an anchoring institution for current artistic practice. That de-centredness bears its own benefits of a sort, as various private and public entities – such as the nomadic non-profit neon organization, which was founded by Dimitris Daskalopoulos – have stepped in to fill the gap. The multi-purpose cultural centre Technopolis (which is better known as ‘Gazi’) hosts exhibitions and other events, as does the Xwra cultural space, which sponsored a four-day video and media art festival in August. Based in Athens, the non-profit cheapart initiative has mounted numerous shows in the capital and staged art fairs in the northern city of Thessaloniki welcoming thousands of visitors. Open since 2010, the Onassis Cultural Centre now forms a hub for everything from dance to theatre and the visual arts, offering discounted tickets for the unemployed.
The outlook of the various Greek artists I spoke with is less than sanguine, however. Between impending cuts to government spending and leftist policy makers hostile to private capital as the engine of culture, the art scene in Greece finds itself – like the country at large – at an impasse. A false dichotomy has been established between a pro-Europe camp and those opposed to unrelenting debt. Still, the double-edged sword of globalization means that, along with Europe’s perceived severity in the face of the Greek plight, artists have more recourse to a market that transcends national borders. As the avant-garde composer and founder of the Optical Music collective, Costis Drygianakis, put it: ‘The world of creative musicians carries on, regardless of the crisis. I guess it has a lot to do with digital capabilities (web marketing, social media, etc.) […] In any case, I think many creative people seek an audience outside of Greece, which is good: Greece has been suffering from introversion for a long time.’
Stelios Faitakis’s work has enjoyed much international attention in recent years, precisely as a vinculum between various spheres of global ‘austerity’. Whether in the form of site-specific panels, folding screens or street art, Faitakis manages to synthesize aspects of Byzantine icons, Mexican murals and Peter Saul’s political caricature in a hybrid of incisive social commentary. Featuring Asian scripts, scenes of rioting masses, Mao in mock-hieratic likeness, an effigy of Barak Obama bearing the words ‘No Hope’ (a mordant play on Shepard Fairey’s iconic election campaign poster) and allusions to the radical left Italian group Lotta Continua, Faitakis’s apocalyptic and allegorical scenes comprise a truly global scope. Those intending to find in his work a neat compendium of the modern Greek tragedy may feel pulled-up short: it evinces traces of a crisis far more extensive and insidious, the upshot of far-reaching moral bankruptcy as much as financial mismanagement.
Faitakis professed to me a general pessimism regarding Greece’s short-term prospects, both aesthetic and political. Other artists note dwindling subsidies and hamstrung arts councils, which afford a degree of exposure for established figures but leave others by the wayside. At the same time, the waning of state support could be viewed as liberating, in a certain sense – obliging artists to forge new connections in Greece and abroad, and making of austerity not simply a condition but a compelling subject in its own right.
Ara H. Merjian is Associate Professor of Italian Studies at New York University, USA, where he is an affiliate of the Institute of Fine Arts and Department of Art History. He is guest curator of ‘Interrogations: Leon Golub and Contemporary Artists Figuring History’, which will open at The Broad, Los Angeles, USA, in August 2016.
‘Greek artists have always been in crisis.’ I feel as if I heard that phrase numerous times in Athens this summer, a mantra to meditate on as the world fell apart.
It has a lot of truth in it. ‘There is no infrastructure,’ writer and curator Iliana Fokianaki told me one afternoon. ‘The ministry of culture is completely infatuated with ancient culture. Even in the past, there was very little money for contemporary culture, not just visual art.’
In some ways, the crisis years have brought a sense of purpose. Some of the commercial art scene’s blandishments has been displaced by self-initiated projects with more idealistic rhetoric. Fokianaki’s non-profit space, State of Concept, which she founded in 2013, is a rock-solid example.
Still, economic uncertainty and political chaos weigh down the future. In the summer, the Greek people rejected austerity in a public referendum only to have their anti-austerity government forced to buckle by the European institutions. Struck by the resulting political whiplash, even those who had been unshakeably committed to the project of Greek culture began to talk about leaving.
In 2017, Documenta will split itself between Kassel and Athens. Say what you will about this gesture of symbolic reconciliation between Northern and Southern Europe, it has given the Greek art scene a promising landmark in a future that is otherwise draining away. Another mantra I heard more than once: ‘I won’t leave until I see what happens with Documenta.’ And yet, as Fokianaki said, only half-joking: ‘Who knows if there will even be a country then?’
After eight years of this grind, you might expect more visibly radical changes. To me at least, the professional art scene felt as if it was still holding its breath, waiting for Documenta, waiting for the weather to clear.
‘What I see is that most artists are holding firm to their own ground,’ the artist and curator Poka-Yio tells me one day. If you want to understand how Greece’s professional art world has reacted to the crisis, you could do worse than look at the Athens Biennale, of which Poka-Yio is co-founder together with Xenia Kalpaktsoglou and Augustine Zenakos. It began in 2007 with the soon-to-be-prophetic title ‘Destroy Athens’. This was a big deal in Greece, seen as establishing the kind of ambitious contemporary institutions that had always been lacking. ‘Destroy Athens’ and its sequel, ‘Heaven’, were relatively lavish affairs, but funding disappeared, and so the biennale has had to make do with less, even as the urgency of the world around it grows.
'The recipe for a biennale asks for money, art production and people,’ Poka-Yio theorizes. ‘When you take something out of that equation, what do you have left? Do you still have something that can be called a biennale? Yes – if you emphasize the others.’ With funds for art production drying up, the third and fourth editions, ‘Monodrome’ (2011) and ‘Agora’ (2013), put more and more emphasis on people over product. ‘Agora’ broke with the idea of top-down curating, sourcing ideas through an open call. ‘Omonoia’, which opens this month with Massimiliano Mollona as director, removes still another seemingly invariant convention, that a biennale should come together all at once. Technically, it will comprise the fifth and sixth Athens Biennales rolled into one, climaxing as Documenta begins in 2017: an iv drip of art instead of an all-at-once injection.
This experiment in making virtue of necessity might tell us a lot, arriving through subtraction at what is most vital about a contemporary art event. At the same time, the Greek present also reveals certain romantic platitudes to be particularly shopworn. ‘Once, in a conference, a colleague of mine, an older curator, told me that great art has carried on through crisis, that we don’t need money,’ Poka-Yio recounted, shaking his head. ‘I said, “What the fuck are you talking about? My pockets are full of unpaid receipts and invoices for the biennale.”’
One evening, I found myself at an outdoor performance space. Blue lights cut out of the night the forms of two guys leaning over their instruments. The music was joyfully chaotic, the park teeming. There was an improvised bar and, behind the shallow pit where the band was playing, a cavernous building, walls studded with graffiti, full of more people.
This occupied space, Green Park, represents one of the more interesting tales of artists feeling their way through the crisis. ‘When the crisis came I was feeling better in a way, because it made you equal,’ Vassilis Noulas, one of the architects of the Green Park occupation, told me, invoking the ‘artists have always been in crisis’ theme. ‘At first, it feels like a slap in the face that wakes you up. But, after a while, it’s like being hit in the face over and over.’
Noulas is one of the founding members of the Mavili Collective, a group of experimental theatre artists who, back in 2011, spearheaded the occupation of the historical Embros Theatre in the centre of Athens. That was the year of the mass occupation of Syntagma Square. Embros picked up on the same energy. You hear about that occupation a lot in Athens, from both artists and activists, as a highlight of the recent epoch.
Hundreds of people of diverse political tendencies and tastes flowed through Embros to debate art’s place in the world. The vicissitudes of the occupation over the following years are too complex to trace here. Suffice it to say that Green Park is a sequel of sorts initiated by those, like Noulas, who feel that the theatre occupation, which continues with a different cast, became rather inflexibly dominated by anarchist principles.
‘We want to create another paradigm of occupation, an artistic occupation,’ he explained: ‘One that is more open.’
The space’s founding manifesto talks about remaining self-consciously ‘imperfect and incomplete’. I read this as a hard-won lesson about political art spaces: that they function best when they are not too political, when they can serve as a meeting space for different projects instead of becoming the project itself. What organizational alternatives it can find beyond the anarchist one of rule-by-whomever-debates-the-longest is unclear – they propose the willfully vague term ‘friendship’ – but it is intended, first of all, to be enough to evolve.
Green Park was an abandoned cafe and event space. Scavengers had stripped it of anything that could be sold off. The occupation crew hauled out hundreds of bags of debris, returning the space to working order. At any given time, it could be facilitating a programme of sculpture in the park, or hosting debate on the role of private money in Greek cultural life. The initial ten-day Green Park programme, whose theme was ‘Joy and Politics’, coincidentally led up to the ‘no’ referendum. Green Park became, spontaneously, a space in which to experience the ups and downs of that moment together.
Back in New York, I called Gigi Argyropoulou, the only other member besides Noulis of the original Mavili Collective to have continued into Green Park. I asked her where she thinks it is all going. ‘At Embros,’ Argyropoulou replied, ‘we could feel the pressure from outside, of people saying: “What are you?” “Are you a squatter institution?” “What are you doing here?” “Are you doing the post-political thing?” We have at least learned to say that we won’t reply to this question, and we won’t feel guilty that we don’t know. It’s like an art project: you think you know what to do. But, in reality, you just have methods for dealing with problems.’
Another way to phrase it might be to say that if you don’t put your own ideas into crisis, you can’t expect to face crisis honestly. That may sound obvious, but one of the things I take from my Greek colleagues is what a long and tortuous task it is in practice.
Ben Davis is an art critic and the author of 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (Haymarket, 2013). He is based in New York, USA.
First published in Issue 174