Since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union and the United States elected Donald Trump as president in 2016, ‘political’ art has become fashionable in the Anglophone west. The collapse of the neoliberal order that triumphantly asserted ‘the end of history’ after the fall of the Soviet Union has prompted some of the worst political art (and satire) ever made. Every work I’ve seen about Brexit has been shallow and unsubtle, devoid of analysis of either the class composition of the Leave or Remain blocs, or the actual nature of the European Union. Such artists would do well to consider how the troika of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund dealt with the Greek debt crisis in 2015; the mistakes that the apparently radical but inexperienced Syriza government made in negotiating with the troika after their election in January 2015; and the thoughtful approach of many of the artists featured in ‘Anatomy of Political Melancholy’, curated by Katerina Gregos and currently on display at the Conservatoire in Athens, who eschew simple sloganeering in favour of rigorous, yet often ambiguous critique.
There has been a paradigm shift in left-wing thought since the financial crisis of 2008 moving from a focus on defeats suffered between Paris in May 1968 and Moscow in August 1991 towards the inability of the left to seriously challenge the entrenchment of a debt-driven, market-based global financial system. Recently, various thinkers, including Mark Fisher, Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek have written about ‘capitalist realism’ – the idea that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than of neoliberalism, with discussions of potential alternatives kept within the domain of academics and artists rather than politics. The emotional responses this has generated – frustration, anger, hopelessness and despair – are explored here, with the emphasis on the long-term causes of disillusion rather than their immediate symptoms.
The video works in the exhibition are especially strong. A deft act of curation puts two screens back-to-back, with opposing perspectives on the faltering relationships between politicians and their constituents given on either side. In Raimo S. (2014), Nestori Syrjälä presents an interview with a character, based on Finland’s former Secretary of State Raimo Sailas, who laments how his work towards the success of Finland’s post-war welfare state has contributed to the worsening ecological situation. Watching it, I wondered if Sailas himself would be so remorseful if questioned about his achievements. On the flipside, Gottfried Richter (noted in East Germany for his portrayal of executed inter-war Communist leader Ernst Thälmann in a 1986 TV movie) plays Peter Bitter, an ageing, disenchanted Dresdener, in Sven Johne’s Dear Vladimir Putin (2017). In the letter that Bitter writes to Vladimir Putin, we are confronted not just with the anti-immigrant, anti-globalisation views espoused by supporters of Trump and Brexit, Germany’s Alternativ für Deutschland or Pegida, and Golden Dawn in Greece, but also the realisation that liberalism cannot stem the tide. As Bitter describes his nostalgia for his time working in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, it becomes clear that the suppression of the concept of class solidarity has isolated huge numbers of people; in this vacuum, far-right demagogues have been able to pose as the protectors of the dispossessed.
Although its scope is international, ‘Anatomy of Political Melancholy’ includes many artists who come from, or have moved to, Greece. Only one is not contemporary: Chrysa Romanos, a Communist Party member influenced by the Allies crushing the Greek left near the end of World War II, who left for Paris before the military junta seized power in 1967. (She died in 2006.) In 1965, Romanos made a series of collages putting products of the consumer boom alongside the horrors of the Vietnam War and African famines; their presence here provides a link between the Cold War generation active and those dealing with its aftermath – such as Eirene Efstathiou, whose ‘How Things are Made’ (2017) collages document the collapse of the manufacturing industry and organised labour, and the consequent decline in class consciousness. (In a caustic note next to her works, Efstathiou says that all she remembers from Marx’s Capital is the coat discussed in the first chapter, ‘Commodities and Money’). In a photo series looking at two industries that have superseded manufacturing, called ‘The Tourists’ (2015–ongoing), Greek collective Depression Era subvert the national advertising sector’s presentation of a land of sea, sun and ancient wonder. Over such a photo, they place the words ‘South is the new North’ and ‘makeyourselvesathome’, invite migrants escaping the Syrian war to settle in Greece and playfully challenge the motives of people moving from wealthier parts of Europe to Athens in the wake of the Greek financial collapse.
My favourite works in the exhibition deal directly with this crisis. The best of several photo series is ‘It Exhausts My Elbow’, begun in 2018 by Cypriot artist Marianna Christofides, which looks at recent abandoned building projects in Attica. Christofides puts 400 stills from a 16mm film on a wall, forcing the viewer to spend time contemplating these images of desolation, and soldiers looking for homeless squatters, with a magnifying glass. However, it is American artist Jennifer Nelson, a long-term resident in Athens, who confronts us most immediately with the troika’s imposition of austerity on Greece. Untitled (Mesogheia) (2016) is a traditional bridal dress of Eastern Attica, made of bank statements and debt letters. Nelson’s suggestion that the government’s debts (which stood at 178.6% of Greece’s gross domestic product in 2017) will be worn by its population for decades may seem obvious, but the attention to detail and handiwork make this an impressive piece. Nelson’s accompanying video, Democracy is a Party (2018), samples current Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s speech during the referendum of 2015, during which the Greek people voted oxi (no) to the troika’s bailout conditions, as a musical beat. The work links their decision to Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas’s October 1940 refusal of Mussolini’s demand to let Italian troops occupy Greece. (As it turned out, the Italians still attacked the Greek border, and Syriza still accepted the troika’s terms – they are standing for re-election this year in the face of mass disenchantment.) The images, again using embroidery from Attica, expand until they reach the edge of frame: a model based on growth cannot sustain itself for ever. When it inevitably explodes, who gets held to account and who picks up the pieces? Most importantly, can we hope for something better – maybe even something that fosters the collective joy that Syriza all too briefly promised?
‘Anatomy of Political Melancholy’ runs at Athens Conservatoire until 14 April 2019.
Main image: Nestori Syrjälä, Stele, 2016, car side windows, rocks, plaster, engraved texts. Courtesy: the artist
Juliet Jacques is a writer and filmmaker based in London, UK. Her most recent book, Trans: A Memoir, was published by Verso in 2015. She co-hosts Suite (212) on Resonance 104.4fm, which looks at the arts in their social, cultural, political and historical contexts.