“I LOVE AND I HATE ATHENS. I know it by heart, and it’s hard to leave,” said Greek artist Angelo Plessas on the patio of Ama Laxei under eaves heavy with vines and a table heaving with wine at an informal dinner organized by curator Myriam Ben Salah for the various friends, artists, curators, and dealers around for the twenty-second edition of Art Athina.
Documenta’s recent occupation of Athens invited posters and graffiti all over the city announcing “Crapumenta” and “Fuck Documenta14,” but the quinquennial has certainly telescoped international interest onto the city’s art scene. Art Athina, abandoned and renewed any number of times, is looking for a new life with the recent appointment of curator Stamatia Dimitrakopoulos as director. (One former director was arrested in 2007 for obscenity and insulting the Greek nation, because of an Eva Stefani video mixing porn and the Greek anthem, uneventfully on view this edition.) The Tae Kwon Do Stadium (“the Jewel of the Olympics,” I’m told), which hosted this year’s fair, still sports peeling stickers from the 2004 Olympics and wear from its second and third lives holding rallies for the left-wing political party Syriza and as an interim home for Syrian refugees. The parceled-out white booths contained, on the main floor and upstairs around the rim of the stadium, a relatively modest sixty-eight exhibitors, mostly Greek with a remarkably strong contingent from Los Angeles. My care for commerce hovers around necessary evil and reluctant compromise, but given the scrappiness of this fair, moving with the tailwind of the Documenta thrum, I couldn’t help but want it to work. And for a director who got the job only three months ago, Dimitrakopoulos pulled it together.
The Breeder’s solo presentation of Sofia Stevi blushed across pink walls and unstretched canvas, handmade books and giant pillows, loose and lively, hearting the fair with a playful, erotic energy. Next door, dealer Petra Martinetz beckoned passersby to a projected waterfall behind a forest of houseplants by Albert Mayr, inviting us to turn a spigot that, with some effort, takes the waterfall from frozen winter through a trickling fall and onto gushier spring thaw and summer flows. Rebecca Camhi coaxed together three dozen works in the shade of blue, from Nan Goldin and Nobuyoshi Araki to Konstantin Kakanias. “I’m here at the fair for Stamatia,” said Camhi, taking me by the hand. “Many Greeks think we should stop bothering, but here as everywhere we need to persist.”
Fellow Greek galleries Eleni Koroneou, Elika, and Kalfayan had strong group presentations. Los Angeles gallery 0-0, which has been open for only a few months, was doing the swiftest business, selling letter-size artworks for thirty euros each. It’s sort of hard not to buy one. The gallery’s Charlie Roberts had a show of his own—a wildly expressive floor-to-ceiling mural around a scatter of pastel paintings—nearby at Oslo’s Rod Bianco.
The unlikely star of the fair was an octopus hooked to jumper cables at ASHES/ASHES, formerly of Los Angeles. It lay out under harsh light day after day, causing the cephalopod—a new, untitled sculpture by Tony Hope—to become . . . pungent. Neighboring dealers revolted, and a fair staffer tried some aromatic spray as bystanders snapped pictures thinking it was a performance. A replacement octopus appeared Saturday, but a stain of black ink and oceanic perfume persisted in the booth’s red carpet.
Opening night, the dealers stuck around past closing for a visit from the minister of culture, but on my way there word spread that the former prime minister had been injured in a blast by a letter bomb. The story of Athens these days. Tourists throng the streets of an ancient city, but sometimes traffic is blocked by rallies and flaming trashcans, metal boxes dancing with fire on dark streets. The verdant National Gardens bloom beautifully with jacaranda and jasmine, but it took a few swings of a tote bag to chase off a pack of wild dogs.
The following night, after a daytime visit to Dakis Joannou’s exquisite collection of corporeal art, I sat under the pink wash of banners and paintings folded like napkins by Stevi at chef Ari Vezené’s restaurant for a dinner thrown by the Breeder. After a spirited speech by collector Michael Hort, the artist turned from the seafood salad, artfully arranged in a porcelain urchin shell. “Everybody comes here and we take you to nice places and you think it’s nice, but there’s a crisis,” she said. “People here are really kind, though, and this helps.”