Crisis Management

Cathryn Drake at the 3rd Athens Biennale

Left: Curator Nicolas Bourriaud, collector Dakis Joannou, and curator Xenia Kalpaktsoglou. Right: Curator Marina Fokidis with artists Actually Huizenga and Socrates Mitsios. (All photos: Cathryn Drake)

FLOODS IN ROME, riots in Greece, a despot deposed in North Africa—the days leading up to the Third Athens Biennale, “Monodrome,” inspired by Walter Benjamin’s 1928 book Einbahnstraße, brought forth biblical allusions. In practical terms, the biggest strikes yet had shut down the Greek capital, so my flight from London was delayed by a day and biennial cocurator Nicolas Bourriaud came from Paris three days after he was scheduled to arrive, also landing just the night before the opening. The denouement of the trilogy that started with “Destroy Athens” and “Heaven,” in 2007 and 2009 respectively, this edition seemed part and parcel of the historic drama unfolding on the city streets, even an apologia.

At the opening last Friday evening, artist Maria Papadimitriou held court near her work, an ornate sacrificial altar topped by a large rock, just inside the biennial’s entrance. “We have nothing left to offer the gods,” she explained wearily. “I cannot smile in this period. We know people who do not have money to pay their electricity bills or eat.” The main venue was the Diplareios School, a derelict Arts & Crafts building and former design institution located on Theater Square, just opposite the main food market, where flocks of prostitutes emerge nightly to negotiate their own forms of commerce. I went inside to track down some coffee and found a food stand as well as French artist-provocateur and biennale crasher Thierry Geoffroy, dressed in shorts and a bow tie. “This must be the first press conference ever where you have to pay for your own coffee,” he offered cheerfully.

It is something of a miracle that the exhibition even happened. Produced largely through the efforts of volunteers and private donations, it tells a story of how the country arrived at its present “state of emergency.” To do so, the show juxtaposes new and archival work, including historic films such as Nikos Koundouros’s 1975 The Songs of Fire, which documents a pivotal concert of revolutionary music celebrating the end of the dictatorship that set the tone for a period of stability—a period that has ended with the current crisis. Nearby hangs a small cardboard palimpsest, found in the street by the curators, bearing layers of political protest phrases written in bold letters, including: WAKE UP, BANANA REPUBLIC! “This exhibition refers to the last six months in Greece. It’s been really rough,” said assistant curator Eleanna Pontikaki, who was scurrying to put up labels. We paused to admire Andreas Lolis’s wonderfully duplicitous crushed cardboard cartons immortalized in marble. “Greeks are asking themselves, ‘What did we do wrong?’”

Left: Curator Yorgos Tzirtzilakis, Athens Biennale cofounder Augustine Zenakos, and curator Theophilos Trambulis. Right: Curator Poka-Yio.

Many of the rooms were filled with sculptures or assemblages of objects gathered by the curators or simply found on the premises, such as a cabinet displaying miniaturized models of Bauhaus furniture left over from the former school. On the hallway walls curator Poka-Yio had scrawled caricatures of the Little Prince and Walter Benjamin discussing such dilemmas as the nature of truth and reality; the drawings were nearly indiscernible from the existing graffiti. Meandering through the ex-classrooms of the sprawling building—reminiscent of the one used for the 2005 Berlin Biennale—we bumped into Dakis Joannou and the curators (Bourriaud along with biennial founders Poka-Yio and Xenia Kalpaktsoglou) in a space filled with military-academy desks in various states of ruin. Salvaged from the dump, they were arranged in an orderly battalion. “It shows how difficult it is to shed a legacy that is no longer useful,” Kalpaktsoglou explained.

Other rooms featured anachronistic juxtapositions: In one there were reproductions of satiric cartoons portraying historic situations uncannily similar to the present. In another were photographs by Spyros Staveris of contemporary demonstrations projected opposite a painting of the 1823 Greek war of independence from the Ottomans. The message was clear: History repeats itself. And Jimmie Durham’s little cart sporting a shoebox for donations and cymbals poised to clang the plaster head of a classical sculpture said it in a nutshell: Greece epitomizes the fall from the height of ancient civilization to the utter farce that is the decadence and waste of modernity.

We went up to the penthouse, a space filled with bright light and a vintage TV screening Philippe Petit’s 1974 Tightrope Walk Across the WTC, where Joannou and the curators were surveying Athens from above. “Doing ‘Monodrome’ is a statement in itself, because the first thing to go was arts funding. We went against all advice,” Bourriaud said. What was the budget? “You don’t want to know!” he laughed. “Basically equivalent to the salary of a curator from Montmartre.”

Left: Artist Andreas Angelidakis, curator Nadja Argyropoulou, and artist Angelo Plessas. Right: Artist Maria Papadimitriou.

The show also serves as a study for a feature film on the “archaeology of the situation”—being shot by volunteers around Athens and France, and directed by Bourriaud—to be finished by next summer. “Partly with French money, of course; there still is some to be had there,” Bourriaud added. It was all about improvisation, or about oppression and depression, depending on whom you spoke to. “It’s amazing what you can do with no budget at all,” a young volunteer noted. “It makes money look unnecessary.”

The main floor is a forum for ongoing projects, discussions, and performances, titled “Word of Mouth” and curated by Kernel (a group comprising artists Pegy Zali, Petros Moris, Theodoros Giannakis). That night, artist Angelo Plessas was directing randomly created theatrical narratives made via his Web-motored Fantasy Plot Generator. The professional actors had applied online to participate; the costumes and furniture were borrowed from the National Theater. “It is exhausting working with eleven different egos,” Plessas later lamented, “all of whom have their own ideas about how to do things.” At least the beer was flowing and free.

Later, just about everyone repaired to a bustling taverna around the corner. Bourriaud hosted the French contingent at one table; across the room a group of young curators from the De Appel program were well into their drink, and Papadimitriou headed up a Greek gang near the door. People were eating and dancing—and smoking, of course. “There is crisis everywhere in Europe, but they are making a scapegoat out of Greece,” an Athenian friend had told me earlier that day. “I ask my friends who are demonstrating: ‘What do you want?’ They say, ‘We want everything to stay as it was.’” That night it was clear that there still is just as much intellectual foment, as well as joie de vivre, as in ancient Greece—thank God!