Pride and Prejudice

Left: Dealer Sofia Vamiali and artists Eftihis Patsourakis and and Dimitra Vamiali. Right: Athens Pride parade.

The opening of the Athens & Epidaurus Festival the Friday before last was initially surreal: The dearth of people in the balmy courtyard of the former Tsaousoglou office furniture factory gave the impression that we had arrived at the wrong place at the wrong time, a kind of Wild West sensation. The explanation for the late arrivals was reassuringly banal: “They’re all watching the Greece-Poland match,” curator Olga Hatzidaki speculated. But then Greeks are not known for their punctuality, and in sultry weather lateness is just common sense. At sundown they started pouring in.

Inside Building A of the sprawling complex, a 1970s historic landmark, an exhibition of two works from the Dimitrios Daskalopoulos collection posed the question “Europe—Crisis or Demise?” Michael Landy was supervising the operation of his Credit Card Destroying Machine, which had caused a minor sensation at London’s Frieze Art Fair last autumn. It now seemed to have landed in the right country, with its parody of our conspicuous consumption and its metaphoric rejection of living on plastic, a remedy for our times perhaps. The director of Art-Athina, Alexandros Stanas, seemed genuinely surprised after his wife inserted her card, which joined the credit confetti on the floor, in exchange for a machine-generated drawing signed by the artist. “I guess I will be paying for everything this summer!” he joked.

In the next room Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s Fruits of One’s Labour mocked the folly of a monetary European Union with the destruction of another currency; large bales of shredded euros lay ready to be used as fuel for a woodstove. “Do people ask you if you are out of your mind for moving here?” Daskalopoulos asked me. “As a country we have a lot to account for, but there’s a lot of creativity going on here now.” As director of the Hellenic Federation of Enterprises and collector of pointedly uncomfortable artworks, he knows of what he speaks.

Left: Collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos and Art-Athina's Alexandros Stanas. Right: Artists Deanna Maganias, Ilias Papailiakis, and Dimitrios Antonitsis.

Mounted on the olive-green walls outside was A Gathering, curated by Hatzidaki and Maria-Thalia Carras, a series of twenty-eight posters sponsored by the Demergon Foundation from artists who had been asked to portray their imagined or real associations with Greece. Pasted on random walls around the city, they evince the ephemerality of public identity. “Athens is a city of posters, so the municipality sends people around to check and clean the walls,” Hatzidaki explained. “And you cannot cover the political posters, so there are few spots and many rules.”

Even the decadent, informal appearance of the industrial complex was deceptive: Now owned by different banks and companies, the space is managed by each and every one of them, entailing a Byzantine sort of organization—in effect a microcosm of the country. “You must have permission from this office and that, et cetera,” Hatzidaki continued. “We felt a little trapped because we couldn’t really curate.” With so many businesses closing down, space is cheap in the city now, and arts organizations are taking advantage. Artist Maria Papadimitriou’s poster depicts “Souzy Tros,” her project for a canteen in an empty former industrial shop that will mix food and culture to bring together immigrants and artists.

“Since the big productions were canceled this year, the festival has only the best, most experimental shows,” Art-Athina’s Stanas informed us. It was certainly going to be hard to beat the real-life drama. Temperatures in the city had been rising both meteorologically and politically. Everyone was on edge about the upcoming elections, with talk inevitably turned to the previous day’s slapstick on Good Morning Greece, when the spokesman for the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, former boxer Ilias Kasidiaris, bitch-slapped Communist Party MP Liana Kanelli repeatedly, after throwing water on left-wing Syriza’s Rena Dourou, and nobody moved a finger to stop him. The attack was triggered by a comment about his alleged participation in an armed robbery; apparently several of the party’s MPs actually have criminal records. “I am so glad—they gave him just enough rope to hang himself!” artist Deanna Maganias said, miming the hoped-for scenario. At dinner later in a nearly empty taverna in touristic Plaka, Guardian correspondent Helena Smith provided a fitting footnote: “Greece has become extremely polarized; it is a country on the verge of a nervous breakdown.”

Left: Athens and Epidaurus Festival director Yorgos Loukos. Right: The Breeder's George Vamvakidis and Stathis Panagoulis.

The next day was Athens Pride, which had been put on notice by threats from the Golden Dawn. After following the procession from Plateia Klafthmonos past the Parliament and back in the sweltering heat, we had seen only a few fascist types, lined up along Omónia Square and attended by a significant police presence. (Kasidiaris was still on the lam, evading a brief arrest warrant.) It was a surprisingly orderly affair, and everyone assumed people were scared off by the threats of violence. “I am so disappointed: no nudity, no drags, no trans,” an American visitor lamented.

Arriving back at the base, I ran into the Breeder’s George Vamvakidis and Stathis Panagoulis, who had sponsored an art auction that raised 24,000 euros for Pride. “It is not fear that kept the crowds away—everyone was certainly at the beach and will arrive in time for the entertainment,” Vamvakidis explained. Yes, after the sun goes down. Panagoulis was wearing a rainbow-colored lei and beaming, beer in hand. “That horrible sculpture in the square actually looks great with balloons on it,” he noted. They were going to party all night and leave early morning for Art Basel.

The entertainment included a drag show by the Koukles and a revue of Broadway hits that included, much to our surprise, a rendition of “Springtime for Hitler” that featured drag queens in elaborately feathered costumes, a giant sausage hat, uniformed Nazi officers and scantily clad SS soldiers in helmets, and lots of Nazi salutes. “Well, we’ve done a very good job promoting German culture here,” the Goethe Institut’s Thomas von Stein quipped. As a representative of the Communist Party followed with a long-winded speech, he added, with the appropriate gesture: “If she was from the Golden Dawn, it would be very short, PAMF!” Thankfully drama is never in short supply here. Next up: this week’s much-anticipated Greece v. Germany football match.

Left: Curator Paolo Colombo and artist Michael Landy. Right: Curators Yorgos Tzirtzilakis and Denys Zacharopoulos.

Left: Curators Olga Hatzidaki and Maria-Thalia Carras. Right: Curator Konstantinos Dagritzikos.

Left: Athens Pride. Right: Michael Landy's Credit Card Destroying Machine.

Left: Dealer Rebecca Camhi. Right: Artists Stelios Karamanolis, Tula Plumi, and Dionisis Christofilogiannis, organizers of Hosted in Athens.