Scene & Herd

Greece Lightning


Left: Collector Dakis Joannou and Lietta Joannou. Right: Athens Biennial curators Poka-Yio, Xenia Kalpaktsoglou, and Augustine Zenakos. (All photos: David Velasco)

“When we first told people we were doing a biennial, they thought it was one of Poka-Yio’s performances,” cocurator Xenia Kalpaktsoglou noted wearily outside a makeshift café in the quad of Gazi, the dramatic former gasworks playing host to the inaugural Athens Biennial. In her other capacity, Kalpaktsoglou directs Dakis Joannou’s Deste Foundation—currently hosting an impressive exhibition of work from Joannou’s collection, curated by Jeffrey Deitch—and some argued that she was the linchpin for Deutsche Bank’s crucial sponsorship of the $1.8 million biennial. But the Athens Biennial has more storied origins than those of its financing; the exhibition apparently began as a lark dreamed up between Kalpaktsoglou, artist Yio, and critic Augustine Zenakos during a late-night drinking session. The three curators-to-be pressed forward, despite their youth and Athens’s general indifference to contemporary art: “It was like walking into a casino with no money and just bluffing your way to the jackpot,” Kalpaktsoglou said.

Biennials have a habit of shrouding themselves in political pretenses. But Athens’s debut, the Sunday before last, proved—through almost no fault of its own—to be among the most timely in recent memory. In an act of rhetorical hubris, the arriviste curators had titled the show “Destroy Athens,” an appellation whose unfortunate prescience with regard to recent, more concrete dangers was not lost on the polis. (The summer’s fires—the worst in at least a century—had killed sixty-five people and laid waste to hundreds of miles of Greek countryside.) Adding to the drama, national elections were slated for the following weekend, and the ruling conservative New Democracy party seemed chary of anything that might upset its tenuous grip.

Left: The Breeder's Stathis Panagoulis and George Vamvakidis. Right: Curator Marina Fokidis.

With only a vague sense of what was to come, I dropped headfirst into the fray, arriving early Saturday morning, crooked and exhausted from a transatlantic red-eye, and shuttled off to the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art, organizers of the weekend’s press junket. With the biennial in mind, the museum—famous for its collection of recherché Neolithic and Bronze Age marble figurines—had prepared an expansive exhibition of “anthropomorphic” video works. Tagged with the unfortunate title “Her(his)tory” (a neologism many mistakenly thought would concern feminism), the show comprises work by twenty-nine artists, ranging from the more familiar Bruce Nauman and Paul Chan to young Greek talents like Angelo Plessas and Yorgos Sapountzis. The vivacious curator, Marina Fokidis, pulled it all together with a clean and inspired hang, a technical challenge for any large video exhibition. It’s a quantum leap forward for a museum that, when asked if they’d previously hosted a contemporary exhibition, directed attention to last year’s Caravaggio show.

A few hours later came the day’s main event: the launch of the biennial’s “ReMap,” in which sixteen international dealers opened temporary galleries in Kerameikos, a deme notorious for its louche, crepuscular charms and formidable history. (Home to Plato’s academy and an ancient cemetery, Kerameikos shares a linguistic root with the word ceramics. You don’t get culture like this in New York.) Throughout rows of spavined and gutted buildings runs a small network of brothels and drug dealers, which facilitated numerous amusing collisions between junkies, hustlers, and crowds of well-to-do revelers sussing out hidden galleries and merchandise.

Left: Artist Terence Koh. Right: Peres Projects director Blair Taylor with artist Nate Lowman.

The grandest statement belonged to Peres Projects, which launched a remarkable, brightly lit twelve-thousand-square-foot outpost on Leonidou Street (which some friends favorably nicknamed Peres Hilton). A veritable museum of anarchic appropriations and installations, its show offered, among other things, a compelling sledgehammer work by David Adamo, Cady Noland–inspired retail racks by Nate Lowman, and a work by Peres staple Terence Koh. A copy of Praxiteles’s Hermes purchased from the Archaeological Museum and painted black, the piece—achieved with Koh’s characteristic mute flamboyance—functions as a sideways comment on provenance and originality. (The museum’s current Praxiteles exhibition largely comprises early copies of the master’s statues.)

After the openings, nearly everyone converged on the roof of the nearby Imperial Hotel for a glamorous party with a dazzling view of the Acropolis. Among the staggering Greek artists, dealers, and assorted glitterati, I encountered Iasson Tsakonas, the enterprising young real estate mogul who had supplied the architectural infrastructure of “ReMap.” Peres, a friend of Tsakonas, had instigated the project by asking to open a space in one of Tsakonas’s few dozen buildings in the neighborhood. It didn’t take long for other galleries, including Blow de la Barra, IBID Projects, Johann König, The Breeder, and Spencer Brownstone, to sign on.

Left: Dealer Javier Peres. Right: Artist Federico Herrara, dealer Pablo Leon de la Barra, and artist Carolina Caycedo.

Early Sunday afternoon, guests arrived by taxi at the Technopolis complex for a relatively tense press conference featuring the mayor, the curators, and a representative from Deutsche Bank. Although listed on the schedule, Georgios Voulgarakis, Greece’s culture minister, was nowhere in sight, apparently having been told not to show his face in public following his scandalous appearance on national news shows just days before. (Standing before the flagrant fires devastating the sacred forest around Olympia, Voulgarakis had reassured viewers that “only a few trees were burned.”) The biennial’s former director, Marieke Van Hal, was also absent, having been inexplicably sacked a month before the show’s opening.

Artist Kodwo Eshun, a member of the Otolith Group, offered his preemptive take during the Q&A: “‘Destroy Athens’ refers less to the real city than to Hellenism, which is just Orientalism in reverse. We seek the symbolic destruction of these codes.” With that, we all set off to measure for ourselves. The show itself is ambitious, but not quite revolutionary, with an engaging narrative that may be too tightly tethered to the very mythological structures it sets out to subvert. As a whole, exploring the gaswork’s industrial warrens was a pleasurable if vaguely familiar experience, with several especially noteworthy moments, including John Kleckner’s strange watercolor rendering of the Greek myth of Caenis/Caeneus, Mark Manders’s Kafkaesque project room, Georgia Sagri’s intimate in situ performance, and assume vivid astro focus’s utopic promenade segueing into the explosive destructive ambience of the fifth “chapter.”

Left: Artist Rita Ackermann with dealer Rebecca Camhi. Right: Artists Angelo Plessas and Yorgos Sapountzis.

From there, the exhibition really takes advantage of its derelict decor, devolving into a bewildering flurry of escalating bad-boy angst. Beginning with messy installations by Aidas Bareikis and Dutch collective Kimberly Clark, further environmental agitation is generated through projections by Olaf Breuning, John Bock, and Narve Hovdenakk, as well as two Koh works. Having built up steam, the exhibition, in its sixth chapter, yields a purgatorial denouement. In the austere white rooms that follow, disorder gives way to repetition (hundreds of Peter Dreher’s limpid oils of water glasses; Christian Marclay’s Boneyard, made from white casts of phone receivers), all culminating in Eleni Mylonas’s unsettling video of a dead lamb washing up on a rocky shore. It’s a pitiless trajectory, and the whole affair leaves one wound up and exhausted.

As the curators frequently reminded us, the biennial is broken up into six chapters, or “days.” “There’s no seventh day, because art never rests,” Zenakos said. And indeed, the art world’s schedule was relentless. Numerous well-known faces—critics Jerry Saltz and Cecilia Alemani; artists Lisa Ruyter, Olaf Nicolai, Olaf Breuning, and members of Paper Rad; curators Massimiliano Gioni, Christian Rattemeyer, and Ali Subotnick; future Art Basel codirector Cay Sophie Rabinowitz; and Tate Modern director Vicente Todolí—could be spotted navigating the show, some arriving from Istanbul, Vienna, or Shanghai, some en route to Lyon, Zurich, Berlin, or the States. During and after the official opening, visitors spilled over to Sardela across the street for a late seafood supper. In Athens, one often eats dinner after 10 PM, and even on Sundays, bars remain open until 5 AM. For many of us, exhaustion conceded to a stirring excitement as night progressed into morning, at the official after-party at Bios bar and other, less official destinations.

Left: IBID Projects's Vita Zaman and Magnus Edensvard. Right: Artist Mark Manders.

Left: Critic Lilly Wei. Right: Artists Lisa Ruyter and Uwe Henneken.

Left: Artist Dimitra Vamiali and dealer Sofia Vamiali. Right: Eli Sudbrack of assume vivid astro focus.

Left: Artists Garth Weiser and Francesca DiMattio. Right: Artist John Kleckner.

Left: Deste Foundation project coordinator Nadja Argyropoulou. Right: Kodwo Eshun of the Otolith Group.

Left: Cycladic Museum founder Dolly Goulandris. Right: Designer Dimitris Tsouanatos of Remember.