Upping the Anti

Lauren O’Neill-Butler on the 6th Athens Biennale

AB6 curators Kostis Stafylakis, Poka-Yio, and Stefanie Hessler at the press conference. Photo: Nysos Vasilopoulos.

ON FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 21, 2018, thirty-three-year-old queer activist and performer Zak Kostopoulos was killed in the streets of central Athens. His attackers, who brutally beat him in a jewelry store, where he sought refuge after being harassed by three other men at a cafe, have not been charged as of this writing. And by attackers, I mean not only the two men who commenced the hate crime but also the police who continued to exert excessive and unwarranted violence toward Kostopoulos after (finally) arriving on the scene.

More than 140 people involved in the Athens- and Kassel-based exhibition Documenta 14 penned an open letter to Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister of the Hellenic republic, and to Giorgos Kaminis, the mayor of Athens, in protest of Kostopoulos’s death. On September 26, more than five hundred people attended a protest rally, where they joined hands, marched from Omonia Square to Syntagma Square and then to the jewelry shop on Gladstonos Street, and chanted, “With rage and sorrow, Zackie we will miss you.” Amnesty International has called for an independent investigation of the murder, and, as of last week, the curators of the Sixth Athens Biennale (aka AB6)—Stefanie Hessler, Kostis Stafylakis, and Poka-Yio—dedicated their exhibition, “ANTI,” to the memory of Kostopoulos. He was a friend to many involved in putting together the show.

A small army of volunteers seemed to be keeping things afloat when I arrived at the press conference and preview at noon on October 25 in the ex-hotel Esperia Palace, one of four AB6 venues. I took a seat under the flickering fluorescents and opened the show’s text-laden catalogue to read the curator’s short statement on the first page, which concludes: “In Athens, revamped and ready to receive its post-crisis visitors, the pressure is building once again. We can only hope that our friend is the last victim of a darkness that will be left behind.”

When can we do more than hope?

When is such fragile optimism not enough?

And is Athens truly “post-crisis”?

Greece’s decade-long economic bailout just ended this past summer, and austerity measures are ongoing. Though my trip was short, the city seemed to still be precariously in the trenches.

Artists Aliza Shvarts and Tai Shani. Photo: Lauren O’Neill-Butler.

I didn’t come to the show looking for solutions. Kicking off the conference, representatives from various ministries discussed aspects of AB6’s revitalization of the city––namely, its engagement of empty, decaying buildings in Athens’s commercial center. That dead stock is partly what makes this biennial a less sleek outing than others of its ilk—Gwangju just used a dilapidated building too, but Athens seems to have more, particularly when it comes to unoccupied administrative offices. On several occasions I also heard the show’s earliest visitors compare the sundry themes AB6 gestures at—posthumanism, mimesis, parafiction, speculative realism, the wellness industrial complex, financialized global capitalism, to name a few—to the Ninth Berlin Biennale, which was curated by the collective DIS. Those viewers also tended to use the word more, followed by gritty, material, and local. I took it as a good omen.

In just over a decade, the Athens Biennale has come a long way: From the first edition in 2007, which carried the prescient and provocative title “Destroy Athens,” to its latest iteration, featuring nearly one hundred artists and collectives, with two-thirds coming from other countries, it has grown by leaps and bounds. During the conference, Poka-Yio spoke of cocurating the first edition and the achieved intention of putting Athens on the international art map, while Hessler discussed AB6’s goal of taking an uneasy screenshot of our moment, and Stafylakis touched on the some of the more dystopian aspects of the work on view.

As I had only a few days to catch it all, as an outsider parachuting in, my notes are necessarily selective, abrupt, and woozy. It was enough of a trip to toggle between the ancient artifacts and sites that I needed to see—what fool wouldn’t traipse around the Acropolis in perfect October weather?—and a banquet of contemporary art.

The TTT Building. Photo: Lauren O’Neill-Butler.

So here’s an inevitably incomplete short list of what stood out to me at the performance- and video-heavy “ANTI,” much of it flourishing in a gray zone that good art usually mines. In the abandoned Benekeios Library, a building currently owned by the Hellenic parliament, there is Cao Fei’s dreamlike Rumba II: Nomad, 2015, a nearly fourteen-minute video featuring the robotic vacuum cleaners attempting to tidy up construction sites in Beijing. Notable is the rubble and dust around the video’s installation, which I assumed is not part of the work.

The lion’s share of “ANTI” is on view in the five-story TTT building. Built in the early 1930s, the TTT formerly housed the public phone company, whose labor unions left behind curious flourishes when the company was sold to Deutsche Telekom, such as wads of paper stuffed into holes in the walls. With none of that removed, the curators used such wacky aesthetics of administration to their advantage, as in the so-called president’s chamber, where grimy, soiled carpets doubling as sound insulation line the walls around Lauren Wy’s brightly hued drawings of inexplicable figures in creepy cultish actions.

Young Boy Dancing Group. Photo: Nysos Vasilopoulos.

Most of the AB6 artists have been given their own room to display their work. In some cases, this is ideal, as with Marianna Simnett’s video The Needle and the Larynx, 2016, which is set in a doctor’s office, and with the Agency’s nearby wellness enhancement-oriented clinic Medusa Bionic Rise, 2017–18. It also works well for Linnéa Sjöberg’s tattoo station Salong Flyttkartong, 2018, and Spyros Aggelopoulos’s Amusementorium, 2018, for which the artist turned traditional Greek shadow puppets into figures ranging from Freddy Kruger to Slavoj Žižek and had them battle in surreal situations for the first few nights. I could go on: I loved Nicole Wermers’s baby-changing stations inlaid with terrazzo flooring for her series of sculptural “Moodboards,” 2018, and Celia Daskopoulou’s paintings from the 1970s and ’80s of zoned-out, tired women (likely mothers).

An array of programming, panels, and lectures will run over the next several weeks at AB6, much of it by and including intergenerational groups of emerging and established artists. Surrounding and sustaining that work is a persistent local community working to keep the memory of their friend Zak Kostopoulos alive and to bring justice to his family. Lingering above all of that, there is hope, and maybe something more. Departing Athens, I remembered the ancient Greeks had a neat word for the work of disclosure and revealing truth, aletheia, which runs across so much twentieth-century philosophy (for Heidegger and Irigaray, it was also a refusal to forget). Perhaps it’s more of that, and not so much the gesture of anti, that we need right now?

Cao Fei, Rumba II: Nomad, 2015. Photo: Nysos Vasilopoulos.

Artist Linnéa Sjöberg and a friend in Salong Flyttkartong.

Artist Spyros Aggelopoulos and AB6 co-curator Poka Yio. Photo: Lauren O’Neill-Butler.

Artists Yana Thonnes and Belle Schtos of The Agency. Photo: Lauren O’Neill-Butler.