“Grand Promenade”

Various Venues, Athens

With its off-center position on the international art map, Athens could be an inspiring meeting ground for artists from around the world, allowing their works to be presented in a less hierarchical fashion than might be possible in the centers. “Grand Promenade” (curated by Anna Kafetsi, director of the still-unfinished National Museum of Contemporary Art) included artists such as Janine Antoni, Christian Boltanski, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Anish Kapoor, and Rachel Whiteread as well as many lesser-knowns. By showing a significant number of works with political content, this exhibition leaned slightly toward art from the peripheries created by artists and others for whom their work serves to reflect political violence and social concerns. Or perhaps it’s just that works like Khalil Rabah’s The New Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind, 2006, stood out because they strongly resonate in a country that has had its own share of political instability and is geographically positioned close to the sites of current military conflicts.

The invited artists were asked to engage in a dialogue with Athens from positions of “Elsewhere and Otherness” by working in an “open museum,” a scattering of sites along the Grand Promenade leading to the Acropolis, as well as spaces in various buildings around it, among them the seventeenth-century Turkish bathhouse and the Melina Mercouri Foundation, in the Plaka district. In a city bearing such a resonant past—indeed, having had a unique role in shaping Western culture—this posed a challenge, particularly for those who chose to insert their pieces directly into the Greek capital’s urban fabric, with its jarring juxtaposition of modern and ancient architecture. The impact of the city was perhaps most obvious on Kapoor’s Untitled, 2001–2005, placed along the Grand Promenade; its beautiful simplicity of form—a single piece of marble carved to appear at once concave and convex—conveyed a striving for perfection quite at odds with the serenity of the ancient stones around it. The Falling Angel, 2006, by the Kabakovs, escaped this fate, not because it fit well into the urban environment but precisely the opposite: because it so awkwardly failed to do so. A giant, humorously plump winged figure “dumped” inside a fenced area that looked like a dog run, the work appeared odd in its surroundings, while remaining connected in parodic fashion to Greek mythology.

Indoor spaces served better to shield art from the imposing presence of ancient Athens. Works like Ernesto Neto’s seductive sculptural environment It happens when the body is anatomy of time, 2000, which looked like a forest of elastic forms made of Lycra tulle and filled with aromatic spices, and Thomas Hirschhorn’s U-Lounge, 2003, half office and half study, retained their visual autonomy in the industrial compound called Technopolis. Yet it was Boltanski’s installation inside a Neoclassical building belonging to the Association of Greek Archaeologists that perhaps best reflected the show’s ambition to make an evanescent and yet poignant mark on the city of Athens. For The Exact Time (For Bia Davou), 2006, the artist had white sheets imprinted with the face of the late Greek artist, known for her innovative works inspired by computer flowcharts and the metrics of Homeric language, and hung them like window shades. Floating with the wind in and out of the room, the images of Davou’s magnetic Mediterranean physiognomy appeared and disappeared; like multiples of Veronica’s veil, they exposed their iconic fragility as if to remind us of the significance of remembrance—a need that eludes any city limits.

Marek Bartelik