Thessaloniki

Gal Weinstein, Fire Tire, 2010/2013, wax, natural and polyester wool, styrofoam, graphite, 14' 9“ x 19' 8 1/4” x 9' 10". From the 4th Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art. Geni Tzami Mosque.

Gal Weinstein, Fire Tire, 2010/2013, wax, natural and polyester wool, styrofoam, graphite, 14' 9“ x 19' 8 1/4” x 9' 10". From the 4th Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art. Geni Tzami Mosque.

the 4th Thessaloniki Biennale

Various Venues

Gal Weinstein, Fire Tire, 2010/2013, wax, natural and polyester wool, styrofoam, graphite, 14' 9“ x 19' 8 1/4” x 9' 10". From the 4th Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art. Geni Tzami Mosque.

Conveying the complex movement, conquest, persecution, and integration of people, the Fourth Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art is centered on the trope of the Mediterranean itself—a nexus of flux, trade, and conflict linking peoples of different religious and cultural traditions—and installed in historic spaces around the city. The central exhibition of the show, “Everywhere but Now,” curated by Adelina von Fürstenberg, speaks of widespread diasporas and the binding myth of the fatherland through stories of populations that have been dispossessed and victimized.

Nigol Bezjian’s film excerpt Poet/Mourner, 2013, provides a manifesto, focusing on the legacy of poet Daniel Varoujan, a romantic adherent of Armenian nationalism and one of the first intellectuals murdered, in 1915, in the ethnic extermination carried out by the Young Turks, an episode still denied by the Turkish state. Narrator Marc Nichanian, a scholar of Armenian language and culture, argues, “What had been stolen from us in a way is the ability to mourn.” For Varoujan, grieving was the foundation of art and possible only within the context of a nation, without which there is nothing to die for: “So whom are we weeping for?” Nichanian asks. This sentiment highlights the significance of not only a political identity but a native soil. The Republic of Armenia’s symbol is Mount Ararat, located in Turkish territory, from which Orthodox Greeks were also exiled, in 1923, in exchange for Islamic residents of Greece, displacing two million people.

Aside from religion, cultural identities are defined and divided by language. In two works, Priscilla Tea paints what appears to be a nebulous, flowing script that evokes both cursive Latin and Arabic—writing that seems at once meaningful and nonsensical. One stroke looks as if it might say me, but in fact these are abstracted landscapes, the bare minimum of gestures conveying forms mediated by memory. In Written Room, 2013, Parastou Forouhar has covered every surface in florid Persian script, an illegible ornament of word fragments that describes the artist’s frustrated state of political exile from Iran, the country that executed her parents.

Jews made up more than half the population of Thessaloniki before the Nazis deported the majority of them to camps, where they perished almost without exception. At the Yeni Djami—originally a mosque constructed for the Dönmeh, Jews who converted to Islam during Ottoman rule—is a projection of embattled Iranian film director Jafar Panahi’s The Accordion, 2010. It portrays two siblings whose musical instrument, their means of support, is taken away, ostensibly for playing in a mosque. Survival trumps revenge when they find the man who took their accordion busking on the streets and decide to join him rather than fight. Gal Weinstein’s spectacular sculpture Fire Tire, 2010/2013, represents not only the chaos and social unrest of cultural catastrophe in towering clouds of solid-gray smoke billowing from burning tires, but also fire as an effective force in obfuscating and transmogrifying the past.

For his series “The Golden Newspaper,” 2010–13, Panos Tsagaris has collected front-page articles related to the current Greek crisis and blotted out the texts with gold leaf, which frames the photographs—of bloodied protesters and firebombed riot police, of religious and political leaders, the politicians embellished by the artist with shimmering aureoles befitting saints—using Orthodox religious iconography to portray the upheaval the country is undergoing in biblical terms. Tsagaris’s For Between the Light and the Darkness We Stand, 2012, consists of copies of a Greek newspaper with the headline chaos evolving from black to white, with the title obscured at either extreme. Displayed in the Museum of Byzantine Culture, Adrian Paci’s video The Column, 2013, charts the futility of trying to pinpoint a cultural artifact’s origins: Extracted from a Chinese quarry, a marble block is fashioned by workers into an Ionic column on a Europe-bound vessel, the movement through water evoking the transformative power of time and geography. Where can we say it was made?

A crossroads of conquest since antiquity, Thessaloniki embodies the conundrum posed by The Column. As many of these works imply, the alchemy of place is a potent mixture of history and conquest, topography and geography, cultural memory and mythology, politics and nation building—a narrative of victors. The Mediterranean is where East and West, Asia and Europe, Islam and Christianity meet: In Marta dell’Angelo’s mural-size painting La Prua (The Prow), 2009, people crowded on a beach go about their activities completely oblivious to one another in a dystopian vision of the planet. If only they would speak to one another, the Tower of Babel could be constructed at last, everywhere and now.

Cathryn Drake