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Destroy Athens, Reinvent Athena: A view of the first Athens Biennial.

October 4th, 2007

Eleni Mylonas, The Lamb of God, 2007, film still. Copyright 2007 Eleni Mylonas, all rights reserved. Courtesy of the artist. Caption: Eleni Mylonas, The Lamb of God, 2007, film still. Copyright 2007 Eleni Mylonas, all rights reserved. Courtesy of the artist.

Hijacking the archetypal model (the Biennale) of large-scale periodic exhibitions of contemporary art, as does the first Athens Biennial (curated by Xenia Kalpaktsoglou, Poka-Yio and Augustine Zenakos), is a contradictory, if not willingly parodic, gesture for an autonomously conceived biennial that purportedly aims at the subversion of stereotypes. For “Destroy Athens,” as it is provocatively titled, neither proposes the destruction of the city of Athens nor achieves the deconstruction of Athens as an Ur-stereotype—whatever Athens signifies for Western thought, global culture industry and the contemporary Greek. It is, instead, a controversially sensational call for resistance to all kinds of stereotypes that stifle private and collective identity, as well as contemporary art.Despite the suspicions that the necessary arrogance of an autonomous initiative of this ambition has raised to insiders and outsiders of the Athenian scene, as well as the frustrating deficiencies of its opening, “Destroy Athens” has its merits both as a daring step in a sea of change in the local scene and as a rather challenging encounter of old and new works (a great amount of them were made specifically for the Biennial). Neither a survey of contemporary international tendencies, nor a chauvinist excuse for promotion of contemporary Greek art, “Destroy Athens” amounts to an insightful assortment of transnational statements, in various media, about the struggle of “being” as it is inescapably embedded in a maze of determining stereotypes, the difficulties of current geo-political affairs and the latest stage of the society of spectacle, with a rather critical, if not ominous, edge (photography is probably the least represented medium, while video is overrepresented, and often unfortunately accumulated in adjacent rooms, hampering the viewing of individual pieces). Enhanced by a series of related art events and exhibitions, while also preceded by a periodic online art review and a radio station, the first Athens Biennial, manages, above all, to shed light upon the stereotypical “blind spot” that the Athenian art scene—neither centre nor periphery—has occupied in recent years. While a long way from achieving its ambitious goal—to generate a local discourse, in addition to international impact—it will hopefully not serve only to recast Athens as a renewed stereotypical heir of an abused legacy with only modified (art) market value: a “rad” paradise of dark and “hairy” lovers, as Javier Peres (of the Peres Projects, with a temporary branch now in Athens) recently stated to Flash-Art.

The most explicit (and topical) gesture of destruction was the performance directed by Terence Koh at the opening night of the Biennial. A series of identical mini classical statues—cheap imitations of classic male beauty and tourist shop souvenirs, painted black and arranged in a constellation that rhymed with the repetitive structure of the industrial piping of the platform on which they were installed—was destroyed by a group of leather (un)clad men who dramatically and quasi-erotically broke them up one by one—torturing them, throwing them, decapitating them and reducing them to black and white shards; a feast of Dionysian vandalism with S&M overtones tuned to the sound of loud music and the bewilderment of the audience. Twisting the gender politics of neo-dada (and later feminist) gestures, the most prominent being Niki de Saint Phalle’s shooting of the Venus of Milo in Kenneth Koch’s play “The Construction of Boston” (New York, 1962), Koh’s gods’ toppling belatedly echoed them in a strategic attack of artistic, gender and beauty ideals that reinvents Athens as a contemporary art center while significantly coinciding with the exhibition Praxiteles in the renovated National Archeological Museum of Athens.

By starting the summary of the Biennial’s “story” in medias res we violate the narrative sequence through which the three curators have interlaced six quasi-thematic chapters: Six Days. Meanwhile, beginning with the culturally specific stereotypes addressed by Koh, we limit the global breadth of the issues explored by the artists who were invited to partake in “Destroy Athens.” The thematic coherence of these Six Days is not always communicated as clearly as described in the exhibition catalog. They unfold, however, interestingly along a defamiliarizing intermeshing of the compartmentalized (internal and external) spaces of the Technopolis into a one-way path that links spacious modernist rooms with smelly abodes (where Gazi’s signature preexisting industrial structures are turned into eerie settings for individual works), artificial plazas, dead-ends and temporary corridors. While this inescapably restrained, and often labyrinthine, path is aligned with the narrative drive of the curators who have overstated the fact that their story-telling has a beginning and an end, “Destroy Athens” is neither a strictly imposed monologue nor an inescapably one-way path. Provocatively redressing the questioned viability of authored narratives in art and curatorial practice, “Destroy Athens” only reinforces the power of the viewer, the “reader” of this seemingly predetermined and conspicuously dark six-chapter story.

The first chapter—a noisy awakening suggestive of participatory activism that addresses a variety of sociopolitical issues (such as ecology, consumerism, cyber(un)reality etc.)—is comprised of works by collective networks of activists. These are either arranged around a quasi-public square that oxymoronically pays homage to Athenian culture itself (as in the case of the Adbusters’ posters) or leak outside the Technopolis of Gazi in a variety of real and discursive sites that range from the streets of Athens to cyberspace and the Athenian press. Banu Gennetoglu’s and Huib Haye van der Werf’s List—a systematic documentation of the deaths of 8,000 refugees who died within or on the borders of Europe—is meant, for instance, to be published in the newspaper Ta Nea, serving the expansion of the exhibition beyond the limiting (physically and institutionally) space of the exhibition and problematizing the means of new Europe’s self-definition. (The exhale of the exhibition outside Gazi is further achieved through a series of other events and exhibitions that are beyond the scope of this short review. It’s worth distinguishing, however, the exhibition Young Athenians—a group show of artists from Edinburgh curated by Neil Mulholland and addressing the burden of the neo-classical constituents of Scottish identity—for it presents the Athenian audience with a simulacrum of “Athens” being also artistically “destroyed.”)

The utopian sparks of collective activism of the first “Day” vanish in the pessimist tone of the rest of the chapters, disrupted only by an ambiguous intermezzo (Fourth Day): the trans-erotic carnivalesque upheaval of an oasis, by assume vivid astro focus, in one of the few outdoor spaces of the exhibition, and Torbjorn Rodland’s video, which updates the romantic encounters between melancholic beauties and nature with today’s innocent Lolitas hypnotized by violent hip hop. “Place and history”—their search, their stereotypes and their deconstruction—are loosely thematized by the ficticiousness of (often Greek) identity in Second Day through the juxtaposition of works of old masters (ranging from Picasso to Nikos Kessanlis) and younger artists, such as Jannis Varelas and John Kleckner (with their signature hybrid creatures), Yorgos Sapoutzis (represented by a confrontation of his “parasitical” sculpture with samples of urban neoclassical sculpture) or Edward Lipski (with the mixed cultural subtexts of his golden King). Examples of a postmodernist archeology of styles (the juxtaposition of Picasso’s sketch of the Parthenon for a postcard meant for the liberation of a communist Greek hero with Folkert de Jong’s three-dimensional Picassoid harlequins in Styrofoam, and with Stelios Faitakis’ bastardized Byzantine look, through which the insignia of popular visual culture adds to the desacrilizing of religious iconography and political mythology) compete with deft samples of a multifold archeology of knowledge, consummated by the archival impulse of a series of videos. With regards to the latter, amidst the highlights of the Second Day, I distinguished the Otolith Group’s multi-monitor display of Chris Marker’s censored TV series The Owl’s Legacy (1989), which explored and exposed Greek history’s and heritage’s unwanted truths and lies; Eva Stephani’s video Acropolis (2001), in which the commodification of the bodies of Parthenon and woman is conflated through an ambiguous monologue and the interweaving of found documents of the tourist rape of Acropolis and pornographic material; and Stephanos Tsivopoulos’ Untitled (Remake) (2007), a video comprised of archival material, “remade” in many levels and exploring, among other concepts, the interchangeability of the nationalist clichés of television discourse as utilized by the dictatorship and enduring in democracy.

Violence underlies both the Third and the Fifth “Day,” even though the former is described as a more personal space of “refuge and hell,” and the latter as a multifarious possibility of critique, parody, destruction and reaction. Gregor Schneider’s video, White Torture (Weisse Folter) (2005-7), advantageously installed in a tiny room with dilapidated wall paint, is one of the most silent evocations of contemporary violence, be it private or political. Comprised of a succession of mysteriously opening and closing doors of “found” —clinical and modernist—coloristic and structural quality, it presents the quasi-incarcerated viewer with a peaceful nightmare of psychological confinement, while it draws directly from historically “hot” internment cells—those of Guantanamo Bay. I was not convinced by the execution of the interesting concept of Georgia Sagri’s performance and video documentation, in which the viewer is called to co(en)act in four passion crimes that took place in Athens. The “domestic” side of the private spaces of such violence is both highlighted and disrupted by Bjarne Melgaard’s paintings (on sofas and canvases) which strike a powerful chord in his untraditional use of the traditional medium. Robert Gober’s, however, classic beewax androgynous torso, echoing Koh’s genderless body—a nude reclining effigy with violently removed genitals—of the next chapter, questions the coherence of the chapters, while a magnificent old masterpiece in and of itself.

The loud violence of Day Five is accented by the grotesque installation by Aidas Bareikis, Kimberly Clark’s youthful hedonist rebels (mounted on a pile of urban waste and echoing the Liberty on the Barricades), Martin Skauen’s dizzyingly filmed (yet drawn) apocalyptic vision of a violent confrontation—both an ordeal and an orgy—between humans and animals, and John Bock’s grotesque hyperboles of violence. In contrast with the explicitness of this chapter, violence is more subtly represented (although charged by cultural and political specificity) by Turkish artist Erkan Ozgen, with the symbolic tension of a soft ball being relentlessly kicked and cornered in a claustrophobic impasse—coupled with the dead end where the video is installed—by military boots that dress the feet of a child.

Dead-ends is the theme of the last chapter (or Sixth Day). Remarkable is the installation of prisoners’ utilitarian inventions made by prisoner artist Angelo and salvaged by the activist group Temporary Services, even though a transcendence of dead-ends by human creativity. Despite the museological display of the objects (sex-dolls, condoms, hangers, collapsible glasses, paper chess pawns, etc.), their verbal description, and the reconstruction of Angelo’s prison cell, the exhibition leaks again outside the Technopolis to include the imprisoned collaborator in an extra collapse of the barrier between art and life, additionally including the readers of the books also exhibited by Temporary Services. The dead-end of communication is thematized by the boneyard of Christian Marclay—white hydrostone phone receivers in desperately erotic pas de deux—while the dead-end-ing repetitiousness of life is dramatically measured by the obsessive daily repainting of the same glass of water, a theme that has diaristically preoccupied painter Peter Dreher since 1974 (only half a thousand of his “days” are here represented).

Spectacularly initiated with a panoramic video display of deafening demolitions of buildings that took place in reconstruction-era Germany immediately following World War II (collected by Julian Rosefeldt and Piero Steinle) and nearly silently concluded with Eleni Mylonas’ profound contemplation on death and posthumous restlessness—the rhythmic torture by sea water of the swollen carcass of a dead lamb, found at the rocky coast of Aegina on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003—“Destroy Athens” frames historically the ahistorical angst and the eternally renewed “terrors” of the human impasses that neither destruction’s cathartic creative power nor death itself seems to alleviate. The Biblical Seventh Day of rest and salvation is ominously missing from this endless story of creation and hellish retelling of ours.

Kalliopi Minioudaki