What’s going on in … Athens?
Where the crisis inspires creative imagination
The title question has, in all likelihood, not been asked at a more interesting or mercurial time for a good few decades. With the Greek economy struggling through the mire of the debt crisis, and against the backdrop of an unstable political situation, to ask what is going on in contemporary Athens now seems particularly apt.
A traveler arriving in the city today might perceive a vibrant, busy city with a bustling street life of cafes and bars, full of young people drinking frappes, and souvlakeria. However, it wouldn’t take much wandering of the precariously traversed streets to notice the multitude of closed shops, abandoned buildings (more than usual), and the occasional burnt out wreck of a structure – a reminder of the recent protests. The closing of retail outlets in Athens seems to have been matched by the opening of cafes and bars, which have proliferated around the centre, creating new fashionable areas non-existent when I last lived there permanently seven years ago. Having been a regular visitor since, one would expect the changes of the city to elide into each other, creating a continuity which bears no surprise, but the changes in Athens over the last few years appear to have been swift and sudden.
The economic crisis has taken its toll on the contemporary art scene, with many galleries, including some well-established ones, closing due to the shrinking market. In response to this there has been a significant rise in artist-led and non-profit initiatives, including the non-profit gallery State of Concept (stateofconcept.org). SNEHTA (snehtaresidency.org), which promotes international and local artists through exhibitions and residencies in the area of Kypseli, and Lo and Behold (loandbehold.gr) which has hosted many “pop-up” exhibitions. Beton 7 (beton7.com) in the Votanikos district facilitates projects with international organizations and runs educational programmes for young artists, with a diverse schedule of exhibitions and performances.
Private foundations like DESTE (deste.gr), launched by collector Dakis Ioannou to promote both established and emerging artists, is located in Nea Ionia and boasts projects like the DESTE prize; a bi-annual prize awarded to an emerging Greek artist. The recently established NEON (neon.org.gr) founded by collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos, which has a programme of free exhibitions, scholarships and events, hopes to broaden the knowledge and popularity of art. Neon has recently worked with the Whitechapel Gallery in London on the exhibition A Thousand Doors, curated by the Whitechapel director Iwona Blazwick, and supported the exhibition No Country for Young Men showcasing the work of Greek artists in the centre of Fine Arts BOZAR in Brussels this year.
The Athens Biennale (athensbiennale.org) inaugurated in 2007, has continued to present a forum for international aesthetic and political debate. With the new National Museum of Contemporary Art (emst.gr) also due to open in its purpose-built home this year in the old Fix brewery in Sigrou Avenue, it is an interesting and ebullient time for art in Athens. The economic crisis, although unwelcome, has had effect of providing reflection and readjustment for the art scene.
The Psirri area has declined in popularity as a nightspot, yet still houses some of Athens most established art spaces: AlphaDelta Gallery (adgallery.gr) shows work by Greek and international artists, currently exhibiting Nikos Markou and Kostis Velonis. A.Antonopoulou.Art Gallery (aaart.gr) has been exhibiting young Greek and international artists since 2001. The area has also been at the centre of the street art, which is pushing the population to find means to expressing their frustration. It is now so profligate that the municipality has taken to commissioning work from street artists in an “if you can’t beat them join them” move which some may look upon as a cynical form of attempting to subvert expression when I can’t be suppressed. Sarri12 (sarri12.com) dedicates to Athenian street artists. Kappatos Gallery (kappatosgallery.com) shows Greek and international artists and hosts the acclaimed Rooms exhibition annually at the St. George Lycabettus Hotel, which promotes the work of emerging artists and curators. The gallery has also launched the first official residency supported by a European fund (NFRS) and the programme Publicscapes: Art and Curatorial Practice in the Public Sphere.
Some galleries formerly located in Psirri have moved to other areas of the city: Like The Breeder (thebreedersystem.com) relocating in 2008 to the nearby area of Metaxourgio which is under transformation and where the development company Oliaros is creating a new artistic quartier including studio spaces for artists and student housing. Rebecca Camhi (rebeccacamhi.com) also took a new space in the Metaxourgio area, showing many prominent international and Greek artists. Both these galleries joined Vamiali’s Gallery (Vamiali.net) which was the first contemporary art gallery in the area, opening in 2004. In 2010 the Municipal Art Gallery (cityofathens.gr/en/municipal-art-gallery-0) also opened in Metaxourgio.
As the economic troubles have precipitated a reduction in rent prices, some wealthy areas have become newly accessible. Gallerist Christina Androulidaki opened the CAN (can-gallery.com) in Kolonaki in 2012. “Athens has a very vibrant art scene with many people moving to the city because of the low rents, good weather and energy, I wouldn’t be surprised if the city transforms into the creative hub Berlin was 10 years ago” she says. The gallery focusses on young and emerging local and international artists. Another gallery recently established in Kolonaki is the Eleftheria Tseliou (tseliougallery.com). She has a very positive outlook, saying “the conditions right now are very difficult for galleries and artists, yet creativity has not been affected, on the contrary good things happen, great works are produced and there is an eagerness to keep going”. Elika Gallery (elikagallery.com) also in Kolonaki, focusses on young and emerging Greek artists, currently showing Zoe Giabouldaki. Just west of the centre of town, in Thission, is the Eleni Koroneou Gallery (koroneougallery.com) which has been continuing to promote Greek and international art, currently showing the work of Yorgos Sapountzis.
As I write, Art Athina (art-athina.gr), Athens’ art fair, is just a week away from opening in its 18th iteration. Held at the Faliron Pavillion (The Olympic Taekwondo Stadium), the fair has expanded to include the many artist-led initiatives developing in Athens, and also to invite those from abroad, in its Platforma Project section which hosts 47 artist-initiatives from 18 different countries.
In the ancient times of the polis, the citizens could threaten to move the city from the location it inhabited at the time to another location – yet it would remain the same city. The polis wasn’t the buildings around them but the citizens themselves. In the face of the unstable financial and political situation there is perhaps a hint of this still extant in the Athens of today. The political infrastructure may be crumbling, yet the people find ways to adapt and produce art nevertheless. The Athens art scene is not about buildings and spaces so much as about artists, galleries and collectors collaborating and finding new ways to express their creativity. These are certainly difficult times, but as Eleftheriou Tseliou says, “Art Athina didn’t stop happening, interesting shows take place in Greek galleries and things go on, with three times the effort that was required before, but that proves that there are people willing to make that effort and hopefully that will change something”.
Chris Hawtin is an artist and writer. He’s correspondent for art.es in London and Athens