Athens on the cutting edge of art

Could Athens become the art world?s new Berlin? ?Why not?? says Cathryn Drake, a writer and journalist who settled in the Greek capital last December. ?Rents are beginning to drop. Young artists are doing very political work. The crisis may have brought an ill wind, but it also forced the eye of the world to turn here.?

Whether the American writer is right or not, the truth is that Greek art has become somewhat sexy since the crisis erupted. Despite the negative stereotypes and the criticism leveled at Greece and its people by the international media, there seems to be plenty of room for an alternative narrative of the huge changes that have been occurring in Greece since 2009.

Most contemporary Greek art went practically unnoticed on the international scene until recently, but today it is beginning to gain a lot more publicity with art spaces and festivals abroad catching on to local talent.

So who are we? What are we learning that?s new? How is the recession affecting society and how is this reflected in theater, the visual arts, music, literature and everyday life?

Kathimerini spoke to a number of Greek artists who have experienced the change in attitudes toward Greek art firsthand.

?All of the spotlights are turned on us,? said Nadja Argyropoulou, who is currently in charge of a presentation of Greek artists at Paris?s Palais de Tokyo. The curator is participating in the ?Garden of Eden? group show with a section titled ?Hell as Pavilion.?

?Maybe it?s something like the curiosity one feels while driving past a car crash to slow down and take a look. As macabre as that sounds, it does provide us with a unique opportunity to tell the story of what is happening to us on our own terms. This overexposure to publicity may make us feel vulnerable and slandered, but what?s important is to react, to step up, to talk about our truth and about what is happening around us,? Argyropoulou explained.

?This was the criterion for the 15 artists I selected when curator and artist Tjorg Douglas Beer asked me to participate in the show. In some odd way, Greeks have become ?exotic? again because the reality they are experiencing is so different from that of the Northern Europeans. That in itself is a new challenge and reignites interest. But first we have to understand our new identity before we can communicate it to others.?

The founder of the Cheap Art gallery in Athens, Giorgos Georgakopoulos, organized and participated in a show titled ?Boiling Point,? which was about the Greek crisis and went on display this summer at the Vienna Kunstlerhaus.

?In contrast to the stereotypes that prevail on the political and economic fronts, art lovers and simple citizens are more willing to see us in a different light,? Georgakopoulos told Kathimerini. ?Some of the pieces included in the exhibition addressed tough subjects, such as the rise in the Greek suicide rate. The Austrian artists greeted us with such warmth. There is without doubt solidarity among artists, a different vernacular between them.

?And let me say one more thing: Who can accuse us of being dependent on government funding when we paid for the transportation of the artworks to Austria out of our own pockets? The Greek state and the Ministry of Culture in particular could take better advantage of this opportunity that is being presented to change our image. But it never had a plan, not even when everything appeared to be going fine, so it won?t happen now, will it??

Yorgos Kotanidis is an actor who played in the successful Greek National Theater production of ?Pericles,? which was staged at the Globe Theater in London in late April. He agreed with Georgakopoulos, and added: ?Publicity was guaranteed because of the Greek crisis but we didn?t let it go to waste either. The performance was well received because we were not afraid to talk with the audience. We also added to the line ?I?m hungry,? ?I?m Greek.? We didn?t whinge or play up the misery, but tried to project something different, something courageous and self-critical. So we were a success, with both the audience and the critics. After the curtain went down, a lot of people came to talk to us: Britons who love Greece, students, simple viewers. There was a lot of emotion, and that gave us faith and courage. It would be great if there were more screenings of Greek films, plays, exhibitions and concerts around Europe, because this is a different type of diplomacy that works.?

Venice has also welcomed Greek art and at last year?s Biennale a piece of political graffiti by Stelios Faitakis at the Danish kiosk stole the show, while this year?s Greek participation at the Architecture Biennale, which runs through November in the Italian city, is titled ?Made in Athens.? Kiosk curators Panos Dragonas and Anna Skiada have tried to project a sense of the difficult present, as well as their view of the future of the Greek capital, even including photographs from protest rallies.

Dragonas told Kathimerini that the Greek pavilion got a lot of press, visitors and questions. ?We tried to put forward something new, interventions in the city that could change the concept of public space, proposals that could have results.?

Also in Venice, at the annual film festival, Giorgos Zois was awarded for ?Out of Frame,? a short which looks at the issue of publicity from a different angle.

?I hate the cliche that the crisis presents opportunities. We cannot and should not profit as artists from the misery that surrounds us. Sure, poverty and decay are very photogenic, but we are lost if we look at it in the same way that some journalists and foreign media who have imposed their narrative on our country have. Art is not reportage,? Zois countered. ?We can?t become mere observers, projecting and cashing in on images of homeless people, migrants and the poor. It is almost as kitsch and fake as government-run publicity drives to project a different image, such as the ?Live Your Myth in Greece? campaign.?

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