The inauguration of the fourth edition of the Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art coincided with the day Greek society woke up from what seemed to be a profound sleep. The date was September 18, the day after hip-hop artist Pavlos Fyssas was fatally stabbed by Golden Dawn member Giorgos Roupakias.
Emotions were running high and the center of the northern port city had come to a halt: A morning rally had been organized civil servants, the police had taped off access to the streets surrounding the Thessaloniki International Fair, and protesters were gathering for a late afternoon anti-Nazi rally.
If up to now art had been seen as an entity removed from real life – often a narcissistic, even self-destructive business – many Biennale visitors this time will be eager to discover what brings them together.
This year’s Thessaloniki Biennale spreads across the entire city: from Warehouse B1, located in the city’s port complex, to the Lazariston Monastery, the Alatza Imaret mosque, the Teloglion Foundation of Art, the Archaeological Museum, the Museum of Byzantine Culture, the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art and the Yeni Cami (New Mosque), all the way to the Thessaloniki International Fair’s Pavilion 6, the location of the event’s core exhibition, curated by Adelina von Furstenberg.
An Armenian born in Istanbul and a permanent resident of Switzerland, von Furstenberg is a cosmopolitan par excellence who knows how to craft a story through artworks. In Thessaloniki her narration focuses on the Mediterranean region – not as the worn-out, stereotyped expression of a people’s melting pot or the cradle of various civilizations, but as a way of life.
In an interview with Greek journalist Leon Karapanagiotis in 1955, Albert Camus referred to Greece as a “homeland” and a “source” for the people of the Mediterranean. According to the French philosopher and author, while the Mediterranean area was pressured by the modern world and took in foreign ideologies, it was able to maintain a certain balance.
In the exhibition’s accompanying catalog, British historian Mark Mazower also writes about the region’s rich history, which has has left an imprint on all Mediterranean people. Von Furstenberg takes a similar approach, though her depiction of Europe’s south is more aesthetic than political.
“Everywhere But Now,” the exhibition curated by von Furstenberg, is beautifully set up with the curator having placed large-scale works in a clever and well-thought-out manner. In an ode to beauty, decay, violence, uprisings, war, social inequalities and economic and social problems are not suppressed, but instead recorded through a series of visual creations defined by their sense of refinement and poetry.
Photographs by Algeria’s Zineb Sedira depict a ship graveyard along the coast of Mauritania’s Nouadhibou fishing port, from where countless Africans set off on their highly risky, clandestine journeys to Europe. Lebanese artist Raed Yassin presents porcelain vases featuring scenes from his country’s civil war and manufactured in Jingdezhen, China’s porcelain capital. Greek photographer Yiorgis Yerolymbos captures enigmatic, ghostly figures moving along the Thessaloniki waterfront in the fog. Algerian-born French artist Mohamed Bourouissa offers a behind-the-scenes look at the Paris Mint in a video featuring rap music. For Vasilis Zografos, the Greek crisis is reflected on the face of an African sleeping on a city sidewalk.
Does the exhibition showcase political works? The answer is absolutely yes. French collective Claire Fontaine shows a young man in a hoodie setting fire to a map of Europe depicting the continent’s southern PIGS countries. Serbian-born Marina Abramovic presents a video showing how children are turned into soldiers in certain war-torn areas. Photographer Khaled Jarrar, a Palestinian born in the West Bank city of Jenin who became a captain in the Palestinian Presidential Guard serving Yasser Arafat, turns his lens on soldiers.
All in all, the exhibition’s paintings, sculptures and installations are well balanced. The same is true of the artists’ countries of origin, which stretch from the Mediterranean region to Cuba, Brazil and India. One feels that while there’s plenty of “Everywhere,” what is missing is “Now.”
Organizing a biennale in a city like Thessaloniki is no easy task. Funding from the National Strategic Reference Framework (NSRF) as well as support from the Thessaloniki Municipality are not enough. It also requires a high level of persistence, and Katerina Koskina, the event’s director and president of the board of trustees of the State Museum of Contemporary Art, has plenty of that.
At the same time, the city’s five major museums are taking part in the biennale effort: “Tradition-Reversal,” an exhibition curated by Koskina and Yiannis Bolis, is on display at Warehouse B1 at the port, while works by noted Turkish artist Gulsun Karamustafa are on display at the Alatza Imaret mosque. The Museum of Byzantine Culture is hosting a mosaics exhibition as well as a beautiful video by Albania’s Adrian Paci, while at the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art, Denys Zacharopoulos is curator of “The Mediterranean Experience: The Mediterranean as a Spatial Paradigm for the Circulation of Ideas and Meaning.”
The Lazariston Monastery is hosting “The Costakis Collection and the Russian Avant-Garde: 100 Years Since the Collector’s Birth,” while the Teloglion is showcasing a large, satisfying show on Greek artist Vasso Katraki.
While several inaugural events are scheduled to take place in October, the Thessaloniki Biennale runs to January 31, 2014.
For more information, visit www.thessalonikibiennale.gr.