Conservatism vs modern art

“Outlook,» the most ambitious contemporary art exhibition to ever take place in Greece, drew to a close last Sunday after three months on show. The event made an impression on the public not just due to its significance, but also because of some unfortunate incidents. In a recent interview with Kathimerini, the event’s art director, Christos Ioakeimidis, draws his own conclusions about the success of «Outlook.» How do you feel now that the exhibition is over? I am very happy because most people who visited the show were not art freaks, just regular folk. It is very satisfying to know that 50,000 people came to see a contemporary art exhibition in Athens. That is an amazing turnout for a show of this kind… Did you reach the goals you set out to? When I first became involved with the show, I guess I underestimated the importance of certain issues – maybe because I was so excited. My approach was idealistic: I saw things the way I wanted them to be, not as they were. Everything proved more difficult than I had assumed. It was not just a matter of infrastructure but also of communication on every aspect of contemporary art in Greece. The basic requirements of understanding, of education, of familiarity, were absent. Did Athens earn a place on the map of the international contemporary art scene through «Outlook»? Of that I am certain. When tough foreign critics, who usually have a critical point of view and who saw the show, wrote that the Greek painter Apostolos Georgiou is as strong as Neo Rauch, or that the Greek artists who participated are as good as the foreign ones, what more could we ask for? Some critics argued the show did not have a clear identity. People who have never set up an exhibition and who rant about the way one is set up make me smile. There were both silly and interesting issues put forward by the critics. However, a discussion on these issues presupposes a certain level of thinking around art, a knowledge of art, which is lacking in Greece. Those who wanted to see, saw. Visitors who had nothing to do with art circles were more open-minded, more curious. The rest formed an opinion before the show even opened. Why were the works of Thierry de Cordier and Thanassis Totsikas removed? You should ask [Culture Minister Evangelos] Venizelos. The decision and responsibility was taken by the board of directors of the Cultural Olympiad on the same day, following abusive telephone calls and vandalism. I felt a responsibility to protect the works temporarily until the commotion died down. I have to admit that we continued to have some clashes. A few days [before the exhibition closed] a priest took down the notice that was in place of de Cordier’s work. That is just beyond paranoid. We also experienced a lot of other acts of vandalism which were not motivated by religion. Erwin Wurm’s work «Fat House» was broken and scribbled on with pencil. Someone even stole electric appliances from two works – one belonging to Maria Papadimitriou. We had to heighten security because of these acts and that raised our expenses significantly. These are the acts of people who have no respect whatsoever for art. Why weren’t the two works replaced after the crisis blew over? The artists did not want their work to go up again. De Cordier is a philosopher. The way the issue was presented on the radio and television gave people who had not seen the show the impression that it was the biggest work in «Outlook,» that it was dominated by a giant phallus and that it defined the entire show. They never took a moment to consider the artist’s point of view. Totsikas’s piece – against which so much criticism was directed – was, in my opinion, a very important reference to paganism. The most disappointing fact about all this was that a large portion of Athens’s intelligentsia said nothing against those despicable acts of vandalism. Do you think the minister of culture was swayed by the pre-election climate? Sure, it’s all part and parcel. The best thing we could have done, in my opinion, would have been to post a notice outside the hall displaying de Cordier’s work, saying the content may be offensive to some. Do you think that art in Greece is hostage to extremists? I believe that the scope of public life in this country breeds an air of conservatism. Just look at the recent polls that argue that our society puts its trust in the institutions of the Church, the army, the police and the family. The incident with Odhise Qena [an Albanian-born pupil who relinquished his right as top student to carry the Greek flag in the October 28 parade amid protests from the local community] is also an example to note… We are turning the clock back at a rapid pace. The archbishop [Christodoulos] is a very clever man. He knows what kind of a reaction he will provoke when he says that Turks are barbarians and Greeks are the chosen people. There is a new racism being born and all these factors create a very dangerous mosaic. Were you concerned about vandalism before you set the show up? It never crossed my mind that someone might be shocked by the works of de Cordier or Totsikas, or by a homosexual kiss or the sketches of Pettibon. What can we do? This is the art of this day and age. Drawing the public The ‘Outlook’ exhibition attracted more than 50,000 visitors over the three months is was on. Of these, 6,000 went to see the show in the last few days, taking advantage of extended opening hours. The guided tours proved a great success, with 150 held for regular visitors and another 200 for school groups and other institutions. The works of art are now being assessed for wear and tear and will then be shipped back to their respective museums and galleries.

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