Greek contemporary art at Spanish event

MADRID – In this year’s ARCO, Spain’s Madrid-held, international art fair, Greece had special pride of place. The honorary guest country, it was represented by 15 art galleries at the expansive premises of the art fair, but also organized a variety of exhibitions on Greek contemporary art across Madrid’s venues. Long anticipated as Greece’s opportunity to give its contemporary art international exposure, the five-day-long art fair was inaugurated last week by H.M. Queen Sofia, who visited each Greek gallery stand and conversed in perfect Greek with the gallerists. It was a festive occasion that a large group of guests from the Greek art world attended, their presence acting as support and expressing solidarity. More than two years of preparations for the event (ARCO and the satellite exhibitions) were made on the Greek side, the total cost of which came to 500,000 euros and was covered by the Cultural Olympiad and the Greek Ministry of Culture. The event occurred in cooperation with the Regional Arts Council of Madrid, the Spanish Ministry of Development, the Municipality of Madrid, ARCO and other Spanish institutions which also offered part of the financing. (Maria Panagidou artproductions handled the overall coordination.) It may be long before the more calculable returns of such an event can be measured, but the gratification that most of the Greeks present at ARCO felt signaled good first impressions. The Greek galleries stood well above average among the hundreds of other international stands, while the rest of the exhibitions held all over Madrid put across, with some fluctuations, a good image. ARCO is one of the largest art fairs held worldwide. The outcome of Spain’s cultural policy of the ’80s, it was established by Feria de Madrid (a consortium of the Madrid Regional Government, the city of Madrid, the Madrid Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Caja de Madrid savings bank) as a pioneering venture on the Spanish contemporary art scene. Since then it has evolved into a major event which, although not like the leading Basel art fair, is an international attraction for art collectors, many from Spanish-speaking parts of the world. The 15 galleries that represented Greece were selected by Greek commissioners at ARCO, Katerina Gregos and Sania Papa. The focus was on contemporary works and on keeping a balanced number of international and Greek artists. In close proximity to the Greek galleries’ stands, InfoLab was set up to provide information on the Greek art scene, art museums and the activities of the Cultural Olympiad. The exhibitions The largest, survey-like exhibition was «Breakthrough: Greece 2004: Contemporary Perspectives in the Visual Arts,» an exhibition that aimed at putting across a flavor of contemporary Greek art, jointly curated by Denys Zacharopoulos, Katerina Gregos and Sania Papas. Works of different media by 26 artists (among them Alexandros Psychoulis, Vangelis Vlachos, George Lappas, Costis Velonis, Nikos Haralambous, Ilias Papailiakis, Nikos Alexiou and George Hadzimichalis) some of a younger generation (born in the ’60s and ’70s) and a few now in their early 50s were gathered together, not in reference to a specific concept but as a selective overview of Greek art over the past decade. (Also scheduled for the spring is a separate exhibition on Greek architecture curated by Maria Theodorou.) Coming out of the exhibition, one had not picked out trends or gathered the impression that Greek art has a specific character or style; rather, the prevailing, general sense was that Greek art is in sync with contemporary, international art. It fitted an unstated but existing need to show that Greece is well aware of international developments and has broken away from (hence the title «Breakthrough») the isolated periphery. Leaving aside its rather weighty title, the exhibition was as a whole both adequately varied and of a good standing. However, when seen in isolation some works lacked clout. There were moments of unevenness and blandness. Also, a couple of artists were presented who are not based in Greece at all and arguably had no place in an exhibition which is by definition so strictly selective. Besides these failings, however, the exhibition seemed to work. The supplementary catalog was most useful – especially for the Spanish public – in placing the art shown in the context of contemporary Greek reality. «Self-Aboutness,» which focused on contemporary Greek photography and was curated by Marilena Karra, was another, separate exhibition. Several of each artist’s photographs helped put across a more comprehensive understanding of his or her art. However, the exhibition seemed too small to provide a satisfactory overview of Greek photography, at least to justify the making of an entire exhibition on the theme of photography. Had «Breakthrough» included more photographs, «Self-Aboutness» would have seemed redundant. The exhibition that seemed to have the strongest character was «The Making of Balkan Wars: The Game,» an audiovisual, interactive project (it includes video and digital projections, a website, video games and CD-ROM) developed by Personal Cinema, an innovative group which was established in 1998 by artists Maya Bontzou, Stewart Ziff, Dimitris Dokatzis, Ilias Marmaras as well as director Panos Papadopoulos, and has since then opened up to collaborations with artists all over the world. Curated by the core members of Personal Cinema itself, the exhibition addressed geopolitics in respect to the media and virtual reality. Another impressive exhibition was the solo show of Greek artist Nikos Navridis, an exhibition that was organized by the Caixa Foundation (its commissioner was the Spanish curator Rosa Martinez) and not from the Greek side, but was made to coincide with the ARCO events. This was the first occasion to view the development of Navridis’s work – videos and photography that focus on the recurring theme of breathing and blowing into latex – from the early ’90s to the present. A sophisticated exhibition, it drew attention to the work of an interesting and distinctive contemporary Greek artist who has repeatedly shown his work in major international exhibitions. Also outside the officially Greek-organized events was the exhibition of «We’ll Meet Again,» an installation by artist Maria Papadimitriou at one of the halls of the Reina Sofia Museum. Katerina Gregos was the curator. The host of Greek art events also included «Nine Muses, I Presume,» the projections of video works by Greek contemporary artists, and Anna Mathiou’s installation at the terrace of the cultural venue «Caja Madrid – La Casa Encendida.» A presentation of films from the ’50s and ’60s by the late, avant-garde, prominent film maker, Gregory Markopoulos, was the only event that was more historically oriented. Perhaps it would have been a good idea to view more Greek art from that period. Instead of this, Greece chose a contemporary edge, partly out of a likely fear of being branded as anachronistic. At this year’s ARCO, Greek artists, gallerists and curators sought to prove that what is happening in this country is worthwhile in an international context. They made an attempt to place Greek art on the international map of art events. It was a concerted, good beginning that made everybody who attended the event feel some gratification and hope for more similar projects in the future.