‘The Spirits of Christmas’ and their contradictions

The Christmas tree that is put up in Syntagma Square each year is hardly a real tree, and doubtfully the tallest in Europe, let alone the most elegant or finely lit. Yet, this is Athens’s public and official visual statement for honoring the festive spirit of Christmas and observing tradition right at the heart of its administrative center. This is probably what makes this, if not the most appealing, then certainly quite an interesting tree. For it is not only a reminder of all the contradictions inherent in Christmas, with all its kitsch and simultaneous warmth, but an expression of a vital aspect of Athens and its people. If the Christmas decoration in Syntagma Square has to do with the more conventional and perhaps unimaginative side of Athens, then the Christmas events in Omonia are about a quickly changing city of verve, filled with signs of urban sophistication but also groping with its own social and economic realities. Opening on Sunday, in the midst of all the construction taking place in the area, an open-air group exhibit on contemporary art, titled The Spirits of Christmas, helps to disclose the contradictory nature of Christmas and by extension, of Athens. The exhibit which is curated by art historian Nadia Argyropoulou is part of a general program, initiated by the Unification of Archaeological Sites organization, in which artistic events will supplement the various construction projects leading to the unification of archaeological sites around the capital, making the city a more friendly and less chaotic city in the meantime. Spirits of Christmas is deeply suggestive of ambiguity. It is a way of exposing the two sides of reality and revealing the complex nuances in life. This is perhaps why the works are neither decisively somber nor openly joyful, but instead somewhere in the middle. In the video projection Christmas Lie, for example, artist Alexandros Psychoulis uses an innocent figure from children’s tales in a slightly threatening and even ironic way. Dimitris Antonitsis has mounted a huge picture of a stray dog against one of the square’s buildings. His work is a biting but melancholic attack on the way that Christmas’s artificiality can muffle deeper societal problems and inequalities. Other works focus on the kinds of contradictions and clichés that permeate the art establishment. The Rumbling Museum is a Rubbling Museum is a Rambling Museum by Nikos Charalambidis, for example, is humorously critical of museums as institutions, while another installation by Anna Mathiou attempts to bridge the stereotypical distinction between painting and sculpture. Savvas Christodoulidis’s work can be seen as summing up the essence of this exhibit. The cut-out, red paper in the shape of a car symbolizes the nouveau riche aspects of Greece, but also the superficiality with which we often experience Christmas and understand tradition in general. Spirits of Christmas hopes to cut through this shallow understanding of reality, and of art, as well.

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