Drawing the Hydra community

Ever since the avant-garde movements of the early-20th century, the idea that opposition to the establishment is the foundation of all meaningful art has not lost its staying power. It thrived in the 1960s and 1970s in experimental art forms such as public art or performances and produced a streak of alternative art practiced in the booming art market of the ’80s and amid the revivalism of postmodernism. But something of this initial impetus for artistic intervention seems to have been lost on the way so that nowadays, the idea of an alternative art practice has ended up sounding slightly problematic. Just as many of the most marginal ideas seem to eventually become part of the commercial sector, artistic practice has become heavily reliant on an intricate network of institutions, the media, art specialists and collectors, and the tension between art and the mainstream seems to gradually have subsided. So how does location – in other words, the use of alternative spaces for the exhibition of art – fit into this context and what is the effect of an exhibit such as the one curated by artist Niki Kanagini in which the choice of an unconventional location is tied together with social and community-inclusive concerns? Art and a monastery The exhibit takes place on the island of Hydra and is part of a series of other events (a round-table discussion and a lecture) which are scattered around various venues on the island over a three-day period beginning Friday. Conceived as a cultural festival, the project is meant to bring attention to the religious festival of the Birth of the Virgin Mary as celebrated at a nunnery in the island’s Zourvas region. (Initially the exhibit was to be held along the length of steps leading to the monastery but the plan was canceled and the exhibition transferred to the Historical Archives Museum on Hydra; still the show’s concept should be seen in the context of the initial plan of being held in an unusual place). The idea, which belongs to Niki Kanagini, is to help revive a fading festivity and offer the monastery support by producing collective action, stirring public feeling and encouraging audience participation. (Profits from the sale of the works will go to the monastery). Kanagini, who also explores such social-minded issues in her own work, has in this instance asked 10 of her colleagues to share her concerns and test art’s potential ability for transforming social conditions, in this case, life, and our view of it, in an isolated religious community. Kanagini, who was part of the initial group of artists that founded the annual art exhibit at the Fyrogia Monastery on Sifnos, is clearly attracted by collective work and distinct manners of display. Moreover, she is interested in creating a link between art and life and in placing art at the service of minority, underprivileged or isolated groups of people. Social awareness also means community involvement which is another important aspect of her projects. After two years of preparation, she convinced the Municipality of Hydra and the Historical Archives Museum to participate. She also put together a group of well-known artists as well as earning the support of artists Giorgos Zoggolopoulos, Michalis Michailidis (both of whom will have works on display) and Panayiotis Tetsis. An artist who spends a great deal of time on Hydra and has therefore grown sensitive to the needs of the local community, Tetsis donated a work toward the project; its sale was the only major source financing the exhibit. Although Kanagini does not intend to turn the Hydra project into a series of annual events, she would like to use its principles for future exhibits. She has thought of using an art exhibition to enliven a home for the aged as well as to assist the inhabitants of an isolated island off the shores of Crete. Alternative locations Kanagini’s venture can be seen as a modern version of an artistic trend rooted in the informal spirit of the late 1960s where the choice of an unusual location is bound to interest in creating accessible, public-oriented art which prompts interaction and activates change. One such well-known project that specifically addresses the question of location is the German Münster Sculpture Projects, first staged in the late 1970s with the purpose of providing the city of Münster with large-scale public works. The project later evolved into a series of open-ended artistic experiments. In one of them from the mid-’80s called Chambres d’Amis, for example, the homes of the local people of the city of Ghent were converted into exhibition spaces while in a later project from the late ’90s, artist Janet Cardiff invited the inhabitants of the city of Münster on an audio tour designed and led by her. Marking a shift from clear-cut convention and made with the objective of democratizing art, such art practices invite interaction and opt for alternative modes of display. Distinct locations, which is one aspect of them, include spaces run by artists themselves and the conversion of warehouses or spaces which have fallen into disuse for the exhibition of art – for example,Freeze organized by Damien Hirst was staged in a disused London Port Authority building – both of which are still in vogue today. But something of this initial unconventional thrust has been watered down, possibly because of the absorbing power of the system of international art. Questioning and criticizing art is of course a part of this overall system. Indeed, in the predominant spirit of the current cultural debate, it is standard that almost any art practice will invite criticism. Nonetheless, one is still left wondering whether contemporary art that is outside the mainstream is self-driven or guided instead by a commercially inspired demand for novelty. The Niki Kanagini project is an opportunity to think upon issues related to the status of contemporary art. In itself, it is an ambitious project generated by means of great effort and with practical objectives in mind. The extent to which art can effect these is part of a broader, open-ended debate.

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