Greek biennale art now shown at home

In the hottest days of the summer, a strange optical phenomenon occurs. The rays of sunlight grow so radiant and strong that they actually blacken out the color on the surface of the sea. For a split second, the blue Mediterranean waters become a black void; a strange, abstract landscape, overwhelming and all-encompassing. Artist Lizzie Calliga observed and documented this phenomenon in «Swimmers,» a series of photographs that was recently presented at the 23rd Alexandria Biennale, where they were awarded with the Pharos Prize. Calliga represented Greece, as did Nikos Alexiou with his installation «Angel Rolling up the Heavens»; both artists were selected by commissioner Christina Petrinou for the occasion. It was a successful representation which was very warmly received and earned both artists an honorary invitation to participate in the Sarajevo winter festival. Those works are now being presented at the Benaki Museum. The exhibition, which opened yesterday evening at the Pireos branch of the museum, is the first of a series that aims to present the works of Greek artists produced for international biennials. It includes «Hospital,» a piece by artist George Hadjimichalis that represented Greece at the most recent Venice Biennale (2005), perhaps the most prestigious biennale worldwide. Reviewed extensively and enthusiastically by the foreign press (among the art periodicals were Art Press, KunstForum and Art in America, whose review ends by placing Hadjimichalis’s work among the top five shown at the biennale), Hadjimichalis’s work, selected by curator Katerina Koskina, was one of the best Greek representations at the Venice Biennale. The Benaki exhibition is not to be missed. This is not only because it provides a rare chance to view works that until now have only been shown outside Greece but because the works themselves are so strong and engaging. Although the works differ from one another – and despite the fact that the Benaki exhibition is basically a sum of three different solo shows – the visitor will not stumble upon contrasts but will somehow get the sense of unity and flow. The sense of timelessness that imbues the photographs of Calliga and her video «Morning Light IV» (the work was presented at the Hellenic Foundation of Culture in Alexandria) also runs through the other two works. Time is an element that finds its way in all three works. Calliga freezes an image that appears momentarily, yet gives it a lasting eternal quality. Time in the sense of a universal flow, of interconnected things that flow from one into the other (the grid is a central motif in his work), is an underlying theme in «Angel Rolling up the Heavens,» the work of Nikos Alexiou. In the work of Hadjimichalis, time is addressed in a more existential sense, as in the passage through life. Moreover, all three artists work as archivists which, again, involves time. Step by step, they document their subject of interest, gather images or objects and base their work on that lengthy process. Light and the immaterial Calliga uses photography and Alexiou builds his installations out of paper and reeds. Yet both artists manage to put across something that is immaterial, be it light or time. Alexiou’s beautiful grid-shaped, reed or paper constructions put across an ethereal and unusually soothing effect. They are open-ended constructions, frail and mysterious parts to some kind of cosmic order. Next to it, the installation by Giorgos Hadjimichalis has a grounding, more earthy quality. A construction – the visual metaphor of a hospital – made of long box-like constructions that connote hospital corridors are placed together to form a grid-like construction. In another room, slide projections are intended to stand for the views that one sees outside a hospital room and the images that flash successively for fragments of a second stand for the mental images dredged out from a patient’s memory. «Hospital» works on various levels. It is not only about human pain and existential angst but also about the state of art (a parallel is drawn between the hospital and the world of art, both being outside the day-to-day experience of life) and the overcoming of cultural differences. Like the grid-like constructions of Alexiou, each work presented at the Benaki exhibition is a small world, a visual and conceptual whole that has theoretical depth but also makes an immediate emotional impact. At a time when so much of contemporary art needs to be explained or substantiated by theoretical texts before the viewer can begin to grasp some of its meaning, the Benaki exhibition comes as a reminder of the sheer pleasure and sense of fulfillment that good art can communicate through its own language alone. The Greek Pavillion at the Venice Biennale and the Greek participation at the Alexandria Biennale, at the Benaki Museum’s Pireos branch (138 Pireos & Andronikou, 210.345.3111), through April 30. Hours are Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.