CULTURE

History and contemporary art

Back in the rolling 1960s, overcoming the constrictions of the «white cube» setting for exhibitions must have come as both a timely and liberating experience. Alternative venues for the display of art captured the informal, flexible mood of the time and for all those artists working outside clear-cut conventions, it opened up a broad, creative range for self expression. This included anything from the conversion of deserted warehouses to gallery space, to venturing out to public spaces, creating performances or happenings, or site-specific works and land art. There was a radical edge to those artistic practices which their contemporary equivalents often seem to lack, partly because the art establishment has since absorbed the marginal. Even when a work like Christo’s and Jeanne-Claude’s wrapping of Berlin’s Reichstag (a long contemplated project that received official consent in 1994, two decades after its conception) managed to create the sensation that it did, one can still question the vigor of the work’s political dimension, viewing it instead as symbolic of the end of warring ideologies and therefore as accommodating to the political needs of Germany at the time. As the sensational wrapping of the Reichstag indicates, at times of apparently abating opposition and conflict, to apply former notions of artistic radicalism to present day works is mistaken. For, while alternative, off-site projects do take place and the challenge of finding new context for art is still there (with so much experimentation in this field already behind it, is perhaps stronger), the import of such works has shifted from being viewed as eccentricity. The challenge is how to use an environment that is not neutral to create an effective visual atmosphere and produce a cross-referencing between art and its environment without becoming cliché, redundant or sensational. An off-site project, « The Crew of Another Time,» taking place at the Averoff warship in the Palaio Faliron marina is successful in all these respects. A group of contemporary artists have used a number of the ship’s different areas – some most unlikely and hard to reach – to make works that evoke the ship’s historic symbolism and are, at the same time, suggestive of the present state of contemporary art. Conceived by artist Nefeli Kontarini, the project considers issues of history, memory and time, but leaves out nostalgia, to produce a well-balanced exhibit and an unusual experience of discovery. In some ways, this is a literal discovery, for most of the works are located in areas which are usually closed off to the public ( the warship is a museum partially open to visitors), such as the ship’s engine-rooms or bunk rooms. Gaining access to them involves descending steep staircases, walking along dark corridors and even losing one’s way. Such difficulties are intentional and are aimed at making the process of viewing as much a part of the exhibit as the art works themselves. In another way, the obstacles reflect the difficulty that the organizers had in getting permission from the Greek Navy for the use of a ship that is a historical landmark. Known for its victorious battles during the Balkan wars, this is a space loaded with symbolic meaning; what is so interesting about the exhibit is the subtlety and caution with which it handles such symbolism. Meaning is suggested rather than openly stated and both the minimalist aesthetic and immaterial quality of most works (digital imagery, the use of video and the technological typify most works) enhance a gentle but sophisticated effect. Judging the sculptural beauty of the ship’s engines to be visually complete in and of itself, Vassilis Kokkas has, for example, merely produced a musical score, an unusual remixing of the sound of the engines heard in the engine room. Another artist, Omiros Kosmidis, uses iodized lighting to simply delineate the lines in the room which holds the ship’s electric generators and an enclosed deck area. Maya Bontzou’s work is based on morse code and becomes activated once the viewer types a message on a computer screen; written language is automatically transformed into the language of morse code. Theodoris Raftopoulos and Spyros Polymeris have produced a joint computer art work which also prompts interaction between the viewer and art. Other artists evoke the presence of the ship’s crew. Haris Kontosfyris’s installation in the ship’s mess area invokes sailors during their break time, Nefeli Kontarini has set up a video installation to pay tribute to the ship’s stokers, and Alexandros Spyropoulos alludes to the interdependence between machines and the people who use them. Some works are more corporeal than others but in both those cases, they only hint at, rather than prevail over, their context. In her video, Dimitra Vantzou shows rotating, bright rays to evoke the ship’s radar system. A work by Alexandros Spyropoulos uses digital technology film to highlight the interdependence between man and machines. A panel by Manolis Zacharioudakis evokes the movement of the sea, while sacks filled with earth by Dimitris Hatzantonakis make more direct reference to the ideas of national origins and patriotism. Even something as straightforward and conventional as marble objects modeled after items found in the ship are unusually presented by artist Ingbert Brunk who has positioned them throughout the ship in ways that make them difficult to notice. Brunk’s work captures an overall mood of discretion. This is an exhibit about time, the past and its continuation into the present. It refers to history but also to the condition of contemporary art and its display, all in a way that is well-balanced and thorough.