Art on power and politics

s cities grow to embrace people of different cultural, ethnic backgrounds and economic means, one question to consider is how urban communities can coexist with the least possible friction. Held under the general title «How to Live Together,» last year’s 27th Sao Paolo Biennale addressed issues related to shared spaces, coexistence and differences in both urban and rural communities. Inspired by a lecture given by Roland Barthes at the College de France in the late 1960s under the same title («Comment vivre ensemble»), the biennale explored an «ethical definition of Living Together.» It threw the spotlight on how buildings or urban spaces are inhabited and shared and how they are constructed to address the needs of a diversified community. The biennale’s thematic range also extended to issues relating to social integration and acceptance among different communities living in the same country. Life in secluded geographical regions and contested territories were also explored. Greek artists Vangelis Vlahos and Zafos Xagoraris, who were invited by Adriano Pedrosa (one of the biennale’s curators) to participate in this reputable art event, have produced works that show a strong interest in such issues. «Exercising Idiorrythmy,» an exhibition at the Byzantine and Christian Museum, presents some of their works that were shown at the Sao Paolo Biennale. Each artist looks into architecture and space in different ways yet both address issues related to current world politics and economics. Vlahos has explored the ideology and power structures behind specific buildings, either state-owned or corporate buildings found in Greece and Southeast Europe. Most of the buildings he selects are designed in the International, modernist style. Vlahos reproduces those edifices in architectural models and collects archival material that probes their history and reveals how changes in the global economy and politics have affected their usage. In effect, his work delves into the «purity» and «universalism» of modernist architecture and reveals its ideological and political content. The Athens exhibition includes parts of the six projects which were presented in Brazil. The US Embassy in Athens, archival material related to the resignation of Brady Kiesling who served as political counselor at the US embassy in Athens until 2003, the Athens Tower and high-rise buildings in Warsaw, Sarajevo and Prague are each the subject of a separate, open-ended project. Another project looks into Bosnia-Herzegovina’s former parliament building, which is being renovated with financial assistance provided by the Greek goverment. In this project, Vlahos investigates how formerly state-owned buildings are passed over to the world of corporate capitalism. Again, his work unmasks the «rational, functional» style of modernist architecture and in doing so, exposes underlying policies. The work of Zafos Xagoraris draws attention to neglected, isolated or contested areas around the globe and consists of site-specific, public installations that in many cases employ sound. The artist documents those installations in film, video, photographs or drawings. This secondary material is presented at the Athens exhibition. It corresponds to three different projects: «The Sound of Acre,» a sound installation which was placed along Rio Branco street (Rio Branco is the capital of Acre state in Brazil) in Sao Paolo; a video still from a project carried out at Tierra del Fuego (the installation, a huge bell, was positioned on the surface of the sea); and a project for the Turkish-occupied, uninhabited city of Varosha in southern Cyprus. The work of Xagoraris reinstates the damaged or contested identity of those troubled areas. His installations resemble beacons or periscopes, visual or acoustic signals that sensitize us to the history and life of faraway, forgotten or politically problematic areas. The state of Acre – an isolated region and one of the least economically developed parts of Brazil, in an area of the western Amazon rainforest, bordering both Peru and Bolivia – is one of those places that attracted the artist’s attention. Xagoraris recorded nature’s sounds in the region and, through his sound installation, transferred them to the center of the Brazilian metropolis. Like many of his works, the installation is invisible. It is a hint, a discreet reminder that lifts faraway places out of their geographical borders and their exclusion – an exclusion often brought about by political or economic conflicts – and demands that they be recognized. The work of both Xagoraris and Vlahos brings to the surface realities that are hidden or disguised – in the case of Vlahos, masked by the veneer of modernist architecture – or that we tend to overlook. Visually, their work shares a certain starkness and sophistication. Moreover, they are both ongoing, conceptual art projects. Another common characteristic is they each deal, in a broad sense, with issues related to community life: to how we experience or share the built or natural environment in which we live and to how this environment reflects power structures and shapes community relationships. Such ideas were at the core of the Sao Paolo Biennale concept. They were well explored in the work of the two Greek artists. A discussion organized by the «Reading Group» on the biennale and the two artists’ works is being published on the occasion of the exhibition at the Byzantine Museum (22 Vasilissis Sofias, 210.721.1027; to August 20).