‘Unknown Hooligan’ explained

Besides contemplating the idea of heaven, the 2nd Athens Biennale has provided a platform for up-and-coming and established Greek artists – such as 2005 DESTE Prize winner Christodoulos Panayiotou and 2009 DESTE Prize nominee Athanasios Argianas – to showcase their work next to their international counterparts, thus presenting contemporary Greek art within a global context. Yet among the 141 artists on show, it is easy to miss Em Kei’s submission to Cay Sophie Rabinowitz’s «Splendid Isolation, Athens» exhibition in the main Esplanade Building, because it is an outdoor work located on the pedestrianized Esplanade flyover. An Athenian-born artist, Em Kei studied graphic and spatial design along with photography and video art in Athens before attaining a master’s in fine art and design from the Chelsea College of Art and Design, London, putting her graphic design background to good use as the art director of Ozon Magazine, before moving on to work for Platform Magazine and Sonik Magazine. Aside from her print work, Em Kei is an avid explorer of her artistic practice, reveling in curatorial and design projects that play with space, and experiments with different media, imbuing her work with a playfulness that highlights more pensive musings – her bronze sculpture of a hooded sweater, the «Monument to the Unknown Hooligan,» being a case in point. «Although I didn’t make the work specifically for the biennale, I think it worked out perfectly with the theme of ‘Splendid Isolation.’ The location was ideal. Being on the very border between the show and the public space; the vast, empty, concrete surroundings with the sky and the sea in the background has given an extra dimension to the work,» Em Kei noted in an interview with Kathimerini English Edition. Appropriating the visual symbolism of the hooded sweater – the uniform of the millennium’s miscreants, the bust makes references to the December 2008 Greek riots, the «known-unknowns,» the self-styled anarchists, and more specifically, the UK’s ASBO (Anti-Social Behavior Order) generation of hooded youths, a social issue that reached boiling point when one shopping mall banned hooded sweaters in 2005, a move that encouraged other shopping venues to follow suit. «The model of the sculpture was first created in 2006 for the group show ‘What Remains Is Future,’ curated by Nadja Argyropoulou, one of the biennale’s curators. The ‘hoodie ban’ had been enforced in Britain, making it a contemporary symbol of evil and blind violence like the swastika, the pentagram and the inverted cross,» she said, recalling a growing desire to impart a sinister dimension to everyday objects. Em Kei then set about casting the sculpture in bronze. «Bronze was ideal because the piece was intended to be a public sculpture. My intention was to create a link with the history of bronze busts and memorials prevalent in almost any town square in Greece, going back to ancient times,» she explained. «The idea was to create a reverse bust – a nobody instead of a somebody. The shape of the head is there due to the hood, but there is a dark hole where the face would be.» It is this black hole that is the most poignant aspect of the piece. Like the tombs dedicated to unknown soldiers worldwide, the hooligan is as remote and faceless as the anonymous fallen soldiers of historical wars and conflicts, and the sculpture comments on the fact that, often, heroes and anti-heroes share the same place in the collective memory, with the artist asserting «that glory is dangerously close to ridiculousness.» Drawing mainly positive reactions both from passers-by and biennale attendees, Em Kei is satisfied with the way the work is growing and has even expressed her openness to vandalism as part of the piece’s evolution. «Some very famous works of art have been vandalized,» she commented. «Sometimes those stories are more interesting than the works themselves.» Sounds like an invitation. The 2nd Athens Biennale, «Heaven,» runs to October 4. For more details, see