CULTURE

Moving out of Meteora’s shadow

The monasteries of the Meteora, while forming one of the largest monastic communities in the country, are probably not the kind of place to offer spiritual retreat. Tourism that amounts to roughly 3 million visitors annually does not leave much room for the kind of mystical experience one might otherwise expect to find here, especially during this time of the year, leaving the spectacular rocky formations on which the monasteries are perched to provide the most lasting and unadulterated impression. But more inquisitive visitors might also find an interest in how layers of history have blended with tourism to shape life at the town of Kalambaka, which is in many ways a typical example of the Greek eparheia (provinces), stretching at the foot of the Meteora. Strewn with hotels, tourist shops, bars and tavernas offering some of the best meat recipes in the area, Kalambaka is largely reliant on the tourism of Meteora for sustenance, and that despite a concern among locals over what they feel is a profit-making monastic community that provides no charity work to benefit the locals. But a newly emergent venture, unlike most others that one encounters in provincial Greece, indicates that Kalambaka is also a city in search of a contemporary identity or at least a more sophisticated response to its tourism. Indeed the Center of Contemporary Art that was recently inaugurated near the area of Kastraki almost seems too sophisticated for its surroundings. This pleasant aspiring project is a joint effort on the part of the mayor of Kalambaka, Byron Boutinas, and, more importantly, the lawyer and art collector Leonidas Beltsios, whose collection is the sole feature of the Center. The idea for a Center of Contemporary Art grew out of Beltsios’s wish to help his native town acquire its own museum of contemporary art. He made his collection available, and the municipality provided a new building, which was initially planned as a museum on folk art, to house the collection. The understanding is that parts of the Beltsios collection will be shown for the next couple of years at the Center of Contemporary Art through temporary exhibits that will alternate twice each year. Plans for after the expiration of the time frame have not been made yet, as they will largely depend on the success of the project until then. Judging from the venture’s debut, one cannot help but respond favorably to what is a novelty for the town of Kalambaka. The inauguration of «The Pioneers, An Aspect of Art in Greece During the Second Half of the 20th Century,» which opened at the Center recently, marked a well-attended formal occasion that brought together an artistic crowd from Athens and many of those «pioneer» artists represented in the exhibition, along with the local population. It was an unusual but socially interesting mix that offered a telling view into the registers of Greek society. The art on display was chosen by the exhibition’s curator, Denys Zacharopoulos (also curator of the collection), an esteemed art historian, art critic and professor at the Rijksacademie Knuste in Amsterdam who, after years living in France, is now based in Greece. Zacharopoulos, who is also preparing a book on the exhibition and the collection (to be published in the fall), has selected Greek artists who were born during the period of the 1920s through the 1960s. The exhibition therefore follows the development of Greek art through three different generations, although the focus is naturally on the earliest artists, probably because they are the ones who consistently and for the first time developed a modern style in Greek art (although their generation’s contribution to art has not been studied sufficiently). Indeed, Nikos Kessanlis, Alexis Akrithakis, Stathis Logothetis, Lucas Samaras, Takis, Jannis Kounellis, Danil and Vlassis Caniaris are among the artists represented by the greatest number of works. There are also works by Dimitris Alithinos, Constantin Xenakis, Pavlos, Costas Tsoclis, Dimitris Kontos, Lynda Benglis and Chryssa. An interim generation includes artists such as George Lappas, George Lazongas, Apostolos Georgiou and Nikos Baikas, while among the youngest of the group are Nikos Navridis, Maria Papadimitriou, Nikos Alexiou, Dimitris Kozaris and Thanassis Totsikas. All artists are brought together under their common designation as «pioneers.» Used in a broad sense, the term suggests that they all helped advance Greek art by bringing in new ideas. The word is moreover used as a substitute for the more historically charged and stronger term «avant-garde,» especially since there was never an articulated avant-garde movement in Greek art as in other countries. The extent to which the term applies to all artists is, of course, open to interpretation. Not everybody would agree that such an epithet justifies the grouping together of such artistic diversity. Still, it denotes an interpretation of Greek art of the second half of the 20th century which Zacharoupoulos will analyze in his upcoming book on the exhibition. Either way, the exhibition allows for some important works to be viewed and for postwar Greek modernism to be appraised under a single light. Most of the works are late acquisitions and mark the change of orientation that the Beltsios collection followed a few years ago. Many of those works will be shown at Kalambaka over the next couple of years. But will interesting art suffice to guarantee the success of the venture? Local politics might change, directly affecting the future of the museum. But even if the collaboration between the municipality and Beltsios continues smoothly, one might ask whether it is possible for a museum of contemporary art to flourish away from larger urban centers. At the exhibition’s press conference, Zacharopoulos mentioned the Eindhoven museum in the Netherlands as an example of a peripheral museum that began out of the initiative of a single person and developed into a prestigious institution. Could something similar occur in Greece? The Larissa Contemporary Art Center has not developed into an especially thriving institution, and this is perhaps a bad sign. As for the Rethymnon Center for Contemporary Art, although both successful and active, it is also supported by state subsidies, which are not available in the case of Kalambaka. The Kalambaka municipality has made a start in good faith, by staffing the Center and programming tours and educational seminars, and also by providing free entrance to locals. It is all at a stage of experimentation; developments will show both how effectively the private and the public sector can work together and the degree to which art can flourish in the Greek periphery. The Kalambaka municipality has made a start in good faith, by staffing the Center and programming tours and educational seminars, and also by providing free entrance to locals. It is all at a stage of experimentation; developments will show both how effectively the private and the public sector can work together and the degree to which art can flourish in the Greek periphery.