Where folklore meets Goth

You feel a certain sense of relief when exiting an exhibition that has not resorted to the postmodern, globalized language that has become all too familiar at galleries, museums and fairs. From London to Moscow to Osaka, recurring variations on more or less the same themes. Surprisingly, however, this language sometimes conceals hidden gems, including major artists as well as new voices that are worth noting. So it is certainly a positive experience when you travel to Thessaloniki and encounter hare skin masks from Kleisoura in Kastoria, scary disguises from Kali Vrysi in Drama and strange carnival costumes from Macedonia along with fairy tales about man-eating monsters and local folk tales of goblins, snakes, fairies, mermaids and demons, as narrated by Eleonora Skouteri-Didaskalou, social anthropologist and lecturer at the Department of History and Archaeology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Inaugurated at the Lazariston Monastery last week, the State Museum of Contemporary Art’s new production borrows its title from a Rainer Maria Rilke verse: «The Beautiful Is Just the First Degree of the Terrible.» Here, the organizers have chosen a more complicated path which aims to establish an indirect dialogue between the darkest aspects of Greek folk art and tradition and originals works by predominantly young, Greek contemporary artists. The Thessaloniki display is about the invaluable wealth of handicrafts, ritual, customs, spoken traditions, music and mourning songs that still flourish in the villages and small towns of northern Greece. It is also about flirting freely with the absurd, the unfamiliar and the imaginary. This is not a culture which comes out of nowhere, but one that throws light on the underground currents linking local folk tradition to myths of Dracula in Transylvania, the traditions of German Romanticism, expressionism, Goth aesthetics, the musical subcultures of heavy metal and punk, and more recently, to the silver screen and literary triumph of «Twilight.» An entire world, enticing and repulsive at the same time. The Thessaloniki exhibition is something of an experiment that combines research and artistic work. Research began in October 2008, when a group of artists were given material from eight folklore museums, collections and cultural associations. This was followed by a series of meetings, discussions and collaborations, an ongoing dialogue between artists and organizers. The aim of Apostolos Kalfopoulos, the show’s curator and lecturer at the architectural department of Aristotle University, was for the artists’ works (paintings, sketches, sculptures, installations, videos, animation, music and performance) and folk handiworks to develop an all-encompassing installation. Though the exhibition has the right kind of atmosphere, it would have benefited from some extra space. It’s biggest achievement, however, is that is avoids the traps of going folksy and quaint. Essentially, the show serves to remind how many ideas and exhibitions lie within the largely untapped world of tradition, provided these are realized with high spirits, imagination and plenty of hard work. At the State Museum of Contemporary Art (Lazariston Monastery, 21 Kolokotroni, Stavroupoli, tel 2310.589.102) until January 10, 2010.