Sozita Goudouna on the Athenian Art Scene ~ Interview by Maik Novtny Falstaff LIVING — das Design-Magazin Vienna
Athens is, according to some, the “new Berlin”, with regards to its creative scene and vibrancy. Do you think this description is justified?
Athens has a versatile cultural identity and an energy full of potentiality that started to unfold gradually (at least for the visual arts), before the Olympic games of 2004 with the exhibition “Outlook,” and reached a peak during Documenta 14. With excitement, we anticipate to see its full potential not as a fake lifestyle of cultural consumption and spectacle but as a real cultural “renaissance.” Thus, yes, I consider that the description Athens is the “new Berlin” in spite of its predictability, shows a promise and is justified despite the lack of a systemic and long-term cultural governmental policy for contemporary art, or perhaps owing to this lack.
In contrast to Berlin, Athens didn’t have a general secretary of contemporary art, kunsthalle(s), grants or a national contemporary art museum until very recently and was dependent on private initiatives such as Dakis Ioannou’s “Deste Foundation,” which featured an influential series of exhibitions with international and local curators and moved to its first permanent space, a former paper factory in Psychico, in 1998. Roughly speaking, the 1990s was the period that the visual arts started to have a stronger impact since the theater (Marmarinos “Diplous Eros,” Attis, Cycladon, Empros, Sfendoni) and certain dance and performance initiatives (Papaioannou, Rigos) used to overshadow the cultural scene.
Exhibitions such as Jannis Kounellis’ “Boat Ionion” in Piraeus in 1994, curated by Katerina Koskina, and the Costakis Collection exhibition in 1995 at the National Gallery of Athens, curated by Anna Kafetsi, were monumental at least for my generation. Also, the Fluxus Group (1998) and Joseph Beuys (1997) exhibitions at the new Athens School of Fine Arts annex (the “Factory”) marked a new era for the contemporary arts in an exceptional industrial location that also hosted Documenta 14 projects.
In 2000 we had the opportunity to see the first exhibition of the National Contemporary Art Museum (EMST), which had just launched in the temporary space of the Fix brewery where my grandfather used to work during the Nazi occupation of Athens; he came to Athens as a refugee from Ismir (Smyrna) in 1922.
The museum remained without a permanent exhibition space for 20 years until 2020 and officially opened just before the pandemic… The Athens Video Dance Festival was also an influential initiative together with the opening of Technopolis and the opening of the new Benaki Annex for architecture and contemporary art. The lack of a governmental contemporary arts strategy in Athens (that is different to the periphery and Thessalonica) led to an interesting initiative that originally took the form of a manifesto. The Athens Biennial of Contemporary Art was launched in 2005 with radical “authoritative” intentions and high aspirations, and indeed created a system of support for the “newer/cutting-edge” galleries that were struggling to exist in the Athenian landscape.
The Biennial also activated private foundations like the Onassis and NEON. Adding to this, galleries such as Rebecca Camhi, the Breeder, the Apartment, Gazon Rouze and new editions like Futura and Highlights were able to collaborate with the Biennale to advance the careers of artists. However, the Biennial also worked with artists who were represented by more “established” galleries including Bernier Eliades, Ileanna Tounta, Eleni Koronaiou, AD Gallery, Antonopoulou, Kalfayan, Kappatos, Zoumboulakis and Nees Morfes. Nees Morfes, which bears similar characteristics to “Aithousa Technis Athinon,” shifted into becoming in 2009 an interesting non–for–profit archival initiative (ISET: Contemporary Greek Art Institute). Art Athina, the Athens International Art Fair, still provides a mapping of all these profit and non-for-profit initiatives, as well as Platform projects by Artemis Potamianou.
You were involved in the documenta14 which was co-hosted in Athens. in 2017. What short-term and long-term effects did the documenta have on the Athens art and culture scene?
I consider that Documenta had a short, but also a very long-term, impact on the Athenian cultural scene that we are only starting to comprehend and evaluate in an objective way. It was a “change of paradigm” and irrespectively of what anyone thinks, Documenta has shaken our thinking about culture in Athens. The main criticism was the non-involvement of the local art scene (artists and curators); however, we know that even the Athens Biennial doesn’t involve the local art scene in its entirety, even with the budget restrictions that Documenta did not have. Contemporary art is all about “face control” and “non-inclusivity” despite the various manifestos, or isn’t it?
I had the honor of working with Paul B. Preciado for the public program of Documenta, one of the most inclusive programs of Documenta that took place throughout the year and many months before the opening. In the birthplace of democracy, a parliament of bodies was founded — women, slaves and Others were all admitted and were given a plinth in Paul’s post–dictatorial parliament of discourse.
We could not presume that Documenta would take the role of the Ministry of Culture and that the team would involve the local art scene. As they claimed they were interested in the fragments of (h)istory and in the process of “(Un)learning.” The Documenta Greek team had perhaps the responsibility of informing the Documenta curators about the processes and feedback of the local scene, but they had more administrative roles; and in hindsight, we can focus on the “change of paradigm” that occurred and not on the “failures” of the initiative. Documenta was after all a continuation of the aspirations and achievements of the Athens Biennial, and its after-effect is that the Athenian scene can now be more self-confident as a member of the global network of art, even if it is called the “global south”…
You also directed an art residency with EU funding in 2013, in the context of the financial crisis. How did the crisis change life in Athens, and especially its creative scene?
I am writing in the midst of a pandemic and the financial crisis that overwhelmed the Greek citizens for more than 10 years of austerity is starting to fade in front of this global threat. The crisis had a tremendous impact on my generation, and I am not certain whether it helped Greek artists to articulate a coherent aesthetic response or a movement. This is the reason that certain artists and curators felt that Documenta in a way imposed a discourse on their experience; a discourse that had post-colonial characteristics. It seems that we tried to hold responsible Documenta for our incapacity to articulate our own aesthetic discourse that other countries of the “global south” had managed to formulate, whether with the help of the art market or with the support of the State…
During the crisis in 2013, I had the opportunity to direct the first EU funded art residency under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture. My non-profit initiatives from 2009 hadn’t received any state support and I had taken the risk with a loan for an arts and environmental initiative entitled “Eleventh Plateau” in the island of Hydra. Thus, the residency provided a kind of a safety net of almost less-than-the-minimum wage for the two years I stayed in Athens, and then I had to leave due to lack of resources and academic career development. During my directorship, I curated and commissioned various projects, including Martin Creed’s “Like Water at a Buffet,” which first presented the neon sculpture “UNDERSTANDING”, and Santiago Sierra’s “Athens Stray Dogs Project,” as well as solo shows by Lynda Benglis, Mat Chivers, Tim Shaw RA, Marie Voignier, Miriam Simun and Joo Yeon Park. I also collaborated with Marina Abramovic for the production of “Seven Deaths” and introduced Marina to a school friend who became the director of her institute “MAI”; that introduction led to the MAI — NEON Foundation collaboration at the Benaki Museum.
The most inspiring project I produced at the residency, that almost got me arrested, was Santiago Sierra’s stray dog project for which I had to dress dogs with t-shirts that said “I have No Money” in Greek. Santiago has a great capacity of choreographing actions by being present and absent at the same time. Dogs and cynics seem not to require money and the artist’s literal statement became not only the message but a call for action.
How has the art scene in Greece evolved, and what characterizes it especially? Has it become more international, or is it more intimate and family-like?
Certain skeptical responses to Documenta revealed a provincial phobia of opening to the new that is based on a fortification of imaginary privileges. I consider that the art scene in Greece has matured abruptly since 2017 with many initiatives and a younger generation of emancipated artists and cultural entrepreneurs, who are in dialogue with the international scene and don’t depend only on the local exchange and dialogue. It also brought a lot of foreign art professionals with real love for Greece who have started cultural initiatives with great intentions and vision. The eternal return of the crisis with the current financial pandemic will have to test once more our alertness and resilience.
Are there special neighborhoods in Athens which could be described as an art hub?
Kypseli (beehive in Greek), the neighborhood where I grew up and my mother still lives, is now claiming its gracious urban past with cultural initiatives like the reclaiming of the old Kypseli market as an art hub. This initiative has similar characteristics to the reclaiming of the old Patission Fix factory in 1994, but seems more sustainable. Adding to this, Kypseli has gathered very creative artists like Antonakis Christodoulou and Ralou Panagiotou, who launched the “Kypseli” fanzine a couple of years ago, and Angelo Plessas, who opened recently the art space the “Pet.” In the past, open occupied spaces like “Villa Amalias” and “Ano Kato Patission” were also hosting art interventions and situations in Kypseli and Victoria.
For Documenta, Rick Lowe and the visual artist and professor Maria Papadimitriou launched the “Victoria Square Project,” one of the most impactful Documenta projects, that attempted to provide alternatives to the recent racist phenomena in the old neighborhood of Victoria. Prior to these initiatives, it was “Gazon Rouge” gallery that opened an exhibition space at the residence of modernist architect Proveleggios as well the “Apartment Gallery” and “Salon de Vortex” that had moved to Kypseli expecting the birth of a cultural movement. The artist Panos Charalambous also presented one of his best shows in Kypseli at the Proveleggios residence. Kypseli has always been a very important hub for contemporary theater hosting “west-end” and fringe performances but also “avant-garde” directors like Lefteris Vogiatzis (Cyclades theater) and Kefalinias theater that focused on a continental repertoire.
On the borderline of the Acropolis, Koukaki and Petralona are developing into art hubs; Rowena Hughes and Athanassios Argianas founded in Petralona the artist run studio “Daedalus Street” featuring outstanding projects and focusing on artists’ editions, a short distance away from “Eleni Koronaiou,” a gallery with a very engaging program of local and international artists; and curator Iliana Fokianaki opened in 2013 the non for profit institution “State of Concept” showcasing global artists with a sociopolitical edge next to the “International Fine Arts Consortium” by the American Lee Wells that has an agenda of connecting the American with the local alternative scene. “Float” was also a very good initiative by younger gallerist Chloe Athanasopoulou.
The Acropolis Museum designed by Bernard Tschumi, the Onassis Stegi with the new critical research program “Onassis AiR,” directed by Ash Bulayev, and the new Niarchos Greek National Opera and Library SNFCC, designed by Renzo Piano, form a great city center cultural triangle that can embrace these independent art initiatives, instead of overshadowing them.
Maria Papadimitriou was one of the first to open an art space in the industrial area of Votanikos entitled “Suzy Tros,” followed by “Space52” and the non-profit “Locus Athens” which has staged a series of excellent interventions in Athens over the years recently acquired a permanent space in the area of Tavros. In all likelihood, Piraeus, the port next to Tavros, will also develop into an exciting art hub with the new “Rodeo Gallery,” “Intermission Gallery,” “Polyeco Art Initiative” and the future opening of the Museum of Underwater Antiquities. The mainstream Kolonaki features interesting new galleries like Eleftheria Tseliou, CAN Gallery, Elika, Nitra and the older Zoumboulakis and Kalfayan galleries. Finally, Exarcheia, Omonoia, Psirri, Monastiraki are classic central Athens neighborhoods with initiatives like “Hyle,” “Hot Wheels,” “Aetopoulos,” “Cheapart,” “3 137” and a new space by a Greek-Chinese curator “Phoenix Athens.” Last but not least the historic areas of Kerameikos, Metaxourgeio and Gazi will at some stage reclaim their potential to be art hubs again following the excitement of and mid 2000s with venues such as “Atopos CVC,” “Latraac Skate,” “Ε. Δ. Ω” and the new Athens Museum of Queer Arts (AMOQA) that represents the burgeoning LGBTQ cultural scene of Athens.
You moved to the USA in 2015, working with Raymond Pettibon and teaching. Has your view on Greece and Athens changed, now that you view it from a distance, and in comparison to art in the US?
I left Athens in 1996 when I was 18 to study art and philosophy and stayed in London for 17 years. I never lost contact with Greece, however, and especially with the Athenian gradual cultural development. I moved to New York in 2015 to work for Performa Biennial and to teach as NYU and indeed my views have changed. Especially, working with RoseLee Goldberg and Raymond Pettibon and collaborating with the galleries that represent the artist like David Zwirner, Regen Projects, Sadie Coles and CFA Gallery in Berlin. In November I had the privilege of producing and devising a project on Pettibon’s scripts at the New Museum for the Performa biennial consortium that I am also proposing at the Getty Institute in LA. In a way I have been developing in Europe a program similar to Performa biennial and I had collaborated with American based artists such as Lynda Benglis and Marina Abramovic, but it is so different to live and work in a country like the US and to understand the real cultural processes. Nevertheless, I am always interested in the cultural exchange between the Greek contemporary scene and the international scene, thus I am on the board of ARCAthens.org (a new artist residency) and I am launching in 2021 with a team of colleagues a new platform entitled “Greece in USA” (http://www.greeceinusa.com) that aims to challenge existing stereotypes and preconceived ideas about Greece and its culture. It will take the form of a small Performa biennial with New York cultural partners and with a notable advisory board that will be announced soon.
Which places would you recommend to a weekend traveler to Athens interested in museums and galleries? What are the must-sees, and what are the well-kept secrets?
Plato’s academy, Benaki Museum (all annexes, but also the Kriezotou st annex), Cycladic Art Museum, National Archaeological Museum, Epigraphical Museum, Kerameikos Archaelogical Museum, the First Cemetery, the Historical Archives of the National Bank at Triti Septemvriou st and the Athens Fine Art School. “Radio Athenes” is a very interesting non-profit space in one of the most beautiful streets of central Athens, Petraki street. I have also mentioned previously other cultural venues that I consider must-sees.
Sozita Goudouna is a curator, professor, and the author of Beckett’s Breath: Anti-theatricality and the Visual Arts (2018), published by Edinburgh University Press. She is head of operations at Raymond Pettibon Studio and in 2020 she founded the platform “Greece in USA.” Sozita holds a PhD from the University of London and has taught at various universities and at New York University as the inaugural Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial fellow at Performa NY. She has curated projects for the New Museum, documenta 14, Onassis Foundation NYC, EMST among other institutions and museums. She was a consultant at Zaha Hadid Architects and has served on the board of directors at AICA Hellas International Association of Art Critics.