Athens Biennale, the crisis as art

In a country destabilised by the crisis, the 3rd Athens Biennale contemporary art festival has been largely overlooked. However, a Swedish journalist argues that the exhibition offers an opportunity to appreciate the urgency of the moment.

Published on 28 November 2011 at 14:30

Hundreds of Athenians huddling together against the autumnal cold while waiting for their turn in the soup kitchen. I stand there observing this poverty probably a bit longer than someone who is well brought-up, until a man hurling abuse indicates that I should get lost.

We were only a few hundred yards away from Monodrome the Athens international biennale: a name that roughly translates as dead end. The exhibition is supposed to be a commentary on the Greek crisis, but I leave it with the troubling feeling that the works on show also have a lot to say about the general state of the European project.

The Biennale has been set up in a symbolic location: an abandoned school in one of the city’s must rundown neighbourhoods. It is an imposing 1930s building that has been left to go to seed. Paint is peeling off the walls, which are still covered with graffiti scrawled by students.

The audio track of an installation showing crowds chanting slogans re-echoes from one of the upstairs rooms. In one corner, marble sculptures representing deformed boxes have been set out to look like forgotten packaging. In another room, a TV is showing end-to-end clips of Greek sporting victories and cheering crowds.

Funding for cultural life has dried up

Neither the artists nor the curators are being paid for their work. The day-to-day running of the biennale is managed by volunteers. There was no point in looking for sponsors. Funding such a “futile” event would in all likelihood have been deemed obscene at a time when Greece is about to implode.

What seemed abstract when viewed from an solid country like Sweden — the anti-austerity demonstrations in Syntagma Square, the pride of the Greek people who refuse to thank the European Union bogeymen for their bailout — is easier to understand once you are in the country.

Monodrome is contiguous with urban destitution to the point where the exhibition is perhaps, of all the shows I have visited, the one that is most in tune with its era, and the one that most reflects a sense of urgency; although it does not feature any big names in contemporary art and offers not commercial potential, but perhaps this is why it is so effective.

It is impressive to see such a project succeed at a time when funding for Greek cultural life has dried up, or even completely disappeared. In some case, the salaries of culture professionals have not been paid since the summer. At the same time, most of the funding for university research has been frozen.

Greeks’ pride in their history

However, the torments of the European financial sector have not aroused the passionate interest of intellectuals. Where were they when everyone was jumping ship and Europe had run out of steam? recently wondered Thomas Assheuer. The cultural journalist for Die Zeit deplored the Germano-centricity of the national debate and asked if “Europe” was merely a politically correct term that few people take seriously.

In Athens, where I met all kinds of people — teachers, students, and opera singers… — classical philology professor Dimitrios Karadimas told me that university salaries had melted away, on occasion by as much as 40%.

He remembers the crisis of the 1990s, which happened when he was preparing his doctoral thesis in Lund [in southern Sweden], and politely points out that Greece is not the only country to have experienced problems. He also remarks on the current general trend in Europe, which is to highlight the differences between peoples.

And Greeks’ pride in their history only serves to exacerbate the situation. “People are unable to understand. What happened? We are not even capable of managing and regulating our own country. I hope that now, people will decided to work together so that we can get out of this rut.”

The tragedy of Antigone

In Athens, I am reminded of the Greek film Dogtooth: the surreal, and award winning, story of two parents who kept their children cloistered their entire life to protect them from the outside world.

The incongruous idea of a fatal danger outside – man-eating cats – can be interpreted as a critique of the nuclear family which lives cut-off from the rest of the world, or as an allegory about Greek society, which has ceased to develop and is increasingly withdrawn.

In front of the parliament building, demonstrators from a communist organisation and students from all over Greece set fire to a European flag. A future engineer, who is originally from Crete, tells me almost proudly that she expects to be unemployed once she graduates, but that she has no intention fleeing the country: she wants to stay and fight. Nearby, a street sweeper picks up the smoking remnants of the burned flag.

I ask Dimitrios Karadimas, the philologist specialised in the history and the literature of antiquity, to which Greek play he would compare with the current situation. “To Antigone, the Sophocles play,” he replies after a moment of reflection. “The struggle between the old and the new world.”

A classically trained scholar, he knows the play by heart. But the outcome of the many twists and turns of the saga the country is living in today’s Europe is much less certain — the suspense is total.

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