THESSALONIKI, GREECE 09.26.11
“YOU GET A STRANGE IMPRESSION of a city when you arrive and everything is closed because it’s Sunday,” mused Sueyun Locks, art patron and owner of the Locks Gallery in Philadelphia. A parade of shuttered storefronts on the streets of Thessaloniki passed by the windows of a shuttle bus bringing Locks and a half dozen other people to the opening of the city’s third biennial on September 18. “Due to the crisis, everything will be closed on Monday as well. Just so you don’t have the wrong impression,” said Margarita Pournara, a tough-nosed critic from an Athens newspaper, an edge of steely humor in her voice.
The weight of the Greek debt crisis looms over this edition of the biennial like a boulder. According to a local paper, Thessaloniki’s State Museum of Contemporary Art, which has been organizing the event since it began in 2007, had received less than 2 percent of its one-million-euro budget as of September 1. On Saturday, after the Greek government passed another round of austerity measures, almost everyone in the city went on strike, “including the police,” said Melina Melikidou, who had been hired by the museum as a secretary on a temporary contract but was doing, by my estimation, three higher-level jobs for the biennial at once. On Friday, a small-business owner in his fifties, up to his eyeballs in loan payments, doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire on a sidewalk in front of a Thessaloniki bank. (He survived, as did his debt.) Suicide rates in Greece have doubled since the crisis began.
To stage an ambitious, expansive, over-the-top biennial in such circumstances—twelve venues for the main exhibition, six shows for the parallel program, a performance festival, a symposium, and an international workshop for young and emerging artists—seems incongruous at best. But the curators Paolo Colombo, Mahita El Bacha Urieta, and Marina Fokidis did their best to double back on the crisis, embracing it as a core concern and placing it amid a confluence of current events, including the recent uprisings in the Arab world and Palestine’s bid for statehood at the United Nations. “This is a crisis that is affecting the whole world,” said Fokidis. “It may be more extreme in Greece, but it’s becoming the new normal everywhere.”
Aptly titled “A Rock and a Hard Place,” the main program of the current biennial lends substance to the idea of being stuck by taking the city itself as a metaphor, and delving into its history, memory, and lived experience. The fact that the biennial is part of a wider initiative exploring Thessaloniki’s links to the broader Mediterranean region and Middle East accounts for the heavy participation of artists from (and artworks about) the Arab world.
“Thessaloniki has always been a crossroads, but it’s been underestimated how powerful this cultural element can be,” said Yuli Karatsiki, who manages the Athens branch of the Kalfayan Galleries. The brothers Arsen and Roupen Kalfayan opened their first gallery in Thessaloniki in 1997. The space in Athens followed three years later. They are one of the few Greek galleries to work seriously with Arab and Middle Eastern artists, and as Arsen tells it, they’ve been chipping away at Thessaloniki’s culture brokers, urging them to look not only to Europe but also to regions east and south. “As Armenians, our past is all over the Middle East,” he said. “But the Greeks, too, are all over Egypt, Syria, Lebanon. In terms of mentality, we are not very far. In fact, we are very close.”
Assigned to the bus—that irritating accessory of the archetypal press tour—our group had little time to linger on cultural differences. On Sunday afternoon, we hit the exhibitions at Casa Bianca (an elaborate old mansion typical of Thessaloniki’s early-twentieth-century urban elite), where Colombo had assembled a quiet show of art inspired by literature, and Yeni Djami (an architectural amalgamation of a mosque originally built for converted Jews), where El Bacha Urieta had placed new commissions by Mounira Al Solh, Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen, and NaoKo TakaHashi alongside older works by Marwan Sahmarani and Moataz Nasr.
Next up was the Eptapyrgio, a chillingly intact Ottoman prison, used as a torture chamber through the 1970s by the Greek military junta. A sculpture by Vlassis Caniaris seemed to keep watch from a high tower as we scampered into a courtyard to hear Olaf Nicolai’s mesmerizing Escalier du Chant. Adapted for Thessaloniki from an ongoing project at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, Escalier du Chant is, to date, a collection of fifty songs written by twelve contemporary composers in response to current political events. “Some are abstract,” said Nicolai, “some are extremely concrete.” A soprano stepped into the prison yard to perform “The Ballad of Bradley Manning,” a fitful, scatlike piece by Elliott Sharp that shuddered through her body like a seizure.
Later that evening, at the State Museum, where the biennial was beautifully woven into George Costakis’s extraordinary collection of Russian avant-garde art, three women began looping slow circles around an exhibition gallery, following the movements of listless viewers while singing another piece from Escalier du Chant, Mika Vainio’s plaintive and mournful “Purex.” In a biennial that felt both urgent and enervating, scattershot and shambolic, those three voices, sounding out clear, sorrowful notes according to rhythms that never quite coalesced, cut through the chaff and chatter of the event.
But by then the bus was waiting, and so off we went to another decommissioned mosque, Alatza Imaret, where I flopped down on a plush couch with a brood of small children to watch Ryan Trecartin’s grating video I-Be Area. Trecartin seemed entirely age-appropriate for the audience. Penelope Georgiou’s Petunia, screening in the room next door, with its grainy black-and-white sequence of a rollicking threesome, rather less. The kids giggled and guffawed and elbowed each other in the ribs until a name-tagged biennial volunteer came in, uttered a few sharp words in Greek, and marched them back to their parents. The night wound down with everyone splayed out on a carpeted platform by Slavs and Tatars, flipping through the group’s reissue of the magazine Molla Nasreddin and fiddling with their HELP THE MILITIA—BEAT YOURSELF UP wristbands.
On Monday, I ditched the bus to visit the Museum of Photography and the Contemporary Art Center, both located in warehouses in Thessaloniki’s port, which is currently enlivened by Angelo Plessas’s Wi-Fi hot spot as public sculpture, Monument to Internet Hookups. When I caught up with Plessas later, at the Teloglion Foundation of Art, he introduced me to Andreas Angelidakis, who did all of the sensitive architectural incisions into the biennial’s historically heavy venues. “He’s my boyfriend!” Plessas declared. “We live together in Athens. We met online! That’s why I did the piece.” Endearing to know there’s still love in the ruins of financial collapse.
On that note, we bussed it over to the Archaeological Museum, where Fokidis was introducing the curator Chus Martinez, who in turn was introducing Documenta 13’s ongoing notebook project. Martinez gave a fiercely articulate talk on Borges and the logic of inquiry, enigma, and fulfillment, and then addressed the state of perennial exhibitions in the present. “We are in a totally different situation now. The world is in some kind of revolution. We want a solution and we want to get out. These are not questions anymore. These are fucking problems. We want fulfillment now. We don’t want to be in crisis. We don’t want to be in collapse.” And with that, I left, a song still ringing in my ears.