FIRST ATHENS BIENNALE, DESTROY ATHENS, 2007
This is an excerpt of a declaration written on November 18, 1944, just a month after the end of the German occupation of Greece, which was quite characteristic of the Greek condition and not irrelevant at all to the title of the first Athens biennial, Destroy Athens (2007). As early as 1944, the artist, poet and writer Yorgos Makris wrote a manifest for the “blowing up of the Parthenon”—an act that did not derive from an anti-Greek spirit but rather from the desire for immediate acknowledgement of a Greek youth culture that needed to differentiate itself from a system of bipolar relations that involved the Parthenon as the ideological emblem of all sides.
The Parthenon was the primary symbol for the reconstitution of Greece, suffering the effects of poverty and war, and a focus for national morale. It also symbolized the development of the tourism industry, whilst serving as a solid excuse for all the iniquities that had been accumulating in its shadow. Suggesting the destruction of one of Greece’s most important and treasured historic sites seemed like a completely non-patriotic, immoral and transgressive gesture; however, it captured the interest of several marginal intellectuals who most probably found in it a refuge from the tyranny of history and the absolutism of various ideologies. It was neither a manifest nor a set of guidelines for a violent act, but more of an artistic / performative text signaling a desire for the liberation of sacred archetypes that could easily be—and were—abused so as to serve conflicting purposes and propagandas. Makris and his team seemed to be against the void-like admiration and the emotionally sterile confrontation of an historic monument—while the political, social and aesthetic destruction of Athens could take place uninterrupted at its feet, yet not seem to touch the Parthenon itself. This proclamation was more of an urgent call for genuine action by the living, or even an accusation of society; it did not, in any sense, urge the actual destruction of the Parthenon.
... Sharing as we do the aesthetic and philosophical view of destruction and the mortality of the form of beings that are part of the context of life’s consummation;
Being determined to destroy the Parthenon with the ultimate aim of surrendering it to true eternity, i.e. the unconscious and latent potential of the automatic transmutation of matter which we misguidedly call a “loss”;
Detesting the temporal and historical entrenchment of the Acropolis as something unheard of and foreign to life;
Hating National Tourism and the nightmarish folkloric literature around it;
Believing that we are committing an artistically superior act and convinced not only that none of this false and laughable survival can be compared—even if it is found to be lacking—with a single minute of energetic action and pleasure, and that it is actually artistically harmful in that it fosters amateur tourists and eunuchs;
WE HAVE DECIDED
To set as our aim the blowing up of ancient monuments and the promotion of propaganda against them.
Our first act of destruction shall be the Parthenon, which is literally suffocating us.
This proclamation only aims to provide some sense of our purpose. It is a missile that begins with a few targets to reach more, but only seeks to gain a few adherents.
Yorgos Vassiliou Makris
Chief Organizer, UASA (Union of Aesthetic Saboteurs of Antiquities), November 1944
“The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work among them”, argues Arthur Danto in his famous work, After the End of Art.1 One way or another, a declaration that was as such articulated and distributed in that particular period of time, was a really “new idea” (at least in Greece, since the concept of shattering was already discussed extensively in Europe) and was setting up a challenging perspective for issues of “Hellenic identity”. Destroy Athens, which many years later in 2007 became a title for the first Athens Biennial, perhaps emerged of the same urge, but was since used as a successful marketing magnet for a contemporary art exhibition. It was intended to shake the conditions of the art scene at the time. The exhibition undoubtedly encompassed the energy of Athens as a city in a constant flux of unsystematic metamorphosis, however, it did not involve a debate that foresaw or even implied Greece’s current state.
Originally initiated as a bluff by the up-and-coming curator Xenia Kalpaktsoglou, the young critic Augustine Zenakos, and artist Poka-Yio, Destroy Athens ended up being a well-orchestrated and strong international biennial that not only attracted international funding support, but 40 000 people in addition to art world attention on the city of Athens. While up to then there had been a yearly (and fruitless) debate over a state biennial in Greece—by the circles of the Ministry of Culture and the official state museums—this particular Biennial was announced, rather courageously, by its founders as an official institution at a time where they had neither secured even a small percentage of funding nor an organizational infrastructure to back them up. There was a big chance that there would not be any future to the announcement, even if it sounded very “proper”. But they took it. Ultimately, the exhibition managed to “hijack” the Greek cultural policy. This was actually its most successful instant, and it also, as its title expresses in a way, destroyed the “old regime”. It has been running strong for four years since.
Funding for the exhibition was mainly provided by Deutsche Bank, and the audience numbers were beyond any kind of expectation. Under a very specific narrative (which was quite apparent in the curatorial stance but perhaps less so in the selected works) based on the notion of conflict, dead ends, violence, and cruelty, a spectrum of interesting works and artists—quite trendy for the period—were gathered. A long and sober corridor-like route permitted only one entry to the spectacle. Following the biblical reference of the Genesis creation, the seven days that God needed to create the universe, the biennial was separated into seven “episodes”. In that sense the interplay between the “creation” of a show on taboos or the hidden scope of life which bares the barbarous rawness of humanity and the symbolic destruction of Athens seemed to have been a given. Some works were very justified in that context, others less so. Notable was a large mural by the artist Stelios Faitakis that depicted an illusionary magma of philosopher Socrates’s days and current Greek protest and riots, in his own style (a combination of Byzantine iconography and manga cartoon influences). On top of the mural hung a small painting by Pablo Picasso that depicted the Parthenon. The painting is a historical one for Greece, since Picasso made it to raise money for the liberation of Manolis Glezos, who together with Apostolos Santas on May 30, 1941, climbed on the Acropolis and tore down the swastika which had been there since April 27, 1941, when the Nazi forces had entered Athens.
“Every practice brings a territory into existence… one that superimposes its own geography over the state cartography, scrambling and blurring it: it produces its own secession,” argues the Invisible Committee in the book The Coming Insurrection. They continue, “Current history might be about false communities and calculated absences; however, art as a kind of magic operation always offers an exodus from the rigid reality to a more ‘invented’ one. Often it not only captures an actual time and place, but also predicts and even influences the future. The Greek crisis confronts us as a harsh reality that is here to stay; a difficult episode of an unknown duration, during which we all have to learn to survive as best as possible. We must learn to find our balance in this new environment.”2
The mass media has been quick to make a brand out of something called the “Greek crisis”, with the paradoxical goal of triggering consumerism. Only a few advertisements in Greece do not refer to the economic crisis or do things such as ask people to buy more products for cheaper prices. And then, of course, the crisis appears all the time as a subject in contemporary theater, music, and visual production. “Crisis” is an easy tag for everything as long as there is no need for serious thinking.
This is immoral.
In a country where people oscillate between despair, lack of resources, uncertainty, turbulence, anomie, disbelief, corruption, and chaos, adopting an imaginative distance from daily events can sometimes, perhaps, be more effective than any other gestural form of destruction. Thus arts professionals of any and all kinds can act as constructive agents of historical change. History, after all, evolves in loops, and artistic expression always reacts to fundamental philosophical and scientific changes or alterations in political and social structures, by offering an apparatus of departure from everyday reality toward the “imaginary”.
For everyone in Greece, or elsewhere, one of the first issues should be preventing the current crisis from being branded in the wrong way. Our biggest responsibility during these times is to think with deepest precision, to think of causes and possibilities, to analyze facts, to open up a constructive environment for knowledge, even amidst the difficult context produced by the real restrictions imposed upon us by the crisis. Greeks are confused by the extent of the looting, arson and general pillaging that happen in front of the camera, while at the same time they realize that capitalism as a system is based on the violence of exclusion and the obedience obtained by violence. “Who are really behind the balaclavas?” asks the young student demonstrator Maria Virgioti. “They may be angry unemployed or redundant people, destitute immigrants, or desperate students who are destroying the source of their oppression.”3
Art has not the right to decide for all. It is maybe wiser to question.
With my co-curators Paolo Colombo and Mahita El Bacha Urieta at the Thessaloniki Biennial (2011), for example, we wanted to avoid pseudo-political gestures, false or incomplete documentation, and pseudo activism—trends we tend to see a lot of in the art world (and have been seeing for some years now, actually). We focused more on works that spoke of current conditions, but through the properties of art itself in a quite elusive manner of storytelling. Art is connected to illusion, after all. This may be where its main political power lies. The works we included reflect the human condition and its fragile nature, in many different senses and through many different pathways and stories. Our aim was to open up ways to think not just about the crisis, but beyond the crisis. Our idea was to try and sculpt a mindscape that would encompass some of the past and the present, politics and sentiment by looking for an organic rapport between the works and the historical buildings of the city—be it philosophical, cultural, or architectural in nature. We came up with various episodes belonging to an overarching narrative which was inspired by either the past, or the present contributions of these buildings to the social life of the city and to its political underbelly.
With this in mind, we made use of some of the city’s remaining monuments from different eras for the exhibition site. Old Ottoman mosques, a Turkish bath, an old Ottoman prison in Thessaloniki that was active up until the 1980s, the bourgeois villa of an Italian inhabitant during the Second World War—all became part of the Biennial, though neither for a historical nor a nostalgic staging. The intention was to let the audience stroll around the city, grasping an essence of both the past and the present, which encompass the socio-economical conflicts, chasms and questions that have brought the world to its so-called universally modern state. The risk that viewers may not experience all the venues, which were quite spread out, was taken into account. Yet an important aspect of the Biennial was the audience’s potential to get lost along the way. Navigation of the space and time between A Rock and Hard Place (which was the title of the exhibition) involved peregrinating a precarious route between hope and despair, violence and peace, loss and memory, redemption and order that would perhaps paradoxically (and symbolically) lead to a productive outcome, one full of possibility and hope: the elusive power of artistic expression and freedom in themselves.
It is strange to think that in a country like Greece, personalities such as Yorgos Makris and many of his fellow artists, writers and poets have never managed to find their place into official history. Free spirits, anti-heroes, arts illusionists, independent beings and their acts have all been seamlessly forgotten. We came across Makris for the first time not through a literary encyclopedia but through a book by Manolis Daloukas, dedicated to youth culture and which chronicles rock ’n’ roll in Greece from 1945 to 1990. Yet what ultimately weakens the record of Greek “revolutionary” gestures is that it neglects the role of culture and imagination within society.In hindsight, a dynamic transition could have taken place. This was the condition we wanted to explore, especially given the context of truculence and uprisings. Creating an alternative reality, which nevertheless does not feel out of time and place, but on the contrary, is part of the geographical context and its present, was the main task. And this was possible only through the appreciation of art as a “radical illusion” from this world.
Each episode was triggered from the present or past use of each monument but did not consist of a re-staging of any sort. For example the old hammam became a space for gathering information, a foyer for exchange and discussion as old public baths used to be, and hosted archival material by artists and collectives such as Arab Image Foundation, Cinémathèque de Tanger, Prism TV, 99 Weeks Archive, Zeina Maasri, and The Archive, among others. In the same sense, and still haunted by the voices of political prisoners of the latest junta in Greece, in the prison was a piece by the late Vlassis Caniaris, whose work was a flag of resistance during that difficult time, yet also still alluded to migrants and displaced individuals. The treatment was equal with the rest of the historical spaces (Yeni Djami, Casa Bianca, Alatza Imaret) and the museums (The Archaelogical and the State Museum of Contemporary Art above all, where contemporary works coincided with classical ancient Greek treasures and pieces from the most important Russian Constructivist collection in Europe respectively). Such subtle juxtapositions, in some places more apparent than in others, worked quite effectively and rather unconsciously to awaken viewers’s emotions and thoughts beyond the usual (first degree meanings). In the end, what turned out to be less successful to the overall narrative was the use of multiple exhibition venues—apart from the monuments—venues that were more attached to contemporary and modern art. The institutions were used because the organization had stipulated it so, and despite the fact that many important works were installed there, they sometimes turned attention away from the prevailing mood of various coexistences.
No one wants to destroy anything, yet in the same respect, one wants to have the choice of what to remember, what to forget, what to preserve or what to destroy.
- 1. Arthur C. Danto, After the End of Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998) 165.
- 2. The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection English translation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press Intervention Series distributed for Semiotext(e), 2009) 109.
- 3. South Magazine 1 (Dyo Deka Ekdotiki SA, A collaboration of LIFO free press and Kunsthalle Athena), (June 2012) 10.