Monthly Archives: December 2011

26 November 2011 – Visit to the 3rd Thessaloniki Biennale main program exhibitions curated by Paolo Colombo (at Casa Bianca) and Mahita El Bachta Urieta (at Yeni Mosque) – guided tour by assistant curator Anna Mykoniati

Yeni Mosque

The 3rd Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art’s main exhibition titled “A rock and a hard place”, curated by Paolo Colombo, Mahita El Bachta Urieta and Marina Fokidis is installed in 12 different venues around the city. The three curators co-signed the exhibition taking place in 9 of those venues, while they decided to separately curate the exhibitions taking place in three of them: Casa Bianca, the Yeni Mosque and Alatza Imaret.

Curator Anna Mykoniati who assisted them (with Domna Gounari) was very kind to offer us a guided tour to two of these exhibitions, giving us plenty of useful information on the event and the curators’ rational. Having secured EU funding for this and the two editions to come in 2013 and 2015, the Thessaloniki Biennale is focusing on the Mediterranean area – following the funding’s prerequisite, but also the geographical focus of the previous two editions, with the 1st mainly focusing on artists from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean and the 2nd on artists coming from Latin America and Africa. However, even though the first two editions’ concepts were formulated as a reading of/dialogue with and ultimately reinterpretation of texts and concepts –the 1st one discussing Michel Foucault’s concept of “heterotopias” and the 2nd Terry Eagleton’s book “After Theory”, the 3rd edition did not really engage with a particular theoretical concept. Rather, the curators decided to address the current events unraveling in Southern Mediterranean and the Middle East –rather simplistically called the “Arab Spring”– and its ramifications. This intention acts as a loose framework for the exhibition, since the selected works do not necessarily address the issue. I am not sure if this inconsistency between the stated intention and the final outcome was deliberate, but it certainly was  fortunate for the Biennial, since more often than not, ambitious plans to tackle current political issues can backfire, if those involved are not really coming from the area in question and could mishandle the whole situation – see the Cyprus Manifesta that ended quite abruptly, before its actual launching. (Even though from the three curators Mahita Urieta is actually active in the Middle East, Fokidis and Colombo, regardless of their experience and curatorial vision, do not share the same insight in the area’s circumstances).

For his curatorial, Paolo Colombo chose Casa Bianca –an early 20th century mansion located on Vasilisis Olgas Avenue. Setting out from the fact that the building used to be the home of one of the city’s wealthiest families and referencing reading as one of the urban elite of the time’s favorite pastime, Colombo selected works that deal with literature as a source of inspiration, creating a bond between the intimate ritual of reading and the intimate process of creation. The exhibition includes an interesting selection of contemporary and modern works, among which visual art works by writers (such as a series of photographs by Andreas Embirikos), as well as sketch books by artists (such as a series of diaries by Makis Kyriakopoulos including drawings combining image and text). Central in the show is the selection of works by Alberto Savinio (1891-1952), Athens-born Italian artist, writer and musician stationed in Thessaloniki in 1917. The dialogue between modern and contemporary art works –even though as Anna Mykoniati reported received some negative criticism– is a feature that adds an interesting twist to the show and follows a rather popular trend of the latest years.

Mahita Urieta curated a rather more political show, that took place in the Yeni Mosque – built in early 20thcentury by the clan of Dönmes – Jews converted to Islam, later used to host the city’s archaeological museum. Urieta used the building’s history, first as a space for prayer and later house of the historical memory of a city/people, as an ideal backdrop for a selection of works that deal with issues such as immigration, dictatorial regimes, faith and rituals. The works are installed in the space in such a way that attributes them sobriety and presence, which is a great achievement considering the space’s elaborate  decorative elements.

Both shows were modest, not in their quality or scope, but in their actual size, and I must confess that this is quite refreshing – to see exhibitions that avoid the standard of super-ambitious large-scale exhibitions that expand in endless square meters, but do not lack in interest and essence.

Lydia

A warm thanks to Anna Mykoniati for generously devoting her Saturday morning to guide us through the exhibitions. 

For info on the 3rd Thessaloniki Biennale go to www.thessalonikibiennale.gr

What smells like teen spirit?

16 November 2011: guided tour of the exhibition “Teenage Angst – Part II” with curator Apostolos Kalfopoulos; selected readings on curator Jean Clair’s practice 

As critics and curators, we often lose sight of how telling the logistical aspects of curating a project can be with regards to the particular socio-political context in which it is realized, owing to the fact that such concerns are rarely recorded as part of the official exhibition narrative.  What remains of a project is usually what is put on display, erasing the trials and setbacks that might have drastically altered its outcome for better or for worse. In presenting “Teenage Angst” ­– a two-part exhibition project fully conceived, developed and realized in house by DYNAMO project-space as part of the parallel programme for the XVe Biennale de la Mediterranee – DYNAMO Founder and Director Apostolos Kalfopoulos reminded us of this fact by outlining some of the practical challenges that the project faced from its inception, due to the particular situation in Greece earlier this fall.

“Teenage Angst” was organized as a nation-wide open call addressed to teenagers between the ages of 15 and 18, who were invited to submit some form of production related to their personal passions. The open call was sent to schools throughout the country; but despite being funded by the General Secretariat for Youth and presented as part of an international biennial, it was met with a great deal of obstacles and suspicion from both teaching staff and students. The open call was circulated at the beginning of the fall term, at a time when the economic crisis in Greece hit the educational system so hard that there were no schoolbooks to speak of. Nominations to teaching posts were delayed, and most students were involved in nation-wide protests against reform measures. A number of peripheral educational authorities who were in post at that time refused to promote a project that was not directly sanctioned by the Education Ministry, while many students, in squatted schools that members of DYNAMO visited in order to promote the open call were met with great suspicion due to reasons ranging from the fact that students are not accustomed to such project, to the possibility that members of Dynamo could be covert police forces trying to infiltrate the squatted schools. After a great deal of exchange and discussion primarily orchestrated through social media and aimed at building trust with teachers, parents and students alike, DYNAMO managed to collect 150 applications from all around Greece.

From out of these applications, 50 were retained and later divided into two exhibitions of 25 participants each. Most of the submitted work consisted of crayon and pen drawing with the occasional video or photograph. In collaboration with the participants, DYNAMO selectively framed and installed the material in its white cube space alongside a few custom-made installations, including a blackboard, a display case filled with hand-painted Converse sneakers, and a desk covered in drawing materials and knick-knacks assembled into rainbow-colored clusters. Aside from a short wall text outlining the project’s working process, the works were accompanied by a series of open-ended lists detailing the participants’ fav bands, movies, books, etc. After the openings of Part I and Part II – the first of which featured a performance by local teenage band “Chinese Basement” – the participants attended a workshop with Thessaloniki-based artists, which provided them with tools and information to help them develop their practice.

“Teenage Angst” initially raised two fundamental questions or perhaps concerns for me, which Apostolos addressed during our exchange. The first concerned how the participants might feel about being put on display: in other words, whether they self-reflexively understood that the project was aimed at exhibiting a certain dimension of their youth culture as opposed to simply displaying their works. Based on his research, Apostolos explained that one of the characteristics of youth sub-cultures is that they construct their symbolic system consciously, but not strategically. The latter does not emerge out of a specific conceptual agenda but is nevertheless produced with absolute consistency. In this way, the critical distance between these two distinct display situations would not apply in terms of the specific object.

Which led to a second question regarding the choice of the rather conventional white cube display mechanism, that first struck me as being somewhat at odds with the subject of the exhibition, seemingly calling for a more immersive or participatory environment. As Apostolos clarified, the choice was deliberate and carefully considered. Given that the works were not the outcome of a “mature” practice, they risked inviting the public’s condescension. So rather than simply pinning them up half-hazardly as they arrived, DYNAMO strategically framed certain pieces as a means of lending a calculated authority to these works, while contributing a few choice installations as scenographic markers inciting viewers to immerse themselves in memories of their youth. According to Apostolos, the approach paid off. The public immediately connected with the exhibition and the participants along with their friends felt so at home that they hung out in the space on weekends. In this way, despite being conventionally hung, the exhibition naturally invited a more participatory response.

From there, our conversation segued into a discussion around different curatorial approaches, namely focusing on Apostolos’ own practice, informed by research-based approaches that combine various fields of inquiry from the arts, humanities and natural sciences into their exhibition projects – hence, the suggested readings around the work of renowned French curator Jean Clair (“The many colours of black bile: the melancholies of knowing and feeling” by Aris Arafianos and “Esprit de Corps” interview between Jean Clair and Lauren Sedofsky). This discussion became an opportunity for us to collectively acknowledge an unspoken local reticence to affirm a particular position or approach, driven by a fear that it might limit already scarce opportunities. In some ways, it was a startling revelation – ironically not all that different from the incapacity for self-reflection mentioned earlier, in a local scene that produces much in the absence of criticism – but also hopefully the beginning of a useful process.

We would like to thank Apostolos Kalfopoulos for his generous time and openness as well as highlight the amazing work of DYNAMO project-space