Continuing our tour to the 3rd Thessaloniki Biennale exhibitions, we visited the exhibition curated by Marina Fokidis at Alatza Imaret. As Colombo and Urieta did, Fokidis also used the building’s history as a starting point for the exhibition. Alatza Imaret stands for “the colorful soup-kitchen” (“soup-kitchen” referring to the public soup-kitchen, often part of mosques in the Ottoman empire, and “colorful” due to the mosque’s particularly colorful minaret – sadly not preserved). Fokidis used this history as a loose framework for a selection of works that aim at manifesting art’s “colorfulness” – which according to the catalogue essay stands for its ability to offer possibilities for alternative realities. The main space of the monument is occupied by a platform, approximately 1 meter high, designed by architect Andreas Angelidakis who designed the exhibition environment for all the main program exhibitions. Climbing the steps that lead on the platform, the viewer encounters one of the exhibition’s most interesting works: the publication “Molla Nasreddin” by Slavs and Tartars, containing a collection of caricatures from the satiric periodical that used to circulate in the Arab world in early 20th century. Two copies of the book are placed on two lecterns, in turn placed on a low platform covered by a carpet. The installation is an obvious reference to the environment of a Mosque – doubly highlighted here since the space used to be one. The sacred scriptures though, are substituted here by the highly satirical publication, while the double elevation of the installation (the lecterns on top of the carpeted podium on top of the 1m high platform) reinforces the play.
On the other end of the platform, another eye-catching work: a series of framed spider webs stuck on paper of various colors by Pae White and in a separate room, the intriguing 1980 film “Petunia” by Austrian based Greek artist Penelope Georgiou. Even though the exhibition does include some interesting works, it lacks cohesion, in the sense that the works’ engagement, one with the other or with the space, is not really visible. It succeeds however in creating a kind of colorful polyphony.
Our tour concluded in Bei Hamam, which functioned as a kind of information point – with collections of books and archives of works by artists collectives or other groups. The selection included some interesting initiatives, such as prism tv (http://theprism.tv/home3.php) – a collective documentation of Greece the winter of 2010, a series of short documentaries on Greek reality shot by a number of authors, and IkonoTV – a Berlin-based TV production company which only works with films on visual arts and in 2010 launched the art channel IkonoMenasa, running in 24 countries throughout the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. Unfortunately, the installation could not actually be described as user-friendly, since there is very little to none information for most of the material presented; a lot of it is in different languages not commonly spoken in Thessaloniki, so the viewer finds himself looking at selections of books that s/he has no idea what they are about. On top of that, the sense of labyrinth that the old hamam anyway creates, is further enhanced by the display method used, which hides most of the monument.
Which brings us to the architecture devices conceived by architect Andreas Angelidakis for the various main program exhibitions. According to his catalogue essay, Angelidakis came up with a system of fortification-reminiscent constructions, as a reference to the city’s landmark – the White Tower, and as a device that disconnects the exhibition both from the city and from the space it takes place in. More a conceptual fabrication than an actual experience, Angelidakis’ interventions have been more successful in some spaces, less successful in others. The idea found its most efficient application at the State Museum of Contemporary Art – Moni Lazariston. The former convent has always been a difficult space, with its spacious halls covered in red tiles. The stage-like platforms used in this case succeeded in breaking up the space without turning it into a white cube (which was not similarly achieved in Casa Bianca for instance), but created a space-within-the-space effect, which enhanced the dialogue between the contemporary and Russian avant-garde works featured in the exhibition.
Overall, it is obvious (and a fact) that a lot of efforts were put into the organization – time wise, money wise, personnel wise… As in all large-scale events, some spaces have been more interesting than others, some choices have been more successful than others. The main exhibition was divided into small, easy-to-manage units, so that the viewer was not overwhelmed by the concentration of a great number of works in one single space, which is often the case in similar large-scale events. At the same time though, the project seemed to lack coherence and inspiration; it did not manage to convey a vision of the world, present or future. Isn’t that what biennales are supposed to do?