18 March 2012: guided tour of the exhibition “Composition-Construction-Production” at The State Museum with the curators Theodore Markoglou and Angeliki Charistou
Conceived before the last edition of the Thessaloniki Biennale, which garnered part of its critical acclaim on account of The State Museum’s novel juxtaposition of contemporary artworks with pieces drawn from the Costakis Collection, the exhibition “Composition–Construction–Production. The Russian Avant-Garde and Contemporary Art” is the first show to explore this seminal collection’s “dynamic influence” on a younger generation of local artists and designers. As the curators Theodore Markoglou and Angeliki Charistou explained in their guided tour, the project began with a workshop that gave selected artists and designers – whose practice already shared certain affinities with this historical movement – the opportunity to learn more about the collection through seminars, lectures, visits as well as a privileged tour of the vaults. Following the workshop, participants were asked to produce new work to be exhibited alongside selected pieces from the collection, as well as existing works by a handful of contemporary Greek artists who have engaged with these historical pieces.
From the onset, one of the first questions asked during the tour regarded the selection of participants for the workshop. Some of the visitors noted the absence of a few artists and designers – including Kostis Velonis, whose internationally renowned work overtly references the Russian avant-garde – which prompted queries as to the curator’s unexpected choice of participants, given the commonplace tendency to recycle predictable names from one project to the next. Theodore and Angeliki clarified that their selection was not motivated by a desire to deliberately include less visible but no less significant emerging artists and designers from Thessaloniki – as other local curators and artists have tended to do of late in reaction to a perceived monopoly by Athens of the resources allocated for the arts. They simply invited artists and designers in whom they saw potential with regards to the project’s brief.
Walking through the show, the curators explained how they organized the exhibition according to three terms of particular significance for the Russian avant-garde: composition, construction, production. In keeping with this idea, they deliberately chose to include lesser-known and more experimental works from the collection – namely, studies and sketches – to avoid, on the one hand, overshadowing the new works by including famous masterpieces; but also, more importantly, to emphasize the experimental side of studio practice.
In this regard, perhaps the most interesting aspect of our visit and conversation with the curators came about through our discussion of the pieces that resulted from the workshop. When asked if anything had surprised them at the outcome of the project, the curators answered that they had anticipated a much less “artistic” response to the brief. Although the majority of participants came from a design background, most of them created finished artistic installations that focused much more on the aesthetics, than on the ideological and political aspects of the works in the collection.
Of course, this might have been due to the fact that they were aware that their works would be shown in the context of the museum and enter into its permanent collection. It might also have been connected to the knowledge that most Russian avant-garde artists worked for the communist regime, thus perhaps calling into question, for some, the ideological and political dimension of their work. Alternatively, as one person suggested, this response to the workshop might also have resulted from a misguided but nonetheless widespread misconception that politically engaged art today must necessarily pass through a participatory intervention in the public sphere. Or perhaps, more significantly, given the current economic and political crisis in Greece, participants might have been particularly careful and inherently weary of claiming such ground for their work. Regardless of the reasons, the workshop and the exhibition’s attempt to further examine the possible influence of an important art collection on local culture as well as the significance of revisiting historical works today cut across to a number of urgent issues beyond the immediate scope of the collection, which we hope will lead to subsequent editions of the project in the near future.
We wish to thank Theodore Markoglou and Angeliki Charistou for generously agreeing to give us a private guided tour of their exhibition, especially on such a beautiful Sunday afternoon.