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.
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