Footage of Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers played on a small vintage television in front of a large window with a stunning view of the Acropolis. This work – which was sourced from YouTube by the curators – offered a timely metaphor for Greece: it’s a country walking on a tightrope. The 3rd Athens Biennale, titled ‘MONODROME’, was produced in a state of emergency: with no private sponsors or state support, it happened thanks to a large group of volunteers, including the biennial’s curators Nicolas Bourriaud, Xenia Kalpaktsoglou and Poka-Yio. Even if the works in the exhibition – most of which were by local artists or loaned from collections in Athens – made it clear that the curators had a tight budget, this edition was probably the most relevant to contemporary Greece in the biennial’s six-year history.
The dodgy downtown area of Plateia Theatrou, a hang-out for prostitutes and drug dealers, was the location of the main biennial venue, the impressive and decaying Diplareios School, where generations of students learned various crafts catering for the need of local businesses – an ideal setting for an exhibition of about 170 art works that attempted to position local problems within a wider reality. The nature and limits of education, for example, were explored in Jean-Luc Godard and Anne Marie Meville’s apocalyptic documentary, France/tour/détour/deux/enfants, Mouvement 7: Violence/Grammaire (France/Tour/Detour/Two/Children, Movement 7: Violence/Grammar, 1979), which includes interviews with children that reveal the ways in which they have been programmed to think. Much of the work in the biennial scrutinized the formation of Greek identity and the current socio-political reality. The loaded venue, along with found objects such as the decaying school equipment and dead pigeons – which the curators chose to intersperse amongst the art works – were key factors in its narrative.
This was neither an overtly intellectual biennial nor a neutral space in which to rethink the politics of display. Rather, Greece’s current financial crisis was the leitmotif, which added relevance to older work and made much of it look fresh and contemporary. For example, Vlassis Caniaris’s Interior from 1974 – an installation which evokes an immigrant’s home – was displayed in a room with large windows overlooking the DIY interventions of migrants living in the apartment buildings across the street. Similarly, a recording made by the curators of demonstrations in Athens, and Spyros Staveris’s photographs of the protesters being attacked by police (‘Syntagma’, 2011), were positioned next to a 1975 documentary by Nikos Koundouros, The Songs of Fire, which focuses on the upbeat political songs of the Metapolitefsi (the period following the junta of 1974). The decision by the curators to include Pierre Cardin-designed uniforms of Olympic Airlines (which was, until it was sold in 2009, owned by the Greek state), echoed the local mood, which tends to be sentimental about the so-called good old days. References to the country’s past ran through much of the show – from old advertisements (again, chosen by the curators) to Jimmy Durham’s Mobile Athena (2003), a trolley transporting the head of an ancient statue and casts of marble statues still used by the Fine Arts students. Chromolithographs from the 19th-century magazine New Aristophanes, depicting corruption in the Greek political system and the country’s dependence on foreigners, were not unlike satirical cartoons in contemporary newspapers.
In contrast to the blunt approach of many of the Greek works, much-needed distance and space to think about the local condition came from outside the country. Highlights included Józef Robakowski’s video From My Window 78–99 (2000) – a pseudo-documentary that examined Poland’s changes by focusing on a micro-community’s daily routine – and Josef Dabernig’s videos Wars (2001) and Wisla (1996), in which a train restaurant and a stadium become the stage for a study of everyday alienation.
The other locations were overshadowed by the main venue, although they did provide some witty encounters. Janice Kerbel’s Three Marked Decks (1999) – lithographic prints for cheats on the back of a pack of cards – provided a timely parallel for political gambling and was displayed amongst the permanent collection of the Eleftherios Venizelos Museum, an institution that embodies the heroic era of the ‘Great Idea’, a plan for the expansion of the Greek state in the early 20th century that resulted in catastrophe. A perceptive look at how history is written was offered by Yota Ioannidou and Teresa Maria Diaz Nerio’s live lecture performance AULA INTERGALACTICA (Intergalactic Classroom, 2011), an idiosyncratic analysis of historical events from the Paris Commune during the French Revolution to the Bagua massacre in Peru in 2009. This constant shift between past and present tracing the strategies of deception and resistance was indicative of the exhibition’s privileging of diversity over the homogenizing effects of globalization. A Utopian approach, perhaps, but in contemporary Athens, what we assumed was conventional wisdom hasn’t served us well.