A few weeks after my trip to the biennials in Athens and Thessaloniki, I went to a talk in London given by the architect Charles Jencks. Jencks advanced a design methodology first proposed in the 1972 book that he co-authored with Nathan Silver, Adhocism: The Case for Improvisation (recently re-published by the MIT Press). Improvised and cobbled-together, the adhoc is a split-and-spliced Frankenstein of a style – born of necessity and ‘always ugly’. Jencks and Silver’s book distilled the particular disillusionment of the early 1970s, but the flexibility, responsiveness and innovation that the approach promises are newly appealing in today’s straitened times.
Faith in existing systems and institutions is at a particularly low ebb in Greece, where the economy continues to flatline for the sixth consecutive year. Unemployment hovers at around 30 percent and further austerity is due to follow on the heels of the country’s November inspection by the European bailout troika. In addition, the biennial format, after a particularly intense period of navel-gazing over the past five years or so, continues to face an identity crisis. Everywhere – from the fjords of Bergen to the courtyards of Sharjah – the jargon of adhocism, with its buzzword emphases on meeting points, intersections, transience and contingency, has become the default mode of self expression for a format trying desperately to prove itself to be relevant and responsive. The biennials in Athens and Thessaloniki, both born on the eve of crisis in 2007, face a compound crisis of faith, in both state and market, and in the ability of art to address their failings.
The 4th Thessaloniki Biennale, titled ‘Old Intersections, Make it New’, takes as its theme the Mediterranean, ‘a melting pot of peoples, cultures and mentalities, and open door on three continents’ according to chief curator Adelina von Fürstenburg. Thessaloniki is a shade under a marathon’s distance from Pella, the birthplace of Alexander the Great, whose vast Hellenic empire might have first given rise to idea of ‘the Mediterranean’; Thessaloniki was the name of his half-sister. The second city of the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople, it has a long history of being sacked and plundered, passing through the hands of many empires before being repatriated to Greece in 1913. Now the city languishes in a particularly acute form of the post-industrial torpor common to former port cities around the Mediterranean, its docks and warehouses converted to bars, cafes and cultural spaces. Thessaloniki’s tumultuous history makes it a poster child for Mediterranean multiplicity. Von Fürstenburg’s main exhibition, ‘Everywhere But Now’, is eager to stress not only the utopian dimension to this collective identity but conflicts and upheavals that characterize the contemporary region.
Quite literally at the centre of it all, in the opening room of the exhibition’s main trade-centre venue, lies Philip Rantzer’s sculpture Europe (2006–13). Represented as a black-bearded man of child-sized proportions, he extends across a raised wooden table encased in a vitrine, a slightly overstuffed specimen with a paunch visible beneath his white T-shirt and his denim jeans splattered to the knee with red. One outstretched hand forms a weak ‘OK’ sign; the fingers of the other are firmly crossed. Across the wooden stage on which Europe surrenders, exhausted, are printed questions such as, ‘Why is the young man lying in this position?’ to which viewers have been invited to scrawl responses. The figure’s crude symbolism and heavy-handed didacticism set the tone for the works that follow in a show that far too often feels the need to spell things out.
‘Everywhere But Now’ continues in two further sites across the city, both former mosques, in addition to smaller installations embedded within the collections of each of the city’s five major museums. In total, the work of more than 50 artists from 25 countries is on display. The result might tactfully be described as a mixed bag. Hackneyed tropes of Mediterranean-ness abound. There are lots of boats: rusting off the coast of Mauritania in Zineb Sedira’s photographic series ‘The Death of a Journey’ (2008); run aground against a seabed of Murano glass rubble in Maria Papadimitriou’s Anti-Apparatus (2011); or teeming with hoards of people, as in Marta Dell’Angelo’s enormous oil painting The Prow (2009). Soldiers also crop up, marching in formation or individualized in close-up headshots in two works by Khaled Jarrar (I.Soldier and Docile Soldier, both 2010). There are also children playing at soldiers in Marina Abramovic’s Dangerous Games (2008) – one of three short films in the main exhibition produced by ART for the World, the Geneva-based NGO set up by Von Fürstenburg in 1995. Civilian unrest is ever-present, typically signified by fire, as in French collective Claire Fontaine’s horribly literal video Burning of P.I.G.S. (2011), in which a hooded figure sets light to a map of Southern Europe made of matches, or the smoking stack of tyres that make up Gal Weinstein’s sculpture, Lighthouse (2012). And then there are the softer, tourist brochure-like symbols of the region: gnarled olive trees in Jacques Berthet’s elegaic series of black and white photographs, ‘Oliviers’ (Olive Trees, 2008–11); and, of course, marble. In Adrian Paci’s beautiful film The Column (2013) – projected amongst the treasures of Thessaloniki’s elegant Byzantine museum – marble is quarried by wizened-looking miners in China and shaped into an ornate Corinthian column whilst en route to Europe in the immense belly of a transport ship. The column’s journey is viewed with a mingled sense of wonder and sadness at the shifting order of things, and at our equally insatiable drives for both consumption and efficiency.
‘Everywhere But Now’ aims to be political but its message is muddied by the number of references to wildly divergent struggles. At a time when urgent concrete solutions are needed for specific problems, Von Fürstenburg’s scattershot approach feels careless. What do Abramovic’s gun-toting tots have to do with long-abandoned defence tunnels under Cuba, relics of the Cold War photographed in stark black and white by the collective Los Carpinteros’s The People’s Tunnels (1999)? Why the multiple references to the Armenian genocide and none to the extermination, on a similarly devastating scale, of Thessaloniki’s Jewish population, 98 percent of which perished under the German occupation during World War II? And what does a shiny row of John Armleder surf boards – glittering sleek, leant against the wall in a perfectly aligned parody of John McCracken and West Coast finish fetishism – have to do with any of it? Unless the link is that you surf on the sea – though not, as a rule, in the Mediterranean.
It’s all very confusing; I feel like the guy in one of Apostolos Georgiou’s large-scale canvases in Pavilion 6 (Untitled, 2012), trousers around his ankles, arse out, madly scrambling for the door to escape the dour faces of three surreally ominous alarm clocks against the wall opposite. With his grey-featured everyman protagonists, the Greek painter’s darkly humorous portrayal of the day-to-day absurdity of the human condition and of human relationships speak more to the idea of a common humanity, of something shared across all nations and cultures, than do most of the show’s more politically explicit pieces.
The 4th Athens Biennale was titled ‘Agora’, a reference to the ancient forum said to be the birthplace of democracy as well as the marketplace. Set largely in the city’s former stock exchange – an abandoned, crumbling building scheduled for renovation work that was never realized – the exhibition contemplated the future of these long-term bedfellows. Aiming to respond to the question ‘Now What?’, it took the form of a series of events, lectures, performances, debates and extended workshops in addition to a concise ‘permanent’ exhibition featuring work by 61 artists from 28 countries. The biennale was organized by what the catalogue cyptically (or affectedly) refers to as ‘a nameless and ephemeral group’ of artists, curators and theorists.
The weekend that I visited, the former stock exchange hosted an economics conference (organized by occasional frieze contributor, David Adler) featuring papers given by respected economists from the US and Europe. A concrete response to a need for greater financial literacy and an acknowledgement that art isn’t necessarily the best way to teach it, the risk was that an audience bombarded by information and statistics with which it is unfamiliar and ill-equipped to decipher (I am speaking largely for myself here) will tend to believe the most charismatic speaker, or whoever’s message is most aligned with their own beliefs. Hence the biggest cheers went to German economist Heiner Flassbeck and his claims that Germany was responsible in large part for the economic crisis in southern Europe by consistently undercutting the ECB’s target rate of inflation, whilst the heckles were reserved for those such as Greek economist Loukas Tsoukalis who espoused a more conventional neo-liberal view.
But then, maybe there is no escaping this kind of partiality. If the events of recent years have demonstrated anything at all, it is that finance is at best an inexact science, even amongst those who claim to be experts. The biennial’s totemic piece, by Greek artist George Harvalias, was the stock exchange’s former price board, removed when the venue closed in 2007. Reinstalled high above the trading floor, its coloured LEDs flashed out the share prices on a typical pre-crash day. Even without the language barrier, these giant rows of numbers and abbreviations were cryptic and utterly impenetrable, but I was told that there was nothing up there to give any indication of the troubles that lay just around the corner. All Greek to everyone, then.
Any curatorial strategy that emphasizes process over result accepts unevenness and failure as part of that process. In Athens, the exhibition’s shortcomings felt expected and accepted; in Thessaloniki, they came from overstretching, from lofty curatorial aspirations. Amongst the highlights of the permanent exhibition were two contrapuntal film pieces: Peter Watkins’s historical-re-enactment-cum-pseudo-documentary, La Commune (Paris, 1871) (2000) and Charley Case’s two-channel video installation About the Anti-Capitalist Carnival (1997–2001). Both offered ambivalent portrayals of protest as something that is both necessary and valid, and a form of stylized performance that is ultimately ineffective.
I confess to feeling a similar ambivalence towards the biennial itself. I admire the boldness of the ‘let’s see’ curatorial approach, but it is counter-intuitive to obscure the curatorial team through Anonymous-inspired language at a time when greater transparency and accountability is needed in all institutions. The focus on the crisis in Greece and within the local artistic community – reflected in initiatives such as running the cafe on a former trading floor in collaboration with Schedia, a magazine sold on the streets by homeless people – felt engaged and urgent in the face of receding state support. However, moments of parochial German-bashing, such as the Medusa Merkel (2013) adorning one of Rainer Ganahl’s ceramic plates, should have been avoided. The squatted appearance of the stock exchange building felt appropriate but hard to reconcile with the slickness of the team taking your cash at the register in the entrance, or with the executive room at the Hilton where I was put up, all of which served as a reminder that none of this is as ad hoc or improvised as the organizers may have wished it to seem. Seventy-five percent of the biennial’s funding came from the European Union, but a long list of corporate sponsors who provided support in kind was topped, in a bizarre twist, by the National Bank of Greece, who provided the stock exchange venue free of charge. If anyone recognized the irony of listing the country’s largest private bank – at least until a majority stake was acquired by the state’s financial bailout fund last summer – as the event’s main sponsor, they weren’t letting on.
‘Everything can always be something else,’ writes Jencks in the first chapter of Adhocism; use value is what you make of it. In Thessaloniki, a weak central exhibition anchors a programme of events – an education programme; a performance festival; an extended workshop for young artists – all of which have an independent value that should not be understated. In Athens, asking what is to be done doesn’t get us any closer to an answer, but a failed attempt is always instructive. Of course, it is not always necessary for things to have a use at all: art has long claimed this purposeless purpose. But, in the face of economic and political strain, this position becomes more difficult to maintain, or requires a particular chutzpah to do so. The questions – Why a biennale? Why now? – get louder. In both Athens and Thessaloniki, the noise from the streets drowns out any attempt to answer.