From unemployment to the new social movements of self-organization, the contradictions of contemporary Greek reality are subtly reflected in the works of a largely unknown generation – chosen by curators Daphne Dragona, Tina Pandi and Daphne Vitali from an open call that resulted in over 1,000 submissions – in the final exhibition to be held in the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens (EMST) before it moves to its new permanent premises.
It’s the first show in Athens in a long time to feature such a cross-section of artists examining Greek history, local traditions and the contemporary reality of life in the city. The local art scene tends to privilege drawings and sculptures mining personal mythologies, big installations and graffiti with neo-gothic references. ‘Afresh’ reflects the extent to which the country’s economic crisis has inevitably affected the commercial galleries which have always played a leading role in the city. Many of the artists in the show are young and only a few are represented by galleries; half of them live abroad and quite a few don’t even define themselves as artists but as architects or musicians.
An interesting example of such cross-cultural germination is The Meal (2013), a project by archaeologist and actor Efthimis Theou and musician Thanasis Deligiannis. Performed first on the site of an archeological excavation on which they both worked (documentation of which is presented along with other research material in the show) and in two later iterations in different Athenian restaurants, The Meal includes an idiosyncratic narration about the history of food sourced from archaeological findings, local interviews and TV pop culture. Explosions in the Sky – Welcome, Ghosts (2013) by Paki Vlassopoulou – co-founder of the city’s influential project space 3 137 – also reflects an interest in local traditions and history: the artist cast her thighs using the methods of local ceramicists to produce a pile of roof tiles, which were shown alongside the torn pages of encyclopedias. Photographic and documentary history was also in evidence: Marianna Christofides’s Stereoscapes #2 (2011) – a double projection of two high definition shots of the same snow-covered landscape – were filmed in a way that echoes the stereoscopic techniques of the late 19th century; Bill Balaskas’s video Parthenon Rising (2010), documents the symbol of Hellenic civilization illuminated by the flashlights of thousands of visitors on the night of the full moon in August; and the miniature drawings of Anastasis Stratakis (‘Ubi nunc’, 2013) depict three protagonists from the Hellenic Revolution against the Ottoman rule (1821–32). Further exploring this interest in Greece’s past, Hrysa Valsamaki’s mixed media installation 7 portraits and 616 words (2012) comprises such disparate materials as black carbon paper and the TV to create a narrative about seven prisoners who fought against the inhumane conditions in Greek prisons under the military junta. The subject is timely: there is much debate in Greece around the construction of new high-security prisons and the controversial treatment of immigrants and anarchists by the Greek police and legal system.
The complexity of living in contemporary Greece was paradoxically exemplified by two works that have no direct connection to Athens. 30 Days in the Garden/15 Days on Mars (2012–13) by Valentina Karga is a humorous pseudoscientific exploration of utopia and social responsibility. Through videos, images and an archive of research, it juxtaposes an experiment in self-sufficiency with the artist’s experience of the daily routine of an astronaut as witnessed during her visit to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. Sofia Dona’s Twinning Towns: Leipzig-Detroit (2010) comprises a split-screen video of two trombone players, one in an empty swimming pool in Leipzig and the other in an abandoned school in Detroit; together, they create a composition around the bond between two sites of urban abandonment.
Giving voice to a group of artists not widely represented in the local art scene, ‘Afresh’ managed to capture a quality that defines the contemporary moment in Athens. In the face of the government’s unbearable austerity measures and a growing lack of democracy, a younger generation of artists in the city are collaborating to discover new ways of speaking about the present, while still finding ways of engaging with the past.