In Ancient Greece the Iera Odos (Sacred Way) connected Athens to Eleusis; its name referred to the processional route that celebrated the Eleusinian Mysteries. Today, the busy highway’s mystic past is difficult to detect; it tends to be tourists who search out its history. It’s this complex territory that Greek artist Eirene Efstathiou chose to map for her exhibition ‘Iera Odos Revisited’ at Eleni Koroneou Gallery. It was the young artist’s first solo show since winning the 2009 Deste Prize and a recent commission by the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens.
The exhibition comprised four different archives, each of which maps a journey between different times and places loosely connecting Iera Odos and the Ilissos River – which used to run outside the walls of Ancient Athens and which is now mainly underground – to the Mississippi River and Highway 61 in Louisiana. The central archive – which dominated the exhibition space – is made up of small diaristic photographs and paintings reconstructing Efstathiou’s walks along the Greek highway. The photographs, which were taken on an antiquated Russian camera, look old; they are stained a faint pink, as are the paintings. The absence of human presence in the images casts a romantic aura over the usually busy thoroughfare. In another series, ‘Time machine’ (2010), 42 digital prints depicting everyday moments along Iera Odos were displayed inside a box on a shelf, which you could browse through at will. Two more archives, connecting the specific walk to a more general mythology of wandering and mapping, reference subjects as diverse as European settlers in the US to the literature and film traditions of the road trip. A collection of songs focusing on the Mississippi River and Highway 61 were played on a cassette-player and set the mood for the show. This seemingly arbitrary linking of Athens to the US is familiar territory for the artist, who is half-American. This was made apparent in the final archive, Mikra Elefsinia (Small Eleusinian, 2010) which includes two short stories written by Efstathiou that were casually presented on a custom-made shelf along with drawings and ink-jet print illustrations. The tale of a coelacanth (a fish that was, until recently, presumed to have become extinct 65 million years ago but which, in fact, still exists) that lives in the Ilissos River is juxtaposed with the description of a journey in search of the source of Mississippi river in 1800. A pair of triptychs comprised of small, black and white, photorealist oil paintings reference a wider sociopolitical context. In the first triptych, Efstathiou combined images of two American anarchists of the 1920s, a ’60s country singer and the Black Panthers (Mississippi Goddamn, 2010), while in the second triptych details of two buildings which collapsed in the Athens earthquake of ’99 are shown next to an image of Iera Odos avenue meeting the sea (Big River, 2010). While in the rest of the works found elements intermingle with constructed ones, here the original context of each reference proves stronger than the attempt to suggest new readings through juxtaposition.
In the pessimistic and pragmatic culture of contemporary Greece, Efstathiou proposes a different way of communicating with both popular culture and history by highlighting the power of the urban landscape as a carrier of memory and emotion. Subjectivity is pitted against facts, while myth and mystery are set up in opposition to the rationalism adopted in times of crisis and major social change.