BY Despina Zefkili in Reviews | 01 NOV 11
Featured in
Issue 143

The Last Grand Tour

BY Despina Zefkili in Reviews | 01 NOV 11

John Craxton, Black Greek Landscape with Figures, 1950, oil on canvas

Curated by Tate’s Jessica Morgan and hosted in the new wing of the Museum of Cycladic Art, ‘The Last Grand Tour’ comprised works by 17 artists (many from the Greek Diaspora) who were inspired by their travels in Greece during the 20th century. The serene Mediterranean environment, the virgin landscape, the ancient legacy, the famous Greek light: the clichés that most tourists looked for when they visited Greece in the 1960s monopolized the works of the same era. From John Craxton’s Black Greek Landscape with Figures (1950) – an homage to the archetypal Mediterranean countryside – to Barbara Hepworth’s amorphous bronze statue Torso III (Galatea) (1958), which looks like a mysterious archaeological find, many of the exhibited works glorify the Greek landscape. But what links this mythical Greece to the corrupt, debt-crippled country of today? Considering the current political crisis, at first glance an exhibition of this kind seemed a little out of place. Nevertheless, contemporary tensions added another layer to what might otherwise have been a conventional show.

One of the key works in the exhibition was Daniel Spoerri’s series of sculptures ‘Objets de magie a la noix’ (Magical Walnut Objects, 1966–7), made during a year-long sojourn on the island of Symi. By arranging found archaeological objects, Spoerri composed a cryptographic diary incorporating personal experiences and cultural data of the island, such as local superstitions and nostrums. While 1960s Greece was eager to be modernized, many travellers arrived on its shores seeking the dream of a primitive life. Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird on a Wire’ (1968) played throughout the exhibition, a song which registers his disappointment at the introduction of the telephone to the island of Hydra: it meant he couldn’t live the ‘11th-century life’ he thought he had found for himself. This perception of Greece as an easy-going Mediterranean culture has resulted in a distorted understanding of the country’s current crisis, which is less to do with national character than the global economic meltdown.

There were, however, exceptions. Martin Kippenberger took over an abandoned concrete structure on the island of Syros in 1993, declared it a Museum of Modern Art and commissioned artist friends to curate exhibitions and to design the signage and posters. Turning his back on the postcard views of the island, Kippenberger chose a banal, modern ruin as his ‘museum’, mocking the conventions of conventional image display. Juergen Teller was equally irreverent: his series of photographs, ‘Paradis’ (2009), focus on the funny or weird details of ancient Greek statues at the Louvre, which he photographed using flash photography when the museum was closed.

One of the exhibition’s virtues was that it gave the general public the opportunity to look at their country though the eyes of a foreigner. The decision to include works by artists of Greek origin who have made a career abroad (Jannis Kounellis, Lucas Samaras, Lynda Benglis and Iannis Xenakis) was thus less successful; the work of these artists is shown again and again in exhibitions about Greece; in fact, three of these artists were included in ‘Polyglossia’, a group show of Greek artists who live abroad, which was on concurrently at the Onassis Cultural Centre, Athens.

One cannot help but wonder what an artist visiting Greece today might produce. Although not included in the exhibition, works such as Superflex’s series of postcards from the Greek riots, ‘Athens Postcards’ (2009), or Claire Fontaine’s photographs of young protesters with their heads and shoes blurred (the parts of the body used by the police for identification purposes), Visions of the World, (Greece, Summer, 2006) (2006) are examples of the genesis of a new Greek mythology.