Does the newly completed Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center signal a new chapter for Greece?

BY Maria Nicolacopoulou in Opinion | 05 JUL 16

In a climate of serious financial strain and economic recession, where austerity measures and capital controls are still well in effect, the addition of the newly built Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC) in Athens seems an anomaly. Designed by Renzo Piano to house the Greek National Opera and the National Library of Greece within the mammoth 210,000 square metre Stavros Niarchos Park, the centre is an imposing structure located at the city’s southern coast. Costing €596 million to construct, and designed to be ecologically sustainable, it is one of the most expensive cultural projects ever completed.

The Labyrinth. Courtesy: Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, Athens

Dreamt up before the Greek financial crash, when the country’s economy was buoyant and a spirit of optimism prevailed, the SNFCC sits on a plot that was earmarked for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games but never actually used. In the largest private/public collaboration of its kind, the Niarchos Foundation will gift the centre to the Greek government, who will be responsible for its running and operation costs – the largest bequest by a Greek foundation, the largest received by the Greek State. Although cultural spending has been heavily cut since 2010, and the state cannot afford to open the newly built National Museum of Contemporary Art, the hope is that the SNFCC will herald a new chapter in the country’s troubled recent history.

In light of financial concerns, the Niarchos Foundation’s president Andreas Dracopoulos, said the Foundation would be prepared to assist in its programming and funding, even after the handover of the centre at the end of the year. The centre is scheduled to be up and running in the autumn of 2017, after the National Opera and library have completed their relocation from their current spaces. According to Dracopoulos, programming will take place until this transition, and the foundation offered public memberships to the first 25,000 visitors as an incentive to attract support and involvement throughout this transitional period.

Aerial view of the Stavros Niarchos Hall. Courtesy: Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, Athens

To mark the initial phase of the project’s completion, the SNFCC opened its doors between 23–26 June for an early celebration: a four-day programme of events, from sport, chess and magic to music, film and video art screenings, all free to the public and framed under the hopeful title 'Metamorphosis'. The programme of performance and music events, which includes appearances from Tan Dun, David Dorfman, Douglas Perkins and Omar Souleyman amongst others, was organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s General Manager of Concerts & Lectures, Limor Tomer, with Laurie Anderson acting as the Artistic Director. The video art programme, 'Fireflies in the Night Take Wing', organized by Robert Storr, Barbara London, Kalliopi Minioudaki and Francesca Pietropaolo, acts as a sequel to last year’s video marathon 'Fireflies in the Night', which was curated by the same team.

This amalgamation of events offered a transdisciplinary experience where music merged with nature, design with performance and art with architecture. As darkness fell each evening during these hot days in June, the thousands of acres making up the grounds of the SNFCC filled with people of all ages and backgrounds. The public, the park, performance, music and the environment became intertwined elements not without a political resonance, as Laurie Anderson highlighted during one performance, where she made numerous references to the current state of affairs around the globe. With such terms like ‘Lighthouse’, and ‘Agora’ used as location points, the scale of the project rendered this landscape a city in itself, a point of ‘urbanism’, and the ‘beginning of civic engagement’ in accordance with Piano’s vision. Food was distributed for free, happenings took place throughout the complex and people came together in an abundance of space.

Lighthouse Terrace under the Canopy. Courtesy: Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, Athens

The magnitude of the event resembled more that of a festival or biennial. Yet, unlike the latter, the space operated on a 24-hour basis, with the video art programme beginning at midnight and lasting throughout the night for anyone with the stamina to remain. Consisting of three indoor screens and eight more scattered around the park, as the title suggested, they operated as ‘fireflies in the night’ for visitors, armed with a map of their various locations, to discover.

A painting exhibition, organized by the National Gallery of Greece and which will remain open to the public until 31 July, was staged in the centre’s only exhibition space, located in the lobby of the building. Showcasing the work of Hydra-born painter Panayiotis Tetsis, an attempt was made to create a dialogue between Tetsis’s work and Piano’s architectural project. Yet it was hard to find common ground between Tetsis’s reflections on simplicity, colour, light and local tradition and the state of the art technology, innovation in sustainability and scale of Piano’s structure.

Seoungho Cho, Butterfly, 2008, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York

The video programme on the other hand, was able to capture the spirit of the project more successfully via the overwhelming number of works (close to 60) that spoke to the event’s title. Seoungho Cho’s Butterfly (2008), for example showed a ritual of enlightenment by Tibetan monks. The meditative drumming echoing along the shores of the canal near to where the screen is located, seemed to announce the onset of a new era.

IC-98’s Abendland (2015), a 42-minute reflection on nature portrayed in the form of a technologically created landscape, showed the image of a tree within a dark forest that appears still, yet through subtle creaking movements and a haunting audio track the film points to our melancholic co-existence with the environment and its ominous predicament. Equally poignant was Paolo Canevari’s Continents (2005) with its allegory of the world’s five continents as tires filmed in an desolate location and shaped like the Olympic rings, each tied to an animal, alluding to issues of identity: Africa to a pig, Asia to a mouse, America to a dog, Europe to a cat and Australia to a rabbit. Marianna Christofides’ Along the G-Line (2010), showed the continuous turning cartwheels of a young boy along Cyprus’s Green Line that partitions the Greek and Turkish territories using innocence and simplicity of movement to offer an imaginary sense of unity for a traumatized region.

Lili Reynaud-Dewar, Live Through That ?! (Atelier Brancusi), 2014, video still. Courtesy: the artist, Pinault Collection and kamel mennour, Paris © Lili Reynaud-Dewar

Other notable works in the video programme included Yvonne Rainer’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (2002), Jane and Louise Wilson’s homage to Kubrick’s in Unfolding the Aryan Papers (2009), Shirin Neshat’s immersive Turbulent (1998), Bill Balaskas’s Parthenon Rising (2010) being shown on the Podium screen overlooking the Acropolis, Oscar Munoz’s Distopia (2014) and Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s dance in Constantin Brancusi’s Piano-designed studio located opposite the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

The video programme encapsulated the spirit of the centre’s project as a whole – one that comes at a critical time for the nation’s social, financial and cultural development. With more than 1600 jobs predicted as a consequence of the new centre and €15 million expected in annual revenue for the state, as projected by the Boston Consulting Group’s Impact Study, the SNFCC hopes to epitomize a long overdue opportunity for a Greek metamorphosis. Whether it turns out as hoped, remains to be seen.

Maria Nicolacopoulou is an independent curator based in Athens, Greece.