Rarely has a show been so aptly titled. In a magnificent wreck of a building, in a magnificent wreck of a city, the non-profit art space Kunsthalle Athena hosted the show ‘This Is not my Beautiful House’. The line is from the Talking Heads’ track, ‘Once in a Lifetime’ (1981), which is one of the few pop songs that manages to be as uplifting as it is bleak. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that it also includes the words: ‘into the blue again, after the money’s gone’, which pretty much describes the situation the Greek capital has found itself in after years of crippling economic crisis. There may be no government funding in Athens right now but, thanks to a rare mix of philanthropy, private initiative and cheap rent, the art scene is, on many levels, thriving.
The Kuntshalle Athena was set up in 2010 by the dynamic curator and writer (and occasional frieze contributor) Marina Fokidis, in a semi-derelict 19th-century building in Metaxourgeio, a once-affluent neighbourhood of Athens that fell on hard times and is now experiencing the first buds of gentrification (The Breeder and Rebecca Camhi Gallery are also in the area). The Kunsthalle – which is run by volunteers, survives on donations and hosts a lively talks programme as well as exhibitions – states that it wishes to learn ‘through the experiences and insights of others’ and ‘through mistakes – not least its own’. It’s also wonderfully self-reliant: in a country battered with gloom and humiliation, the gallery declares that it ‘will be what we make of it for as long as we want to make it’.
Sensitively curated by Klea Charitou, Marina Fokidis, Eleanna Papathanasiadi and Apostolos Vassilopoulos, ‘This Is not my Beautiful House’ included the work of four Greek artists, Anastasia Ax, Apostolos Georgiou, Socratis Socratous and Kostis Velonis. Meaning emerged through a mix of suggestion and imagination via installation, photography, sculpture and painting, all of which inhabited different rooms in this deeply atmospheric mansion with a sense of both possibility and despair. Dislocation was the order of the day; remnants from previous shows haunted the once-grand rooms like welcome ghosts taking stock of the present.
Ax’s installation, Exile (2014), evoked a sort of 21st century Pompeii. Large, whitewashed triangular shapes, some collapsed, some loosely strung together, filled the space. The work seemed to be in a state of flux; it had been smashed up, walked over and then categorized by an archaeologist, the results of which were displayed in a vitrine. Ax seems to be asking: ‘How we do make sense of history as we are living it?’
Georgiou’s large untitled painting from 2012 depicts a man and a woman falling over two chairs, their faces obscured. Are they fighting, having fun, drunk? Who knows? But then, what do we ever know of other people’s motivations, despite the fact that we’re all the same species? What I do know is that this powerfully ambiguous painting, rendered in the artist’s trademark dusty lilac, brown and eucalyptus-green palette, stayed with me long after I had left the gallery.
Gardens – sites of solace – often feature in Socratous’s finely wrought sculptures. For Stolen Garden (2014) he cast branches, leaves, flowers and fruit from the National Garden of Athens in bronze: some are national symbols of Greece, while others are weeds. Delicate, despite the toughness of their materials, these melancholy objects seemed to have grown through the ancient floorboards and been rendered immobile at their moment of flowering.
Fascinated by ‘failed builders’, Avant-garde theatre and working class history, Velonis’s sculptures combine both personal and historical references. Tribune Leading to the Ramp and Ramp Leading to the Tribune (2014) is an enigmatic Minimalist structure that evokes both stairs and anvils; it was paired with a black and white photograph of a man slumped on a wall next to an empty pram. It’s a desolate, mysterious pairing; a private moment juxtaposed with a Modernist shape. A deceptively simple video by Velonis from 2010 was also on show: it’s a single shot of a photograph of classical ruins attached to a wall with a bull-dog clip, fluttering in the breeze. Titled How One Can Think Freely in the Shadow of a Temple, it’s a question as a statement of fact, and one that is still as achingly relevant – in the words of Talking Heads – as it ever was.