LIFE without art, would be like Greece without sun. The crisis has however cast its shadow over the Greek art scene. Nevertheless, there are plenty of exhibitions and events going on, especially in Athens. This capital with a population of around 665,000 in the city centre (or 3.75 million in the metropolitan area), has about 30 main ‘players’ in the gallery business – let alone museums, foundations, collectors’ art spaces. Maybe it’s because after all, the history of Western art (and arts) started here. Furthermore, the recent activities of the National Museum of Contemporary Art (or EMST), have added a bright new ray of hope to the Greek art world’s diminishing light of recent years.
Contemporary art today is a bit of a many-headed Hydra, in terms of its plethora of mediums. Yet Greece seemed to be cutting off one of its own contemporary art heads for quite a while – considering EMST’s trials and tribulations in the past: Founded by law in 1997, in 2000, the museum’s building was then chosen – the crumbling, derelict ‘Fix’ beer factory on Syngrou Avenue. The museum’s instigator and director (Anna Kafetsi), then started her long, uphill struggle to metamorphose a concrete ruin into an ultra-modern museum. Years went by, and the question on many people’s minds was: ‘’When will it actually be running in full swing?’’. It seemed to be cursed. But that’s history now. Since Katerina Koskina took the helm in December 2014, the times they are a-changin’ for this much-needed institute, one which will serve as a platform for Greek contemporary art, but which also has the potential to play an important role on the international contemporary art scene.
Koskina has fought the museum’s battles ( economic, legal, administrative, technical etc), with positivism and dynamism, never letting go of her vision of what this establishment could mean for Greece’s cultural profile. EMST is after all in a sense, Athens’s smaller-scale answer to London’s Tate Modern: Both former industrial buildings (a brewery and a power station) that now serve contemporary art and the community, with the aim to educate and culturally nurture, to find/discover new paths/connections in art, to brew and fuel life’s creative future.
Devoted to her goal – to finally see the museum open in 2016 – Koskina must certainly feel great joy these days, to actually witness the museum’s doors finally open to the public, via the series of events called ‘Prologues’, and with the upcoming inauguration of a major collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp (M HKA), culminating in the show ‘Urgent Conversations: Athens – Antwerp’ (opening October 31 and running till January 29, 2017) . This exhibition aims to be a theoretical and visual dialogue, based on works from the collections of both museums, which includes more than 70 works and is structured in 22 thematic units. In April 2017, the exhibition will travel to Belgium on a smaller scale. In the near future, we will also see EMST’s permanent collection finally going on show in its new home. Plus, EMST’s collaboration with Documenta 14 will also bear some interesting fruit.
Within the framework of its mandatory operational testing period, the ‘Prologues’ events kicked off in May with an impressive performance on the roof terrace of Dennis Savary’s ‘Lagune’, in collaboration with Flux Laboratory and Fluxum Foundation. They continued with a performance by the Greek National Opera, and later with an exhibition of works by students of the Second Change Schools. And what else? Here’s a quick guide of some of the other upcoming events:
o On October 1 and 2, 2016, a production of the Onassis Cultural Center will be presented at EMST, in the framework of the Festival Dancing Athens, a retrospective of the earlier work of the internationally known choreographer Trisha Brown.
o The participation in the program Transforming Future Museums: International Museum Academy (IMA) will follow, which is organized by the British Council with the support of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.
o On November 12, 2016 students’ films from schools of Greece will be presented, based on the MoMA book (Museum of Modern Art, New York), Young Charlotte Filmmaker by Frank Viva.
o PROLOGUES will be completed in December 2016 (17-18/12/2016) with the presentation ‘Change – the road’ – a performance by Persa Stamatopoulou’s dance troupe which was implemented with the kind support of the J.F. Costopoulos Foundation.
I now leave you with (admittedly a large chunk of), the words of Bart De Baere (M HKA’s director), whose speach at the press conference on September 28, at EMST, made evident his deep respect for Greece, its culture and society, and its new contemporary museum:
”We are a museum of the Flemish Community of Belgium, the national contemporary art museum of Flanders, one of the regions that played a key role in the coming about of the western European tradition of art and visual culture. That is not to be forgotten. But art started in Greece, that is not to be forgotten either. Undoubtedly, there had been remarkable visual expressions in Egypt and Mesopotamia beforehand, but in Greece they became art, a capacity for the polis.
Likewise, Athens is the place where the very notion of museum started, Μουσεῖον, and it is the place, even more importantly, where the very notion of dialogue started, where our human interaction became publicly qualified in the Socratic dialogue, διάλογος. And there is the notion of the city itself, and that of democracy, and so forth. This cannot be underestimated. This makes the city of Athens the cradle of Europe, and Antwerp one of its many sprouts. It seems important today to remind ourselves of these fundamental basics, because we have in recent years been unable to show the respect that is key to them. Not only us in the North, but all of us together. We have not been good at being together. We have been bad at gathering.
That is the second and very contemporary reason for which we in Antwerp should be happy that you in Athens invited us to relate. Greece has been better at being together than most of us have. We can learn from Greece. In circumstances that are infinitely harder than those of some other countries in Europe regarding refugees, they have been remarkably hospitable.
This may be too high a ground to share with all and everyone. It will already be a lot – in practical terms – if we would succeed in finding a simple mode of dialogue to start with, or a mode of conversation, as we name it in our title, a humbler and more open-ended and detached notion. There will be a lot of conversation going on, which might be a first practical target. Yet, we shouldn’t forget the further reaching aim of hospitality, which may be our own tool for survival, as Luc Deleu made me aware.
Deleu, who might be described as a visionary urbanist and who is the opening point of the present exhibition with his proposal for a trip of 80 days around the globe and his project for a floating university on three aircraft carriers, stated some years ago – before the debt crisis – that Greece will be the future. If a system crashes, he says, as it does now, the future always comes from the periphery and in Greece there is much more conviviality than in Belgium. That conviviality will allow for a future. He still holds this conviction and so do I. Greece is part of our shared future capacity and as M HKA we’re happy we can be in an active relation to it.”
”Not only Greek past and Greek society are important to me and to us, but just as well, or even more so, the artists that have been with us for a long time, George Hadjimichalis for example, whose work we paired with one of Chantal Akerman during our preparation for this project, because we felt that both works related to a sense of intimacy, a conversation which we felt in the end to be less convincing to us than others.
That active reflection about the importance of Greek artists even allowed me to be polite as a guest. When reflecting on the Greek artist who might resonate with Thierry De Cordier and with the Croatian Gorgona legend Ivan Kozaric, I obviously recalled Nikos Baikas. When being told that the museum doesn’t yet own work by him, I decided to donate the small, intense drawing of him I have lived with for many years now. It is more important that it is in the public domain than that it is with me, I think. Consider it the ‘hand gift’ we practice in Flanders, a present you bring along when you first visit someone. We hope more Baikas will enter EMST, as we hope Maria Loizidou will enter it, a fascinating artist, and as we will be happy to welcome in Antwerp the work of Bia Davou, what a discovery! And so forth.
What made this project happen was a common sense of art. That is not only propelled by artists and their oeuvre, even if some of the nicest little tweaks in the project are a result of their openness – thank you, Danae, thank you Ilias – . They are not even merely the outcome of people. There is also the institution itself, EMST. What a museum. As a Flemish person, baroque, catholic, of origin, I dare say that it is not a bad thing to have a museum that is still remembering some bucolic capacity. In Brussels we have an excellent Kunsthalle in a former brewery, Wiels. A good shot.
Institutions surpass the moments of the people inhabiting them and thus are part of the sustainability that is at the heart of society. It is good to have this museum of contemporary art, this museum of the future, close to the Acropolis, close to the heart of this City of Athens. It is great politics to finally open this massive engagement. And it is a real museum. I was also positively surprised to see the scope of its collection.
In the end and the beginning there are people inhabiting this institution, now all the same. They made this happen. Thank you, Katerina, for the invitation, thank you for your crazy drive for art, your relentless aspiration. And thank you, Stamatis, and all of you in the team, to share this most challenging moment of EMST becoming public with us. Sometime from now, all of this will seem obvious. Let’s strengthen and enhance one another, as part of the public domain.”
(Below clockwise starting top L: EMST, and works by Y. Kanarek, S. Antonakos, M. Abramovic, A. Menlibayeva and Chryssa, to be exhibited at the upcoming ‘Urgent Conversations – Athens, Antwerp’ show.)