AFTER confronting the pile of junk in the courtyard of documenta 14’s Athens Conservatoire venue (part of Daniel Knorr’s book-making process there), I found a whole lot more at documenta 14’s Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA) venue. But truth be told, there’s a lot of ‘junk’ in contemporary art in general. And I mean that literally: Contemporary conceptual artists take what many people have thrown out and turn waste into fascinating, often cryptic creativity with their ‘magic art wand’. These works are conceptually infused with messages that need to be discovered, explored and deciphered by the viewer.
Take for example, Australian artist Bonita Ely, whose installation ‘Plastikus Praegressus’ (2017) is one of the first works you encounter at ASFA’s Nikos Kessanlis Exhibition Hall. It resembles one of those flora and fauna exhibitions you would find at a natural history museum. But Bonita Ely’s animals are no taxidermist’s creation. Instead, they are bricolage beings made of waste materials that the artist has picked up on her travels in Sydney, Athens and Kassel.
Next to each animal, there’s an information board about it, which tells us the animal’s common name, its Latin name, and more… Take the ‘Flinger’ for example, made of a vacuum cleaner, a helmet, and some plastic teeth (among other objects). Its description goes as follows:
‘Classicification: Multso lautus vacuum
Common name: Flinger, (patoura)
Flingers are bred from aquatic birds known as storks, whose wing span of up to 3 metres enables them to support their heavy bodies in flight. Flinger swims, dives and surfs, propelled by its large, oar like wings, harvesting toxic plastic where the oceans’ currents form huge, slow-moving whirlpools. Fed by water’s trans-ecology, these ‘gyres’ are located in the Atlantic, Pacifiic Oceans and Indian Oceans. Plastic is also plentiful in the land-locked Sydney Harbour, the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas.
Like Bram Stocker’s Dracula, the Flinger’s large, sharp teeth rapidly break down large volumes of solid plastic and polystyrene. There is no indication of kleptoparasitism (stealing food from others) as their food supply is always plentiful.’
The installation is also accompanied by a backdrop comprising Ely’s photographic documentation of various found materials/junk in natural environments, juxtaposed with shots of nature. What’s the message behind this creative madness? Obviously a very strong ecological one, of how we are destroying our planet with our garbage. But Ely’s tongue-in-cheek humour, evident in the way these fictitious animals are described, and the fact that they live off plastic (a great idea, wishful thinking that if it came true, would be the answer to the plastic pollution problem!), also pervades the work. Ely also presents how the three cities of Kassel, Sydney and Athens, are connected by seas, oceans and river currents, something which also lets their ‘pollution’ travel freely.
Whether it is the garbage that ships often throw into the sea, or the waste of cities and towns, and trash found on beaches, all sorts of garbage makes its way into the rivers, seas and oceans, endangering flora and fauna around the globe. What better way to focus on this tragedy, than by creating an environment out of this trash – its ironic, mutant, plastic-eating creatures, reflecting the actual natural environment that is being lost, due to the pollution caused by consumer society. (I’m beginning to sound like David Attenborough.)
Over to Henrick Folkerts, who describes the artist’s work in the catalogue: “Through these powerful enactments, Ely paves the way to an understanding of ecology as a trans-ecology: an intricate system of natura and social phenomena that permeates physical and psychological landscapes across environments on a global scale.”
So, as you can see, there’s more to this ‘junk’ than meets the eye (if you are willing to make the effort to find out).
Immigration is also on the menu at ASFA, most evident in two video works: French-Moroccan Bouchra Khalili’s 60-minute film ‘The Tempest Society’ and Polish Artur Zmijewski’s 20-minute film ‘Glimpse’. The former, presents three Athenians from different backgrounds and cultures, who analyse the situation in Greece and beyond. Among the issues focused on are the unfair treatment of immigrants and immigrant students, the Greek Bailout Referendum, and the relevance of Albanian Gazmend Kapllani’s writings (namely his book ‘My Name is Europe’ in this instance), as a voice that has expressed the concerns and conditions in general of immigrants in Greece.
In contrast to this film, Zmijewski’s ‘Glimpse’ is a harsh black-and-white slap in the face about the plight of refugees in Paris, Berlin and Calais: In Paris, the faces of African refugees are painted white, while others are handed an old broom, and are asked to sweep the street with it. They do so obediently, but with a painful look of ‘why are you making me do this?’. In the former migrant camp known as the Calais Jungle, an ‘X’ is painted on the backs of some refugees, while others are handed a pair of new shoes or a new coat – which makes them instantly happy; a harsh way of pointing out their bitter reality – of who gets accepted into Western society, or not.
Zmijewski is known as an artist unafraid to provoke, via the ‘social experimentation’ process that has become part and parcel of his art. But the grim truths he focuses on, have won him accolades in the international art world: he represented Poland in the 51st Venice Biennale and has exhibited in documenta 12, in Manifesta 4 and at other prestigious venues/exhibitions. His cruel-to-be-kind tactics are a powerful means of bringing to light the various issues/perspectives of different social groups with either physical impairments (eg. he has made the blind paint and the deaf sing), or other disadvantages (he has also worked with concentration camp survivors, and has repeated the Stanford University Prison Experiment which involved replacing prisoners and guards with volunteers.
What else will you encounter among the 27 artists’ works at documenta 14’s ASFA venue?: Angelo Plessas’ multimedia installation presents the secret past life of his neighbour, Maria Zamanou-Mickelson, a charming, bourgeois lady with that traditional Athenian class – who used to be a teenage spy for the Greek Resistance. Plessas documents her life via her filmed confession/interview plus the presentation of memorabilia and archival material, thus setting up a ‘mini museum’ of sorts. But being the artist that he is, Plessas also goes beyond this taxonomic process, by connecting her German plane watching activities, to the ancient Greek prophetesses’ bird watching rituals.
The drawings of Dimitris Pikionis, Agnes Denes and Lucius Burckhardt add an architectural element to the exhibition, while Bili Bidjocka’s massive black-and-white chess board, complete with moveable pieces, becomes a symbol of human history’s power systems. All the while, the smell of hay wafts from the room where Olaf Holzapfel’s works are situated (made of hay, mesh, wire and wood). And the sound of Cuban music never ceases in the distance – emanating from Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons’s and Neil Leonard’s installation ‘Matanzas Sound Map’. A bit of Cuban spirit and philosophy is thus also added.
As my friend Maria and I walk out of the exhibition, we decide to also visit the open studio opposite, where some ASFA students have set up a small exhibition of their work. It’s always fun to enter a students’ workshop, where all sorts of creative forms and bizarre materials and objects are to be found, pervaded by that distinct workshop smell – created by the concoction of paints, glues and other materials used by artists. (It took me back). The ‘mushroom’ installation was among the highlights there.
For the non-believers
Documenta 14 has certainly created debates ever since its director Adam Szymczyk and his colleagues ‘set up shop’ in Athens. But he did warn us that documenta 14 was not going to be like the grand art shows we have become accustomed to in Greece. This is definitely a kind of art that the Greeks (and not only), have difficulty in appreciating. So, here is a bit of an argument that might help the non-believers out there:
Concept art is like a puzzle, a question, or it can even be a social intervention (as is the case with Zmijewski’s work). But we can learn a few things from it, if we have the time and inclination. The way concept art transforms the everyday, resembles the way Cinderella’s fairy godmother turned a pumpkin into a carriage, but in the case of art, the pumpkin-carriage transformation is conceptual, not ‘real’. (But then again the pumpkin-carriage transformation was never real, it was always a fairy tale).
However when an everyday object, or even a piece of junk, is transformed into conceptual art, many people can’t help but still see it as junk. After all, it still looks like junk. That’s where they stall. And that’s where another fairy tale comes into it: The Emperor’s New Clothes – the fairy tale most ‘rational’ people prefer, in terms of explaining conceptual art.
But at the end of the day, it all depends on your beliefs. Do you believe in Conceptual art? Because it’s only in your mind’s eye that the beauty of the concept is seen and understood. Like the words on a page of an awesome book, that evokes images and concepts in your mind, so too does conceptual art often go beyond the material objects it presents to you.
Artist Zoi Pappa said to me at ASFA: “Art was always working on a conceptual level anyway, and also on an emotional level”. But also on an aesthetic level. Some criticise conceptual art for doing away with the emotional and the aesthetic, plus traditional artistic techniques, and focusing purely on the conceptual. It’s definitely not everybody’s ‘cup of tea’, but what conceptual art does do effectively, is bring art closer to life and vice versa. So much so, that the line between art and life is probably at its finest at the moment. So much so, that sometimes you don’t know if what you’re looking at is actually art, or just a bit of ‘life’. For some, that’s the frustrating part, for others, that is definitely one of the beauties – the way conceptual art balances on the thinnest of threads between art and life, in a contemporary world where what’s real and what isn’t, what is truth and what isn’t, what is fairy tale and what isn’t, is becoming all the more debatable. So, just go and enjoy this ambiguity that conceptual art has to offer, simply for what it is – a reflection of our times.