Scholars' Association News
Issue 35
July 2015


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A visit to the “Strange Cities: Athens” exhibition

Art-lovers in Athens first became familiar with the Diplarios School in 2011 during the Athens 3rd Biennale ‘Monodrome’ which was hosted there. One might even say that the event has left its mark on the venue. 4 years on, the historical building that houses one of Athens’ oldest technical colleges has thrown its doors open again to host another major event, the ‘Strange Cities: Athens’ exhibition organised by the Onassis Foundation and the Onassis Cultural Centre. A plethora of parallel events are being held in the sidelines of the exhibition, such as walks and guided tours around Athens, debates, workshops and displays, making it clear that the organisers wanted this to be a focal point for residents and visitors, giving Athenians the chance to get to know their city again and envisage what it’s like to live there.

The exhibition was initially inspired by a strange idea: how would artists who’ve never visited Athens depict it. This came as a real challenge for the 24 artists involved, some of whom are well-known and well-respected abroad, while others are on the up. The team of curators Double Decker (comprised of Wilhelm Finger and Melita Skamnaki) chose artists from various backgrounds: painters, visual artists, graphic artists, photographers, illustrators, fabric designers, and sent them an ‘inspiration box’ containing some information to give them an idea of the city’s pulse. No visual descriptions were provided. The box included Seferis’ poem ‘Jasmine’, two chapters from Petros Markaris’ novel ‘Athens in one journey’, Manos Hadjidakis’ song ‘A magical city’, ‘2’ a piece of music by Konstantinos Vita, a recipe for stuffed tomatoes and 12 audio files with sounds from Athens.

We don’t know if all the artists actually cooked stuffed tomatoes or if they’d never seen photos of Athens, which seems quite improbable if you think back over the city’s history and the news from the time of the crisis, when Greece was constantly in the international limelight and the events of December 2008 secured Athens a firm place on the front page of international newspapers. The works in an exhibition though do tend to offer a special, personal, often subversive, image of the city.

The exhibition is laid out in circular fashion on the entire 2nd floor, with works occupying rooms on both sides of the corridor. Most rooms host the work of a single artist, giving the work sufficient breathing space and making it easier to tour the whole space. Some of the works have attracted considerable attention, like the Myth of the Cicada installation by Swedish illustrator and visual artist Emma Löfström. Looking at the unknown Athens through the eyes of a cicada, Löfström has created her own evocative microcosm in an installation that features large-scale prints, animation and paper sculptures.

Another work that grabs the attention immediately is the light-filled painting by British artist Adam Dix entitled Cathedral. For Dix, Athens remains ambiguous, a ‘moving labyrinth, in historical, social and geographical terms, where there are holes in time that constantly open and close’. His Cathedral is an equally ambiguous space in both architectural and historical terms, where women all wearing the same uniform are gathered for no apparent reason; it brings to mind images of authoritarian regimes or military organisations. The light bathing the women comes from on high, from some unseen source outside the field of the painting, and really does remind one of the light that penetrates the upper windows of a church illuminating those inside.

Light is a source of inspiration for the German photographer Michael Mann too, who uses it as a raw material to present oversized digitally-processed photographs of an Athens bathed in light and colour. Another photographer, Canadian Amy Friend, works directly with light, which she lets penetrate the perforated surface of old photos forming a type of constellation, creating the outline of the human figures who appear on the photos. Friend has created a sui generis circular space which is demarcated by a cloth that reminds one of a curtain. Inside that space she has placed the photos around the perimeter, making the spectator enter the circle and find him- or herself immersed in the work.

Quite a few artists have opted to express themselves through the medium of collage, like Jesse Treece and John Diebel from the USA, Seb Jarnot from France and British artist Thomas Robson. One characteristic feature of the exhibition is the strong presence of digital media and applied arts. Digital prints, collage, photography, illustration and video dominate. The result is a visually rich, well-staged exhibition accessible to the average spectator (if we assume one exists). The purely visual works such as Dix’s oil painting or the sculpture by US sculptor Ryan Russo made of rulers serve as doors opening up a transcendental space where representation is the starting point of some personal journey of exploration.

In the exhibition’s final room spectators can create their own still life work as a tribute to Athens, using a diverse range of objects like a sweet bowl, a flask, a set of worry beads, a paddle for beating mattresses or a metal coffee tray, among others. The exhibition ends with a video by Christos Sarris entitled ‘Have you ever?’ in which residents of remote areas talk about an Athens that they only know from tales they’ve heard, or photographs and images from TV they’ve seen. Leaving the Diplarios School and heading towards Omonia Square on an overcast Saturday afternoon amid the general gloom because of the referendum that was recently announced and the dead-end Greece appears to have found itself in, the multicoloured, bright, surreal, playful, and more-or-less kitsch and atmospheric Athens of the 24 artists presents itself as an attractive refuge; a most welcome utopia.

(Angeliki Svoronou is an artist and photographer).

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