Between December 14 and 16, Platform organized south ... east ... mediterranean... europe, a conference and conversation series. The project was within the context of "In The Cities of the Balkans", the 2nd part of "The Balkans Trilogy", a project initiated by Kunsthalle Fridericianum, with writers, critics, curators and artists from Sofia, Skopje, Jerusalem, Cairo, Belgrade, Beirut, Zagreb, Istanbul, Tirana, Pristine, and Sarajevo. The meeting focused upon rethinking artistic production, cultural geography and possible future collaborations in South-East Europe and the South-East Mediterranean, otherwise known as the Balkans and the Middle East.The participants were, Rene Block, Natasa Iliç, Vasif Kortun, Suzana Milevska, Jack Persekian, Shkelzen Maliqi, Luchezar Boyadjiev, Eleni Laperi Koci, Migjen Kelmendi, Lejla Hodzic, Christine Tohme, Mai Abdu ElDahab, Katerina Gregos, and Boris Buden.
It was funded by Förderung aus Mitteln der Kulturstiftung des Bundes and organized in collaboration with Kunsthalle Fridericianum Kassel.
Contemporary Greek Art: From Terra Incognita Towards Defining a New Territory
Very often I am confronted by the rather uncomfortable and awkward question “But do you actually have contemporary art in Greece?”. It may come as a surprise, but many ‘improbable’ countries – like Greece, for instance - actually do. Nevertheless, for most people contemporary Greek art is terra incognita. Until recently, it rarely crossed the borders of Greece and is thus little known outside. As is common with many countries that have a renowned cultural heritage and world-famous antiquities, contemporary culture is often relegated a secondary role in favor of preservation and promotion of this heritage.
In many ways, the modern Greek nation-state has based its self-image on the notion of historical continuity and its links with its weighty, but remote, classical past that persist today. Moreover, these links have more to do with a romanticised, idealised version of the classical era, as propagated, for example, in the 19th Century by northern European Philhellenes on the Grand Tour. On the other hand, Greece is probably considered too ‘westernised’, too ‘Americanised’ even, less ‘troubled’ to arouse the curiosity that its hitherto isolated Balkan neighbours have aroused. Similarly, it is not ‘exotic’ or remote enough to have become assimilated into the discourse about the ‘Other’ that has become so popular in post-colonial discourse. Neither is it large or powerful enough to be a ‘player’ in the international mainstream. As a result, in terms of how our cultural profile is perceived, we appear to occupy a grey zone, an ambivalent, indeterminate unspecified territory. In many ways, in terms of our contemporary cultural production, we could be called the Invisible Europeans. There are, of course, numerous reasons for this.
The reality is that the development of modern Greece began in 1829, following the Greek War of Independence after nearly 400 years of Ottoman rule. During the Twentieth Century, Greece has undergone the transition from a rural to a predominantly urban society that has gradually emerged from the poverty of the mid-world war period to become, recently, one of the world’s thirty most developed countries, according to the OECD. Thirty years after the fall of the dictatorship Greece is now a democratic country, an EU member, and a burgeoning multi-cultural society which is trying to come to terms with its new position on the world map. This position is somewhat different from that of its South Eastern European neighbours. Though the region widely known as the Balkans has been an almost permanent source of unrest, conflict or social upheaval, Greece has - in the post World War Two and post Civil War period which immediately followed - managed to stay outside the flammable situations that manifested themselves around its borders. Unlike many of its Balkan neighbours, and discounting the dark years of the 1967-1974 dictatorship, the country has seen growth, stability and democracy for a steady period of over 30 years. So, although geographically Greece is part of the Balkan area, it has not really ever considered itself a ‘Balkan’ country and has not, perhaps as a result, been assimilated into the typecasting wild, rough Balkan myth. Greece has always thought of itself as more ‘European’ than ‘Balkan’ (as if the Balkans are not a part of Europe), though it has not really ever been an industrial power nor was it particularly infiltrated by renaissance and enlightenment ideas or any of the artistic modern movements.
Many views of post-war Balkan history also omit Greece precisely because of its free-world status. By extent, it has not, for example, seen the economic hardship and suppression of civil liberties of its former Soviet bloc neighbours. Indicatively, and by comparison, the transitional changes that have taken place in Greece in the post World War Two era are less of a political and more of an economic and social nature. In 1981 Greece joined the EU and (save one brief interval in the beginning of the 90s) has since been governed by a socialist government with a liberal attitude to market economy. Despite our economically privileged position in the region, the burning social problems that beleaguer most of Europe are becoming serious issues here too: education, healthcare, social welfare, an aging population and the growing divide between rich and poor are becoming everyday realities in a country which until recently prided itself on its high standard of living and “quality of life” and a large middle class that has begun to dwindle. Despite changing economic conditions, consumerism and materialism are rampant, culture (particularly contemporary art) is not a priority on the government agenda and the importance of art in a civil society is ignored. In addition, the privatisation of television and de-regulation of the media have resulted in an increasingly populist notion of ‘culture’ with television having become the dominant medium for visual experience. To add to that, the proliferation of trash TV, yellow journalism and banal, debasing reality shows have become the norm in ‘entertainment’ and news casting. As a critical alternative to this kind of visual culture, contemporary art has a very important, if admittedly marginal, role to play.
Social conditions are also changing in Greece. Until the end of the 1980s Greek society was largely homogeneous, i.e. white, of the same ethnic origin, and of Greek Orthodox faith. Perhaps the most marked change since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, is the steady increase in immigration, predominantly from the former socialist states but also from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other Asian nations. In the past, the Greeks themselves were archetypical emigres; the opposite now is true: Greece is becoming a primary destination for immigrants and displaced persons from all over the world. This is rapidly turning the country into a multi-layered society of different ethnic and religious groups which is still not fully accustomed to the assimilation of others.
Modern Greece is a country that is characterised by cultural hybridity and cross-cultural fertilisation, largely the result of history and geographical location. Dwelling between its ancestry and the will to modernise, an eagerness to import consumer goods and information and the anxiety to preserve tradition, it has only recently begun to come to terms with this complex, double-sided identity.
Contemporary Greek society has assimilated both Mediterranean and Oriental influences as well as Occidental lifestyles and consumerist habits. Though long-standing traditions such as the close-knit family and the belief in and strength of the Greek Orthodox religion persist, at the same time Greece is a fully westernised nation, where life is not much different from other European countries.
Contemporary art has begun to flourish in its own small way during the last ten years or so in Greece. The lack of a well thought-out and structured public policy regarding the promotion of contemporary culture, the scarcity of public funding, as well the shortage of institutions and the necessary infrastructure to support it have contributed to the longstanding isolation of Greek art and artists from the international mainstream. Until very recently the visual arts (and culture, in general) were conceived of in terms of a tradition that was largely ethnocentric and inward looking, where provincial, academic axioms of “Greekness”, and the worship of antiquity were key concerns. “Advanced” contemporary Greek art mostly manifested itself abroad (through the work of artists such as Kounellis, Samaras or Takis), or was marginalised at home. Greece missed out on the modernist experiment and was more concerned (at the beginning of the century) with preserving the classical ideal in art, an ideal to which it looked to German art academies for validation.
Therefore only very recently has it become common consciousness that we need to re-invent our identity based on recent or present experiences and not those of the distant past; experiences which are our own and not mediated by external perspectives. Nevertheless the weight of our classical heritage still haunts us and there is still much suspicion about contemporary art. Just to give an example about how fixated we are on the past I want to give an example. Much has been made, in Greece, of the so-called Cultural Olympiad, instigated by the Ministry of Culture to coincide with the Olympic Games; the Cultural Olympiad is a series of cultural events - from performing to visual arts - scheduled to take place in the run up to the 2004 Olympic Games, with a view to promoting Greek heritage and cultural exchange, or what the Ministry vaguely calls “a civilisation of civilisations”, whatever that may mean. Large amounts of money – millions of euros – have been spent on this. Indicatively, in the field of the visual arts, many exhibitions are scheduled or have taken place. Less than a handful are about contemporary art. The rest, to give an idea from their titles, are as follows:“Post Byzantium”, “Mycenean Views”, “The Bull in the Mediterranean”, “Byzantine Icons”, “Alexander the Great”, “Under the Light of Apollo”, “The Sporting Spirit in Ancient Greece” and lastly but by no mean leastly “Pleats” - the history of, believe it or not, the pleat, from antiquity to now. If one were to look at the web site of the Cultural Olympiad, one would assume we still live in the 5th Century B.C. The only large international exhibition of contemporary art to take place is “Outlook”, a blockbuster featuring 85 international contemporary artists, which is on view as I write this. In short, in Greece we often tend to forget that today’s cultural production is tomorrow’s cultural heritage. Which translates into what I would call a “contemporary identity problem”.
Given this background one can imagine how difficult it is for contemporary artists. There are no official channels of financial support such as the British Council or Mondriaan Foundation, for example; national representations in all biennials are handled by the Ministry of Culture, often erratically, and with decisions shaped by political considerations or favoritism. This has contributed to an art scene that was, until very recently, provincial and inward looking. Those who are worst off are the artists who rely on the occasional gallery show or, in most cases, have to self finance their work.
This, in general, constitutes the background out of which contemporary Greek artistic production has tried to emerge. Despite the longstanding lack of support for contemporary art and the traditional, atelier-style education offered at the two national schools of fine art, things have begin to change in recent years and there has been great development and activity in the field of contemporary art, most of which has depended largely on private financial support. In the last ten years or so, the contemporary art scene has gradually become more de-insularised, it is casting aside its occasional suspicion of the foreign, and is becoming increasingly open to international exchange despite the numerous home-grown problems in the field of the contemporary visual arts.
New exhibition spaces, galleries, and artist-run initiatives have opened ; Athens and Thessaloniki, the two largest cities where most artistic activity is concentrated, now finally have recently established state museums of contemporary art. A handful of notable collections of international as well as Greek contemporary art are now being shaped and the audience for contemporary art is gradually growing, though the art market is still small and provincial. Nevertheless, there are more exhibitions taking place and much more exposure of contemporary art in the public arena than ever before. The main problem is the lack of proper institutional infrastructure. Though the newly established museums are a welcome addition to the Greek artistic community, it sometimes feels that they have been established half-heartedly and that the government seems unwilling to supply them with the necessary means that would make them internationally competitive. Both these state museums of contemporary art do not, for example, have curators of contemporary art ( !). The National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens (EMST), relies – to a large extent – on donations from artists, something highly problematic. Who, if not museums, should be supportive of artists? The State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki, on the other hand, bases its claim to fame on the acquisition of a part of the Costakis collection of Russian avant garde art – something for which it paid a considerable amount of money. Its exhibition programme thus revolves mostly around this time frame or around shows of mediocre Greek artists. The Thessaloniki Centre for Contemporary Art (CACT) – which was established as a branch of the Museum to showcase younger art – still lacks a building and curatorial staff. Moreover, there are no kunsthalles or ICA-type organisations which stage temporary exhibitions of emerging art. In this respect, private foundations and galleries have played - and still play – a key role in raising awareness of contemporary art.
Another problem that we are faced with is that while there is an increasing number of shows of international contemporary art taking place in Greece (something that is, no doubt, more than welcome) when it comes to the promotion of Greek artists abroad, there just isn’t the same amount of zeal. In short, it seems we are more interested in the ‘import’ of contemporary art, than in the ‘export’ of Greek artists. Maybe because the former is also much easier. Attempts to place Greek artists in international exhibitions are fragmented, based on the efforts of selected individuals. No wonder then, that contemporary Greek art is virtually unknown outside the boundaries of Greece. What is needed above all, is an organised network that would enable Greek artists to gain exposure abroad and more financial assistance when they do cross the borders of Greece.
Regarding contemporary art practice per se, as in most places it is varied and polymorphous; there is no one style, movement or dominant set of conventions. In the work of younger generation artists the notion of Greekness or ‘national identity’ is no longer such an important issue. They realise that the identity problem is a much more fluid issue that cannot be defined in all-too-certain terms. They are much more likely to be concerned with the notion of cultural specificity, i.e. those particularities and individual characteristics that give rise to a place’s unique qualities. If their work does articulate a sense of cultural specificity it is neither didactic, chauvinistic, or ethnocentric. On the other hand, some artists may not be interested at all in any such issues of locality or cultural specificity, but are concerned with examining universal culture and its systems of representation. In either case, it is clear that there is no one dominant sphere of interest, rather a freedom to choose, reference and create.
As elsewhere, the artists question and reflect the times in which we live; they tackle their social, cultural and dominant reality as well as convey their personal worlds and microcosms. They probe contemporary urban phenomena and ways of life as well as exposing their inner, private worlds as shaped by their particular experiences of time, place and personal circumstance. The question of culture-identity codes is of course prevalent, as it is all over a world in the throes of “globalisation” (a word that mostly refers to economic parameters and systems of exchange). In Greece, this is an often confusing and paradoxical issue. On the one hand, one could say that daily lifestyles are fully westernised; that sometimes we appear to be a misprint of American culture; on the other hand, traditions like religion and the Greek Orthodox church persist, indeed appear to be getting stronger and the male dominated-patriarchal society still persists on many levels (though women now mostly work).
This culture-identity question becomes all the more pertinent now that almost everything is being diluted through the filter of ‘globalisation’ and the communication networks. As a result, certain questions seem to arise and prevail. How do we define ourselves? In a world that is increasingly homogenised, what is it that makes us different from someone else, in some other country? Language? Religion? Daily lifestyles and patterns? Small, inconspicuous habits? The vestiges of old customs or traditions, some of which we still exercise mechanically? The question is rather difficult to answer. It is perhaps all of those things together and others that one cannot pinpoint, too. Identity is becoming such a fluid, almost ungraspable concept that it is increasingly difficult to to define. How “Greek” is one? Or “French”, “Chinese”, or “Slovenian” for that matter? And yet one is something, and our place of birth or domicile in many ways shapes who we are. What is it, then, that makes us what we are as social entities of a particular ethnic origin? These are questions we all toil about and for which there are no definitive answer. Perhaps contemporary artists have grasped better than any one else that identity is not a monolithic structure and is more liable to be fragmentary and fluid in nature, but nevertheless imbued with specific particularities.
One of the most important recent developments in Greece has been the emergence of a highly active generation of artists, born predominantly in the 1960s and 1970s, who have been keen to re-define their roles, who view art practice in less hierarchical terms and have shaken off old-fashioned rules and “ought tos” in art freeing themselves from the guilt syndromes of times of yore. They realize that there is no one way of making art just as there is no one correct way of making art. These artists severed their links with the past, abandoned the neo-figurative and neo-expressionist traditions that were dominant in the 80s and early 90s, and have been instrumental in consolidating a neo-conceptual tradition in Greece. Their work is most probably less concerned with materiality and process and more concerned with content, context and critique. They are aware of the international art scene and are trying, despite limited support, to find a niche in it. The activities of this generation have been instrumental in the regeneration of Greek contemporary art. These artists are less (if not at all) concerned with now tired and old-fashioned notions of “Greekness” and national identity, issues that have been more significant for artists of older generations. Their work is also less politicized or overtly politically oriented as opposed to that of many artists from some neighbouring countries who have had more than their fair share of totalitarianism, violent conflict, and political strife, much of which is still very fresh in collective memory. In general, however, there seems to be less political work; younger people seem to have lost faith in it. In Greece, younger artists’ work is more concerned with socio-cultural or personal codes of representation. It tends to be more sited within an international context, makes use of the communication networks, is more socially critical, globally aware, inter-disciplinary, technologically savvy and disregarding of artistic hierarchies. This is a generation that has grown up in Greece but has set its eyes on Europe and the rest of the world and has shed the weighty “baggage” and guilt complexes of the past. This generation of Greek artists could well be the most promising of the last fifty years, as they are more ‘open’ and no longer bogged down by the xenophobic insular mentality that characterises a large part of the artistic establishment in Greece, nor do they blindly follow international trends. Rather, they embrace every field of experience at home or abroad in order to express their own sense of individuality and to articulate a wide variety of concerns, global as well as local. What these artists share in common are similar experiences of perceiving the world and their surroundings, a metropolitan genealogy and the reality of living in a rapidly changing urban environment. Other than that, it is virtually impossible to pin down their work by categorising labels. In concluding, one could say that the Greek art scene is heterogeneous, emergent, non-identifiable in categoric terms, and full of promise which needs to be nurtured by institutional infrastructures and a systematic, decisive push for contemporary art. Exisiting under the shadow of the Acropolis does not sometimes help. But, let’s not forget that as Mario Merz has stated, “All art has been contemporary”. Maybe that is the most valuable lesson we in the art world in Greece can learn.