Smeared as ‘Disaster Tourism,’ documenta 14 Tried to Revive Athens’s Post-Crisis Art Scene. It May Have Worked

There is a silver lining to Adam Szymczyk’s exhibition for the Greek capital as new spaces open and the number of younger collectors grows.

6th Athens Biennale curators, Stefanie Hessler, Poka-Yio, and Kostis Stafylakis at the Chessboxing arena at Esperia Palace. Photo by Nysos Vasilopoulos.

The road to Athens was paved with good intentions.

Many were dubious, others highly critical, when the artistic director of documenta 14 made the controversial—and expensive—decision to hold the prestigious exhibition in the Greek capital as well as Kassel in Germany in 2017. One year after the sprawling German-Greek exhibition, the move appears to be paying off—if not for the financially struggling documenta, then at least for Athens.

Originally, the project was not greeted kindly. As plans cohered for the country’s third bailout, the high-profile academic and former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis called the exhibition “disaster tourism.” But as it turns out, the project has had a mostly positive long-term impact on the Greek capital’s art scene. (Ironically, the pricey plan did more damage to documenta, which eventually needed a bailout of its own.) 

Since the show, there has been an influx of artists, independent curators, and cultural workers to Athens, some of whom have returned after spells abroad. They have contributed to what the artist Iris Touliatou describes as a local scene that is “more inclusive, progressive, diverse, open.”

Touliatou, who is Greek, returned to Athens in 2015 after 12 years in Berlin and Paris. She calls Athens’s art community agile, having always had to roll with the punches. The main difference since documenta 14 is that “curators have been paying more attention to what is going on here,” she tells artnet News.

She sees this as part of larger trend in an art world that is moving away from established centers and toward emerging scenes. “The pre- and post- documenta argument that has been heavily used is, in my opinion, a partial association,” she argues. “The periphery, [the global] south, non-Western, and Other is getting its dues, and fairly so.”

 

Newcomers and New Money 

Touliatou’s sculptural work was featured in a recent group exhibition at Haus N Athen, a non-profit space opened in late March by the German collectors Peter and Gunda Niemann, who are based in Kiel. They say their decision to open the Athens space was a direct result of having come to the Greek capital for documenta 14.

There, they met the artist Amalia Vekri, who now manages Haus N Athen. She helped them find the 240-square-meter space in the central Monastiraki district, where they host alternating exhibitions by guest curators, as well as performances and readings. The collectors envision the space as a mixed-use cultural center rather than a venue for their own collection. 

“The city has attracted artists and curators throughout documenta 14 and still does,” says Stefanie Hessler, a co-curator of the 6th Athens Biennale who moved to the city ahead of the exhibition, which opened last month. Next year, she notes, two new residency programs—Onassis AiR programme or ARCAthens—are due to launch. “So, in this sense, documenta has had a positive and lasting effect.”

Meanwhile, the Athens Biennale continues to function as an important forum for the local art community, not least as a platform from which to engage with the rest of the world’s sometimes simplistic understanding of Athens.

The biennial’s co-curator Kostis Stafylakis explains that the important role that the biennial has played in fostering critical expression around the social, political, and ideological developments that arose from the financial crisis. “In the last three years, the international focus on Athens was intensified, contributing to a superficial representation of the city as a global paradigm of alternate lifestyles and radicalized communities,” he tells artnet News. “The biennale welcomed local and international critical voices that deconstructed this fetishization of Athens by mimicking and subverting the imaginary romanticization of local social life.” 

 

Installation view of Vasilis Papageorgiou, “When the Sun Goes Up, Bar Stories in 3 Acts,” at Hot Wheels Projects, Athens, 2018.

  

Compact Condo Comes to Athens 

The Breeder, Athens’s most important contemporary art gallery, inaugurated its multi-story space in a converted ice-cream factory in 2008, just shortly before the collapse of Lehman Brothers. It is hard to imagine how the gallery would have remained afloat without participating in international art fairs and establishing a collector base beyond the shipping families that traditionally make up the Greek art-buying power players.

But recently, it has been spreading its wings wider at home. Last month, coinciding with the opening of the Athens Biennale, The Breeder hosted Condo Unit, a compact version of the popular gallery-share program, with visiting dealers including König Galerie and Galerie Barbara Thumm from Berlin, Art:Concept from Paris, Dastan’s Basement from Tehran, and others. The message this sends is that the Greek art market has bounced back enough for international galleries to want to gain access to it.

The Iranian gallery Dastan sold several of the collaborative paintings by the three Ghasemi brothers, who are all established painters in their own right, and who worked together for the first time on the series shown here. However, the price range for the works starts at just a few hundred euros and goes up to €3,500 ($4,000)—a range that attracts a younger generation of collectors. Other galleries did not comment on sales, but say they have made new connections. König Galerie reiterated that it has established contacts with young buyers who are venturing into more experimental realms than their collector parents.

Hot Wheels Projects, founded by Hugo Wheeler and Julia Gardener in October 2017, is one of the more visible project spaces that have popped up in Athens since documenta 14. Wheeler initially moved to the city from London just before documenta’s opening to work on an exhibition curated by Milovan Farronato at The Breeder gallery. (Faranato is curating the Italian Pavilion at Venice next year.) He later opened Hot Wheels as an experimental space to represent the emerging Athens scene. So far, it has also found a responsive community of collectors among affluent 20-somethings.

Vasilis Papageorgiou, Solo Bar (Blue) (2018), at Hot Wheels Projects, Athens, 2018.

“There are quite a few opportunities to connect with the local collector scene in Athens,” Wheeler says. He cites Art Athena, the local art fair directed by Stamatia Dimitrakopoulos, and initiatives such as the Young Cycladic Patrons who are “very open to supporting at an emerging level.”

“I feel it’s a really great place for young galleries to grow,” Wheeler says, “firstly thanks to very interesting local practitioners. Being able to grow with them and provide a platform for is really the gallery’s main purpose.” He also noticed that international artists are interested in showing in Athens, perhaps more so than in other places. “This can create a very interesting conversation,” he says. 


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