3rd Athens Biennale: Monodrome
various venues 23 October to 11 December
3rd Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art: Old Intersections--Make it New
various venues 18 September to 18 December
If intercity rivalry and stubbornness seem to account for the existence of two biennales in Greece since 2007, only great enthusiasm and tenacity can explain how both the Thessaloniki and Athens Biennales were able to take place in this year of major financial crisis. Funded by the Greek government and the European Union as the first of a biennale trilogy dedicated to the Mediterranean region, this year's Thessaloniki Biennale was apparently conceived and installed in around six months, relying on the goodwill of unpaid staff and contractors until the bulk of the funding was released a few weeks before the opening. The privately funded Athens exhibition, for its part the last instalment in a trilogy started in 2007, offers a lesson in how to put on a biennale on a shoestring: choose very few venues, use found objects and archival documents creatively, do not publish a catalogue, rely almost entirely on volunteers and gifts in kind, and focus on a programme of performances and talks, to be arranged as you go along (I was invited to give a lecture at less than four weeks' notice when the team found out I was going to be visiting the Biennale). Both exhibitions certainly stand as remarkable testimonies to the resilience of art in the face of adversity, while also giving Greeks a chance to counter a largely negative international media coverage by shaping their own national image. With the Biennale's title, 'Monodrome'--a bizarre hellenisation of Walter Benjamin's One-Way Street--the Athens team (including guest curator Nicolas Bourriaud) seems to have been referring less to a dead-end than to a general lack of options. In conversation, co-curator Poka-Yio mentioned in particular the chorus--coming from the European Union, the IMF and the Greek government--that there is only one way out. Limited possibilities were also on the minds of the Thessaloniki curators, who titled their main Biennale exhibition 'A Rock and a Hard Place'. It is precisely between a rock and a hard place that the one-way street seems to run in Greece right now, heralding the fate that may yet await other countries.
Beyond the inclusion of the recently deceased Vaslis Caniaris, whose work captures the pathos of modern Greece's history, the two biennales appear to have little in common. The staging of Caniaris's work in a Byzantine fortress, used from the 1930s to the 70s to hold political prisoners, counts among the successful additions to this year's Thessaloniki
Biennale, in which each venue has a different character, though none quite as dramatic as this former jail. In contrast, the Athens Biennale is largely concentrated in one building: a vast, abandoned arts and crafts school in Psyrri, a neighbourhood still considered to be dangerous by many Athenians. The curators kept the building as they found it, including broken walls and boarded windows, graffiti and used blackboards, down to dead pigeons left untouched, under glass bells, on the floor. The school bears the traces of turmoil and desolation as well as invoking the promise of order and education in 20th-century Greece. At times, we visitors are children learning to read Aesop's fables or to look at playful, colourful floor constructions by Rallou Panagiotou; at other times we struggle to make sense of barely legible slogans (by Matias Faldbakken), of a sea of phone numbers that Rena Papaspyrou copied from and added to the wall, or of a room full of defunct desks retrieved from the Greek army by the Under Construction collective, at great bureaucratic expense.
Everywhere we turn ancient history seems inescapable, whether in the display of plans for the first Acropolis museum, the marketing of Greece as a tourist and business destination in 1960s and 70s publicity posters, or the plaster casts used by fine art students. …