Acropolis Now: Maya Jaggi Visits Athens to See the Creative Efforts of a Society in Meltdown
When the curators of the third Athens Biennale described it to me as a "crisis" show, it was no empty metaphor. Leaving them at dusk after a sneak preview in central Athens, I walked straight into a running battle between riot police and anti-austerity protesters in Monasti-raki Square. Acrid smoke from petrol-bombed shops hit the back of my throat, along with the stench of tear gas and mouldering rubbish that Athenians now find emblematic of their city.
The biennale, entitled Monodrome, opened on 23 October on the heels of a 48-hour general strike and huge rallies at the Greek parliament in Syntagma Square. Xenia Kalpaktsoglou and Polidoros Kariofilis-two-thirds of the curatorial trio XYZ that founded the Athens Biennale - do not attempt to compete with the making of history on the streets, but bring it inside using audio and video from Syntagma. Monodrome is running on small private donations, the goodwill of artists and volunteers, and sponsorship in kind - including free use of municipal buildings. In an instructive show of Franco-Greek co-operation, the pair enlisted as cocurator Nicolas Bourriaud, a critical theorist working with the French ministry of culture.
The protagonist is the Diplareios School in Theatre Square, built in 1932 as a design college with Bauhaus aspirations that never bore fruit. From a basement filled with silent lathes to an attic view of the Acropolis, the empty school, with its graffitied walls, is used to tell a story about modern Greece. Its dereliction mirrors the location near Omonia Square, in a migrant ghetto overtaken by drug-dealing. Kariofilis, also known as the artist Poka-Yio, says it was built "for an industrial future that never came. We never had industrial design, because we never had industry." Tourism became Greece's postwar mainstay. In the 1980s, the city planning office moved in; its corruption partly explains the predicament of surrounding streets.
Inspired by Walter Benjamin's One-Way Street (1928), the show is more about dead ends and a "lost future", yet it aims to present an "archaeology of the crisis". …