Former tobacco factory sets Athens’ radical art scene on fire
It is often the buildings with the most curious past lives that constitute the most striking scenes. In Athens, a colossal new group show, “Portals”, has a backdrop almost as intriguing as the art it frames.
“Portals” takes place in the city’s former public tobacco factory, built in 1930 to cultivate a crop that has been one of Greece’s most important exports. “The former public tobacco factory building is an iconic structure in the city center, a symbol of the country’s industrialization path and, at the same time, an imprint of its architectural heritage”, says Elina Kountouri, co-curator of the exhibition and director of Neon, the non-profit arts organization that co-hosted the show and renovated the historic building.
Nikos Navridis, Try again. Fail again. Fail better, 2013, galvanized sheet, oven paint, LED light, 2021 Edition, courtesy of the artist, NEON and Bernier / Eliades Gallery. Installation view ‘Portals’, Hellenic Parliament + NEON at the former public tobacco factory, photograph © George Charisis, courtesy of NEON
Although the story begins with tobacco and ends with world-class contemporary art, the shapeshifter building has shown versatility throughout its near-century history. It served as a prison, was a WWII air raid shelter, housed Romanian refugees, hosted the Greek Cabinet office, the Ministry of Finance and its current occupant, the Hellenic Parliament, with which Neon collaborated to ‘Portals’.
This rich history is in tune with the theme of the show. This year marks 200 years since the start of Greece’s war for independence against the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the modern Greek nation. In ‘Portals’ parallels are drawn between this founding moment in Greek history and the Covid-19 pandemic that continues to shake the world.
“Two hundred years ago, the Greeks had to design their future as an independent state and defend the values of the rule of law and personal freedoms. Today humanity is forced to reshape everyday reality and reassess its understanding of what freedom means. Once again, we are asked to reimagine resurgent lives of revolution and upheaval, ”says Kountouri, who co-hosted“ Portals ”with Madeleine Grynsztejn, director of Pritzker, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
(Front to back) Do Ho Suh, 348, 22nd street west, apt. A & Corridor, New York, NY 10011, 2000-1, translucent nylon, D. Daskalopoulos Collection; Apostolos Georgiou, Untitled, 2020, diptych, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Rodeo, London / Piraeus. Installation View Portals, Hellenic Parliament + NEON at the former public tobacco factory, photography © Natalia Tsoukala, courtesy NEON
Danh Võ, Untitled, 2021 (detail), mixed media. Courtesy of the artist. Commissioned by NEON. Installation view ‘Portals’, Hellenic Parliament + NEON at the former public tobacco factory, photograph © Natalia Tsoukala, courtesy of NEON
Neon, founded in 2013 by collector and entrepreneur Dimitris Daskalopoulos, sees its platform as the city. By focusing on initiatives in civic and social contexts, he identifies the power of contemporary art to inspire individuals and society. Hosted in the west wing of the building, the group exhibition features 59 artists from 27 countries with 15 site-specific and newly commissioned works. Among the artist’s new commissions are Glenn Ligon, Duro Olowu, Teresa Margolles, Michael Rakowitz, Danh Vō and Chrysanthi Koumianaki.
from Ligon Waiting for the barbarians, a white neon work in direct conversation with the architecture of the building, takes its title and inspiration from a work by the Greek poet CP Cavafy. It features nine English translations of the poem, one of which was generated via Google Translate. “CP Cavafy was one of the first modern Greek poets I was introduced to in high school and I have always admired the subtlety of his language and the frankness with which he approaches themes of homosexual desire,” said the American artist at Wallpaper *. “Since I don’t read Greek, I have always relied on the translations, but since there are dozens of translations of Cavafy in English, I realized that it could be interesting to present them simultaneously instead of choosing the “best” translation of a particular poem. . The poem is over a hundred years old, but its themes of cultural dissolution, fear of the other, and political expediency resonate strongly today.
Glenn Ligon, Waiting for the barbarians, (detail), 2021, Neon. Courtesy of the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery. Commissioned by NEON. Installation view ‘Portals’, Hellenic Parliament + NEON at the former public tobacco factory, photograph © Natalia Tsoukala, courtesy of NEON
Duro Olowu, Bound, lost, found, sent by the sky: a trail of objects, 2021 (detail), courtesy of the artist. Commissioned by NEON. Installation View Portals, Hellenic Parliament + NEON at the former public tobacco factory, photograph © Natalia Tsoukala, courtesy of NEON
Olowu’s new job Bound, lost, found, sent by the sky: a trail of objects, staged in the factory’s former customs house, features textured carvings, rendered in ash, oak and sapele and cedar wood, synthetic and natural fabrics, alongside those using found antique objects.
Through her multifaceted work, Olowu hopes to “subliminally create an environment that examines diverse historical and contemporary ideas about migration, beauty, and ‘found’ truths. Such as the ancient and modern links between Ethiopia and Greece as expounded by Homer in his poems “Odyssey” and “The Iliad”. In these poems Ethiopia was called Aethiopia, which translates to “burnt face”. The connotations reveal hidden and ubiquitous nuances in politics and art.
Daphne Wright, Maple sunflowers, 2019, mixed media, courtesy of the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London. Installation View Portals, Hellenic Parliament + NEON at the former public tobacco factory, photograph © Natalia Tsoukala, courtesy of NEON
Other artists present existing works in a new context. These include pieces by Daphne Wright, Do Ho Suh, Shilpa Gupta, Adam Pendleton, Ed Ruscha, Steve McQueen, Maria Papadimitriou and Brazilian artist Adriana Varejão. Irish artist Wright presents works from a recent series, A quiet mutiny, which explores the melancholy and banality of domestic life. “In dried but unfired clay, I recreated familiar objects that included a child’s stroller, houseplants and a refrigerator. I chose these things because of their momentary quality; they are only briefly valued in our daily life, ”she says.
“Portals” was inspired by a 2020 article by novelist Arundhati Roy, who saw the pandemic as a “portal, a gateway between one world and another”. She recognized that the rupture created by the pandemic individually and collectively opens a portal, one through which we can negotiate our transition.
Kutluğ Ataman, Kuba, 2004, 40-channel video installation with sound, 40 used chairs, 40 tables, 40 televisions, D.Daskalopoulos Collection; Adam Pendleton, Our ideas # 2, 2018, silkscreen ink on Mylar, courtesy of Yaacov Gorsd Collection, Art Consultancy Idit Orni. Installation view ‘Portals’, Hellenic Parliament + NEON at the former public tobacco factory, photograph © Natalia Tsoukala, courtesy of NEON
According to Roy, “we can choose to cross it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudices and hatred, our greed, our databases and dead ideas, our dead rivers and our smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk around light, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.
Here, each artist dissects the pluralism of ideas, our cultural understanding of history and politics, the role of public space and our communal past, present and future. “The consequences of the pandemic – psychological, physical, social, economic and political – have not yet been fully quantified,” Kountouri said. “The exhibition intends to show how this precise moment leads us to a portal. Connection is the passage, a gateway. Once we get to the other side, we will have to reconfirm, for the well-being of future generations, our commitment to certain principles: the rule of law, human rights and democracy. ‘ §