Acropolis Redux (The Director’s Cut) is the mischievous title of the South African artist Kendell Geers specially commissioned work at an exhibition in the National Museum of Contemporary Arts (EMST) in Athens. In creating a reduced scale, minimalist rendering of one of Greece’s most cherished cultural symbols, Geers suggested the marble columns of the Parthenon with ‘a special fencing material patented in South Africa’ as he told me at the press opening. The things was that we were looking at empty aluminium stock shelves - the skeleton of the installation - and, intrigued as I was by the ‘special fencing material,’ I had difficulty imaging exactly what he meant. The unique South African export was held up in a shipping limbo somewhere in Italy and would be arriving the next day. Geers said he was interested in borders and limits, not as symbols, but by their physical presence (the irony of the delay was not lost on him) and that growing up in Apartheid South Africa he was well acquainted with such places.
Two weeks later, when I visited the exhibition again, Acropolis Redux was complete. Coils of razor wire of different diameters and variously packed, were stacked on the shelves, sometimes in prickly vertical cylinders and in places unfurling aggressively in horizontal pediments. If the Ancient Greek temple was a monument to an anthropocentric world view of human-like Gods, Geers’ installation reflects a harsher view of power as inherent in industrial products and processes both in their strange monochrome beauty and their real physical presence.
Acropolis Redux is one of sixteen new works commissioned by EMST for the Transcultures exhibition, a show that will run during the Olympics until the end of the year. Perhaps taking Athens peripheral status in Europe as a starting point, it promises that ‘even if the artists are exclusively inspired by local and regional cultures, the produced works of art address an audience that has gone beyond ethnic and local boundaries.’ Works by artists from Mediterranean cultures are well represented and, in particular, there seems to have been a curatorial decision to include many works by artists from the Levant (even if the majority of them now live and work in New York or London) with whom Greece has long had commercial and cultural ties.
Walid Ra’ad & the Atlas Group are back for a second show in the museum in six months with a piece that continues the architect-artists’ exploration of recent Lebanese history with My Neck Is Thinner Than A Hair: Craters_The Nasser Files (Notebook 23). Like their previous work, a project on the Beirut hostage crises of the 1980’s with Suheil Bachar that was shown at the Synopsis 3 - Testimonies exhibition at the beginning of 2004, the new work addresses the events of Lebanon’s recent past in a direct fashion, creating an alternative history to that of the official story. This current discourse, with its emphasis on speedy redevelopment and openness to global economic and cultural trends, threatens to erase the human experience of the civil war and its aftermath from public space. The Atlas Group’s ‘documentary’ works, this time a political, historical and psychological exploration of the 36 000 car bombs that went off in the civil war, seek to redress this balance by re-materialising fragments of this painful period.
Housed in the recently completed lavish Athens’ Concert Hall and patrolled by a well appointed retinue of private security guards, the exhibition’s current space is a jarring but practical temporary home for the activities of a museum of contemporary art. According to the museum’s director and Transculture’s curator, Anna Kafetsi, the new buildings will have three floors devoted to the museum’s permanent collection (of which the works in Transcultures are an important part) and two floors for temporary exhibitions as well as a state-of-the-art new media post production centre. The transformation of the FIX beer factory following an international architectural competition should be complete by the end of 2006. This building is itself an important city landmark near the new Acropolis Museum and is originally the work of one of Greece’s most respected Modernist architects, Takis Zenetos. In contrast to the Concert Hall, the renovated building will create ‘a minimalist, functional museum with particular weight given to hi-technology. The museum will restore two of the original sides of Zenetos’ building in glass, reflecting the museum’s openness and communication with the outside… It will not be just another contemporary art museum, but will reflect local needs through both self-knowledge and understanding of the other.’
Mona Hatoum, a Palestinian-Lebanese artist based in London, addressed the current state of the museum’s permanent home in her work Fix it, an installation of factory fixtures and furnishings, light bulbs and sound that pulses and groans as it slowly rusts away. Taking the FIX factory prior to its refurbishment as her starting point and using found-objects from the site, she created a wheezing post-industrial space that refuses to die, a chthonian monster that lurks below the surface of the contemporary city.
Other pieces include works by the apocalyptic American video artist Bill Viola, Palestinian artist Emily Jacir, Dutch artist Wolfgang Laib, Miroslaw Balka from Poland, the Iranian video artist Shirin Neshat as well as several other Greek and European artists. One of the most moving works, however, is the installation by one of the two Korean artists in the show, Do Ho Suh, StaircaseII, a hanging staircase made of pink translucent nylon, meticulously cut and stitched (even the light fittings are flawlessly rendered) to create an eerie spectral presence reinforced by the luminous pink ceiling. Walking in, under the floor, the viewer is immersed in a familiar household structure that is at once completely visible, the transparent material highlighting its almost perfectly clear forms, and at the same time, the viewer is confronted with a wholly new visual experience: a ghostly world seen through x-ray filters, its uncanny pink glow only furthering its poetic sense of strangeness.
If there is one work that highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of the Transcultures show, it’s Mandala: Zone of Zero by Kim Sooja. A circular American juke box speaker - flashing neon lights from the Las Vegas night - plays mixed sound from Tibetan, Gregorian and Islamic chants in a dark room. Gloriously affirming and yet somehow undemanding, it draws on ‘religious, philosophical, social and political elements from diverse cultures’ but leaves open the question of whether they are considered ‘coequal and recognized to share the same anthropological background’ as the exhibition’s press release so hopefully states. Although at times the solutions the artists provide fudge and perhaps some works fail to move beyond the ideological outline set by the curator, Transcultures is a show with some striking works that bring the viewer to face to face with challenging ideas through some beautiful, strange and original objects and films.
The following artists are showing in the Transcultures exhibition:
Costas Varotsos, Emily Jacir, Wolfgang Laib, Miroslaw Balka, Danae
Stratou, Costas Tsoclis, Katharina Fritsch, George Hadjimichalis and Gary