Athens: a Metropolis by mistake?
Leonidas Liambey - 08/10/2004
‘Athens, Metropolis by Mistake?’ was an exhibition held at two sites in the centre of the city that aimed to explore the identity of Athens as it develops as an organic, changing entity. ‘The transformation and rapid transition of a city like Athens from a European capital with a vibrant contemporary life, cultural heritage and traditional architectural fabric into a metropolis, an economic and cultural centre of Eastern Europe,’ is emblematic of the changes many cities are undergoing, according to Olinga Miliaresi-Foka, the curator of the exhibition. As such, the works shown, though mostly rooted in the specifics of Athens, should reflect wider trends in cities across the globe: ‘Athens is changing faster than us. In the Olympic year of 2004, Athens is becoming a metropolis, changing into a super city, with cities within the city, multi-racial, multi-lingual and contradictory.’
The artist Nikos Tranos, in ‘Delivery’, a video-journey through the centre of Athens taken by two cameras mounted on a motorbike, darts through the city’s streets, arcades and markets and documents the movement of people in the centre of the city, their exchanges and the chaotic interactions of the streets. Turning down Sofokleos Street, the address of the Athens Stock Exchange (often just referred to as ‘Sofokleos’), the cameras pass the shimmering glass of the National Bank, before skirting the unruly covered meat market and crossing into little Pakistan, where call-shops, Indian snack bars and mini-markets are filled with people speaking a mix of Greek and Urdu, waiting, selling and waiting some more. The status of some these foreign men is explored by Mihalis Iliou in his black and white photos of young men in homoerotic poses by a window. Reminiscent of the paintings of Tsarouhis, the difference is that the captions (‘Kmar, 22 years old, Pakistani, 19.09.99) followed by a line of verse together with the documentary nature of photography deny the viewer the space to generalise or idealise the image and makes for uncomfortable viewing.
The state of flux itself and the city’s organic growth are beautifully illustrated by ‘The Breath of the City’ by Alexis Psychoulis, who, using his adopted medium of Flash art, creates a brooding cityscape that quietly inhales and exhales as a mechanical arm exerts pressure and then releases it. Using similar graphic tools, Lena Theodorou, presents ‘Holidays in Greece, Holidays in Spain, Renovation 1&2’, a four tier animation strip of cartoon building and excavation machines that move through coloured bands. More commentary than a complete work (it is after all just part of a series examining violence, surveillance and control in the private and public sphere), it left me needing more. Similarly, Lambros Psyrakis’ ‘Athens Boogie-Woogie 2004’ uses the street plan of central Athens to create an image that is just reminiscent of Mondrian’s famous New York number. The computer print seems particularly cold and impersonal when compared to Mondrian’s oils, but I guess that’s probably what spectators of the original thought when they saw it in the nineteen forty two.
The approach of Grygoris Lagos, in his ‘Polyester City’ is more architectural: starting with the street map of the city centre, he has built a cityscape of translucent plastic blocks that mix the aesthetic of an architectural model with that of brightly coloured cocktail decorations to create a fantasy city, with the great architectural monuments of the world standing out amongst the regular block pattern of Athens apartments. Not a proposal, nor really a serious criticism, it nonetheless creates an interesting and accurate portrayal of a certain Athenian fantasy, ridiculing its self-importance and the banality of some of the city’s dreams. Other architectural works include ‘Towards the open-air habitation of Mount Immitos’, an interactive audio visual installation that looks and talks about the mountain that once formed the Eastern flank of the city. It now seems destined to be surrounded, following the relocation of the airport to the plain beyond it and the almost inevitable urban spread that will follow. An interesting project by the architect Zisis Kotianis, it attempts to give a more intimate picture of the hill that glows purple in the evening sun above the city’s forest of TV antennas and to some degree, it succeeds despite its rather lugubrious black interface.
The changes the exhibition attempts to mark are ongoing and as difficult to grab hold of. Looking back at the earlier growth of the city, however, it is interesting to trace the ‘accidental’ development of the Athens. There is even something fortuitous about the fact that Athens became the capital of Greece in 1833. In the turbulent years of the War of Independence from the Ottomans after 1821, Naufplio, now a small town in the Peloponnese, was the centre for the emerging political elite. For several years in the 19th century, Ermoupolis, on the island Syros (though never an administrative centre) was a commercial port of greater importance than Pireaus. There is no doubt that the Periclean Athens of antiquity was a model for the rebirth of the Hellenic nation and a natural place for the new state to locate its capital. At the time however it was a small Ottoman town: it had roughly 6000 inhabitants, 115 churches and covered an area of roughly 60 hectares – or roughly 150 acres.
The optimism of the time lead to ambitious plans for the ‘City of New Athens’ laid out around broad boulevards, linking the new royal palace with the Acropolis and the Panathenaic Stadium. A lack of funds, disagreements between the palace and politicians and the upheavals of two centuries conspired to prevent the full implementation of such a plan. Furthermore, throughout the nineteenth century the irredentist followers of the ‘Megali Idea’ or ‘Great Idea’ proclaimed that Constantinople (Istanbul) was the true capital of Greece reflecting the fact that it had long eclipsed Athens as a centre of Hellenism since becoming capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. The historical continuity of the City (as some Greeks refer to Istanbul), a major centre of Greek population, religion, culture and economic interest until well into the 20th century, proved a major military and imaginative temptation throughout modern Athens’ formative years. Did Athens, the growing actual capital of the existent state, suffer as a result?
‘Athens: a Metropolis by Mistake?’ seems to continue to examine an insecurity on which the foundations of the modern city were laid. Once the city became the administrative centre of Greece, layer after layer of new arrivals, not least the refugees in 1922 and the villagers relocated by post civil war policies, cemented the city’s role as a magnet of people, jobs and power. Despite the fact that Thessaloniki is officially and rather disingenuously called the co-capital, Athens has continues to draw people onto its streets. International events and the building boom in the run up to the Olympics has only added to an established movement and widened its scope. The city, as the exhibition seems to imply, is in a state of confused and accelerated growth that has intensified its underlying tensions and unresolved conflicts. Unsure of where it’s coming from and where it’s going, Athens and Athenians continue to look elsewhere for their dreams. Leonidas Liambey