MONODROME: Third Athens Biennale

by Stephanie Bailey, December 2011

To get a feeling of Athens today, walk from the Monastiraki meat market to Plateia Theatrou to Diplareios, an art and design school in the historic center of Athens: the main building used for the third Athens Biennale, MONODROME (October 23 – December 11, 2011). In this short walk from the literal to the proverbial meat market, you will pass a variety of characters—groups of vagabonds, junkies, prostitutes and immigrants who have made this dilapidated part of the city their home, along with a cross-section of society that lives and works in the area.

From the outside, Diplareios’s painted, neoclassical-cum-modernist façade looks pristine compared to its gritty surroundings. Yet inside, graffiti-covered walls crumble, and mold lingering in the air mixes with the dust circulating in abundance. Throughout the space, a few dead birds have been left in situ, their internal rot exposed, contained within a bell jar—a controlled environment—as if they were part of an experiment. Both the birds and Diplareios mirror the containment of Greece’s decomposition within its definitive borders, creating a sense of claustrophobia that directly comments on the realities of crisis, containment and the urgency facing a country that is becoming increasingly isolated on its lonely road to nowhere.

Hugely underfunded, MONODROME is as much an attempt at defiance against an impossible situation as the protests that have turned Athens’ streets into a public stage. This sense of the performative is not lost on co-curators Poka Yio and Xenia Kalpatsoglou, working alongside Nicholas Bourriaud, the theorist behind relational aesthetics. In the most immediate sense, a yellow tape marks out a “suggested route” over Diplareios’s five levels, reflecting MONODROME’s English translation, One-Way Street, named after Walter Benjamin’s collection of aphorisms on the human condition. Such prescriptive curation partially recalls the curatorial that characterised the first Athens Biennale, Destroy Athens, in 2007: an impressive feat of bravado that in hindsight foreshadowed the December 2008 riots. But MONODROME is less forthright. There is none of the corporate advertising seen in the second Biennale, Heaven. There is no catalogue. But there is context in abundance.

In its venue choices (also the Arts Centre and Eleftherios Venizelos Museum at Parko Eleftherias or Park of Liberty), the focus is on the historical contexts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, perhaps a response to the endemic amnesia within the international media and its systematic condensing of Greece’s crisis into three-minute segments and pithy headlines that disregard the complexities of modern Greek history, in which foreign powers from Russia, Germany and the United States are implicated. Of the historical works, a series of satirical illustrations from late nineteenth-century periodical, Neos Aristophanes, sardonically depicts Greece’s bankruptcy of 1893 as a result of systemic corruption and over-spending with cutting observations on the country’s political disunity, its identity as both a protectorate feeding off the teat of the Great Powers and a helpless victim in the manipulative control of the strong. Today the illustrations are as poignant as ever.

Drawing on debate within contemporary art discourse, the importance of both historical contexts and those of the here and now—as is the case of the MONODROME curatorial—is a contentious one. Indeed the specific contexts or situations from which art works are produced and presented are often treated as secondary, favoring readings that serve the international art market and the art work as commodity rather than society at large. The proof is in the writing; the international web coverage by specialized art press of MONODROME and REMAP, another local biennial art event that took place recently, so far presents minimal discussion of works, themes and contexts in favor of market discourse and opening night gossip. It has been left to non-specialized publications to engage with MONODROME’s social, political and cultural contexts as a basic point of departure, from which a more non-material discussion might emerge.

These issues are addressed in Diplareios’s ground floor auditorium, which has been transformed into a performance and discussion space bordered by two group arrangements. On one side, Nikos Haralambidis curates an installation of works including the Arab Guggenheim Museum Project, under the general title, Carnival Pause, somehow recalling Mikhail Bakhtin’s observation that during carnival, life is subject only to laws of its own freedom, a pertinent thought considering Bakhtin’s view of carnival as a culture of comedy, festival and the marketplace. On the other side, curatorial collective Kernel’s performance-cum-project-space include sets for performances of Paul Chan’s Phaedrus Pron, Angelo Plessas’s exercise in automatic writing,, and Lucky PDF’s video project Free Galaxias, which will extend MONODROME’s narrative beyond the confines of space and time.

The arrangements are disorienting for viewers unacquainted with or resistant to contemporary art practice and presentation. In Kernel’s case, it is the more interactive, decentralized performance of operating outside of materiality and within the conceptual realms of research, engagement and discourse, where the art object, as Laurence Weiner once said, need not be made. Conversely, Haralambidis’s crude installation reacts to the sterile, institutionalized presentation (and perhaps adoration) of art objects in the white cube. Building on these two debatably postmodern approaches, the performance space sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition: a formalist presentation of sounds, moving images, archival materials, design artifacts, antiques and art objects presented against a backdrop of a quintessentially postmodern city gripped by its own failures.

In this sense, formalism acts as an antidote to the city outside. Looking at Michalis Katzourakis’s severe, geometric surfaces created from corrugated iron and other industrial materials alongside Rallou Panagiotou’s high modernist renditions of pop culture—drinking straws made out of marble in Liquid Degrade (Green, White, Black) (2011)—form is key in creating a point of contemplation that is solid, recognizable and material: a direct contrast to the fragmentation of both society’s visible (architecture) and non-visible (laws, politics) structures. And yet, it is this very fragmentation of society that allows for artworks to form, reflecting the frenzied movement between subjectivity and objectivity, and the articulation of the interaction between subject and object. Here, the Hegelian movement between “I” and “This” come into play, in that an object perceived is as much a medium of the common and plural—often translated from the German into universal—as the consciousness that perceives it.

From Yannis Bournias’s photographed piles of textbooks and papers in what appears to be a flooded, derelict interior in the Stream series (2011), to art collective Under Construction’s installation EXIT (2009), a room pungent with the smell of rusting, metal desks placed within it, the decomposing form—from body to object to architecture—is always present. In Rena Papaspyrou’s Photocopies (2011), phone numbers printed on fragments of paper are painstakingly matched to the shading and texture of the wall on which they are applied. Melding into and extending the decay of the building, the material interaction between Papaspyrou and the Diplareios building creates a sense of building as body—a composition of matter into form.

Yet how easy it is to dismiss such physical structures as buildings, treated like the work of Andreas Lolis, a sculptor who renders marble into cardboard boxes and pieces of polystyrene so accurately they are often overlooked or dismissed as the real thing. How easy it is to take magnificent structures for granted, forgetting the ingenuity that went into designing them and the time and manpower that took to build them. How easy it is to walk past something without even taking into account what it is and where it comes from, or to strip contexts from the objects that retain them in their very form and matter, from a building, an artwork, a monument or even a human being. It is this violent, reductive act of simplification that MONODROME confronts. In simply attempting to do so, it succeeds.

MONODROME: 3rd Athens Biennale 2011
23 October—11 December 2011