Art Athina Overcomes Obstacles

Art Athina Overcomes Obstacles
Did the 14th annual Art Athina, which took place May 23–25, have an ace up its sleeve? Just a month ago, the international fair’s fate hung by a thread — rumors were spreading that it might be cancelled — and even up until opening night it was unclear whether funding from the Greek Ministry of Culture would come through. But still, and despite the added competition of the uberpopular Eurovision Song Contest, broadcast live from Belgrade, Art Athina 2008 was a success, attracting around 18,000 visitors overall. Managing director Michalis Argyrou and artistic director Christos Savvidis not only found a way to overcome the economic obstacles, but more important, presented a coherent edition with a multifaceted program of curated shows and events.

The fair took place at the Helexpo Palace exhibition and conference center and consisted of four sections: the Basic Plan, the main section of the fair; the curated Open Plan; the Focus, which this year was on up-and-coming galleries from Berlin, selected by Sarah Belden of that city’s Curators without Borders gallery; and the Parallel Plan, which comprised events and curated projects both onsite and scattered across the city. The first and the last form the core of Art Athina.

Basic Plan 2008 was slightly smaller than last year’s, with 44 gallery booths (24 from Greece), down from 48 in 2007. International galleries Christian Nagel (Cologne and Berlin) and Peres Projects (New York, L.A., and Berlin) drew a lot of attention, the latter in particular for its bronze Terence Koh sculpture My Swahili Years (2007), which features a cast of the artist's head. Among the local galleries, The Breeders booth was an inventive standout, showing a series of black-and-white drawings by Ilias Papailiakis, Lisa Ruyters gloss-painted canvases, and a large-scale sculpture by Dutch provocateur Marc Bijl titled Memorial to the Iraq War. Loraini Alimantiri Gazonrouge gallery also had a notable presence, with a video projection by Yorgos Sapountzis and some idiosyncratic paintings by Zoi Gaitanidou. The Athens-based gallerist said that while some of her colleagues complained that the timing — a week before Art Basel — affected sales, most felt that the fair was pleasingly commercial. “Some galleries did really well,” she said. “There were some committed Greek collectors who were at the fair every day.”

Helping to round out the Basic Plan offerings was a special invitational section called “9+1,” in which Berlin gallerist Izabella Bortolozzi featured ten cutting-edge European galleries, including Ancient & Modern from London, Dependance from Brussels, Francesca Pia Gallery from Zurich, Standard from Oslo, and her own.

The Parallel Plan provided a platform for a number of notable curated projects and events, mounted both onsite at Helexpo and in venues around the city. One such show was the “Lion under the rainbow. Art from Tehran,” which showcased the work of 19 artists from the Iranian capital who were selected by Greek artist Alexandros Georgiou while he traveled there. The must-see, however, of the Parallel programming was the exhibition “Five Seasons of the Russian Avant-Garde,” which opened a week before the fair at the Museum of Cycladic Art. In five small rooms of the museum visitors had the rare chance to admire 90 masterpieces from the celebrated George Costakis Collection, owned by the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki. Costakis’s collecting method, eye for cutting-edge but lasting art, and evident admiration for artists can offer an informative lesson for every aspiring collector.

While Costakis's rich holdings of legendary avant-gardistes such as Malevich, Popova, Tatlin, and Rodchenko makes a great deal of contemporary art seem parochial by comparison, an exception might be made for Marina Fokidiss “Athensville,” this year’s “Garage Project,”hosted in the underground parking space of the Helexpo building, which pursued a goal familiar to the Russians: the synthesis of the arts they aspired to a centuryago. The well-mounted exhibition tried to capture the dynamism of the Athenian art scene by fusing the visual arts with DJ sets, live music, andother performances. Some of the most captivating works on display werea rainbow-producing fountain by Nikos Alexiou, an autobiographical slapstick photograph by Thanassis Totsikas,and a series of hyper-realistic paintings by Panagiotis Loukas. But thecenterpiece and highlight of “Athensville” was anergonomically-designed circular construction by architect Andreas Angelidakisthat functioned both as a display case for other works and as a barserving drinks to the visitors. Amazed by the joyful, festival-likeatmosphere of the opening night there, a friend of mine who hadrecently arrived from Paris noted, “This would never happen in an artfair in France. Everybody there is much more solemn, formal, with theireyes fixed on the works.”

The Open Plan exhibition, put together by Bettina Busse, a Berlin-based curator and frequent collaborator of Viennafair, hosted mostly large-scale works that would be difficult to show in the limited space of a gallery booth. There were 20 artists in total, mainly from Austria, Germany, and Greece. Anastasia Doukas puzzling sculpture of assembled woodpanels resembling a piano masterfully evokes a kind of futuristicarchitecture. Nikos Tranoss hallucinatory cell from a large discarded carton, Jannis Varelass phallus-shaped car tires (first shown in a solo show at Krinzinger Gallery in Vienna last year), and Vassili Balatsoss colorful balls of adhesive tape were also among the highlights. Also noteworthy were an in situ drawing of a ruined temple by Leipzig painter Steve Viezens and a readymade sculpture of two funky-looking car-washing brushes by Austrian David Moises.