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Long Live Revolutionary Art! (Athens)

8 December, 2017 (11:52) | Living in Europe

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One of our ulterior motives in buying a home in Barcelona was to have a solid launching pad from where we could fly out to conquer Europe and Morocco.  We love traveling from Barcelona because so many places are only a 1 to 3 hour flight away. We equally enjoy returning home to our beloved Barcelona after our adventures. I never felt this way while living in L.A. or New Zealand or even in Italy. Although high on my bucket list, it took us 10 years of living here to finally venture to Greece. It is a surprisingly inexpensive flight that lasts 2 1/2 hours.

It is not my intention at present time to share all my magical images and charming stories from the Greek islands such as Santorini and Mykonos. I’ve shared my luscious photos with fun vignettes on Facebook. Instead, it is my intention to scratch beneath the surface and hunt down some stimulating modern art.

We do not expect much from Athens. In fact, we have no preconceptions at all. Friends and travel books tell us that although Athens is home to some of the most impressive ruins in the world, the city itself is ugly compared to Barcelona, Paris or Florence. But we want to give the city a chance before we go off island hopping so we book 4 nights.

On day 1 and 2 we trek to most of the impressive and obligatory sites, like the Pantheon and the Temple of Zeus. Although impressive, they do not thrill me. I’ve traveled far and wide and I’ve seen lots of ancient, exotic temples, churches, castles and museums. Of course the historical sites are extremely impressive when viewed in person so we did all the requisite climbing and hiking and posing in front of them. Sometimes its fun to just be a tourist, at least for 1 day.

But we are curious to find out what kind of art is happening here now, that is not thousands of years old and decide to devote the rest of our time here to finding out.

On the afternoon of day 2 we wander around Athens to get a feeling for its essence. We have a sense there is much more going on here than temples and ampitheaters. What do young people do here? Is there an artsy neighborhood? What makes people tick in Greece? What inspires the art and the music?

We read about an intriguing neighborhood called Exarchia which looks to be walking distance from our hotel. It is a university district, known for its revolutionary political ideals and student rebellions. Our hotel tries to discourage us from going there, telling us its not tourist friendly, and that the police never go in that neighborhood because the residents are too wild. But hoping to stumble onto something unique, we follow our gut curiosity and our GPS leads us to the area.

We pass lots of great graffiti, intriguing murals, abandoned buildings plastered with political slogans and imagery, walk past a mix of scraggly hipsters and the occasional drunk bum. There appears to be a vibrant cafè culture, with small record stores, unique T-shirts, and used clothing outlets offering patchy jeans and funky hats for sale. If I were 20 years old I could easily visualize myself living in this neighborhood of Exarchia and recruiting a punk band, heh heh heh.

In hindsight I wish I had bought the “Pope Fiction” T-shirt below:

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Everywhere we go there are interesting murals, graffiti, posters, and “found art”.
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This essentially run down art deco building is decorated with an oversize and masterfully painted mural covering the whole front of the building:

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We wander into a custom T-shirt store that has unusual, original rock n roll stencils you can have printed onto any shirt. They have a big variety colors, styles and sizes in stock.

athens-tMark orders a red T-shirt of a skull wearing a gas mask for the new band we have only recently started, called Guarro Martinez. He chats with the store owner while the guy customizes his shirt. As well as owning the store, he is in a popular Greek punk band named Deus Ex Machina. They’ve been playing together for decades and have a big following. He tells us Deus Ex Machina will be playing at the B-Festival tonight, a hip festival that will be happening all week. He says that even if we don’t make it to his show we should check the festival out. He points to a poster stuck to a wall across from his shop and I copy the info onto my notepad.

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We’ll try to keep our mojo up – It would be fun to go see a local band…

Later we find his band on YouTube. They’re awesome! We seem to always meet the most interesting characters when we travel.

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Back at the hotel we realize our heads want to go see his band, but our bodies are too exhausted to rebound, not tonight. Too much hiking, too much battling with our GPS, and not enough rest! So we have dinner at the hotel and go to bed early. We decide to dedicate tomorrow to exploring Greek modern art. We only have 2 more full days in Athens and plan to make the most of them.

The next afternoon we take a cab to The National Museum of Contemporary Art, where we find an overwhelmingly extensive and thought provoking collection in the first room we enter, depicting the imagined inner life of Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun, full of rhapsody and terror. What a weird idea, to imagine Hitler as perceived through the eyes of his mistress… The thought process is strange but I suppose even Hitler had to have someone who was in love with him.

img_4820img_4825img_4821img_4819img_4827img_4823img_4828It is a strange collection with creepy narrative, both grim and provocatively brilliant by an Israeli artist named Roe Roseen’s and is called “To Live and Die as Eva Braun” (1995-97). Via a short story printed on ten black banners and 66 black-framed works on paper, it imagines Eva Braun’s life with Adolf Hitler, her death by his hand and her slow descent into hell – and back again. It’s compelling, horrifying and ludicrous, using dark humor to reflect seriously on something monstrous.

This leads to another room with beautifully detailed naif style art on the theme of war:

naif_naif_3naif_4naif_5naif_2 Coming at politics from a more oblique angle, these extraordinary small paintings from the 1970s by the late Tshibumba Kanda Matulu – known as TKM – explore scenes from Congolese history and its recent past. Naif-like images depicting everyday scenes, such as people in fields or factories, are interspersed with more violent scenarios of torture, executions and political corruption. The images are inscribed with aphorisms, funny asides, political cartoons and barbed comments about the abuse of power and workers’ rights. These paintings feel whimsical but with serious subject matter, and I spend a long time drinking in all the intricate detail. Such friendly colors, such violent imagery! A board tells me that the artist TKM was born in 1947 and disappeared in 1981; it is believed that he was killed during riots.

naif_mlv-hatFinally, several hours later I buy myself a hand made hat at the museum store, where I learn that the art we have seen so far is just a small part of an extensive cultural event unfolding simultaneously at several locations throughout the city. It is called Documenta 14 and uses Athens itself as both canvass and frame, engulfing, containing and spilling art.

Tonight we’re exhausted, over stimulated and need to rest up so tomorrow we can hunt down more art and hopefully find our way to the B festival.


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B Festival

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The next evening we take a cab to the B Festival. Its only an 8 minute drive from our hotel, but it feels like we’ve been dropped off in the middle of nowhere. It could almost be the entrance to a village festival in Africa!… There’s a nice lady sitting at a self styled entrance kiosk holding a placard asking people to donate “whatever they can afford”. Cool! I like that – pay what you can, or don’t pay at all if you have no money. Art for the people.

This is an refreshingly multi-generational event that doesn’t cater to any specific demographic; its a mix of scruffy hippie type back-packers, cute young families, clumps of students, dreadlock vegans, girlfriends laughing in small groups of 3, a handful of singular intellectual professor types and a teenager sporting a mohawk, studs, and a dragon tattoo on his forearm. Once inside many wander around aimlessly because there’s no map with directions to the art. In short, people from all walks and stations of life, wander around speaking in Greek (of course). I hear no English spoken at all. That’s wild. I guess it is end of the tourist season, and most tourists aren’t interested in modern Greek culture.

I love non specific demographs – everyone fits in, even the homeless looking characters. We decide to donate 10 euros (5 each); its good to support the arts. The 3 twenty something kids behind us toss a handful coins into the money box to get them all in – they look poor and lack any fashion sense, but are probably just raggedy college students.

I am immediately impressed by the graphic walkway leading to several big, funky warehouses and archeological ruins belonging to the Fine Arts Museum. It is not a “party” atmosphere, although we can hear a band playing on the lot to our left. People quietly drink and smoke, squatting on funky but impressive architectural ruins. I notice quiet, multi-generational groups of intelligent looking friends and well behaved families. Its a fascinating scene. Mark and I marvel at how this same exact exhibit would undoubtedly have a completely different vibe were it held in Barcelona, where people are rowdier and more boisterous. Its interesting. Are people depressed, or are they just mellow here?

Someone is selling Greek Freak Brothers comics, someone else is handing out political pamphlets. People mill around and wander aimlessly through the grounds. We spend the next few hours roaming from site to site, following our ears and our curiosity into and out of buildings, playgrounds and corridors that feel like decorated ruins. Spray painted walls, movie projectors, and found art seem random but are not. Poets deliver their message in a combination of mime and spoken word. In one room with crumbling walls, peeling paint and random stone slabs we find 10 performance artists wandering around, each reciting from their own script. This is when I realize there are 2 more floors in the building, but it takes so long to just do the ground floor that I just don’t have the energy to explore them all.

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Sounds and images come from all directions, pouring out of buildings, while bands play near a big bonfire. Everywhere we turn there is graffiti, art, spoken word. Planned random events. Spontaneous mime. A Box of crayons sits on a shelf with blank paper. We are encouraged to make use of them, to create a statement of some sort.

I like this clever image of immigrants literally washing up on shore with the tide, thus creating an emerging economy. The cryptic image next to it shows a pea brain egoist wearing a fascist arm bandana.

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1) “Emerging Economy.” 2) “The deeper the shave the smaller the brain”

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There’s so much to take in, from interactive chess to intricately fascinating films with lush content that lure, resonate, educate. Spoken word and multi-faceted manifestos with thought putting forth concepts about frontiers and borders. I think the artist is trying to state that outdoor spaces serve as dividing lines between countries using imagery intended to evoke powerful emotions. “Make Fortress Europe History” is a great message.

Documenta 14 has foisted onto the city of Athens so many ideas, philosophies and agendas, all of them bursting with vital messages that can shed new perspectives to your inner life. Varied mediums prompt us to act with good conscience. I think a person would have to be exceptionally dull not to at least flirt with a couple new points of view.
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Sometimes the lines between perception and reality can be blurred.
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A couple plays Interactive chess:

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We learn later that this Documenta 14 event is scattered over 40 locations around the Greek capital, using squares, public parks, conservatoires, museums, libraries, university halls, cinemas, archaeological sites, historical streets and neoclassical buildings to project emerging art trends through a wide variety of mediums – video art, painting, spoken word and other audio projects, sculpture, mixed-media installations, photography, performance, film, design, embroidery, textiles and collage. In our couple days we’ve taken in as much as we can. We don’t have time to find our way to the other venues.

Everything I’ve ingested is overwhelming, stimulating and thought provoking. Ideas that touch on history, politics, traditions, and religion, as well as on topics related to economy, politics, morality and crises of home versus where you are born. I would love to spend a whole week exploring, digesting and assimilating all I’ve seen and heard, but alas we have only 1 more day in Athens before heading out to the famous islands of Peleponesus. After so much stimulating art, I’m ready to plunge into island hopping, jacuzzi/beach/resort relaxation for the next 10 days.

We return to our hotel, exhausted and inspired. We took in in as much as we were able to absorb.

I look up info on Documenta 14 and this is what I find on the internet:

The documenta event was established in 1955 in Kassel, Germany by artist, professor and curator Arnold Bode who decided artistic expression was vital and needing protection following the Nazi period. Now 62 years later this contemporary art event is in its 14th incarnation, with the working title ¨Learning from Athens¨. Evidently this is the first time this event is hosted by 2 cities; Kassel (Poland) and Athens, a city suspended between cultural clichés and harsh, everyday life.

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P.S. Of course I’m unable to really ingest, reflect upon or impart the total experience of Documenta 14. I believe it is happening in Kassel right now. There is so much more to it than I have described. I’ve been trying to bang out this blog since June but summertime swims, parties, music, padel tenis et al had me procrastinate until now. I began this in June but have finally finished it on this 8th day of December 2017. Yay! Now I am free to move on. These half finished posts I keep in limbo for months on end are a real deterrent to +me+ creating something artistic and thought provoking myself, heh heh heh.