IT HAD been a while since I’d read about an art exhibition with a concept that truly excited me – so when I found out that the Onassis Cultural Center (OCC) had set up Strange Cities Athens I headed straight to Theatrou Square in Psyrri to check it out. The exhibition displays the result of a challenge set to 23 visual art units from around the world, who have never been to Athens, to create artworks based solely on their impressions of it. The OCC, in collaboration with the team of curators from London’s Double Decker, provided the artists with a triangular “inspiration box” that contained: a recipe, a scent, a poem (Jasmin by Giorgos Seferis), a book, recordings of urban soundscapes, and music by Konstandinos Vita (Song “II”) and Manos Hatzidakis (the song A Magic City), and asked them to take it from there.
The impressions of Athens that are formed in the minds of the millions of visitors who come here, as well the multitude of ideas, feelings and attitudes of people who have never visited, have always been fascinating to me, and this unique exhibition, curated by Wilhelm Finger with Melina Skamnaki, is definitely a big step in exploring that concept.
I visited the space with a friend and our children, who thoroughly enjoyed interacting with the art pieces. From room one where the materials that were given to the artists as inspiration are presented, to Sab Jarnot’s three giant graphic art canvases and sound installation, which provided a fantastic opportunity for them (and us) to actually create our own dance performance weaving around the pieces, and practically every other artwork, they thoroughly enjoyed it.
As for us adults, constantly observing and questioning the meanings, messages and ideas that our city produces, the exhibition was refreshing, stimulating, and in no way disappointing as these works were created with a potent mix of intuition, global but also border-free belief systems, creativity and skill.
Strange Cities Athens is not just an exhibition – there are a series of parallel workshops and experiential events related to it taking place in May and until June 7th, with themes as broad as animation, recreating the idea of our own home, cooking, animal welfare and adolescent outlooks on Strange Cities. Participating artists are from the UK, US, Japan, Brazil, France, Germany, Canada, Czech Republic, Belgium and Sweden.
I hadn’t visited Theatrou Square since Bar Guru Bar closed down many years ago – the Thai kitsch bar/restaurant was a favourite hangout for thousands of Athenians who flooded there before the already derelict area became too ugly to even contemplate approaching, with trafficked prostitutes and drug dealers lining the streets. I’m glad we visited in daylight, away from the glittery crowd of the opening night and with plenty of space and time to take in the artworks in every room. Also enjoyable was the walk there, heading down Evripidou St past the many herb and spice shops, and stores loaded with hanging cured meats and cheeses, all the pungent aromas and sounds of the city filling the air was a brilliant prelude to the world we entered next.
Whether it’s dusk
or dawn’s first light
the jasmin stays
— Giorgos Seferis
N.B. At the end of Strange Cities Athens, viewers are encouraged to set up their own art piece to photograph. Unfortunately the choice of objects is horribly clichéd and limited. I asked the photographer how the objects had been selected and his reply was that they had to be “only Greek things.” Again, this propounded the sad attitude Greece reveals when addressing the world about itself – are “Greek things” in 2015 the classical statuettes, tacky village house objects, a plastic egg beater and green glass dolphins? Really?!