The 2nd Athens Bienniale 2009 Heaven is located on the city’s seafront and, more precisely, inside and outside the somewhat enigmatic assembly of concrete buildings and plazas that, at present, lack clear function. They were constructed in 2004 as the Faliro Coastal Zone Olympic Sports Complex in the Delta of Faliro, near the port of Piraeus. Once called ‘Heaven’, this former Riviera of Athens lost connection with the city when the busy Poseidonos Avenue cut off the grid-patterned Palaio Faliro (Old Faliro) district from the line of sandy beaches spreading along the coast.
The bienniale’s organisers—the collective XYZ (founding directors, Xenia Kalpaktsoglou, Poka-Yio and Augustine Zenakos), together with the municipalities of Palaio Faliro and adjoining Kallithea, hoped to bring life back into a deserted landscape that seems to be a model non-site left for future generations by planners lacking a long-term vision and saddled with all the expected attractions of the New Picturesque and predictable miseries of miscalculated large-scale real estate projects. Whether the attempt to revive the Delta through art will produce any lasting impact must be doubted, but the uncertainty about its future use was at least made apparent by the bienniale’s presence.
The first Athens Biennial was titled under the provocative banner Destroy Athens, and declared the local (and global) art world’s wilful involvement in creating ample conditions for new urban development. The bienniale was installed in the new Technopolis, a 19th century gasworks smoothly converted into an entertainment and creative industries park in the trendy post-industrial Gazi area, which neighbours on to the relatively chaotic and dangerous Keramikos district, and is near the tourist zone of Acropolis hill. The current bienniale, entitled Heaven, is staged in another urban regeneration zone. One of the historical works featured in the bienniale is Robert Smithson’s slideshow and lecture ‘Hotel Palenque’, 1969–72. Although it has recently become a too-oft-quoted reference in exhibitions and texts that deal with various manifestations of contemporary dystopia, the piece, which depicts and interprets an abandoned construction site (or ruin) of a small hotel in Yucatan, reads as an apt comment on the bienniale’s current location: an unused building that might equally have been designed to become a parking lot, storage space, or perhaps leisure and shopping centre; a suburban multi-functional hybrid, dropped on the roadside.
The bienniale comprises of five curated exhibitions that follow each other in one building and Heaven Live —an ephemeral pendant to the fixed exhibitions—curated by Dimitris Papaioannou and Zafos Xagoraris, and including music events, workshops, performances and temporary structures—such as the 1970s futuristic ‘flying saucer’ house reconstructed on the beach by The Errands, on various locations on the waterfront. The exhibition architecture of the five stationary parts of the bienniale was designed by Andreas Aggelidakis. The first space that contains Chus Martinez’ curated show, The World Question Centre, is divided by free-standing slanted walls, which form corners and nooks. This section has mostly documentary works that explore various genres of realism, from didactic presentation with slides and voice-over comment (Andrea Geyer’s ‘Spiral Lands/Chapter 2’, 2008) to three-dimensional stage-set-like models (Kostis Velonis’ ‘Popova’s Dream is Klucis’ Nightmare’, 2009) or engagement with poetics of documentary (Luke Fowler’s ‘What You See Is where You’re At’, 2001). James Lee Byars’ piece, 1969, from which Martinez borrowed her title, was a performance situation, in which the artist and his collaborators, dressed in white gowns, received questions from prominent individuals, thus trying to define what would be the most pertinent issues of the time. Art’s capacity to prompt and ask questions directed towards the future, rather than look back on the past, seems to be a guiding line in Martinez’ part of Heaven .
With the exception of Hotel Paradies (curated by Nadja Argyropoulou and dealing with occultist practices and paranormal phenomena that undermine the declaratively rational stance of modernism, as exemplified by Joachim Koester’s ‘Morning of the Magicians’ 2005–2006, a series of photographs of the current state of Aleister Crowley’s Abbey of Thelema in Palermo), the lack of rigid thematic structures, preference for open-ended narratives, and an avoidance of even provisional answers permeates the exhibitions of Heaven . The bienniale seems to observe the Wittgensteinien rule in Tractatus that ‘most of the propositions and questions to be found in philosophical works are not false but nonsensical’, and extend it to contemporary art. For the Straight Way Is Lost, curated by Diana Baldon is an assertion of this state of affairs. This part of the show is built as a spiral labyrinthine passage through eleven (mostly film) works, which address extreme states of being, regressive behaviours and obscure theories, and ends darkly with Adam Chodzko’s two-channel video installation ‘Nightvision’ 1998. Dante’s Divine Comedy is the narrative backbone visible throughout the show in Tom McCarthy’s series of light-boxes, which feature texts that merge lines from Dante with artists’ descriptions of their own work on view. Michael Stevenson’s modest and dense film ‘Introduccion a la Teoria de la Probabilidad’, 2008 and Domenico Mangano’s film ‘La Storia di Mimmo’, 1999, featuring the artist’s uncle of Pantagruelic stature, are among the highlights here.
Curator Christopher Marinos’ How Many Angels Can Dance On the Head of a Pin? is another question this bienniale of queries throws at us, and it is not introduced here as reference to scholastic philosophy or even to religion at large, but more as a way to open up the viewers capacity to think speculatively about a variety of subjects. Although the connections elaborated in Marinos’ erudite introduction to the exhibition do not easily translate into the show’s lived reality, this part of the bienniale has a number of works that have great poetic power and intelligence, from Bruce Baillie’s micro-cosmological meditation on landscape in his film ‘All My Life’, 1966, to Harun Farocki’s study in politics of stage behaviour in ‘The Interview’, 1997, Adrian Paci’s ‘Per Speculum’, 2006 that features a series of photographs of children holding mirrors that flash sunlight at the viewer, and Dora Economou’s suite of sculptures ‘Blue Eyes’, 2009.
Architecturally the most open, arranged in a large hall, the part of the bienniale curated by Cay Sophie Rabinovitz, Splendid Isolation, Athens has been among my favourites. The exhibition is made with a remarkably light touch. Ryan McNamara’s two-channel video ‘I Thought It Was You’, 2008, is a choreography for one dancer falling—failing—to the same soundtrack in two different settings: on a club stage and in what seems to be a clearing in the bushes. Fifty photographs constituting Ettore Sottsass ‘Metafore’ series (1970–1999) also deserve much attention. The series consists of blackand-white photographs of landscapes and architecture—temples and shacks alike—as well as temporary outdoor constructions of paper, sticks and ropes. These latter builds, constructed Sottsass to illustrate specific aspects of interrelation between architecture and human environment, both natural and man-made, are aided by the artist’s aphoristic handwritten inscriptions under images. The work is absolutely unpretentious (sometimes hysterically funny, sometimes profoundly sad) and it emanates a feeling of stability, a clear understanding of things and the way we can handle them. It seems to set the world in balance again by lending a larger human perspective—albeit from a singular point of view—to what has been introduced in other parts of “Heaven” as unstable, out of joint, provisional, fragile and threatened with imminent destruction. Some answers seem to be possible, at last.
Adam Szymczyk is director of Kunsthalle Basel