For all the talk of the now exhausted trope of Athens being the “new Berlin”, arguably no one has tried to perpetuate it more than Airbnb. Even more so perhaps than the quinquennial Documenta held in the Greek capital two years ago, whose 14th edition was ridden with accusations of neo-imperialism and a drama about their financial affairs, equivalent of Greek tragedies.
Purposely or not, the San Fransisco company has transformed Athens into a land of promises for tourists. Its warm weather, the low prices, the port to the islands a hop, skip and a jump away, and the necessary street art for the gritty and cool Instagram attract them as honey does to bees. And standing above them all, businesses and home owners catering to their every need. What a bliss.
Well, not actually. Rents have also skyrocketed, nearing pre-crisis levels, even if the salaries remain firmly fixed down low. Airbnb has rendered neighbourhoods like Koukaki and Pagkrati almost inaccessible, pushing Athenians out further and further. For artists, who were at the forefront of revitalising the city in the middle of its wrecking financial crisis, Athens isn’t as hospitable as it once was, even more so at a time when state funding is dwindling.
So maybe it comes as no surprise that artists have rediscovered that the world does not end at the close confines of the capital. In fact for them, it doesn’t even end in June, a typically loaded month in terms of art shows before the holidays start. Come July and August, independent spaces and projects are at full speed, scattered all around the periphery. What they may lack in a state system to support them, they make up for inventive ways to make art and keep going.
In the island of Lesbos, Nicolas Vamvouklis is in charge of one of these spaces. K-Gold Temporary Gallery, a non-profit, nomadic art platform, is now in its 6th year running. Having collaborated with them for the past three years, I am fully aware that my degree of objectivity is in doubt here — this could easily come across as yet another paean among friends and colleagues.
My point of view, however, remains that of a “xenos” to use a Greek word; of a stranger. Born and raised in Athens, my contact with the country’s periphery has been minimal. So imagine my surprise and bewilderment witnessing a community of artists and practitioners created effectively from scratch each time, producing projects that get better and more ambitious by the year.
Indeed, I may be ignorant but we have been fed this idea that the best art is found at the big centres for so long, it is confounding to see contemporary art in the setting of a village, so far-removed from the capital. But I would also argue it is exactly this detachment, for a lack of a better word, that informs the rigour K-Gold’s programme has.
Curated by Vamvouklis, the platform’s latest group show is called “I woke with a marble head in my hands” and is centered around the idea of the wunderkammer. Presented in an empty private residence, the space takes the form of a cabinet of curiosities, showcasing each exhibit around the house’s rooms, as well as its yard.
Installations, sculptures, and videos make up the bulk of the exhibition, notably with contributions by Joan Jonas, Bas Jan Ader, and Ilias Papailiakis, among the most established artists and Adonis Archontides, Evgenia Vereli, and Christos Delidimos.
In what appears to be the most esoteric and inward-looking exhibition by the young curator so far, the artworks conjure a collection of “objects” that question the position of artists and collectors first, and of everyone else on a second reading. The never-ending human tendency to accumulate, to collect, to consume, to essentially conquer as much as possible remains an inquisitive element of the show.
Delidimos’ work, “The Isle of the Dead”, perhaps the most explicitly political work of the group, surrounds a body, covered in a sleeping bag, with various objects. The realistic, gruesome figure lying on the floor could be someone sleeping, for gentle eyes. It could also be a refugee or even a corpse with its funeral gifts, as testaments of their life. Looking at it, you can’t help but ask: is that all we are left with, in the end?
Fragmented bodies appear in Papailiakis’ and Archontides’ works too. Devoid of objects in their case, Papailiakis’ mural of a head and Archontides’ sculpture of a head, placed inside a small fountain, deal with issues of an identity split between the present and the past — collections themselves are situated between time, gathering information from the past and the present to retain it for the future. It is worth mentioning that “Bath II” by Archontides was made after the artist invited adolescents and artists from Lesbos to graffiti its wall with quotes from Sappho’s poetry.
Evgenia Vereli’s sculptures and drawings keep a close link to the exhibition’s references to history — Lesbos has a rich ceramic tradition. Titled “Where do the ducks go when the lake is frozen”, this new commission explores desire and identity. Vereli’s ceramics depicting cakes create a tension by being positioned in an empty room. If this were a house — which it is — they would be there for its residents to eat them. Here, as beautiful works in an exhibition, they demand our attention by force of scale and context. It is us, after all, who embed our objects with meaning and purpose.
The residence used for the exhibition could be an artwork unto itself; seen as the vessel or the vitrine that protects and showcases its prized possessions. As a sum of its parts, it is everything it contains and more, for it is selectively revealing and hiding whatever it wants.
Humanistic in its approach, “I woke with a marble head in my hands” prepares the visitor to consequently ask themselves: who are they and what is their purpose and role in this life? Are they merely the objects they possess? Are they the knowledge they acquire? The experiences they gain?
Very coyly, Bas Jan Ader’s video, “Primary Time”, shows the artist rearranging a bouquet of flowers, seemingly without purpose, without any gain. He keeps going though, so much so that when he chooses to stop, it seems anything but quitting. If I were a cynic, K-Gold Temporary Gallery, situated in Europe’s periphery, away from the big hotspots of art and the rapidly changing Greek capital, could also be seen as without purpose. I mean, who really cares if an old lady at a far-removed village in Lesbos will understand the idea of the wunderkammer? For all it’s worth, Nicolas Vamvouklis and his project do cares and K-Gold Temporary Gallery’s success lies in its sheer determination to keep going.
A version of this article originally appeared on Coeur et Art on 20 August 2019.
Correction: The article misstated the title of the exhibition. It is “I woke with a marble head in my hands”, not “I woke up with a marble head with my hands”.