Posts Tagged 'exhibition'

Rewinding to the era of analog politics


October 1988. An ecstatic crowd waving PASOK flags cheers Andreas Papandreou, then prime minister of Greece, on his return to Athens, at the now-defunct international airport in Elliniko. Papandreou had been admitted to Harefield Hospital in the UK for treatment for the heart complaint that plagued his later years. The moment went down in history for his gesture to Dimitra (Mimi) Liani, an Olympic Airways stewardess who was to become his wife, urging her to come down the stairs. Playmobil installation from the ‘GR80s’ exhibition at the Technopolis complex

By Harry van Versendaal

Although defying any single interpretation, the 1980s was certainly a transitional and transformative period for Greece, which had only just emerged from a traumatic seven-year dictatorship.

The ongoing “GR80s” exhibition at the Technopolis cultural complex in the downtown Gazi district is an unprecedented as well as ambitious attempt to deliver a political, economic, social and cultural anatomy of that decade.

Political scientist Lamprini Rori, a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford University and co-curator of the political segment of the exhibition, talked to Kathimerini English Edition about the main sociopolitical characteristics of that era, its contradictions and a legacy often lamented as the roots of Greece’s current conundrum.

What differentiates the 80s in Greece from the previous and following periods?

On a symbolic level, it was PASOK’s rise to power and the consolidation of its hegemony. The 1980s shaped the key characteristics of the Third Greek Republic. First of all, Greece gained membership of the European Economic Community (EEC), a fact which, notwithstanding the tactical anti-European rhetoric of the early PASOK, led to a significant flow of European funds into the country. However, it was also the decade that saw the consolidation of the country’s mainstream parties, the sweeping renewal of political personnel, the strengthening of political participation, the introduction of measures in the direction of social liberalization, the deregulation of the radio and television landscape. Economic prosperity encouraged the rise of individualism, the recognition of minority rights and identities, the consolidation of social cohesion. The populism and polarization brought by the ascendance of PASOK gradually ebbed over the next decade, the positions and the discourse of the two main parties gradually converged, while the economy underwent a gradual modernization, as several sectors passed over to the free market.

It is often claimed that the roots of Greece’s current woes lie with the 1980s. If that is true, how do you account for today’s nostalgia for the era?

Demonizing or idealizing the 1980s are both distorted interpretations of the impact of events during that period. The main millstones which surfaced in the 1980s and which we are still – to a bigger or smaller extent – dragging along today, are the hijacking of the state by vested interests, populism, the understanding of politics as a zero-sum game, and fiscal derailment. Statism and clientele ties were less so, not because they did not affect the present situation, but because they were around before the 1980s, only to basically balloon during that decade. To be sure, we should not forget that between that time and the present, the country had various opportunities to modernize itself and correct many of the distortions of the 1980s. These were not seen through.

At the same time, however, the decade was a milestone for social mobility, the redefinition of identities, and the foundation of the middle class in the economic, political, social and cultural fields. It was in a sense the decade of security, not so much in the geopolitical sense – despite the fact that its end also marked the end of the Cold War – but more in the psychosociological sense of the term. This is the root of today’s nostalgia, given the fact that this era came to a close with the onslaught of the financial crisis.

There is a certain contradiction about the 1980s, as the anti-Western, anti-capitalist rhetoric of PASOK appears to have been accompanied by the rise of pop culture and consumption. How do you account for that?

Although [late Socialist prime minister] Andreas Papandreou promoted the idea of Greece as a country of the semi-periphery dependent on the capitalist centers of the West, PASOK’s anti-Americanism in the political arena was mainly founded on the relationship between Greece and the USA following the civil war and, above all, on the role of the USA in the 1967-74 military coup. PASOK’s anti-Westernism did not so much have a Marxist twist, but a historical and nationalist one, allowing it to forge a coherent narrative with anti-Turkish and pro-Arab dimensions.

At the same time, the rise of the middle class, the mass contact with Western models through the mass media and the process of individualization which unfolded on the level of values and lifestyle allowed strong influence from the centers of the by then postmodern West, at least in terms of cultural models. Historical anti-Americanism and cultural pro-Westernism effectively coexisted among individuals and across society, legitimating pop culture and consumerism among the local population. Greeks did not just accept these elements, but adopted them en masse. Gradually, the Westernization of cultural production overpowered the widespread rhetoric of anti-Westernism.

“GR80s: Greece in the 80s at Technopolis,” 100 Pireos, Gazi. The exhibition runs to March 12.


Long-buried photographs document divided Europe ahead of watershed moment

East Berlin, DDR, 1987

By Harry van Versendaal

There is a thinly disguised self-portrait of Constantinos Pittas embedded in one of his photographs currently on display at the Benaki Museum’s Pireos Street annex in Athens. The 29-year-old’s skinny silhouette and dark curly hair are reflected in the left-hand corner of a shop window as he presses the shutter release on his pocket-size camera. It’s Prague, 1986.

There is a road-not-taken existential quality to the selfie (before it was a word). Pittas would soon put down his camera and box up this and thousands of other negatives shot during that time.

For a good 25 years.

“It’s strange, I feel sad and happy at the same time about this. Sad because you realize that ‘this was my talent’ which I had to give up so I could do other things for a living. If I had kept going I would probably have amassed a serious body of work by now,” says Pittas, now 59, before guiding a group tour through the exhibition “Constantinos Pittas: Images of Another Europe 1985-1989.”

Between 1985 and 1989, he drove a now-iconic blue Pony (which he also slept in) across 17 countries, capturing street scenes on both sides of the former Iron Curtain. He would spend the autumns in Athens doing odd jobs to save money and set off again in spring. Over those five years, Pittas, a self-taught photographer, went through about 650 black-and-white film rolls, producing some 25,000 negatives.

“I always thought that this was a very personal project and that no one would take any interest in it. I was neither doing photojournalism, like recording the end of the Cold War, nor was I doing art photography,” he says.

“It was something personal, a momentary madness that I just needed to pursue and I saw no point in touting it afterward or trying to build a career on it,” he says.

As the Berlin Wall crumbled into souvenirs and history on the Continent accelerated, Pittas settled down, got married and had children. He had a go at several jobs, including teaching as a mathematician and founding a small advertising business, to make a living.

One day in 2014, he came across his old camera. It prompted him to look for the negatives from his Europe project before posting some scanned images on his Facebook wall.

And so it began.

“In the next couple of years I uploaded more than 600 photos. I realized there was a whole bunch of people out there who were keenly interested in this,” he says.

Besides outside interest, a more profound motive was at work.

“There was something that made me feel a bit bad about myself. It was as if I had locked up all those people I had photographed in the basement for so many years. I felt that I could no longer keep them to myself. It was a mistake,” he says.

The project was put back in motion.

Pittas carefully picked out nearly 100 of the images and released a photo book using a self-publishing platform. One of the 1,000 copies ended up in the hands of Costis Antoniadis, a professor of photography at the Department of Photography and Audiovisual Arts at the Technological Educational Institute of Athens. Antoniadis was a catalyst in introducing the work to a broader audience. He first helped Pittas organize an exhibition on the island of Kythera, and then curated the current show, a selection of 155 images.

The Benaki collection is street photography at its best – natural, opportunistic and artfully composed. Clean and pure, as if they were preserved in a time capsule, the images document a bygone era. Although Pittas did not intend to make a political statement with his work, the impact of the Eastern Bloc’s jailhouse habits is evident in the pictures, particularly the oppression and poverty of Ceausescu-era Romania.

It was not quite what he had anticipated. Like many Greek university graduates in the years following the country’s 1967-74 military dictatorship, Pittas, who has a degree in civil engineering, had the delusion that things in the Eastern Bloc were much better there than they actually were.

“It was an absolute shock. You could see the imprint of totalitarianism on people’s faces. You could see the differences between East and West Germans, one people divided by two political systems for over 40 years,” he says.

Pittas experienced strong-handed tactics firsthand. Twice he was detained by police and had his films confiscated. However, his small-sized camera – a German-made Minox 35 GT, one of the smallest full-frame 35mm cameras ever produced – made him invisible most of the time, allowing him to capture a few risky shots, including a black leather jacket-wearing senior Politburo member that can be viewed at the exhibition.

Despite the disturbing asymmetry between the Soviet bloc and Western Europe, in the eyes of the young photographer there were resemblances that pointed to a European family of sorts.

“I always thought there was something underneath. That the Portuguese university professor and the Polish farmer have something in common. It was something that I did not see when I traveled outside Europe. Maybe this feeling was fed by my idealism and my fascination with Mitteleuropa,” Pittas says.

In the late 1980s Europe was approaching its watershed moment, but, Pittas admits, this was certainly not something you could feel in the air.

“Anyone can be a prophet in hindsight. With the exception of Poland and the Solidarity movement, the rest of Europe at the time was in a state of total inertia. If someone were to say in 1986 that the world would turn upside-down in three years’ time, they would be regarded either as a madman or a great visionary. There was no way you could sense the change that was to come,” he says.

As the communist system started to implode, Pittas felt it was time to wrap up his project.

“I had this naive dream of bringing Europe together in one book. However, Europe was now reuniting on its own, it did not have to wait for me. My plan was dead,” he says.

“I was also very tired,” he says.

Listening to Pittas explaining his work to a small group of visitors at the exhibition, you see a man with a renewed sense of purpose.

“I was never interested in making a name for myself. I never felt I had something to prove. But it is still a joy – and this certainly does not classify as vanity – even at this age, to feel that there was a meaning to it all. It has given me a great deal of satisfaction,” he says.

Pittas has resumed his old hobby. He again relies on a humble (though now digital) pocket camera and always shoots from waist level. “You don’t change your style,” he says.

Going down into that basement, Pittas seems to have found much more than he was searching for, including a part of himself.

“Constantinos Pittas: Images of Another Europe 1985-1989” runs at the Benaki Museum (138 Pireos & Andronikou, through November 20.

Re-evaluating the urban legacy of the 1960s

By Harry van Versendaal

Much of the controversy that has arisen over contemporary Athens’s urban landscape stems from the changes wrought on it during the 1960s. Any reference to the architectural legacy of that period usually provokes a knee-jerk condemnation as the time is associated with the brutal transformation of the capital’s appearance.

It’s an unfair judgment, in the eyes of Kathimerini journalist and urban culture aficionado Nikos Vatopoulos. As the curator of “Athens: The Spirit of the 60s – A Changing Capital,” an ongoing exhibition at the Hellenic American Union’s Kennedy Gallery in the downtown Kolonaki district, he tries to challenge mainstream perceptions about the formative period.

“It was a controversial period because it was full of powerful contradictions. It was a time of transition and transformation for Greek society – a process that had many positive aspects, such as a faith in progress, the rise of cosmopolitanism, and economic growth,” Vatopoulos says.

Indeed, the rate of economic growth was heady: On average, gross domestic product was growing at an annual 7.6 percent while industrial output was increasing 10 percent each year. Growth was driven by a surge in foreign direct investment, mainly from the United States and Germany, coupled with a wave of internal migration to urban centers, which spurred construction. The cement and home appliances industries were flourishing. The apartment building, or “polykatoikia,” embodied the values and ambitions of the postwar urbanite generation, who turned their backs on the memories of deprivation in the countryside and the nasty hangover from the civil war.

Original photographs and postcards from the period, many from Vatopoulos’s own archive, document the burgeoning metropolis and the arrival of modern architectural landmarks such as the Athens Hilton. Built between 1958 and 1963 according to plans by architects Emmanouil Vourekas, Prokopios Vassiliadis, Spyros Staikos and Antonis Georgiades, the emblematic structure reflected the economic and social zeitgeist as Greece became a global player in the tourism and luxury market.

The evolution of lifestyles, fashion and social habits during the 1960s is also documented at the HAU exhibition. Magazine covers, ads, stamps and playbills capture the advent of cosmopolitanism and female consumerism (with classic 60s sexist cliches). Most of that came to an abrupt halt with the onset of the military dictatorship in 1967.

To be sure, Vatopoulos, who was born in Athens in 1960, acknowledges the decade’s negative consequences on the city’s physical and social environment.

“There was no foresight regarding the city’s expansion while dogmatic belief in ‘the new civilization’ left no room for historical sensibilities,” he says.

Many historical structures were knocked down at the time to make way for new buildings in the name of a tradition- and culture-insensitive modernism – also assisted by a wave of “antiparochi” deals between landowners and contractors (whereby the latter would replace low-story homes with apartment blocks whose units would then be divided between the two), a now deeply controversial measure introduced by Costantine Karamanlis as minister of public works.

The HAU exhibition takes place against the backdrop of a brutal financial crisis that has naturally left scars on the Greek capital. Interestingly, the social and aesthetic implications of poverty, homelessness and Greece’s six-year recession have been coupled with a rise in urban activism and rekindled interest in the city.

Vatopoulos, who currently lives in the southern seaside suburb of Glyfada, has been surprised at the response to the Facebook group “Saturdays in Athens” he formed three years ago as a platform for organizing weekly cultural activities such as guided tours, lectures and seminars. It currently numbers more than 19,000 members.

“The public has a desire to turn to something steady, familiar and safe. This is compounded by a feeling of nostalgia for a city with a recognizable etiquette,” he says.

But this is not the only reason behind the renewed interest, he says. “All this is also a reaction to the city’s degradation, a more energetic reaction that seeks to comprehend the various stages of Athens’s development,” he says.

Vatopoulos, for one, appears to be motivated by both. On top of his online community and extensive writings on the city, he has released a number of publications over the years and staged a well-received photo exhibition with cozy, nighttime shots of some of his favorite Athens buildings. As Instagram user @16thcentury, he uploads the pictures he takes all over the city.

He loves Athens, with all its contradictions.

“I was born and raised in Athens at a time when the city was changing at a rapid rate. Certainly, I was influenced by my family environment, but the emotional, awe-filled response I had witnessing a building’s demolition is a very strong childhood memory,” he says.

“I consider that I grew up observing the transformation of the city on the inside, I changed as the city changed. It’s something very personal to me.”

“Athens: The Spirit of the 60s,” at the HAU (22 Massalias) to Dec 13. Vatopoulos will speak on Athens during the 1960s at 7 p.m. on Nov 21 at the HAU Theater. There will be a guided tour of the exhibition on Dec 5, starting at 7.30 p.m.

Girls on film

By Harry van Versendaal

A Korean schoolgirl is about to lose a finger in a cruel initiation rite; a line of marching students willingly commit mass suicide wading into the waters of a river; two girls brace for a duel on a rooftop.

These are snippets from “Girls in Uniform,” an art project crafted by Hyun-Jin Kwak, part of which went on display this month at the Technopolis cultural complex in Athens.

Enigmatic and captivating, the images seem to capture the tension between the individual and the collective, the interaction between the subject and the structures of power that come to shape the former’s norms and behavior.

Kwak’s schoolgirls are subjected to systemic power. But, operating from inside the cracks in the system, they too get a chance to exercise their own power on others. Depicted are acts of sexual experimentation, cryptic rituals and psychological and physical violence.

The uniform, tightly wrapped around the body as well as the mind, becomes a tool and symbol of constraint — yet, at the same time, also a shield offering that cozy sense of belonging. This is, after all, a paradoxical world that we live in.

Born in South Korea in 1974, Kwak now lives and works in Stockholm, Sweden. Launched in 2003, “Girls in Uniform” is an ongoing project that includes series of photographs, sculptures, installations and video works, some of which are still in the planning stages. Shown in the context of the Athens Photo Festival at Technopolis, a former gas factory on Pireos Street, Kwak’s exhibition was organized by the Swedish Institute in Athens and curated by Jan-Erik Lundstrom.

Kwak spoke talks here about the allegorical universe of her girls in uniform.

The images of your “Girls in Uniform” project are beautiful but unsettling. They could be read as an attempt to capture the tension between the individual and the collective, between free will and control. What message are you trying to get across?

Personally, I don’t think they are so disturbing. I guess it’s more about how actions and behavior deviate from what we expect from these young female subjects. On a more general level, I think the question of social relationships between individuals and their environment appears in quite different shapes in every society. My project is based on questions about the nature of social relationships between the individual and society, and how these are reflected in different social environments. I am interested in the sociological aspects of being and being formed as an individual, and in the question of identity.

I would assume that the uniforms worn by your characters in the pictures serve as a metaphor — the uniform in the mind, as it were.

Yes, that’s true: The girls serve partly as a metaphor for someone or something in transition; so it doesn’t have to be about age, it is also about time. These subjects are incomplete and unstable, but highly charged.

The uniform stands for uniformity, conformity and repression. At the same time, anonymity can give you a sense of security and be a driving force behind action.

There is a strong conflictual element between the two, but also a possibility to establish alliances in complicated conditions.

Why are there only women in your pictures?

I realized that I created a kind of group of alpha beings and there was no room or necessity for both genders in this project. Since I am one, I can fully grasp women as social and political beings and use this as a main subject and put it in such a context. I do not have the same confidence with men as such a subject.

Is your theme a bridge that connects your two backgrounds — East Asian and Northern European? Does the power to conform exist in both societies/cultures but merely in different forms?

There are different uniforms and codes of conduct that we all carry in any society and culture. The school uniform is a metaphor for a larger concept.

Meanwhile, the project is also a reflection of my biography. The methods and order I have used, the choice of location might say something about me. In the beginning, I tried to reconstruct the mental stages and patterns of behavior in Korean society. These were influenced by the relationship between rapid economic growth and ethics in recent Korean history. The first phase of the project relates to the South Korean educational system and the transition which occurred during the democratization of the country in the early 1980s. The Korean school uniform for girls allowed for an investigation into the processes of socialization, where different aspects of power structures, oppression, transgressions and an awakening sexuality were staged and made to confront each other. These aspects reflected, to varying degrees, the breaking points between the sternly authoritative and repressive system and the country’s recent openness at a time of strong economic and technological development, which also allowed for an individualistic consumer culture and an expansive cultural life.

As relations between the individual, the uniform (second identity) and society are not an exclusively Korean, or Asian, concern, the work acquired a new and expanded geographic and psychological meaning in its later phases. Even though school uniforms exist all over the world, and are actually more of a rule than an exception, their role within my project has become more and more metaphorical. This later part of “Girls in Uniform” also reflects my own biography, as my art is based in Sweden in order to explore environments in Europe.

In the photographs we see constructions of events/narratives that are parallel to the commonplace. Many of the locations/scenes in my works can refer to Heterotopia. These are spaces of otherness, which are neither here nor there, that are simultaneously physical and mental.

These choices of settings are central. I want the photographs to possess a theatrical quality at the same time as they refer to documentary (or psychological portraits). More and more, the project has developed into studies of elements in settings where the historical and architectural aspects are of considerable importance.

In my photographic staging at these locations, my use of models, props and the situations they are involved in are all employed in relation to the history of the site, for deeper relations between the story line and its visualization.

If your work is indeed a critique of conformity and identity formation in modern societies, I guess a counterargument would be that top-down identity-building provides some of that necessary glue that keeps a society together.

This is very true. As one who was born and raised in one culture while residing in a very different one, I may see more of these differences and problems. The very idea of this difference may be the starting point of the project.

I am not trying to say one is better than the other. Striking a balance between these seems quite a utopian idea at times.

But sometimes, what we may think as necessary glue to keep things together can easily turn into concrete that sucks you in and buries you.

Finally, it looks like you take a lot of time and effort in selecting your locations and staging your shots. Does that not contradict your message, in some way?

My choice of locations is carefully made, as you say. They do not only serve as a backdrop, but also help create certain emotions by using the atmosphere and possibly also the history of the site. I don’t think this can be done in any other way, nor is it contradictory. On the contrary, I believe it largely contributes to the theme.

Western blues

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s hard not to feel a wee bit jealous of Nysos Vasilopoulos. The 34-year-old photographer has already had a number of solo exhibitions in Berlin, which he calls home for the past seven years, collaborated with dance and theater troupes there and in Athens, even worked on a short film that has been screened at the International Short Film Festival in Drama. So it comes a bit as a surprise that, when it comes to taking pictures, his main passion and craft, this independent and talented young man has chosen to focus on the more poignant aspects of the human psyche. Melancholy, loneliness and introversion are the words mostly associated with the work of Patra-born Vasilopoulos, whose work has already drawn comparisons to that of Michael Ackerman. “Street Sonnets,” an exhibition of 57 black-and-white photographs shot in Berlin and other European capitals between 2002 and 2009, is currently on show at the Photography Museum of Thessaloniki. Athens Plus met with Vasilopoulos at the premises of this seaside, cozy industrial building.

As a photographer you bear the label of “melancholy” and “loneliness.” Is it something that has been imposed on you, or is it something that you’ve tried to bring out with your work?

No, it’s not something that has been imposed on me. Rather, it’s a statement that I myself have used. In recent years, I have been searching for man’s loneliness, introversion and isolation. Whether I found myself in Athens, Berlin, London or Paris I was searching for man. Not in fancy parties, colors and lights but rather in places where we all exist in our daily lives. In some way, it was a reflection of my own thoughts and feelings about modern man, the modern Western man.

Was it man’s loneliness or solitude? Or, perhaps, both?

Both, yes.

Does art thrive on melancholy?

Yes. I believe art, art at its core, is tough. It won’t pet you, it won’t lie to you. Art is not some big party but something esoteric that we all share. It’s all about who people and how much they work on it.

Do these rough urbanscapes give you what you are looking for? After all, shooting in Athens or Berlin is one thing, while shooting in postcard-pretty Paris or Amsterdam is quite another.

I see what you mean but if you are looking for man you will find man regardless where you may be. A lonely setting can be found in any city. In any western city you’ll always find a coffee-place with a man sitting in a moment of silence, just like my photograph at the El Prado foyer. Funny thing is, this man was joined by three ladies right after I clicked. In a way, that is the illusion of photography. The photographer captures the moment. What happens before or after that moment is a whole different story.

Is photography melancholy by nature? I mean the way it captures the moment that is forever lost.

I think so. You freeze time and you pass it into the future; it’s an illusion. But there is also something melancholy about trying to freeze reality.

Some of your photos appear to have been staged.

Yes, I do stage some of them. When I was younger, I used to say: “Yes, this is a very beautiful photograph but it is staged, so I don’t like it.” With time you realize that this does not matter, because you can stage something or you can have something completely spontaneous and still get the same power. The point is to transcend form and create something that will stand in time.

Are there any photographers who have influenced your work?

Yes, I have delved into the work of [Henri] Cartier-Bresson and [Andre] Kertesz.

You have shot thousands of pictures. How can you tell a really good photograph from a not-so-good one?

My criterion is if a photograph that I shot in 2002 still does it for me today. A good photograph is one that can stand the test of time. But it’s also about you, what you want to say. Sometimes you may use a photograph to test your own doubt toward it. I am not so sure about all these photographs [on display here]. I still have doubts about some of them.

What is your favorite photo in this exhibition?

I really like the one at the Louvre statues. It gives me a melancholic feeling. These statues were made to stand under the sun and we wrapped them in plastic and placed them one next to the other; they look haunted. It’s like people who have lost their freedom.

You have lived in Berlin for the past seven years. Have you ever thought of coming back?

I don’t feel like a migrant. I mean, I can be here and be in Berlin or anywhere else at the same time. I love Berlin; it’s my base, my daily life. That does not mean to stay I plan to live there forever. Just like I got on a plane and left, the same could one day happen again, this time to another destination.


Nysos Vasilopoulos studied photography, journalism and history of European civilization in Athens before moving to Berlin, where he studied film direction at the Berlin Kaskeline Filmakademie. He has experienced with other art forms and collaborated with sculptor Clavie Duson, musician Chris Jarrett and poet Ernesto Estrella.

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