Fondazione Prada in Exarcheia, or on Romanticism

26/06/2017

Art critic, curator and writer Theophilos Tramboulis undersigns this intuitive and penetrative response to the current exhibition by Fondazione Prada in Athens—a text as torrential as the downpour that accompanied guests during the opening night.

Text by Theophilos Tramboulis
Photo by Paris Tavitian, courtesy Fondazione Prada
Originally published on Skra-punk on 18 June 2017. Republished with kind permission.
Translated from the Greek by Kiriakos Spirou

From Saturday 17th of June, in ten empty shops, old hair salons, novelty shops and convenience stores in Exarcheia (the “infamous” Exarcheia, a neighbourhood often accused of beign an anarchist ghetto, a place of lawlessness and urban degradation), ten artists exhibit a work each as part of the exhibition Driftwood organised by Fondazione Prada. The exhibition is curated by Evelyn Simons, born in 1989 as the press release stresses, and constitutes the award-winning proposal of a competition organised by Prada and the Qatar Museums. Note that the award was given in 2014, well before the news of Documenta taking place in Athens were officially announced. According to the proposal’s concept, “shared thematic topics are investigated through this wide range of artistic contributions: advertising and marketing as tools used to cover up the exploitation in globalised production processes; labour ethics; [...] the structural limitations of human movement and thought; imposed or self-governed cultural identity.” In fact, the exhibition, which will last until July 22nd, is promoted as “a walk through the streets of the Exarcheia neighbourhood in Athens.”

So on Saturday, under torrentous rain, around thirty people of the art world followed this walk, coming across “smart lights” on Arachovis street that, as the tasteful catalogue explains, were “turning on during internationally implemented working hours;” on Mavromichali street, in a former pharmacy, “a landscape constructed of disused cable covers,” and a bit further, in a former grocery store an installation about the “notions of the home, familiarity and constructing a safe heaven;” on a corner of Harilaou Trikoupi, piles of fabrics and sewing machines in a “sweatshop simulation,” and of course, between two art installations on Zoodochou Pigis a real tailor shop that wasn’t an artwork, with actual people working there, doing piecework long into the night. The crowd on the walk was evidently international, although as far as I could tell by way of dress and physiognomy, the representatives of Qatar Museums were not present, possibly because of the embargo. Unfortunately, the weather ruined it all: while visitors were dressed for a sunny afternoon in Athens—a couple of them, as Natalia pointed out, were wearing expensive blue-white (and not in the colours of the Greek flag, God forbid) pool slippers—were forced to cross the streets splashing in the waterholes and streams of Zoodochou Pigis street. Most of the works at the exhibition were good and some of the artists are friends of mine, but the moment when the elegant art audience entered, soaking wet, the “Mouria” coffee shop to watch a video installed there, causing to the less elegant patrons there a momentary sense of awkwardness and commotion, I felt that the situation would be comically and bewilderingly grotesque were it not so paradigmatic.

Indeed, I would strongly support that Evelyn Simons would deserve the Curate Award of Fondazione Prada (and Qatar Museums), not as much as because it examines “advertising and marketing as tools used to cover up exploitation,” but because in an afternoon it achieved, possibly unbeknownst to her, to curatorially choreograph many of the contradictions of contemporary art and the cultural industry in general. I mean the same contradictions that some outdated figurative painters or humourless leftists often point out as if they have discovered the wheel, and to whom we, the initiates of postmodernity, then have to reply in utter boredom mentioning Duchamp, spiritualism in art, the autonomy of the artistic field and the certainty that if you are aware of your contradictions they automatically cease to be effective: works with political content sponsored by institutions and political entities against which the works critically turn; the fantasy of communal participation in a work that at the same time instrumentalises the community for the pleasure and benefit of art professionals obviously not belonging to the community; the pretext of artistic and social activism, which objectifies and turns political speech and political activism into a spectacle; the increasing interest for the fate and impoverishment of the middle class, which creates new elites that look at the middle class exotically; the reproduction of thematic axes and conceptual frameworks of left and often situationalist or post-structuralist origin which spectacle-ises even the faintest expression of social or productive life; the abolition of the fourth wall in a work, the use of common, everyday objects—that is, objets trouvés—without any other manual or dextrous intervention, while nearby the same objects define relationships of production, exploitation and oppression, causing and producing pain; the immaterial, rationalising, conceptual, restructuring works that in reality increase the surplus value of material, traditional, representational art (this is Prada after all! In 2013 the Fondazione Prada organised in Venice a meticulous re-staging of the exhibition “When Attitudes Become Form,” a landmark exhibition in [the history of] conceptual art curated by Harald Szeemann in 1969 in Bern; in other words, an exhibition that proclaimed thought itself as form and material for art—a stance that had clearly political content—which then returned [through Prada’s revival] as a crystallised, material object.) Above all of course, the silent economy of art that has transferred a large part of artistic activity, apart from Russia and China, to the Gulf States, creating a peculiar religious classism based on representation: the super rich patrons of Qatar or Dubai finance and support art in any way, while the muslim population is radicalised religiously against the cultural and artistic creations of the West.

All of these are known paradoxes of course, fissures of contemporary art that often resurface as issues of criticism, although most the times as general remarks that don’t refer to the specific conditions in which a particular work emerges and materialises. However, the Fondazione Prada exhibition has been organised in Exarcheia, rendering the area and Athens in general (with all its financial and social problems) not just a spectacle but also a theme, in both meanings of the term—i.e. its subject matter, and at the same time in the sense this term has in communication theories: a frame of reference and of assigning meaning, rendering the crisis and Athens a common-place, a safe and certain knowledge that we all share and which all need to have in order to speak and say anything new. The city of Athens, as seen through the Driftwood exhibition, is a city which every art and culture professional should visit.

In reality, this Athens by Fondazione Prada is a version of the romantic Grand Tour that turned the ruins at Sounion and the Athenian Korae into a spectacle, on its search for “man the limitless, the painful antithesis between what humanity could be able to do and what it actually can,” to paraphrase what T.E. Hulme says about the romantic poet. Only in our case, the ruins of classical time are replaced by the supposed ruins of the body social. And although one would say that Exarcheia don’t really offer themselves for such a romantic tour, since—in contrast to other truly degraded neighbourhoods of Athens—it is an area of intense professional activity, traditionally of high cultural esteem and powerful political speech (a combination that makes scaremongering writing about Exarcheia politically inevitable and proves the mechanisms behind the use of the argument of “lawlessness”), this exact life and activity found here is what makes Exarcheia so necessary for the romantic vision. They prove that behind the social ruins there is still life, in the same way romantic poets believed that the Nymphs and the Sileni still stirred amongst the fallen columns at night.

Documenta 14 is I believe a particularly good exhibition and articulates several issues which we must examine away from the bellicose and phobic rhetoric on colonialism and supposed exploitation. It is a good exhibition also because it tried through calculated moves not to turn the works into romantic depositions, or pursuits of some pure form supposedly hidden deep inside Athens (it once was the Parthenon, which Gucci requested [for a fashion show] but the Central Archaeological Council refused to provide, now it’s Exarcheia which Prada requested and got, since the Council doesn’t have any authority here—yet). Still, the arrival of Documenta in Athens is accompanied from day one by the danger to turn Athens into an idealised landscape of Crisis, a myth of romantic flânerie, the analogy of the fallen marble columns. The Fondazione Prada exhibition proves that the danger has not been put at bay. And sometimes, as I was watching yesterday the international art crowds under the rain, the verses of classicist John Webster came to my lips, as quoted again by T.E. Hulme[1]:

‘End your moan and come away.’


[1] T.E. Hulme, Romanticism and Classicism. 1911. The Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/resources/learning/essays/detail/69477 Retrieved on 23 June 2017.

The exhibition Driftwood, or how we surfaced through currents is curated by Evelyn Simons, in Athens. The project features 11 site-specific projects by Larry Achiampong, Meriç Algün, James Bridle, Hera Büyüktaşçiyan, Jeremy Hutchison, KERNEL, Chrysanthi Koumianaki, Persefoni Myrtsou & Eva Giannakopoulou, Lara Ögel, Maria Papadimitriou and Lloyd Corporation. Open from 17 June to 22 July 2017, from Wednesday to Saturday (4 – 9 pm). For more information visit the Fondazione Prada website.

Photo caption: Jeremy Hutchison Movables, 2017. Series of 500 x 700 cm billboard prints on PVC. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Paris Tavitian.