Biennial Greece

Ambition exceeds means at the second Athens Biennale

Six separate exhibitions focus on the idea of “Heaven”

Athens. Though the current Athens Biennale (until 4 October) bears the title, Heaven, its location in an abandoned storage facility built for the 2004 Olympics does not suggest a celestial realm so much as a Twilight Zone. At its opening last month, visitors entered through an empty parking lot. Inside, a temporary mirrored passageway led out of the unfinished lobby into cavernous spaces marked by concrete floors, exposed ductwork, minimal lighting and no air conditioning. On the whole, the presentation looked like a very poor cousin to Athens's €130m Acropolis Museum, which threw open its doors the same week.

The contrast could not have been more stark. The museum installed a theatrical display of polished antiquities intended for a global audience, while Heaven, produced for about €2.5m, is an international show of contemporary art meant for the local populace. Between them is a culture still identified with the ancient world trying hard to redefine itself in the modern one.

Founded in 2007 by Xenia Kalpaktsoglou, Poka-Yio and Augustine Zenakos—an artist, architect and critic working under the name XYZ—the independently financed biennial is actually six separate exhibitions put together by as many curators. They have brought 150 European and American artists to Athens, and included art in every medium as well as outdoor performances on the beachfront that Athenians once nicknamed "heaven." The overall effect is sweeping but not grand, absorbing but sometimes obtuse, and mostly a Greek showcase surrounded by established names like Paul Chan, Adam Chodzko, Carolee Schneemann and Lothar Hempel.

"It's very curated," said Kathy Halbreich, associate director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, after touring the exhibitions. "You know you're in a different world in each show."

Though most works were of recent vintage, they also dated from the 1930s through the 1970s to the present, with each curator putting a personal spin on the idea of heaven. "At first I couldn't get my head around this impossible topic," admitted one of the biennial curators Cay Sophie Rabinowitz. Her show put photographs by the late Ettore Sottsass alongside a pyramid of shredded Cypriot currency by Christodoulos Panayiotou.

The curators' production budget for new works was less than €20,000. "This is not a huge money-making venture," Rabinowitz said, "but compared to what I've done in the past"—she was briefly artistic director of Art Basel—"this was liberating intellectually and personally edifying."

The Italian-born Viennese curator Diana Baldon based her show on the eight circles of purgatory, "the antechamber of heaven" in Dante's Inferno. Athens-based curator Christopher Marinos gathered works that picture an accessible utopia, both its bright side and its dark underbelly. But the section with the sharpest focus on the possibility of an afterlife was orchestrated by the Athenian curator Nadja Agyropoulou. She installed a realistic Polish graveyard by Robert Kusmirowski but also produced a book documenting 19th-century Greek adventures in the paranormal that was among the most fascinating objects in the biennial.

The show has been drawing a steady flow of visitors, particularly in the evening, when families crowd the beachfront. The biennial's first incarnation in 2007, "Destroy Athens", drew 50,000 admissions during its run which is respectable “for a guerrilla biennial not supported by city or state", said Andreas Angelidakis, the architect who designed Heaven. "Though there were some production complaints, I think the organisers did pretty well, and I like that their ambition exceeds their means."

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