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December 28, 2013

The Athens Biennale:

A Reflection Towards the Future

Written by Zoe Charaktinou & Alkisti Efthymiou


Ten years ago Athens was gearing up for the summer 2004 Olympic Games. A busy, lively capital which holds almost half of the population of Greece, the city was filled with a sense of celebration and prosperity. At the end of 2003, Outlook, the largest independent international contemporary art exhibition of recent years, took place in the city as part of the Cultural Olympiad programme. Outlook was a monumental exhibition with more than 200 works by 85 Greek and international artists; Damien Hirst's 6.8-metre sculpture Charity stood emphatically outside one of the buildings, facing the busy Piraeus Avenue. The exhibition hit the news as conservative politicians and church leaders found Asperges Me (Dry Sin) by Thierry de Cordier “vulgar” and “immoral”[1], and a young woman slashed Thanassis Totsikas’ photographic work of a man in a compromising position with a watermelon. By the end of 2004, Greece had won the European Football Championship, and hosted the Athens Olympics; the small country at the edge of southeast Europe was eventually ‘advancing’ while celebrating its longest run of democracy – 30 years. Greece was, at least psychologically, finally part of Europe in its own right, and a new air of internationalism was blowing in the capital.


It is not surprising that it was around that time that the Athens Biennale was conceived by three individuals active in the arts, who wished to partake more solidly in the emerging Greek contemporary art scene that was sparked by Outlook: Xenia Kalpaktsoglou, a curator, Poka-Yio (also known as Polydoros Karyofillis), an artist, and Augustine Zenakos, an art critic. Like many other peripheral biennials, the Athens Biennale responded to the city’s lack of art institutions that would have formed a web of artistic production, development and exchange.[2]


In 2005, Kalpaktsoglou, Poka-Yio and Zenakos (also known as XYZ) announced that they would curate the 1st Athens Biennale titled Destroy Athens, which would take place in September 2007. The curatorial trio spent time developing this first Greek biennial, trying not to fall into the trappings of the general exaltation, and with a critical approach towards what it meant to create another large-scale international exhibition. For this reason, prior to the exhibition, the two-day conference Prayer for (Passive?) Resistance was held in February 2007, and asked whether contemporary art and large-scale events are able to be sites of reflection on the contemporary political praxis.[3]


Destroy Athens took place at the Technopolis complex of buildings, where part of Outlook had been presented; it investigated the notion of ‘stereotype’ as the development of the ‘subject’ in relation to the ‘other’ and delved into the impasses and adventures of the individual. XYZ chose to tell a story, unfold a linear narrative set in Athens, a city-stereotype in its own right. Spread across six chapters (six 'Days') the exhibition unraveled within an architecturally predetermined route true to its storytelling ambition: Noise, Place and History, Refuge/Purgatory, Respite, Violence, The End – an end.[4] The project, a private endeavour, was at the time funded and supported by both the state and private organisations. Destroy Athens altogether “[...] heralded the Dionysian and at the same time apocalyptic December of 2008”[5], while the political situation in the country was becoming progressively unstable.


Yet hot off the wheels – and rightly so – of the first edition, the ambitious 2nd Athens Biennale Heaven opened in the summer of 2009. It consisted of six separate exhibitions that each presented a different take on the theme of Heaven and were curated by Nadja Argyropoulou, Diana Baldon, Christophoros Marinos, Chus Martínez , Cay Sophie Rabinowitz, and Dimitris Papaioannou & Zafos Xagoraris. Spread across the coast of Athens, in an area locally known as ‘Eden’, the 2nd Athens Biennale utilised buildings built for the Olympic Games that were left unused, tucked under an unfinished bridge. Those ‘contemporary ruins’ offered a strong context for the irony of Heaven. It was a project realised in a moment of transition, still too early for anyone to imagine the depth of the darkness of the economic crisis that was to follow.


By the autumn of 2010 the Greek debt crisis had erupted. The middle classes felt betrayed and 2011 was to become a very difficult year of bleak realisation. Greece was to become the ground for the experiment of harsh austerity, ripe with unstable state structures and a good dose of fear and suspicion, and became a breeding ground for fascistic tendencies. In the meantime, the Athens Biennale was gearing up for its third edition, Monodrome, which was to be curated by X&Y (Kalpaktsoglou and Poka-Yio) and Nicholas Bourriaud. Monodrome (meaning one-way street) was named after the book Einbahnstraße by Walter Benjamin. The June of 2011 saw the Greek Indignados (Αγανακτισμένοι) occupy Syntagma Square opposite the parliament. People hit the streets with hope and a pulse of change.


The 3rd Athens Biennale was an exhibition directly linked to the Greek and Athenian context symbolically and literally: the crisis that heavily determined the country’s economic, political, social and cultural situation also influenced the operation of the project itself – no funding was to be found apart from a few private donations and support in kind. Monodrome was put together by volunteers and with a lot of creativity to keep production costs to a minimum. It was both an attempt to reflect upon the Modern Greek history and the curators’ personal account of the country’s condition. Combining original artworks with archival material and found objects, it was an exhibition full of symbols and references, its ‘emblem’ being the building where the main exhibition and activities took place. Diplareios School, a seminal arts & crafts school which operated during the best part of the 20th century in what used to be one of the classiest areas of the city centre, was rundown and neglected, with views of the Acropolis through stained windows, and littered with dead pigeons that became part of the exhibition – it was really hard to ignore the truth of their presence in the building.


Monodrome was a ‘guerrilla’ project with an ongoing programme of events and new artworks being added until the very last week of the show. In stark contrast to Heaven, which was admittedly mainstream in form, Monodrome became a space for contemplation and exchange. It was imperative that this large-scale contemporary art event had to become a hub of activities in really weird times and with a lot of room for maneuvering within its exhibition structure. The ideas were specific and concise, the selection of works precise, its discursive elements part of the main programme rather than a parallel strand. Suddenly there was a realisation that producing “a contemporary art exhibition” just wasn't enough. This Biennale had to be fluid, non-linear and collective, rather an ever-growing constellation of parts.[6] It was a very local project, hard to read on first instance without some understanding of the Greek context, yet an insightful contemplation on the condition within which it was born and an allegory of what is in reality a global financial and social crisis that has shaken the 'developed' world.


Since the crisis in Greece is still an ongoing phenomenon, the Athens Biennale produced its fourth version once again as a response to the situation. Entitled Agora[7], it took place in the Old Athens Stock Exchange building and was structured around the pertinent question Now what? As stated by its concept text, Agora aimed to “explore creative alternatives to a state of bankruptcy”.


The 4th Athens Biennale aspired to be a spotlight for expression and reflection on reality as experienced by the public, rather than the organisers and artists exclusively, and to see art “confront its natural boundary which is no less than the society which engulfs it and constitutes the conditions for its existence.”[8] Agora was curated and produced by a team of forty-five artists, curators, theorists, and practitioners in the creative industries. Quoting the concept text, it was a “collective experiment”, the result of collaboration between people from different backgrounds who “shared a sense of responsibility and an urge to co-produce meaning”.


Agora, questioning the biennial format from within, proposed the ‘discursive’ exhibition model, and unraveled less through the exhibited artworks and more through the one-hundred events that it hosted over a span of fifty-four days. It aimed to function as a ‘contestation site’, not only during the exhibition but also during the process of its development. The reason for inviting people from different backgrounds to become members of the curatorial team was to ensure a multiplicity of voices, positions and opinions, so that discourse could be the driving force behind each phase of the exhibition planning. Built on an ethics of dissent rather than consent, the curatorial team itself became a public sphere, engaged in discussions not only about Agora but also about democracy, community and the commons, participation, collectivity, solidarity and collaboration.


From the initial curatorial workshops that defined the concept of Agora, the team expressed a need to create an exhibition that would be relevant to and intertwined with the continuously evolving present of Greece. The transformation of a site that symbolises capitalism to a democratic public space was a strong political statement. But of everything that fell under the umbrella of Agora, the process through which it was produced, curated, and realised is the boldest gesture. The collaborative experiment, with its limits and antinomies, was the legacy that this biennial left behind, and the answer to the tormenting question Now what?


And indeed, Now what? By presenting this brief overview of the Athens Biennale and its various incarnations, we tried to provide a glimpse of a biennial that never tried to be an institution and no one really tried to co-opt it – as is usually the case. The state, providing either zero or minimal funding, remained indifferent to anything such a project had to offer – cultural development and enrichment, touristic revenue, new ways of thinking etc.


This biennial, for all its successes and failures, has developed into a project that propels art into the storm as an other force. A force of doubt, a force of alternative possibilities in a place that is daily adding new ruins next to a very large collection of old ones. Its last two editions created a site of agonism, a site of negation, a site of experimentation. To its possible detriment, the fact that the Athens Biennale has not become an institution is also its strong point. A recent review of the Athens Biennale in Frieze[9] ends by essentially asking “Why a Biennale? Why now?” within the Greek context, concluding that “the noise from the streets drowns out any attempt to answer”. Although a pertinent observation, we would answer “more than ever now”, considering that the Athens Biennale is a self-organised, independent project that calls upon the tools of art in order to ask questions that no other cultural institution seems to be asking in Athens, without ignoring that noise from the streets.


Zoe Charaktinou is an independent curator based in London. Her practice centres on collaboration and exchange while exploring art & politics and dissensual strategies. She was Assistant Curator for the 3rd Athens Biennale 2011 Monodrome and currently runs the collaborative project ZINO with artist Eleni Bagaki. She holds a MFA in Curating from Goldsmiths.

Alkisti Efthymiou is a graduate student of Museum Studies at University College London. She participated in the production of the 3rd Athens Biennale 2011 Monodrome and recently co-curated the 4th Athens Biennale 2013 Agora. Her research interests involve the history and critique of art institutions, and the cultural, social, and political impact of biennials.

[1] Smith,H., 2003. 'Obscene' art offends orthodox Greek taste. The Guardian. [Online] Available at: <> [Accessed 16th january 20014].

[2] As Kalpaktsoglou and Poka-Yio mention at the introductory text of the 4th Athens Biennale Agora Anthology, "The Athens Biennale was conceived as a 'device' for creative subversion. It was established in the wake of an eventful season in 2004 when the smell of change was in the air as the Greek art world was becoming mobilized through an emerging contemporary art scene”. And the text continues: “When we started out, biennial exhibitions were already being challenged while a major revision was well underway. Yet we had grown up in a country where the independent art institution is a rarity, and we felt it only made sense to appropriate this controversial and highly contested exhibition model with a view to making the Athens Biennale a perpetual exercise in subversion within an established canon”. Marinos, C. (ed.), 2013. Agora: Anthology. Athens: Athens Biennale.

[3] Kalpaktsoglou, X., Poka-Yio, Tramboulis, T. & Zenakos, A. (eds.), 2007. Προσευχή για (Παθητική;) Αντίσταση [Prayer for (Passive?) Resistance]. Athens: Athens Biennale.

[4] Kalpaktsoglou, X., Poka-Yio, Tramboulis, T. & Zenakos, A. (eds.), 2007. Destroy Athens. Athens: Athens Biennale.

[5] Christopoulos, K., 2013. Η σύγχρονη τέχνη στην Ελλάδα [Contemporary Art in Greece]. Αυγή [Avgi newspaper], 28 July 2013, Issue 553, p. 19-20. On the 6th of December 2008 15-year-old high-school student Alexandros Grigoropoulos was killed by two police officers in central Athens. While the riots that erupted in the city and throughout the country (and lasted for days) were triggered by the event, it was clear that they were also an expression of deep frustration caused by the current financial crisis and the general inefficiency and corruption of state institutions and politicians.

[6] As stated by the exhibition’s concept text, “the 3rd Athens Biennale 2011 MONODROME was a collective discourse of artists, art groups, curators and theorists, reflecting on the complex relations between the global and the local, in an attempt to explore new modes of cultural action that open up dialogue and debate, comment on cultural production and revisit relations between (art) histories and subjectivities”. About 3rd Athens Biennale 2011 Monodrome. [Online] Available at: <> [Accessed 16th January 2014].

[7] In Greek the word ‘agora’ (αγορά) has multiple meanings. It can be translated as ‘marketplace’ and ‘purchase’, but also as ‘assembly’ or ‘forum’. In ancient times, it was the public open space within the city where political and cultural life was enacted.

[8] What is Agora? 2013. [Online] 5 October 2013 Available from: [Accessed 9th December 2013].

[9] Sherlock, A., 2014. 4th Athens Biennale & 4th Thessaloniki Biennale, Frieze, 160.