Heterotopias: Terrains vagues at the 1st Biennale of Thessaloniki, Greece
“Are you guys here for the Costakis collection?” This question was addressed to a group of the Russian artists gathered for the opening events of the First Biennale of Thessaloniki, Greece, which ran from May until September of 2007. Coming from the countries of the ex-Soviet Union, these largely unknown young artists were invited to participate in the Biennale by Maria Tsantsanoglou, artistic director and curator of the event. Her curatorial selection entitled Heterotopias: Beholders of Other Places presented an assortment of 33 Greek, Russian and other artists from diverse artistic backgrounds.
Tsantsanoglou completed her doctorate research on Futurism at Moscow University. During that time, she became a part of the city’s art scene. Her experience was further broadened by eight years spent at the Greek Embassy in Moscow as a cultural attaché.(Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” Diacritics, 16 (Spring 1986), 22-27, http://foucault.info/documents/heteroTopia/foucault.heteroTopia.en.html) Tsantsanoglou’s confidence in contemporary art resulted in her vision of a crowded international event such as a Biennale held in Salonika (the local name for Thessaloniki). Her mission was “to welcome other different places and cultures that will communicate through the wonderful common language of art.”
After the opening of the Biennale, the Russian artists took a train to Athens, where only 500 miles away, Victor Misiano put on another exhibition, Critically in Between, under the auspice of the Athina – Greek Art Fair. Simultaneously, at the Benaki Museum, Misiano’s exhibition On Geekdom: The Artists from the USSR presented another broad scope of some forty-two artists. Such an exposé of the post-Soviet art scene was made possible by Russia’s invitation to be the honorary guest at the Athina this year.
This concentration of post-Soviet art in Greece raised a series of questions for me during my visit to Thessaloniki: How will Russian art be received here? What kind of critical response will it arouse? I also wanted to see a correspondence, if any, between the Russian and Greek art scenes as viewed in the present context of a post-border culture in Europe. A conversation with Victor Misiano further informed my interpretation of the Biennale’s agenda and the art on display.
It was immediately apparent that there is no explicit correspondence between the Russian and Greek cultural scenes. Russian artists want to intermingle with the “real” art worlds of London and New York, while, for the most part, Greeks do not yet see themselves as belonging to the European mainstream, but instead have developed a rather unique and alternative cultural landscape that has as its origin the country’s multicultural past.
Salonika has been a melting pot of Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Bulgarians, Jews, Franks, and others. These groups have interconnected and enriched each other to create a unique amalgam of communities. Once praised as an important commercial center and port during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the city was burned down by a devastating fire in 1917, which destroyed the original architectural plan developed by an expatriate French architect. Later, the city was flooded by the Greek refugees arriving from Asia, who turned to Solonika, Athen’s unloved and ignored sister, and generated rivalry in the process. Misiano claims that this rivalry is reminiscent of the longstanding tension between St. Petersburg and Moscow.
In any case, the debut of the Biennale confirms that Salonika has finally started to embrace its offbeat vitality and is ready to re-draw its place in the cultural topography of Greece. The city continues to work against its parochial misgivings and phobias of inferiority, which are a result of its remoteness from other European cultural capitals. The conviction of a special destiny, endorsed by Orthodox Christianity, the city’s West and East crossroads position, as well as the tensions between periphery and centrality that have burdened the Greeks for hundreds of years, finally appears to have reached its limits. As one local commented, “For all Salonika’s modernity, sometimes you need reminding of how things were when the line between east and west was a little more blurred.”
The local arts community is also ready to move out from under the weight of stereotypes that has historically anchored Greece to its antiquity and Orthodoxy. Now, as recipients of the worldwide inflow of popular culture, the Greeks are finally defining their place amongst the non-stop, flat, superficial, and “post-everything and in-material” entertainment. (Misiano)
In accordance with the quest for identity and recognition, the First Thessaloniki Biennale wanted to generate new dynamics for the local art scene. To address this, Maria Tsantsanoglou, along with curators Catherine David and Jan-Erik Lundstrom, presented a challenging array of art from the hitherto ignored territories of Russia, the Middle East, and Latin America, while excluding the names of familiar Biennale suspects. Catherine David has described the identity implied by the works in the show as “a new distribution of the sensible” that has been harnessed in these terrains vague. The show stood out and generated a significant amount of publicity when compared to the over 200 Biennales now held around the globe.
What overarching theme would enable the Biennale to bring such displaced and disparate artists together in exhibits with titles such as Beholders of Other Places, Di/visions: from here and from Elsewhere, and Society Must Be Defended? The curators chose heterotopias, a term appropriated from theorist Michael Foucault’s text Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias (1967).
According to Foucault, a heterotopia is a counter-site to an unreal space of utopia. In hetero-spaces a utopia is re-enacted, contested and finally, inverted. Such places include cemeteries, hospitals, schools, libraries, military bases, museums, ships, motels, and brothels– places and situations that violently fuse elements of the real and unreal, absurd and conventional, forbidden and accepted. As such, heterotopias are an instrument of state control, symbols of social order and institutional permanence. Deceptively stable, such institutions remain in impregnated states by conflicts and tensions, and when examined by the artists, present a breeding ground for their critical interventions.
One smart move on the part of the curators was to give expatriate artists a strong voice at the show. Their double estrangement from both their original home, which they left to work and live in the West, and their adopted country reverberated with the current situation of Salonika, which now hosts extended Russian and Balkan communities–the very expatriates and subjects of the post-Soviet diaspora.
In this vein, the heterotopia of the museum was successfully challenged by the site-specific installation of Russian artist Vadim Zakharov, titled Black Birds (2007). Created for the atrium of the Byzantine Museum, this installment strikes the spectator with its eerie discord with the warm colors of the museum’s modernist architecture. Zakharov places a grid of 16 male mannequins dressed up in black overcoats and holding briefcases on the pristine gravel of its courtyard. These de-personalized figures recall the black subjects of Magritte’s painting Golconda , which features an identical downpour of bourgeois normality. Similarly, Zakharov’s Black Birds resembles a pageant of contemporary businessmen announcing that orthodoxy and triviality is ever alive. A deep, redolent soundtrack of ancient Greek chanting amplifies the frightening muteness of the figures, who function as invaders of the immobile space of a museum, “in which, according to Foucault’s description, time never stops building up and topping its own summit”.(Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” Diacritics, 16 (Spring 1986), 22-27, http://foucault.info/documents/heteroTopia/foucault.heteroTopia.en.html)
Yuri Albert updates his Self-portrait with Closed Eyes (1995), an installation of 88 white relief images containing descriptions of van Gogh’s paintings translated into Braille script. Albert cites the descriptions of the artist’s works, which are contained in letters to his brother Theo. The artist explains: “It is a real van Gogh for the blind…it is an attempt to imagine what van Gogh could have done if he had put out his eyes instead of cutting off his ear.”( Yuri Albert, “Vazhnejshee iz chelovecheskih prav.” Khudozhestvenny zhurnal # 23, (Moscow, 1999).) The artist employs unusual communicative idioms such as languages for the blind or deaf mutes as metaphors for contemporary idioms of art. Albert suggests that blindness is constituent in the act of perception, as it is situated on the threshold of seeing and defines a space that is other–dark, tactile, and hyper-sensitive. Following Derrida, blindness is not an act of non-seeing, but instead enables a new way of seeing. The artist sees with his new vision, a blindness that sees beyond the limits of ordinary vision.(Jacques Derrida and Pascale-Anne Brault, Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins, Translated by Michael Naas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1993), 85.)
Young Armenian artist Vahram Aghasyan represents muddled terrains of the town of Gyumri, Armenia, in his series of photographs Ghost Town (2005). An uncanny carcass of a modernist-looking building mutely descends into the water, sucked down by its own reflection. These images reference the tragic reality of the town, which never recovered from a devastating earthquake in 1988. Its inhabitants still live among the ruins that punctuate a defaced landscape in a state of deterioration and abandonment. The state is complicit, as it allowed a permanent erasure of Gyumri that symbolizes many other tragedies of the Soviet economy, such as Chernobyl and Star City, where the waste of resources, ravaging of human lives, and abuse of nature were sanctioned for decades.
The Daniel and Geo Fuchs photographs of the Stasi headquarters shot in Berlin and Potsdam (2005) represent spaces of brutality, where the artists explored the signs of callous interrogation and persecution. On these crisp, large images, the offices, chambers and bunkers appear to be desolate and intact, as if their merciless staff had just departed. The artists render the architectonics of spacesin such a way that the viewer feels dragged into a bunker endangered by the alteration of space and time. The photographs encapsulate heterotopias of militant states and the apparatuses of KGB and other secret services. Here, architecture claims triumph of power over powerlessness, death over life, and order over the non-conformity of the individual.
The most interesting artists at the Biennale re-created spaces that have been conventionally destabilized, excluded, and deprived. Given the tangible means of installation, video and photography, the artists interrupted sets of divisions between center and periphery, mainstream and marginal, home and exile. “Today, when we are all on the road, because this is what our mode of life requires,” says Tsantsanoglou, “the notion of place is no longer singular but diverse and global.” The First Thessaloniki Biennale ushered Salonika on the road to networking with other cultures, biennales and communities.