In 2007, a time before the global financial markets crashed and when the world still seemed whole, Berlin-based gallerist Javier Peres asked his Athenian friend Iasson Tsakonas an interesting question. Would it be possible for Tsakonas (a real-estate developer, art collector, and architecture aficionado) to hook Peres up with a temporary gallery space in Athens for Peres Projects, his gallery? Tsakonas – who owns multiple buildings in the inner-city Athens districts of Kerameikos/Metaxourgeio (KM) as well as a company, Oliaros, dedicated to developing them – certainly could. But the idea quickly grew into something much bigger: an urban art project called ReMap, in which local and international galleries and independent art projects occupy (for lack of a better word) some of the vacant spaces in this troubled district with art exhibitions for a few weeks.
ReMap’s first edition coincided with the first Athens Biennale, but now it’s evolved into an event of its own – and just keeps getting better, despite the fact that Greece is in its sixth year of deep recession. ReMap 4 launched on September 8 and runs until September 30; amid the brothels and ruins (nearly 50 per cent of the neighborhood is vacant) are nearly 60 exhibitions tucked into storefronts, apartment buildings, 1970s housing projects, basements, courtyards, empty lots, even an unused bar. International blue-chippers like Eva Presenhuber from Zurich, Modern Institute from Glasgow, Maccarone from New York and Lorcan O’Neill from Rome have mounted shows alongside local galleries Melas/Papadopoulos, Rebecca Camhi, The Breeder, Eleni Koroneou, CAN Christina Androulidaki, and others. A scad of independent projects from around the world are showing. The Deste Foundation is taking part this year for the first time, more than 30 photography students from the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts produced some remarkable on-site work, and Gagosian will even be mounting a James Turrell piece in the district on September 19. The anchor of it all might be the local Kunsthalle Athena (run by Greek curator-about-town Marina Fokidis in a neoclassical building owned by Tsakonas), which invited the Greek artist collective Daily Lazy to curate an expansive group show called In the Studio – which I expected to be a sprawling mishmash but worked beautifully, weaving works by Mathieu Mercier, Yudi Noor, Georgia Sagri, Angelo Plessas and a long list of others into the Kunsthalle’s “permanent” collection.
This time I managed to completely avoid the sight of junkies shooting up, perhaps pure luck
I’d been to ReMap 3 two years ago, but this edition (again spearheaded by Effie Komninou) seemed even more cohesive. Was it because I knew my way around – this time I managed to completely avoid the sight of junkies shooting up, perhaps pure luck – or that there’s more good work to see? There’s Swiss artist Kilian Rüthemann’s brilliant columnar plaster sculptures standing in a landscape atop a crumbling narrow building, Hanna Liden’s blobby hanging heads at Maccarone, showing in an empty apartment, and intriguing image manipulations by young British artist Alex Dordoy at Modern Institute. John Bock’s installation at Eleni Koroneou integrates elements from a 2009 performance on an Athens bus. Melas/Papadopoulos shows Caitlin Keogh’s delicate painted renderings of needlepoint in a courtyard hall, and Rebecca Camhi has Paul Desborough’s sweeping “paint-skin” works in her own space a block away. At Italian gallery T293 are intriguing manipulated towels by young Norwegian artist Henrik Olai Kaarstein. Always a sucker for textile work, I was blown away by the webs and columns of knotted yarn created by visually impaired artist Blind Adam at The Breeder (even if the show itself was a bit, well, decorative).
The numerous group shows are a bit overwhelming, but standouts are Sensual Abstraction, a tightly edited show highlighting both Greek and foreign artists and curated by Deste Prize 2013 nominee Alexandros Tzannis. Metaphoria II (curated by Lab’Bel) juxtaposes disparate pieces by Ceal Floyer, Karin Sander, Lawrence Wiener and other big-name visual artists with poetry by Rui Costa in a vertiginous top-floor indoor/outdoor space. A true jewel-box of a show is The Cabinet/From Darkness to Light, an oversize hollow cube filled with tiny works by a very large group of mostly Greek artists, visible only through holes and slits. A cabinet of curiosities.
After considering the art, one can only think of the larger issues brought up by this unusual biennale/fair-in-the-ghetto model
ReMap 4 has far more to offer than this (one project even highlights the art of immigrant children in Athens, and events continue until ReMap closes with a silent auction in late September; oh, and even the event’s info point is a relaxing courtyard that new architecture firm Mark Office transformed into a kind of 1980s Athenian commons), but I risk turning this post into a mere list. After considering the art, one can only think of the larger issues brought up by this unusual biennale/fair-in-the-ghetto model. Does culture always lead the way to urban renewal? Can it here, under these circumstances? Does ReMap, which turns this derelict district into a vibrant street party on opening night and beyond, affect long-term change even after it closes every two years? Athens mayor Giorgos Kaminis even showed up (the first time a mayor attended a ReMap opening), apparently stunned at the streets’ transformation and inspired to make good on his recently announced commitment to supporting the area. KM has incredible potential, but such a long way to go, and Tsakonas’ efforts – tenacious and very smart, even though, as he’s said to me in the past, it’s “sometimes like swimming up a waterfall” – are often seen as controversial in a city where private initiative and investment is suspicious at best. While those of us in central and northern Europe grumble about gentrification and corporatization changing the nature of art production, it’s intriguing to witness pre-gentrification and culture’s first steps into it, which in Athens often comes down to improvisation – and even survival.
ReMap 4, Athens, is on to 30 September.