We help you to digest the rich trove of conceptual art at Athens’ long-awaited public beacon of modern culture, EMST.
By Amanda Dardanis
The day before I visit Greece’s shiny new National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), I ask my Athenian artist friend Stella for the lowdown. “There aren’t many pretty pictures …” she says, “but there are lots of beautiful concepts.”
For those of us with an appetite and appreciation for contemporary art; but without the art degree or specialist eye to decode it, conceptual art museums can be daunting. With a little advance effort, however, and a bid to grasp the backstory of some of the key exhibits, the rewards are great. My half-day experience at the Permanent Exhibition of EMST felt more immersive than a conventional gallery —and it resonated for longer afterwards too.
Housed in an iconic former 1950s brewery in Koukaki, next to the Syngrou Fix metro, EMST has plugged a prime gap in the city’s cultural canvas with its haul of 172 permanent works by 78 Greek and international artists. There are some big guns to tick off—like Arte Povera master Jannis Kounellis, star sculptor Costas Varotsos, art provocateur Costas Tsoclis and Greek-American light art pioneer Chryssa. With the help of my expert guide, EMST Curator, Stamatis Schizakis, here are some more highlights that pack a powerful punch:
Nisyros by Panos Kokkinias
What’s the story: If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s how small we stand against Nature—and how rapidly our “normal” can acquire the lilt of nostalgia. Panos Kokkinias’ sunny, large-scale photograph of a bright tourist swarm gathered on a volcanic crater on the Greek island of Nisyros is no reckless flash mob. The engrossing image was created by digital inkjet from thousands of separate photographs. There’s a voyeuristic charge in witnessing so many frozen moments of intimacy, introspection and unbridled motion (and a collective irony at all those cameras and mobile phones halted mid-shot). The human figure rendered small amid a larger landscape is a recurring theme for this Athens-born artist who ranks among the most important art photographers in Greece currently.
Why: Kokkinias’ hyper-real seascape is awash with the whimsy of off-duty humans. Don’t be surprised to feel a visceral longing to step inside the frame. Displayed prominently on the first floor landing, Nisyros is a good entry point to this conceptual modern art hub: photography is universal and accessible to all.
Akropolis Redux—The Director’s Cut by Kendell Geers. Permanent loan from the Hellenic Culture Organization S.A.(HCO) to EMST within the framework of the Cultural Olympiad, 2004.
Photo: Thomas Gravanis
Akropolis Redux—The Director’s Cut by Kendell Geers
What’s the story: Gallery visitors who wander inside this stark installation of coiled barbed wire and security fencing are likely to be warned by EMST security staff. All those exposed jagged edges and abrupt corners can be pretty dangerous if you’re not careful. That’s the point. Johannesburg-reared artist Kendell Geers has taken potentially harmful materials and constructed a latter-day Parthenon with allusions to the apartheid of his birthplace. Akropolis Redux is meant to remind us of the danger and violence that dominate modern society while recalling segregation and all those other divisions we arbitrarily erect.
Why: This is an artwork that operates on an experiential level. Inside, you become alert and alive; you can feel the danger within. It’s also open to interpretation: Is the fencing meant to protect us? Or harm us?
99 Names by Kutlug Ataman
What’s the story: We tend to think of prayer as a spiritual act. But here—as portrayed by acclaimed Turkish artist and filmmaker Kutlug Ataman over five vast video “paintings”—the ritual has a searing physicality. Flesh transmuted by faith. The title refers to the 99 names for God and each screen canvas is pitched at a different elevation and angle as the praying man moves through a wide spectrum of emotions: centred calmness, agitation, near-erotic rapture. As a young man, Ataman was imprisoned and tortured for filming the 1980 Turkish coup d'état, and his work routinely mines subjective personal stories and consciousness.
Why:99 Names is definitely among the more entrancing exhibits and its impact is further oxygenated by all the white empty space surrounding it. There’s something very intimate about being invited to intrude on what feels like a private moment. By showing the raw physicality of prayer, Ataman seeks to spark a conversation around spirituality.
Tent by Emily Jacir. Collection of the National Museum of Contemporary Art Athens.
Photo: Thomas Gravanis
Tent by Emily Jacir
What’s the story: This big statement piece is billed as one of the most important items in the EMST collection. Palestinian artist Emily Jacir erected a family-sized refugee tent in her New York studio and spent three months embroidering the names of 418 Palestinian villages destroyed—and scrubbed from history—in 1948, during the Israeli occupation. Over 140 people helped Jacir. Teachers, dentists, lawyers, filmmakers, artists … they stitched names while swapping stories or recounting how each village was taken. Most were Palestinians who hailed from the actual villages. Others were Israelis who grew up in the remains, plus a random cross-section of the public.
Why: This is not some static memorial or monument like you might see in a town square. It’s a potent memory activation with the notion of healing at its heart. Driving that point home, you can flick through a log book that documents the diversity of Jacir’s daily accomplices.
Raft by Bill Viola
What’s the story: A puddle of ordinary people stand waiting in a blank empty space, as if at a bus stop. They are diverse, unrelated, dressed for the day ahead. In this blackened theatre, a quiet menace builds frame by frame on a life-sized flat panel video screen. Calamity strikes in the shape of an inexplicable water storm. The roar of rushing water surrounds you while in meticulous slow-frame, people are pummelled and smashed; knocked to the ground. They huddle close to survive; strangers protecting strangers from the deluge, until just as suddenly, the danger recedes. It’s like a very slow painting in a 10-minute loop. This intense and well-travelled work of New York videography pioneer Bill Viola has been likened to a Classical Greco-Roman frieze.
Why: Viola might have produced Raft in 2004, but viewed through the filter of pandemic, it’s a transfixing reminder of the unstable nature of life—as well as a tribute to the profound beauty of human suffering. I found this video-audio work almost unbearably poignant. In the end, everyone survives. Hope is aroused for the resilience of humanity in the face of adversity.
A Glacier at our Table by Nikos Tranos. Collection of the National Museum of Contemporary Art Athens, donated by the artist, 2017.
Photo: Thomas Gravanis
A Glacier at our Table by Nikos Tranos
What’s the story: At first glance, Nikos Tranos’ glossy pink creation, heaped high on a Victorian-style banquet table, might be an echo of something you once sculpted on a beach as a child. Or indeed something out of a child’s fairytale. Creep closer. Garnished with ghoulish animals and grotesque fruit platters, this towering confection of glazed clay is more like something Tim Burton would serve up at a gothic tea party. Motifs of home and violence are well-trodden conceptual turf for this heavy-hitting Greek contemporary sculptor.
Why: Tranos’ highly-instagrammable installation refers to the climate conditions expected to prevail after a global nuclear squirmish. More specifically, his mutated pink figures allude to the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011 (pink was the hue of the hospital wing where the victims of radioactive poisoning were treated).
Slumber by Janine Antoni
What’s the story: Bahamas-born visual artist Janine Antoni not only sleeps on the job; she’s made a large-scale conceptual art form of it. Aroused by the idea that the fabled adventures of Ulysses may in fact have been merely dreamt by Penelope, Antoni set out to capture the proof of her own dreams—or “monsters of the psyche”, as she calls them. There’s the bed that the artist slept in while an ECG machine recorded her eye movements; the maple loom where she sat by day and wove shreds of her nightdress in the pattern of her REM graph; and the 126 foot blanket of woven dreams she slept under as part of the project.
Why: Who hasn’t sought to capture their dreams upon awakening; only to have them elude us through the very act of trying? In Slumber, the body becomes the artist. “I love the idea that this particular drawing is coming straight from the unconscious onto the page without an intercession of the conscious mind,” says Antoni.
Sails by Bia Davou. Collection of the National Museum of Contemporary Art Athens, donated by Zafos Xagoraris, 2002.
Photo: Thomas Gravanis
Sails by Bia Davou
What’s the story: This fascinating and complex Athenian artist took a leaf out of the Leonardo da Vinci playbook by fusing her artistic riffs on Greek mythology with the language of mathematics. More specifically, from the 1970s, Davou became preoccupied with the Fibonacci sequence and cybernetics (even learning to code in middle-age). This eye-grabbing installation of sail-like triangular textiles is embroidered with both Homeric verse and Fibonacci’s golden spiral sequence, creating a multi-level poetic discourse.
Why: As a Greek art visionary, this significant artist was ahead of her time in many respects and did not attain the recognition she deserved during her lifetime.
Top tip: You can listen to EMST gallery staff talk about their favourite exhibits in English here.