Former tobacco factory sets Athens’ radical art scene alight
Ambitious group show ‘Portals’ transforms Athens’ historic Public Tobacco Factory into a platform for international contemporary art, including new work by Glenn Ligon, Teresa Margolles and Danh Vō
It’s often the buildings with the most curious past lives that make for the most striking stages. In Athens, a colossal new group show, ‘Portals’, has a backdrop almost as intriguing as the art it frames.
‘Portals’ takes place in the city’s former Public Tobacco Factory, constructed in 1930 to cultivate a crop that served as one of Greece’s most important exports. ‘The former Public Tobacco Factory building is an iconic structure in the city centre, a symbol of the country’s path to industrialisation and, at the same time, a footprint of its architectural heritage,’ says Elina Kountouri, exhibition co-curator and director of Neon, the non-profit arts organisation who co-organised the show and renovated the historic building.
Though the story begins with tobacco and ends with world-class contemporary art, the shapeshifting building has demonstrated versatility over its near-century history. It’s done time as a prison, been a Second World War air-raid shelter, housed Romanian refugees, been home to the Greek Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Finance, and its present occupant, the Hellenic Parliament, with which Neon collaborated for ‘Portals’.
This rich history is in tune with the theme of the show. This year marks 200 years since the start of Greece’s War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the modern Greek nation. In ’Portals’, parallels are drawn between this seminal moment in Greece’s history, and the Covid-19 pandemic that continues to shake the world.
‘Two hundred years ago, the Greeks had to design their future as an independent state and uphold the values of rule of law and personal liberties. Today, humanity is being forced to reshape everyday reality and to reassess its understanding of what freedom means. Once again, we are asked to reimagine lives reborn out of revolution and upheaval,’ says Kountouri, who co-curated ‘Portals’ with Madeleine Grynsztejn, Pritzker director, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
Neon, founded in 2013 by collector and entrepreneur Dimitris Daskalopoulos, sees its platform as the city. By focusing on initiatives in civic and social contexts, it identifies the power of contemporary art to inspire individuals and society. Hosted in the building’s west wing, the group show features 59 artists from 27 countries with 15 site-specific, newly commissioned works. Among the artist’s presenting new commissions are Glenn Ligon, Duro Olowu, Teresa Margolles, Michael Rakowitz, Danh Vō and Chrysanthi Koumianaki.
Ligon’s Waiting for the Barbarians, a white neon work in direct conversation with the building’s architecture, takes its title and inspiration from a work by Greek poet CP Cavafy. It presents nine English translations of the poem, one of which was generated through Google Translate. ‘CP Cavafy was one of the first modern Greek poets I was introduced to in high school and I always admired the subtlety of his language and the directness with which he approaches themes of same-sex desire,’ the American artist tells Wallpaper*. ‘Since I don’t read Greek, I have always relied on translations, but since there are dozens of translations of Cavafy into English I realised that it might be interesting to present them simultaneously instead of picking the “best” translation of a particular poem. The poem is over a hundred years old but its themes of cultural dissolution, fear of the other, and political expediency resonate strongly today.’
Olowu’s new work Bound, Lost, Found, Heaven sent: A Trail of Objects, staged within the factory’s former customs house, comprises textural sculptures, rendered in ash, oak and sapele and cedar wood, synthetic and natural fabrics, alongside those using found antique objects.
Through his multifaceted work, Olowu hopes to ‘subliminally create an environment that examines various historical and contemporary ideas of migration, beauty and "found" truths. Such as ancient and modern connections between Ethiopia and Greece as expounded by Homer in his poems “Odyssey” and “The Iliad”. In these poems, Ethiopia was referred to as Aethiopia, which translates to ‘burnt face’. The connotations of which reveal hidden and pervasive undertones in politics and art.’
Other artists are presenting existing works in a new context. These include pieces by Daphne Wright, Do Ho Suh, Shilpa Gupta, Adam Pendleton, Ed Ruscha, Steve McQueen, Maria Papadimitriou and Brazilian artist Adriana Varejão. Irish artist Wright is presenting works from a recent series, A quiet mutiny, which explores the melancholy and mundanity of domestic life. ‘In dried but unfired clay, I recreated familiar objects that included a child’s pushchair, houseplants, and a fridge. I chose these things because of their momentary quality; they are only fleetingly valued in our daily lives,’ she says.
‘Portals’ was inspired by an article from 2020 by the novelist Arundhati Roy, who viewed the pandemic as a ‘portal, a gateway between one world and the next’. She acknowledged that the rupture created by the pandemic individually and collectively opens a portal, one that we can negotiate our transition through.
According to Roy, ‘we can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.’
Here, each artist is dissecting the pluralism of ideas, our cultural understanding of history and politics, the role of public space and our communal past, present and future. ‘The consequences of the pandemic – psychological, physical, social, economic and political – have not yet been fully quantified,’ says Kountouri. ‘The exhibition intends to point out how this specific moment in time is leading us to a portal. The connection is the passage, a gateway. Once we pass through to the other side, we will need to reconfirm, for the wellbeing of future generations, our commitment to certain principles: the rule of law, human rights and democracy.’ §