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Athens’ artistic revival

The Greek debt crisis has caused immense suffering across the country, but against all odds Athens has risen from the ashes as a cultural hub of global proportions

Athens’ artistic revival
'The relation between past and present is everywhere, and you cannot see it better than with the arts' 

Athens has become the allegory of austerity Europe. Images of exasperated citizens protesting en masse, stories of parents unable to feed their children, and heart-wrenching figures of climbing suicide rates have filled the media for years now. Yes, the crisis has left a resounding and irrefutable stamp on Greece, which can be seen most evidently in its capital city. And yet, through a smog of suffering, something wonderful has emerged.

As exemplified throughout history, it is during times of distress that the greatest art is produced. Suffering is the cause of some of the most emotive, creative and treasured works in human civilisation; it is no coincidence the image of the tortured artist has become so entrenched in society’s mind. The First World War inspired the poetry of Rudyard Kipling and the fiction of Virginia Woolf, Frida Kahlo’s stirring paintings are a reflection of the torment brought about by her physical afflictions, while Berlin’s schismatic wall became the most poignant assemblage of street art in history. Pain and beauty, misery and brilliance, may seem like unlikely bedfellows, but one often precedes the other.

And now in Athens there is an explosion of creativity and cultural practice that is simply astounding. According to Liana Theodoratou, Director of the AS Onassis Programme in Hellenic Studies at New York University: “People have become more inventive and more creative – there is more ingenuity. Artists are forming co-ops, using warehouses and creating spaces that did not exist before – it is a way of fighting the poverty and the misery of everyday life.”

So much bad has emerged from the crisis in Greece, and yet, in Athens, humanity has once again revealed its resilience through self-expression. A shift is taking place in this particular city that will see it become a cultural hub once again, not only for Europe, but for the entire world.

From Kassel to Athens
Documenta – arguably the biggest art exhibition on the planet – takes place just once every five years. Since its inception in 1955 as a remedial reaction to the Second World War, every instalment in this historic series has taken place in Kassel, Germany – until 2017. For the first time in Documenta’s history, Athens will play co-host to the event.

For Greece, this is monumental; for the art world, focus has shifted to an untapped site of creativity. The decision of Adam Szymczyk, Artistic Director of Documenta, to diverge from the exhibition’s long-established norm is not simply gratuitous, but symbolic of a global crisis that is encapsulated in Athens.

With international restrictions reining in government expenditure, cultural projects in Athens have been hard hit

The Greek capital embodies the economic, social and political dilemma Europe continues to face, similar to that which plagued the region following the destruction of the Second World War. By moving the exhibition in part to Athens, Szymczyk brings back a sense of urgency to Documenta, returning it to its roots of celebrating works born from socioeconomic crises.

According to Margarita Pournara, a journalist for Athens-based newspaper Ekathimerini: “Poverty, immigration, identity crisis, populism, the most important issues for Europe and the West, can be closely examined in Greece. So Athens, in its ‘oddly shabby beauty’, is a place where you can face the challenges ahead. Many people from the international contemporary art scene think that the Greek capital is a fascinating city because of this ‘privilege’. I would include Documenta’s Artistic Director Adam Szymczyk among them, and obviously this is the reason he chose the title Learning from Athens.

“While Greece is struggling with the worst financial crisis in its modern history, an emerging alternative cultural scene in Athens is expressing frustration, anger, anxiety as well as hope, resilience and a fighting spirit. It is a dynamic community of Greek [people] and [there are] a few foreign artists who believe that Greece is in the forefront of the fight for the future.”

Co-hosting Documenta has thus shone the spotlight on this alternative cultural scene, luring artists, commentators and curators from all around the world to gather in the birthplace of western civilisation. “As a Greek, I was moved – as a human being, I was actually proud that [the organisers of] Documenta thought, ‘we can move the centre from Kassel to Greece this time, because Athens is creating and we can show this to the rest of Europe and the rest of the world – [we can show] that you can create even in moments of extreme difficulty’”, said Theodoratou.

Staging Documenta in Athens enables us to observe how contemporary art responds to a modern crisis – or indeed, how people respond to a modern crisis through contemporary art.

As the world tunes into this year’s historic Documenta, Athens is becoming a cultural magnet, driving tourism upwards and inspiration inwards. According to Dimitris Tziovas, Professor of Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham: “Everything is inter-related, therefore cultural events by themselves are not enough to attract foreign visitors, but Documenta could certainly play an important role because it is an international event – it is not a one-off, it is part of a series and it has many followers.” Pournara reinforced this view: “Curators, art critics, collectors and especially art lovers have put Athens [on] their destination list for April.”

Where to eat

Café Avissinia
7 Kinetou Monastiraki
+30 21 0321 7047

An enduring favourite in the Athens restaurant scene, locals consider Café Avissinia to be a classic venue. With an excellent location in the trendy Monastiraki neighbourhood, the restaurant’s ambience is on a par with its excellent food. Featuring live accordion music and Greek singers, while set in a décor that is reminiscent of early-20th century Athens, diners are transported back through time. Greek dishes are served with a twist, giving those both new and old to the city something a little different, including the restaurant’s delightful array of ‘politiki’ cuisine – food once cooked by the Greek residents of Constantinople.

59B Kolokotroni
+30 21 1215 9534

Rated as the best bar in Athens by World’s Best Bars, this stylish restaurant and lounge never fails to offer a terrific atmosphere and a fun crowd. Though it may be holiday themed all year round, cheesy this place is not. Instead, Noel is warm and welcoming, earning it a reputation as one of the city’s best hotspots. The food served at Noel is simple and delicious, while the creations of its mixologists are complex and divine. With golden adornments and leafy palms throughout a space that is filled with beautiful smells and constant cheer, guests cannot leave without feeling Noel’s infectious festive spirit – any time of year.

Where to meet

Hilton Athens
46 Vassilissis Sofias Avenue
+30 21 0728 1000

A landmark in the Athens skyline, the Hilton Athens is a hub for business and social activities within the city. Favoured among the Greek business community, as well as corporate travellers from further afield, the Hilton Athens offers everything one would expect from the name: impeccable service, state-of-the-art technology and world-class luxury. It also has 23 meeting rooms, suiting the needs of any conference. Given its reputation, it’s no wonder the Hilton Athens is a favourite among event organisers. What’s more, its prime location means it’s just a short walk from the upmarket area of Kolonaki and mere steps from the closest Metro station.

Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre
364 Leof. Andrea Siggrou
+30 21 6809 1000

Designed by architect Renzo Piano, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre is a sweeping complex located within the Athenian Municipality of Kallithea. The building almost seems to be a part of the sea, an effect hoped for by Piano when designing this vast, airy structure. The building is ideal for events and performances, whether they are operatic with an 800-strong audience or an intimate meeting in one of the centre’s many light-filled spaces. When visitors are not enjoying views of the sea, they can walk through the centre’s park, a place of serenity that attracts crowds in its own right.

Where to stay

COCO-MAT Hotel Athens
36 Patriarchou Ioakim
+30 21 0723 0000

Located in the bustling neighbourhood of Kolonaki, this design hotel offers an oasis of calm and comfort in a city that never sleeps. Known for its sleek interior design and contemporary style, COCO-MAT Hotel Athens has built a solid reputation for itself as one of the city’s best boutique hotels. What makes it especially distinctive, however, is that all its furniture has been made by the hotel’s namesake, the renowned COCO-MAT design company. Rated as one of the best manufacturers of beds and mattresses in the world, COCO-MAT’s creations are the finest features of each and every room, promising guests the best night’s sleep in the whole of Athens.

King George Hotel Athens
3 Vasileos Georgiou
+30 21 0322 2210

For those seeking classic luxury and a space that resounds with history, look no further than the King George Hotel Athens. Established in 1930 and located in the heart of the city, this five-star hotel is within walking distance of the Acropolis, Plaka, Agora, countless upmarket boutiques, awe-inspiring museums and the city’s bustling business district. History enthusiasts and luxury connoisseurs alike will revel in the King George penthouse suite which, at 350sq m in size, features a private outdoor pool and veranda with spectacular views of the city. Such a thrilling history also comes with incredible food, which is served at the hotel’s award-winning Tudor Hall Restaurant.

Infrastructural shift
While noteworthy in its own right, Documenta is not the only factor behind the fascinating shift that is currently taking place in the Greek capital. The cultural infrastructure of the city is also changing; it has taken on a life of its own through generous private bodies and resourceful individuals alike. This is a marvellous feat, given the black mark austerity measures have made on Athens.

Perhaps the most striking example of such an addition is the newly built Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre (SNFCC). Designed by noted architect Renzo Piano, the modern structure houses both a vast library and an opera house, while also acting as a space for exhibitions and performances. Spanning 20 hectares, the SNFCC cost €600m ($645m) to construct, a sum paid in full by its namesake.

With internationally imposed restrictions reining in government expenditure, naturally cultural projects have been hard hit: since 2010, the state’s cultural budget has been slashed by around 50 percent, resulting in numerous cultural institutions across the country having to close their doors.

Many would argue such spaces are a luxury – that museums, galleries, theatres and libraries are unnecessary costs, and that in times of hardship, these structures must resign themselves to being at the back of a very long queue. Fortunately, however, private institutions, such as the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, have stepped in to fill a vacuum left by the Greek state. And while hospitals and schools are undoubtedly crucial in any society, cultural
centres play an incredibly important role as well; they act as mechanisms for capturing the wealth of life. Tziovas reiterated: “Private institutions have played an important role in cultural life during the crisis.”

Another body providing such reprieve is the Onassis Foundation, with the Onassis Cultural Centre. The expansive building, which includes an 880-seat centre stage, an open-air theatre and a 600sq m exhibition hall, was inaugurated in 2010 with a mission to promote “modern cultural expression”, according to its website.

Its undertaking to support Greek artists and cultivate international collaborations has seen fresh talent thrive in the city. In 2015, the Onassis Foundation rejuvenated its focus on the promotion of contemporary art, in all its many forms, marking itself as an important driver of this incredible movement.

Also new to Athens is the country’s first National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST). A state-funded project, the EMST has been almost two decades in the making. After repeated delays as a result of a lack of funding, bureaucratic snags and regulatory pressures, the centre held a soft opening for its first large exhibition in October 2016. With more than 1,000 permanent works by both Greek and foreign artists (though still unopened to the public at the time of writing), the EMST could well mark Greece’s place in the global contemporary art landscape in the years to come.

Street art in the centre of Athens

A rise in new culture
These large structures, as important as they are, are not the only markers of cultural development in Athens: derelict warehouses and abandoned sites are now being used to stage performances and exhibit art works, filling pockets of disused space with new life and creativity. Of course, in times of recession, artists often go unpaid and unemployed – yet even with such hardships, the show goes on. Tziovas told Business Destinations: “There are more performances now. Some of them are staged with very little money. Quite a lot of them are staged by unpaid performers that do one or two performances every week, and then invite voluntary contributions.”

Theodoratou added: “I have been amazed at how many new and creative things are happening in Athens, both official big institutions, like the museums, cultural centres – both private and public – but also smaller initiatives. They work together and relate to one another. It’s really becoming a cultural hub”.

Notably, this expansion in the infrastructure for contemporary art and performances, which can be seen across the city, is not just some arbitrary transition, nor a forced adoption. The people actually want it – perhaps, as it would seem, they need it too. According to Theodoratou: “People do not have money, they are suffering, Athens is suffering, but nevertheless, you go to theatres, exhibitions, musical performances, and they are always full – they are sold out!

“Some of them are free, for example the SNFCC has had all kinds of events up to now that have been free to the public, which is, of course, wonderful for the city. Other institutions too have very cheap tickets for the unemployed or for the elderly, and you see that people actually go to these things – they are thirsty.

“One contention I had about the SNFCC is that it’s a little too far from the centre, so I was always worried that people who do not have the means cannot necessarily go all the way out there. Of course, when there will be a metro station, it won’t be a problem at all – in the meantime, it’s more difficult. Nevertheless, people make the effort of taking the tram, buses or the older subway, and they go – the SNFCC has been full from the very beginning! It’s extremely important for them – culture is extremely important for Athens, and [this is shown] by it being everywhere.”

Economic reformation is no short-term feat, and so, for the time being, Athens heals itself through culture

And it certainly is everywhere: among the numerous contemporary art movements now taking place in Athens, street art is perhaps the most invasive. This cultural practice has gained new significance in the city as an outlet for public expression, as a medium that has neither restrictions nor sanctions. Street art has the power to penetrate the souls of passers by and so, in Athens, it has become emblematic of the frustration felt within the populace.

Street art is now another facet to Athens’ increasing dynamism as a cultural hub, one that speaks not only to Greeks. Tziovas agreed with this sentiment: “There are people who are really excited to go [to Athens] and see this different type of popular culture.”

Unique juxtaposition
The power of the arts to heal is undeniable. Yes, art serves as a medium for expression, but it is through the process of expressing oneself or the collective consciousness that healing can begin. Projecting feelings of anger, frustration, anxiety, as well as joy, relief and ecstasy to the outside world – and then having those same feelings affirmed, and even shared by others – can rejuvenate one’s soul.

Even at our lowest moments, even when the world around us is crumbling, the arts can bring us back to life. They can reinvent our current reality, or at least how we perceive and interact with it. They also act as a potent and crucial reminder that we are not alone; this existence is shared, if nothing else.

Theodoratou underlined this point: “I think the most important work or duty of an artist is exactly to heal – and heal in many contexts of course – but in the context of a crisis, it is the most important thing we have. It is a way of connecting with our humanity and connecting with others.”

It is for these reasons we are now seeing an incredible shift in Athens. The financial crisis, which bears a parallel to the country’s military dictatorship between 1967 and 1974 (which also produced an explosion of creativity), has stripped so much away from the people of Greece, and those of Athens in particular. It has challenged the country’s national identity, questioned its long-established European persona, and caused damage to its international image.


Greece’s total public debt


received in bailouts from Europe


The construction cost of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre

On a personal level, the crisis has taken jobs, and even lives. And yet Athens is finding a way to heal itself – naturally, economic reformation is no short-term feat, and so, for the time being, Athens heals itself through culture.

When asked why this shift is so important now, Theodoratou responded: “First of all, because I think we will have nothing else if we don’t have art, literature – what else are we as people, as human beings? This is what makes us who we are.”

As this transformation continues, the rest of the world is now beginning to take notice, most notably in light of Documenta. But Documenta is just the beginning. According to Theodoratou: “I do believe that the financial crisis will continue; I don’t think that it will be eliminated so quickly. I do believe though, and really judging from what I see now, that Athens will become an even bigger cultural hub than it is now, [especially] with the opening of all these institutions, with international artists coming here, with all kinds of amazing productions from abroad, and also Greek productions travelling abroad. I think this exchange will make Athens even better culturally than it is now.”

Antiquity has long driven tourists to Athens; foreigners marvelling at the Parthenon have done so unwaveringly for hundreds, even thousands of years. Yet the city’s past – as incredible as it is – has sometimes loomed large over Greece. But this too is changing.

Theodoratou explained this dilemma: “I think artists have begun engaging with the ancient world in a good way. Because in the past, at least for Greece, it was a dead past, it was there imposing on us. Now all these artists, Greek and foreign, have understood what it means to engage very creatively with this past. It was a burden, but now it is a blessing.”

As this dialogue continues, the propagation of contemporary art, in all its many forms, takes place. “The relation between past and present is everywhere, and you cannot see it better than with the arts,” Theodoratou added. And so in this city, we now find a unique juxtaposition of the past and present that very few places in the world can claim to match.

Today’s explosion of creativity, intermingled with an increasingly profound engagement with the ancient world, is a phenomenon that can be seen by one’s own eyes, even as one walks through the streets of Athens. An evolution is indeed taking place in the Greek capital, which will see Athens become one of the most significant cultural hubs on the planet. Out of the ashes, a phoenix can once again rise.

Athens city diary

Tango Lovers Festival
Various locations
2-5 February

The third annual Tango Lovers Festival returns to Athens, bringing with it the passion of tango from Argentina and Uruguay. Featuring the very best tango dancers from the international circuit, visitors can expect four days of dancing, workshops and performances that are led by eminent maestros from around the world.

Athens Carnival
Various locations
24-26 February

After a fortnight of celebrations, the main carnival weekend hits the streets of Athens at the end of February, bringing with it an array of colours and creative expression. Marking the last days before Lent, attending street parties while dressed up in masks and costumes is a tradition that goes back to the carnival’s ancient origins.

18 March

In the spirit of sharing ideas for which TED has become world-renowned, TEDx is a series of local, self-organised events. Co-organised by the Athens University of Economics and Business, this instalment of live talks is set to instigate lively discussion on some of the most important issues affecting local communities in Athens.

Food Expo Athens
Metropolitan Expo
18-20 March

Showcasing the very best food and beverages this culturally rich country has to offer, Food Expo Athens lures in the biggest players not only from Greece, but from the rest of southeast Europe as well. The occasion is regarded as the most important culinary event in the region.

World Congress on Controversies in Neurology
Hilton Athens
23–26 March

The World Congress on Controversies in Neurology invites leading experts from around the world to present the most up to date data in the field at its annual conference. Aiming to bridge the gap between big data, capturing information and sharing knowledge, this event is a must for all industry players.

Music of the Orient Express
Railway Carriage Theatre
Every Friday evening until April 2017

Back by popular demand, Paris to Istanbul: Music of the Orient Express takes its audience on a musical voyage through time. After boarding an old train wagon, spectators will revel in emotive songs from the 1930s to the 1970s, each one inspired by the cities visited by the legendary Orient Express.

Various venues
8 April – 16 July

For the first time in the show’s history, Documenta is being co-hosted by Athens. Classed as the most significant art exhibition on the planet, Documenta will weave throughout the streets of Athens, filling the likes of Syntagma Square with provocative artwork and shining the global spotlight on the Greek capital.

Technopolis Jazz Festival
24-28 May

With a rich programme of acts performing the best of classic jazz, funk and Afropop music, with lyrics originating from around the world, the annual Athens Technopolis Jazz Festival is not to be missed. Attracting thousands, this free event is one of the city’s best and most well-known cultural events.

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