The silence of the ruin
Sounio, December 2020
To Giorgos R
The past decade has seen a rise of exhibitions and artistic gestures taking place in old modernist or neoclassical buildings located in neighbourhoods undergoing population changes, public buildings and shop fronts. These exhibitions have sought out the glory of past heritage, a time of supposed normality and education, and have searched for or confirmed the bourgeois formation of Athens. Implicitly or explicitly, in a veil of melancholic enthusiasm, they attempted to bring to the surface latent manifestations of the urban. The financial crisis of the past decade challenged the notion of public space and institutions lost their powers largely due to a political agenda. As a primarily scholarly art, contemporary art attempts to re-construct—and often to construct—the bourgeois tradition; not so much critically as experientially, in a sentimental way rather than in a theoretical one. It grasped how heavily affected it was by the crisis, that it was not part of the way culture was conceived or financed, both by the public and by institutions, full of cracks and discontinuities.
The examples one can think of are numerous and it is certain that a methodical look into this past decade would investigate their archaeology, from the era of the regime change to ‘Themata chorou kai technon’ by Orestis Doumanis and ‘Sima’ by Nikos Papadakis, two magazines which explicitly established the relationship between contemporary art and a more generalized proposal for the re-construction of public life dating back to the 70s. It would also certainly articulate older reformulations of this imperative of the past forty years; the social transformations of each period and a never-fulfilled request for institutional constitution. It would pinpoint exhibitions that, contrary to the norm and the institutional, seeked the exception, the divergence, such as ‘Anathena’ curated by Marina Fokidis in 2007 which Ι had unfairly assessed at the time. It would surely investigate the hegemonic exhibition nomadism of the Athens Biennial, the densest moment of which both in terms of the concept and the exhibition itself came with Monodromos at the Diplarios School. Equally central to such a study would be NEON’s exhibition programme which seeks to appropriate silences with hidden histories in urban spaces. And certainly it would range all the way to MOMAFAD, the Μuseum of Modern Art for a Day. The abandoned building of the East terminal of the old Athens airport is truly in a critically liminal position, amidst a disruption of space and time: both outside today’s city and within it, the future part of an urban web that has yet to be weaved, a dilapidated structure of the past and the shell of the future whose use yet to be defined. Between the end of one crisis and the signs, harbingers of another.
As an artistic gesture, MOMAFAD undoubtedly belongs to the tradition of appropriating buildings, the in-situ exhibition narrative of an imagined bourgeois origin. And yet, taking place at the edge of the city and at the edge of great socio-political and urban planning changes, its character is not one of comfortable tautology. First because the building it inhabits and haunts – the former Athens International Airport – is one that is politically active. Most of the spaces that hosted the aforementioned exhibitions are shells with a real or imagined, important or secondary, known or latent history but are not places with an active political load. They are neutral and monumental, like the Gardens of the Gennadius Library or the French Institute where NEON organized exhibitions, or in the best case scenario have a delicate symbolism like the Diplarios school, or an easily aestheticized sense of roughness like the former Athens Stock Exchange taken over by the 4th Athens Biennial.
The former airport, however, is one of the buildings that form the Hellinikon Complex, an area of over 1,200 acres which was handed over to LAMDA Development in 2014 as part of a broad, controversial real-estate investment programme. Its investment has been a contentious issue politically as it is directly related to the reconfiguration of the city regarding the equilibrium between public goods and financial growth, and potentially also to the transparency of public life. As is often the case, political dispute morphs into the claiming of a cultural heritage based on arguments of the land’s authenticity. The political significance of the airport’s building, which was eventually designated as listed, is great and open. It stands alongside other Hellinikon landmarks ranging from the Neolithic period to the present, such as urban traces of ancient towns, workshops, cemeteries, Byzantine settlements and temples, buildings of industrial and technical archaeology, even the building of the former American College for Girls which was demolished. Next to all these traces of memory and history it marks a cultural axis central to the urban reconfiguration of the area and the city’s evolution and development. But this was not what happened. On the contrary, culture and the citizens’ quality of life in general was only a peripheral criterion, a pretext for the political decisions on the fate of Hellinikon. Meanwhile, first in line to be constructed is the casino of the future building complex.
MOMAFAD sets art as the trailblazer, proposing a different point of view on the use of the space at a time when the restructuring of Hellinikon is still an open and much disputed issue. From this perspective, the exhibition’s takeover of the airport is more reminiscent of artistic squats, like the one of the Market of Kypseli in 2007 or the Embros Theatre in 2013. Here too, the artistic gesture inscribes a political stance or, more specifically, a political stance dictates and finds its privileged expression within an artistic gesture.
However, MOMAFAD differs from the squats in two important ways. First, these were activist actions on the brink of legality, demanding in effect an essentialist right, supposedly inherent in the cultural goods and the memory of the space beyond conventional legality. And yet, MOMAFAD operates with the approval of the building’s managing authority: through its ephemerality, it acts parasitically. It lures the authorities into granting permission to exist without the latter necessarily realizing the political and contextual power of such an artistic concentration. Second, MOMAFAD does not oppose the investment programme per se. What it does is stake a claim for an alternative place for culture within the business plan and the city’s development.
As a result, the second reason why MOMAFAD has artistic acuity is that through its playful title it formulates an institutional claim with two recipients: the managing authority of Hellinikon and also the state and the Ministry of Culture. Their demand is for the abandoned building of the East Terminal of the former airport of Athens to become if not the city’s principal Contemporary Art Museum(unfortunately this already exists and from a structural perspective it is completely unfit for purpose)but at least as a complementary annex space in the south of Athens within the Hellinikon complex. The building ticks all the boxes. It will soon find itself at the centre of the extension of the city of Athens, within a new, and when completed perhaps also an attractive and popular network of routes and purposes; as it is designed by Eero Saarinen it already comes with architectural credentials, meaning a well-rooted identity in the history of contemporary culture on an international level. It has the size to house exhibitions and more importantly it comes with heaps of outdoor space as indicated by certain works included in MOMΑFAD such as the one by Giannis Antoniou and Dionisis Christofilogiannis or the one by Kostis Velonis and Dionisis Christofilogiannis. As a result it can accommodate numerous outdoor artistic events and become a magnet for the public, something that the solemn EMST (The Museum of Contemporary Art) in Fix has completely failed at. By appropriating the exhibition space, MOMAFAD implies an analogy; the abandonment and dereliction of such an important building is a result of the same inability to provide institutional protection to contemporary cultural heritage that is to blame for the problematic institutional and operational framework of EMST. What’s more, an investment of the magnitude of LD’s, which is neither required by the state to highlight the cultural landmarks that fall into its hands nor does it take it upon itself to do so—not even as a pretext to assert its own dominance as the state would do—that makes no attempt to include major cultural capital producing institutions, is an investment that lacks planning and is almost a land grab of public property.
Coming up with an imaginary museum of contemporary art, and one that directly references New York’s MοMA, may remind some of German painter Martin Kippenberger’s 1992 MOMAS on the island of Syros. That MOMAS, however, was a non-feasible scenario, a situational gesture of deterritorialization, an attempt most likely to undermine the allure of the museum as an institution since the building was nothing more than an old, abandoned building site. Conversely MOMAFAD, housed in a very important building, is a gesture of reconstruction that perceives the ephemeral not as an ontological undermining of the institution but as a temporary flaw that will be made right when the museum is established and the change in the building’s use materializes. MOMAS had appropriated a building that did not yet exist while MOMAFAD appropriated a building that is falling to pieces. MOMAS took down the walls of the museum while MOMAFAD calls for their reconstitution. The above points highlight the political and institutional astuteness of choosing the old Athens Airport as an exhibition space.
MOMAFAD, however, is not exactly an exhibition; it is a work of art that encapsulates an exhibition. In effect, it is a multiple mise en abyme: the empty waiting rooms, the dilapidated hallways, the deserted staircases, even the broken Olympic Airways logos became for a day the site where works of art by contemporary Greek artists were developed and exhibited. The photographs are MOMAFAD’s works. There’s something insectoid about this process; not just because it is a quick process that only lasts a day, like the life of many arthropods (they are called “ephemeroptera”; how fitting this metaphor of ephemeral flight in the space of the airport), but also because none of the stages of the artistic gesture are completed, rather each stage only transforms into the next one. Most of the works are assimilated into their surrounding space—it’s hard for one to discern them against the weathered materials of the building—and are only reconstituted as an artistic unit in the image’s caption which is ultimately the final work. Each caption bears the signature of the original artist as well as a second signature of both the artist and Dionisis Christofilogiannis as part of MOMAFAD. In a way, the works’ captions perform that ontological break of the work known to everyone who has ever been involved in a museum and is acquainted with their legal status; the work as image lives a second life, independent of both the material object and its maker, a life which is not the “bare life” of the work, but the life of the work within an economy of property, rights and reproduction.
Τhe latent subject of both the photographs of the works and of the works-photographs is silence. It is the silence of the ruin which carries within it the uproar of thirty years of passengers and flight announcements through megaphones that have become one with the walls and have half collapsed along with the roofs. But it’s also the silence of a contemporary exhibition which does not include its viewers, the work of art that cannot reach its completion. The most representative work is a photograph of Annie Fassea’s performance: alone on the steps the soprano sings the song of “Old Beis”, a song of downfall and decline, in an airport which no longer exists, for the public of an exhibition that never took place. This is the third reason behind MOMAFAD’s acuity; out of all the exhibitions that have taken place in historically charged locations aiming to re-compose the ‘institutional’, MOMAFAD succeeds in organically integrating the artistic gesture within the appropriation of the space, creatively justifying the selection of the space and moving art towards the silence that is appropriate in the political and moral moment; the silence in the face of the changes that take place in the city and the silence across the public sphere under the threat of the pandemic.
One more thing. Every time I was on my way to catch an airplane, the moment we passed by the elevated red water tank on Vouliagmenis avenue on our way to the airport marked the start of travel nerves. Further down, the metal sculpture of the Olympic Airways logo. In 1997 Sarah was waiting for me at the Olympic Airways airport but I went to the East Terminal. An evening in 1991 found Giorgos and me counting the planes. Giorgos might no longer be alive. There was a club with a view onto the runways and we had spent ages in the loos. My first trip was to Rhodes, the last to Paris. The taxis, in a state of disarray, were fishing for customers in the entrance. We used to smoke during the flights. The building of the East terminal of the old Athens airport was in operation for just over thirty years. It was primarily the building of an optimist cosmopolitanism—an expensive one—that had started to go a bit flat. MOMAFAD marks a definitive ending. Whatever happens, Saarinen’s building now belongs to the post-pandemic era, to the distance and to silence, to purgatory.