I am writing this blog post with an intensive moisturizing mask on my face, after having washed the remaining layers of sea salt off my body. This is my recovery process after spending Friday and Saturday on the island Idra / Ύδρα, with five other students and the instructor of my Contemporary Greek Art course. I am still warm (sunburnt) from the island weather, and missing the grilled sardines, tsipourou, smoked eel, mussels, ktipiti / χτυπητή, and octopus offered at most tavernas. I am resettling into my apartment, which lacks the kitsch of the fossilized 60s hotel we stayed at on Idra, and coming back to terms with being more than a short walk from the sea. If you’ve ever spent time on a Greek island, you know that the clichéd idea of “island pace” is actually true. Though I was only away from Athens for 48 hours, I am readjusting to the noise and speed of people around me. Idra is an island without motor vehicles, instead, people travel on foot or on the backs of donkeys. Contrary to the impression that might give, Idra is one of the wealthier vacation islands, compared to some of the other small Saronic islands, which meant that the shops, restaurants, bars, and beaches we visited were full of posh locals and visitors at all hours. September marks the off-season for tourism on Greek islands, so the crowds were much smaller on Idra than they are through the earlier parts of the summer. The weather was gorgeous, but particularly windy, which meant the swimming required some athleticism—but we persevered, and were able to spend most of our time either by or in the water. And no matter how much we got tossed around by the waves, we knew we could make our way back to the beach bar and recover luxuriously.
Alongside the perfect amount of time my group spent lounging, we went to Idra for academic purposes. There were three gallery exhibitions we went with the intention to visit as a class, as well as an island-wide “exhibition” that consisted of curated works displayed publicly in many businesses and public spaces. The first exhibition we saw was hosted at the Historical Archives Museum of Hydra, and consisted solely of seascape paintings by the Greek painter Konstantinos Volanakis. This show was pretty straightforward–the paintings were heavily influenced by Volanakis’ artistic education at the Munich School, so aside from the definitively Greek seascapes themselves, they felt like any other European oil painting. The second exhibition we saw was hosted at a space called Projectspace Slaughterhouse, which is run by the DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art. The show was created specifically for the Slaughterhouse by famous American artist Kiki Smith. She emphasized the space’s previous identity as a slaughterhouse for goats, and its strategic position right above the water, merging the land and the sea. Throughout the slaughter-rooms was a sculpture of a mermaid transformed by the blood-runoff to have hooves and furred arms; a sculpture of offal and other animal waste; and on the balcony was a “viewing device” that flipped the sea upside down when the viewer looked through the glass. We visited this show in the evening, so the show was made even more memorably by the notoriously gorgeous Idra sunset. The last exhibition we saw was hosted in the still-functioning Naval Academy, and was the curated effort of a local art collector who brought together works from artists all over the world. The piece that stuck out the most to me was created by Sissel Tolaas, a Berlin-based artist who utilized her experiences studying chemistry to create a scent installation on the desks of the academy’s students. Viewers walk between the rows of desks, scratching their surfaces in order to release various scents that were all designed around Tolaas’ viewpoint on the hypermasculine exhibition space. Smells like aftershave, chewing gum, and sweat filled the classroom, rising up from the pre-existing notes and pictures the naval students had scratched into the desks themselves.
While in Athens, I’ve been lucky enough to attend 1-2 gallery shows or openings a week, and I’ve noticed that much of the contemporary art I’ve seen here centers and explores place differently than in the US. Exhibitions held in multifunctional or non-gallery spaces are common. To me, this versatility explodes notions of what can be accomplished by an artist within the “high art” world, and continues to reflect the unique resilience and utility of creatives in Greece.
While reflecting on all this, I keep returning to a poem by one of the most famous Greek poets, C. P. Cavafy. Despite Greece having a long history with political, economic, and social instability—the art I’ve seen seems to root itself deeply in the people and places it comes from, and from that, feels alive in such an exciting way. Cavafy’s poem Ionic reminds me of the vitality and consciousness I’ve come to learn so much from by participating in the modern Greek art scene. I’ll end with the poem, translated by David Connolly:
For we smashed their statues,
for we drove them from their temples,
even so the gods are by no means dead.
O land of Ionia, it’s you they cherish still,
It’s you their souls remember still.
When an August morn dawns upon you
your air is filled with vigour from their lives;
and at times an ethereal adolescent figure,
indistinct, with swift stride,
passes over your hills.