The first time I went to Greece, it was by the ship. Twenty three hours are a dilated time for our habits. I reached Bari from Naples by bus, and there I embarked on a cargo ship used by carriers because I did not have much money. Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Albanians, Serbs, Turks: I spent the trip with them and with their loads of cattle. Donkeys, cows and pigs seemed to suffer a sea voyage, which was peaceful. The ship did not stop in Corfu, as it does during summer for Italian tourists, but it went directly to Igoumenitsa, where almost all the truck drivers got off. The city is a port which is about seventy kilometers from Albania. From there then you can go to Macedonia, the republics of the former Yugoslavia, the Black Sea, which once the Greeks called Hellespont, that means ‘the sea of the Greeks’, because their commercial stations were held there.
The second and final stage was Patras, on the Ionian Coast of the Peloponnese peninsula. It is located in the North, in the region of Achaia, among the oldest sites to be inhabited. According to Herodotus the first Greeks lived here, descendants (kata genos) from Hellen, the mythical ancestor. We arrived at dawn. I got off at an uninhabited port, with the containers on the dock and no other ships but ours. The city grew up in front of us, climbing on a hill, and between us and the hill there was a long snake of iron and barbed wire, a wire fence that enclosed the harbor, which allowed the passage at one point controlled by a guardian. I had never seen a walled sea, if not in the books, such as the legendary Saint-Malo sea in Normandy, the harbor of pirates, which had high towers to defend themselves. Yet, in Patras, the port is fenced, but while in Saint-Malo walls defended those who come from the sea, here it is the opposite. Walking towards the city, I felt I was not alone. The eyes of dawn, still idle, began with fatigue to notice dozens of figures behind that fence, above the container, under trucks parked, behind the poles and garbage cans. A little later, a friend told me he would explain that they were Sri Lankans, Filipinos, Indonesians and other desperate people fleeing, hoping to catch a ship for salvation. I understood then, and this only after many years that the wall erected in Patras did not protect from the sea, but protected the sea from the East, from those fleeing through Patras, which was the gateway to the West.
Perhaps the most ancient Greeks from Venice are in the Arsenal. The archaic lions from Delos, Cyclades island have been taken as a booty by the Venetian of Morosini after the failure of the siege of Athens, which ended up in a cannon shot to the Parthenon, which, being home of Turkish Santa Barbara, it exploded with a very impressive visual effect.
One thousand five hundred years before, Other Greeks had contacts with the Venetians. They were merchants who came to Spina, an Etruscan town on the estuary of the Po, and who traded with Ouenetes, the first inhabitants of the lagoon. They were stories of continuous and millennial relations, exchanges and loans, robberies and gunfire. Stories of contacts still exist between the Greeks and Venetians, inhabitants of the Mediterranean.
At the 55th edition of the Biennale of Venice the Greek pavilion is in the Gardens of the Biennale. The architects Stadelmann, Schmutz and Wossner have designed it as a building with three arms, and with a central circular room, which is reminiscent of illustrious predecessors such as the tholoi of Delphi, the monopteral temple of Leo Von Klenze in Munich, the Propylaea of Paris of Ledoux. Inside it is exposed History Zero, the work of Tsivopoulos Stefanos, an artist of video art that this year represents the Hellenes in what it is considered the most important showcase in Europe – and perhaps in the world – to contemporary art. An opportunity that the Greek government was able to give him, and that despite the crisis it is presented in Venice this year as well.
Entering the pavilion, the video is projected in the arms of the structure. At its core there is a powerful installation with images and texts, in which thirty alternative systems to coins are displayed. The video is composed of three episodes of eleven minutes, all set in Athens. In the first one, History 1, an elderly collector, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, has difficulties in recognizing everyday things. So she makes origami with one hundred, two hundred and five hundred Euros notes, composing flowers. In the second one, History 2, a black immigrant walks around the town with a supermarket trolley, searching for iron items to resell. His research led him to find a bag with flowers inside made with notes. In the last one, History 3, an artist walks around Athens, photographing and taking the city with his I-phone. Attracted by an abandoned supermarket, he finds a trolley full of scrap metal.
Finally, the panel, which is the History Zero and the connection point of encounter, start and end. From beer in Angola to emissions of banks and voluntary associations, and to the tokens of J. Jesson, passing through the gift economy, already existing Homer and still active in Africa, up to the provocations of JSG Boggs and 5th Pillar, an Indian association that has printed zero rupees notes.
Tsivopoulos makes a thing clear: Athens is Jerusalem or New York. At the background of the crisis, it hosts three non-Greek characters with different origins and purposes, yet all involved in the worst economic depression in the past eighty years, being victims of a system that was democratic and now has become debtocracy.
The Greek artist chooses a medium such as video art not only to denounce the state of his country, but also the world economy and that, as Prometheus Gallery in Milan, directed by Ida Pisani explained to me, together with the gallery of Kalfayan in Athens is sponsoring the artist in Venice, is not selling much. It does not participate in auction, and the Prometheus gallery usually deals with privates: specifically it is negotiating for the price with History Zero. The work consists of five copies, and the artist has a price range that varies from 10,000 to 60,000 Euros.
A supervisor of Kalfayan Gallery, Yuli Karatsiki, told me that the market for video art in Greece is strongly linked to the production of high-quality videos, as well as their exposure in local cultural events. However, it is a market that is still in bud, and it needs still many steps, since in Greece a number of important collectors of video art is established.
The gallery is focusing on the Greek video art, including it in the national and international events, and acting as a team for artists who make video art or use it as a means of expression of their art, such as Vartan Avakian, Bill Balaskas, Breda Beban, Aikaterini Gegisian and Raed Yassin.
Going to Venice with my eyes several times witnesses of Athens is a different way to see the Biennale. The periphery of the ancient polis is degraded, a refuge for a growing number of drug addicts, torn by new drugs, in a country where youth unemployment is almost 60%. In Exarchia, belonging to the district of the Polytechnic, the seat of the revolt against the dictatorship of the colonels, there are anarchy, clashes with the police, poverty that wasn’t seen in Europe since a century. Yet it is East, not Europe. So Greece was intended when it was left in the hands of the Turks, in 1453, when he was left so that the dictatorship of the colonels had the upper hand, at the turn of the sixties and seventies. In the middle there is the rhetoric of Greece as cradle of Europe, whose history of art is the history of mankind. True, but everything seems to be finished in abnormal EU loans.
From Venice you come back with a lesson of economics, understood as the “laws of the house”, or rather, of the community: there are other stories, other economies, other investments you can make. For example, investing in a reflection that will no longer allow millions of Europeans such as Italians, Greeks, Spaniards, as well as Portuguese or Irish people to emigrate or commit suicide.
It is ironic that the lesson comes from the Greek sacrifice, the land where, in mid-sixth century BC, an enlightened statesman began the long journey that would lead to demokratìa , the democracy of the West, with a revolutionary measure: the sesàkteia, the reduction of the debts of the poorest classes.