Towards the end of June, I flew to Athens for a unique event. Against a background
of tourism as usual – crowds thronged the Acropolis – and of non-stop television coverage of Prime Minister Tsipras bargaining for a rescue plan for his bankrupt country, a three night arts festival was staged.
The Stavros Niarchos Cultural Foundation is a gorgeous new Renzo Piano designed building set in a garden of acres of 60 year old olive trees, cypresses and lavender bushes. The building is still under construction, but in the centre of the gardens is a vast lawn. This lawn was the setting for ‘Fireflies in the Night’, a remarkable three night video event which started at 11 p.m. each evening and finished as the dawn came up at 6 a.m. Rolled up reed beach mats were provided for viewers, so one could stretch out in comfort on the lawn. Relative comfort, that is. It was chilly, and the beach mats began to smell quite rank as the dew soaked into them, but amazing videos, cheerful conversation and shots of schnapps kept the nights going.
The curators were the venerable Robert Storr, ex director of MoMA New York, and Barbara London, MoMA’s decades long video curator, assisted by Kalliopi Minioudaki. Each video was shown only once, and there were 67 artists in all, with the third night being devoted to the entire Matthew Barney saga, The Cremaster Cycle. As Storr pointed out in his opening speech, Barbara London, with her commitment to video works, is perhaps the person most responsible for the popularization of the moving image as an art form.
Certainly the selection of artists on the programme provided an unmissable viewing experience, and I wish that I could see all (or nearly all) the works in sequence a second time. I would never have believed, beforehand, that I could watch one hour and two minutes of one artist singing a single phrase (Why … do I keep on …. hurting you …) and find myself calling ‘Encore!’ as the work came to an end. In his 2004 work, Mercy, Ragnar Kjartansson, clad in classic country style white jacket, slicked back hair, advances and retreats on the microphone as he strums on his steel stringed guitar and varies the phrasing of his plaintive call.
Another highlight was Ann-Sofi Sidén and Jonathan Bepler’s Curtain Callers (Entracte), 2011, a brilliantly edited 5-channel video which slides across the screens like a passing train and takes us back stage at the Royal Theatre in Stockholm allowing us to experience the behind the scenes activity, then finally starts panning across the assembled audience, stopping short of the actual raising of the curtain.
An early Joan Jonas work, Volcano Saga, was a retelling of an mediaeval myth about a young woman whose dreams foretell the future, Francis Alÿs directs his staging of When Faith Moves Mountains – a vast army of white shirted volunteers in Mexico, shoveling sand to alter the profile of a sand dune and act out the truth of an old saying, and here too, was William Kentridge’s familiar animation about his alter ego, Felix in Exile.
Three of the conversations from my work, There’s something I must tell you were shown on the second night, with Greek subtitles on a right hand screen.
The sound was crystalline clear, and the projections were perfect. A rock concert production company from Manchester had been hired to set up the stage, so it was a pleasure to see the work so well presented.
As the dawn came up on the second night, only a handful people remained – myself, Robert, Barbara, Kalliopi and a single watcher. As the sky brightened, a sunrise on Paul Pfeiffer’s Morning After the Deluge (2003) lit up the screen. One would like to think that the moment and the title was a symbol of hope for Greece.