Before COVID struck, Greece had a growing number of tourists every year, with the record reaching 34 million visitors in 2019. Although that amount will be lower this year – just like it was last year – more travellers will finally be allowed to discovering Greece as a perfect holiday destination. Athens, Greece’s capitol City has perhaps often been left aside, swiftly ticked off by visitors before they leave for one of the countries many islands. However it is a vibrant city with an edge that not only has a rich past, but also a bursting cultural scene and nightlife and it is now, finally, getting the recognition it deserves.
Sam Steverlynck lists 6 tips for an unforgettable summer in Athens and the islands.
Portals @ Neon
The non-profit organisation Neon is the brainchild of the Greek collector and billionaire Dimitris Daskalopoulos. Having organised exhibitions and events in more than 25 private and public venues throughout Greece, including the Archaelogical Museum of Mykonos over the Shrine of Dionysos Elefthereus in the Acropolis. Neon’s last stunt is the brilliant renovation of a modernist, former tobacco factory with an exhibition surface of 6500 m2. It is the backbone for the ambitious group show Portals, taking place within the framework of the 200th anniversary of the Greek War of Independence. The exhibition, curated by Elina Kountouri and Madeleine Grynsztejn, took a widely shared essay that Arundhati Roy wrote in the height of the covid crisis in the Financial Times as a starting point. It unites the work of 59 artists, including 15 new site-specific installations each reflecting the unusual times we are going through. High quality works by leading artists El Anatsui, Teresa Margolles, Danh Võ and Adrián Villar Rojas, beautifully installed in the restored building. Portals is a not-to-miss exhibition for this summer in Greece, and by extension the whole Mediterranean.
Nikos Navridis. (b. 1958, Athens, Greece). Try again. Fail again. Fail better, 2013. Galvanized sheet metal, oven paint, led light. Edition 2021. Courtesy the artist, NEON and Bernier/Eliades Gallery. Installation View Portals, Hellenic Parliament + NEON at the former Public Tobacco Factory, Photograph © George Charisis. Courtesy NEON
Athens Epidaurus Festival
The Athens Epidaurus Festival celebrates its 66th anniversary as an event dedicated to theatre, dance, music and performance. Since 2006, it has extended from the Ancient Theatre of the Asklepieion at Epidaurus to various locations in Athens, including the industrial Peiraios 260, one of the main festival venues. This year’s edition is exceptionally planned out until October, with a combination of offline and online events. In the ancient Epidaurus theatre, 80 kilometres from Athens, you can see classics by Sophocles and Euripides, or you can choose to stay in the city and watch Brian and Roger Eno perform for the first time together in the stunning setting of Athens’ Roman theatre of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus.
The festival is also launching new productions including The Republic of Baklava by Anestis Azas, which references the 200th anniversary of Greek independence by portraying a Greek-Turkish couple that declare their home to be its own nation state. Another couple of things not to be miss is the adults-only installation The Feel and Backstage, a tribute to Athens’ lively clubbing scene by photographer Tassos Vrettos.
> 10/10 aefestival.gr
EPIDAURUS Festival Athinon
UBUNTU @ EMST
The National Museum of Contemporary Art Athens, aka EMST, is housed in a restored modernist brewery. Besides an exhibition with works from the permanent collection – including impressive installations by Kendell Geers and Mona Hatoun. Another thing definitely not to be missed is the group show UBUNTU with 66 works from the prestigious Harry David Art Collection, focused on artists who are active in Africa and the diaspora, including the works of Rashid Johnson, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Ellen Gallagher, Theaster Gates, Wangechi Mutu. In the lower floor, you can discover the exhibition SYMBOLS and Iconic Ruins uniting work of various artists and architects. Don’t miss the video essays on the Acropolis as a sign, symbol and ruin, dominating the Athenian skyline.
Installation shot UBUNTU, photo by Elias Agiostratis
Open Air Film Festivals
Greece is not only the cradle of democracy, but also of open-air cinemas. The Greek capital is said to have 65 outdoor cinemas. Besides that staggering amount, there are also several open-air film festivals, often taking place in unusual location, both on the mainland and on the islands. Opting for a mix of blockbusters, classics and Greek movies alike, the Athens International Film Festival uses the city as a backdrop, presenting films in archaeological sites, parks, museums, and squares.
Though limited in scope, the 9th edition of the more alternative Syros International Film Festival has an interesting programme, taking place in various original venues on the island. These venues vary from a shipyard, to the Apollon Theatre and even a parking lot for drive-ins. This edition, called Off Season, deals with the notion of time. Still on view, The Year of the Big Heat (1991) by Greek director Frida Liappa tells the story of repressed childhood memories, on the background of a Greek island where an unknown virus creates havoc.
On a bigger scale is the 10th edition of the Aegean Film Festival, this year it is taking place on the islands of Patmos and Spetses, presenting more than 70 feature films, documentaries and shorts.
> 26/07, syrosfilmfestival.org
> 02/08, aegeanff.com
> end of August, aoaff.gr
Aegean Film Festival
Elefsina, the port city 20 kilometres from Athens, was voted Cultural Capital of Europe 2021. A prestigious title that it will live out fully between 2022 and 2023, due to the pandemic. The city has been preparing with a run of warm up events that will lead up to the main proogramme.
Elefsina is a layered city, a true palimpsest, best known for the Eleusinian Mysteries, a secret yearly initiation for the cult of Demeter and Persephone which is thought to have once involved psychedelic drugs with those who attend dancing in a trance like state. The exact nature of the initiation remains a mystery, add this to the city’s ancient past followed by the industrial boom of the 20th century and then the post-industrial decline that saw rusty shipwrecks, and you find a perfect backdrop for a cultural capital or biennale. Besides hosting a couple of venues for the Athens Open Air film festival (until July 26), from August 23, you can also discover a site-specific installation by the Greek sculptor Andreas Lolis and architect Dionisis Sotovikis of marble figures intervening in the ruins of the Old Olive Mill. The internationally celebrated choreographer Josef Nadj will present the Greek premiere of OMMA, exploring the very nature and origin of dance - as a subtle reference to the Eleusinian Mysteries.
ELEVSIS. Behind the Theater by Andreas Lolis & OMMA by Josef Nadj Omma Filage. @Sophie Carles
Paulo Nimer Pjota @ Deo Projects
The island of Chios is home to the mastic - a tree cultivated for its aromatic resin, which is used in beauty products and the sticky digestive mastiha. Since May Chios has been a venue for contemporary art via the non-profit organisation Deo Projects, which is housed in a former slaughterhouse. For its inaugural exhibition, Deo invited the Brazilian artist Paulo Nimer Pjota - who combines traces and visual echoes from various old civilisations with elements of street culture in his layered paintings - for a 2 month residency. The result of his study trip – with visits to local museums, archaeological sites and various artists and craftsmen - is presented in the new premises of Deo and illustrates how the rich culture of the island of Chios is incorporated within Paulo Nimer Pjota’s formal vocabulary.
> 10/08, deoprojects.com