Orestis Mavroudis’s short video Attempt to Fly (2013) opens with a young man building a small electric-powered propeller in a home workshop. We next see him standing on a low hill equipped with gloves, goggles, and the motor as a backpack. The moment of truth arrives: the device works, in a way. The wooden propeller spins at roughly the speed of a microwave’s turntable. Undeterred, the man starts jogging toward the horizon, ready for takeoff. As part of “The Equilibrists,” an exhibition surveying Greek and Cypriot artists in their twenties and thirties, Attempt to Fly might be an overdetermined metaphor, but it’s also a sincere and poignant one.
Organized by New York’s New Museum and Athens’s DESTE Foundation in collaboration with the Benaki Museum, the show features some thirty artists who started their careers during a period of crisis. Caught between the threat of Grexit and the reality of Brexit, they and their peers have borne the brunt of punitive austerity and the highest unemployment rate in Europe. Yet images of outrage, protest, and violence—among the most visible responses to these conditions—are largely absent from the exhibition, which instead offers evidence of a strange optimism, sustained effort focused on perfecting craft, and the pursuit of idiosyncratic pleasures.
What signs of political turmoil there are in the exhibition appear heavily mediated, suggesting a degree of historical and emotional distance. Eirene Efstathiou’s silkscreen paintings on small, square aluminum panels, part of the series “Other Things Happen in December Besides Christmas” (2015–16), derive from found images: black-and-white photographs from the Nazi occupation of Athens and color stills from CCTV footage capturing recent riots in the Greek capital in response to German-led efforts to recoup Greek debt. The murky images, about a dozen of which are on view, contrast enough with one another to avoid suggesting simple historical continuity while still interweaving linked narratives.
The show has an introspective mood, with an abundance of works, many of them precarious objects and small assemblages, expressing private visual languages. One gallery pairs Ioannis Koliopoulos’s collages, which include lush photographs of sculptural arrangements made from fruit and animal bones, with Dimitris Ameladiotis’s intricate constructions comprising yarn, junk metal, and wood scraps. Giorgos Gerontides mines similar stockpiles of detritus, but arranges his finds by type—fan parts, plastic odds and ends, glass fragments, interesting rocks—into neat grids, some of which are on view here alongside careful watercolor depictions of his trove.
Gerontides’s work, however eccentric, feels like an attempt to impose order on urban life in his hometown of Thessaloniki. Likewise, Athens—where pervasive contemporary deterioration exists alongside lasting traces of the classical past—looms large as an object of fascination. A monumental two-channel video by the collective Kernel depicts, in a slow, close-up pan, a white highway overpass in Athens adorned with strange spray-painted glyphs. An installation by Kernel cofounder Petros Moris pairs minimalist floor sculptures of rebar and plaster with 3D-printed objects that resemble pixelated fragments of classical statues. Other versions of antiquity are alive in Zoe Paul’s work. She’s woven thread and yarn through scavenged refrigerator vents to create tough-looking, vaguely archaic geometric abstractions. These are accompanied by loosely rendered wall paintings of lounging nude figures, all luxe, calme et volupté. Pleasure and eroticism live on in the midst of crisis in Paul’s work, as well as in Sofia Stevi’s abstractions and Eleni Bagaki’s anarchic, lovesick video installation.
One wonders whether the curators—Gary Carrion-Murayari, Helga Christoffersen, and Massimiliano Gioni—had such undertones in mind when devising the show’s title, which comes from a poem by John Crowe Ransom about two lovers locked together, doing what they can to maintain the pleasurable “torture of equilibrium.”
The exhibition suggests that the young artists it brings together are bound by the decisions of their parents and grandparents. Dakis Joannou, one of the wealthiest collectors in Europe, funded the show. It’s certainly laudable to create an international stage for Greek artists, but many of the oligarch-sponsored projects in Athens are disasters of ego and hubris. A giant contemporary art museum was built near the Benaki but never staffed, so it sits empty. It’s a bleak symbol of what many young Greek artists may experience, making do amid the wreckage of a previous generation’s overwrought, underfunded dreams.