Young Athenians, DESTROY Athens – 1st Athens Biennial
Curated by Neil Mulholland www.youngathenians.co.uk 9th September – 18th November 2007
43 Keramikou Street, Metaxourgio, Athens, Greece
Tam A, Kim Coleman & Jenny Hogarth, Craig Coulthard, Keith Farquhar, Tommy Grace, Darius Jones, David MacLean, Ellen Munro, One O’clock Gun, Mullen & Lee, Keith MacIsaac, Katie Orton, Kate Owens, Sophie Rogers, Robin Scott, Catherine Stafford.
Get Around Town, Getts Outa Town – Neil Mulholland
Young Athenians was a major group exhibition showcasing, in context, a group of artists whose work has developed in Edinburgh from the grass roots since 2000. Motivated by the shelter of like-minded neighbours ruled by friendship, their work has been loosely connected by a utopian neo-romantic sensibility and a common interest in ritual, myth and heraldry. Referring to the cliché of Edinburgh as Athens of the North, Young Athenians attempted to stress themes and styles prevalent in the work of artists currently working and living in Edinburgh. The exhibition originally took place in four of the rooms of the basement of the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) in October 2006.
William Playfair’s 1850 RSA building, the archetype of the neoclassical style in Edinburgh and the original artist-led space in Scotland, was a fitting context for the exhibition. It augmented the work due to the historic associations bestowed upon it. By transporting the exhibition to a crumbling neoclassical apartment block in Athens, as was originally envisaged when the exhibition was inaugurated last year, an alternative reading of the work will occur, one that will nevertheless raise the shared concerns and problems faced by our two contemporary capitals.
“Destroy Athens is an attempt to challenge the ways in which identities and behaviours are determined through stereotypical descriptions. The notion of ‘Athens’ – as the archetypal city that has become emblematic in terms of stereotypes – is used as a metaphor for this feeling of extra-determination or entrapment that the stereotype inflicts upon the personal sense of identity and social behaviour. ‘Destruction’ is used as the term for the possibility of action against the stereotype.” – Xenia Kalpaktsoglou, Poka-Yio and Augustine Zenakos – Curators of Destroy Athens
The Young Athenians exhibition attempted to use Edinburgh’s classical inheritance in the same fashion, as a means of deconstructing the stereotype. The sobriquet “Athens of the North” was inherited due to Edinburgh’s vantage point atop seven hills, its history as intellectual centre of the Scottish Enlightenment and for its neo classical architecture beloved by developers in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Bringing this exhibition to Greece will create a doppelganger of Athens, viewing the ancient Greek city through the magnifying lens of its Scottish Enlightenment image. This is an architectural and philosophical stereotype that was most imaginatively reanimated to serve the political purposes of Scottish ‘unionist-nationalism’ from the Enlightenment through to the mid 19th century (see Graeme Morton’s Unionist Nationalism: Governing Urban Scotland, 1830-1860, 2000), a period in which Scottish unionist-nationalists willfully suppressed the fight for both Scottish and Greek independence and democracy (the subject of Robin Scott’s Guild Association Club 2006).
It is impossible to ignore Edinburgh’s studied classicism. A burgeoning city tourist industry peddles it (just as it peddles the ‘real thing’ in Athens itself) and our new town and municipal buildings are constructed according to its preordained proportions. As artists living and working in the city we are entrenched in it; and from an early stage (Edinburgh College of Art itself boasting one of only two collections of first generation copies the Parthenon frieze). This legacy is inherent in Young Athenians, and their counsels are split between those who pay homage to and those who react against their ‘heritage’. This theatrical divide runs right through the exhibition like night and day, constantly at loggerheads: rational thought versus foolhardy romanticism, the wisdom of council versus the individual, sombre sobriety versus revelrous agitators. On one half the noble and decorous denizens of the spacious New Town (the gentrified apartments on the first floor of 43 Keramikou Street) whilst on the other, Old Town and reeking, skull duggers plot at last orders (Keramikou’s ground floor hovels).
Similar problems of overcoming the false expectations of inherited of urban ‘heritage’ can be found in Athens, a city that is know internationally for its classical architecture. Prominent Athenian urban sites, such as Metaxourgio where the exhibition is reconvened, are in fact dominated by rapidly decaying modernist buildings and lack the more obvious signs of inner city gentrification found in other capitals of the European Union. Suburban Athens is home to a diasporic community of rural and islander Greeks who were forced to move there for political and economic reasons, few if any identify with Athens itself. In terms of Scottish critical theory, Athens is the anti-kailyard – it is the dystopic peripheral Edinburgh of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993), the Scotland-without-sentiment of George Douglas Brown’s The House with the Green Shutters (1901). The Athens that inspires the Young Athenians of Edinburgh is thus as much of a myth now as it was at the turn of the nineteenth century. It will be interesting to see how modern Athenians receive a simulacrum of their city filtered through the socio-political and aesthetic aspirations of another capital now equally overburdened by its own self-aggrandised pasts.
The 18 artists in the exhibition are Tam A, Kim Coleman & Jenny Hogarth, Craig Coulthard, Keith Farquhar, Tommy Grace, Darius Jones, David MacLean, Ellen Munro, One O’Clock Gun, Mullen & Lee, Keith MacIsaac, Katie Orton, Kate Owens, Sophie Rogers, Robin Scott, Catherine Stafford.
These artists have gained prominence and recognition nationally and, in some cases, internationally despite their peripheral location in North Western Europe. They include Coleman & Hogarth, Coulthard, Grace, MacLean, Owens and Stafford, whose work together in an organisational and curatorial capacity as founders of the Edinburgh-based artist–run initiative The Embassy, has been highly acclaimed in the British Isles. Alongside stand exemplar works from Tam A, MacIsaac, Mullen & Lee, Munro, Jones, Farquhar, Orton, Rogers and Scott all highly visible practitioners based in the capital. Also included are the archive, battle honours and a limited Athenian edition of the Edinburgh broadsheet the One O’ Clock Gun and three Edinburgh Portfolios featuring collections of editioned works by the artists in the exhibition.
Young Athenians features a variety of disciplines from drawing and painting (Tam A, MacLean, Grace, Coulthard, Rogers) to publications (Zug, Babliography, The One O’ Clock Gun), sculpture (Scott, Farquhar, Orton, Owens), jewellery (Stafford), video (Jones, O’Connor & Mullen, MacIsaac, Coleman & Hogarth) and performance (Coulthard, Mullen & Lee, Farquhar, Coleman & Hogarth). There are many elements that cross-pollinate this miscellany: the homespun, trompe l’oeil, secret societies, hoaxes, argots, agitation, decay, heraldry, paganism, revelry, enlightenment, neoclassicism, unionism, nationalism, the 1970s, crisp packets… go figure. This approach is designed not so much to provide a comprehensive snapshot of art in Edinburgh but rather to highlight the way a particularly polymathic peer group have influenced each other and collaborated in recent years.