Autumn’s Athenian art trek

For anyone visiting Athens in the near future, here’s a round up of things to see. Something for every taste!

Art Scene Athens

SPEND a breezy but bright October’s day in Athens visiting its many art exhibitions and you will discover a garden of artistic delights in the heart of the concrete city – ranging from the ancient to the contemporary. Here are ten (plus) of the Autumnal highlights:

travlos1An artistic aquarium
Enter a fantastic polychromatic world of porcelain fish at the Benaki Pireos, where artist Maritsa Travlos is exhibiting her work until November 19. For three decades now, she has been working away feverishly, employing various techniques for ceramics, porcelain and stoneware into her art. The show’s curator Takis Mavrotas says of her: “Maritsa Travlos belongs to that group of contemporary artists who prefer to work, in a pure and clean manner, who prefer the silence of the atelier, avoiding the systematic exhibition of their work in public.” But now the time has come, to show the public what she has been…

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Kazuo Ishiguro

Congratulations to Kazuo Ishiguro for winning the Nobel Prize for literature this year. A subtle, quietly assured writer, he has always been one of my favorites. I admire him for possessing the combined powers of observation and imagination, and for his evocative but minimalistic style.

Photo source: Google/Goodreads

Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki and came to England with his parents at the age of five. He’s an immigrant, in other words, but I’m sure the English are proud to claim him as their own. One of his most famous novels, The Remains of the Day (Booker Prize of 1989) is written from the point of view of a quintessentially English character, a butler. I’m not making any particular point by writing this, I’m just fascinated by the combination of cultures and the ability of someone to imagine different worlds.
Ishiguro’s latest novel, The Buried Giant, was a wonderful example of this, being set in a a sort of medieval world, an England after the departure of the Romans. The Nobel committee praised it for exploring “how memory relates to oblivion, history to the present, and fantasy to reality”. Some people found it hard going, but I was totally mesmerized.

Ishiguro was surprised by his win, to the extent that at first he thought it was a hoax. He said: “Part of me feels like an imposter and part of me feels bad that I’ve got this before other living writers. Haruki Murakami, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, all of them immediately came into my head and I just thought wow, this is a bit of a cheek for me to have been given this before them. And because I’m completely delusional, part of me feels like I’m too young to be winning something like this. But then I suddenly realised that I’m 62, so I am average age for this I suppose.”

Ishiguro is also a musician and one of Bob Dylan’s greatest fans, so he is a fitting successor to last year’s surprise winner.

 

I’m now off to buy When We Were Orphans, which for some reason I haven’t read.

Click the link below to watch a video where Ishiguro explains how his wife made him scrap his latest novel after two years’ work.

http://www.bbc.com/news/av/entertainment-arts-31693964/kazuo-ishiguro-s-wife-demanded-rewrite-on-latest-novel

Greek notes in Sicily

Pretoria fountain. Detail

 

The Ancient Greeks left their mark everywhere – everywhere in the known world, or Oecumene, a Greek geographical concept describing the inhabited parts of the world. They were merchants and traders, and they were the first to colonize Southern Italy, where they founded Magna Graecia, which included the island of Sicily. They first started living there in the 8th and 7th centuries BC and, since then, Sicily has seen the passing of many civilisations, the remnants of which form rich layers in the tapestry of the island. Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arabic – they are intertwined in many ways.

 

 

In Palermo, a city which teems with the same variety of faces one probably came across all these centuries ago, driving is a hazardous affair. In the old town, the streets are so narrow that even a small car brushes the houses on either side, where open doors reveal the trappings of daily life – a woman ironing, a baby in a high chair – while tourists walk in the middle of the road gawping at the sights, and scooters edge past without slowing down at all. There are no sidewalks, and road signs are cheerfully ignored by all and sundry.

 

 

In the Piazza Bellini (above), three Churches surround a paved square.
San Cataldo, an austere Norman structure made of grey stone (seen on the right), and Santa Margarita del Amiraglio, (on the left) whose enchanting interior combines astonishing Byzantine mosaics with an elaborate baroque centre.

 

View of the church with the baroque part at the altar

 

The mosaics are literally breathtaking.

 

 

Below is a view of the dome with mosaic of the Pantokrator.

 

 

The byzantines did like their gold!

 

 

And the decorative details are also beautiful.

 

 

Through the window can be glimpsed the façade of the third church, Santa Caterina, on the opposite side of the square. Its interior is a synthesis of Sicilian baroque, Rococo and Renaissance.

 

 

Behind Santa Caterina, Piazza Pretoria boasts a fountain which, while it is not Greek, I could not resist photographing, since it is decorated with a series of marvelous carved animals, all different and sporting exquisite expressions on their white marble faces.

 

Pretoria Fountain. Detail.

 

The Petoria Fountain was built in Florence, but was sold to Palermo in 1554.

 

 

Due to the nudity of the statues on the top of the fountain, considered shocking at the time, the square became known as Piazza Della Vergogna, or Square of Shame.

 

I love the contrast of the naked statues with the once-beautiful but decrepit building behind

 

In Taormina, the Greek Theatre was built in the 3rd century BC. An incredible 100.000 cubic meters of rock were moved for its excavation, and it could seat over 5000 people. In Roman times it was renovated and enlarged and the brickwork of that era still survives today. As with all Greek theatres it has brilliant acoustics and is regularly used every summer for opera, concerts and plays.

 

 

The view from the gods includes brilliant sunsets and the majestic cone of the Etna volcano, which is the largest on the whole Italian peninsula, and the tallest volcano in Europe. The Greeks considered Etna to be the forge of Haephaistos (Vulcan) who used it to create thunderbolts for Zeus; it was also the home of the giant one-eyed monster, Cyclops.

 

Panoramic photo from Google

 

Syracuse (Συρακούσαι) and Selinunte (Σελινούς) were also cities founded by the Greeks, whose names were often mentioned in the reams of Ancient Greek text – Thucydides, if I’m not mistaken – which we had to translate at school, with a cheat sheet under the desk (bought at the local stationers’). All those complicated wars and sieges would have been brought to life if the school had organised a trip to Sicily for us.

In Selinunte, the temple dedicated to Hera is majestic, larger than most found in Greece.

 

The entrance to the site

 

It is difficult to imagine it painted in blue and red, as it was in antiquity.

 

Of the three temples on the religious site at Selinunte, this is the only one to have been partially restored.

 

 

Through the columns, one can glimpse wonderful views of the sea.

 

 

This is  the smaller of the three temples on the site, the third and largest being probably dedicated to Zeus.

 

 

The columns have imploded and are tumbled in heaps, with greenery and brambles growing amongst them.

 

 

The photo below shows the sheer size of each hewn pillar.

 

 

Further from the religious site stand the remnants of the Acropolis and the old fortified city. Selinunte, whose name derives from the Greek selinon (Σέλινον) for the wild celery which grows abundantly here and whose image they used on their coins – was a thriving town comprising, at its peak, more than 30.000 inhabitants , excluding slaves.  As was inevitable, they were involved a series of wars with their neighboring cities.

 

 

In 409 BC, the Segestans, with whom they had been fighting, asked for help from the Carthaginians, who were of Phoenician descent and based in Tunis. They crossed over in a fleet of 100.000 men and laid siege to the city. Finding the inhabitants unprepared for such an assault, they breached the walls, lay waste to the whole town and massacred 16,000 people. A further 5000 were taken into slavery. The survivors eventually came back but, despite various attempts to rebuild, Selinnte never regained its former status.

 

The ruins of the town. Main Street. Selinunte was built according to an urban plan dividing it into blocks.

Trying to imagine what it must have been like, looking over that beautiful sea and seeing the Carthaginian fleet appear over the horizon.

 

Sicily is a large island and there are many more places to visit, such as the Valley of the Temples in Syracuse. It is home to around five million inhabitants and is a melting pot of a variety of different cultures and ethnicities, including the original Italic people, the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, Swabians, Aragonese, Lombards, Spaniards, French, and Albanians, each having contributed to the island’s culture and genetic makeup. It also boasts stunning scenery, great beaches, friendly and hospitable people and fantastic food.

Foodie footnote: Apart from great olive oil, honey and tomatoes, Sicilian produce includes lemons and pistachios. The refreshing lemon granita is to die for, as is the pistachio ice-cream and semi-fredo. You are offered all kinds of fresh fish and shrimp, caponata made with their delicious aubergines, food with oriental touches such as chickpea fritters and, among the endless variety of pasta, a dish I’d never tried before: linguine with lemon and pistachios – absolute heaven on a plate. And a final unmissable – the cannoli: crunchy biscuits tubes filled with whipped ricotta in many flavors (including pistachio, of course!). And, last but not least, one must not forget the delicious local wines.

A black day, a black tide

As if Greece was not plagued by enough problems, it is now the site of an unprecedented ecological disaster, following the sinking of an oil tanker near the port of Piraeus.

The Agia Zoni II sank on September 10 while anchored in calm seas and carrying 2,200 tons of fuel oil and 370 tons of marine gas oil. The ship’s cargo spilled into waters where dolphins, turtles, seals and a variety of fish and sea birds feed and live. Oil slicks have extended from the island of Salamina, near where the tanker went down, to the entire length of the Athens coast.

 

Image from naharnet.com

 

The Greek government is being accused (as usual) of a slow and inadequate response to the crisis, which it (obviously) is denying.

Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund has filed a lawsuit over extensive pollution to the coastline around Athens. The environmental group’s Greek branch filed the lawsuit in the port city of Piraeus against “anyone found responsible,” a common practice when a party that could be held legally accountable has not been identified formally. Mayors of affected coastal areas are also threatening to take legal action.

Environmental and wildlife organizations have been posting instructions on social media on how members of the public should handle any stricken wildlife they come across, as well as phone numbers to call for help. As for the members of said public, they have been denied one of the great benefits – or saving graces – of living in Athens, that is, access to sandy beaches with clear water. The end of this season is shot, and who knows what the long-term consequences will be? This will also affect another Athenian pleasure, eating locally caught fish in little tavernas by the sea.

This disaster comes at the end of a summer beset, as usual, by wildfires which consumed another chunk of precious forest around Greece and the islands. There again, the authorities were criticized for being more disorganized than ever. At the moment they are engaged in heaping blame on each other – the opposition has asked for the resignation of Ministers concerned, etc – while spouting various inanities, such as, ‘In a month the beaches will be cleaner than before.’ Nobody is amused or convinced by this. Greece’s greatest assets are its natural beauties, and it is very sad to watch these being destroyed.

Below is a video taken by a drone, which shows the impact on usually pristine beaches

 

It is still unclear why the ship sank. Its owners insist it was seaworthy and that its documents were in order.

Out of Africa

A visit to the Louis Vuitton Fondation of Contemporary Art in Paris is a must, if only to admire (gape at!) the building, which was designed by famed architect Frank Gehry. Construction of the museum began in March 2008, and was plagued by many lawsuits and appeals from people who were against building in the Bois de Boulogne, the largest park in Paris. However, the permits were finally obtained and the museum opened in October 2014. Its cost was supposed to be $143 million, but, according to some sources, it finally rose to around $780 million.

Be that as it may, it is an extravagant structure which definitely adds to the must-see list of Parisian sights, and those responsible for its design and construction have won several architectural awards in France and the US.

 

 

The building takes the form of a boat’s sails inflated by the wind. These glass sails envelop the “iceberg”, a series of shapes with white, flowery terraces; they are made of 3,584 laminated glass panels, each unique and specifically curved to fit the shapes drawn by the architect. The building incorporates interesting water features as well as commissioned  site-specific installations by, amongst others, Ellsworth Kelly, Olafur Eliasson and Adrián Villar Rojas.

 

View of the lobby from above

The LVF  houses an extensive permanent collection, including works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gilbert & George and Jeff Koons. This summer, a major temporary exhibition showcased art from sub-Saharan Africa, made up of three distinct exhibits: offerings from the foundation’s own archive, a selection from Jean Pigozzi’s prestigious collection and an overview of the best in South African contemporary art.

It is obviously difficult for one exhibition to encompass the scope and variety of a continent made up of 54 different countries, but there was terrific work from artists we rarely see, or sometimes have never seen at all. Despite all the talk about the globalisation of the contemporary art world, art from Africa continues to be woefully under-represented.

I personally was galvanized and overwhelmed by what was on offer. Since I am no expert on the subject of African art, and it would be easy enough for anyone to look up any information needed, I will only attempt here to show a small sample of the works which enthused me.

Benin artist Romuald Hazoumé is of prestigious lineage, since his ancestor was a high priest of the Fâ at the court of the King of Port-Novo. His art reflects his close connection with his Yoruba culture, where masks hold center stage: his were made of recycled plastic cans and other household objects.

 

 

Rigobert Nimi is from The Congo and a lot of his work uses found objects. He had contributed enormous constructions resembling amazing imaginary spaceships.

 

 

Senegalese artist Seni Awa Kamara learnt pottery from her mother, who made everyday objects, but developed her own radically innovative style. She creates female figures to whom are attached many tiny statues meant to represent children, in animal or human form.

 

 

Activist Chéri Samba is inspired by everyday life and touches on a wide range of subjects from current political, economic, social and cultural events in Kinshasa – such as ecological problems, corruption, tragic events, etc. He incorporates text in his work, both in French and Lingala, as in the painting below, which highlights the problem of obtaining clean water.

 

 

Bodys Isek Kingelez, who is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, builds models of buildings with unusual shapes and bright colors, using recovered materials. Some are individual constructions, and some entire urban simulations, such as his enchanting rendering of an imaginary Manhattan, below.

 

 

Artist Abu Bakarr Mansaray, from Sierra Leone, taught himself chemistry, mathematics and electronics using school textbooks. In 1998 he fled the civil war and moved to the Netherlands where, in his art, he evokes the war and its traumas, but also UFOs and aliens of which he considers himself the interpreter. He draws upon his scientific knowledge to produce monumental drawings using pencil, ballpoint pen, felt-tip markers and colored pencils.

 

A Heath Robinson-esque contraption, and, below, a detail from another painting.

 

Artist John Goba was initiated by his grandmother into a secret female society. Inspired by this, he makes statues evoking traditional knowledges and tales of various ethnic groups, using wood and porcupine quills.

 

 

Benin artist Calixte Dakpogan comes from a family of ironmongers. He too reinvents the mask, either using found materials, or cheap everyday made in China objects, such as safety pins, beads, ballpoint pens etc.

 

 

Photographer Seydou Keïta (Mali, 1921-2001), is considered one of the greatest photographers of the late 20th century, and was one of the few artists whose work I’d seen before. Through a large number of exceptional portraits he painted a testimony of Malian society from the end of the Second World War through to Independence.

 

 

Even a short break for lunch was not devoid of artistic stimulation, since we sat under this lovely installation of paper fish in the restaurant.

 

 

After lunch I continued upstairs, to the part of the exhibition entitled Being There, showcasing  some of the most important South African artists. Legends of art such as William Kentridge, Jane Alexander, David Goldblatt, David Koloane and Sue Williamson were featured – artists who helped shape the local art scene and also influenced the younger generation, many of whom were also exhibited here.  Sadly, by then I was suffering from a surfeit of visual stimulation, so I skimmed over most of the works and only paused for a disturbing installation by David Koloane, whose work is devoted to the chaotic energy of Johannesburg. His art has distinct political and social overtones, and street dogs, ubiquitous in the townships, put in multiple appearances.

 

 

Last, but not least, I sat for a few minutes to watch the latest video production of William Kentridge, Notes Towards a Model Opera, which played simultaneously on three large screens (video below). Kentridge, an artist who experienced apartheid as a white man, has long been a favorite of mine.

It would have been nice to have been able to go back before the exhibition finished (on September 4), because it was impossible to take in such a wide range of extraordinary talent in detail and all at once. Even in this post it was too much to incorporate all the photographs I took, or present all the artists whose work I liked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anselm Kiefer at the Musée Rodin

On a brief trip to Paris, I managed to squeeze in two art exhibitions, and it was really worth it.

Les cathédrales de Frances. Painting by Anselm Kiefer

The first was at the Musée Rodin, where the German artist Anselm Kiefer was asked to produce art to mark the centenary of the death of Auguste Rodin. The idea was to invite the viewer to consider the aesthetic concerns shared by the two artists.
Anselm Kiefer was given the freedom to create a series of works incorporating debris that Rodin produced while making his sculptures, such as offcuts and discarded molds.To echo this, elsewhere in the museum displays were altered to present previously unseen plaster works by Rodin.

 

 

The Musée Rodin is housed in a 1730 building, the Hôtel Biron, which was initially a private residence, before being rented by the Society of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus. It was then taken over by the state and left vacant for years. In the early 20th century rooms were rented out for studios to artists such as Jean Cocteau, Isadora Duncan and Rainer Maria Rilke, amongst others. Henri Matisse rented space for his school of art, and then Rodin – after Rilke, who later became his secretary, let him know about the building – joined the group, and gradually took over the whole building, where he worked for years, until his death.

The building and gardens are beautiful and perfectly maintained. The main part of Kiefer’s work is presented in a room just inside the outer wall, which was built as a chapel for the needs of of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus Society.

 

 

Anselm Kiefer was born in 1945 and studied with Joseph Beuys and Peter Dreher during the 1970s. In his work, he unflinchingly confronts his culture’s dark past, and adresses controversial historical issues.

 

 

Kiefer is a romantic, with a huge visual vocabulary. He uses architecture, amongst other images, to convey the weight of history. The three paintings in the room are diptychs, large canvases whose surface is multi-layered and textured. Thick layers of gesso and paint have been mixed with other substances such as glass and clay to give them texture. Kiefer then scratches and carves into the surface to reveal the layers beneath. In these particular paintings, molten lead has been splattered on top, and parts of it have been bent and curled backwards to add a third dimension.

 

Detail: The lead has been curled back, still bearing the imprint of the layer beneath it, which it reveals.

The paintings are difficult to describe and photographs can never do them justice (even better ones than mine!). They have to be experienced – and, without the slightest exaggeration, I can say they are breathtaking.

Kiefer also makes installations, in this case using dried sunflowers and branches, sunflower seeds coated in gold leaf, earth, stones and the aforementioned clay debris.
In my opinion, he is one of the greatest artists of our time, due to his enormous scope and erudition, his use of a huge variety of materials and his production of monumental works. I might not love everything he does – which I think is a good thing – but I never cease to be surprised and impressed every time I encounter another of his works.

 

 

I finished up by walking in the gardens to visit old favorites, such as The Thinker.

 

P. S. I still need to write up the second exhibition I saw, on African Art at the Louis Vuitton Foundation, so stay tuned!

The food conundrum

'What's for dinner?'
 Providing the answer to this simple question is getting increasingly complicated.  Even a quick glance at the daily news turns every meal into an experience fraught with uncertainty and guilt. Because almost everything turns out to be bad for the health, or the environment, or both.

Meat is high in fats and cholesterol and stuffed with antibiotics and hormones.
– Fish is full of metal deposits and also guilt-inducing due to overfishing. Sushi is particularly to blame for the depletion of the oceans. Another minus is that, according to a recent article, fish are eating minute particles of plastic – it seems that plastic smells good when mixed with seawater – and this ends up in their tissues.
Vegetables and fruit are riddled with pesticides, unless they are organic.
Dairy products are to be totally avoided, being indigestible and artery-clogging. Cheese, in particular, is maligned as being tantamount to poison.
– Sadly, almond milk, which is a good substitute for dairy, is terrible for the environment, since its production uses up huge amounts of water.
– Anything ‘white’ and ‘refined’, such as flour, pasta and rice, should be avoided like the plague. Only the wholemeal varieties will do, if that.

 

 

There is very little one can be sure about:
Wine, in small quantities, appears to be good for you – until you read the next study, which has now discovered it is bad (or is it good again?) The same goes for chocolate (black, of course) and coffee.
Eggs are terrible for cholesterol levels – BUT I just read an article that it is now considered advisable to eat up to ten a week.                                                                                              – Seafood is also high in cholesterol, with the added environmentally-unfriendly aura connected with fish (see depletion of oceans, above).
– We can’t even count on spirits to raise our spirits (pardon the awful pun). A lovely mojito, a vodka tonic, a drop of whisky – out of the question. Not should any morsel of dessert (brownies, ice cream, cake) pass our lips. I did, however, read an article that gin is good for the health.
– And salt? Is salt good or bad? Opinion differs here too.

 

 

There are also practical matters to be considered:
– Should you eat breakfast, or can you skip it? I recently read that it’s okay, even beneficial, to do the latter, although up to now we were taught to ‘breakfast like a king…’ etc. etc.
Juicing helps with getting your five-a-day, but breaks down the fibers in the fruit and veggies. So better not.

And moral ones:
I admit I’m a terrible hypocrite, since I enjoy a lamb chop as much as the next person, but would probably be a total vegetarian if I had to kill the said lamb myself. However, I feel like screaming when I hear vegetarians self-righteously proclaim they still eat butter and cheese, ‘because no animals get killed in the process.’ When I try to explain the basic facts of agriculture, they just don’t seem to get it. I have good friends who keep repeating the same argument every time food is discussed.

So, what the devil are we supposed to eat?

As far as I can see, that leaves seeds (chia, sesame) pulses (chickpeas…) and insects (which are full of protein and totally devoid of fat). The Swiss are about to stack supermarket shelves with food made from mealworms, which are the larval form of the mealworm beetle. We’re talking ‘burgers’, made by a startup called Essento, in which the mealworms are combined with vegetables, herbs and spices. Sound yummy? Their byword is ‘delicious insects.’

Apparently, fried crickets and grasshoppers are also tasty and crunchy, I suppose as a substitute for potato chips, which are notoriously bad for the health. According to the experts, insects have a high culinary potential, their production saves resources and their nutritional profile is high-quality. They are the perfect complement to a modern diet.

 

On the strength of the above, I have compiled a menu for a dinner party:

Drinks: Gin and tonic (gin is good for you, right? Unless a new survey comes out before the evening in question, saying the contrary). Crispy fried locusts and organic carrot sticks.

Starter: Organic quinoa with kale chips and sliced raw radishes. I actually had this made for me by a friend, and it was surprisingly tasty.

Main course: Mealworms ‘burgers’ with raw cauliflower ‘risotto’. The latter is a recipe favored by vegans, but I confess I’ve never had it – I love cauliflower, but eating it raw instead of rice – not so much.

Desert: I need to find a recipe that avoids eggs, sugar and flour – probably something made with oats and fruit and sweetened with stevia. As if life was not complicated enough…

One must not forget to be extra careful because of people’s allergies to nuts, gluten or even strawberries. Thus the planning of a simple dinner has been turned into a major strategic exercise – what with reading up on the latest developments and finding the ingredients (although some might be captured in the garden?)

Perhaps the answer is to eat everything, but stop reading? Because it never ends. Today, I read an article about antibiotics. It seems doctors now are not sure which to prescribe, because of resistance and allergies. Also they disagree about whether you should finish the whole course, or stop taking them as soon as you feel better.

I rest my case.

Bon appetit, everyone!