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Athens can become the New Art Capital of Europe

Earlier this year, the British artist Michael Landy was dining outside at a restaurant in the Athens neighbourhood of Exarcheia – where the streets, home to anarchists, are thick with graffiti – when he was tear-gassed. “One moment, I was enjoying some vegetarian food,” he recalls. “The next, there were all these guys with masks and wheelie bins, and a riot was taking place. It came out of nowhere.”

Concerned and confused, Landy and his companions jumped up and tried to flee; in their haste, they forgot to settle the bill. “But the streets were barricaded,” he continues,

Earlier this year, the British artist Michael Landy was dining outside at a restaurant in the Athens neighbourhood of Exarcheia – where the streets, home to anarchists, are thick with graffiti – when he was tear-gassed. “One moment, I was enjoying some vegetarian food,” he recalls. “The next, there were all these guys with masks and wheelie bins, and a riot was taking place. It came out of nowhere.”

Concerned and confused, Landy and his companions jumped up and tried to flee; in their haste, they forgot to settle the bill. “But the streets were barricaded,” he continues, “and then the police started tear-gassing everybody. I couldn’t see anything for five minutes. Tear gas affects your throat as well: you find it hard to breathe.”

It sounds frightening – yet, when we speak by phone, Landy is at an airport, waiting to board a flight back to the city. He laughs. “Yeah, Athens is slightly lawless. But that’s one of the nicest things about it. It’s a really exciting place.”

Since February, Landy has been spending time in the Greek capital to oversee his ongoing exhibition, Breaking News – Athens. This is being staged at the Diplarios School, a former vocational school in the city’s centre, by the non-profit organisation Neon.

For the duration of the show, Landy is inviting the Greek public to submit images that encapsulate their experiences within the city via Neon’s website, almost a decade on from the beginning of Greece’s government debt crisis.

The images can be of anything: graffiti, street signs, bank logos, newspaper headlines, ancient artworks, coins. Landy then turns those that catch his eye into striking, blue-and-white oil-stick drawings, with the help of eight assistants – all, themselves, young artists, who dress in blue boiler suits, and work in an on-site studio.

Around 400 drawings have been produced so far. Stylistically consistent, they vary greatly in scale, and are arranged, under Landy’s direction, in shifting configurations throughout one floor of the empty Diplarios School.

Out of the Ruins

The installation will continue to evolve until the end of the exhibition in June, creating a fragmentary, composite portrait of a complex culture. Following bankruptcy and protracted austerity measures, Greece remains down on its luck – its unemployment rate, the highest in the Eurozone, remains stubbornly above 20 per cent.

Among the drawings, there are maps of two islands, Lesbos and Chios, which, in recent years, have borne the brunt of the influx of migrants and refugees. Elsewhere, there’s a reproduction of the suicide note of Dimitris Christoulas, a Greek pensioner who shot himself in Athens’s Syntagma Square five years ago.

But Athens is also resilient – and, characteristically for Landy, there are witty juxtapositions in the exhibition, such as a sign reading “Grexit”– the name given to the suggestion that Greece should leave the Eurozone – positioned above a doorway.

Having spent several weeks in the city, engaging with Athenians, Landy agrees. “Seven or eight years into the Greek crisis,” he says, “there doesn’t seem to be any end to it, and people are disenchanted with politics. But there’s also a lot of energy.”

He pauses. “When you look out of the windows of the Diplarios School, you see all these dilapidated buildings.” Many of them, empty and derelict, are plastered with signs spelling out a single word: Enoikiazetai (for rent). “Even the school is dilapidated: paint is peeling, bits of plaster are falling off the ceiling,” he says. When I visited recently, Kountouri told me that the Diplarios – which looks impressive from the street, but, she says, is “rotten” within – is “representative of Athens”, which is why she chose it as the venue for Landy’s exhibition.

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