Paros Magazine February 2011
Interview with Maria Demetriades, director of “Medusa” gallery
For three decades now, Medusa is one of those Athenian galleries with a leading position on the Greek art scene. Representing some major artists, you have earned the appreciation of the art-loving public, your colleagues and the artists. Yet galleries are not always seen in a positive light, but often with strongly mixed feelings. Many people see them as holy sanctums, others as an obsolete institution, many as cold commercial enterprises and some as cradles of art and culture. What is the prevailing attitude in Greece today, and what does the institution of galleries mean to you?
M.D. I think that any description that exaggerates in exalting or demonising the role of galleries is a priori inaccurate or, at best, naive. Every institution which serves art has its own history and thus evolves over time to keep up with social change. In other words, it adapts itself to new models of organisation and communication with the public as well as with the artists themselves, whose attitudes and forms of expression also change and evolve. The acid test for an art space is whether it can combine two functions: to remain open to change, but also not to lose sight of its main objective of building bridges of trust and communication with both the public and the artists. Over more than thirty years, “Medusa” has stood this test because it kept working with the focus on the quality of the artistic propositions it supported, by established and emerging artists alike. It has promoted some historically important artists for Greek or international art such as Takis, Akrithakis, Prassinos, Koulentianos, Daniil and others, while giving a chance to younger artists, those recognised as the new blood today, to embark on their professional career by hosting their first solo exhibition. The fact that the gallery managed to move effectively in the art market means that it fulfils the key role of a gallery, which goes beyond enabling artists to demonstrate the essential value of their work to secure for them the financial means to continue, and also to support the space itself so that it can keep up its own role.
Finally, I should point out that any attempt at evaluating the role of galleries in Greece should take into account the complete absence, until ten years ago, of any public institutions dedicated to promoting contemporary art; the people who devoted their life and work to contemporary art—I am talking here about pioneers like “Nees Morfes”, the “Ora” Cultural Centre, the “Athens Art Gallery”, “Zoumboulakis” or “Desmos”—were the sole intermediaries in getting the public to gradually know and accept the work of contemporary artists. And the motive behind this effort was certainly not financial gain but a deeper interest in art. In this sense, it is clear that galleries in Greece represent a powerful medium for preserving as well as refreshing the physiognomy of contemporary culture. It was on this basis that the story of “Medusa” began, and along these lines that I continue to try to expand and modernise it.
In terms of motives, appeal and operation, is a gallery more closely related to a revered museum or to one of those deliberately ‘rough’ alternative spaces which seem to be frequented by a younger public these days?
M.D. Happily enough, art remains a field where diversity in terms of approaches to creation and styles is the norm. Thankfully, we do not have to wear all the same clothes—as long as each of us knows to choose whatever fits, in style or size… Nor is it, conversely, that ‘clothes make the man’. A venue may put on a museum-like appearance and still not be respected, or present itself as alternative but actually move within the established art mechanisms. The character of a space is always determined by the people who manage it, by the style and mentality of the individuals who decide upon the choices and, perhaps, the impact of the space on society and the cultural life of the city. Hence the same space may well be suitable for both ‘formal’ and ‘casual’ dress, as it is equally legitimate—or, indeed, necessary—to enable the young to experiment in alternative spaces. You are then judged by how you continue…
Art is able to surprise us by assuming unexpected, groundbreaking guises. In this society of the spectacle, where everything is at once “aesthetic” and marketable, this role of the pioneer of originality is successfully played by advertising, television or even our ‘spectacular’ everyday reality itself, while visual art often seems to stagnate in the postmodern ‘soup’. When everything seems to have been done, what is left for art to do? How strong is its voice today?
M.D. Personally, I am still moved by the work of a great many artists, Greek and foreign. The setting on which we focus is entirely up to us, I would say. There are still artists who do not stagnate or slip into the ‘soup’. Besides, we should not forget that similar accidents always happened to artists, in all eras… It is true that we live in a society of the spectacle, where the mass media have a leading role. I believe, however, that this makes it even more challenging for one to promote those artists who manage either to distance themselves from the aesthetic of mass culture or deride it. How strong is art’s voice today? We must remember that its cry or its music will be heard, loud and clear, by those who keep their ears open. And our mission is to sharpen this sensory and intellectual sensibility of the public; that’s the fascination for one who works in the field of art.
As you are constantly in touch with the work of young artists, and you know in depth the practices of established ones, do you think that artists ought to ‘strike while the iron is hot’, or would it be more advantageous for their work if it ‘retorted’ after a time lag from topical issues? Is it better to be early or late?
M.D. I don’t think I am interested in the quality of being first, but nor am I moved by belated repetitions. To me, originality is synonymous with the authenticity of an artist’s language; with everything that’s genuine and unique.
In their attempt to graphically comment on, castigate or compete against socio-political reality, several artists have occasionally adopted extreme or even criminal ways. We all know certain actionists’ performances in which self-flagellation and torture feature prominently. Where does aesthetics end and ethics begin? What is your opinion of this kind of art?
M.D. The range of expressions elaborated by avant-garde artists for almost a century now is huge and includes many extreme actions. Since all these forms of expression represent a specific artist’s stance against the big question about the need to broaden one’s perception of life, assume a critical attitude towards social reality and revise the notion of creating, each case is evaluated under different criteria. There have been artists who have convincingly presented the human drama, exposing themselves to trials or danger, just as there have been insignificant examples, for all their violence. So one cannot apply any universal criteria. The interaction between aesthetics and ethics is a major philosophical question. In brief, I would say that we should seek the answer by delving into the work of those who have successfully handled some extreme forms of behaviour, like, for instance, Marina Abramovic.
Image and speech. Art and theory. We have often stood before artworks which are hermetically closed, installations confused with the air conditioners in the exhibition space, photographs that seem empty (to the naked eye?). The title and the text that accompany such works help resolve the viewer’s confusion. In other cases, it is the work that helps the viewer understand the inaccessible text. What should be the role of theory in an art exhibition? Does it compensate for the wok’s lack of meaning or does it reveal its hidden truth?
M.D. Theoretical thought and critical speech are only tools, whose effectiveness depends on the skill of those who employ them. Just as with an artwork, a text can enrich our knowledge and stimulate our thoughts or it can fail in its purpose. However, I think that in the happy instances when a text is the product of a deeper understanding of the work it analyses, the mirror of clear ideas and assimilated knowledge of art, it can have a decisive contribution in making the work understood and also in expanding the intellectual horizon and establishing a dialogue with the artist himself.
A few journeys around Greece will show anyone that our peripheral cities suffer from the lack of either a cultural vision or the means to implement it. Given your overall experience as well as your current collaboration with the Fotis Art Café in Paros, would you accept or deny this? Is there an interest in art on the Cycladic island?
M.D. My experience from the drive to decentralise the contemporary art scene goes back to 1983; it started with an exhibition at the Kaparos Monastery in Lefkes, with installations by Nakis Tastsioglou, Ersi Venetsanou and Costas Vrouvas. From that time till the exhibitions at the Fotis Art Café, I can say with certainty that every event I have organised on Paros has met with the interested response of both visitors and the local community.
Very few people in Greece today remain unaffected by the financial crisis, which rapidly changes our priorities and our mood. I often hear people wondering whether art can flourish at a time when the economy is collapsing. What do you see and foresee? Indeed, what does Medusa propose?
M.D. No doubt the crisis impacts all fields of activity. In art, those of us who are old hands have gone through times of recession before. But we carried on and came back up unscathed. That’s why I carry on without stopping, taking particular care in our scheduling of activities in order to ensure that our associations with the artists remain viable. One thing is certain: we shall not compromise, and the gallery’s choices and programme will continue to be formed with the care our public and our associates deserve; with the same enthusiasm and the same commitment to quality. After all, as a seasoned sailor I know that “it is a rough sea that makes a good captain”.