Sunday, 21 June 2015

Between the Pessimism of the Intellect and the Optimism of the Will, 5th THESSALONIKI BIENNALE OF CONTEMPORARY ART, 23.06 - 30.09.2015

June 23 – September 30, 2015

MAIN EXHIBITION: Pavilion 6 (Thessaloniki International EXPO premises)

Between the Pessimism of the Intellect and the Optimism of the Will
Curated by Katerina Gregos

The title of the 5th Thessaloniki Biennial is inspired by an aphorism invoked by Antonio Gramsci in the The Prison Notebooks (Quaderni del carcere) that he wrote between 1929 and 1935 while he was imprisoned by the Facist regime in Italy at the time. In these voluminous writings which he composed during his eleven years incarceration Gramsci repeatedly cites a particular phrase; in one of the letters he writes: “The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned ... I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” This duality constitutes a point of departure to talk about the current situation of crisis – and how to overcome it - that governs much of the Mediterranean, which is once again the conceptual point of departure for the next biennial.

As a diverse blend and composite of cultures, religions, ethnicities, languages, traditions and norms – the and the crossroads of three principal religions and continents – it becomes very difficult to define the Mediterranean area, except in geographic terms. Indeed there is much debate on whether we can even speak of a Mediterranean identity, culture or even region; and equally, it is impossible to treat the countries of the area as an undifferentiated group, nor arrive a singular understanding of what constitutes ‘The Mediterranean’. It is as much a real as an imagined space, whose perception has been determined and coloured by idyllic as well as negative stereotypes and misperceptions. But what many of the 26 countries seem to face today are a series of serious ongoing crises (whether social, economic, or political) as well as several zones of armed conflict. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to call the Mediterranean a crisis zone of sorts. Greece, Spain, and Italy are all in the throes of economic crises, Turkey is in the midst of a political crisis, while a large part of the Southern shores of the Mediterranean simmer with political and social unrest as democracy is being challenged, and the Eastern shores remain mired either in armed conflict or decades long unresolved political, religious and territorial disputes.

So while the Mediterranean cannot be defined in terms of a common identity, it constitutes a hotbed for some of the more burning issues of the moment including social and economic equality, democracy, civil rights, migration and mobility, and personal autonomy, the overall area treading the fine line between order and disorder. Many countries of the Mediterranean are, in fact, to a large extent facing a situation of impasse, which is engendered by prolonged or unresolved crises. Gramsci himself defined crisis as precisely that situation where “the old is dying and the new cannot be born” and added that, “in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Given the failure of both politics and the political imagination, what remains in many parts of the Mediterranean world is an anticipation of alternatives and the hope for a better world.

Gramsci’ quote is particularly relevant today, not only as concerns the Mediterranean, because it well describes the current situation of impasse in many parts of the world. It is in the vacuum or grey zone of this anticipation that we find ourselves in today, fuelled by desire but bogged down by reality but also realpolitik. It rests with artists, cultural practitioners and grass roots activists to exercise the creative and radical imagination, in order to critically dissect what is happening right now (thus engaging the pessimism of the intellect) as well as to envisage or allude to another way of being (by harnessing the optimism of the will). The exhibition will take Gramsci’s ideas as a point of departure to reflect on the current situation of being in between two situations – one which is conceptual, the other which is very much tied to the problematic ‘real’. ‘Pessimism of the intellect’ entails a critical view of things as they are. ‘Optimism of the will’, evokes the imagination, and the call to action necessary to overcome adversity. It is precisely between these two mental poles that much of the Mediterranean finds itself today.

In light of the general fatalism that governs many aspects of politics, economics, and public life today, as well as the dominant view that capitalism is ‘inevitable’, Gramsci’s phrase seems as relevant as it was when first written. It is the optimism of the will that when implemented finally sparks change and can sow the seeds for a better future. The Thessaloniki Biennial will explore the multiple meanings of this dual phrase as well as mine that grey zone in between. In fact, the exhibition aims more to evoke the ambiguity of the current moment, rather than just literally re-present crisis problematics.

The biennial will thus shed light on some of the critical issues springing from Mediterranean problematics, but will include works whose meaning has a more ecumenical significance. The artists in the exhibition explore the multiple manifestations of this duality, engage in critical, oppositional cultural practices, and exercise the freedom of the imagination, thus symbolically engaging with Gramsci’s aphorism to look into and beyond the current crisis, allowing for what Ernst Bloch has called “forward dreaming”.
44 artists, and one collective from 25 countries all around the world, will exhibit their artworks, including existing works as well as 14 new productions commissioned for the occasion by the Biennale.

Participating artists: Carlos Aires (ES), Can Altay & Jeremiah Day (TR/US), Ivan Argote (CO), Marwa Arsanios (US), Bertille Bak (FR), Taysir Batniji (PS), James Beckett (ZA/NL), Adelita Husni Bey (IT), David Brognon & Stéphanie Rollin (BE/LU), Marianna Christofides (CY), Depression Era (GR), Ninar Esber (LB), Mounir Fatmi (MA), Peter Friedl (AT), Mekhitar Garabedian (SY/BE), Ganzeer (EG), Marina Gioti (GR), Piero Gilardi (IT), Hamza Halloubi (MA/BE), Nick Hannes (BE), Sven Johne (DE), Annika Kahrs (DE), Eleni Kamma (GR), Hayv Kahraman (IQ), Mikhail Karikis (GR), Chrysanthi Koumianaki (GR), Erik Van Lieshout (NL), Thomas Locher (DE), Angela Melitopoulos & Angela Anderson (DE/US), Tom Molloy (IE), Nikos Navridis (GR), Qiu Zhijie (CN), Pavel Pepperstein (RU), Antonis Pittas (GR), Theo Prodromidis (GR), Meriç Algün Ringborg (TR), Anila Rubiku (AL), Marinella Senatore (IT), Nedko Solakov (BG), Nikos Tranos (GR), Thomas Weinberger (DE), Olav Westphalen (DE)

Exhibition designer: Danae Giamalaki