Thessaloniki, Saturday 11/3/17
It’s the sort of art exhibition where you’ve always almost knocked something over. It's like they've not finished putting it up; there are no borders, or at least no velvet ropes*. Maybe soon there will be walls in the Mediterranean sea. I have learnt that crossing boundaries has less to do with barriers than it has to do with bodies. Yesterday we watched a film called The Good Postman. It is about a Bulgarian man in a border town who runs for mayor on a pro-refugee policy. He doesn’t win. The final shot is of him calling the police, he is saying he has not seen anyone cross today, as a few figures pass in the background, bags on their backs.
The Thessaloniki Documentary Festival is showing a lot of films about migration this year. I read today that 44% of Athenians consider refugees ‘a potential threat’**. In the screening of I Am Not Your Negro my boyfriend is the only person who is not white. The crowd claps, loudly.
Sometimes I am part of a group that gives sandwiches to the homeless. These are the people who take up space in mattresses on pavements and slumped over empty coffee cups and they are not visible and I know this because usually I don’t look at them either. Many came to Greece earlier than two years ago, and within the structure of migrant projects they are eligible for less than those who’ve just arrived. At some point a person stops being seen even as a refugee. Maybe you have to draw a line somewhere, if there is not enough to go around, or at least not enough energy left to share it. When I visited the donations warehouse there were clothes stacked to the ceiling. As our small team crowds around to hand out tea I notice people on the street are noticing us. A woman leans out of her car window and stares. One of the men I hand a sandwich to is from Manchester, and I drop my throat to pull up my Northern accent.
“What are you then?” He asks. “Are you angels?”
“Yes we’re angels”, I snort, and the rest of the group don’t get the joke.
It can be a privilege and a danger to be seen, and it depends on the body we are in.
All the contemporary Greek art seems to be about wings. There’s a pile of feathers named after the goddess Nike, and even a blue neon called Times Square Cityscape clings high up to a wall like it’s half of a bird’s back. It's reflected in the glass floor, flickering like an aeroplane’s take off lights in the surface of the sea.
I notice there are no security guards. On Chios alone there are 90 Frontex officers***. I could touch the work if I wanted to, and there’s no other sound in the space, no cough or shuffle as the attendant recrosses their legs, my feet squeak a little on the floor. A guard marks another room, or a new frontier. Without them I don’t bother checking dates, or even names, but I end up looking longest at the Matisse regardless. This woman has a strong chin, heavy hands that belong on her wide thighs, she is the background and the foreground, pushing against every side of what retains her.
It is a Saturday, and there are only three other visitors and us. There are doors left open to dark control rooms. A woman pulls a heavy grey curtain sharply across a partition as I walk past. It’s a painting lesson, says my partner. I can smell cigarette smoke. A maintenance man passes me on the stairs and there’s a bang and I turn around and he has taken off part of the wall, a thick strip a little higher up than where the skirting board would be, revealing a row of long white wires. On the next floor up there’s a tangle of rusty twists, protruding from the wall and balancing on a plinth, like it’s the entrails of an electrical box. There are actual electrical boxes everywhere, with angry yellow warning signs and metal bolts. I would think they were art except I’ve been to too many contemporary galleries to be fooled that easily.
A discarded bucket on the floor, that’s art. A forgotten hat on a seat, probably a mistake. Art is often about absence but very rarely about loss. I have not thought this through but suddenly I fiercely believe it, and the only painting about loss I can think of now is Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, screaming straight into your eyes, swallowing his child into his stomach like it might keep them safe. The goddess Athena was hatched from her father’s skull. She is less a woman and more an argument and I think Mary Beard is right to say she has very little to do with feminism****. In 447 BC Phidias sculpted a giant statue of Athena out of ivory for the Athens Parthenon. He covered her in gold and set her up in front of a pool of oil that would reflect Medusa’s deadly stare from her breast plate back at her. Name a city after a woman and then turn her into stone. Import ivory to Europe and drive Syria’s elephants extinct.
A ten year old from Aleppo showing you a cell phone photo of her teenage brother in military uniform, that's about loss. That’s about the presence of those that are gone.
The main display is to do with Nazis, but the dual language information does not include English, and it is too ethnographic anyway. There are labelled torahs in cases and blown up info graphics distorting black and white images and a timeline of dates printed on the corridor all the way to the cafe. There are some nice drawings, steady thin lines that look like fresh flower stems. The gallery is in an old sports complex that now seems to be mainly warehouses or post courier depots, the type of layout where the only clear entrance is for cars. We’ve had to duck under two chain links with padlocks to get to the museum. I wonder out loud if it was a stadium that was built for the 2004 Greece Olympics. The only other one I know of is now a refugee camp. There are two life sized papier mache elephants in the car park, one has part of his face missing, the other’s trunk is holding a pool of rainwater. They are brightly coloured but the sky is grey. Here is another thing that is not quite ready to be seen.
* No Borders: a network of freedom of movement solidarity officially initiated in 1998, a 2016 book by Natasha King that you might want to read if you are interested in immigration control resistance, a popular slogan in Athenian graffiti
*** Frontex, The European Border and Coast Guard Agency
**** Women in Power, Vol. 39, No.6, 16th March 2017, London Review of Books