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You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but can you teach an old city new art?

Updated: Jul 28, 2022

When a person thinks of Paris, they think of Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. The so-called city of love is also named one of the top 10 artistic cities in the world in 2022. You visit with the intention of fighting crowds to see “Miss Lisa” and navigating hidden rooms in Musée d'Orsay for hours.

When a person thinks of Greece, they’re likely drawn into the history of the country. Its capital city, Athens, with a recorded biography of more than 3,400 years. You visit with the intention of having your Mamma Mia moment in the Greek Isles and touching the same 11th century BC space once settled at the Acropolis.

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My wild guess is that people aren’t traveling through Greece to stroll through a run-of-the-mill gallery. If they’re focused on art, they’re probably examining the ruins scattered across the city, mixed in with street art and graffiti covering virtually every buildingside and sidewalk through Athens’ back alleyways.

This doesn’t mean the opportunity to whisk through a gallery isn’t there. It does, however, offer context to the contrast you’ll experience visiting Athens’ National Museum of Contemporary Art, formally Εθνικό Μουσείο Σύγχρονης Τέχνης. To keep things simple, we’ll call the gallery EMST.

Outside entrance of National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens (Photo: Viktoria Capek)

EMST began operating in 2000. The museum houses the largest collection of Greek and international contemporary art in Athens, and the dichotomy of new age works on display to the traditional and invaluable historical content the rest of the city sets forth is a bit unsettling. The biggest gain the museum has to offer is educating the public on what contemporary art is available and where to find it amid the millennia of ancient pieces. This is largely discovered through EMST’s Documenta collaboration.

Documenta is a 100 day exhibition of contemporary art taking place in Kassel, Germany every five years. The display started in 1955 to bring Germany back from the ethnic dismay left by Nazism. The event has since grown into an evolving representation of art around the world and engages viewers in discourse about the new mediums and directions art is taking.

In 2017, EMST proposed its space as a main venue for Documenta 14 under a new series called EMST in the World. The idea connected ancient Greece to progressive Germany. It allowed a new perspective of the event from Athens’ historical context and called attention to the broader spectrum of innovative and contemporary art hidden in unexpected corners of the world.

Documenta 15 advances in 2022, but parts of the Documenta 14 exhibition remain on display as part of EMST’s permanent collection. Mona Hatoum’s 2004 mixed media installation Fix It is one of the first art presentations viewers will pass by in the museum. The electrical piece is made of rusty metal fixtures saved from the Athens’ Fix beer factory. It periodically lights up with wires buzzing as though the giant fuse of a display might blow at any moment.

Mona Hatoum Fix It, 2004 (Photo: Documenta 14)

The aura of the installation is post-apocalyptic and offers the same contrast a contemporary art museum offers ancient Greece. How can the old and new co-exist? Can history and the future create an inviting polarity or only one that leaves us on edge as we wait for disruption?

The answer is technically subjective, but none of the aforementioned ideas or displays have exploded… yet.

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