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In an ancient Greek port, a new cultural hub

On an unusually warm July evening, a crowd mingled and drank wine at a vernissage on Polidefkous Street. An unpretentious thoroughfare lined with low-slung ship and metal repair shops in Piraeus, the industrial port city on the southeast side of Athens, this is not a place where galleries have historically settled. But despite the derelict buildings and the distance from Syntagma Square, the majestic center of the capital, 25 minutes by taxi, the scene – like that in Martin Scorsese’s 1985 film, “After Hours”, which depicts the Gritty but heady SoHo, Manhattan, in its day – exuded a zeitgeist-y glamor. A sense of possibility filled the air. Indeed, Rodeo, the gathering place of the night and one of the most respected and progressive contemporary galleries in the greater Athens area, is one of a handful of creative forces that are transforming the Agios Dionysios district of Piraeus, not far from the ferry docks, into one of the most exciting cultural destinations in the capital.

Athens’ current reputation as a thriving art hub was sealed in 2017, when the Documenta art fair chose the city to host, along with Kassel, Germany, its exhibition. eagerly awaited quinquennial. The movement was not without controversy; barely two years earlier, Greece had defaulted on its debt to the IMF. designers looking for an alternative to rapidly gentrifying European capitals like Berlin and Lisbon.

The city’s appeal for creative types goes beyond that, however, says Elena Mavromichali, 49, art historian and cultural advisor to the Greek government, “I see a vibrant movement of inspired contemporary artists. and engaged in the ancient history of Greece. and its archaeological sites. She adds that Athens is currently working to better connect its city center to its waterfront, of which Piraeus – an area of ​​over four square miles that dates back to the beginning of the fifth century BC – is a large part. (A new metro line, slated for completion before next summer, will take passengers from Athens airport to port in just over 20 minutes.) Mavromichali, who was born and raised in the neighborhood of Kastella in Piraeus, says she is delighted to see both great institutions like the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, designed by Renzo Piano and opened near Piraeus in 2016, and smaller entities bringing new energy and new communities to the manufacturing districts whose economies have suffered for several decades. And she hopes the region can manage to avoid the pitfalls typical of gentrification – the displacement of longtime residents and the loss of affordable housing – by working, she says, with “a variety of actors, including local initiatives. “.

Inside Rodeo’s 1,600 square foot raw and loft space was a solo exhibit of new pieces by Cypriot conceptual artist Christodoulos Panayiotou, known for his multimedia work that often challenges perceived notions of cultural and national identities. A piped red canopy (his work “Awning,” 2021) protruded from a rough concrete wall. Beyond a hallway was an installation consisting of a false brick facade, called “The Fourth Wall” (2021), which cut through the rear half of the gallery and seemed to invite viewers to take a closer look at their surroundings. : what was real and what was wrong? Was this building, this street, really as fragile and ephemeral as a theater set? Alone in a room on the other side of this division, which could have been entered through the back porch door, was “Horseweed” (2021), a four foot tall silver sculpture of a flowering horse grass, a North American plant that became an invasive species in Eurasia, which seemed to grow through the ground.

In front of the building, Panayiotou was chatting with the Greek gallery owner Sylvia Kouvali, 40, founder of Rodeo. Kouvali, which also has an outpost in London that it opened in 2014, moved its original space – formerly based in a tobacco warehouse in Istanbul – to Piraeus in 2018. While she loved the art scene Contemporary with Istanbul, the worsening political instability in Turkey almost forced her to leave and she eventually returned to Athens. “At first I envisioned a rural area,” she says, “but then I decided that Piraeus, with its sea, its ships, its industrial area and its history, was an interesting choice. At the time, there was nothing on Polidefkous Street except warehouses and Paleo, a casual but lively restaurant serving seasonal Mediterranean-inspired small platters and artisan wines opened in 2016 by famous restaurateur Giannis Kaimenakis . “Everyone thought I was crazy,” he told me of choosing Piraeus. “But from the start, I thought there was something beautiful about being among people who were repairing ships and engines not far from the port.”

At 9 pm, many gallery visitors were seated around a dozen tables on the street, overseen by Paleo staff; Plates of thickly sliced ​​tomatoes topped with sea salt and fresh mozzarella and a succulent eggplant salad were served in a family style. “Here comes Stelios Kois,” a guest whispered, nodding to the Greek architect, who had just completed the design of Delta, the new restaurant at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation cultural center, located about three miles away. ‘is and was its co-chair Andreas. Dracopoulos later told me, “created as a symbol – and a very real engine – of hope for Greece in the depths of the country’s punitive socio-economic crisis.” Locating it near Piraeus, he added, was “part of the realization of that vision.”

Also in the crowd was Leonidas Trampoukis, 39, who along with his wife Eleni Petaloti, also 39, heads architectural firm LOT and design firm Objects of Common Interest. The couple have been working at a studio in Brooklyn for some time, but five years ago they opened another in central Athens. It was the idea of ​​being closer to their favorite makers and manufacturers that drew them to Greece. Now they are building a production studio in a former 8,000 square foot factory a few blocks northeast of Rodeo, which will focus on a unique acrylic casting technique. “We were looking everywhere for a large, affordable raw industrial space and chose Piraeus because of the vibe and the community,” Trampoukis explained. They hope to collaborate with local manufacturers, experiment with work on a larger scale, and eventually make parts for other designers and artists.

This month, a solo exhibition of their sculptural wood and acrylic tubes is on display at Carwan, an avant-garde design gallery that moved last year from Beirut to a late 19th-century commercial warehouse next door. by Rodeo. Nicolas Bellavance-Lecompte, 41, co-owner of the space with his business partner, French architect Quentin Moyse, 33, envisioned Athens as a possible home for the gallery since his visit to the city during Documenta; he found that the industrial architectural landscape and the lively and ephemeral atmosphere of Piraeus, in particular, reminded him of the port of Beirut. “We were very lucky to have moved at the end of 2019 before the explosion there,” said Bellavance-Lecompte, “but we were already feeling a crisis coming and at the same time our clientele was becoming more and more global. Collectors found Greece easier to access than Lebanon, and shipping jobs in and out of the country turned out to be easier.

At one point in the evening, Suzanna Laskaridis joined my table. The 39-year-old entrepreneur, whose family owns the Laskaridis shipping company, has strong roots in Piraeus. The Clan’s Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation, launched in 2007, and its production, research and development company, Blue Cycle, established two years ago, are both based in the port. The latter – which is housed in a former 7,000 square foot industrial complex that belonged to the Piraeus Gas Company until the early 20th century – collects discarded plastic, generated primarily by the shipping and fishing industries, from the Aegean Sea. This waste is then transformed into filaments or granules that the company uses as materials to make items ranging from colorful terrazzo-style tiles to modern outdoor furniture.

After stopping by at intermission, a nearby contemporary art space opened by Los Angeles and Athens-based art advisor Artemis Baltoyanni in 2019, Laskaridis showed me around his establishment, a five-minute walk away. As we walked through various buildings, she enthusiastically described the myriad possible applications for recycled plastic and her hope that Blue Cycle will not only recycle waste from the past, but also use it to create a more sustainable future, both environmental and financial. terms. “I would like to show that this circular economy model can work and put Greece on the innovation map,” she said. In the main lab, she pointed to a huge robotic arm, created by Greek manufacturers behind Rotterdam-based design studio The New Raw, with a wingspan of over eight feet. He stood motionless behind a glass window, ready to make a futuristic-looking vase, perhaps, or a sculptural lounge chair from plastic netting collected from a nearby harbor. That night, the future of Piraeus seemed full of optimism and creative possibilities.