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Athens, where orange trees line the streets

Recently returning from an inspiring week in the Greek capital which saw the opening of the second edition of the Athens Bienniale and the annual Art Athina, the longest-running contemporary art fair in Greece, we thought we would offer a handful of our Athenian highlights in the first of two summer city guides.

Taking part in Athenian nightlife with its many crowded and lively bars, and an overall happy-go-lucky kind of vibe, little is telling of recent years' notions of austerity, riots and bailouts. ​"We might have been hit very hard, but survival instinct is in our DNA", a local friend explained. While contemporary arts might not be the first thing that comes to mind, once you start scratching underneath the surface, Athens has surprisingly much to offer. Alongside permanent gallery fixtures like Kalfayan Galleries and the Breeder, a number of new galleries and artist-run spaces have recently been emerging. Next year notably sees Athens co-hosting the 14th edition of dOCUMENTA which for the first time will have a leg outside of Kassel. Add an average temperature of 25 degrees and stellar hospitality in this art scene on the rise, and our six days in the Greek capital left us feeling very inspired with a pressing urge to return for more.

"Athens is full of diversity and contrasts, it's a very inspiring city. Most of my work arises from just walking around in a state of emptiness. It's a great city just to lose yourself in", Alexis Vasilikos, a fine art photographer based in the city who also serves as the co-founder of Phases Magazine, shared with us. Slightly off the beaten track, housed inside a basement formerly occupied by the Bangladeshi community, is Bangladesh (Chalkokondili 35), a creative space co-run by artist Vassilis Noulas. Having until recently served as a venue for performance, the space just hosted its first exhibition presenting joint works by Noulas and his partner Kostas Tzimoulis. Also located around Omonia Square is Romantso (Anaxagora 3), a creative hub of sort, equipped with a spacious bar/workspace on ground level, a basement which hosts live sets and club nights, and artist studios on the upper levels.

Installation view: Zoë Paul's 'Solitude and Village' at the Breeder

Just one stop from Omonia on the red line is the Breeder (Iasonos 45). Established in the early 00's, the gallery run by partners George Vamvakidis and Stathis Panagoulis has been pivotal for the local contemporary art scene. Housed inside the premises of a former ice cream factory in Metaxourgeio, the gallery today belongs to the city's established band with annual art fair participation including both editions of the Frieze Art Fair. On the Saturday of our visit, the gallery hosted a very happening opening for Athens-based Zoë Paul, a Royal College of Art graduate in sculpture.

While the former run-down-turned-chic neighborhood of Metaxourgeio is also home to established galleries such as Vamiali's and Rebecca Camhi Gallery, the main gallery district seems to be located around Kolonaki, an upscale neighborhood (”The Beverly Hills of Athens", as explained by another friend) for which a free art map can be picked up around the city. Elika Gallery (21 Omirou Str.) is a space which opened its doors at the height of recession with a roster of mostly Greek-born artists including Chelsea College of Art and Design graduate Irini Bachlitzanaki and emerging sculptor Vasilis Papageorgiou.

Installation view: Vasilis Papageorgiou's 'Somebody had to do it' at Elika Gallery

Also meriting a visit, and only a stone's throw away, is CAN run by the lovely Christina Androulidaki, a former director of AD Gallery who opened up her own space in 2012. While visiting, we caught a "double solo show" seamlessly joining the works of two artists of different generations; Konstantine Fazos and Anna-Maria Samara, both exhibited for the first time at the gallery. Just down the street, is OMMU (Dimokritou Str. 21), a little book-store-cum-publishing-house bringing NYC's Printed Matter to mind. A lot smaller in scale, the neat little selection of self-published artist books, fanzines and limited edition publications is as excellent. Other galleries in the neighborhood include Eleftheria Tseliou Gallery (Iraklitou 3) and one of two premises (also with a presence in Thessaloniki) of Kalfayan Galleries (11 Haritos Str.). Also within walking distance on a tiny side street just off the mighty Syntagma square, is the surprisingly modest Athens venue of American gallery powerhouse Gagosian which has been operating in the city since 2009 with past exhibitions including Dan Colen, Cy Twombly, Taryn Simon and Richard Avedon.

A gem in the charming neighbourhood of Koukaki where alluring citrus trees line the narrow streets, is State of Concept (Tousa Botsari 19), the first non-profit gallery in Greece which was founded by art critic and curator Iliana Fokianaki. Aside from its exhibition programme which has introduced the Athens scene to Jessica Warboys and Laure Prouvost, the gallery also provides free consultations for art students and art school graduates. To cool off with a freddo espresso or when in need of free wi-fi, the hip and nearby Kinonó (Falirou 48), is the place to go.

Installation view: Laure Prouvoust's 'C'est l'est not ouest' at State of Concept

On the other side of the heavily trafficked Syngrou Avenue, in a former brewery, is the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens (EMST). While the museum holds a permanent collection with works by contemporary frontrunners such as Sophie Calle, Douglas Gordon and Gillian Wearing, the premises have sadly remained empty for several years with the re-opening having been continuously postponed due to the lack of funding. Further down the Syngrou is the Onassis Cultural Centre, a neat construction which was inaugurated in 2010 and devoted to all artistic disciplines. On view during our visit, divided between the OCC and the Onassis Library, was 'The Hypnos Project", a group show on the notion of sleep, exclusively putting forth works of various media by Greek artists from the early 20th century and onwards.

The last week of May, proved to be a terrific time to visit, with a number of events and openings coinciding with Art Athina, the longest running contemporary art fair in Greece. While the fair might lack the thrill of some of its more recognized European counterparts, the mere location by the sea makes the short trip out worthwhile. For anyone in need of a break from the hustle and bustle of the city, the stunning and tranquil island of Hydra makes for a perfect getaway. With easy access and a two-hours ferry ride from the port of Piraeus, a day trip is just as ideal as a longer séjour. With no cars in sight and a handful of serene beaches, relaxation is guaranteed on this gem of an island which sees Leonard Cohen among its summer residents. During summer season, friends of the arts can enjoy exhibitions at the project space of DESTE foundation (the main space is located in a suburb north of Athens), housed inside a former slaughterhouse overlooking the sea. Since the opening in 2009, the space has hosted solo exhibitions with the likes of Matthew Barney, Elizabeth Peyton, Urs Fischer, Maurizio Cattelan and Doug Aitken.

DESTE Foundation Project Space, Hydra

We asked some of the many great people we met during our stay to share with us a few thoughts on the city's art scene;

Christina Androulidaki, gallery owner/director of CAN Gallery:

- Athens has a vibrant art scene with many young artists often working without any gallery or state support.

The show "The Equilibrists" which just opened at the Benaki museum, curated by Garry Carrion-Murayari and Helga Christoffersen with Massimiliano Gioni and organized by DESTE Foundation in Athens and the New Museum in New York is pretty characteristic of what this scene is all about. A foreigner coming to Athens can start the trip by visiting some galleries and museums but often the city slowly "reveals" itself to the visitor.

There are some artist-run spaces doing some really great shows here. During the summer Athens Photo Festival organizes various shows in spaces around the city and there are many islands not very far off where one can escape to see some shows and enjoy the sun and the sea. Curators and artists are coming to Athens and everybody has a preconceived idea of the crisis here. I see the crisis as a combination of danger and opportunity. People are forced to create new platforms and be more creative in the way they work. I see that as an "exit". Moral or environmental crisis is far more severe and dangerous long term than the financial crisis. We just need to adjust and keep on working. Be creative. Create new platforms and bridges between cities and people.

On view: Irini Bachlitzanaki, A bunch of grapes #2, 2016

Irini Bachlitzanaki, an Athens-born and based artist whose work is exihibited by Elika Gallery:

- Athens is definitely an interesting place for artists to be based in right now. Recent years have witnessed a sort of catching up on behalf of the artistic community here with what's been happening abroad and quite a few residencies, artist-run spaces, pop-up exhibition spaces have emerged. The level of work is also very good in my opinion and Greek artists seem to be more and more extrovert. What I can best describe as the allure of the crisis and chaos that has become everyday reality here, coupled perhaps with low rent in comparison to elsewhere in Europe and a more relaxed life-style had already started attracting artists from abroad.

This year, with the Documenta approaching, the number of artists and arts professionals has almost doubled - or at least this is my impression…This obviously creates an artistic community that it's quite exciting to be part of. The other upside is that now there is the opportunity to actually see shows and events in Athens that previously you would only have the opportunity to see abroad. It's not all good though - there's still very little support for the arts and to many local artists, myself included, it doesn't make sense that the very few private foundations or grassroots initiatives fill in the giant gaps themselves. So, we ll see what happens next.

Many thanks to our graphics designer Pär Lindström for the illustrations accompanying this feature. Credits for all other images as follows:

1) Courtesy the Breeder, Athens

2) Courtesy the artist and Elika Gallery, Athens

3) Courtesy the artist and MOT International, London & Brussels. Photo: Constantinos Caravatellis

4) Courtesy the artist and Elika Gallery, Athens

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