Elina Kountouri, managing director of NEON, an art foundation established by Greek billionaire entrepreneur and art collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos, talks about bringing contemporary art close to the people of Greece, the new cultural center at the former Public Tobacco Factory in Athens it financed and its opening exhibition, Portals, running until December 31, 2021.
What role does the new cultural center at the former tobacco factory in Athens play in the mission and goals of NEON? What is your vision for the cultural center?
This space was given to NEON by the Hellenic Parliament for two years and we suggested to them to renovate it and to bring it to life as a space for contemporary art. It is up to the Hellenic Parliament to define its future use as a cultural space. The new cultural center demonstrates NEON’s ongoing mission to present contemporary art in public spaces, support artists and – in collaboration with public and private organizations – strengthen the relationship between the city’s public space and its citizens. At the former Public Tobacco Factory, NEON has partnered with the Hellenic Parliament – the owners of the building – to create a space of togetherness that facilitates the process of rethinking social and political strategies and demonstrates an engagement with a neighborhood by making Lenorman Street a center for the arts. The renovation of the space is a gift from NEON to the people of Athens, together with the Portals exhibition, which, like all our exhibitions, is free to enter. The Hellenic Parliament will draft a vision for the future use of the space.
Why did you decide to open a cultural center in the midst of a worldwide pandemic?
The plans for the renovation and use of the former Public Tobacco Factory were finalized in 2019 with renovation works taking place during 2020 as the pandemic raged. By keeping to a rigorous and rigid timetable, the former Public Tobacco Factory and Portals were ready to open its doors as the world began to reopen in 2021. The space does not belong to NEON. We are the “caretakers” until 2022.
Describe the architecture of the tobacco factory building. Which architectural/design features of the new cultural center stand out in particular?
An industrial building of the inter-war period, the former tobacco factory stands out on Lenorman Street due to its volume and the vivid colors of its façade (recently restored in 2008). The two-story Public Tobacco Factory was built in 1930 over a square floor plan of 84 x 87 meters with a total floor area of around 6,500 square meters. It consists of four wings arranged around the perimeter of the building block, which internally forms a large, spacious and bright rectangular courtyard, or atrium, with an innovative extended plate glass roof supported by a metal frame made by the Greek company B.I.Ο. In the early 2000s, a large part of the building was repaired and restored by the Hellenic Parliament to host its Library, Printing House and Conservation Labs. 2019 plans drawn up by NEON’s architect, Fanis Kafantaris, and the technical department of the Hellenic Parliament retained all the original features and involved renovations and improvements in keeping with the existing architecture. The renovation opened up the remaining inactive ground floor areas and their mezzanine levels, the northwest rooms, the atrium, the former customs office and staff sanitary facilities. It included general construction works (wall repairs, new flooring and painting throughout); alterations to make the building more accessible; development and expansion of infrastructure networks (electricity, plumbing, exhibition lighting, communication/Internet, open Wi-Fi, air-conditioning, security systems); and the design and furnishing of common spaces including restrooms and a new reception area. The spirit of the space is evident in the restoration of the restroom area and the customs house with the original terrazzo floor restored and the revelation of a hidden mural.
What was the cost of renovations to create the cultural center, and how did you finance it?
The cost of the renovations has now reached €1.4 million, which has been privately financed by Dimitris Daskalopoulos, founder of NEON.
Describe the Portals group exhibition, how you chose the theme, artists and 15 site-specific installations. What are the exhibition highlights?
The theme for Portals was inspired by an article written by author and novelist Arundhati Roy in the Financial Times on April 3, 2020. She highlighted our shared experience as the pandemic spread around the globe. “Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality’, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists… Nothing could be worse than a return to normality… It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
Arundhati Roy’s idea of the portal and how we negotiate our transition through it is the inspiration for this exhibition. “We can choose to walk through it,” she suggests, “dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.” The political and social consequences of the pandemic require active participation from citizens; it is no longer possible for the majority of us to remain passive onlookers to change. The world has started to search for answers to restructure society, economics, ethics and politics. What is normal? What should be the next normal? What are the values that will define it? What are the new boundaries? How can we rebuild trust? How can we negotiate our way towards and through a portal to the other side?
In Portals, the freshly renovated former Public Tobacco Factory becomes a non-hierarchical space, a space of togetherness, a space where social and political strategies are rethought and reconstructed, as artists from different continents and diverse cultural backgrounds come together to build a community of ideas. Their works become witnesses to and agents for the laying out of a possible new normal, a story that demands to be heard. Portals gives voice to great women artists, including Teresa Margolles and Maria Loizidou, through new commissions. The full list of artists for the 15 new site-specific commissions is: Anastasia Douka, Brendan Fernandes, Elif Kamisli, Panos Kokkinias, Chrysanthi Koumianaki, Glenn Ligon, Maria Loizidou, Teresa Margolles, Ad Minoliti, Duro Olowu, Gala Porras-Kim, Michael Rakowitz, Alexandros Tzannis, Adrián Villar Rojas and Danh Võ. Particularly poignant and resonant for today’s news reporting of events in Afghanistan are Kutluğ Ataman’s exploration of power, identity, memory and a common social reality, and Panos Kokkinias’ image of fleeing and displacement, as a procession of blue-clad figures crosses the tarmac of Athens’ former international airport field.
Tell me about the cultural programming that this new cultural center will propose in the future.
NEON will continue a program of contemporary art for the remainder of its tenure of the space (until 2022), after which the Hellenic Parliament will decide on future programming.
How is the new cultural center and the artists you exhibit turned towards the urban environment, city life or urban architecture? Are you exhibiting artists whose subject matter deals with contemporary urban culture and political issues?
In Portals, artists from different continents and diverse backgrounds come together to build a community of ideas about contemporary culture and political issues. Among them, Glenn Ligon’s new site-specific installation of white neon lights continues his career-long exploration of the pliable potential of language and its interpretation. Teresa Margolles, whose work will be displayed on the 4th Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square in 2024, uses explicit images of victims of violent crimes from the front covers of a daily tabloid newspaper to start a discussion about high rates of homicide and criminality in Ciudad Juárez, a city on the Mexican-US border. Try again. Fail again. Fail better, Nikos Navridis’ installation on the rooftop of the Public Tobacco Factory, is inspired by Samuel Beckett’s phrases: “Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” and can be interpreted as an artistic, political and existential prodding. Steve McQueen explores questions of colonial history, representation and identity. Kapwani Kiwanga’s uses marginalized or forgotten narratives and political events as a starting point, which she then translates into sculptures, installations, photographs and videos. Chrysanthi Koumianaki investigates the reversal of our way of life during the pandemic – the transformation of sociability, conviviality and coexistence to social distancing and isolation.
How has response been so far? How many visitors have you received, which countries are they from and what age group?
We have around 250 visitors who come through our doors every day, and on weekends around 400, who are of all age groups and come from the local neighborhood, from further afield in Athens and in Greece, and from other countries. We do not keep records of nationality. The response has been very encouraging.
How would you describe the influence of Dimitris Daskalopoulos on the Greek art scene, from starting his own art collection to the launch of NEON?
Dimitris Daskalopoulos is an initiator of ideas and radical actions, who has had a formative effect on the Greek contemporary art scene. Through his own collection – which NEON can use as a repository, but it’s a different legal entity with a separate activity – and through establishing NEON, he has given a new perspective on artists and their relationship with society. NEON’s grants and scholarships program supports artists, while its exhibitions in public spaces demonstrates Dimitris Daskalopoulos’ belief in the power of contemporary art to change lives when artists connect with their audience within its own community. During the last 10 years, while Greece has weathered one crisis after another, Dimitris Daskalopoulos has used his own funds to support artists, create employment for those in associated industries and uphold his informal social contract to bring contemporary art to the people of Greece.
Tell me about the activities of NEON over the last eight years, during which you have staged 28 exhibitions in 25 different venues in collaboration with public and private entities in Greece and abroad. How do you aim to bring contemporary art close to citizens, to connect our everyday life with urban public space in a disruptive way?
Since 2013, NEON has been engaging with archeological sites to bring contemporary art closer to communities. This approach had rarely been undertaken before and never on this scale. In 2017, we unveiled the first site-specific, outdoor and indoor installation in Greece by Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas. The Theater of Disappearance was held at the National Observatory of Athens located on the archeological site of the Hill of the Nymphs. Sight, an unprecedented site-specific exhibition by Antony Gormley, was held in 2019 in collaboration with the Ephorate of Antiquities of Cyclades on the archeological site and the Museum of Delos Island. In addition, NEON contributes to the interaction of art, society and the city through “City Project”, an annual initiative for public art and the city, focusing on new commissions exclusively to Greek artists. Artists previously presented include Aemilia Papaphilippou (2014), Maria Loizidou (2015), Zafos Xagoraris (2016), Kostis Velonis (2017), Adreas Lolis (2018) and Panos Kokkinias (2019). NEON also promotes arts education through a variety of channels. “Is this Art?”, co-designed and implemented in collaboration with the Hellenic Children’s Museum, is an innovative approach to the art education of young people and the first program of its kind to be held in Greece. More than 16,200 middle school students have participated in “Is this Art?” since its inception. NEON also awards grants for contemporary arts, performance and dance, and scholarships for postgraduate and doctoral studies. Its “Annual Curatorial Exchange Program” (in conjunction with Whitechapel Gallery) provides Greece- and UK-based curators with the opportunity to connect with colleagues abroad, and to exchange ideas and experiences. NEON’s activities and approach can be very challenging because we are, in effect, establishing open-air museums and we have initiated a model of public-private partnerships; this requires a well thought out strategy and a lot of preparation. Whether it is Adrián Villar Rojas – The Theater of Disappearance, held both indoors and outdoors at the National Observatory, or Flying Over the Abyss at the Athens Conservatoire, we start by discovering the needs of the space and working out how we can help to improve it both during and after the exhibition; for example, by cleaning and/or clearing, installing water tanks for fire protection, establishing safety guidelines, etc.