In an Ancient Greek Port, a New Cultural Hub

In an Ancient Greek Port, a New Cultural Hub

On an exceptionally hot July evening, a crowd was mingling and drinking wine at an art opening on Polidefkous Street. An unassuming thoroughfare lined with low-slung ship-repair and metal workshops in Piraeus, the industrial port city on Athens’s southeast side, it is not a place where galleries have historically set up shop. But despite the derelict-looking buildings and the distance from Syntagma Square, the capital’s stately center, a 25-minute taxi ride away, the scene — like one from Martin Scorsese’s 1985 film, “After Hours,” which depicts the gritty but heady SoHo, Manhattan, of its time — exuded a zeitgeist-y glamour. A sense of possibility filled the air. Indeed, Rodeo, the night’s gathering spot and one of the most respected and progressive contemporary galleries in the greater Athens area, is among a handful of creative forces that are transforming the Agios Dionysios district of Piraeus, not far from the ferry docks, into one of the capital’s most exciting cultural destinations.Athens’s current reputation as an up-and-coming art hub was sealed in 2017, when the arts organization Documenta chose the city to serve, along with Kassel, Germany, as a host of its much-anticipated quinquennial exhibition. The move wasn’t without controversy; just two years before, Greece had defaulted on its debt to the I.M.F. But in addition to the city’s low rents and cost of living, which have both been magnified by the country’s economic crisis, the exhibition made Athens ripe for an influx of international artists and designers looking for an alternative to rapidly gentrifying European capitals like Berlin and Lisbon.The city’s appeal to creative types is about more than that, though, says Elena Mavromichali, 49, an art historian and cultural adviser for the Greek government, “I’m seeing a dynamic movement of contemporary artists inspired by and engaging with Greece’s ancient history and its archaeological sites.” She adds that Athens is currently working to better connect its city center to its seafront, of which Piraeus — a more than four-square-mile area that dates back to the early fifth century B.C. — is a large part. (A new metro line, scheduled to be completed before next summer, will take riders from Athens airport to the port in just over 20 minutes.) Mavromichali, who was born and raised in the Kastella neighborhood of Piraeus, says she’s excited to see both large institutions like the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, designed by Renzo Piano and opened near Piraeus in 2016, and smaller entities bring new energy and new communities to manufacturing neighborhoods whose economies had been suffering for the last several decades. And she hopes the area will manage to avoid the typical pitfalls of gentrification — the displacement of longtime residents and the loss of affordable housing — by collaborating, she says, with a “variety of stakeholders including grass-roots initiatives.”Inside Rodeo’s raw, loftlike 1,600-square-foot space was a solo exhibition of new pieces by the Cypriot conceptual artist Christodoulos Panayiotou, known for multimedia work that often questions perceived notions of cultural and national identities. A piped red awning (his work “Awning,” 2021) jutted out from a rough concrete wall. Beyond a hallway was an installation consisting of a false brick facade, called “The Fourth Wall” (2021), that cut off the back half of the gallery and seemed to ask viewers to take a closer look at their environment: What was real and what was false? Was this building — this street — really as fragile and temporary as a theater set? Alone in a room on the other side of this divide, which could be entered through the gallery’s back door, was “Horseweed” (2021), a four-foot-tall silver sculpture of a flowering horseweed, a North American plant that has become an invasive species in Eurasia, that appeared to be growing up through the floor.In front of the building, Panayiotou was chatting with the Greek gallerist Sylvia Kouvali, 40, Rodeo’s founder. Kouvali, who also has an outpost in London that she opened in 2014, moved her original space — formerly based in a tobacco warehouse in Istanbul — to Piraeus in 2018. While she loved Istanbul’s contemporary art scene, Turkey’s worsening political instability all but forced her to leave and she eventually returned to Athens. “At first, I considered a rural location,” she…

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