Interview with Elli Kanata, founder of Elika Gallery in Athens
Elika Gallery, one of the hottest galleries in Athens right now, is the place to spot emerging young artists. After coming back from New York, its founder Elli Kanata opened the gallery in May 2010 in order to bring contemporary art to the rather conservative city. Since then she has continued to support emerging artists in spite of the oppressive economic crisis.
How did it all start?
I had been working in galleries for quite a few years when I felt I wanted to do something for myself and more importantly for the place I lived, Athens. I felt that there was a gap in the contemporary art scene that I could fill somehow and contribute to the field. I took advantage of a European program that provided funding to emerging businesses. At that point starting a gallery seemed like a good idea. In the first couple of years things were running smoothly: the gallery had just started to become known and I was doing well. But in 2012 the crisis hit. Since then, things have been tough for contemporary art galleries, some of which have had to close.
How did you decide to become a gallerist?
I actually wanted to become an artist but my family did not agree to that, so I decided to study graphic design instead. I worked in a couple of small creative offices, but I soon realized that field was not as creative as I had first thought it to be. So I moved to New York searching for new possibilities. When I went to my first job interview there, I was so stressed that I forgot my portfolio in the subway. Back then it was not all digital like today, so I lost all my handmade things. At that point I started thinking of what else I found interesting and I did a second degree in visual arts administration. Later I worked in the drawing department of the MoMA and at Deitch Project for a year. When I returned to Greece in 2002 I started working in galleries.
What art do you represent?
The focus is on young emerging artists; I like discovering new talent. I have organized a lot of first solo shows and shown works of artists that have “grown up” together with the gallery. I am not bothered about the media artist choose to work in. In Greece many artists coming out from art school have a painting background, but for me it can be everything, I just look for what’s fresh. I am drawn to works that are poetic or have a sense of humor. I like works which are meaningful, but without being narrative.
Are your artists all Greek?
Most of them are, but this year I started to work with a British artist as well, Jack Burton. He is a photographer who is now finishing his degree at the Royal Academy Schools. He uses photography in a non-traditional way, playing with Photoshop in a very obvious, deliberately crude way – he has a great sense of humor. I met Jack while he was in residency in Athens and have been following his work since. Last year he had his first solo exhibition at the gallery. There are many international artists coming to Greece right now.
How did the crisis influence the Greek art scene?
There are a lot of things happening in the art scene right now. In a way, crisis can be very fruitful. With regards to the gallery for example, crisis can be liberating: As I do not expect to sell that much right now I can choose to show works that are less commercial, but still very strong, works that is important to be shown. The crisis makes us bolder, but also “smarter” and flexible in how we can make things happen. Having said that, commercially speaking it is very difficult.
We have to work ten times harder in order to accomplish much less than before. Nothing comes easily just because we suddenly find ourselves in the spotlight. I believe that the very few galleries making a profit nowadays are an exception to the rule, the rest are just trying to hold on and survive, hoping that in a few years things will improve. We don’t know if having the next Documenta in Athens will actually help in some way, but we certainly look forward to it. Also, there are more artist-run spaces or independent shows organized by artists who open their studios to the public, as well as some non-profit spaces. There is an urge to do more.
What are your strategies for facing the crisis?
I am thinking of pursuing art fairs. It is a risky strategy as costs are very high. On the other hand, it seems to be the only way out, because one can open up to a new market. Here there are almost no buyers now, no market, it is a slow death. I hear people from abroad saying that Athens is now as cool as Berlin was some years ago. Yes, rents are very low for foreign artists looking for studios. But for us who live here and try to make an income it is a struggle – even if it is a creative one. The Neon Foundation is the only one giving out money to young curators and artists, but it is just one foundation. Taxation has also gone up from 13% to 23%, which is quite repelling for clients.
Do artists reflect this in their works?
Some artists express this in a more provocative way while others do so in a less direct manner. But it is definitely there, because it has affected our daily life. For example, as there is no money for the production of art, many artists employ found or cheaper materials. One of my artists, Kostas Roussakis, uses construction wood to make large scale installations. Myrto Xanthopoulou uses – among other things – plastic bags from the supermarket, scotch tape, etc. The artists find their way anyway, but they can’t survive off their art. They have to do something else as well.
Tell us more about your artists.
I work with two painters: Vangelis Gokas – who is more established – and Yannis Malegiannakis, a younger artist. Their work is very poetic and sensitive, but at the same time very contemporary. I find this a rather rare instance; in Greece there is a lot of painting but it does not feel very contemporary. In the works of Gokas and Malegiannakis there is a lot of layering and there is a lot of love for the medium of painting itself. They are both very romantic, they don’t care about what is fashionable in painting and they do what they like.
Another artist I collaborate with is Pantelis Chandris, who is a great sculptor and painter. He does amazing drawings, but also video and installations. He is a professor at the School of Fine Arts in Athens and has actually taught some of the younger artists I work with. I think it is very interesting to see the relationship among them.
I also work with Zoe Giabouldaki who studied chemical engineering before going into art. She is like an alchemist: she experiments with materials in order to create imitations of other materials and installations. Her work is very fresh and contemporary.
Where does the name of the gallery come from?
It comes from my name, Elli Kanata. But “elika” also means “helix,” and I liked the idea of the constant movement.
Is there someone who has particularly influenced you in your career?
More than one person. I was very much influenced by the time I spent in New York and the many amazing things I saw and experienced there. When I came back to Greece in 2002 everything seemed conservative and there were very few contemporary art galleries and no museum of contemporary art – That inspired me to start something of my own!
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