Let’s see, so far this year I have attended film festivals, musical performances, conferences, meditation seminars, yoga classes, dance classes and craft workshops – all without even once stepping foot outside my home. Yes, the year 2020 will be remembered as the year of the pandemic, but also as the year when most of our collective human experiences were confined within the dimensions of our computer screens.
So when I read that one of Europe’s oldest art fairs, the International Art Fair of Athens (aka Art Athina), had also been forced to go digital, I was not surprised, though I must admit I was a bit cynical; taking in paintings through my computer screen? Surely, it’s not the same as watching a film. We are used to experiencing films online, but paintings? Wouldn’t the viewing medium, i.e. the screen, affect the experience and thus the all-important communication between artist and audience?
Wouldn’t the medium be the message, as Marshall McLuhan would say?
With musings such as these filling my head and with much curiosity, I went online late one evening (the art fair is accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days per week) to browse the art selection of the 59 galleries from Greece and abroad participating in the fair.
By clicking on the “viewing rooms” tab (what gallery spaces are called in Art Athina’s digital universe), a grid list of all the galleries appeared on my screen in alphabetical, it seemed, order. Scrolling up and down I decided to step into the galleries whose cover photo caught my attention. Like the Agathi-Kartalos one, which featured a piece by Philippos Photiadis on its cover.
I found all his works quite interesting; they were detailed representations of Greek apartment buildings and their tenants, and there was even one, called “Visitors”, inspired by the pandemic. With so many details, it would have been nice to see this in its actual dimensions. I clicked on “More info” hoping to find an enlarged version, yet there was none.
So off I hopped to the viewing room of the Edel Assanti gallery in London, which had also caught my attention. I found the works of Victoria Lomasko from her series “Sex, drugs, success and death” quite intriguing, and indeed wouldn’t mind having one of them on my wall.
As I continued to move in and out of viewing rooms, I began to miss the physical aspect of walking around an actual art fair. For me, the stroll is half the fun, plus seeing the works on my screen was the same as seeing them in a catalogue, so I easily got distracted and lost interest.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it is extremely helpful knowing what a gallery has to offer, especially, I imagine, if you are a collector, and art connoisseurs will probably not mind the digital medium. But, for an average viewer like me with limited knowledge about modern art, the digital experience is not quite as captivating as the real thing. On the flip side, it’s a much easier experience to dip in and out of, so there is nothing to lose in trying it for yourself.
Leaving the viewing rooms behind, so to speak, I decided to check out some of the video art in two of the sections making up the parallel programming of Art Athina, namely Performances and Video, thinking that videos were something I was more accustomed to watching on my laptop screen. However, I soon realized that I am not particularly accustomed to watching video art, and found it a bit too experimental and abstract to hold my attention.
Finally, I ended up in the Talks section, where I was very pleased to see that the first talk addresses precisely the collective experience aspect of viewing art, which is what I felt I was missing. While it strayed from the topic at times, I particularly liked what moderator Marina Fokidis had to say about the physicality of seeing a work of art from up close.
Fokidis argued that she was not certain that this physicality could ever be replaced, agreeing with the American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey who believed that you can only experience a work of art if you are standing in front of it. Thus, she hopes that this new way of experiencing art is only temporary.
George Vamvakidis, owner of Athenian gallery The Breeder, on the other hand, having participated in many digital art fairs, made the case that it is only a matter of time before audiences, collectors, gallerists and artists get used to this new way of viewing, selling, buying and having fun with art, maintaining that digital art fairs are here to stay.
On that note, I decided to end my virtual stroll around this year’s digital Art Athina, somewhat enriched but nevertheless with the hope that next year’s event will take place in the beautiful space of the Zappeion Megaron as originally intended. There I will happily trade the virtual for the physical.
But that remains a dream for the future. In the meantime there is still time for you to make up your own minds about the digital Art Athina which is being held online until the 8th of November here.