It’s early July, and the Greek painter Apostolos Georgiou is wondering where else in Europe he might be able to live. Galleries can barely survive in Athens, he says, and the collectors have disappeared or are only buying abroad. The long-delayed project for a permanent museum of contemporary art in Athens seems more chimerical than ever. So where to go: Germany? Italy? England? “London is too expensive,” he figures, but then asks, “Would I be able to find an affordable place an hour’s journey outside the city?” It depends, I reply. Most areas near the city are stockbroker territory; he’d need to settle beyond the commuter zones in one of those shabby, forlorn seaside towns like Margate, Ramsgate, or Whitstable, if they’re still affordable.
I’m ostensibly visiting Apostolos to choose some of his works for a group show I’m organizing for a London gallery this fall. In fact, we could have made the arrangements by e-mail, but I had a further reason for coming: I wanted to understand how and why one continues to make art in a crisis—how one endeavors to create something, like poetry, that “makes nothing happen” while being (to borrow a few more of Auden’s words) “punished under a foreign code of conscience.”
The truth is, I don’t believe Apostolos will ever leave Greece. He’s too attached to his patrída: not so much Athens as Thessaloniki, “the melancholic and heavy city I grew up in,” as he’s called it, and the island of Skopelos, where he spent most of his life. The blue of his paintings is the Aegean sky; their gray sets a mood that I doubt could be conjured somewhere else—“melancholic and heavy,” yet somehow comforting for all that. But three days after Greece’s resounding “no” vote in the July 5 bailout referendum, Apostolos is worried. “I could never have voted ‘yes,’” he tells me, “but I didn’t want to vote ‘no’ either,” because he thinks the referendum should never have been called. And so he sat it out. He has no faith in Syriza, although he allows that it’s the only party untainted by corruption. But in his view, it remains an organization all too practiced in the political arts necessary for surviving as an opposition party, and all too inept at governing.
“You have no idea how terrified we are, all of us,” Apostolos says. And yet, he adds, “look around: Do we look like we’re in a crisis?” He and I are sitting in a pizza parlor in the main square of Voula, the quiet, slightly run-down middle-class seaside suburb south of Athens where he lives. “No—everything looks normal.” Well, everything except the lines of people at each ATM along the square. The cash-strapped banks are closed, and depositors are allowed to withdraw only €60 a day from their accounts via cash machines. But most ATMs seem to be stocked only with €50 notes—no tens or twenties—so the de facto maximum withdrawal is €50. “Things look normal, but in reality, it’s like there’s a silent civil war,” he concludes. “No one can really talk for fear the conflict will break out.”
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Optimism has never been Apostolos’s forte. He’s always keenly aware of the traps we catch ourselves in, and a bitter laughter runs through the imagery of his paintings. Sometimes I think they’re evocative of Beckett’s plays, or Auden’s perception that “each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom.” Earlier in the day, we’d been in Apostolos’s studio, looking over his latest works. The scenarios he’s been painting are ones that he could just as well have conceived five or 10 or 15 years ago, but I couldn’t help seeing many of them as allegories of his country’s current predicament. One shows three everymen trying to make their way across a body of water that comes up to their chests. The man on the left is fully clothed and carries a big black book above his head. The one in the middle is naked; above his head he totes his clothes and shoes. The one leading the little parade is, like the first man, fully dressed. He’s carrying a wine bottle in one hand, a glass in the other. His raised arms could be a gesture of celebration. The painting asks what each of us would salvage, come the worst: our ideas? Our material necessities? Or maybe nothing is worth saving; just keep consuming like there’s no tomorrow, and if tomorrow brings some unlooked-for respite, so much the better. The formal elements of the scene reiterate the question of what’s essential, what’s expendable: The figures and landscape are described with near-geometrical simplicity, the paint put down economically, as if to conserve as much stamina as possible for the next desperate effort.