What is the EMST?
EMST, full English name ‘National Museum of Contemporary Art’, is an art gallery of contemporary works of art founded in the late 1990s, housed in premises which once played host to a beer factory.
EMST Athens, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The National Museum of Contemporary Art, also known as the EMST from its acronym in Greek, is a meeting point of the most cutting-edge works from around the world. Don’t expect to see many paintings here, but do prepare to be intrigued by some amazing concepts and visual dialogues – by art that has its finger on the contemporary pulse.
It took around €35 million for this museum, whose history is short but turbulent, to achieve a physical form. Today’s state-of-the-art museum is the conversion of an old crumbling beer factory. The EMST was legally established in 1997, while the site was chosen three years later. Anna Kafetsi was the first director, who did all she could to set the ball rolling by organizing exhibitions in a section of the derelict building, trying at the same time to make progress on its development and renovation. In these nomadic years, shows were organized in other buildings (such as the Athens Concert Hall), when its official site couldn’t be used due to reconstruction work. Hindered by many obstacles, the museum eventually opened to the public in 2016, with a line-up of temporary exhibitions and events which included a collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp. In 2017, the major international art event Documenta came to town for its 14th edition, and hosted a major part of its exhibitions at the museum.
The EMST’s collection features around 1,300 works by both Greek and international artists. Among the international artists, you’ll find the names of Bill Viola, Mona Hatoum and Kimsooja; the works by the home-grown, meanwhile, range from the striking neons of Greek-American artists Stephen Antonakos and Chryssa, to the mixed media works of Costas Tsoclis, photographic works by Panos Kokkinias, and the surreal figures of Mark Hadjipateras. Over 170 works from the collection are now on permanent display and have been grouped under various subject headings, including Memories, Claims, Political Narratives, Mythology of the Familiar, and New Perspectives.
One of the most emblematic works in the collection is Jannis Kounellis’s Untitled. This installation entails metal beams, sacks, and coal, and takes up a large space on the museum’s second floor. Kounellis, an artist of Greek origin, managed to make an international name for himself. After not getting into Athens’s School of Fine Arts, Kounellis enrolled in Rome’s Accademia di Belle Arti, and made Rome his home since 1956. He passed away in 2017, and is considered the father of arte povera (producing art from ‘everyday’ materials), often using materials from the heavy industries in his installations. The EMST had organized a major solo show of his work back in 2004, when the Olympic Games were also being hosted in Athens.
Another intriguing work is that of Kendell Geers, entitled Akropolis Redux (The Director’s Cut). In form it alludes to the Parthenon, but in material draws a sharp contrast. Constructed from menacing barbed wire, Geers’s work points to the history of South African apartheid in his native city of Johannesburg. Whilst Bia Davou’s Sails installation marries the interest of its abstract artist in both Homer and Fibonacci. At the EMST, you’ll find a strong mix of what is distinctively Greek and determinedly international.
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