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  • Writer's pictureMadeleina Kay

Disobeying The 10 Commandments of Thessaloniki Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art

Perhaps I was just irritable because I didn’t sleep much last night – but I hated everything about this gallery; the space, the artwork, the curation, the current exhibition theme, the lack of context and information, etc. and I couldn’t wait to get out.


When I arrived, a staff member explained that there were two exhibitions on display; the permanent collection of Greek art and the current exhibition which was called ‘Vanitas’. I knew that roughly translates as ‘Vanity’, but I only found out afterwards that ‘Vanitas’ is a whole genre of art which uses symbolism to show the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. More fool me.

 I was immediately irked, when putting my bag in the lockers, by a list of “commandments” on the wall. Supposedly, ‘abstract words of wisdom and human / ethical regulation’ which included, ‘thou shalt not see nor show any more boring art’ – what a shame they were incapable of following their own rules.

Walking into the first exhibition room, the most visible wall displayed only the names of the featured artists with no information (I found this on the final wall as I was leaving the space). As a result, I spent the first 10 minutes wandering around wondering what the exhibition was about and why there were so many skulls and flowers in the artworks. Maybe I am being prejudiced, but I find the use of skulls as a symbol to be a bit lazy, kitsch and naff - I think Damien Hirst killed them for me (pun intended). So, I wasn’t overly thrilled to discover the majority of the temporary exhibition included them in some way or another.

 Some of the skull artworks were clearly paying direct homage to Damien Hirst; one encrusted with crystals (sitting atop a mushroom book sculpture), another featuring hundreds of butterflies. Another artwork seemed to be directly mimicking Jean Michel Basquiat, which personally I don’t mind as artists have always “pinched” ideas from other artists – but one of the museum’s “commandments” was ‘thou shalt not covet the others’ ideas, projects and careers’. I seriously started to wonder if they were following any of their own rules, especially ‘thou shalt not commit adultery / here’.

One artwork which broke from the obligatory "skull" theme, instead featured a plastic animé figurine with huge tits and exposed cleavage, kneeling inside an oyster shell which had been spray painted gold and filled with resin. Having viewed this "masterpiece" I started to like the never-ending series of skulls slightly more.

To be fair to them, there was one skull artwork which I really liked – a hand-embroidered wall hanging by Ifigeneia Sdoukou featuring a poem by Stella Davaroukou as the border. The tapestry featured a man with an antlered skull head riding a floral, blue mer-horse, talking to a bird with a crowned human head, being pursued by two skeleton birds. The detail in the embroidery work was incredible – I was also intrigued that she had left the thread ends hanging. I thought the composition and execution were brilliant and the piece had a compelling narrative and vivid imagery (albeit inclusive of skulls). I’ve followed this artist on Instagram.

However, I was disappointed by the current exhibition's curation, there seemed to be a total lack of narrative to the exhibition, very few descriptions or meaningful information - just long waffley statements from the curator justifying the exhibition's 'vanitas' theme. To confuse matters further, it wasn't clear where the current exhibition finished and the permanent collections began. Under one artwork in the liminal space between the two exhibitions, which seemed to have lost its plaque, the artwork's title and author were scrawled underneath on the wall in biro along with the question, 'This is the end?'. To be honest, I had no idea either.

The permanent collection was arguable worse. I could establish zero connections between the vast array of artworks, other than them having been donated by the same rich people, whose names were prominently displayed throughout the exhibition.

Some of these artworks appeared to me to be rather rudimentary in technique or just boring in terms of content, although I appreciate that is my subjective opinion. The lack of coherence and sloppy curation across the exhibition was the main thing which irritated me.

For example; one wall which had seven, vastly different artworks clustered together in a seemingly random layout, had the title / description plaques arranged in such a way that it was impossible to tell which artwork was which. Back to the list of commandments, and 'honour thy curators' was feeling increasingly impossible.

 I couldn't even find the plaque for another artwork in the permanent collection, which I actually quite liked; a multi-coloured man-shaped (ish) scultpute with a tiny head, heart-print underpants and erect, rainbow penis. So, I have no idea who made that one or what it was called.

Continuing on the erotic theme, one of the featured artists, Atelier Takis, gave me the massive ick. A photograph of him working on a naked model, can only be described as “creepy as hell”. And the masterpieces he created from this R & D looked like this…

My response to this artwork: Who doesn't like a bit of self-gratifying objectification of women's bodies? Thanks but no thanks for that contribution to my day... Oops, looks like another commandment broken; 'honour thy artists'.

For some reason, the museum felt it necessary to emphasise the close friendship between Andy Warhol and the gallerist, Alexander Iolas - presumably an attempt to add some kind of prestige to the collection? This felt a bit random; as far as I could see there weren't any original Warhols anywhere to be seen. Only a digital image of his (you guessed it!) 'Skulls' screenprints on their video screen.

In my eagerness to leave this eclectic and incoherently collated mish mash of skulls, I nearly missed a small room with an installation by Russian artist, Ira Waldron on the topic of ‘the devastating consequences of war; to violence, enduring trauma and ultimately, death’ which included this gem of a photograph:

If only Hitler had fulfilled that wish...

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