The short coastline of Elefsina, Greece was dotted with splattered citrus all over its pavements on its opening night as this year’s European Capital of Culture in an event called 2023 Elesius. The heads of stray cats popped from open trash cans, and buzzing fluorescent lighting escorted the colossal amount of visitors on the strip of cement close to the water. The utilitarian abodes making up the street introduced all of the sounds associated with the small, post-industrial port city: balconies above one door were crowded with choir singers; on another, a pair of drums accompanied a bazouki. Where the waterfront suddenly curved and ended, a few boys blasted music with comically big speakers. The bass smothered any sounds coming in from the sea.
Elefsina prides itself as being the smallest European Capital of Culture to date. It was chosen for the title alongside Veszprém in Hungary and Timișoara in Romania. With less than 30,000 inhabitants and a miniscule size, most of the city’s borders exist in water, rather than on land.
Once known as Eleusis, Elefsina is said to be the site where Demeter, Persephone’s mother, is said to have waited for her daughter after she had been kidnapped by Hades, the god of the underworld. The city was then centered on the ritual of mystery—an ancient celebration at the time of the autumnal equinox. At its core of this nighttime ritual was Persephone’s return, which took place by the torchlight of an eternal flame. While it is far-fetched to claim that the mystery of yesteryear is somehow still integral to Elefsina’s identity today, it is true that any identity is forged by an ongoing process of mystification and clarification of itself.
These mysteries once placed Elefsina as a spiritual focal point of the Aegean Sea. All that remains of it now are some fables and an archeological site. Michail Marmarinos, the artistic director of 2023 Eleusis, is well aware of the heritage he was placed to continue, and the responsibility he bears for conversing with it. The question he faced when conceiving the program for the capital was one that continues to permeate: what are post-industrial mysteries? By naming each event as a different Mystery, 2023 Eleusis’s opening ceremony, titled Mystery 0, aimed to continue the historical lineage of the city by illuminating its skies again.
Conceptualized by Marmarinos, the starting point for the entire year took place at sea and was dubbed as a mystery of transition. Not a transition of periphery to centrality, or of antiquity to modernity—but the mystery requires anything, anywhere, to transition at all. From the opposite shore of the bay, the perpetual fire of a petroleum refinery lit the night’s sky, exposing itself to us as the eternal flame. Paired with pillars of light, it illuminated a fleet of small boats spread across the waters. Each one of them was composed of a small crew: one captain, and one musician. For over two hours, the waterfront became a site of contention, harmony, and the epic.
The consideration of how to bridge past events with contemporary folklore is also reflected in the historical development of the European Capital of Culture as a whole. Just 21 kilometers away from Elefsina is the seat of the first European Capital of Culture: Athens, which represented the initiation of the project in 1985. Athens’ selection was a symbolic promise made by the EU-based originators of the campaign, an assurance that Greece remains the bedrock of contemporary European culture. It was then followed by Florence, Amsterdam and Paris—all recognized sites of culture, rather than a questioning of what culture is or where it is found. It was only far later that more peripheral, post-industrial cities were rewarded with the title. Today, the project distances itself from recognized metropolises, and embraces the nooks and crevices of the continent into its dominion. It is a way of utilizing culture as a political and economic stimulus to marginalized areas, making them an integral and noticeable part of the union.
Thinking of integrating Elefsina into anything larger than its borders feels somewhat odd. Tucked beyond its boardwalk are industrial outposts that made the city financially self-sustaining. The Titan cement factory is situated on one end; the Kronos liquor factory on the other. For a place that is being celebrated for how laidback it is, some processes taking place in Elefsina are incredibly quick. Many of the enterprises and consumer hubs that were erected in the city only 50 years ago are now, collectively, an archeological site of a different kind. Those still growing up in Elefsina look across the harbor to the capital city for better prospects, making the city contract and expand again and again. It’s undeniable that the austerity measures that Greece continues to suffer from are the main arbiter for a lack of prospects in its periphery. The country is still fiscally punished by the same political union that now celebrates its culture, nurturing a conflicted fifteen-year-long relationship.
Austerity never favors culture. Money is always allocated to what are regarded as collective needs—none of which, for some reason, are museums, concert halls or cinemas. But Elefsina shows that budgeted institutions are not the criteria of what nourishes a culture, and that it is an oddity to consider that the latter depends on the former. Without institutions to dictate the borders of culture, an audience and its folklore are free from monetary obligations, ready to pursue mysteries rather than empty assertions.
- IMAGE CREDITS
Cover: Mysteries of Transition, Costas Baltas.
fig. 1: Exhibition dedicated Melina Mercouri, Greece's Minister of Culture who originated the idea of the European Capital of Culture in 1985. Photo Credit: Costas Baltas.
fig. 2: Opening Ceremony of Eleusis 2023. Photo Credit: Haris Karoutsos.
fig. 3: Street Procession in Elefsina. Photo credit: John Stathis.