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Acropolis now

Maya Jaggi visits Athens to see the creative efforts of a society in meltdown.

Maya Jaggi visits Athens to see the creative efforts of a society in meltdown.

When the curators of the third Athens Biennale described it to me as a "crisis" show, it was no empty metaphor. Leaving them at dusk after a sneak preview in central Athens, I walked straight into a running battle between riot police and anti-austerity protesters in Monastiraki Square. Acrid smoke from petrol-bombed shops hit the back of my throat, along with the stench of tear gas and mouldering rubbish that Athenians now find emblematic of their city.

The biennale, entitled Monodrome, opened on 23 October on the heels of a 48-hour general strike and huge rallies at the Greek parliament in Syntagma Square. Xenia Kalpaktsoglou and Polidoros Kariofilis - two-thirds of the curatorial trio XYZ that founded the Athens Biennale - do not attempt to compete with the making of history on the streets, but bring it inside using audio and video from Syntagma. Monodrome is running on small private donations, the goodwill of artists and volunteers, and sponsorship in kind - including free use of municipal buildings. In an instructive show of Franco-Greek co-operation, the pair enlisted as co-curator Nicolas Bourriaud, a critical theorist working with the French ministry of culture.

The protagonist is the Diplareios School in Theatre Square, built in 1932 as a design college with Bauhaus aspirations that never bore fruit. From a basement filled with silent lathes to an attic view of the Acropolis, the empty school, with its graffitied walls, is used to tell a story about modern Greece. Its dereliction mirrors the location near Omonia Square, in a migrant ghetto overtaken by drug-dealing. Kariofilis, also known as the artist Poka-Yio, says it was built "for an industrial future that never came. We never had industrial design, because we never had industry." Tourism became Greece's postwar mainstay. In the 1980s, the city planning office moved in; its corruption partly explains the predicament of surrounding streets.

Inspired by Walter Benjamin's One-Way Street (1928), the show is more about dead ends and a "lost future", yet it aims to present an "archaeology of the crisis". Artefacts and historical material are placed next to films and works of art - at least half of these by Greek artists. Context is paramount. The red rectangle of Surface (1961) by Vlassis Caniaris, who died in February, is a window that opens on to nothing. Andreas Lolis's discarded cardboard boxes turn out to be marble, but canvases of shutters nailed with planks and corrugated iron collages reflect the dereliction outside - a quarter of all businesses in Greece have closed since 2008.

Past and present speak to each other, Cania­ris's 1970s installation of a Greek Gastarbeiter's abode in Germany recalling an era when Greece exported labour. Cartoons from the 1890s lampoon earlier Greek leaders going cap in hand to foreign powers. But history does not always repeat itself. The soundtrack to Nikos Koundou­ros's Song of Fire, a 1975 film of a victory concert marking the fall of the 1967-74 junta, resounds in the building, yet those songs at today's rallies can sound eerily anachronistic.

Upstairs, the sense of encountering the relics and dreams of an extinct civilisation is overpowering, in a museum of failure. Doll's-house-sized model furniture sits in a cabinet, never to be made. Michalis Katzourakis's tourist posters from the 1960s accompany ghostly manne­quins of uniformed Olympic Airlines flight attendants. With what now seems culpable innocence, a poster rejoicing in "the American bank system in Greece" places the Statue of Liberty among the caryatids.

Tearing up the rule book can release its own energy. At a rooftop party fuelled by sponsored beer, I met established artists unable to sell their work, and curators facing cuts and closures who found the shoestring show exhilarating. For the critic and curator Theophilos Tramboulis, contemporary art was "arrogant and self-referential. Here, it loses its arrogance, giving people something to lean on." Sometimes, he argued, despair, "when you can express it, leaves you with a sweet feeling of hope".

Runs until 11 December.

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?