Written by Dorian Batycka and Vanessa Gravenor
Documenta is a quinquennial exhibition of contemporary art that since 1955 has created a space for healing war torn regions through art. Begun in the German city of Kassel, in the wake of World War II, Documenta has in its roots an underlying sense that unification is possible through art and culture, a shamanistic potential that auspiciously hangs over each subsequent edition.
The opening of Documenta 14 took place on April 6th, 2017, amidst nearly five years of planning under artistic director Adam Szymczyk (the former director and chief curator of Kunsthalle Basel), together with an expansive team that included six other curators and over 150 artists. This year, Documenta 14 was evenly split between two localities, Kassel, the usual venue, and Athens. This brought much speculation as well as controversy. The decision to alternate between two hosts cities was done with the expectation that art could serve as a cultural lubricant between Greece and Germany, at a time when relations between the two countries have been at a low. The symbolic gesture of splitting Documenta 14 between Greece and Athens came with allusions to the crumbling status of the EU, gripping between questions of European unity versus nationalism, which comes at a particularly acute time given not only the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis, but also the continued issue of refugee migration, many of whom have been entering Europe through Greece’s southern porous border. It was against these issues that Documenta 14’s spectators arrived in Athens, some curious, others critical, as to the potential of Documenta to meet, or at the very least address, some of these urgent issues.
In the wake of World War II, German sociologist Jürgen Habermas developed the idea of the “public sphere,” which he defined as space where individuals could freely and openly come together to discuss and identify social problems. For Habermas, the public sphere could help foster social democracy and, after fascism had destroyed much of Europe, these ideas became readily accepted by many European sociologists. The notion of multiple publics, however, has more recently been examined within sectors like public health, public education, public opinion and public ownership. Against these growing consortia of publics, the use-value of art has been conceptualized as space where different publics can come together. Art in public space, institutional critique, and artistic research have all emerged against what may be called a sociological turn in art. In accordance with identifying and including publics, Documenta has been instrumental in helping to shape and proliferate art beyond merely formalist aesthetic concerns.
The trend of uprooting Documenta began with Documenta 11, curated by Okwui Enwezor, which developed five “platforms” for the exhibition. These explored how forms of cultural hybridity could be realized among different art world geographies, bringing together a number of artists from Africa. Documenta 13, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, was split between Kabul, Afghanistan, and Kassel, examining the role of art in relation to crisis, yet once again evoking Documenta’s shamanistic principles that were set with its inception in 1955, in war-torn Germany, and continued with Joseph Beuys’ role in its exhibition cycle in 1982, documenta 7. At documenta 7, Beuys launched his project 7,000 Oaks City Forestation Instead of City Administration (1982) that planted trees as a form of social sculpture encouraging regeneration of the city, a proto-fluxus move seeking to integrate art with everyday life.
Documenta 14’s title, Learning from Athens, did not use many overtly postcolonial or political discourses. Rather, its scope was pedagogical. In fact, the word ‘crisis’ was far from any of the exhibitions pre-ordained catch words that included “south” and “unlearning.” The main current running through the exhibition was the thematic possibility that the exhibition could serve to rupture the notion of positionality by having works that are realized halfway in Greece and halfway in Germany. For example, the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), one of the large host institutions of Documenta 14 in Athens, loaned works from its contemporary Greek and international collection, ranging from the 1960s to the present, to the Fridericianum in Kassel, in effect destabilizing the position of Documenta as anchored to a single host city. In Documenta’s case, the need to unify and bring Germany up to speed with modern developments in art had become especially important after years of censorship under the Nazis. Fast forward to today: with Documenta 14 landing in Athens, the question on everyone’s minds leading up seemed to be: what could Documenta do to solve Greece’s problems?
The initial stirrings of Documenta 14 in Athens have thus far brought a combination of confusion, frustration, and sometimes anger to locals. According to Athens-based social anthropologist, Pafsanias Karathanasis, at a local level, Documenta 14 has been largely invisible to the general public. Karathanasis relayed in a conversation that Documenta 14 already has the audience it wants–the international art body politic, and therefore, it does not need to try to look towards the city to curry favor. In the opening weekend alone, according to Karathanasis, between 2,000-5,000 Documenta tourists flew in especially for the event. Many of the locals, however, had never heard of Documenta nor knew what it was.
In response to these and other issues, a local Athenian group of academics and cultural researchers developed a parody group called Learning from Documenta, which in 2016 started to hold press conferences and roundtable meetups that appropriated the vague, often pretentious language used by official Documenta organizers. All of these stirrings, as such, added considerably to the critique swirling around Document 14’s presence in Athens.
Then there were the actual murmurings on and in the streets, witnessed vis-a-vis graffiti tags that stood out all over Athens. There were humorous ones, like “Crapumenta: I want a pony,” as well as more symbolic ones, “Dear Documenta: I refuse to exoticize myself for your cultural capital.” Artist Thierry Geoffroy, who has been traveling from Biennale to Biennale over the last several decades, initiating a process that invites self-reflexive critique often antagonistically to organizers, asked during the opening press conference to what extent organizers have initiated self-critique. On his Instagram, Geoffroy posted several interesting questions under the hashtag #Documentasceptic, including one that asked: “is Documenta the botox of late capitalism?” Taken together, these and other Documenta skeptics questioned whether the purpose of Documenta was to solve or engage in relevant contemporary political issues, or whether Documenta’s Athens arrival merely sought to art-wash crisis for the accumulation of cultural capital.
During the press conference held on April 6th, Szymczyk laced his rhetoric in philosophy rather than addressing the real politics behind the institution’s arrival. In reference to the controversial title, Learning from Athens, he explained that learning is actually a process of unlearning, forgetting what you have been taught. “We believe that unlearning everything we believe to know is the best beginning,” Szymczyk began, articulating, with obtuse language that “the great lesson is that there are no lessons.”
Rather than deconstructing the polemics of ‘unlearning’ from any sort of practical perspective, Szymczyk merely sidestepped the issue without revealing any of the issues or problems Documenta had faced in coming to Athens. In sidestepping these issues, Szymczyk seemed to posit that the use-value of art could boil down to a Band-Aid solution for the political crisis facing Greece, and Europe generally, though organizers were quick to point out that Documenta’s arrival was not intended to be a solution to Greece’s problems but rather a stage in which to amplify them. As such, amplification became another motif running through the exhibition. And it is through amplification of Documenta’s agenda that its liminality, of course, faced the battle of carrying its roots.
In creating an enlarged, albeit estranged platform for multiple publics to coalesce, the exhibition inevitably called attention to what publics have passed. Can a broad public identify with major and minor narratives that have been written and unwritten, both from above and below? Keeping this in mind, curator Monika Szewczyk brought up two projects that contained a bricolage of erased histories and controversial figures. One of them, entitled Yugo Export, conceived by the elusive artist Irena Haiduk, who refuses to confine to biographies. The Yugo Form (2017) is an anti-western incorporated fashion line that is intended to infiltrate the Documenta 14 cycle, calling past histories of Yugoslavia and weaving them together in the present both on the bodies and performers of some of those present. Another project, Roee Rosen’s Live and Die as Eva Braun (1995-1997), at the Benaki Contemporary Art Museum, conceive of a science fiction parody on Hitler’s mistress, though this artwork, produced in the mid-1990’s, appeared oddly anachronistic and out of place in the context of Athens. The problem with Roee Rosen’s Live and Die as Eva Braun is that it brings up the figure of the passive instigator to evil without directly linking it to the present moment in Athens. Instead, it is uprooted and dropped and shows a vapid figure’s assent. Though the exhibition also touches upon Greece’s own fascist past, Greece’s own passive figures that instigated the military coup were not brought to light.
Turning to public institutional space, the exhibition takes place in some of the city’s most visible and important spaces, including: The National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), the Athens Conservatoire (Odeion), the Benaki Museum, and the Athens School of Fine-Arts, as well as multiple public entry points and neighborhoods throughout the city. All of this elevated Documenta 14 to a horizon of rhizomatic affiliations, creating multiple connection points impossible to fully see or grasp. The most interesting locations, however, were not entirely art-washed and held onto their historical significance. Some of these locations include the Polytechnical University; the Museum of Kokkinia Blockade; and the Museum of Anti-Dictatorial and Democratic Resistance, the latter of which is merely absorbed as a site which houses an archive to the military coup in Greece that was a torture site from 1967 to 1974. While these and other foundations were included in Documenta, some seemed haphazardly inserted into the geographical survey across the city that was Learning from Athens.
To Documenta 14’s credit, the vast array of public programming and thematic exhibitions featured mostly emerging and lesser known artists, such as Georgia Sagri, Postcommodity, and Lala Rukh, though many of these artists are very far from the periphery and are shortly turning into espoused biennale touring artists. In Sagri’s work being incubated over the course of the exhibition, Dynamis (2017), she opens her doors to an ongoing rehearsal. Within the space, one sees a circle of dancers that one-by-one move to the middle while shouting lines full of intensity. The gestures are simple and focused on the deconstruction of language and the awareness of the body within public space. Also included in Documenta 14 were works that seemed intended to be un-photogenic, perhaps in response to other more instagrammable exhibitions like the 9th Berlin Biennale. The one exception was Daniel Knorr’s pile of trash installed at the Conservatory, which one could see as an ode to the toxic narcissism of the international art world.
Other works in Athens attempted to prefigure a symbolic material connection with Kassel. The two works most emblematic of this symbolic material connection were Sokol Beqiri’s Adonis (2017) and Ross Birrell’s The Athens-Kassel Ride (2017). Sokol Bequiri is an artist from Kosovo who has worked with its history of genocide. His project, Adonis (2017), made from grafted oak tree and marble is installed at the Polytechnic National University of Athens, a site indelibly connected to a student uprising in 1973. Between 1967-1974, Greece was ruled by a fascist military dictatorship, led by King Constantine II. However, during a student occupation at the Polytechnic University against Constantine II’s dictatorship, a tank was called in to disperse the demonstrators and crashed through the gates that had been barricaded, leading to the deaths of 24 student demonstrators. At this site, Documenta 14 invited two of the original student protestors to share stories, Dionysis Mayrogenis and Giorgos Oikonomou. This was done under a program called “Continuum,” inspired by a musical score by Jani Christou, which the Documenta team envisaged as a way of creating an “experimental framework” for working sessions between artists, curators, special guests and the Documenta 14 team.
Other works emphasizing a duality between Kassel and Athens include Ross Birrell The Athens-Kassel Ride, referred to as the Transit of Hermes (2017), which takes as a conceptual starting point an equestrian ride from Athens to Kassel, which is over 3000 kilometers in length. With reference to Greek mythology, Birrell’s work, in short, is a durational performance that provides a meditation on geography as well as trade routes (hence the invocation to Hermes, the God of Transit). The work feels brushed clean of all pitfalls, and Szymczyk, in launching the project, reminded the public that an artwork is first a physical activity before it is a metaphorical one, though it remains uncertain what metaphor The Athens-Kassel Ride makes, if any.
Not far from the Academy of Fine Arts, an installation by Pope L., Whispering Campaign (2017), consists of a single megaphone speaker that changes languages from German, Greek, to English, amplifying an omnipresent cry for situationist-esque transformation of cities. The text the speaker relays in public amplifies barely audible sound bites, one of them which is installed on the grounds of the Polytechnic University and takes on a different urgency given the symbolic importance of the grounds of the site itself. Walking around the grounds and in the classrooms of the Polytechnic, one can still feel the energy of the insurgency. It is a place that Pope.L chose to layer with whispers for the duration of Documenta 14, both tailored and counter-tailored to the psycho-geography of the site itself, channeling the sounds and embedded symbolisms of the University’s dark past. His work at Documenta 14 reminds the viewer that whispers and the voice can stand in for physical presence and with it the site of the Polytechnic will always contain the whispers of resistance emanating from its anti-fascist past.
On the opposite spectrum, Sammy Baloji’s Tales of the Copper Cross Garden: Episode I (2017), installed at EMST, brings to light different realities within African colonial history. A work that provides a very complex meditation on one particular locality, the site of copper production, the work shows phantasmagorical shots of liquid molten copper solidifying. Set to gospel music, the project examines how the import and export of industry coalesce around the shadow of colonial structures. The work speaks at once to economics and labor and the role of colonialism in controlling important resources and international trade routes, many of which continue to proliferate through bi- and multilateral trade agreements to this very day.
Another video work that addressed persistent structural violence with the strong shadow of history was Artur Żmijewski’s video installation at the Athens School of Fine Arts. The work takes its setting from two different refugee camps, one at Calais, France, known by locals as “the Jungle,” and the other in Tempelhof, Berlin, as well as numerous sites underneath bridges where migrants often congregate. According to a report in The Guardian, at the time of its evacuation, Calais officially held 6,400 migrants, but after the camp’s closure, 170 buses were required to ship those within the encampment to other parts of France. However, many of those formerly settled in Calais, including several thousand minors, ended up without any means to support themselves and were forced to relocate to the streets of France’s largest cities. Using black and white super-8 style footage, Żmijewski’s silent film clutches somewhere in between victim porn and morbid Holocaust style found footage. Żmijewski is no stranger to questionable themes, however, in 2015, a work of his depicting people playing a game of absurdist naked tag in a gas chamber in a former concentration camp was targeted with protests after it was included in a large museum show in Kraków. The film, though appropriative of refugees, is both shocking and spellbinding, urgent and eerie, yet politically necessary. As Greece comes to terms with addressing the refugee crisis, Żmijewski’s work fractures at this nebulous space, unpacking patterns of migration, the subjective experiences of those migrating, and their emotional intensities all at once. Above all, the film feels as if it was meant to unsettle and perturb the viewer, cascading through shots that felt both confrontational and aware.
Some projects also took a decidedly in-between position with respect to Documenta. This included the Artists at Risk (AR) mobile project, located just outside the fish market at the Varvakeios Agora. The AR project is an outgrowth from Perpetuum Mobile, co-founded by Marita Muukkonen and Ivor Stodolsky in 2007, a platform dedicated to providing protection through residencies and other means for artists who face political threats. In Athens, the AR platform was initially presented as part of Synapse 1 and 2 of the Athens Biennale 2015-2016. The AR project is distinct because it provides a platform dedicated to art professionals facing uncertain political futures, giving the initiative an imperativeness that many other projects in Documenta simply missed. In Athens, the AR project presented the work of Pınar Ögrenci, Erkan Özgen, Issa Touma, artists who have, in spite of political pressures, continued to develop relevant and timely work despite the persistence of calamity around them. In the case of Ögrenci’s project in the AR Pavilion, several new video projects displayed works she developed during a recent residency last year in Vienna, where she interviewed Oud musicians who had come to Austria as refugees from Iraq. In Touma’s film, 9 Days—From My Window in Aleppo (2012), the Syrian artist depicts the changing alliances as a result of the civil war, signaling how in times of uncertainty alliances may only be as deep as an emergent power allows. Seen together, the AR pavilion presented perhaps the most salient and politically relevant works under one roof.
Though Documenta addresses many traumas and histories, opening this subject up for the public, the economic crisis is often left waiting in the wings. Pluralistic and multifaceted, economic crisis in general gets reduced in Emeka Ogboh’s The Way Earthly Things are Going (2017), to a mere flashing of number on the screen. It is important to remember that the economic crisis came at an already unstable time for Greece, just as Europe was beginning to deal with the influx of migrants attempting to enter islands on the country’s Mediterranean border. When Szymczyk was appointed curator in October 2014, Greek-German relations were at a low. The fallout from the 2008 financial crisis left Greece in direct confrontation with Germany, Greece’s primary lender in an international bailout package, which Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras controversially accepted after ignoring the results from a referendum in 2015. As such, Documenta’s arrival in Athens came at a hefty time for many Greeks, weary of German influence and the EU as a whole, particularly Germany’s actions in forcing Greece to accept the terms of the bailout, which have been contentious within the Mediterranean country of 10.8 million, 23.5% of whom remain unemployed. The bailout package required Greece to increase pension ages and begin privatizing public assets, like the Piraeus Port Authority, Greece’s largest and busiest port, leased in April 2016 for €368.5 million to the Chinese firm Cosco, who will manage the port until 2052. The privatization of publicly owned assets made the idea of multiple publics something worth considering in the context of Documenta, but which appeared only to play second fiddle to more rudimentary and anachronistic works that lacked a sense of timeliness and urgency.
Above all, Documenta’s arrival has ultimately done little to solve, much less address, any of these issues. Documenta 14’s budget was 37 million euros ($40 million USD), which was to be spread between 2013—2018, half of which came from the German state, the rest from ticket sales, private donations and corporate sponsorship. Despite the multi-million dollar budget, or perhaps because of it, Documenta has largely failed to resonate with local audiences.
In a cab ride on the way back to the airport, our cab driver casually explained that while Greece is a beautiful country, nice for a vacation, it is bad for work. Himself an economic migrant who came to Athens from Cyprus, he explained that he was driving a taxi because it was the only form of work available to him, despite having a degree in civil engineering. Over seven days in Athens, several locals ceded to this reality, underlying the dearth of jobs available and the adversity the crisis has brought to the lives of most Greeks. This sentiment is the lasting impression that one local wanted to convey to the transitory Biennale audience, an authentic and honest critique, which speaks more to the reality of austerity politics than any esoteric “unlearning” could ever muster.