In April of this year I found myself at the Athens opening of documenta 14, in terms of prestige and critical anticipation arguably the apex event of the global contemporary art world. I was with my friend Laura, an artist and cultural facilitator from Germany. Another artist friend, Valentina, who is Greek but lives in Berlin, was also planning to join us, but she got a job working for documenta in Kassel, so didn’t come. It seemed like there were a lot of ‘A’s floating around at the old d14, and not just at the end of our names. We decided to start a three-way conversation approaching the circus that inevitably is such a show backwards, as it were, through the prism of its ‘A’s. The following are some of my initial contributions to this somewhat arbitrary, alphabetically-inclined enterprise.
After seventy-two years being hosted exclusively in the small German town of Kassel, this 14th edition, subtitled ‘Learning from Athens’, is the first ever iteration that is split across two geographically disparate locations. The openings were staggered, so its customary 100-day run began in Athens on April 8, while Kassel’s clock starts ticking two months later on June 10. Artists were given the opportunity to make interventions in either or both cities, and there are many threads leading more or less directly back to the mother/fatherland in the work currently on view in Athens. In Ross Birrell’s The Athens-Kassel Ride: The Transit of Hermes (2017), a group of horse riders are, yes, literally making their way from Athens to Kassel. As they posed for photos at the foot of the Acropolis before setting off, a minor kerfuffle erupted when photocopied flyers demanding: ‘Who is learning from Athens and what?’ were airborne from within the crowd. Nearby, someone had graffitied overnight: ‘I WANT A PONYYYYYYYYYY… CRAPUMENTA14’ The relationship between these two cities is fraught by the geopolitical dynamics of global capital that they represent, and despite the well-meaning byline, it was clear that Act 1 at least, had left some Athenians unconvinced.
Sitting next to me on my flight out of Athens was a Swiss-based curator who shared her dismay at some of the extravagances inherent to an overblown event of this scale. A rumoured 40,000 euros for a marble tent, artist Rebecca Belmore’s nod to the region’s refugee crisis, installed on Filopappou Hill! This, when Greeks have suffered seven years of some of the most draconian cuts to public spending seen in the western industrialised world, in compliance with rolling emergency loans from the European commission to patch its spectacular death spiral of debt. The Athens leg of documenta 14 includes work by most of the 160 international artists represented, presumably allocated with a spectrum of funds. The exhibition’s total budget of 37 million euros, though spread across both cities and several years of development, could certainly do a lot to reshape the flow of resources and attention in a place where people have had to learn to get by with little financial support. Perhaps unsurprisingly, with only a minimal number of Greek artists participating, there didn’t seem to be a strong emphasis on fostering local initiatives or practices. Works that did engage with the city’s artist and community groups, like Texan Rick Lowe’s Victoria Square Project (2017-18), a kind of neighbourhood centre and open production space operating on its own timeframe, felt more like far-flung satellites to the blockbusters on display in the major venues. Not that this bothers Lowe, who when I visited was looking forward to another quiet afternoon of dominoes with the unemployed men in the street outside.
An American curator working for a commercial gallery in Mexico City asked over dinner one night if any of us had met a single happy Athenian. This might be a little unfair, though the ambiance of Athens today does seem to be at a low ebb, reflected in dire statistics like a massive hike in the national suicide rate since the crisis began. What does it mean to enter such a context in the guise of a host, and a festive one at that, when you are quite irretrievably only a guest yourself, as Artistic Director Adam Szymczyk was careful to acknowledge from the outset? Rasheed Araeen confronts this doubling dilemma almost by default in his work Shamiyaana—Food for Thought: Thought for Change (2016-17), a large colourful tent installed for the duration in Kotzia Square, offering free meals twice a day to the public. After arriving too late the day before, I eventually scored a table and was joined by a young curator from Moscow researching queerness, an Indian filmmaker friend of the artist, and a Greek classics scholar who had wandered over on her lunch break from an office across the road. We chatted and ate our plates of lentil soup, prepared by a local association, in an atmosphere typical of pleasant, constructed conviviality sprinkled with awkwardness, a not unhappy shift in ambiance for a historic public space otherwise feeling the pinch of Athens’s dwindling commercial centre.
Angela vs. Alvin
One of the big venues in Athens, the EMST (National Museum of Contemporary Art), is emblematic of the opacity and controversy around public spending in the present economic situation. A former brewery converted into a tasteful monument to contemporary cultural consumption, the building was finished in 2014, but until now hasn’t opened its doors for a single exhibition. The local line that they could simply not afford basics like toilet paper seems incredible given the potential value of such a space, both in revenue-raising and for the artistic community itself, and belies a more complex scenario involving political and administrative impasses. Around mid-morning on its first public open day, documenta visitors were shooed out of the four-storey building by a fire alarm. Amid whisperings that the ‘fire’ was actually a visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, here to give her official blessings to the exhibition as one of Germany’s major cultural exports, the VIP in fact turned out to be the new German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. I was outside and didn’t see his arrival, so don’t know what Steinmeier made of Marta Minujín’s work Payment of Greek Debt to Germany with Olives and Art (2017), a large rectangle of green olives laid out on the ground floor by the entrance, a handful of which were later that day handed by Minujín to a decent lookalike of Merkel, who spun around and around on an office chair, occasionally mumbling something unintelligible in English towards a bemused audience. I missed that too, only later watching the video on the Swiss curator’s smartphone at some altitude, because I was at the Athens Conservatoire listening to eighty-five-year-old Alvin Lucier perform I am sitting in a Room, a re-staging of his influential 1969 sound piece describing the resonant frequencies of a room, which could have been taking place anywhere and anytime and may just have been the best twenty minutes of my d14 Athens experience.
Artistic Director Adam Szymczyk announced at the opening press conference that the takeaway lesson of ‘Learning from Athens’ was that we still have very much more to learn. He followed this by pointing to the classic Socrates quip in Plato’s Meno of the wise man being he who (finally) knows that he does not know. This seems a sensible, if rather disappointing, position to arrive at after a good few years of embedded research, Szymczyk and his team having been based in Athens since 2013. The angry flyers fluttering around at Ross Birrell’s epic equine departure ventured that: ‘Global capital is learning from the crisis how to enforce the “shock doctrine”.’ This is surely not what Szymczyk had in mind for a critically-regarded institution which has always had at its heart a strong political and pedagogical agenda. For Socrates, ‘aporia’ or the condition of perplexed ignorance was itself a ‘torpedo shock’ which had the helpful effect of enabling one to ’feel the difficulty’ they are in, pushing them then to ‘go on and discover something’. But discovery doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on these days, and there are just so many difficulties to feel! If the economic crisis has triggered in Greece the most severe existential crisis since World War II, soon to take hold throughout Europe, as suggested by Marina Folkidis, Head of documenta 14’s Artistic Office in Athens, then this may not be a bad place for the globally-mobile artistic community to ask difficult questions about who we are and who we want to become. Nevertheless, and despite its noticeable emphasis on sound—works like Pope L.’s Whispering Campaign (2016-17) installed across multiple locations, not to mention a whole program of radio broadcasts curated by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung—this documenta doesn’t appear to have realised the full potential of listening, with rigour and radical openness, to how those questions might resonate here.
You can read the full glossary of ‘A’s in Tessa, Laura & Valentina do documenta, due for publication later this year.