documenta 14: art of the (im)possible


[Originally published 2017 in Broadsheet Journal 46.2]

The fourteenth edition of documenta opened for the first time in Athens this April, two months ahead of a second opening in its customary home of Kassel, Germany. The exhibition is subtitled ‘Learning from Athens’, and is marked as much by its dual location as by the impossible rhetoric of horizontal, cosmopolitan cultural affinity surrounding it since the outset. This is a pity because, as many critics have noted, moving outside the quiet comforts of Kassel is not a bad idea, and Athens is certainly one place that could use new kinds of attention and attentiveness.

documenta has a history of bringing forward-thinking modes of pedagogy and criticality into the art world, and the promotional text for lead-up events in Athens –gatherings of the mysterious-sounding Cooperativist Society and the “Apatriade” Society of the Political Others – did suggest an emphasis on new forms of collectivity and self-organisation in the face of myriad institutional failures evident in Greece and elsewhere. It was disappointing therefore to see the show itself unfold as a fairly routine line-up of things piled into big galleries, supplemented by a few performative works in public spaces and outlying site-based interventions. ‘Learning’ does not appear to be among the handful of themes recurring across the various venues, let alone have functioned as an organising principle, and even Athens, as a site of transformative possibility, rather than a stand-in for abject geopolitical economics or originary classical (western) aesthetics, doesn’t get much of a look in.

On the strength of this first move, we aren’t encountering here a dramatic reinvention of what the biennale-style survey show could be, informed by a rigorous and radically open engagement with the specificities of its new expanded microclimate. Though Artistic Director Adam Szymczyk remarked at the official opening press conference that after four years based in Athens, the team has learnt mainly that they have a great deal still to learn, the show does, of course, nonetheless go ahead and make some big claims. In many cases the works themselves present as neat, glib answers (or obtuse abstractions), dropped in readymade from elsewhere. Given the unevenness of Germany’s relationship to Greece in the sphere of global macro-economic capital, and the very real material consequences of those relations for ordinary Athenians, accusations of ‘crisis tourism’ were always going to be at the pointy end of its reception. But criticisms from within Greece have persisted, whether in the form of flyers flung into the Sunday morning launch of Ross Birrell’s The Athens–Kassel Ride: The Transit of Hermes (2017) from a group calling itself Against Art as a Neocolonial Mechanism, and asking: ‘Who is learning from Athens and What?’ or in reports from local artists that the approach of the team on the ground was secretive and anthropological rather than genuinely collaborative.

Coinciding with the press preview, another local group, Artists Against Evictions, published an open letter in the journal Artforum on April 8 demanding an end to documenta’s silence regarding the recent eviction of artists from the social space Villa Zografou and the raid and arrest of 120 refugees in Alkiviadou squat, an escalation of last year’s bulldozing of refugee homes in Thessaloniki. It reads: ‘Now is a time for carving out a space for all, not a time of culturally archiving crisis’.[1] The letter was circulated roundly on social media, but as far as I could see, barely made it onto the horizons of the roaming cloud of journalists and arts professionals whose complicity in the state-supported media circus it directly called out. While many of the letter’s concerns were indeed glossed over by the umbrella event, certain individual works did in their own way address them. Maria Eichhorn’s Building as unowned property (2017) intervenes in the legal and bureaucratic tangle of land ownership, through the artist’s attempt to transfer a house out of anyone’s actual ownership. The work exists as a collection of documents and photographs in a vitrine at the EMST (National Museum of Contemporary Art), but also presumably now as paperwork within the city’s administrative records, and as an architectural and social object on the street.

Rick Lowe’s Victoria Square Project (2017-18), a kind of amorphous community drop-in centre and workshop, is another project dealing with gentrification and the effects of economic collapse that takes care to participate in what it represents. Lowe’s approach does seem somewhat at odds with the documenta on display in the major venues – the work is completely open-ended, shaped by those who choose to contribute or make use of it, with no clearly defined single outcome. Occupying a shopfront and basement in the working-class neighbourhood of Victoria, local artists and residents have been invited in to conduct their own material or community-based investigations, to more or less make themselves at home, whatever that might mean. When I spoke with Lowe, also behind the emblematic Project Row Houses in Houston of the 1990s, he showed little interest in documenta’s 100-day run or official opening hours; having been open for business already since last June, his project will continue until at least April 2018, and probably beyond, with management handed over to local partners.

Exhibitions of this scale have a peculiar, though often largely unrealised, capacity to interfere with or trouble the habitual rhythms of a city, to enter – in an embodied way – into a critical conversation with what is happening under the surface there. Lowe spends his late afternoons playing dominoes with the unemployed older men in the street outside (just as he did with residents in Houston); perhaps the subtlest of shifts, but one that conceivably allows for other possibilities, in their own time, to emerge. Pakistani artist Rasheed Araeen, now in his eighties, makes a louder disturbance in Kotzia Square, a once-bustling hub of the commercial district now hollowed out with Greece’s financial (mis)fortunes. Araeen’s block-coloured version of a traditional Pakistani wedding tent, Shamiyaana—Food for Thought: Thought for Change (2016-17), serves up a home-cooked meal twice a day, acting as a kind of real-fiction soup kitchen where the art world elite might find themselves sharing a table with passers-by genuinely in need of a free lunch.

Both these works pick up (in fairly sensitive ways) on questions running through the show around hospitality and mobility, but the politics or ethics of being simultaneously host and guest, of hosting in fact in someone else’s home, are in general not fully taken up. This ambivalence is of course further complicated by the broader, geopolitical power relations in play. Germany is the biggest contributor to the almost 300 billion euros in emergency funds patching Greece’s abysmally spiralling debt crisis, tied to years of increasingly untenable and forcibly applied austerity reforms. In January the German government announced it would soon begin sending refugees back to Greece again, following an EU recommendation to reinstate a rule, suspended in Athens since 2012 due to sheer impracticability, that asylum must be claimed in the member country of arrival.

Such contradictions form a backdrop that impacts upon how we encounter the artworks, in relationship to the sites they choose to intervene in. Hiwa K’s video, Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue) (2017) follows the artist walking through Athens to Turkey, retracing the steps he took twenty years ago as a Kurdistani refugee en route from Iraq to his present home in Berlin. Hiwa carries with him a contraption built from multiple rear vision mirrors, balanced on the tip of his nose, re-performing the city spaces that he moves through, as strained refractions held by the anxious movements of a body still conversant in the language of the precarious in-between.

Sanja Iveković’s Momument to Revolution, collective oral document (2017) similarly brings discourses of resistance into an everyday landscape, turning Avdi square in the former silk manufacturing district of Metaxourgeio into a site for political education and historical memory. Made with old bricks – collected from redeveloped industrial buildings or community spaces by international antifascist, workers’ and womens’ organisations – the work reimagines the foundations of Mies van der Rohe’s 1926 Monument to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht as a public platform for the rights of those who fall outside infrastructures of state power. On the day I visited, you could lie with your back on the warm bricks and listen to Angela Dimitrakaki and Antonia Majaca’s collaboration with the artist, Art of the Possible: Towards an Antifascist Feminist Front. This multi-lingual ‘collective speech act’, in which women artists, theorists and activists speculate on the rise of a revolutionary anti-fascist feminist front, effectively speaks back to the rising forces of right-wing nationalism in today’s Europe; as much a problem in the economically depressed global south as in the wealthy north (the dualism repeatedly positioning Athens-Kassel in documenta’s collateral).

The aural is everywhere at this documenta, though not all of it quite so charged, from Pope L’s Whispering Campaign (2016-17) interwoven throughout the city, to the sound-based performances stacking opening week. The radio project, Every Time A Ear di Soun, curated by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung is of particular note, broadcasting in Kassel, online and through shortwave radio and partner stations in other countries. The program explores auditory phenomena like sound, music and speech as ‘mediums for writing counterhegemonic histories’,[2] asking how the sonic produces subjectivities and spaces. It’s a promising addition to the show on the ground, benefiting from repeated visits and wanderings.

In Athens too, there has been an attempt to involve the city’s more obscure museums and extend the show out beyond what the average art tourist might access in a weekend. In this respect the exhibition guide and maps were typically anti-design, sending many (prospective) viewers around in circles or to the opposite end of town. More worrying was the literalness in how much of the work is placed: those shown in the Gennadius Library, for example, all deal explicitly with books, the Conservatoire holds most of the sound-related pieces, the Numismatic Museum (a collection of currency) is the site of a performance about money and the body, and the Epigraphic Museum peppers photographs of wall writing in India amongst their permanent collection of ancient stone tablets. This doesn’t mean that there are not strong and insightful works on offer in these venues, just that contemporary audience expectations are unchallenged. One of the most powerful opening week performances, Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room, was a re-staging of piece devised in 1969, in which the artist uses live ambient recordings to describe the resonant frequencies of a room. Elsewhere in the building, Susan Hiller’s video The Last Silent Movie (2007-08), continues almost a decade on to invoke the worldwide shame of Indigenous language loss with crushing simplicity.

In this vein, the EMST (itself the subject of an epic tale of opaque bureaucratic mismanagement and empty state coffers, opening its doors now for the first time since construction ended in 2014) presents on its ground floor a concentration of works commonly addressing money or exchange economies. Amongst them Beau Dick, a senior Indigenous artist from North-West Canada, who passed away just days before the opening, offers some remarkable sets of wearable masks including twenty from the series Undersea Kingdom (2016–17), in addition to copper shields used in potlatch ceremonies. In the opening days, a younger member of Beau’s community animated these masks to share an account of shapeshifting passage between human, animal and water spirit identities. Without casting indigeneity as some kind of inherently anticapitalist agent, these are nonetheless extraordinary objects – used to enact spirits of the forest and the sea – which complicate routine western understandings of economics and value forms. The coppers increase in value each time they are given, generating wealth through circulation rather than accumulation; some were broken by the artist at British Colombian parliaments to protest ongoing oppressions from a government serving only ‘the interests of the almighty dollar’.[3]

What we meet here are fragments of another cosmology, a seemingly coherent universe based on forms of knowing and being that are otherwise to our own, and to which we do not (ever) have full access. There were a lot more moments like this at the previous documenta in Kassel five years ago; projects such as Gareth Moore’s weirdly wonderful a place—near the buried canal (2011-12), the semi-wild property and temporary home of the artist on the edge of Karlsaue Park, where visitors could stay overnight, buy tamarind pods and plum juice at from a tiny kiosk and inspect the shadowy Museum of Dried Orange Peel. The work selected and shown by Beau Dick is of course not such a fiction, and in the context of ongoing colonial violence and dispossession, the stories it tells are of a completely different order. Both works however bring us somewhere recognisable but wholly changed, into a place where we might have to unlearn quite a bit before going any further.

In an essay for an early edition of South as a State of Mind, the occasional journal that forms part of documenta 14’s theoretical armature, filmmaker Manthia Diawara quotes Edouard Glissant, saying how much he enjoyed passing ‘from one atmosphere to another through crossing a border’;[4] that for borders to become (necessarily) permeable, we need to unlearn them as things that defend and prevent. There are multiple kinds of borders between Athens and Kassel, and you’d hope that one of the results of this whole enterprise is that at least some of those become more permeable. Certainly there are threads leading back to German soil via the artists, many of whom have a corresponding work in both cities. Maria Eichhorn has established an ‘institute for orphaned property’ in Kassel investigating the expropriation of Europe’s Jewish population; Sanja Iveković will build the upper levels of her Monument to Revolution there; and Kassel is ostensibly the final destination for Ross Birrell’s epic horseride across Europe, though the ‘coexistence of companions’ in a process of interspecies becoming-with is rather how Birrell describes its goal.

Birrell’s horse, Hermes, one of a declining breed whose remaining herds are found in Germany and Greece, is named after the Greek god of ‘commerce and theft, music and border crossings’.[5] Once Hermes and his companions arrive at the other documenta, it will presumably be easier to read the sprawling dialogic event as more of a continuum. But it seems unlikely that enough has been unlearnt during this first leg for the second to take us somewhere truly new. There is already a raft of initiatives springing up in Athens to make something there of whatever is left behind; from the explicitly critical documena (Ancient Greek for ‘the perceptions that function as a given; those things believed in or hoped for’), to the Institute for the Management of Athenian Post-documenta Melancholy (IDAMM) and Learning from Documenta (a research project assessing how the orientation of its gaze inflects what the institution learns and its effect on the dynamic of the city). Perhaps the best thing we could do in the meantime is take the advice of Artists Against Evictions to ‘open (our) eyes to the city and listen to the streets’,[6] treating the exhibition as just one possible point of departure into a place of many atmospheres.



[1] ‘Documenta Under Fire over Artist and Refugee Evictions’, Artforum, April 10, 2017 (accessed May 2017)

[2] Every Time A Ear di Soun, (accessed May 2017)

[3] Candice Hopkins, ‘Beau Dick’ in Documenta 14: Daybook, Munich: Prestel Velag, 2017

[4] Manthia Diawara, ‘Edouard Glissant’s Worldmentality: An Introduction to One World in Relation’, in South as a State of Mind, Issue 6, Fall/Winter 2015.

 [5] Ross Birrell, ‘The Transit of Hermes’, in (accessed May 2017)

[6] ‘Documenta Under Fire over Artist and Refugee Evictions’, Artforum, April 10, 2017 (accessed May 2017)



Beau Dick, Twenty masks from the series ”Undersea Kingdom” (2016–17), various materials, installation view, EMST—National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, documenta 14, photo: Mathias Völzke

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