An LGBTQI refugee rights group in Athens has stolen an artwork from Documenta 14 to protest what they perceive as the German quinquennial’s exploitation of refugees seeking asylum in Greece. On May 21, the grassroots organization Lgbtqi+ Refugees in Greece carried off artist Roger Bernat‘s 110-pound, plastic and fiberglass replica of an ancient Greek monolith known as the oath stone, upon which council members once swore their vows. The theft was executed during a theatrical performance to walk the stone around Athens before its transportation to Documenta 14’s other host city, Kassel, by plane. There, Bernat intended to bury it as part “The Place of the Thing,” his collaboration with dramatist Roberto Fratini that considers a Nazi-pioneered form of mass theater. The Spanish artist had invited various collectives and groups in Athens to help tour the stone over the course of one week to locations including museums, public schools, embassies, homes, and bars.
But Bernat’s stone never made it to Kassel, as the individuals he had paid to carry it that Sunday turned out to be protestors who took issue with the project’s underlying spending of resources. Lgbtqi+ Refugees in Greece, who accepted €500 (~$560) to participate in the piece, seized the stone midway through an event at Athens’s Polytechnic University. The group then issued a statement saying that it condemns “the ‘fetishization’ of refugees and disparages the use of vast resources on the high-profile arts event, while the hundreds of thousands of refugees languish invisibly in Greece and across Europe.” Members dubbed their brazen act, “Between a rock and a hard place,” and christened it with a counter-title to the festival: “Rockumenta 14.” They added that they have no intention of returning Bernat’s stone.
“You have come to Greece to make art visible, graciously offering to purchase the participation of invisible exoticized ‘Others,’” the group wrote. “Your stone is supposed to give us a voice, to speak to our stories. But rocks can’t talk! We can! So we have stolen your stone and we will not give it back. And like the millions of others who are seeking better lives in Europe, your stone has disappeared.” The statement then offers tongue-in-cheek possibilities of where the artwork could be, each one highlighting the challenges asylum seekers face, from the bureaucratic to the humanitarian: the rock might be in a distant prison, languishing without papers; at the bottom of the Mediterranean; on a flight to Sweden, equipped with a fake passport; in a detention center, contemplating suicide.
Clearly angered by the heist, Bernat and Fratini published a 13-point rebuttal on Bernat’s website to denounce the act as a publicity stunt. The pair’s statement emphasized that they never asked anything of the collective, to whom they essentially surrendered the stone for the purpose of the performance.
“This project, thought as a deconstruction of the notion of Thingspiel, is about seeing which kind of cultural meaning, political value or even religious charisma can acquire for different collectives and individuals an archeological piece,” they wrote. “And to see how individuals and collectives can negotiate the absolute pretext the object represents.”
Their statement also clarified the financial decisions behind the performance. “The collective was never ‘purchased,” Bernat and Fratini wrote. “Having a budget for the project, we simply decided to share the money between all the associations and collective that willingly declared themselves interested in doing something with the stone. If we hadn’t offered any money, we would have felt that we were luring people into sharing the project for nothing.”
The artists said they can afford to lose the stone, having already created two copies of the original, apparently in anticipation of a theft. But the collective’s gesture, aside from introducing some hilarity to the typically austere German festival, amplifies frustrations felt by many over its arrival in a country facing economic, political, and social turmoil.