ATHENS — The auspicious arrival of Documenta 14 in Greece earlier this year has so far met considerable controversy in a country still coming to terms with the 2008 financial crisis, social unrest, and the ongoing issue of refugees entering the country’s porous southern Mediterranean border. Athens stood out as a curious choice for the Documenta art quinquennial right from the start, immediately spurring speculative criticism since the announcement nearly five years ago that it was to be split between its usual host city in Kassel and the Greek capital. Entitled Learning from Athens — a concept developed by artistic director, Adam Szymczyk, with a team of six other curators — the exhibition features the work of over 160 artists, set over 100 days, spread across nearly 40 venues, including most notably the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), the Athens Conservatoire (Odeion), the Benaki Museum and the Athens School of Fine-Arts.
After a controversial 2010 bailout package brought relations between Germany and Greece to a new low, organizers had said they hoped the festival would help mend relations between the two countries. However, the undertaking has largely failed to appeal to locals, and in the process has even alienated some. According to Yanis Varoufakis, the enigmatic former Greek finance minister who stepped down after pressure from European leaders forced Greece to accept harsh austerity measures in exchange for an international bailout package in 2015, Documenta’s arrival was nothing more than “crisis tourism.” During a talk held at the 6th Moscow Biennale he suggested that Documenta’s placement in the Mediterranean country was both a political and cultural gimmick, unpropitious and a blight on the Greek people:
I have to say that I am not very happy about the idea that part of Documenta will take place in Athens — it is like crisis tourism. It’s a gimmick by which to exploit the tragedy in Greece in order to massage the consciences of some people from Documenta. It’s like rich Americans taking a tour in a poor African country, doing a safari, going on a humanitarian tourism crusade. I find it unhelpful both artistically and politically.
During the opening press conference held on April 6, Szymczyk nevertheless stated that organizers had a political responsibility, “there is a large untapped potential when visitors come together for an exhibition — a political potential,” he stated.
However, Documenta’s integrity at the local level began to seriously unravel after alienating the Athens Biennale, despite sharing an office building with the team. When it was first announced that Documenta 14 was to take place in Athens, there were several joint press conferences and public appearances held with the Athens Biennale team. Initially, the Athens Biennale was supposed to be one of the main collaborators and partners, but later this relationship soured as the oleaginous Documenta staff began to poach some of the Athens Biennale workers. Besides this, there were murmurings of Documenta using neoliberal practices such as employing their own invigilators as art laborers. What’s more, after two weeks on the job, these invigilators hired for Documenta 14 were informed that their wages would be decreased from a promised €9/hour to €5.62/hour, in a move described by the administration as a “misunderstanding.” In response to these and other issues, an Athenian group of anthropologists organized by Eleana Yalouri, an assistant professor in the Department of Social Anthropology at Panteion University, and Elpida Rikou, an instructor at the Athens School of Fine Arts and TWIXTlab developed a parody research group called “Learning from Documenta.”
However, since the crisis, Greece’s 270 public museums have seen their budgets considerably slashed, and austerity has noticeably pinched Greece’s other areas of the cultural sector where funds remain scarce. One of the main positives of Documenta’s arrival in Athens is that the organization brought with it cold hard cash that was invested in local cultural infrastructure, and to Documenta’s credit, they decided to work with cash-strapped public museums, rather than private entities. For example, Documenta restored an EMS Synthi 100, a rare analog synthesizer manufactured in 1971, which had been in disrepair for over twenty years and is now situated at the Megaron. There was significant cash made available through Documenta’s presence: the €37 million budget allocated for Documenta 14 was split evenly between Kassel and Athens. Apart from the free rent of public venues in Athens, no funding came from the Greek state or the city of Athens itself. In addition, Documenta brought with it a wealth of experience and an international team including Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, founder of Berlin’s influential Savvy Contemporary, an expert with considerable experience exploring how intersections of colonialism, power, and representation function within art.
In one of Documenta’s strongest stand-alone works, Ross Birrell’s “The Athens-Kassel Ride” (2017), a mobile performance project takes place over the 100 days of the exhibition, during which two equestrian riders invited by the artist will travel the distance from Athens to Kassel on horseback, mapping what Birrell has called a “vagabond trail” through Greece, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, and Germany. The project takes as a point of departure the idea of the mythical Greek god Hermes, the god of commerce, theft, music, and border crossings. Tracing the relational and metaphorical connections between the Balkans and Western Europe, Schengen and non-Schengen countries, the project also mirrors the migrational passage of many asylum seekers who make their way westward to Europe’s more prosperous countries, like Germany.
Another performance that gained considerable attention was Marta Minujín’s “Payment of Greek debt to Germany with olives and art” (2017). In it, Minujín, dressed up like Angela Merkel on the opening day of Documenta in Athens, serving olives to passersby while reciting a speech entitled “Angela” in which she agreed to write off Greece’s debt in exchange for the olives. While the performance bordered on being flippant, it appeared to me intended to awaken political consciousness within the sanctified space of the museum, though in a way that appeared naive and flat.
Performance was on full display both inside the official Documenta program and outside it. In a parallel project organized by Future Climates entitled the “Parthenon Marbles” (2017), artist Alexandra Pirici and writer Victoria Ivanova examine the controversial request for the repatriation of marbles taken by Lord Elgin from the Acropolis in Athens to the British Museum in 1801. The work takes the form of a choreographed ensemble presenting an immaterial speculative dance performance and journey into a “what if” scenario if the marbles were repatriated to Greece. Yet it was unclear what the project’s intended aims were — other than perhaps commenting on the role played by cultural imperialism in exhibitions like Documenta.
Artist Thierry Geoffroy, aka the Biennalist, trolled organizers at the opening press conference, wearing his signature blue United Nations Peacekeepers helmet, asking to what extent, if any, organizers had exercised self-critique. Archived under the hashtag #Documentasceptic, Geoffroy’s Instagram exploded during the opening press conference with the artist posting amusing images including one that asked “is Documenta the botox of capitalism?” At a book launch by artist and comedian Olav Westphalen, co-editor of Dysfunctional Comedy (2016), the artist discussed how biennals have been used to artwash crises. Often interspersing witty criticism with analysis of the culture industry, Westphalen is perhaps best known for his comic “Untitled” (1999), which depicts a smoldering town, while in the foreground an individual being interviewed on TV suggests “what our village needs now is a biennale!” Such humor was not lost in the context of being in Athens under the specter of Documenta.
In the main exhibition at the Athens School of Fine Arts, a work by Polish dissident artist Artur Żmijewski proved to be one of the exhibition’s most controversial. Entitled “Glimpse” (2017), it’s an unabashedly grim, silent video depicting refugees on location in two camps: one in Calais, also known as the “Jungle,” (which was closed and demolished by French authorities in 2016); the other in Templehof, Berlin, which is Germany’s largest refugee camp, housing about 1,300 individuals. The work speaks to the plights of migrants and the sordid conditions in which they live, but does so in a way that borders on victim porn, shot in a style that reminded me of Werner Herzog. A young girl smiles into the camera, seemingly unaware of the conditions of the shacks around her while her father looks on grimacingly. Żmijewski gives one of the migrants a pair of worn shoes; he paints the face of another. Oscillating between trembling close-ups and medium range shots, the film feels shockingly disconcerting. It is both Documenta’s most powerful, visceral work, as well as its most disturbing.
Also referencing the refugee situation is Rebecca Belmore’s large marble tent installed on Filopappou Hill, overlooking the Acropolis. With it, the artist designed a place for speculation on displacement. One can literally sit in the tent, which is otherwise a common item used by refugees for shelter. However, this one is cast in marble and placed at the highest point in the city, a primary area frequented by tourists. The tent felt like a crypt, and rather than actually evoking the experience of refugees, I saw it as a wasteful object that sought to consecrate the refugee crisis with an expensive monument.
In Athens, others projects set up shop outside Documenta’s official program, like the Artists at Risk initiative, organized by Marita Muukkonen and Ivor Stodolsky. Artists at Risk is founded on a simple, yet important principle: to provide safe haven and passage to artists facing acute political threat, to support their work through long term research projects, exhibitions, workshops, lectures, grants, studio space, technical support, and visa applications. In Athens, Artists at Risk set up a pavilion just outside Omonia Square, a stone’s throw from one of Athen’s oldest fish markets. The pavilion features a series of films and photographs by Issa Touma Pinar Öğrenci, and Erkan Özgen. Though outside the official program, it offers Athen’s most politically salient works under one roof. Touma’s film (which last year won the European Film Award for Best Short Film), “9 Days — From My Window in Aleppo” (2012), depicts in shockingly realistic terms how the battle for Aleppo played out from the perspective of his apartment window. It traces the shifting alliances of a group of college-age men as they take up different sides in the Syrian conflict, sides that correspond to shifting dominant powers. The rupturing alliances depicted in Touma’s film hints not only at the brutality of war, but also the mutable state of affairs in a civil war that has claimed millions of lives and displaced several million more. In Öğrenci’s film, a sententious shot of an oud floating in water stands in for the importance of the instrument for a group of Iraqi refugees the artist met while on residency in Vienna. In Özgen’s film, on the other hand, the artist depicts the heart wrenching story of a 13-year-old deaf Syrian boy who recounts the horror, violence, and tragedy that struck his family while living in Kobanî, a small Syrian village. Rather than using voice or language, the young boy testifies to the horrors of war with gestures and body language, performing for Özgen’s lens the necropolitics of the mass violence he has witnessed.
In May, nearly a month after Documenta touched down in Athens, a new round of tax and pension cuts were imposed on Greece by its EU-IMF creditors — principal among them, Germany. Percolating not so far beneath Documenta’s surface were these realities. Though Documenta features a number of strong individual works, as well as investments made in local cultural spaces, and interesting parallel projects, it also includes the standard interlopers of art tourists and poseurs who touch down amidst the city’s crumbling social and economic infrastructure. Consequently, it remains to be seen whether Learning from Athens manages to responsibly employ cultural diplomacy, or simply artwashes crisis for the acquisition of cultural and curatorial capital. Above all, these two competing narratives dominate Documenta’s Athens experiment.
The Athenian portion of Documenta 14 is on view at locations throughout the city through July 16. The Kassel portion of Documenta 14 will open on June 10 at various locations and run through September 17.