Documenta 14 opened last month in Kassel, a dreary, small town in the center of Germany. The exhibition has been held here ever since it was founded, in 1955, as part of a larger project of reintroducing humanist images and traditions into postwar German society. Every five years, residents of this working-class town gear up to host about a million visitors from around the world, and pride themselves on being the “documenta stadt,” or documenta city, as its official tagline declares. This time, however, citizens were surprised to learn that the exhibition will open in another city before theirs: Athens.
Under this edition’s title “Learning from Athens,” the curators, led by artistic director Adam Szymczyk, have made Athens their home for the last few years, while they worked with local institutions and artists. They even declared at the Kassel press conference that they now felt like Athenians — a feeling other Athenians, based there for longer than just a curatorial project, reportedly did not share. The curators have set up the two cities as symbolic poles of today’s Europe: Kassel a working-class town in economically flourishing Germany, Athens the capital of struggling Greece; Kassel with barely any buildings constructed before WWII remaining, Athens crammed with layers of cultural history, the very image of Western civilization. Germany is Greece’s biggest creditor and engineered the austerity policies that had Greece debating whether to leave the EU in 2015; it has opened its borders to Syrian refugees, who have overwhelmingly landed on Greece’s shores. It is within this palpably strained relationship between the two countries that this year’s documenta is situated.
The decision to open the exhibition in Athens is perhaps a gesture to include the Greeks in the cultural and material wealth of Germany. But it might as well just be an opportunity for the established exhibition to connect itself with the radical, anti-capitalist “bad boy” of Europe. The exhibition in Kassel is likewise propped up on grand curatorial gestures, to varying degrees of success. The traditional home base of the exhibition, the historical Fridericianum museum, displays the collection of Greece’s National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), while the EMST building in Athens, which has stood empty for years due to delays in construction and budget cuts, is documenta’s main venue there. In Kassel this remains a largely conceptual gesture: in losing the specificity of its locale, the Greek national collection makes little sense there.
A more successful curatorial gesture occurs at the Neue Galerie, which usually houses Kassel’s collection of 19th– and 20th-century art. Instead, it has been installed with a display dissecting the conditions under which art is moved, owned, shown, and perceived. The exhibition route here opens with “The Rose Valland Institute” (2017), a research project by Maria Eichhorn about art looted from Jewish owners by the Nazis, which
lends an air of uncertainty about the rightful ownership of artifacts to the whole exhibition thereafter. Images of classical Greece are scrutinized as a product of German imagination: from the writing on classical antiquity of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a founding father of art history, to sketches of Greek sculptures by Arnold Bode, the founder of Documenta. Other rooms juxtapose racist images of othered bodies, such as 19th-century etchings of African slaves, Jews or Roma, alongside documentary information or works by artists of these heritages — probably another attempt at reflecting upon how these images emerge and circulate. But this academic strategy is disturbing, not because the images are shocking — after all, we are likely all aware of these ugly stereotypes, which still inform much of pop culture — but because this strategy awards these images visibility within a museum space. For an exhibition so concerned with the politics of visibility and the power of images to change consciousness, this display is especially hard to justify. It is a curatorial gesture, intrigued by historical coincidences, which forgot its greater purpose.
The most successful arc of the exhibition is not accomplished by any of its symbolic gestures but through the consistent and merited presence of non-white, gender non-conforming artists throughout. When successful, these works convey rarely seen perspectives of dominant narratives, claiming their validity in a preeminent contemporary art exhibition. Visual histories of colonization and indigenous pride are told: first by the imposing mural “Murriland!” (2017) by Gordon Hookey of the Waanyi aboriginal people, then by the delicately woven fabric piece “Historja” (2003-7), only 16 inches tall but 75 feet wide, created by Sami artist Britta Marakatt-Labba, and spread along a whole wall of the Documenta hall. Another strong piece is a video installation by Joar Nango: a collage of wasted landscapes made of materials pieced together in a journey across Europe. The video is a documentation of sorts of Nango’s travel from North to South, from snowy mountains to the sea, moving between industrial wasteland, rusty factories, raw materials, and the people and narratives that inhabit these marginal spaces. Other works that stand out are El Hadji Sy’s large object-paintings on raw canvas within wooden frames. They are arranged to form a circular barrier and may be seen from both inside the circle and outside, where their colors seep through and stitches that hold the painting’s base together become visible. And there is the homage to Lorenza Böttner, a transsexual artist from Kassel who had lost her arms at a young age and who had photographed herself in a variety of poses and personas that do not conform to mainstream images of gender or disability.
Paul B. Preciado, the curator of documenta’s public programs, declared that the exhibition gives agency to people whose essences were once reduced to their bodies, who had once been perceived as less than human — mere objects of display. As a transsexual, this is a personal project for Preciado, and one that is convincingly displayed throughout the exhibition. This is not a return to identity politics, as Chris Dercon, director of the Volksbühne, disparagingly announced at a talk I attended in Berlin shortly after the Athens opening. Instead, it is a statement of body politics, a physical occupation of the white spaces of high art, a flipping of agency and power — even a performance of the marginalized body’s own presence, until that presence takes root. In rare moments throughout the exhibition, this can be sensed — between the cracks of its grand curatorial gestures.
The Athenian portion of Documenta 14 is on view at locations throughout the city through July 16. The Kassel portion of Documenta 14 is also on view at various locations and runs through September 17.