Lessons from Athens

Relocating Documenta 14 to the orange-scented streets of Athens is a radical gesture that will not go unnoticed. Still, the exhibition itself seems strangely bewildered.

Georgia Sagri, Dynamis (Askese – on Empathy), workshop, Documenta 14 Athens, 2017. Photo: Pernille Albrethsen.

I didn’t forget Valentine’s Day today!, declares a young woman loudly before hurling herself backwards to land on her back on the thin, grey blanket that offers only symbolic protection against the hard stone floor. Then she does it again – and again. The session is attentively observed by a group of young people seated in a circle around her. One of them, a kind of teacher with an authoritative air about her, corrects her. Relax and believe it, she says. The woman continues the exercise, but apparently the teacher is not satisfied. She enters the circle and takes the woman by the hand so that they can carry out the exercise together. It does not immediately seem as if doing it as a synchronised pair makes it any easier.

We are in a park in Athens, Parko Eleftherias, in a building that formerly served as the headquarters of the military junta; nearby rooms originally held a detention and a torture chamber. A large number of wild cats hang out between the buildings. They have just been fed by an elderly lady with bright blue hair. The teacher is the Greek artist Georgia Sagri, and in many ways the daily workshops that she hosts during the opening days of Documenta 14 can be said to encapsulate a microcosm of the transnational cosmos that curator Adam Szymczyk created for Documenta 14.

Despite the barrage of newsletters about all sorts of activities under the auspices of Documenta 14, most of the talk leading up to last week’s opening in Athens has focused on the overall curatorial approach – relocating one of the greatest art events in the world from its origins in Kassel, Germany, to Athens, Greece. This is hardly surprising: the approach is so radical in nature and involves so many political implications in relation to economics, migration, EU, North and South Europe that it is virtually inexhaustible in itself.

“Learning from Athens” is the subtitle of the exhibition, a title that should be partly understood in the context of the key concept of “Learning is unlearning”, which was repeated numerous times during the press conference in Athens and is at the heart of Georgia Sagri’s workshop. “We have to learn to breathe before we can speak. Then we can find our own voice,” she directs her students.

Sagri’s workshop acts as a preparation for a performance that will be presented in Kassel when Documenta opens there in June – entirely in keeping with “The continuum”, another key concept of Documenta 14 that is not only about the geographic distance and connection between the two cities, but also about time and duration. For Documenta 14 began long ago – perhaps in 2013 with the announcement that the next Documenta would take place in Athens as well as Kassel. Szymczyk and four or five of the curators subsequently moved to the city, and in the years that followed Documenta has hosted workshops, seminars and film screenings in Athens. Many new organisations have also been set up, including a new democratic structure, Parliament of the Bodies.

Documenta 14, press conference at Megaron, Athens. Curator Adam Szymczyk speaks. Photo: Pernille Albrethsen.

Prior to the opening, it was difficult to form any clear impression of the exhibition that lay ahead in Athens – apart from the fact that it was comprehensive in scope (featuring 150 artists) and spread (encompassing 25-30 venues). This difficulty was mainly associated with the fact that the list of artists featured was secret. Apart from the handful of names leaked from a few galleries who couldn’t resist the urge to tell, the secrecy was quite successfully maintained. It added an extra frisson to the press conference, where the audience seats at the Megaron concert hall in Athens resounded with the crackling of pages as the assembly leafed through the fresh-off-the-press kit. The excitement was only augmented by the fact that the list included a healthy dollop of unknown names from across the world. I myself was only familiar with some 15 to 20 percent of the artists.

Szymczyk is not the first curator to insist that Documenta should not be a regular celebration (every five years since 1955) of a Eurocentric view of art. A global perspective on contemporary art was also embedded in Catherine David’s Documenta X (1997), in Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 (2002) and its conferences in e.g. New Delhi and Lagos, and in Carolyn Christov-Barkargiev’s Documenta 13 (2012), which included a satellite exhibition in Kabul in war-torn Afghanistan. Yet no other curator has ever placed the actual main event (or at least 50% of it) outside Friedericianum in Kassel and outside of Germany the way that Documenta 14 does.

Even though most exhibition visitors will not take part in press conferences, the one in Athens nevertheless merits some attention here. Second only to the radical détournement of the exhibition’s geography and co-ordinates, that press conference will constitute one of the key elements of my memory of Documenta 14.

Angelo Plessas, Experimental Education Protocol, Delphi, 2017, multimedia installation, Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA)—Pireos Street, Athens, Documenta 14. Photo: Freddie F.

A woman walked up to the microphone and announced that we would now meet the artists of a Documenta 14. This would prove to be a speech act in the original sense of the term, for she proceeded to leave the stage while we sensed a lot of people seated in long rows in the dark. At first we heard some scattered whisperings and a few beating noises, and during the minutes that followed the artists “presented” themselves by performing Epicycle from 1968, a work by the Greek experimental composer Jani Christou that consists entirely of sounds made by means of the human body. It all ended in screaming and hollering and knocking on chairs and floors. Right there and then, knowing that artist Daniel Knorr’s white smoke was pluming its way out of the chimney of the Fridericianum in Kassel at that very moment, this performance was a quite compelling overture that gave one faith in “the continuum” (which also happens to be the title of another work by Christou that has inspired the exhibition concept). It boded very well for the exhibition awaiting us in the streets of Athens.

For the rest of the press conference, which lasted some three hours, the artist remained seated on the stage, fronted by the row of Documenta curators. The obvious parallel to the chorus of classical Greek drama was difficult to ignore. Szymczyk and the other curators got up to give speeches. The fact that the stage facing the audience held a large audience in itself conjured up a special atmosphere. When the 150 or 160 people on stage stood up to honour a declaration presented by a representative of an anonymous Syrian film collective the audience in the hall had to follow suit, albeit with a slight delay. The whole thing was almost a re-enactment of Marina Abramovic’s The artist is present scored for a collective: the artists’ presence grew tremendously powerful – not least because one of the points of the event was that the exhibitions would not open until the Greek drama was over.

So was it a tragedy or a comedy? Over the course of the three hours I oscillated between different views: at times I thought it was an amazing statement, one that honoured the artists (and curators), and at other times I saw it as a case of instrumentalisation that almost beggared belief. It would later turn out that the artists never gained quite the same presence in the exhibition itself; they remained a chorus, an aural backdrop.

Hans Haacke, Wir (alle) sind das Volk – We (all) are the people (2003/2017). Banner placed on the EMST building in Athens. Documenta 14 Athens. Photo: Pernille Albrethsen.

If one were to briefly describe the actual exhibition aspect of Documenta 14 in Athens as it appears at the five main institutions involved, the overall impression is one of a homogenous, somewhat traditional exhibition with classic formats (painting, sculpture, photography, video). There are also a few installations, but remarkably few large-scale works or approaches of the kind one tends to expect of mega-exhibitions, where it is usually interesting to see what the artists do when given larger budgets and/or extra curatorial attention. That is not the case here. Documenta 14 is, generally speaking, an exhibition of smaller formats.

At the same time – and this was particularly obvious at the largest of the exhibition venues, EMST (Athens’s national museum of contemporary art) – the exhibition seems strangely bewildered, a surprising contrast to the political pathos and sense of urgency with which the event was presented during the prolonged press drama. One senses some vague themes – something about sound and scores, something about “indigenous people”, something about photography, but more than anything the whole thing appears as “a bit of everything”, rather like a museum collection formed by different buyers. Perhaps this has something to do with the many signatories to this exhibition? As has virtually become tradition for Documenta, the team comprises 12­-13 curators. Perhaps that constellation is ripe for reconsideration.

Even for art professionals, having so many artists that one does not know is quite a challenge, particularly when the context is as devoid of firm direction as the case is here. Obviously, strong works will always stand out: examples include Georgia Sagri’s performance, Alina Szapocznikow’s sculptural casts of her own jaw, Michel Auder’s video work Gulf War TV War, Alan Sekula’s photographic prints School is a Factory and Angelo Plessa’s somewhat esoteric tableau Experimental Education Protocol. However, a group show is never better than its weakest link, and at this exhibition – which is also entirely devoid of informative texts or just a few headlines to point audiences in a specific direction – the artists who were already known had the greatest impact.

Yes, we were “frustrated”, as the curators had warned us we might be in this “unlearning is the biggest learning” situation. But it seemed as if we were frustrated for the wrong reasons. After all, the people who had set out for Athens for the official opening days were quite willing to go along with it all. They were perfectly ready to “learn” and “unlearn” if only they could be given the merest hint of what they were supposed to learn and unlearn. I almost began to feel embarrassed on behalf of the entire art circus, particularly in relation to all the Greeks who will visit this exhibition in the months to come and once again feel excluded.

Beau Dick, Twenty-two masks from the series Atlakim, 1990–2012. Installation view, EMST—National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens. Documenta 14. Photo: Mathias Völzke.

Documenta is in a league of its own. It cannot be compared to yet another prosecco-fuelled Venice biennial or semi-political Manifesta in some marginal area of Europe. Documenta is the queen of all curated mega-exhibitions, one that pushes back and defines curatorial markers for the next generation. Documenta 14 will undoubtedly be remembered for its audacity in creating a positive Trojka – relocating the time-honoured German exhibition to Athens of all places – in an era where Europe is under pressure from Brexit, Trump, Putin, populism, nationalism, fascism and people escaping from work. But unlike previous trailblazing Documenta events, such as those orchestrated by Okwui Enwezor and Carolyn Christov-Barkagiev, the somewhat flat feel of the Athens exhibition creates the impression that that move may have exhausted all the energy at Documenta 14’s disposal.

There can be no doubt that moving the entire Documenta structure down south has been a huge task. At the same time the press conference gave some impression of the impact it must have had on the lives of those curators who have lived in Athens for the last couple of years. One can easily imagine the scenes – long tables laden with mousakka, Greek salad and animated conversation about fascism, refugees and the future of Europe. This has certainly been intense and undoubtedly quite a life-changing experience for the people involved.

Certain things suggest that Documenta 14 has been so intent on not orchestrating a repeat of the 2004 Olympic Games on Greek soil – a short-lived party of sports and confetti followed by an abyss of debts caused by the newly built stadiums that are now sprouting trees across the nation – that the arrangers have shirked back from grand gestures and large-scale exhibitions. Sadly, this also barred the way for the kind of grand celebration of art that the Athenians and visitors from abroad could have been invited to. For in spite of the large number of artists invited and the many local exhibition partners – all found within a most glorious city, full of friendly people, great food and a divine temple to light up everything – Documenta 14 does not feel like a generous exhibition.

This is not because Documenta 14 rejects the exhibition aspect as such. We are not looking at a case of straight-up privileging of discursive activism such as the one employed by artist Arthur Zmijewski when he curated the 2012 Berlin biennial and virtually cancelled the exhibition in favour of meetings and activism. Documenta 14 does not go that far. It wants to do a bit of everything – assemblies and rallies as well as traditional group shows. For this reason it would hardly be surprising if curator Szymczyk’s overall relocation is the main (or indeed only) thing that will be remembered once Documenta 14 has left the orange-scented streets of Athens.

If Documenta 14 in Kassel is in any way like the Athens exhibition, I would recommend that you head straight for the performance programme. A standout highlight was Haitian artist Kettly Noël’s Zombification, which balanced on the knife’s edge between performance, sculpture and modern dance with poise, wit and brilliance. Shouting tormentors in high rubber boots brutally shoved the audience aside in order to push dead slave dolls around in wheelbarrows or hang them from the trees. Being pushed around a bit was almost a welcome change. For the reason why the performance pieces worked well in Athens overall was, ironically, the fact that they did things on their own terms and managed to step out of “the continuum”.

Kettly Noël, Zombification, 2017. Performance, Documenta 14, Athens, 2017. Photo: Pernille Albrethsen.