documenta 14. "Learning from Athens", part I

Daniel García Andújar, The Disasters of War, Metics Akademia, 2017, photo: Mathias Völzke

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Documenta, at the forefront of contemporary art and theory, is one of the most important art exhibitions in the world. It takes place once every five years, usually in Kassel, a city in the center of Germany that was destroyed during World War II. In 2017, on its fourteen iteration, it will also be held for its 100 days in Athens, transplanting half of the quinquennial exhibition to the Greek capital.

The 100-day exhibition, documenta 14, which has the working title Learning from Athens, opened its doors in Athens on the 8th of April and till 16th of July will show works from over 160 international artists extending over the city in 47 different “only-public” institutions, squares, cinemas, university locations, and libraries.

Anchoring the presentation are the larger spaces —the Athens School of Fine Arts, Benaki Museum Pireos Street, the former Athens Conservatoire, and the EMST Contemporary Art Museum. Then the other 43 smaller venues, which feature just one or two artists.

The quinquennial show it is dominated by performances, actions, and smaller interventions —rather than visual offerings— that engage the exhibition visitor with the fabric of the city. The program under the artistic direction of Adam Szymczyk also includes a radio station that broadcasts 28 commissioned sound art pieces, art films screened on Greek television, and an education program.

Various projects are intended to reach beyond the artistic community in Athens and to participate directly in the life of the city. These have included a large, albeit cryptic, poster campaign of a pixellated “14”.

The Athens leg of documenta 14 is inspired by the socio-political themes that shape Europe today: political structures, many of which were born in Greece, libidinal economy, rethinking production, currencies, and population flows—immigration and displacement— as well as WWII and the Holocaust, historical backdrops that informed Documenta’s creation in the first place.

documenta 14 is an “apatride” exhibition —quoting one of the curators, Paul B. Preciado recent text—, by means of no birth or death dates or country of origin included in the charming labels, made of marble inscribed with the artist name and arranged on the floor. There is also a lack of contextualizing information and wall texts —not always bad sign.

This is the first of a series of three articles about this 14th Documenta edition.

The Parliament of Bodies at Parko Eleftherias

We embark upon the documenta 14 massive tour with Spanish philosopher Paul B. Preciado, curator of the Documenta Public Program The Parliament of Bodies, ongoing since September at the Athens Municipality Arts Center at Parko Eleftherias where non-fixed soft architecture created by Andreas Angelidakis consisting of sixty-eight blocks of resembling ruins can be assembled and rearranged in endless ways, creating multiple and transient architectures.

Parko Eleftherias (Freedom Park) transforms itself into an experimental public space, introducing numerous Greek and international artists, theorists, historians, and curators with weekly activities including public talks, performances, reading groups, workshops, screenings, and presentations.


EMST, National Museum Of Contemporary Art

The biggest venue with more than 80 artists on display is the EMST, National Museum Of Contemporary Art, defined by the team of curators as the Chorus, a multitude of voices and bodies drawn together for listening and dialogue…

At the entrance, welcomes the exhibition two appropriated photographs from 1905 British Empire colonial past by New Zeland of Māori origin artist Nathan Pohio (b. 1970), Raise the anchor, unfurl the sails, set course to the centre of an ever setting sun! (2017).

Below these gigantic photographs, on the ground floor gallery, the installative work Tales of the Copper Cross Garden, Episode I (2017) of Congolese artist Sammi Baloji (b. 1978) documents the mesmerizing process by which copper is drawn into wire. A choral mass provides the solemn soundtrack and a large-scale black and white photograph depicts singing choirboys. The work is also a reflection on the role of the Church in the colonial enterprise in Africa.

Next to Baloji, there are different series of masks by Beau Dick (1955-2017) —an artist and hereditary chief of an Indigenous potlatch village in Canada who passed away in March. Masks are central in Indigenous ceremonies and were banned by the British colonial authorities. Cohabitating with these two works there are some other pieces “not very” in the line with them making the room a bit messy.

The first floor opens up with the dense work of Austrian artist Ashley Hans Scheirl (b. 1956) and her brightly colored paintings. Nearby is The War of the Relics (2013), by Indian artist K. G. Subramanyan (b. 1924). This is his final mural before his death in June 2016. Measuring 2.7×10.9 meter, is a rare and ambitious feat of the human spirit. The German artist born in Iran, Nairy Baghramian (b.1971) presents Drawing Table (Homage to Jane Bowles) (2017) —one of just a few works produced especially for Documenta—, which is an assemblage of objects meant to subject items from a short story by Bowles.

Passing by a closed room we find Dutch artist Hans Eijkelboom (1949) silent video The Street & Modern Life, Birmingham, U.K. (2014). Although the majority of the works are unspectacular, the scarlet cascade Quipu Womb (The Story of the Red Thread, Athens) (2017) by Chilean-born, New York-based artist Cecilia Vicuña (b.1948)  is one of these excessive ones.

In between floors are five large format prints from the series Blood Memory (1990) taken in Kosovo by Bosnian artist Lala Meredith-Vula (b. 1966).

Going up, a room is dedicated to the avant-garde Russian composers Aleksei Gastev (1882–1939) and Arseny Avraamov (1886–1944) imprisoned in 1912 for Bolshevik propaganda, who developed a technology for synthesizing sound from light —Graphical Sound. Pages of black and white graphic scores mounted on gray walls while Symphony of Sirens (1919–23) plays in the background.

Continuing up, the installation The Disasters of War, Metics Akademia (2017) by Spanish artist Daniel G. Andújar (b. 1966) presents a thoughtful analysis of Classicism with 3D printed statues of the Farnese Hercules, Boxer at Rest plus banks of images that place Greek art within a network of nationalist imagery and racial classification.

Next is the gallery dedicated to Italian-Sardinian Maria Lai (1919–2013) marvelous textile pieces and passing by in a close room is the film by French filmmaker Michael Auder (b. 1945), Gulf War TV War (1991, edited 2017) —made filming his TV— in which he documents American television news during the run-up to the first Gulf War, a mixture of propaganda and feeble journalism, image and text.

In the way to other spaces, hanging on the wall of a long corridor is the touching piece by Canadian Moyra Davey (b. 1958) showing photographs she had folded like envelopes and sent from her home in New York to the documenta 14 curators in Athens.

Also on this floor are Polish artist Piotr Uklański (b. 1968) reproduced stills from Olympia notorious Nazi propaganda film by Riefenstahl hang alongside with older paintings of Hitler by the American duo McDermott & McGough, each meant to memorialize a gay victim of the Holocaust, the all composition —Uklański idea—  is called The Greek Way (2017).

On the museum’s top floor, in a room painted in red is the remarkable documentary The House Is Black (1963) by Iranian director Forough Farrokhzad (1935–1967) filmed at the Bababaghi Hospice leper colony in Iran, to finish with a nonsmooth transition between Farrokhzad and a gallery filled with abstract paintings by Stanley Whitney.

Smaller Venues

Following the advice that Mr. Szymczyk gave during the press conference where he did offer a useful set of instructions on how to experience the show: “Visit the exhibition according to geography, don’t run to the big venues first. This will give you some insight into how we worked on the projects”, we will pass on this virtual tour from heavy EMST site to a series of performances that happened in the open public space during the opening-week program and to some of the fabulous small venues we visited and that are sought to engage directly in the life of the city.

Archaeological Museum of Piraeus

A few kilometers away, at the Piraeus port it takes place the Collective Exhibition for a Single Body at the Archaeological Museum, a proposal by curator Pierre Bal-Blanc in collaboration with the Greek choreographer Kostas Tsioukas and dancers and performers Myrto Kontoni and Tassos Koukoutas. A body is dissected into distinct parts, as in an anatomical study. Each part, limb, muscle, or organ, becomes the medium of an action overseen by the curator and the choreographer and created by a selection of documenta 14 participating artists who work in a variety of disciplines. The proposed gestures are translated into scores and performed by three dancers among the visitors to the museum in an aleatory fashion, continuously repeated.

Ancient Agora of Athens—Odeion of Agrippa

At the center of the Ancient Agora —a place of assembly for the citizens central to Athenian democracy and justice— was the Odeion of Agrippa, an auditorium with the capacity to seat one thousand people. It was punctuated by large statues of the Giants and Tritons set on high pedestals, standing today only as fragments: a torso, a gesture, a symbol. The artists of Prinz Gholam (Wolfgang Prinz, German b. 1969 & Michel Gholam, Beirut, 1963) appropriate these ancient forms through orchestrating a movement score between the statues and their own bodies in the performance My Sweet country (2017).

Kotzia Square

Situated in front of the City Hall of Athens and flanked by elegant 19th-century buildings, Kotzia Square has become quite deserted due to the recent decline of Athens’s commercial center. Rasheed Araeen (b. 1935), a Pakistani artist, invite people to share a meal while reflecting on possible scenarios for social change under canopies inspired by a traditional Pakistani wedding tent but reduced to a few colors and geometric patterns on his installation Shamiyaana—Food for Thought: Thought for Change, (2016–17). The food served is based on recipes from around the Mediterranean, prepared on site by Organization Earth.

Avdi Square

The central square of the working-class neighborhood of Metaxourgeio —which means “silk factory”— hosts Croatian artists Sanja Iveković (b. 1949), Monument to Revolution (2017) which reimagines Mies van der Rohe’s Monument to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. The former factory of the silk company, one of the oldest neoclassical buildings in the city, is now housing the Municipal Gallery and once employed more women than men being paid less than half male wage. In response to these historical remnants and not-so-past working conditions and inequalities, Iveković work is a public stage for workers’ rights, women’s rights, and class struggle.

Syntagma Square

Syntagma Square has been occupied numerous times by various social and political movements since 1843 when a military uprising supported by the people forced King Otto to form a constitution (syntagma). With an interest in uncovering historical and political realities, economic ties, and social relations embedded in specific sites, Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama (b. 1987) shaped the intervention Check Point Prosfygika. 1934–2034. 2016–2017 by repurposing charcoal sacks from African countries, once used for carrying commodities.

Polytechnion, National Technical University of Athens

In August 1933, the fourth meeting of CIAM took place on board a ship from Marseille to Athens by the Aegean Islands. Among the members of the modernist avant-garde were Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier, Fernand Léger, Charlotte Perriand, and Josep Lluís Sert. At the arrival to Athens, they celebrated an exhibition at the Polytechnic and the group drew up The Charter of Athens, a new approach to functionalism in city planning. Inspired by these events, German artist Rainer Oldendorf (b. 1961) collaborates with students and professors from Athens, Thessaly, Kassel, and Besançon to challenge the original Functional City exhibition. Also at this site are a work by American Pope.L (b. 1955) and an oak tree planted by Kosovar Sokol Beqiri (b.1964) with branches grafted from an oak in Kassel.

Archimidous 15, Moschato

The industrial district of Moschato is characterized by workshops, tavernas, wholesale shops, and low-income housing blocks. Archimidous street 15, a former print shop with high ceilings and concrete floors, houses Nigerian Otobong Nkanga (b. 1974) production of new soap recipes with eight different oils that carry stories from various geographies across Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.

Elpidos 13, Victoria Square

In Spring 2016, Victoria Square made news when it became a makeshift refugee camp, mostly for people fleeing violence in Afghanistan and Syria. In this zone, marked by the coming together of many peoples, American artist Rick Lowe (b. 1961), together with local agencies, is finding ways to forge connections, initiating dialogues that link arts and culture with small businesses, support networks for immigrants and refugee groups.

When Greek-German relations are in sharp decline under the weight of debt discussions and bailouts from the European Union, the decision of the German artistic institution to locate itself in Greece is at best provocative. Any case the show will run in parallel between Athens and Kassel for a month as Kassel will kick off on June, 10 and will run until September, 17 continuing the learning/unlearning exercise.

The complete artist list participating in documenta 14, can be checked here.

Text: María Muñoz. Photographs: María Muñoz and some of them by documenta 14, credits listed individually.

Front featured photograph: Daniel García Andújar, The Disasters of War, Metics Akademia, 2017, mixed-media installation, EMST—National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, documenta 14. Photo: Mathias Völzke

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