documenta 14. "Learning from Athens", part II

screening at STELLA Municipal CINEMA
Douglas Gordon, "I had nowhere to go". Photo©Stathis Mamalakis

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The 100-day exhibition, documenta 14, which has the 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.

This is the second part of a series of three articles about the 14th edition of Documenta, the quinquennial contemporary art exhibition held in the capital of Greece.

Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA)—Pireos Street

Next main venue and one of my favorites is the Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA)—Pireos Street, the “Nikos Kessanlis” Exhibition Hall provides a setting for exploring notions of experimental education and pedagogy, social organization, and ways of ‘unlearning’ —quoting again artistic director Adam Szymczyk’s opening speech: “Unlearning is a form of learning”.

At ASFA the curatorial threat starts with works related to utopianism, education, pedagogy, and social organization.

Hanging from the ceiling at the centre of the main room is the paper installation Amereida Phalène Latin South América (2017) by Ciudad Abierta (Open city), a pedagogical and commune experiment, and architectural laboratory from Chile. Its modest, pastoral utopianism has tended primarily toward the collective’s historical achievement, the Ciudad Abierta legacy. The group’s exemplary history is told in Athens using archival material, presented in a set up designed by them.

Nearby is a large, score-like schedule of a 24-day experimental performance and learning workshop held in San Francisco and Kentfield, California in 1968: Anna and Lawrence Halprin’s Archival Materials from the Sea Ranch and Driftwood City Workshops, (1962–71), on view are also photographs of bodies interlinked, standing in a circle at a beach. Vivian’s Garden (2017) by English artist Rosalind Nashashibi (b. 1973) offers a tender portrait of painter Vivian Suter and her mother Elisabeth Wild filmed in and around their home in Panajachel, Guatemala. Both artist, long scale abstract painter Vivian Suter (b.1949) and Elisabeth Wild (b. 1922), painter and textile designer making abstract collages are also exhibited in documenta 14 at Filopappou Hill and Odeion Athinon sites respectively.

Next room hosts Greek artist Angelo Plessas’s installation Experimental Education Protocol, Delphi (2017). Part of the artist ongoing series of experimental education platforms, constructed around the portrait of a different individual each time. Plessas (b, 1974) presented his one-time neighbour in Athens, Maria Zamanou-Mickelson, apparently an Allies spy during WWII. The humorous work links up Zamanou-Mickelson’s espionage to the Oracle of Delphi, who would offer predictions based on the movements of birds.

The last piece before turning back to the entrance is The Chess Society, J’ai l’impression qu’il y a une histoire d’amour entre la fille de salle et le grand noir qui fait le ménage (2017) by Cameroonian artist Bili Bidjocka (b. 1962), described by curator Soh Bejeng Ndikung as a “chess mise-en-scène behind curtains”. The artist addresses the knowledge that chess provides—as a game and as a philosophy— in its 1500-year history and how it moved the Persian, African, and Arab worlds into Europe and the Americas.

The exhibition turns now the radical utopia of the previous referred —and earlier in time— works, into dystopian pieces and works that present the fail of actual society models: Europe, the debt crisis, refugee critical situation and global political tension.

A few video works in particular present the effects of the European refugee crisis in documentary formats. Displayed in a large room at the back of the venue is The Tempest Society (2017) by Moroccan filmmaker Bouchra Khalili (b. 1975). An hour-long video offering filmic portraits of different “refugees” living in Greece (North Africans, Syrian children) linked with the Parisian theater group of the seventies Al-Assifa and the referendum protests on Athens’s Syntagma Square. It is a highly emotional story about the struggle for equality. Khalili’s work succeeds offering information about different kinds of “refugees” that add perspective to the understanding of that term. Glimpse (2016–17), by Polish artist Artur Żmijewski (b. 1966), is a silent, black and white 16mm film offering views of refugee camps and living quarters, in Berlin’s Tempelhof airport, in Calais and in Paris, France. It is a powerful, unsettling film that attempts to depict the brutality of the refugee experience.

Other visual narratives capture a mood of global political tension, as New Delhi-born Amar Kanwar (b. 1964) film Such A Morning (2017), which tells a story about a mathematician who in the peak of his career, loses his sight and retreats from the world going to live in seclusion. There, in creeping darkness, he begins to see.

Almost reaching again the entrance, another big room host the (not-so) futurist dystopian installation: Plastikus Progressus: Memento Mori (2017) by Australian artist Bonita Ely (b. 1946). A sculptural work made of plastic collected from the cities of Sydney, Athens, and Kassel that most likely will end in the ocean. The printed and digital materials draw connections between the three cities demonstrating that life on one side of the planet is deeply affected by the waste of the other.

To end the visit, up to the stairs where visitor can have a zenithal view of the big size installations downstair, there is half floor, where the sound and sculptural installation Matanzas Sound Map (2017) by Cuban artist M. Magdalena Campos-Pons (b. 1959) & Neil Leonard, gives a tribute to the city of Matanzas in Cuba in this historic transition moment for the island.

Finally, also in this semi-floor, “school” as a model is critiqued by American Allan Sekula (1951–2013) series School is a Factory (1978–80), presented in works comprising photographs and graphic panels.

Smaller venues

The opening-week program at some of the 43 smaill venues distributed around the city.

Filopappou Hill, Pikionis Paths and Pavilion

The Canadian Rebecca Belmore (b. 1960) has made a monument to the transitory at  Filopappou Hill. Biinjiya’iing Onji (From inside) (2017) is a tent—increasingly a long-term home for refugees and migrants—has been hand carved in marble, making the state of perpetual emergency.

Gennadius Library

In the Gennadius Library, Scotish artist Ross Birrell (b. 1969) shows the video A Beautiful Living Thing (2015), in which a violinist acts in the burned-out rooms of the mythical School of Art of Glasgow build by Charles R. Mackintosh, devoured recently by the flames. Using the motto of documenta 14, unlearning is a form of learning, denial becomes a motive and so the destruction, from which new ways of doing must be born.

Municipal Cinema Stella

The Glasgow-born, Berlin-based artist Douglas Gordon (b. 1966) showed his latest film, I had nowhere to go (2016) at Cinema Stella, a traditional local open-air cinema inside a courtyard. The film is based on the eponymous autobiography of Jonas Mekas and includes long sequences of audio featuring Mekas’s voiceover describing his life as a teenager in occupied Lithuania during WWII. Gordon works with moving image and the relationship between sound, text, image, and the human portrait; particularly in this piece, he focuses on the memory of the war as told by a bodiless voice to raise the question on the (un)representability of the catastrophe of the war.

Ending up this second part with the hope that documenta 14 will amplify the message to the world that, even amidst bleakness and pessimism, we can build the future we envision for ourselves.

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: Douglas Gordon, I had nowhere to go, 2016, digital video transferred from Super 8 film and video, installation view, Municipal Cinema Stella, Athens © Douglas Gordon/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017, documenta 14. Photo: Stathis Mamalakis

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