Documenta 14 – Learning from Athens


By Phoebe Fronista (Reuters)

Documenta – one of Europe’s most important modern art exhibitions – opened recently in Athens, outside the German city of Kassel for the first time in its history.

Even today, in a supersaturated calendar of worldwide art events, no show matters more than Documenta, a colossal German exhibition of contemporary art, reinvented every five or so years as a “museum of 100 days”.

Its prestige is such that it ranks alongside the Venice Biennale, Art Basel and Monumenta in Paris in terms of its European cultural significance. In 2012, it drew more than 900,000 visitors.

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Documenta 14 – ‘Learning from Athens’ – will run in the Greek capital until July 16, extending over more than 40 landmark locations including squares, cinemas, and libraries. It will also still run in Kassel this year – from June 10 to Sept. 17.

Organisers have said Greece’s role at the centre of Europe’s financial and migration crises drove the decision to twin the fair between Athens and Kassel, though exhibits will not be limited to those themes.

More than 160 artists are showcasing new works in Documenta 14, touching upon issues such as migration, the financial crisis and censorship.

For every familiar name, such as the American painters Vija Celmins, R. H. Quaytman and Stanley Whitney, there are 10 who are far less known, but then, Documenta has always championed the provocatively peripheral.

Of course, the Hellenised version of this renowned exhibition is not without a sense of irony. Greece’s long economic crisis has strained relations with Germany and many in the country blame Berlin, their biggest creditor, for the painful austerity and record unemployment associated with three financial bailouts.

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Similarly, the accompanying bureaucratic and financial headaches are not incidental for artistic director Adam Szymczyk, 46, who opted to work with public institutions rather than Athens’s cash-flush private museums. A fair chunk of Documenta’s 37-million-euro budget has gone into nearly bankrupt Greek art organisations in what might be considered an artistic stand-in for the Eurozone transfer payments that Germany continues to resist.

Szymczyk has described the long process of organising the event in the Greek capital as both “excruciatingly difficult” and “amazingly beautiful”.

“And yet, the journey has only begun,” he said.

The exhibition latest edition sprawls across over 40 sites, some as far afield as the port of Piraeus, though its most important is probably the new National Museum of Contemporary Art, or EMST, in an elegantly-converted former brewery vacant for years.

Standout works at EMST include Tripoli Cancelled, a polished film by the New York-based artist Naeem Mohaiemen, set on an old Boeing 747 parked at the crumbling Hellenikon Airport in Athens. The pilot goes through the motions of announcing flight time but never takes off. Like the myriad migrants here whose movements are blocked by European Union regulations, this plane is stuck in Greece.

Another large gallery at EMST showcases music by the Soviet composer Arseny Avraamov, whose ‘Symphony of Sirens’, backed by gun blasts and metallic droning, is a classic case of an artwork for a future that never came.

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Indeed, music and sound are major concerns of this Documenta, especially in the section housed at the Athens Conservatoire, Greece’s oldest music school. Graphical scores by Greek composers such as Jani Christou and Bai Davou are juxtaposed with compelling diagrams of a rare synthesiser, the EMS Synthi 100, which the Documenta team has been restoring for Greek electronic musicians.

Other exhibits include an open kitchen in a central Athens square, where visitors are encouraged to grab a bite to eat with strangers, with further works at Athenian landmarks such as the Ancient Agora, the Temple of Zeus and the First Cemetery of Athens.

Throughout the works and installations, bodies are in motion. The ongoing refugee crisis which has left 65.3 million people displaced and pushed Greek social services to the breaking point — is inescapable in Documenta 14.

This theme reaches its zenith in Glimpse, a 20-minute silent film by the Polish provocateur Artur Zmijewski being shown at the Athens School of Fine Arts. It was shot largely in the Jungle of Calais, France, the recently-destroyed camp home to 6,000 migrants.

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In the film’s initial, documentary sequences of plywood shacks and pitiful tents, refugees stare down the camera; a young girl smiles, while her father looks down, abashed. But then the artist enters the frame, offers a new coat to a refugee and then paints its back with a dripping white X. Later, in Paris, he shoots African migrants in a stylized close-up. Zmijewski’s film is both brave and shockingly discomforting, demolishing our expectations of objectivity and respect in depicting the least fortunate.

Of 13 editions of Dokumenta so far, two have become touchstones in recent art history: the freewheeling fifth edition, curated by the Swiss Harald Szeemann in 1972, which equalised painting and sculpture with conceptual art and happenings; and the erudite 11th edition, organised by the Nigerian Okwui Enwezor in 2002, which propounded a global art ecosystem with Europe no longer at the centre.

But every Documenta, since the first in 1955, has served as a manifesto about art’s current relevance and direction, and each instalment has taken place in Kassel, an unlovely town north of Frankfurt, which was destroyed by Allied bombs in World War II.

Documenta takes pride in its avant-garde image – in 2007, China’s Ai Weiwei brought 1,001 of his compatriots to Kassel as “live exhibits”.

The exhibition was founded by Arnold Bode, a curator, artist and teacher, who was one of many German artists forbidden to work by the Nazis. A Kassel native, he hoped to provoke Germans with forms of international modern art after the stifling Nazi era.