In Athens, Documenta 14 Throws Out the Blockbuster Art Show Formula—But Falls Flat

  • Rebecca Belmore, Biinjiya'iing Onji (From inside), 2017. Filopappou Hill, Athens, documenta 14. Photo: Fanis Vlastaras. Courtesy of documenta.

Long before Adam Szymczyk’s post as Artistic Director of documenta 14 was announced, a fellow art critic and I were chatting over drinks. She quipped that Szymczyk was the “Kate Moss of the art world”—waifish, reticent, mysterious, in great demand, capable of surprising moves, and adept at elevating something (in Szymczyk’s case, artists, as he’s been known to make art stars).

In the run-up to the art world’s most anticipated event this year, Szymczyk has been all of the above. The most surprising move was, of course, transplanting half of the quinquennial exhibition, which is typically located in Kassel, Germany, to Athens. The announcement for that change came in October 2014, when Greek-German relations were in sharp decline under the weight of debt discussions and bailouts from the European Union.

The curator’s mystery and reticence has been on full display, too. He refrained from publishing an advance artist list, and released an incomplete venue list just days before the preview. Although participatory events and talks have taken place in Athens since fall 2016, it was only at a two-and-a-half-hour press conference on April 6th that audiences got a taste of what documenta 14, which has the working title “Learning from Athens,” is about.

  • Andreas Angelidakis, Unauthorized Athinaiki Techniki Polytechnio 8. © Angelos Giotopoulos. Courtesy of documenta.

“Unlearn what you know,” Szymczyk said. “In my opinion, an exhibition should be an experience, without great programmed expectations.”

Indeed, emptying the cache in one’s brain isn’t a bad idea before tackling 160-odd artists showing in more than 40 venues. Anchoring the presentation are the larger spaces—the Athens School of Fine Arts, Benaki Museum Pireos Street Annexe, the former Athens Conservatoire, and the EMST contemporary art museum, the latter which has long been inoperational due to government mismanagement.

Then there are the smaller venues, many of which feature just one or two artists. The program also includes a radio station that broadcasts 28 commissioned sound pieces in multiple formats, art films screened on Greek television, a vibrant education program, and a jam-packed schedule of performances.

Curator Monika Szewczyk, who is part of a team working under Szymczyk, instructed press to “not look for red threads.” But of course, themes emerged. One such thread is language, including the universal language of music—which emanates from performances, archival materials, and even art objects across the exhibition.

  • Nevin Alada, Music Room. © Mathias Voelzke. Courtesy of documenta.

In Music Room (2017), Turkey-born artist Nevin Aladağ subtly transforms furnishings into instruments (a stool becomes a drum, guitar strings are stretched taught between couch armrests). These are played in two performances per day.

Likewise, Mexican composer Guillermo Galindo’s Exit/έξοδος (2016–17) consists of clever, collage-like instruments made of detritus found in politically loaded zones like refugee camps. These are periodically used for performances, too.

And Susan Hiller’s The Last Silent Movie (2007–08) traces disappearing or lost languages in a haunting film (Szymczyk showed the same piece at his 2008 Berlin Biennale), while William Pope.L’s Whispering Campaign (2016–17), inspired by current post-truth politics, embeds fragmented, whispered narratives into multiple locations.

The latter is an especially lovely piece, effectively penetrating the viewer’s psyche. (At one moment, I thought I was hearing voices in my head.)

  • Bouchra Khalili, The Tempest Society. © Angelos Giotopoulos. Courtesy of documenta.

Given the geopolitics of Greece as a port for migrants traveling into Europe, it’s no surprise that the refugee crisis looms large as a theme. Bouchra Khalili’s The Tempest Society (2017), for instance, is an engrossing hour-long documentary tracing the fate of refugees in Athens. But the migration experience is perhaps best captured by Berlin-based Hiwa K, who undertook a journey from Turkey to Europe some 20 years ago.

In his video Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue) (2017), he retraces his path through Greece, walking while balancing a complex contraption of mirrors on his nose, suggesting his invocation or reflection of that first journey.

The soundtrack is a poetic narration of his life and musings on walking, darkness, and silence. In his One Room Apartment (2017)perhaps the strongest sculpture on view here—a single metal bed balances atop a concrete structure. Its staircase and bare concrete mirrors the skeletal, unfinished buildings in Greece and other poor countries from the Global South.

Critiques of the media, and of capitalism, are also present across the displays. Emeka Ogboh’s The Way Earthly Things Are Going (2017) puts a multichannel sound installation, featuring music and stories, in the Conservatoire’s dark, raw-concrete auditorium, while on its front wall, a real-time LED shows world stock indexes.

  • Hiwa K, Pre-Image. © Mathias Voelzke. Courtesy of documenta.

  • Emeka Ogboh, The Way Earthly Things are Going. © Mathias Voelzke. Courtesy of documenta.

The clash between African singing and Western monetary values is a jarring reminder of the exploitative relationship between capitalist systems and the resources from which they extract their value.

There are several pieces by indigenous peoples—notably multiple works by and about the Sami people from the Arctic regions of Norway—as well as art that addresses alternative communities existing beyond capitalism. There is also a predominance of Eastern European artists (perhaps no surprise, since part of the curatorial team is Polish), with many of their works referring to oppressive regimes of the past and their related aesthetics.

A whole room is given over to Social Realist portraiture, and there are some lovely collages and a film by the 90-year-old Romanian artist Geta Brătescu.  

What didn’t emerge at this year’s documenta were familiar formulas so often seen at art mega-events. At least since the early 2000s, most major exhibitions have one or two spectacular buzz-generating or Instagrammable works, pieces by familiar art stars anchoring each venue, and a smattering of intriguing art by new names.

Only the latter is present here. A lack of familiar touchstones may have left some viewers disoriented, with presentations in the large venues sometimes feeling restrained and often didactic (many vitrines with many things to read). Parts of the EMST and the Benaki Annexe, meanwhile, are disconcertingly installed like, say, a corporate collection.

This exhibition’s heart, guts, and libido clearly lie in its performances and smaller interventions, which embed themselves into the fabric of Athens—the “experience” that Szymczyk is clearly after.

  • Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle, Cuddling. © Stathis Mamalakis. Courtesy of documenta.

Sex activists and collaborators Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens will conduct a free sidewalk sex clinic starting this week, for instance. And the Greek-Norwegian architect Andreas Angelidakis has filled three rooms of a private apartment he rented in the anarchist Exarchia neighborhood with psychedelic installations and archival films that analyze the psychological profile of Athens as an architectural space.

I was lucky to catch Angelidakis there, but such outposts were difficult to find or visit in a city in which punctuality is not paramount—and where another German presence on the exhibition’s opening weekend, a visit by German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, resulted in chaos.

The ensuing demonstrations, epic traffic jams and, in some parts of the city, tear-gas raids, are probably not what Szymczyk meant when he claimed that exhibitions can be a time to come together as political subjects. (Or is that exactly what he meant?)

This documenta needs time and navigational skills to experience it fully. (I dare you to find the oak tree planted in Greece, but with branches of Kassel grafted onto it.) It feels intentionally opaque, forcing viewers to slow down and figure things out. The only explanatory material available is located on the floor, and includes just work titles on paper and handwritten artist names on blocks of marble that look like paperweights.

  • Angelo Plessas, Experimental Education Protocol. © Freddie Faulkenberry. Courtesy of documenta.

But the question remains: Just what were Szymczyk and his team thinking? After all this unlearning, what are we supposed to learn from Athens? A gallerist I spoke to was convinced that Szymczyk is rewriting the canon, drawing new lines between historical and non-Western works and current artistic and political movements.

Several artists I met were irritated by, or furious at, what they saw as heavy-handed curation, the old curator-usurping-artist discourse. Some critics were downright unimpressed, but more of us, myself included, were simply nonplussed—at least at first.

There’s something about documenta 14’s Athens exhibition that prevents viewers from exercising an instant reaction. Rather, it worms its way into the subconscious, despite its dry presentation and the vague sense accompanying it that non-Western work has been stuffed into a Eurocentric template against all good intentions.

I’m reminded of a haunting piece on view at the Benaki Annexe: French-British artist duo Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s video somniloquies (2017) is a 73-minute documentary pairing blurry, dream-like footage of sleeping bodies with the voice of prolific sleep-talker Dion McGregor. (Psychologists long studied 1960s recordings of McGregor’s nocturnal ramblings.) When I walked into the black box, I heard him saying, in a chilling voice, “Tomorrow the world is gonna kill itself.”

  • Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Somniloquies. © Yiannis Hadjiaslanis. Courtesy of documenta.

As I continue to digest this installment of documenta 14, I wonder whether this was one half of a coherent exhibition, or a first chapter. It remains to be seen whether the issues introduced in Athens will crystallize in Kassel, or whether “Learning from Athens” will exist on its own discrete terms.

Szymczyk, in delivering koan-like statements, such as “the great lesson is that there are no lessons,” may be issuing a disclaimer, bowing out of presenting a sharp curatorial statement.

The Athens leg of documenta 14 is in some ways a call to challenge Western economic and political structures (many of which were born in Greece) and question “what we know”—yet it offers no answers, and forgets that it and the greater art world still function deeply within those very structures.


—Kimberly Bradley

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