Thoughts on: Documenta 14 / Athens

Almost a week since my four intensive days at Documenta 14 in Athens it has now become evident how my initial impressions have shifted, what still remains and what I am still yearning to see and know more about. As expected political work dominated the exhibition and while many of them opted for narration over visual expression, Hiwa Ks sculpture “One Room Apartment” and video “Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue)” successfully encompassed both. Another video work that merged beautiful visual compositions with political content was Naeem Mohaiemens “Tripoli Cancelled” that, from the part of the 95min I saw, echoed both the aesthetics and the utopian/dystopian double entity of Chris Markers “Le Jetée” from 1962. Longer video works are unfortunately always challenging for me to watch in mega exhibition settings where I have limited time on my hands and must admit I did not stay for the full 95min, therefore reluctant to make a final statement on the work. On the contrary,Emeka Ogbohs sound installation “The Way Earthly Things Are Going”, captivated me solely on the merits of the work as I experience it on site, in the indoor cement amphitheater surrounded by (by me unidentifiable) song while curiously watching a LED display of realtime stock market index scroll by. The experience was only enhanced after I read the concept behind and the stock market index, which necessity to the piece I was hesitant to, became apparent in relation to his earlier work “Market Symphony” from 2015 where the voices from traders, buyers and sellers at major Lagos markets constitutes the sound. One of the few three dimensional works that drew me closer was in fact created by a poet. Cecilia Vicuñas “Quipu Womb (The Story of the Red Thread, Athens)” a three dimensional poem made out of unspun greek wool dyed red and assembled into a large scale soft sculpture reminiscent to a Native American dream catcher.

So much to see and so little time and as an artists also working within the realm of self-organizing I was eager to meet and share experiences with the local arts community in Athens. While all colonizing Blockbuster art shows have problematic relationships with the local arts community, this friction was even more apparent in Athens, maybe because the criticism towards Documenta 14 has moved beyond the art community and become part of the political agenda en large. By doing so it has ironically succeeded to actually have an impact a.k.a reaction on the locality it temporary occupies, something that otherwise only exists as a by now standardized ambitious cliché in the curatorial statements. With the words “You say you want to learn from Athens, well first open your eyes to the city and listen to the streets.” from the open letter to all Documenta 14 Viewers, Participants and Cultural Workers by the local activist group “Artists Against Evictions” still fresh in my mind, I set out.

Not surprisingly the overall essence was that of criticality towards the Documenta presence, extending in to a judgmental attitude towards northern european artists with northern european money taking advantage of the cheap living costs in Athens and moving their practice “temporarily” there. At the same time most of the local artists also worked in one way or the other for Documenta and there was talk about having demanded German salaries since the work mirrored that of their Kassel colleagues, which was refused by the Documenta organization. In my opinion a missed opportunity to actually “live as you teach”. Somewhat counter intuitively both artist-run-spaces 3 137 and A-Dash Space had opted to show Berlin and Reykjavik based artists as oppose to local, State of Concept had not much on view but was hosting “...a three-month long exhibition, research and public program: all dressed as a school” which looked extremely interesting but unfortunately nothing was on when we visited. At the non-profit Radio Athénes founder Helena Papadopoulos generously shared her vision for the organization which has opted to use the format of open recordings that are broadcast and later available on-line, as an alternative and addition to exhibiting work. Through the web site of NEON which is a non-profit that promotes Greek contemporary art, founded by collector and entrepreneur Dimitris Daskalopoulos I found out about the site-specific exhibition REMOVEMENT Athens. Six Greek artists successfully installed site-specific works in a partly empty shopping archade.

Since The Breeder Gallery was the commercial gallery everyone told me to check out, I made my way there through the Metaxourgio neighborhood which was a rare living example of gentrification not only stopped in it´s tracks but actually decaying, curiously caught in limbo unable to go back to it´s working class roots and too broke to complete the transition to hipster heaven. Commercial galleries normally do not talk about money unless it is in regards to sales, but this is Greece year 2017 and Documenta is visiting, so maybe not surprising that the exhibition on view took departure in the fact that this year is the year that the K Foundation 23 years ago promised to release their reasoning behind their work “Watch the K Foundation Burn a Million Quid.” in which they supposedly burned £100,000. The curator Milovan Farronato, Director and Curator of the Fiorucci Art Trust, writes that “...viewed in a philosophic context as a microcosm of what was to come with the forthcoming global economic crash, as though it had been envisioned before it even happened, invoking forms of clairvoyance, telepathy or magic to their actions.” and “...the exhibition interrogates witchcraft, mysticism and ritualistic practice and looks to explore alternative immoralities and search for the archetypal truths that lie within humanity.” Most evident in the roof top piece by Socratis Socratous who has created a mystical shamanistic garden of fresh fruit, trees and flowers to lure in stray tropical parrots originally of Asian decent to make their home there. But when the artists draws parallels to the refugees and immigrants coming to Athens in search of a welcoming home, it leaves me a bit queasy. Overall it is a refreshing and unexpected exhibition in a commercial space. In an Athens where the political activists seems to have given up and the daily or at least weekly demonstration nowadays are conducted by middle-class kids without an agenda, then the exhibition becomes a testament of a current universal feeling of powerlessness to effect ones political and by that economical situation and the only thing left is like Gothes Faust: Turn to Magic for assistance.

Without having been to Kassel it is difficult to make a statement regarding the curatorial decision to spread Documenta 14 over two cities with such different socio-economical conditions and how the two locations impacts the artists´ work depending on where shown. But as far as of the exhibitions reception from the local community, I´m awaiting to hear if any interventions to Hans Haackes, “Wir (alle) sind das Volk (We (all) are the people)” posters have been made in Kassel, in Athens they were evidently all covered up with other posters, within two days of going up.

Josefina Posch 2017