Documenta is an art exhibition that has been organised and presented in Kassel, Germany, every 5 years since 1955. The reason behind the very first one was to disperse Germany’s cultural darkness due to Nazism after the war. Through the years though it has developed into one of the most important exhibitions of contemporary art worldwide, possibly because of its non-commercial nature. Usually the event is curated towards exploring a specific political, cultural or sociological theme, for example feminism or migration.
Documenta aims to showcase the work of artists from all around the world and regardless of the fact that its centre has always been in Kassel, the latest exhibition’s concept evolved around the idea of moving the whole event in Athens, Greece. Adam Szymczyk the artistic director of Documenta had been coming and staying in Greece for a number of years, as have many artists from all over the world who are drawn to it by the popular idea that Athens is the new artistic centre of Europe.
To be precise Athens has been referred to as the new Berlin so often that the local street artists write graffiti that reads: “This is NOT the new Berlin” or “Athens is the new Athens”. However the name of the exhibition was decided to be “Learning from Athens”. A contradictory title that along with the absence of representation of a large number of Greek artists, infuriated a significant part of the Greek scene. The exhibition has only a couple of days left before the Athens part is finished (the Kassel part will be open until September 17) but I believe there is much to be said still about it, especially since its creative director has stated that the organisation hopes to “leave something behind it that the city can profit from”.
Looking into the matter first from the aspect of Athens becoming the coveted place where artists, (especially those from other countries) want to go and live at, the possible results are rather daunting. Being Greek but having lived in London for a decade myself, I have witnessed artists relocating as a first sign of gentrification. The artists choose areas where rents are cheap and the environment feels genuine and inspiring. Then the real-estate agents follow, the area slowly gets a make-over and is sold to a high price to people who can afford it. Simplistic but telling description of gentrification in a couple of phrases. With the way things have developed in Greece for the last few years, one can only wonder if that could ever expand to the scale of a city, or even a whole country.
When I think about the title of the exhibition, “Learning from Athens” again I cannot but wonder, what does it really mean. Athens is a city full of contradictions. It always carries the massively heavy burden of its past, the one that gave to the world the masterpiece of the Acropolis and the concept of Democracy. It also occupies awkwardly a crossroads position between the Eastern and the Western world, being part of Europe but parading with pride a misogynistic, macho, god-fearing religious culture. On top of all of that, on top of the blue sky, the long summers and an always vibrant nightlife, lands the CRISIS. In capital letters because it can be nothing but capital (pun intended) what has changed the lives of all Greeks. The Greeks who have been mocked and criticised by the entire world for not being able to deal with their debt, when the power play of banks and rich nations have been plotting against them. Nor being able to deal with the burden of the leftish revolution that the world expected with Syriza coming to power or the pseudo-Grexit referendum. And then the Syrian refugee influx and entrapment in a country of zero ability to deal with the problem has thickened the plot, increasing both the solidarity and self-organisation but on the other hand heightening the power and righteousness of far-right nationalist parties like Golden Dawn.
In the middle of all that chaos lands Documenta 14 that wants to “Learn from Athens”. Wants to learn from a city which manages to look like it deals with all that and actually has fun as well. “How come the bars and restaurants and cafes are still open and people are having fun?”, “How is it possible that people get on with their lives wrapped in riots, tear gas, graffiti and vandalism?”, the universal scene seems to wonder. How can they be in so much trouble and still seem so cool? This is what they really want to learn. This cannot be learned though, much as they try. Coming to look at Athens from the outside, or even for a few months (maybe even years) from the ‘inside’, is as futile as trying to grasp what it is to be a lion, by observing it in its cage, in the zoo.
I can attest to that, after living for 10 years in London I have a vague idea about Britishness but I cannot really explain what it is to be British. Of course I did not come here from a position of power, with any imported funds. I did not come to London to advertise any supposed superiority in life’s wisdom quoting Anthony Quinn impersonating Zorba the Greek. “Boss, life is trouble, only death is not”.
Going through the galleries of Documenta 14 in Athens I run into many artist friends of mine working as invigilators or gallery assistants. I was pleased to see them and they all told me how they felt excited to be around all that international art and also to have finally a steadily paid job, even if it was only for 4 months. Of course I knew that they would rather be on the other side, that of the celebrated artist sipping wine at the opening, but alas, they were the help.
Adam Szymczyk said at the announcement of Athens as the Documenta location that he wants to leave something behind. Much as I enjoyed strolling through the galleries with my friends, “inhaling” this abundance of art that was mostly imported; supposedly to learn from us but really to subtly patronise us, I was reminded of the 2004 Olympic games. Where so much money was spent into building new sites that were afterwards only left there to rot and crumble.
That was not an exhibition about Athens, it just happened to be there.
An interesting article I read about Documenta
An article in Greek: