April 7, 2017  —  by

what we know about documenta 14

credit: Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times

Graffiti in Athens opposing the Documenta art fair there; some critics believe the event is taking advantage of Greece’s image as a country in crisis. For the first time in its history, Documenta is taking place in two cities: Athens, Greece, and Kassel, Germany, its historic home base.

ATHENS — The city of Kassel has been the host of documenta since its inception in 1955. Likewise, over the past thirteen editions, documenta has served as host to many artists and cultural practitioners from around the globe, becoming a reference exhibition for its pioneering curatorial practices. But, ultimately, this position of host—with all the privileges involved—appears to be no longer tenable and begs to be questioned, if only temporarily.

To this end, this year’s quinquennial, which is headed by Adam Szymczyk, takes place in Athens, Greece, and Kassel, Germany. Thus documenta’s undisputed position as host is meant to be abandoned for another role, that of guest, in Athens. Its Greek half opens to the public on Saturday, and a preview was held this morning. After years of secrecy, Documenta 14 has quietly released its artist list on its website and the artists were unveiled—quite literally— at the press conference in Athens. A stage curtain was lifted to reveal all the curators and artists (minus the deceased ones, of which there are quite a few), who were seated in rows, like students at a graduation ceremony. A choir performing a Jani Christou was the soundtrack for the event.

During a three-hour-long press-conference-meets-lecture, Szymczyk and his team noted that the main lines of thinking behind this move are manifold. They have to do with the current social and political situation both in Europe and globally, which motivates artistic action. Further, they indicate the need to embody in documenta 14 the palpable tension between the North and the South as it is reflected, articulated, and interpreted in contemporary cultural production. The challenge involves avoiding the traps of binary logic, while resonating with changing realities. To that end, instead of the singular spectacle, with its clearly designated location and temporal order, typical for great international exhibitions, documenta 14 will comprise two iterations set in dynamic balance in space and time.

Spaces and places of documenta 14 in Athens include museums, cinemas, theaters, libraries, archives, schools, television, radio, university auditoriums, public squares, streets, clubs, shops, parks and paths, and residential buildings—in short, all that comprises the great city in its density, richness, and strange beauty. A major portion of the exhibition of documenta 14 spans the following six venues:

Athens Conservatoire (Odeion Athinon)

The Athens Conservatoire, commonly referred to as Odeion Athinon, is the only completed structure of an otherwise unrealized urban plan for the Athens Cultural Center designed by architect Ioannis Despotopoulos as part of a competition in 1959. The project was one of the most compelling propositions of modern Greek architecture: Despotopoulos envisioned a national theater, congress center, museum, library, and an open-air theater in close proximity in the city center. As a musical institution, the Athens Conservatoire was founded in 1871 by the Athens Music and Drama Society. Originally, instruction was given in just the flute and the guitar, in respective correspondence with Apollonian and Dionysian aesthetic principles; Despotopoulos cited the guitar neck as his inspiration for the design of the building.

In the documenta 14 exhibition at Odeion Athinon, the willfully mystic and modernist Greek composer Jani Christou plays a central role. Whereas his notion of the “continuum” provided an early experimental framework for working sessions between artists, curators, and the documenta 14 team, Christou’s idea that “music can be silent” and his methodology of “metapraxis” are relevant to a consideration of other composers like Pauline Oliveros, the Scratch Orchestra of Cornelius Cardew, and the new generation of artists presented at this venue.

Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA)—Pireos Street (“Nikos Kessanlis” Exhibition Venue)

ASFA, which has its origins in the Royal School of Arts established in 1836, moved its departments of Fine Arts, Art Theory, and the History of Art into the former textile factory of the Sikiarides family in 1992.

Benaki Museum

documenta 14 enters into a dialogue with four of the museum’s branches: the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art; the Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika Gallery; the Mentis Center for the preservation of traditional textile techniques; and the Pireos Street 138 Annex, located in the once industrial Rouf area. With its inward-looking architecture and spacious inner courtyard, the 138 Pireos St. Annex offers an opportunity for investigating untold, unfinished, or otherwise overshadowed histories—and proposing novel museologies, instantiated by the newly commissioned and historical works included in this major portion of documenta 14 exhibition.

EMST, National Museum Of Contemporary Art

The National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), which collects Greek and international art from the postwar period to the present, moved to its permanent home in the former Fix Brewery on Syngrou Avenue in 2014. documenta 14 asks what (kind of citizen) can this factory still produce? The figure of Diogenes—the Cynic, cosmopolitan, and self-proclaimed citizen of the world—serves as our guide, whom we encounter on the ground floor in the copper engraving of Nicholas Poussin’s painting Landscape with Diogenes. Known for his austerity, Diogenes dispenses even with his cup after observing a youth using his bare hands to drink water.

Parko Eleftherias, Athens Municipality Arts Center
Museum of Anti-dictatorial and Democratic Resistance

The Athens Municipality Arts Center in Parko Eleftherias (Freedom Park) and the Museum of Anti-dictatorial and Democratic Resistance belong to a nineteenth-century complex of military barracks whose recent history is linked to the repressive military junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974, sometimes called the Regime of the Colonels. The building of the Arts Center, currently occupied by documenta 14, was used to house the military police headquarters; the museum building just behind it was a detention and torture facility. Both buildings still belong to the Greek Ministry of Defense.

These two sites represent divergent approaches to history, memory, and collective trauma. The Museum of Anti-dictatorial and Democratic Resistance is operated by the Association of Imprisoned and Exiled Resistance Fighters. Lacking funding, it is run on a nonprofit basis by some of the victims, who personally relate their experiences. documenta 14 invited Greek architect Andreas Angelidakis to transform the architecture of the Athens Municipality Arts Center into the site of the Parliament of Bodies (the name given to the Public Programs of documenta 14), which subsequently serves as an exhibition venue.

In an act of “investigative restoration” Angelidakis carried out a series of minor yet crucial interventions. First, paneled walls were partially cut away, allowing the stone walls and the material history of the building to emerge. Second, a direct connection to the museum behind has been created by reopening the back door of the building. Third, Angelidakis has covered the windows with black curtains, which suggest mourning “widows” or shrouds between the buildings. Finally, Angelidakis designed Demos, a soft architecture consisting of sixty-nine blocks of fake concrete “ruins” that can be assembled and reassembled in multiple ways to reorganize the inner structure of the space. For eight months, the building has been the site of the Parliament of Bodies, a space for public debate and collective performance, and it continues to have this function throughout the exhibition. In this context, we ask what does it mean to be public? Who can narrate history? Who is allowed to speak? Can the museum be used against its own colonial and patriarchal regimes of visibility? The Museum of Anti-Dictatorial and Democratic Resistance also serves as one of the sites of the exhibition by hosting a film by the Syrian collective Abounaddara.

“Polytechnion,” Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA) and the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA)—Patission Street Complex

A main work on view at the Polytechnic is propοsed by artist Rainer Oldendorf, which is inspired by the Functional City exhibition mounted in Polytechnion in 1933. The exhibition was the culmination of the fourth Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM 4) held on board a ship traveling from Marseilles to Athens. Congress participants included the avant-garde of the international modern movement—such as Alvar Aalto, Cornelis van Eesteren, Sigfried Giedion, Le Corbusier, Ferdinand Léger, Charlotte Perriand, and Josép Lluis Sert. Ten years after CIAM 4, Le Corbusier brought the ideas of the Congress together in his “Charter of Athens”, laying the groundwork for the reconstruction of European cities after the war in the spirit of functionalism.

Greece in 2014 is not an isolated case; it is emblematic of the fast-changing global situation, and it embodies the economic, political, social, and cultural dilemmas that Europe must face today—much as Kassel in 1955 embodied the need to deal with the trauma of destruction brought about by the Nazi regime and simultaneously served as a strategic location at the onset of the Cold War. If Athens exemplifies the current issues that extend beyond the proverbial notion of the “Greek Crisis,” these problems—which are as much European and global as they are Greek—remain unresolved. Yet they present us with an opportunity to open up a space of imagination, thinking, and action, instead of following the disempowering neoliberal setup that offers itself as (non)action implied in the (non)choice of austerity. While the specific timing and choice of locale of Kassel in 1955 were precisely the factors that allowed documenta to develop into a now half-century-old venture, those sociopolitical parameters that made documenta urgent are no longer in play. This sense of urgency, then, must be found elsewhere.

The distance between Kassel and Athens will fundamentally alter the visitors’ experience of documenta 14. A feeling of loss and longing brought about by geographic and mental displacement created by two distant iterations of the exhibition might change the visitors’ perception of the show, working against the idea of rootedness and countering the widespread, normative assumption that such an exhibition must sustain the unity of action, place, and time. Challenging this state of things, documenta 14 will attempt to encompass a multitude of voices in, between, and beyond the two cities where it is situated, reaching beyond the European context from the vantage point of the Mediterranean metropolis, where Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia face each other. The diverse and diverging locations and socioeconomic circumstances of Kassel and Athens will come to bear on the very process of creation of the exhibitions, while inspiring and determining its individual works of art. It is this world that will be addressed in the exhibition, the world larger than Germany or Greece.

Documenta 14 opens to the public on April 8 in Athens and June 10 in Kassel. This will ensure that there will be a month of overlap, with two parts of the exhibition running in parallel. Moreover, though each iteration of the exhibition will be developed as an autonomous project, they will inform each other’s content while not repeating the form, with several distinctive venues in Athens, as in Kassel. Documenta 14 intends to learn from the city of Athens and its citizens, instead of parachuting a prepackaged event from Kassel into one or several picturesque venues. Rather than being merely a sum of two destinations, documenta 14 will unfold in a three-year-long process of learning and producing knowledge, while also engaging in the process of instituting spaces for public life in both locations. Four years in the making, documenta 14 has gradually established a presence in Athens— and it now becomes visible, audible, and otherwise palpable through the multitude of voices that sustain the continuum of the exhibition during its one hundred days.