Learning from Athens - 100 days of the documenta
The documenta is the world’s leading exhibition of contemporary art, held every five years in Kassel, Germany. This year, for the first time since its inception in 1955, it gained an additional location – one part of the exhibition was shown in Athens from 8 April to 16 July, while the second part opened on 10 June in Kassel, for the traditional 100 days. Reflecting the fluid boundaries in art, the Athens stage of documenta 14 also showed performances and sound and light installations.
It is thanks to artistic director Adam Szymczyk that this major art laboratory has been brought to the crisis-torn city on Europe’s south-eastern periphery. The Polish curator, born in 1970, came up with the idea of mounting the documenta at the point where Europe, Africa and Asia meet, convincing the international findings committee in 2013. One of the basic ideas behind the documenta is that each edition should steer the global debate on art in new directions. With economic crisis spreading across southern Europe and thousands of people fleeing war-torn areas in the Middle East and Africa to the West and the North, documenta’s 14th edition aimed to pitch in at the cutting edge – to get out of its comfort zone in Kassel and into the trouble zone at the Mediterranean. “Learning from Athens” was the working title that stuck as a motto for the entire event.
One tour is not enough
With so much to see in so many different places, one tour of the exhibition is simply not enough to take in everything. And every tour is a learning path – a “peripatos” in the Aristoteleian sense – that keeps body and mind in harmony through movement. In the Odeion, within an amphitheatre of cold concrete, we get our first portion of food for thought in the form of a terrific sound installation by Emeka Ogboh. This Nigerian artist searched archives for information on financial crises from 1929 to the present and had it set to music by a Greek and an Igbo composer. The brief histories, telling of the pitfalls of capitalism, now emanate from loudspeakers as polyphonic songs that circulate the arena while a real-time LED display reminds us of the incessantly turning world of stock indexes and share prices.
Giant masks and burnt writings
Taking a taxi is the quickest way to get to the EMST (the national museum for contemporary art) on Syngrou Avenue. Here, we are impressed by a room filled entirely with giant masks by Beau Dick. Unfortunately this artist and chief of the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe in Canada died in March. But his red-white-black-and-green animal and human heads live on, and are used in performances, almost taking them back to their original, ritual, purpose.
In another room of the EMST, a film by Wang Bing takes up one of the biggest screens: The Chinese artist observes people working in a sweatshop, where the sewing machines rattle on and on, in real time.
The Gennadius library in the Kolonaki district of Athens, in contrast, exudes a sense of gracious living. Along the slope of the Lykabettus hill, dotted with villas, we are among the comfortable, cultured middle class. Inside, the atmosphere is one of calm concentration. In the high-ceilinged reading room, people of all ages are sitting at tables; two long table-display cases stand alongside the shelves. One of these contains a unique treasure: pages of writings from Timbuktu, the city in Mali that was once the African centre of learning and philosophy. Most recently, though, it hit the headlines for being the target of terrorist attacks by the fundamentalist group Boko Haram, who destroyed many centuries-old cultural treasures.
In the next display case, there are book-like artefacts in a contemporary style that refer to the ancient writings. They are part of the Medina Gallery, a project that Igo Diarra worked on with art students in Bamako. “Learning from Timbuktu” is their answer to the threat of forgetting that is now posed since these valuable writings have been burnt. As we sit down to talk in the library’s colonnades, Diarra explains that he comes from a country with a different kind of crisis, adding: “In Africa we don’t have the time any longer to be lazy.”
Art as materialised history
From here we wander to the peaceful Philopappos Hill, the “Hill of the Muses” overlooking the Acropolis. Near the top stands Canadian artist Rebecca Belmore’s hand-carved marble tent. It marks a temporary monument, made of local materials, which not only refers to the wigwam homes of Belmore’s Native American heritage but also stands for the conditions of permanent emergency that many people currently living in makeshift shelters are experiencing.
At the foot of the mighty Acropolis, another artist has left his mark: Romanian-born Daniel Knorr, who very literally gets to grips with place and time, through archeology. But he only works on the top, most recent, layer of experience. “The city pushes everything it emits to its periphery,” says Knorr, who collects the discarded items. He has found toys, photo albums, passports and even gun holsters in the suburbs of the four-million-strong city, as well as several of the yellow laminated ration coupons which are clipped to show when a refugee has received his allocated share of nappies, toothpaste and toilet paper. From the mountain of rubbish piled high in the inner courtyard of the Athens Conservatoire, he selects items to press between the pages of a book, using heavy machinery. In this way, he acts as an archeologist, historian, publisher and author in one. “Materialisation” reflects the brutality behind all historiography. This work by Daniel Knorr is one of a few that are really turning the big wheel of history.
Documenta 14 is a multi-faceted, monumental event, showing an unusually broad and open spectrum of art. Adam Szymczyk, one of the most astute curators of our day, surrendered much of his own authority to ensure an atmosphere of respect and diversity. And many Athenians are happy to be able to experience the documenta in their hometown.