Art or Politics?by Jurriaan Benschop
Documenta 14 | Athens, Greece
One thing Documenta curator Adam Szymczyk should without doubt be credited for is bringing Documenta to Athens. By situating half the exhibition in one of Europe’s presently crisis-plagued countries—in the midst of discussions about migration policy, continental cohesion, and moral obligations—an urgency that it could not have developed in Kassel alone is attained, and harnessed. Athens puts forward a new context for the art on display.
As one of its main venues, Documenta was offered the newly renovated National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens (EMST)—a première for the institution, as most of the museum has been empty since its partial re-opening at the former Fix brewery due to crisis and bureaucracy in Greece. In return, EMST Director Katerina Koskina will have the galleries of Kassel’s Fridericianum at her disposal this summer, to host her museum’s collection. Thus “Learning from Athens,” which has been Documenta’s resounding motto, becomes a reality, not only as a theoretical case or a metaphor for the current state of global capitalism, but as an actual physical exchange.
In his opening speech, Szymczyk asked the audience to be open to not knowing, and to delay judgement, while crossing the city. He advised not to run primarily to the main venues, but to explore the many smaller sites Documenta has to offer, and through those, get to know Athens’s neighborhoods. This is how the curatorial team itself has approached the project over the past years, resulting in programming across more than forty locations. As a visitor, one should indeed have an appetite for the unknown, as this Documenta is not the traditional showdown of usual suspects; rather, it aims to keep a distance from what the art market expects, and presents lesser know artistic positions, including many from the past as well as from realms of music and performance. Determinedly, the Polish-born curator sees Documenta as a political moment, and an opportunity to rewrite the Western art historical canon; he wants to confront us with histories about Western hegemony, colonialism, and people on the move.
The amount of work with “heavy” topics is promptly overwhelming, often in documentary and narrative modi, ranging from the long tentacles of Germany’s Nazi past, to labor circumstances in an Asian textile factory, to recent migration histories. Decisively, in an exhibition, one expects more than a story that could otherwise be told with words; the visual presentation and processing of such topics should have “body” to entice, move, and convince. In only some cases do artists truly transcend narrative, such as Emeka Ogboh’s work in the Odeion, one of Documenta’s main Athens venues. In the historic music theater, visitors are surrounded by a dozen loudspeakers which play a polyphonic song from Epirus in Northern Greece, reminiscent of early church music. The song is a dialogue of mother and son about exile out of economic need. It is not the narrative, but the enchanting harmonics, with friction between a leading female voice and others’ that interfere, that creates a quiet and receptive atmosphere for sadness. While listening to the chants, on the wall we see LED indications of stock exchange numbers pass, telling of the ups and downs of shares—an alienating, abstract economic reality that is far away, yet decisive for many people’s existence.
The selection of painters in Athens is peculiar. The elegant abstractions of Sedje Hémon (1923 – 2011) come across as sympathetic, although faintly dated, and small collages by Elisabeth Wild appear as average, if not mediocre, formal experiments. While the curators do not seem to have a strong affinity with recent attitudes in painting, their focus on digging out lesser known or past positions brings artists like the Tirana-based Edi Hila to the surface. In Hila’s early figurative work, made in dictatorial Albania, there is sarcasm and a sense for the absurd. However, recent paintings show empty landscapes, highlighting an absence of people, and presence of an oppressed atmosphere. They are a nice surprise.
As much as Documenta has gained further relevance as a cultural event by coming to Athens, and generating dialogues outside of the traditional exhibition format—alternative modes of operation, such as broadcasting curated movies on Greek television every Monday and a circulated magazine, South, reach audiences in exciting, unexpected ways—it evokes little urgency as a giant art exhibition, with large bodies of works grouped together in four main locations. Szymczyk does not seem comfortable with artworks that are “just” objects, vocally preferring performative arts. This is surprising as still many artworks presented are indeed objects—with meaning, history, poetic sensibility, psychological energy, or even soul, if you like. Take, for instance, Olaf Holzapfel’s geometrical panels made of straw, referring to the natural origin of manmade order. Or Dan Peterman’s “Ingots” of recycled copper and metal, suggesting alternative unities for economical traffic.
What lacks in the curatorial approach of the bigger venues is a feeling for how these objects can work optimally, and a dramaturgy connecting works in a meaningful and organic way. A discourse of diverse works from all over the world needs phrasing, punctuation, pauses, counterpoints; instead the exhibition feels like a poorly written essay, dropping references without digesting them. The works seem to become evidence in a strongly politicized narrative, where artists do not simply make work, but have “strategies” or “intervene.” It is unsettling to feel, after spending days traversing the city, that penetrating contributions are so few in number. Art, so it seems here, acts like a site of confession and documentation, an archive in which conflicts of our time are collected. But then what…? Does that make us good, does that make us act? Does it represent the art of our present day well?
I found more meaning and significance in some works that withheld any explicit subject or statement, like the work of a young painter from Athens, Andreas Ragnar Kassapis, whose interest in how memory works backgrounds his small paintings on wood. Some depicting mute, abstracted phones, like still lifes, they ponder how an individual can trick his own memory by diverting attention to a meaningful object.
One of Documenta’s highlights can be found on Filopappou Hill where, in a small pavilion facing the Acropolis, paintings by Guatemala-based artist Vivian Suter hang and blow in the wind, like abstract laundry. These works, created in a volcanic landscape of Guatemala, find a parallel natural environment to where they were made; this creates, indeed, a place for not knowing.
In the cultural exchange that this Documenta generates, I see a strength and accomplishment. Both Adam Szymcyk and some of his Athens-based partners, like Katerina Koskina, are strong culture politicians, productive with difficult circumstances and breaking barriers between countries. Koskina remarked, days before Documenta’s opening, “Art is not going to change the world.” Such a view seems more realistic and credible than the zealous language that Szymczyk uses, which wants to make activists out of both artists and audience. My concern is the limitation of such a view, and how it can instrumentalize art, and thus, narrow what it is and can be.
Where Documenta in Athens seems to succeed is gathering people in a common conversation—a public field where differences in cultural background become relative. It will be interesting to see how the exhibition evolves in Kassel this June, and if the different setting leads to a shift in perspective or approach. One can expect some “Learning from Kassel” as well, as the curators also assimilate Documenta’s original mission of the 1950s, to reconnect postwar Germany with the international community.
Jurriaan Benschop is a Berlin-based writer and art critic.