Everyone has heard something about the first ever Athen’s chapter of Documenta (arguably the biggest thing happening in art right now). With only days before the inauguration, there is little clarity of what to expect, and the artist list is the biggest mystery.
Maybe the whole is just a big mess and/or a tactic to be super hip by being mysterious. But perhaps it will all fall into place at the very last moment, and there might be a bigger plan the whole time. Despite the chaos this is one of the few chances to see Athens in a new light and join in the global art dialog, after-all we are active participants not passive viewers as Artistic Director (a fancy word for curator) Adam Szymczyk insists, saying “There is a large untapped potential when visitors come together for an exhibition – a political potential.”
Here we provide an overview of the complicated themes and why the whole art world is talking about this quinquennial. The curatorial team gives more weight to text (and spoken word) than images, objects, or videos, so only a few colorless or dull photos have been released so far. Their point is, it must be experienced in person – well, we will see.
This will be an intellectual (and very dry) exhibition given what we know about Szymczyk and his curatorial team. So far the terms “reciprocity,” “exhibition as a divided cell,” ”languages of resistance,” ”necropolitics,” ”aneducation” are being tossed around. Bring your reading glasses, because there is more than wall text; already published is a reader as well as two fat book-sized magazines titled “South as a State of Mind” circulating. It will be a feast for the mind and probably not a feast for the eyes – unfortunately.
Twinning the two cities Kassel and Athens seems to be taking advantage of the country in financial crisis through “exoticism” (which smacks of “colonization” and “poverty tourism”) but on the other hand the so-called working title “Learning from Athens” suggests a more open and symbiotic exchange. At least there will be horses.
Returning to the roots of the 62-year old art event, this year looks directly at the politics of our time, including censorship, the diaspora of refugees and democracy in ruins. The first ever Documenta was intended to catalog the banned Entartete Kunst from the Nazi era – this year artists will respond to the complicated Gurlitt estate which is still in controversy.
The artist list will not be revealed before the opening, but we do know there are at least 160 artists participating. Many of them are making new commissions. There are a lot of performance time-based works, sound, temporary installations or writings. Here are three site-specific mega-projects we are looking forward to.
Maria Eichhorn’s creation of the Rose Valland Institute is looking at the “Expropriation of Europe’s Jewish Population” facing the key issues surrounding ownership (artworks, property, real estate), especially of who owns types of knowledge.
A parade of horses (yeah) that mirrors the frieze of the Parthenon, leading into The Athens-Kassel Ride conceived by Ross Birrell, where men and horses travel over 100 days (which is a play on Documenta’s duration) covering 3,000 km in a long ride across Europe linking the two cities. Alternatively, there are direct flights for the first time between Kassel and Athens, but maybe you prefer the ride.
Marta Minujín will recreate her massive Parthenon of the Books from 1983, built entirely from banned books in the exact size of the original monument.
Sound (art and music) will play a big role in this chapter of Documenta 14, for instance, the collective Postcommodity created an installation of military-grade speakers that broadcast stories of forced displacement of refugees, imposed journeys, and transformation.
Another star (already a favorite on the short-list for the Absolut Art Award) is sound artist Samson Young. From his previous work For Whom the Bell Tolls: A Journey Into the Sonic History of Conflict, we assume his project will involve a sound archive, sketches on paper, sculptural instruments, and original music composition.
Continuing the use of sound Pope. L will have a five-part multi-site work called the Whispering Campaign. While Lawrence Abu Hamdan has created Bird Watching, a performance in the Athens Conservatoire, where many of the performances will take place. We can’t wait to see Nevin Aladag performance, Music Room, in which she constructs (and plays) instruments made from furniture and domestic objects, evoking the resonating body as a site of acoustics and politics.
We are surprised that the curators revived the legendary old-timer of institutional critique Hans Haacke who will cover the elevation of the long-awaited and just opened National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) with a banner bearing the words “We all are the people” in many languages.
American artist Rick Lowe continues his ongoing project Co-Hab in Athens, centered on ideas of co-housing and collective ownership models. He said, “Of all of the European capitals I have visited, Athens feels the most human and kind.” A very bold statement. You find his work near Victoria Square, an early site of refugee camps.
We assume the eldest statesman of Documenta will be the 94-year-old Lithuanian born Jonas Mekas. He is tremendously influential on young artists working in diaristic and confessional modes. Both cities of the exhibition will present photographs that he took as young artist between 1945–48 while living in displaced person camps in Kassel.
Besides the physical installations, there is a full line up of programming that will be broadcasted on the Documenta resident radio station, in nine countries, and on the website. One of our favorite artists Olaf Nicolai will present a special commission sound piece In the Woods There Is a Bird… based on archival sound material from radio reports. Taking sounds of demonstrations, riots, rallies recorded for radio, as a form of collaborative concrete poetry which also manifests in the accompanying artist book. Both the limited edition vinyl recording and book are going in our collection.
What about the rest of Athens’ art scene? The city is big enough to support exciting and necessary satellite events:
One institution known for great pop-up events in other cities is Palais de Tokyo from Paris who is pairing with some esoteric collaborators: Pavillon Neufize OBC and Fluxum/Flux Laboratory. Together they present “Athens Prec(ar)ious Collectives,” blending operatic dance performance come art installation, including six artists and eight Greek choreographers of contemporary dance.
The experimental art project collective and global art blog Daily Lazy inaugurates its new Athens space with “*bang!,” a show that explores performativity and again touching ideas of “social sculpture” (this term is back from the dead and coined by Joseph Beuys).
Benaki Museums are always a major part of the art world fabric of Athens, one show, in particular, is worth visiting: “Paratoxic Paradoxes” presents eleven all new works of moving image. They new commissions come from some artists we absolutely love including Korakrit Arunanondchai, Agnieszka Polska, Mika Rottenberg, and Wu Tsang.
Independent curator Hanns Lennart Wiesner presents “μια κυκλική προοπτική #2” (Greek for “a circular perspective”). The exhibition reflects on artificial intelligence where man and machine interface and what artists are doing with these new technologies. Including among others Lou Cantor, Jonas Lund, Daniel Steegmann Mangrané and Harm van den Dorpel.
The Breeder is Athens hippest gallery, and they are opening two shows timed with the inauguration, the group show “Si Sedes Non Is” curated by Milovan Farronato and a solo show of Zoë Paul. We hope the rumor is true that there will be a bar inside Paul’s exhibition. We are going to need a drink by this time in the night.
While Kalfayan Galleries is the local stalwart and will be showing a three-person show “Perished Sun” featuring Yiannis Papadopoulos, Panos Tsagaris, and Kostis Velonis. The show's title points to darkness after the light, and the work speaks for the time after end of utopias – and the ways forward.
We will be in the blazing sun drinking cold Ouzo during the openings. One of the finest moments of the first day will be the Athens State Orchestra and Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra (SEPO) performing the stunningly beautiful and heartbreaking Symphony No. 3, Op. 36, also known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs by Henryk Górecki.
Adam Szymczyk said that Athens is a city always in mourning with a “profound feeling of loss.” That in the birthplace of democracy, an unfinished project, there is the greatest chance to queer these broken political systems with new possibilities. Above all that, art makes the important issues a subject of public debate, and that the art world is “one of the few areas left that is not fully mapped, territorialized, and colonized. It offers space for enacting the right to disagree.” This exhibition will certainly open up more questions than giving answers and challenge other derivative, predictable biennials.
– Justin Polera