The Past in the Present
documenta 14 in Athens

Ten years ago, the documenta still revolved around “migration of form,” the migration of artistic forms through the epochs and across cultural borders. The current installment of the art show, however, focuses on the migration of people, on women and men who had to leave their home countries because of war, persecution, or poverty. The 14th edition of documenta confronts reality: financial crisis, colonialism, the suppression of minorities, identity issues—those are the themes that particularly interest curator Adam Szymczyk. The 46-year-old Pole ventured out of the familiar documenta biotope in the north Hessian countryside and went to Athens, the cradle of Western culture, which today is primarily present in the media as a flashpoint of the Euro crisis.

Between Kassel and Athens, the documenta presents itself as an exhibition in transit, so to speak. Nikhil Chopra’s project is one of the works that reacts to this. In a former taverna in the industrial district of Moschato, he realized a mural in the framework of a three-day performance and subsequently traveled through Eastern Europe to Germany. The tour of the Indian artist, who is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, is interrupted by stops for further drawing performances. When he arrives in Kassel, the action Drawing a Line Through Landscape will come to a conclusion. Chopra’s project typifies Szymczyk’s documenta. With actions in public space, performances, and sound works, art forms dominate that have not been appropriated by the market.

The curator presents contributions from around 160 artists at some fifty venues throughout Athens. As a result, visitors are compelled to encounter the city. Among the locations are Benaki Museum, Megaron concert hall, and the Conservatory, known to Athenians as Odeion, where Nevin Aladag installed her Music Room. The Berlin-based artist converted old furniture into musical instruments that are played by young performers. But the path also leads through less well-known institutions such as the Epigraphic Museum, where ancient inscriptions are on view—Tablets of the Law, grave steles, graffiti. In dialogue with the exhibition displays, Gauri Gill, some of whose works were recently acquired for the Deutsche Bank Campus in Frankfurt, shows pictures from her photo series in which the Indian artist documents traditional use of texts and inscriptions.

Szymczyk was lured, as he says, by the “state of emergency” in the Greek capital. And “Learning from Athens” is the motto of his documenta. This approach was not always well received by the local art scene. There was talk of crisis romanticism and cultural imperialism. However, others spoke of an opportunity for Athens as an art location. In any case, it is not always easy for art to hold its on in an environment where adverse social conditions are as apparent as they are here—for example, given the sight of young black Africans who are forced to scour the streets for scrap metal to survive.

But some things become branded in one’s memory. Like the film Glimpse, which Artur Żmijewski shot in black and white and without sound. As a result, initially one has the impression that one is viewing an old silent movie. But Glimpse shows the flaws of the present. Żmijewski traveled to refugee camps in Calais, Berlin, and Paris, where he not only filmed the mud, the waiting in the rain, the uncertainty and shame that can be seen in people’s faces. Glimpse gradually relinquishes its documentary character: Żmijewski appears himself and turns heads toward his camera—just as historical ethnographic books did in order to categorize people based on “race-specific” characteristics. The film by the Polish art firebrand shows in an alarming way how the camera degrades refugees to objects of artistic aestheticization. Miriam Cahn’s trembling charcoal drawings are also unsettling. The Swiss artist, represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, devotes herself to the horrors of Abu Ghraib and the body’s vulnerability.

Surprisingly, Szymczyk’s documenta tries very often to track down the present by looking back at the past. He likes to present bygone relics—photos, sketches, books, and yellowing magazines—in display cases, which gives the whole event a didactic, rather aloof atmosphere. The retrospective character is also expressed by the fact that around a third of the artists presented are dead. Among them, however, are a few very interesting discoveries, including Tshibumba Kanda Matulu. In small paintings in the style of African hairdresser signs he depicts the Congo’s brutal colonial history.

But the art at this year’s documenta also deals with everyday life. Twice a day, the British-Pakistani artist Rasheed Araeen invites 60 people to have a meal together in a colorful pavilion inspired by traditional Pakistani wedding tents. He stands on Kotzia Square in front of the town hall. There is free Food for Thought, the title of the action, and retirees and refugee children mingle with the documenta audience. Sometimes these actions seem a little absurd, though. An example are Ibrahim Mahama’s collectively sown jute charcoal sacks on Syntagma Square.

The local public is probably happier about the fact that the Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens—EMST—is now open in its entirety. Owing to technical problems, personal quarrels, and insufficient funding the opening was postponed for years. Now the documenta has made the modernist building one of its main venues and staged “an exhibition that injects the full vertical span of this building with a libidinal economy”—whatever that is supposed to mean. At any rate, such disparate works as Nairy Baghramian’s installation paying homage to the writer Jane Bowles, Beau Dick’s impressive masks, and Geta Brătescu’s conceptual drawings are on exhibit. The EMST collection is on tour, however. Starting June 10, 230 works by 70 artists from the collection will be shown at Friedericianum in Kassel. 

documenta 14
Until July 16, /2017
June 10 – September 17, 2017