What we can all Learn from Athens: documenta 14

This summer I visited documenta 14 in Athens. It was the first year this influential art fair extended beyond the boundaries of Kassel to include Greece. I felt especially lucky that it coincided my first trip back since I moved to New York. The famous quinquennial art fair this year, regardless of how highly anticipated it is every time, is still causing a stir in the art world particularly after the economic mishandlings that were recently aired. Nonetheless, it was, yet again, a remarkable cultural event and the fact that it crossed borders and connected with Greece created extra space for contemplating worldwide socio-economic issues and the vital role that art plays in the global as well as local dialogues on such matters.
During the past years of the European economic crisis, there has admittedly been tension in the political relations between Germany and Greece. documenta is known as a pioneer in the art field encouraging artists to submit work that directly addresses current political and socio-economic issues. documenta 14, by connecting Kassel and Athens, created an interesting portal for cultural exchange between the two cities and countries while simultaneously opening it up to the public who attended.
Since its founding by Arnold Bode in 1955 documenta exhibitions are interactive requiring the attendees to travel, walk, and seek out the artworks within the city(ies) it takes place in. In the Athens edition of documenta 14, exhibits were sprinkled all around the city center, as well as Piraeus including both outdoor locations as much as indoor museum and gallery venues. Many of the artworks, not surprisingly, were performance works and ones that encouraged the participation of the viewer. All works addressed the social problems created by the economic and immigration crisis directly. Some, especially the interactive ones, emphasized the need for communication between people as much as they recontextualized the basic values of humanism and equality.
What I was fascinated by the most, however, was the connection documenta 14 created between many diverse art institutions within Athens. Aside from the EMST and the various outdoor sites (like Kotzia Square and Filopappou Hill), shows and works could be seen, even within the span of a single day, at places as diverse as the Benaki Museum, the Numismatic Museum, the Byzantine Museum and even the Odeion. While they are all art institutions, each focuses on and represents different historical periods of Greek artistic production. The institutional diversity not only accentuated the interactivity between works, the city, and viewers but seemed to create a context to view art that transcended historical timelines. Contemporary art intermingled with Athens’ rich historical past both conceptually (by how they were exhibited) and by location, being housed in deeply historic buildings belonging to equally historic institutions. These are all museums and locations that highlight different historical periods of Greek artistic production. This variety of venues scattered all around Athens also created the unique opportunity to truly and deeply experience the city and understand the current as well as historical context of its cultural production. This must have additionally put the works from the EMST collection that traveled to a Kassel in a better context for the viewer who visited both locations.
Interestingly, for each person, the experience could be wholly different. The path, venues, and works each visitor chose to see, as well as the people they interacted with along the way, were vital factors in making their experience unique. Yet, all experiences were united under the umbrella of documenta 14, something that can be reflected in how the differences and similarities between Kassel and Athens were united for this event.
documenta 14 may have generated a lot of discussions (positive and negative) regarding its impact on the contemporary art scene of Athens and Greece overall, yet, my opinions generally tend towards the positive spectrum. I would like to simply note that Athens’ creative and bustling art world, generally unknown to most outside the Greek art sphere, was undoubtedly given an invigorating breath of life regardless of how long one might try to forecast it will last. It brought Greek contemporary art production, even if for a while, back into the universal cultural dialogue alongside other European countries. Perhaps it is counterproductive to attempt to forecast the extent and duration of the effects of documenta 14 on the Greek art scene. Instead, it is far more efficient to see these discussions as another means to create further momentum in keeping Greek artists known and relevant. Because the truth of the matter is, Greece altogether has an active art world that extends far beyond the country’s ancient history. Contemporary art is rich in ideas and ideals related to political, social, and economic matters that are current and relevant on a worldwide scale. Instead of worrying how long foreign attention may or may not last, and whether or not documenta 14 created the opening needed to finally create awareness around Greek contemporary art outside the country’s own realm, more work can be done to maintain that opening and even widen it.

emst 2
Shot from the EMST, Athens, Greece. documenta 14, 2017.


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