“Efcharistó!” – Iannis, the taxi driver was passionately screaming the Greek word for “Thank you”.
“Efaistoooo” – I tried to imitate him.
“No no no the “chhhhh” don’t forget about it, and louder, stronger!”
“Yes! That’s it! Welcome to Greece!”
Iannis, my taxi driver, obviously had already internalized the theme of Documenta 14 “Learning from Athens”. Besides pointing out all the major sights on our way to the hotel, his mission was to make sure I learn the basics in Greek.
“Iannis, what do you think about Documenta?”
“Documenta, you know, art?”
“Ahhh, the German thing? Well, I haven’t heard much about it yet. Ah see, in front? Akropolis!!!!”
I was looking out of the car and saw the beautiful Parthenon lit up at night. Iannis was obviously more excited about this than about the “German thing” I just asked him about. Does Documenta14 actually affect Athens?
The Documenta is one of the oldest Biennales and was first organized in 1955, ten years after the end of World War II, in Kassel. Since then, it has taken place 13 times since then (every five years) and has evolved into one of the biggest places for discussion about contemporary art and its contexts. For Documenta 14, the Artistic Director, Adam Szymczyk suggested to choose to equal locations: Kassel and Athens and also said it was a major learning for the Documenta team to move to Athens and experience the difference between the two places.
The next morning, I headed out early to explore the city before the press conference. As an avid lover of street art, I had thought I might need to look for it in certain places. As it turned out, many areas in Athens are covered with graffiti. As it was my first trip to the Greek capital, I do not know if this is a “souvenir” from the uproars at the start of the economic crisis. My walk led me to Monastiraki, Plaka, the area around the Parliament and finally I reached the Megaron conference centre at lunch time.
The atmosphere was completely different than in the streets of Athens. I almost thought I landed in a German enclave (with some occasional Greek or non-German journalists) on its pilgrimage to Documenta’s branch in Athens. Physically, they have all left Germany, but I felt that in their minds, most of them were still at home. The press conference was opened by an art performance of the whole team of Documenta. Maybe a hint that they themselves also drive for continuous learning?
It was followed by a brief introduction to the main topic “Learning from Athens”. According to Adam Szymczyk, the artistic director of Documenta, the idea to split the forum between two equal locations stemmed from a sense of urgency. Of course, the economic crisis was part of that explanation but also the long historic tradition of art in Greece. “Learning from Athens”, it sounds a bit strange, doesn’ it? I immediately thought about the economic problems and the refugee issue that the country is currently facing and to be frank, it sounded a bit too obvious at first sight. Furthermore, this headline was the focus of heated debates in online and traditional media already before the opening of Documenta 14 this weekend.
But then came Paul B. Preciado – who considers himself neither male nor female – and his emotional speech about anti-racism, gender equality, transgender rights. He pointed out that current political trends endanger the privilege of organizing a forum like Documenta. On the exact day of the press conference, on 6 April, but in 2006, Halit Yozgat was shot dead in his Kebap shop in Kassel – “It could have been us.” was the canon on stage. His death shows strong links to a racist motive but until today, the case has not yet been solved and casts a dubious light on one of the police officers involved. Preciado explained that Documenta has a strong political commitment and also asked the present journalists to join them in their effort.
I was really touched by this. At the same time, I wondered: “How does Documenta ensure that everyone – and I mean not only the small “elitist” group of art lovers on their pilgrimage to Kassel and Athens – are reached?” There are certain programmes, like a radio short wave programme to also reach people without internet. But can we really reach them with this? They would need to know about Documenta and that it takes place.
During the Q&A, a guy with a blue UN helmet was raising the question if Documenta also applies a self-criticism mechanism. Even though he looked funny, I was glad he asked that question and was curious about the answer: unfortunately, the moderator pretended not to have understood the question. So, is Documenta then really stepping out of its comfort zone?
I decided to explore the artworks that are scattered across the city. If you come to Athens, make sure you plan your “art itinerary” in advance: the artworks are in big and small locations and are sometimes a bit hard to find. Furthermore, the opening/show times differ from place to place. After my trip, I discovered a map published on the Documenta website.
The performances and artworks are exhibited over a period of a couple of weeks. While I do understand the concept – it is probably aimed at reaching the locals in Greece and people who stay in Athens for longer than two days – I think it would be nice if people who only come for a shorter period would also get the chance to see as many artworks as possible. The geographical location and different opening times might hinder these short-term visitors to make the most out of their trip.
Even though I had some difficulties, I really liked this “treasure hunt” concept: it introduced me to places that would not have been on my list in the first place. Athens has so many sights to offer that we tend to stick to the famous ones. It will help you to explore a very different Athens – sometimes near but very often quite far from the popular tourist sights. I visited the smaller Epigraphic Museum, for example, which I ended up liking a lot.
In contrast to Iannis, the team of the Epigraphic Museum sees the Documenta as a chance for smaller places. They do think that Athenians know about this art forum.
I hiked up Filopappou Hill and in addition to a beautiful view, I discovered a marble tent by Rebecca Belmore facing the Parthenon. It must have been quite a mission to bring up the piece of marble to this place. At the Polytechnion, I found an oak tree with some branches from an oak tree in Kassel. I guess it is a reference of the symbiosis of the two places during Documenta.
To get to know the artists and their works, I used the press guide that I got on day 1, but sometimes I would have wished to have more detailed information. For example, I was left with my own assumptions about the motive of the Greek-German oak tree. But maybe I will find this later on in the Reader and Daybook that I bought. I will keep you posted on that J.
What did I learn from Athens? I learned much more than the basics in Greek. It showed me that the ambitions of contemporary art are topics that touch all of us. The challenge is to succeed in communicating this political commitment to prove that Biennales are more than just elitist enclaves celebrating themselves. It remains to be seen how this year’s Documenta will touch the locals in Athens. I do hope that these hidden gems will also be discovered by them and initiate heated discussions.
Athens, it was a pleasure meeting you as the host of Documenta 14, EFCHARISTÓ!
The Documenta 14 in Athens will be open until 16 July 2017. In Kassel, it will take place from 10 June until 17 September 2017.