If you want to fully embrace documenta 14’s subliminal message, leave your smartphone at home. Titled ‘Learning from Athens,’ the major art event, split up for the first time between its usual home town of Kassel in Germany (opening June 10 and running to September 17) and the Greek capital, explores topics like conditions of labour, visibility of minorities, alternatives to liberalism, the highlighting of little-known artistic and theoretic voices, fascism and ways to oppose it, geopolitical issues, economic exploitation and queer politics among other things. Staggeringly vast and complex, understanding or seeing all of documenta 14 in Athens, which opened April 8 and is running to to July 16, seems a Herculean task almost impossible to achieve. However, there are certain aspects that manifest clearly to the visitor sooner than others, and here are some of them:
The vast majority of the participating artists are (largely) unknown to a broader public. Many of those unknown artists are also dead, a combination that to a certain extent irritates more than intrigues for two reasons: the inclusion of obscure artistic positions from the past has become a frequent reflex of many biennial and art festival curators, and it prevents younger artists from presenting their practice to a broader audience. Fighting for social justice or exploring alternate forms of living are subjects that are still being explored in contemporary art practices; reevaluating them by presenting black and white photos and fragile letters from 40 years ago in vitrines feels tired. However, this doesn’t mean there aren’t many older works worth contemplating: to mention only two, Yannis Tsarouchis’ soft, homoerotic depictions of sailors and men undressing, made between 1962 and 1965 on view at the Academy of Fine Arts and Edi Hila’s The Dignity of Man series (1970-86) exhibited at the Athens Conservatoire, stand out as particularly striking.
Glass cases and archival presentations often overpower the exhibition. In the four main Athens venues, the presentation of works as information to be assimilated, and not art to be enjoyed, is omnipresent. At the press conference, artistic director Adam Szymczyk states that one of the goals of documenta 14 is for visitors to “learn to unlearn”; a difficult task for anyone without a formal art education. Furthermore, if so much of this art is displayed the same way as precious archival material, the dryness of this type of presentation kills any potential pleasure of simply leaning into what you’re confronted with. But obviously, there’s also a good amount of visually and sensorially appealing showstoppers. For example, a section of the exhibition at the National Museum of Contemporary Art brings relief to the overworked mind: presented close to each other are a group of sculptures Body of Objects by Dale Harding (2017), ten paintings by Ashley Hans Scheirl (all works made between 2015 and 2016) and a single piece by Nairy Baghramian titled ‘Drawing Table (Homage to Jane Bowles)’ (2017). Tangible, organic, and almost sexual, they provide a welcome change of tune from much of the rest, despite the almost guilt-inducing pleasure of their sleekness and ease.
Sound-based works are given ample space. Probably one of the most core-shaking experiences is Emeka Ogboh’s installation ‘The Way Earthly Things Are Going’ (2017) at the Athens Conservatoire, commonly referred to as Odeion. Almost immediately upon entering this already gorgeous and severe mid-century building by Greek architect Ioannis Despotopoulos, a door opens onto an impressive space: an indoor amphitheatre, looking both like a brutalist cavern, an archeological site and a Hunger Games movie set. Traditional greek chants resonate within it, timeless and gut-wrenching, and on the central wall, a large LED screen displays current information from the world’s stock indexes.
The violent contrast between the feeling of infinitude triggered by these voices and the almost vulgar volatility of the acid-colored letters and numbers is gripping; it takes a while not to feel the hold of it anymore. In the same building, Nevin Aladag’s installation ‘Music Room (Athens)’ (2017) also conjures elegiac emotions: twice a day, you can witness musicians playing on the Turkish artist’s sculptures, which are originally furniture pieces she altered to transform them into instruments. So many artists have used chairs and tables as starting points for artworks, which tend to address rather somber topics (such as Anselm Kiefer’s large three-dimensional canvases, on which chairs are often affixed). Aladag gives these mundane objects an upgrade instead, and assigns them a more abstract, yet equally necessary function: they become essential tools of the poetic, channeled here, and in other performances over the weekend, through music.
There’s also an extensive public and educational program; however, given the narrow time frame and the unbelievable amount of venues (over 40), attending most of it would require at least an additional week, as well as a lot of endurance. What there isn’t really, however, are digital works, or any particular focus or acknowledgement of technology; there are a couple of great videos — one in particular, part of Sammy Baloji’s installation ‘Tales of the Copper Cross Garden: Episode I’ (2017) didn’t leave anybody cold — but don’t expect much presence from anything or anyone associated with the so-called ‘post-internet’ bubble. In between or as part of large installations — the most fully-realised being Ciudad Abierta’s ‘Amereida Phalène South América’ (2017) — at the Athens Academy of Fine Arts, some paintings stand out: the small formats by Andreas Ragnar Kassapis, part of his work ‘Things That Bend’ (2017) depict what appear to be telephones, but they could also be geometrical abstractions with austere elegance, monolithic and unusable. De facto and with success, in Kassapis’ paintings these essential tools of communication are robbed of their primary function. It gives you the feeling you have no choice but to go back to writing letters, and the importance given to paper and text in all aspects of documenta 14 confirms the suspicion: if we do learn from Athens, then we’ll definitely learn in an analogue method. **