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Learning from Athens

Grace Higgins Brown reviews documenta 14, Athens, 8 April - 16 July 

My position on ‘biennale culture’ [1] is somewhat sceptical; Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev just about sums it up for me in her introductory essay for the 2008 Sydney Biennale, declaring the rise of biennale culture as having 'decentralised art' whilst simultaneously 'disempowering' its 'alternative forms of artistic self-organisation' [2]. This is how Learning From Athens felt: Director Adam Szymczyk’s assertion that he was uninterested in the local arts scene is troubling, but his decision to move the focus away from Kassel feels productive in terms of expanding the perspective of this grandiose pentennial (penitential) happening. I need to point out that at the time of writing, I have only seen half of Documenta, so this article concerns only the Learning From Athens segment. It was also my first time attending the event altogether, and being in Athens, so I hope to provide a fresh-faced approach here; I’ve yet to become completely jaded. 

Pavel Brăila, 'The Golden Snow of the Sochi Olympics', 2014, snow from the Sochi Olympics and various materials, EMST—National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, documenta 14. Photo Mathias Völzke

Pavel Brăila, 'The Golden Snow of the Sochi Olympics', 2014, snow from the Sochi Olympics and various materials, EMST—National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, documenta 14. Photo Mathias Völzke

The first pieces of work encountered upon entering EMST (Athens’ National Modern Art Gallery) is footage of Marta Minujín’s performance ‘Payment of Greek Debt to Germany with Olives and Art’(2017), and ‘The Golden Snow of the Sochi Olympics’(2014) by Pavel Braila. The latter—a personal highlight—a satirical attack on the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, exuding paralleled anger towards the ridiculous expenditure of the Sochi Olympics to that felt over the 2004 Greek Olympics, via a succinctly flash golden freezer of preserved snow, which we are informed was taken from the 51 billion dollars worth imported into Sochi to ensure its smooth running. So Szymczyk is clearly aware of the public implications of holding such elaborate international events, perhaps assuaging some concerns over the—possibly patronising—move into Athens; although it’s questionable that acknowledgement of damage excuses said damage.

Terre Thaemlitz, 'Interstices', 2001–03, electroacoustic audio and video installation, installation view, EMST—National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, documenta 14. Photo Mathias V­ölzke

Terre Thaemlitz, 'Interstices', 2001–03, electroacoustic audio and video installation, installation view, EMST—National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, documenta 14. Photo Mathias V­ölzke

Terre Thaemlitz’ ‘Interstices’ (2001-03) provided a highly visceral, glitchy tackling of gender stereotypes. Humorously confrontational with abrasive audio, its fast-paced edit create a sense of tension: text too fast to read, images too fast to process, audio too close for comfort; an exciting kind of frustration. Hans Eijelboom’s ‘The street and Modern Life, Birmingham, UK’ (2014) offered a satisfying satire on identity in contemporary commodity culture, with a rolling slideshow of images collected in Birmingham’s city centre, depicting pedestrians spotted wearing the same clothing trends, prints, garments, and so on. The pacing of this work was what made it; the absurdity lying in the space before each image rolls into view.

Hans Eijkelboom, 'The Street & Modern Life, Birmingham, U.K.', 2014, digital video, installation view, EMST—National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, documenta 14. Photo Mathias V­ölzke

Hans Eijkelboom, 'The Street & Modern Life, Birmingham, U.K.', 2014, digital video, installation view, EMST—National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, documenta 14. Photo Mathias V­ölzke

On the whole, it felt as though the work had enough breathing space, although the quantity was overwhelming. Perhaps inevitable with such large-scale events, it’s virtually impossible to see everything—another problem I have with biennale culture—and to be frank, Learning From Athens didn’t make it particularly easy for visitors; information and directions were confusing and apparently sometimes metaphorical. However, the decision to write the artist’s name on a block of marble next to each of their artworks was very gratifying. It’s a gimmicky move, akin to the alabaster reproductions of Ancient Greek statues found in tourist shops all over the city, and also explored in Daniel García Andújar’s ‘The Disasters of War, Metics Akademia’ (2017), in which the artist presents a modern arena for such connotations to ruminate: a 3D printed factory line of warped plastic replicas of aforementioned sculptures.

Daniel García Andújar, The Disasters of War, Metics Akademia, 2017, mixed-media installation, EMST—National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, documenta 14. Photo Mathias Völzke

Daniel García Andújar, The Disasters of War, Metics Akademia, 2017, mixed-media installation, EMST—National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, documenta 14. Photo Mathias Völzke

Whilst this almost fetishistic adoption of marble may be trite to the general Greek populus, I think it’s an inspired attack on the cliché, and possibly—hopefully—an indication of very necessary commentary regarding the history of Western Europe’s ‘grand tours’ and cultural colonisation. ‘The Greek Way’(2017), an installation by Piotr Uklanski, incorporated McDermott & McGough’s paintings of Hitler with the names of homosexuals murdered during Nazi rule, and thirty-two stills from Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938). Whilst McDermott & McGough’s paintings ‘“The Lust That Comes From Nothing” Hitler and the Homosexuals’ (1946/2001) are disappointingly literal, Uklanski’s selection of prints are a subtly effective stab at Nazi sycophantisms. 


At the Benaki museum, Nazism is again referenced, here in an absurd manner that recognizes the widespread ‘dark tourism’—the very strand of tourism claimed to be encouraged by Documenta’s presence in Greece. Roee Rosen’s ‘Live and Die as Eva Braun’ (1995-97) consists of ten black banners describing the last hours of Eva Braun’s life—and the first few of her ‘afterlife’—as if experienced through virtual reality. Her fairytale-esque drawings and prints hang either side of these banners and the installation would be much bolder without them, but this virtual ‘virtual reality experience’ highlights the ridiculously sublime movement of our technologically fuelled ruin lust.

Arin Rungjang, 'And then there were none (Tomorrow we will become Thailand.)', 2016, digital video and various materials, Benaki Museum—Pireos Street Annexe, Athens, documenta 14. Photo Yiannis Hadjiaslanis

Arin Rungjang, 'And then there were none (Tomorrow we will become Thailand.)', 2016, digital video and various materials, Benaki Museum—Pireos Street Annexe, Athens, documenta 14. Photo Yiannis Hadjiaslanis

Later, Arin Rungjang’s video ‘And Then There Were None (Tomorrow We Will Become Thailand)’ (2016), initiates engrossing correspondence between the Democracy Monument in Thailand, and the National Technical University in Athens, both important markers of political uprisings in their respective countries. One of the most positive things about Learning From Athens was how genuinely, politically international it felt. The displacement of peoples depicted in works, perhaps tactically reflected in Documenta’s ‘displacement’ from Kassel. Notably, the discussion around indigenous cultures was refreshingly prominent and wide-ranging, from the Sami Artist Group, to Kwakwaka’wakw artist Beau Dick, articulating post-colonial unity in a global sense. 


If we take Germany as the central power existing in Europe today, documenta 14 has succeeded in decentralising this focus. But this is undermined by suspicions that the gesture is superficial, neocolonial in nature; Germany’s economic influence over Greece and funding of documenta 14 culminate in something which Greek ex-finance minister Yanis Varoufakis deems 'crisis tourism'. Yet, this is a worthwhile conversation to be had, and Learning From Athens has at least brought these issues to the art world’s attention. One question that arises is whether it’s possible to agree with Szymczyk’s decision to expand this documenta out of Kassel, without also validating 'crisis tourism'. Undoubtedly the director would justify his decision as more nuanced than this; the ‘displacement’ from Kassel is a necessary prompt—as evidenced by the strangely conservative backlash by much of the Western art press—to the idle traditions perpetuated by much of the contemporary art world. 


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Grace Higgins Brown is a writer based in Glasgow

[1] I’m including documenta 14 in this phenomenon on the grounds of being a repetitive event involving vast quantities of artworks

 
[2] Christov-Bakargiev, Carolyn, 2008 Biennale of Sydney: Revolutions-forms that Turn (Fishermans Bend, Vic.: Biennale of Sydney in association with Thames & Hudson Australia, 2008)