documenta’s 2017 excursion to Athens marks the first time in its 62-year history that the event has left its spiritual home, Kassel, for anything more than a token exhibition. Athens 2017 is not a sideshow or parallel exhibition: it is an integral part of documenta 14. Bringing the event to Athens is the idea of Adam Szymczyk, the Polish art critic and curator who is this year’s documenta artistic director. Szymczyk has instructed all artists taking part that they must exhibit in both locations. The event’s subtitle this year is documenta 14: Learning From Athens. Athens plays host to documenta from April 8 to July 16 (the Kassel event from June 10 to September 17). Monika Szewczyk will curate the Athens exhibition.
Why Athens? The German bailout of Greece in 2015 is certainly an important reason. But in an interview given shortly after Szymczyk announced his decision to split Documenta 14 between two cities he revealed that there are far more deep-lying motives.
‘There are issues of hostility toward austerity measures, which is completely understandable, and other difficult issues between Germany and Greece will of course be addressed during the process of making the exhibition, but it will not become the main topic of the exhibition,’ Szymczyk said. ‘What interested me is that Athens is a contemporary metropolitan city of the Mediterranean that is connected to other places across the water. It borders Turkey, it has an influx of migrants coming all over the place–Asia, Africa, and so forth. It’s a figure of a larger situation that Europe has to confront, and I hope it will confront with this exhibition…I see Athens as a portal or border or place where people coming from many, many other places can have visibility.’
documenta 14 is founded on several important institutional partnerships in Athens and Kassel. Each of these individual relationships with institutions—and the people who make them work—results in specific programming, research, and collaborative projects. Working together with partner institutions, documenta 14 points to a public sphere that is non-exclusionary and defined by encounters and possibilities — a public sphere in space and time.
Four years in the making, documenta 14 has gradually established a presence in Athens— and throughout the spring and early summer of 2017 it will become visible, audible, and otherwise palpable through the multitude of voices that sustain the continuum of the exhibition during its one hundred days. Spaces and places of documenta 14 in Athens include museums, cinemas, theatres, libraries, archives, schools, television, radio, university auditoriums, public squares, streets, clubs, shops, parks and paths, and residential buildings—in short, all that comprises the great city in its density, richness, and strange beauty.
The primary venue for documenta in Athens will be the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art, located in the Fix Building, for years a brewery producing Fix beer. Designed on a horizontal axis to allow extension without interrupting production, the building has apparently had a huge influence on the artists who will be exhibiting here. Monika Szewczyk said ‘the incredible factory building has inspired the exhibition. The show will revolve around the idea of a libidinal economy and aims to rethink production processes,
documenta 14 asks what (kind of citizen) can this factory still produce? The figure of Diogenes - the Cynic, cosmopolitan, and self-proclaimed citizen of the world - serves as our guide, whom we encounter on the ground floor in the copper engraving of Nicholas Poussin’s painting Landscape with Diogenes. Known for his austerity, Diogenes dispenses even with his cup after observing a youth using his bare hands to drink water.
Another major portion of the exhibition of documenta 14 spans the following three institutions:
Athens Conservatoire (Odeion Athinon)The Athens Conservatoire, commonly referred to as Odeion Athinon, is the only completed structure of an otherwise unrealized urban plan for the Athens Cultural Center designed by architect Ioannis Despotopoulos as part of a competition in 1959. The project was one of the most compelling propositions of modern Greek architecture: Despotopoulos envisioned a national theater, congress center, museum, library, and an open-air theater in close proximity in the city center. As a musical institution, the Athens Conservatoire was founded in 1871 by the Athens Music and Drama Society. Originally, instruction was given in just the flute and the guitar, in respective correspondence with Apollonian and Dionysian aesthetic principles; Despotopoulos cited the guitar neck as his inspiration for the design of the building.
In the documenta 14 exhibition at Odeion Athinon, the willfully mystic and modernist Greek composer Jani Christou plays a central role. Whereas his notion of the continuum provided an early experimental framework for working sessions between artists, curators, and the documenta 14 team, Christou’s idea that ‘music can be silent’ and his methodology of metapraxis are relevant to a consideration of other composers like Pauline Oliveros, the Scratch Orchestra of Cornelius Cardew, and the new generation of artists presented at this venue.
Another aspect of the partnership between documenta 14 and Odeion Athinon has been the process of restoring the EMS Synthi 100, a rare analogue synthesizer built in a limited edition by Electronic Music Studios, London, in 1971 and later purchased by the Contemporary Music Research Center (KSYME). Four commissioned compositions on the instrument are being performed at Megaron for documenta 14, forming a relationship between the now ‘antique’ machine and a new generation of Greek and international electronic musicians.
Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA) - Pireos Street (Nikos Kessanlis Exhibition Venue)The ASFA, which has its origins in the Royal School of Arts established in 1836, moved its departments of Fine Arts, Art Theory, and the History of Art into the former textile factory of the Sikiarides family in 1992.
The ASFA was the first institution to partner with documenta 14 in the Greek capital, and here Learning from Athens is manifested as an exploration of creative formation and educational experimentation. Since the autumn of 2016, Arnisa Zeqo of an education (the public education program of documenta 14) has led Elective Affinities, a seminar inviting students from various departments to engage with documenta 14 artists. The exhibition in the lofty galleries of the Nikos Kessanlis Exhibition Hall reaches beyond Athens, examining work from Ciudad Abierta, or ‘Open City,’ founded outside Valparaiso in Chile, from Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan school in the countryside of Bengal, and from Matanzas, the ‘Athens of Cuba’ - to name just three key schools and sites of learning that documenta 14 examines.
Benaki MuseumThe Benaki Museum was founded in 1930 by the collector Antonis Benakis. Born into an important family of the Greek diaspora, Benakis donated his entire collection to the Greek state. The resulting Benaki Museum remains one of the most important museums in the country. Its collection consists of more than 500,000 objects spanning the spectrum of Greek art and culture and including works of Islamic, pre-Columbian, African, and Chinese art.
documenta 14 enters into a dialogue with four of the museum’s branches: the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art; the Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika Gallery; the Mentis Center for the preservation of traditional textile techniques; and the Pireos Street 138 Annex, located in the once industrial Rouf area. With its inward-looking architecture and spacious inner courtyard, the 138 Pireos St. Annex offers an opportunity for investigating untold, unfinished, or otherwise overshadowed histories—and proposing novel museologies, instantiated by the newly commissioned and historical works included in this major portion of the documenta 14 exhibition.