This year, say the organisers of the Documenta, the objective is “Learning from Athens”. In the Greek capital, for the first time the supporting venue for the exhibition traditionally held in Kassel, contemporary art has embedded itself deep in the cityscape. Perhaps this has less to do with the ambitions of the German exhibition organisers than with the change that the recent political and economic crisis has brought to the cradle of classical European culture. We at 100 years of bauhaus went there in search of the Bauhaus Spirit of today.
Athens, shimmering, jangling Athens welcomes us with a relaxed bustle that is a world away from the hectic curiosity of the incoming tourists. The sun burns almost gently down on us as we arrive in Kerameikos and leave the metro station, that colossal project for the 2004 Summer Olympics that makes a granite-hued and emphatic mockery of the preconceived notion of lazy and ineffective Greeks. Our apartment, a late-nineteenth century gem (when the head of state was a Bavarian prince from the House of Wittelsbach) is some distance away from the trendy street cafés already bursting at the seams by early afternoon. Our veranda opens onto the courtyard; it smells of mock-orange. Lemons fall onto the concrete tiles and roll to a standstill between whitewashed benches or the paws of sleeping dogs. Athens 2017 – nothing and everything has changed since I was last here.
I last visited the city eight years ago. The Athenians had long since become accustomed to the new rhythm brought by the euro and numerous large scale events and had no idea of the crisis to come. Demonstrations were not yet mass events and subjects like the movements of refugees across the Mediterranean Sea were politically avant-garde. Athens seemed to have found itself, somewhere between mass and cultural tourism and the dream of a quiet life in economic prosperity. Athens was a long way from being the centre of the world, even in terms of the arts. But the niche that it still occupied was plain even then: For anyone who speaks of Europe, there is no avoiding the home of European civilisation.
Today, eight years and a dozen elections, referenda and reforms later, Athens has come to terms with the fact that although it cannot resolve its many problems, these will not bring about its demise. The crisis of the state has meanwhile led to a blossoming of social engagement. And in the thick of all this art bloomed, brought back questions in lurid images and biting commentaries to the city’s streets. In this Documenta year, a window opens to the diversity of this vernacular, highly political culture. At the same time it remains an accessory, does not force itself onto the tourists, wants to be found. Thus, niches form the centres of that learning that the Documenta promises us. Athens has something to tell us, although nothing that might be connected with exhibition halls.
Athens, my Athens, our Athens, is a starvation artist: beautiful and arrogant, provincial and sublimely urban. The dirt of the Levant, the noise of the South, the laughter of African traders: contradiction prevails all around, not only on Panepistimiou Street with its marble temples to high finance. Athens stinks and sings at the same time. Desperation is borne in cafés and dissipates skywards in clouds of tobacco and freddo cappuccinos. People trust in no one, but dare to hope out loud. Still, at least Athens has no terrorist attacks! You are irked by refugees and paint with them, tents made of marble everywhere and poverty selling lottery tickets. Happiness in its modest form speaks Greek, now and again.
The art is like a paper chase: Athens wants to be experienced, whether by taxi, which is still or again incredibly cheap, or with buses which groan under the weight of the elderly and backpackers. We throw ourselves into the current, let ourselves drift from island to island. A video installation here, a sound garden there, cuts in billowing fabric, papier-mâché models and polystyrene poems. We see, we read, we marvel. Much of it is confusing, but some of it cuts to the heart, gives cause for concern and, in a curious inversion, allows the title of the event to take root in our thoughts. Are we learning? Are we learning from Athens? Has Athens learned and, if so, what? Have we learned anything from the crisis, from crisis tourism, from the crisis industry? Have we arranged ourselves with the notion that everything is going downhill anyway and that it is our task to excitedly look forward to the fall from as comfortable a position as possible, watching the fall as if from a loge in a theatre?
Athens 2017 does not wish to teach us anything, or so it seems to us. It was the world’s school for too long for us to labour under the illusion that the nature of Greece might heal the world. Athens 2017 is, rather, about learning to survive; that it is better to stop looking for teachers – whether politicians or artists – to explain the world to us. And so, roaming through exhibits that are well worth seeing in sites that are equally so, we are struck with one perhaps pivotal insight into this required learning process: Athens 2017 needs a lot, but it does not need curators that mean it well, or who, depending on the interpretation, make a source of inspiration, or even a stage, from the home of the crisis.
On our last day on a short walk on Philopappos hill, once known as the hill of muses, we stumble across an installation by the Canadian artist Rebecca Belmore. This became the most widely photographed subject of this year’s Documenta even before it opened: a tent carved from marble with a view of the Acropolis. Entitled “Biinjiya'iing Onji (From inside)” this monumental work’s early fame is not without meaning: After all, it symbolises the endeavour to cast current events in an exotic format while at the same time remaining terribly fixated on the classical.
In this spirit: Thank you, Athens. We have learned!
[NF 2017, Translation: RW]