Learning from Athens

  • Last week we visited Athens just in time to catch the final days of this year’s mega exhibition documenta14. We hardly knew any of the artists in the show, and we were a bit afraid that the ones we had come to see had already been moved to Kassel. Because Kassel, a small German town, is usually where Documenta is happening every 5 years. But this year, artistic director Adam Szymczyk, decided to divide the exhibition between the two cities, giving documenta14 the title “Learning from Athens”. In the exhibition catalog, Szymczyk explains how Athens is a city “that has become emblematic of global contemporary crises”, in terms of economy, neo-liberal politics, and the countless refugees daily arriving in Greece. Another text in the catalog is the poem “To the Reader” by Mahmoud Darwish. “O my reader”, he writes, “do not ask me to whisper / do not except musical delight.”, and we quickly figured that documenta14 was more about gloomy considerations and sombre topics than flashy visuals. But what might we learn from a city in distress? Can an art exhibition do anything to the better, or does it risk becoming an instance of “crisis tourism” as some locals would have it? Toiling through the tourist packed streets and un-air-conditioned venues of Athens, looking at each and every one of the artworks was a most demanding task. Nevertheless, we thought hard and looked closely at most of the works we encountered, and in the following weeks we will be presenting our findings in neat and uncomplicated articles.