This year the contemporary art exhibition Documenta 14 has been taking place not only in the German city of Kassel, as had been the case every five years since 1955, but also in Athens. Its title, Learning from Athens, cites Robert Venturi’s legendary book Learning from Las Vegas (1972) in the most banal way but at least gestures in the direction of the South (as does the title of its magazine, South as a State of Mind). The major published document of this double exhibition, the 710-page volume The Documenta 14 Reader (2017), which came out too late for the Greek part of the project, offers a comprehensive textual and visual survey of its concerns.
However, it has a glaring omission: Athens and its people. It includes only two (excellent) essays by Greek scholars (both reprints by non-Athenian academic expatriates) as well as three short reprinted poems by a Kurdish-Greek writer who used to live in Athens. In its own self-refuting way, the Reader on “Learning from Athens” does not have a single Athenian writing from Athens.
Furthermore, there is no claim anywhere in this massive volume about a single thing that somebody learned from their sojourn in the city since work on the exhibition began there in 2013 – proof that Documenta’s Athens might be placed anywhere since the organizers can provide and rehearse its citizens. For example, we are told that in Athens there was a “Parliament of Bodies” (35) but, instead of hearing from those bodies assembled there, we read about a singly body, that of Paul Preciado, the Curator of Public Programs of the exhibition. We are told that there was a self-organized “Apatride Society” but are offered to read Diagne on Négritude, and another also self-organized “Society for the End of Necropolitics” but, instead of hearing from their members, we are offered to read Du Bois on the Warsaw Ghetto. Under the grandiose title “When, and where, do German-Greek relations begin?” there is a short folio of twenty-four artworks, only two of which (by Pia Davou) are located in Greece. As we are told in the penultimate page, even the indigo ribbon page marker of the volume, though prepared at a workshop of the Benaki Museum in Athens, was made by an indigo dyer from Mali featured in the exhibition.
In short, readers are reminded on every page that “Learning from Athens” requires the ostracism of all Athenians – citizens, refugees, immigrants, resident aliens, guests, all of them. As my other self, Pantelis Polychronidis, would say about his city of residence, would it ever be possible to call a project “Learning from Vienna” and obliterate all the Viennese from it?
This obliteration is neither accidental nor symbolic. Cultural arbiters like Adam Szymczyk, the Artistic Director of Documenta 14, who profess to love “Learning and Living from Athens” (to quote the title of his introductory essay), make sure to have Athens to themselves, unadulterated by any Athenians, either by not visiting it (following the example of nearly all Romantic writers and artists) or by reducing its inhabitants to non-speaking roles (as do all foreign movies filmed in the city). That is because they are confident that they are the authentic Athenians who ultimately do not need even the physical place since they carry Athens as a “State of Mind” with them wherever they go. Regardless of their ethnic descent, these citizens of the Hellenic transcendent “aesthetic state” are the true masters of Bildung and gatekeepers of Kultur. In an excellent Greek-language review of the Athenian part of the exhibition, Yorgos Tzirtzilakis, Architecture faculty at the University of Thessaly, identified didactic, moralistic, narcissistic, naturalistic, exoticist and other related elements in its heavily textual critique of identarian neoliberalism which ended up affirming the authority of Documenta as an institution.
As its “critical anthology” illustrates, Documenta 14 went to Athens looking for “others” but ended up othering the Athenians as its project of “decoloniality” colonized their city.
August 15, 2017