documenta14 ‘Learning From Athens’
A spotlight circled the façade of the historic building in Omonoia square, there it settled upon the central balcony where a man with a loud speaker, conjuring Hitler bellowed in deutsch repeatedly at us standing in the square, reciting borrowings from Beethoven’s 9th symphony ‘Ode to Joy’ referencing the Ancient Greek Elysian Fields as muse.(1) His mechanized automaton motions and repetitive script alluded, or was a wry quip upon this years’ documenta leaders, (coming across as the colonizing dictator) bringing German cultural hegemony and economic clout to Athens, citing inspiration in this economically deprived, refugee-saturated, EU-crippled country, the birthplace of democracy and home to thousands of years of unparalleled world culture—yet, disengaged from the local community. The Athens Biennale performance (‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ is the current theme), encompassed a manifesto with voices of outrage, defiance and proposing an alternative artistic vision, made the Athenian resistance palpable, heart-felt, emotional and sincere, (albeit tongue-in-cheek), strategically taking place the night before the ‘barbarian conquest’. This year the quinquennial contemporary art event documenta opened in Athens to the public April 8th, (Kassel in June), with over 160 participating artists, with the primary museum venues a tight secret until press preview day (mostly performance) for the opening weekend at over 40 locations. Over the past four years, the gradual infiltration of Athens’ cultural institutions by the German staff has aroused suspicion, discomfort and criticism within the Athens art community and further afield, perceived as exoticising and exploitative, considering the tumultuous history between the two nations, with Nazi occupation and destruction of so many Greek villages, which also led to a significant wave of immigration to Australia (Melbourne now is the largest Greek population outside of Greece); to the latest stringent austerity measures enforced upon Greece by the EU.
The magnitude of documenta14 encompasses multiple large-scale museum exhibitions, impressive publications, television and radio, extensive public programs and performances and with so much reading material, I needed to find rationales for this perceived cultural imperialism masquerading as international and egalitarian, when obvious condescension has been articulated. (The organisers also matter-of-factly referred to the PIGS; i.e. Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain). The ethnographically presented ‘Society of the Indigenous’ exhibitions re-presented Polynesian, Aboriginal and Māori through mediated Eurocentric lenses, emptying inherent social context and performativity, creating at the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), exoticising, ‘noble savage’ displays. The London-based Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer’s new collaborative film Why Are You Angry? (2017) takes its title and poses directly from Gauguin’s images Tahitian women, seeking to reclaim his fetishised subjects through a female gaze, however, the objectifying Eurocentric perspective reiterated cultural estrangement, mirroring Gauguin’s exoticisation. The first Aotearoa New Zealand contemporary artist selected for documenta, Nathan Pohio’s Walters Prize-nominated Raise the anchor, unfurl the sails, set course to the centre of an ever setting sun! (2015-2017) greets visitors at the entrance of the EMST. While again, removed from culturally specific context and juxtaposed with other non-related sculptures in an installation, Canadian Indigenous tribal masks by Beau Dick (Kwakwaka’wakw) are presented as static museum objects. In a corridor space, Thomas Dick’s 1910 black and white photographs of Aboriginal Australians (Goori tribe) romantically portrayed as a ‘dying race’ were haphazardly pinned to the wall; in a case below, the loan contract with the Australian Museum clearly specifying the amount paid by documenta (AU$12,450.00 ex gst) as if this was a consolation for cultural loss. The lost Indigenous languages in Susan Hiller’s compilation The Last Silent Movie (2007-8) at Athens Conservatoire (Odeion) reiterated the ‘dying race’ theme. The concept of ‘South’ as per the title of documenta’s critical organ, clearly is read differently from those who come from the real south, i.e. the Southern hemisphere. While grasping the interrelationship and interdependence between Indigenous and ecological world views, one demeaning passage from South reflects the patronising curatorial mindset, ostensibly blaming the Greek famine on the Allies and avoiding mention and evading the massive Nazi destruction throughout Greece, decimating villages (half of Greece’s population of over ten million to this day live in Athens):
‘Between October 1940 and April 1941, the war was fought on the mountains along the Albanian border, as the Greek army made steady advances. On April 6, however [coinciding with documenta’s preview] the German army began its sweep through Greece in the course of six days. Germany then established a tripartite occupation, with the Italian and the Bulgarian armies, which destroyed the country both financially and politically. In order to feed itself and support its North Africa campaign, the German army quickly requisitioned the harvest. The Allies, hoping to pressure the occupying forces and the Kommandantur, moved to blockade Greece. The famine that followed in the autumn of 1941 and the winter of 1942 was unprecedented, even in this small, always poor, always dependent country, [my emphasis] and led to the establishment of Oxfam. Estimates vary as to the numbers of those who died but they hover between 100,000 and 450,000. The famine conditions in Greece at the time were comparable to the conditions of the most abject hunger that had appeared in India in 1876-78, as well as to the postwar conditions of Bangladesh, in Biafra, in Ethiopia [another display created out of human misery in cases in the museum], and perhaps currently in Aleppo.. Indeed, the experience of the famine remained seared onto the social memory of Greece for many decades, until the brief and singular economic amplitude of the early 2000s set it aside.’(2)
What has seared collective memory—reinforced today overhearing a tour guide, (there is a tiny museum here dedicated to the resistance fighters of WWII alone) along with the memory of the military junta in the early 70s, in our lifetime, is the scale of Nazi destruction and the thousands of its citizens sent to the Nazi death camps never to return home. Barely one work addresses the painful issue; the recent interview with Maria Zamanou-Mickelson featured in the large exhibition focused on education at the Athens School of Fine Art as she discusses her childhood experience assisting the Greek (and Italian) resistance, produced by Experimental Education Protocol/Angelo Plessas, Delphi 2017. In Ancient Greece these were the sibyls, women who were believed to be oracles, spontaneous prophetesses who could predict wars without any prior political knowledge or philosophical predisposition. ‘Maria recounts her experience commissioned by the Greek Secret Service to spy on the movements of German aircrafts from her house. She imparted her reports about the coming attacks to the Greek and Allied forces in the same manner that the Pythia of Delphi read the movements of birds and offered omens and predictions…’(3)
And so we enter the EMST’s Hitler and homosexuals gallery simply titled The Greek Way (2017): Glorified neatly painted portraits of Hitler are inscribed with the names of executed homosexuals by Piotr Uklański juxtaposed by McDermott & McGough reproductions from Leni Riefenstahl’s uber-classicizing glorification of the Athenian (reclaimed as Aryan) ideal in Olympia. The proudest portrait is presented on an entry wall, highly hung, waist at eye-level as a masterwork of Western art in its museological context and placement. The new Athenian gallery felt truly chilling and I wondered whether I was the only one mortified and sickened (as much so by the Eva Braun fantasy elsewhere). A German show for a German audience presented with unapologetic nonchalance (there were hundreds of Germans present for the preview days with little else heard other than German spoken, certainly few of the Indigenous cultures).
Themes in the early public programs caused particular distress as insensitive, certainly too-close-to-the bone with the US-backed military junta in recent memory in the early 1970s; students and children were killed at the local Polytechnic University by militia police, thousands of citizens arrested and tortured, so with documenta headquarters being at the very site of this grisly period, the ‘Torture and Freedom Tour’(4) was in particular bad taste. It was also here that I had the privilege of participating in artist Irena Haiduk / Yugoexport’s reissue of female factory workers’ standard issue ergonomically designed shoes for documenta staff, with a reading. Her utilitarian premise will be expanded for the duration in one of the countless empty shopfronts in a mall to create more engagement with a public who for the most part are unaware of documenta, given lack of visibility and the last minute confirmed list of performances for the opening week (not to mention lack of engagement with the local art community). Given that the scheduling of hundreds of performances and events, with multiple performances at the same time, one emblematic highlight was Ross Birrell’s re-conception of the homage to Athena, a small group of horses and riders converged beside the Acropolis before departing on their long trek to Kassel: The Athens–Kassel Ride: The Transit of Hermes, a 100 day human-equine ensemble making the 3000 km trek across Europe between the two cities of documenta 14.(5)
Come June, the EMST collection of contemporary Greek art will be displayed in Kassel in reciprocation. As the primary host of the main exhibition, it reopened after renovation only this week. The Athens School of Fine Art has been enlisted training students as volunteers and providing another large venue for the continuation of the main exhibition. With so much to view and read, it has indeed been a monumental organisational effort and requires several days to visit, staggering in broad international scope—particularly if this represents only half of the overall conception, a success in its breadth if nothing else—with a few stand-out new commissions, such as Naeem Mohaiemen’s film Tripoli Cancelled (2017). The backlash or ‘Athenian resistance’ however, illustrates that partnership and engagement with ‘the public’ demands an equal playing field without condescension or disdain, but empathy and sensitivity to the reminders of pain the Teutonic tribe bring with them (including the harsh sound of their language to certain ears). Without developing constructive rapport and engagement with a local community, one is left without very many engaged visitors, just empty words of intent.
(1) Poem by Friedrich Schiller, 1785. Beethoven’s last and best known choral symphony was adopted as Anthem of Europe by the Council of Europe in 1972 and subsequently by the European Union.
(2) Neni Panourgiá, ‘Enfleshment of Memory’, South – As A State of Mind #3, documenta14, Fall/Winter 2016, p.13.
(3) Angelo Plessas wall text, 2017.
(4) documenta14, 2017, ‘34 Exercises of Freedom: #11 Torture and Freedom Tour of Athens’, http://www.documenta14.de/en/calendar/976/-11-torture-and-freedom-tour-of-athens.
(5) documenta14, 2017, ‘The Transit of Hermes’, http://www.documenta14.de/en/notes-and-works/12798/the-transit-of-hermes.