Critical Eye: Athens: Chorus of Complaint

Rebecca Belmore: Biinjiya’iing Onji, 2017, marble, on Filopappou Hill, Athens, in Documenta 14. Photo Fanis Vlastaras.


DOCUMENTA 14 crash-landed in Athens like a big black monolith that shattered into a million pieces. Well, maybe not a million, but with forty-seven local venues organized by fourteen curators and curatorial advisers, there was nothing singular about it. More than a mere event, Documenta 14 became a hyperobject, which theorist Timothy Morton, who coined the term, describes as something “so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend spatiotemporal specificity.” 1 A phenomenon like Documenta 14 makes people angry, because nobody can describe it exactly and nobody can see it whole, whereas the art world functions almost entirely on forming opinions and passing judgments on the basis of authoritative observations. 

Titled “Learning from Athens,” which suggests a process, Documenta 14 produced a friction, an anger that didn’t ease up even after the Athens part officially closed. Sparks flew from the get-go, in a litany of questions: Why Athens? Who in Athens? Why learning? Why are there so many venues? Why are there so many performances? Why is there no information? Complaining about Documenta was apparently more appealing than anything Documenta itself could offer. 

The Documenta 14 organizers released little information before the public opening on April 8, when the Athens half launched with a performance of Jani Christou’s Epicycle (1968/2017), a musical composition of indefinite duration that invites all audience members to join in with their own voices and sounds. Documenta, too, was conceived as an open-ended composition. Four design offices were employed to make sure that the project would have no single graphic identity. I told artistic director Adam Szymczyk that I was beginning to identify his methods of fragmentation. “Yes, and because it’s so spread out, no two people can claim to have had the same exhibition experience,” he replied. “Nobody can claim to have seen the entire thing.”

In Athens, the criticism in the local press included everything you would expect. Documenta colonized a scene. It didn’t include enough Greek artists (so it wasn’t colonizing enough). The Greek artists included weren’t the right ones. Its hiring methods were riddled with favoritism. It failed to appoint Greek curators to the team (Marina Fokidis and Katerina Tselou were eventually promoted to curatorial advisers). No one knew how much money they had. No one knew where the money was coming from. Documenta was too leftist. Documenta was too capitalist.

In an interview published on Art-Agenda, Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s former finance minister, went so far as to compare Documenta’s arrival in Athens to the privatization of the national airports, because the exhibition drained the country’s financial resources. Documenta, he claimed, paid only a token amount to the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST). 2 I don’t know if Documenta drained funding from the Athens art scene. To be honest, I don’t think there were any funds to be drained. Furthermore, Varoufakis’s description of Documenta’s miserliness seems exaggerated, and he doesn’t cite any numbers to back it up. While Documenta has not publicly confirmed budget figures, sources within the organization told me that EMST was paid 600,000 euros ($704,000) for hosting part of Documenta, and 3 million euros ($3.5 million) were spent on the exhibition of works from the EMST collection at the Kassel Fridericianum. Nevertheless, Varoufakis was quoted in e-flux, Artnet, Hyperallergic, Spike, and other art publications as proof of the negative reception to Documenta in Greece.

In early June, almost simultaneously with the publication of Varoufakis’s interview, Zoi Konstadopoulou, another member of the leftist Syriza party, threatened to sue Documenta for colluding with Germany to avoid paying Greece’s World War II reparations. The absurdity reached an apex in mid-July, when Documenta became the subject of debate in the Greek Parliament. Finance minister Euclid Tsakalotos urged the parliamentary body to applaud Documenta 14, while other members argued against it.

One doesn’t have to be an economist to know that one of the currencies artists deal in is that of attention, and Documenta donated heaps of it to the city of Athens. The landing of Documenta 14 threw civic hype into overdrive. Now Athens was not only a cheap and sexy crisis survivor. It was also the host of Documenta, at the cutting edge of contemporary culture. Hordes of art people descended on the city. The huge amount of cultural capital that Athens amassed will take some time to register at the currency exchange, but it quickly generated a multitude of exhibition projects all around the city this summer. I remember a rainy Friday morning in June, when I found out that “Driftwood, or how we surfaced through currents,” a group exhibition featuring eleven site-specific projects sponsored by the Fondazione Prada, was opening that night a few blocks from my home. I knew that, before Documenta 14, it would have been the event of the year. Now it was something I was willing to skip because of a few raindrops.

I grew up in Athens, and I moved back in 2005, when I realized that New York was not the best place to make work. There was too much going on, and it was dominated by the market. Since then I have watched Athens develop from a forgotten periphery to a hyped periphery, thanks in part to the 2007 Athens Biennial (which I worked on as an exhibition designer) and the many private initiatives from galleries and foundations. As a participating artist in Documenta 14, I decided to go back to my student research on the city and its unauthorized construction practices. Now that the Athens portion of the exhibition is over, the city has become even more fascinating, because it has been given a new chapter, rather than getting written off as a victim of a financial crisis.

One of the properties of hyperobjects is that we are always inside them, like Jonah in the whale. Whatever we do becomes a part of this hyperobject. That’s what I found most fascinating about Documenta 14. All the criticism, whether justified or spurred by petty politics, was subsumed into the hyperobject that is Documenta 14, and contributed to the attention that was deposited in the city. The chorus of complaint gave voice to people who were not part of the official organization. It included all those who were excluded, through the parade of articles and social-media rants and hilarious trolling sessions, like the ones produced by the organizers of the Athens Biennial on the Verstopfte Maschine Facebook page, which posted satirical remixes of photos and videos released by Documenta. During my first chat with Szymczyk, he spoke about creating a situation rather than an exhibition, and it has become obvious that Documenta in Athens was the mother of all art world situations.

In retrospect, Athens was the perfect setting for this kind of extreme complexity and contradiction, because it is an unresolved city. Athens is never what you expect. It is dirty and sad and alluring and vibrant. Most important, it is not a city that pretends to know, but a city in the process of learning.



The Athens portion of Documenta 14 ran Apr. 8–July 16, 2017.

ANDREAS ANGELIDAKIS is an artist and architect based in Athens.