"Doing documenta in Athens is like rich Americans taking a tour in a poor African country"

An interview with Yanis Varoufakis by Leon Kahane

Leon Kahane and Yanis Varoufakis photographed by Keren Cytter 

Since this summer everybody knows that Yanis Varoufakis is a principled idealist, that his wife is an artist, and that he drives a motorbike very fast.  

When Greece's former finance minister held a talk at the 6th Moscow Biennale, it was broadcast live on the state-owned TV channel Russia Today – until, that is, he began to criticise the Putin government. Artists, he told the audience shortly before he got cut off, "should be feared by the powerful in our society," adding: "if you are not, you are not doing your job properly."

It was thanks to the force of this kind of rhetoric, based on apparently self-evident truths, that many people – including no small part of the art world – were attracted to Varoufakis's public persona, and pinned their political hopes and desires onto him. But if Varoufakis is idealised by many artists, he too seems for some time to have idealised the artist as a figure who can speak truth to power, a bulwark against the banks and others who bring nothing but trouble. 

The Berlin-based artist Leon Kahane, who is participating in the biennial with a continuous dance performance in the format of a daily ballet, met Varoufakis in Moscow and spoke to him exclusively for Spike Art Daily about the plans for documenta in Athens in 2017, state funding for the arts, Vladimir Putin, and what he's learnt about the many walls going up around the world. 

 

Leon Kahane: Did you go to the last Venice Biennial? 

Yanis Varoufakis: No, I didn’t. My wife did.

LK: Have you seen images of the German pavilion? The inscription saying “Germania” was covered with a Greek flag that had the words “Germoney” written on it. 

YV: I like the idea that the standoff between Germany and Greece was interrogated and deconstructed, but I didn’t see the work, so I don’t want to pass judgment.

LK: And the next documenta will be held in Kassel and in Athens.

YV: I have to say that I am not very happy about the idea that part of documenta will take place in Athens - it is like crisis tourism. It’s a gimmick by which to exploit the tragedy in Greece in order to massage the consciences of some people from documenta. It’s like rich Americans taking a tour in a poor African country, doing a safari, going on a humanitarian tourism crusade. I find it unhelpful both artistically and politically.

LK: What would you consider a better approach?

YV: If they seriously wanted to move Kassel to Athens for one of the documentas, they should do it. documenta could commission works in Greece; they could do the whole thing in Greece.

When you have such a substantial crisis as you have in Greece, to treat it so superficially is offensive.

LK: As we are in Russia now, what would be the right strategy for a Western artist who has Western privileges here in Russia? 

YV: I grew up and have very vivid memories from living in a dictatorship. I remember that we wanted those from the outside to do whatever it took to help strengthen the forces of democracy in our country, and the forces of critical thinking, and the forces of a political solidarity. I think this is what we should bring to this country when we come - a breath of fresh air. We should do things and say things which are useful to those who want to subject their own daily circumstances to critical scrutiny.

LK: Something like a strengthening of “civil society”?

YV: Civil society has been set against the state by a certain neoliberal kind of thinking, so I don’t like the term at all, but I like the substance. The strengthening of artistic and political movements that deconstruct the increasing authoritarianism of the regime in this country is our duty. But at the same time we have to remember that the demonization of Vladimir Putin, the demonization of the Russian government in the West, is firstly to be countered, like all campaigns of demonization, and secondly in the end weakens democracy in Russia.

LK: The title of this year’s Moscow Biennale is “How to Gather?” What does this question mean from the perspective of the future of Europe? 

YV: First, we have Europe-wide problems whose solutions must be Europe-wide, too: they cannot be dealt with on the level of national politics, especially after we created a common currency. Second, when Marx and Engels were looking for a slogan for their movement, somebody suggested to them that it should be “We are all brothers” or something like that, “We are all together.” And Marx said no, there are so many people around here who don’t want to be my brothers. And he is right in a sense that there are vested interests in every one of our societies. 

LK: Polarization is always bad, but then I’ll have to ask you about Greece’s government. They have some polarizing aspects when you consider the coalition between [the right-wing party] ANEL and Syriza. 

YV: This was always an odd couple, a problematic coalition. The best thing I could say about ANEL was that they left us alone, they did not participate really in the formation of policy. That’s the best thing I can say. The worst thing is that their ideology is toxic. But I don’t believe that the Greek government of Syriza is polarizing society any more in a sense that it has come to the ground; they surrendered. The polarization was between the forces that supported the Troika and the anti-Troika-movement, and I think that the first Syriza government was very progressive in that sense. But society is now polarized not at a political level, a party-political level, but at the level of society. Because they are completely leaderless, the forces that are naturally opposed to the failed policies which are being implemented have no one to represent them. So you have the fascists as the only ones who do, the Golden Dawn Nazis. ANEL is irrelevant.

LK: Good to hear, but they have also people who vote for them. That’s maybe what you mean with poisoning, but that might also poison a referendum, when they collect votes for Oxi, for example.
 
YV: The percentage of those who voted “no” and came from the extreme right was tiny. You can’t progress in life when you constantly fear that some bad people may support something.  

LK: There was a lot of support for Greece, especially from the art world. And I also thought that it was often very unreflected support, as you already mentioned with documenta. If you want to support Greece, you of course have to be careful in which direction you give your support . . . Are you planning to go back into politics?

YV: I never got out of politics. Politics is not parliament. I chose to be out of parliament because there was no party that I could support either. But you and I are having a political discussion as we speak.

LK: Absolutely, art is very political, especially biennials.

YV: And it’s even more political when people deny it’s political!

LK: Your wife is an artist, and you are both founding members of the platform Vital Space. You also mentioned in an interview that working together with her helped you to get out of the theoretical bubble.

YV: Getting off my couch, away from my desk, travelling with her to the four corners of the universe, more or less, gave me a perspective on themes, such as globalization and divisions, that were always percolating through my mind. Putting the analytical together with the aesthetic and seeing the world through her lens allowed me, for instance, to come up with this view that the borders that we are building, especially the fortress borders like the US-Mexican fence, the wall in Palestine, the new wall that we are building between Greece and Turkey, and all the other walls are one wall, which is unfolding and emerging throughout the world: it’s the flipside of globalization. We were in Kashmir, India, for instance, and there was graffiti referring to the walls on Belfast, and in Belfast there are murals referring to the wall in Palestine. The people living next to the walls had much more in common with other people living next to the same walls.

This is something I would never have seen had I not seen it through the eyes of an artist.

LK: I am from East Berlin, and I was very young when the wall went down. And there is a difference between walls obviously. The Palestine wall is different than the Berlin wall obviously, and also the Mexican border works differently … I think when you said that we have to be careful with the term “all together”, that actually also concerns the question of these walls. It’s a very strong symbol, it’s an ugly symbol, but on the other hand … do you think it’s the same as every other wall?

YV: The Berlin Wall was the only one which was different, because it symbolized this Cold War clash. And the fall of the Berlin wall was accompanied by the lengthening and strengthening of all the other walls. One wall fell and the others got stronger. But let me put it simply: in the case of Sharon’s wall – that’s how they call it in Palestine – when you are walking next to it, I got exactly the same sensation that I got in Mexico. And it’s built by the same people, the same Israeli companies, with the same architecture. In every single location these walls are legitimized by the narrative of security when in reality it brings insecurity. 

LK: I am not so sure about whether a victim of the Second Intifada would say it didn’t bring any security. But I want to ask you a last question. As you are an expert in finance, … 

YV: You want to know what shares to buy? [laughs] Whether to sell Volkswagen shares?
 
LK: I would probably invest in LED technology. [laughs] But the funding of art is always a big discussion: What would you consider the ideal approach, in Greece and also generally in Europe?

YV: There is no funding in Greece. The state is bankrupt, and the private sector is not funding anything. I am a strong believer in public funding of the arts as a public good, just like hospitals and universities and so on. Art is not a luxury – even though art is always partly commodified, if it is ever fully commodified it will lose its soul and its meaning. So a very strong public fund by which to fund the arts is an essential part of civilization.

 

Born and based in Berlin, Leon Kahane grew up in the former GDR. His artistic practice is closely linked to his family history which is one of Jewish Holocaust survivors who came back to Germany. As his contribution for the 6th Moscow Biennale, Leon Kahane created a continuous dance performance in the format of a daily ballet rehearsal with professional dancer Svetlana Saltykova.