The Downward Spiral: documenta 14 by Dean Kissick
In this month’s column, Dean Kissick shares his diary of four days in Athens during the preview days of documenta 14.
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 5
On Wednesday afternoon the PKK (the left-wing organisation known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, currently fighting Islamic State in Syria) are flying their flags in Syntagma Square in front of the Greek parliament. They have a small table laid out with books. The Council of the European Union considers the PKK to be a terrorist organisation but nobody seems to mind them being here.
In the evening I’m invited to a party that runs every night of the opening week until 7am. It’s called “Pizzag8”. But I go to another bar and meet a young man with two black eyes. He was beaten up by local hooligans for wearing the wrong football scarf. He doesn’t know what scarf he was wearing. “Oh,” says his taxi driver when he sees his black eyes, “you’ve been smoking what I’ve been smoking!”
THURSDAY, APRIL 6
Morning begins in the bowels of the Athens Concert Hall waiting for the press conference to start. There is wifi here so I look at Twitter; everyone is mocking Kendall Jenner for her radical-chic Pepsi ad, which will soon be pulled. The curtain rises. All of the curators and artists are sitting onstage and perform Greek composer Jani Christou’s experimental score Epicycle (1968–2017), which, we’re told, inspired the curatorial process of documenta 14: Learning from Athens. The piece is just loads of people howling different things and stamping their feet.
This edition of documenta takes as a mascot the owl of Athena, symbolising wisdom. “We believe,” says artistic director Adam Szymczyk, “that unlearning everything we believe to know is the best beginning.” In other words we should aspire to the Socratic paradox: to know that we know nothing. He also notes that much has happened during the making of this show: the US election, the Brexit referendum, the 2015 Greek bailout referendum and subsequently the government’s acceptance of a bailout package containing larger pension cuts and tax increases than those rejected in the referendum. A lot more will happen over the course of this unusually long exhibition, with huge elections looming in Europe. A lot will happen over the next three days too.
The curators welcome to the stage the Society of Friends of Halit Yozgat, a Turkish man who was murdered in Kassel 11 years ago to the day by the National Socialist Underground. After they speak all of the curators and artists on the stage give them a standing ovation. It’s a tonally strange moment because the Society of Friends of Halit Yozgat’s connection to this show is unclear. It brings to mind the Pepsi ad. While documenta began in 1955 as a celebration of modern art that was suppressed under the Nazis, the message today seems to be that activism is more important than art, which somehow manages to feel both obvious and disingenuous. Nobody mentions until the questions that it’s also 76 years to the day since Germany invaded Greece.
Also invited to speak is Charif Kiwan from the Abounaddara collective of autonomous Syrian filmmakers formed after the Arab Spring. Abounaddara are showing their video The Syrian Who Wanted the Revolution (2011) at Parko Eleftherias, the Athens Municipality Arts Centre and Museum of Anti-Dictatorial and Democratic Resistance. Kiwan begins by clarifying that
they are artisans not artists. He is given a standing ovation as well. Nobody gives Szymczyk a standing ovation. I go and see the exhibition in the Athens Conservatoire, the EMST (National Museum of Contemporary Art), and the Benaki Museum’s Pireos Street Annexe until 11pm and it fills me with joy. I go to sleep. That night Donald Trump will unexpectedly authorise air strikes in Syria. History moves so quickly these days.
FRIDAY, APRIL 7
In the early hours United States warships somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean launch 59 Tomahawk missiles into a Syrian government airfield. “Eastern Mediterranean” sounds close by. And this is why we are in Athens, because Szymczyk wants to turn our attention to the Global South.
I think of French filmmaker Michel Auder’s work in the EMST, Gulf War TV War (1991, edited 2017), for which he recorded and collaged US news broadcasts from the beginning of the first Gulf War, making a portrait of that time that feels both gross and comfortingly nostalgic, not to mention wildly prescient of today’s endless war. In his updated edit the 1990s language of combat is refreshed and phrases such as “Real news fake news / Fake news real news” now float above the screen. If in 1991 cable networks turned war into jingoistic round-the-clock entertainment, today individuals turn war into more atomised threads of partisan online arguments. My timeline is heavy with mocking condemnations of Donald Trump’s hypocrisy and Hillary Clinton’s hypocrisy. Everyone seems angry at one another rather than angry at the war in Syria, which, like documenta 14, is perhaps too complicated for anyone to really understand.
That afternoon Syntagma Square is encircled by thousands of Communist Party supporters protesting the government’s latest acquiescence to eurozone finance ministers. Only the communists came out, I read, because after eight years of austerity most Greeks are suffering protest fatigue. On the walls of the toilets on the Hill of the Muses there are peeling posters of riots in the streets and bloodied figures on the pavement with slogans in Greek and German: “Gemeinsam den sozialen Frieden zerstören.” Or, “Let’s destroy the social peace.” Athens really is a provocative place to open a German exhibition of contemporary art with a €37 million budget.
Around 8pm I return to the EMST. There is wifi here so I look at Facebook. Swedish friends are marking themselves safe after the “Incident in Stockholm”. Later I look at Twitter: “Kendall Jenner hides her face as she returns to LA after Pepsi ad controversy.”
SATURDAY, APRIL 8
Today begins with German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Greek president Prokopis Pavlopoulos opening the exhibition. They wander the first room of the EMST, which is dominated by a collection of masks made by Beau Dick, a Kwakwaka’wakw artist from Canada who passed away on 27 March. Steinmeier and Pavlopoulos are photographed next to one another staring bleakly into the mouths of Dick’s ceremonial masks, many of which feature Bakwas, who tricks his victims with poisonous treats and robs their souls, and Dzunuk’wa, who eats children. Make of that what you will.
Although one might have expected to see more Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi artists, a previous wave of refugees has a stronger presence here: most immigrants in Greece are from Albania and this seemed to underlie the exhibition’s unexpected focus on twentieth-century Albanian painting. Rather a lot of space in both the EMST and the Athens Conservatoire is given over to Edi Hila’s surreal paintings and drawings of farmers dancing in the fields, and clowns wearing suits, and state-sanctioned “mediocre artists and directors” burning banners. In the 1970s he was ordered to work at a poultry-breeding farm as a punishment for making subversive art and some of his drawings from this time are on display. He is the spirit of documenta 14 personified: a little-known avant-garde painter working on a turkey farm under duress in 1970s socialist Albania.
My last stop in Athens is the Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika Gallery, dedicated to the eponymous Greek modern artist, where some paintings from Tirana’s National Gallery have been installed as a counternarrative to the permanent collection. On every floor one or two small paintings from Tirana are hung on free-standing metal frames held down by sandbags: gloomy figurative paintings from the 1930s and 1940s by Androniqi Zengo Antoniu, Abdurrahim Buza, Kel Kodheli, Foto Stamo and Gani Strazimiri, many of which depict refugees. Apart from these works (and a roomful of Ghika’s photographs from his travels in the 1930s) I’m not allowed to look at any of the museum’s displays without buying a museum ticket, and so I find myself alternately herded politely upwards through the building by middle-aged Greek men in suits who work there and don’t want me to look at anything, and rescued by young Greek women in voluminous white T-shirts who work for documenta and lead me to solitary Albanian paintings in amongst everything else. I find myself in Hadjikyriakos-Ghika’s stylish atelier on the fifth floor – a hangout, apparently, of the Athenian intelligentsia between the wars – contemplating a downcast socialist realist painting of an old Tirana bazaar while a security guard watches me without interest. The situation is absurd. It feels as though I’m trapped in a Ben Lerner novel about going to a gigantic, unhinged German art exhibition in Athens in the spring of 2017. But the experience is weirder than it is unpleasant. Such is the process of unlearning perhaps. “The great lesson,” Szymczyk says, three days earlier in the press conference, “is that there are no lessons.”
DEAN KISSICK is a writer based in Oxford.