Higher learning: the Athens edition of Documenta 14 makes the grade
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Many will argue that when art critic and curator Adam Szymczyk announced back in 2013 that Documenta 14 would be twinned with Athens, his work was done. A wealthy, German, 100-day quinquennial art exhibition landing in the economically troubled Greek capital for 50 days certainly sounds like a modern form of cultural colonialism if there ever was one. Can one move past the potency of this act to understand the curatorial vision and work of the 160 artists involved?
If you can, then this ambitious citywide exhibition – titled ‘Learning from Athens’ – is definitely worth a visit. Thoughtfully curated with multiple layers and methods of understanding, the exhibition, in deference to the city of Athens, worked hard against assumptions of a colonialist arrival through an intensive public programme of performance art, film, radio, as well as a wealth of context-led research based projects and site-specific works.
A visit certainly requires patience, GPS, and an iPhone charger. The exhibition is spread across multiple venues, with the major ones including the Athens School of Fine Art (ASFA); the Athens Conservatory (Odeion); the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST); and the Benaki Museum. There are also numerous smaller locations from empty tavernas, apartments, public squares and sites of historic interest such as the Acropolis park, where some of the best projects lie. Many of the works address the current refugee crisis, particularly relevant to the geographic location of Athens, as a gateway to Europe and situated between the East and the West.
To wit, one of the more distinct curatorial themes was that of immigration, migration, displacement and asylum. Rebecca Belmore, a Canadian artist of Anishinabe descent, placed a marble tent on Philopappos Hill, facing the Parthenon, exploring concepts of displacement, while Iraqi/Kurdish artist Hiwa K’s video work Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue) (2017) retraces his own journey as a refugee from Iraqi Kurdistan through Greece to Germany.
One of the most impressive venues is the Athens Conservatory – or Odeion, as it is known to locals – a modernist landmark designed by Greek architect, Ioannis Despotopoulos. The building was commissioned by the Greek state in 1959; in the 70s, it was taken over by one of Greece’s leading music schools. Behind the elegant, dove-grey marble façade, the building opens up below ground to numerous levels, subterranean courtyards and rooms. Artist Emeka Ogboh’s melancholic sound work, with scrolling LED display of the world stock indexes, is installed in a vast rough concrete auditorium while in a square courtyard on level minus two, artist Daniel Knorr compresses a pile of junk into the pages of empty books.
From the sound of children practising their cellos at the Odeion, to the thickly graffitied walls of the ASFA, through to the tourist hoards at the Acropolis and parties in abandoned factories, the journey that Documenta 14 takes visitors on is a fascinating one. The historic and contemporary context of Athens as a city is always relevant and present.
The Athens edition of Documenta 14 runs until 16 June. For more information, visit the website (opens in new tab)
Harriet Thorpe is a writer, journalist and editor covering architecture, design and culture, with particular interest in sustainability, 20th-century architecture and community. After studying History of Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and Journalism at City University in London, she developed her interest in architecture working at Wallpaper* magazine and today contributes to Wallpaper*, The World of Interiors and Icon magazine, amongst other titles. She is author of The Sustainable City (2022, Hoxton Mini Press), a book about sustainable architecture in London, and the Modern Cambridge Map (2023, Blue Crow Media), a map of 20th-century architecture in Cambridge, the city where she grew up.
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