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.

Controversial curator-in-chief Adam Szymczyk, photographed at the Documenta 14 press conference in Athens. Photography: Giovanni Savi

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.

Banu Cennetoğlu, Gurbet’s Diary (27.07.1995–08.10.1997), 2016–17, various materials, Gennadius Library, Athens, documenta 14. Photography: Freddie F.

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 practicing 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.