Documenta 14 Athens

Light on 'activist art', but heavy on truly political artworks

By Raimar Stange

Synnøve Persen, works from the series Sámi Flag Project, 1977–, installation view, EMST, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, Documenta 14. Photo: Mathias Völzke

Various venues, Athens, 8 April – 16 July 2017

‘Documenta is the Botox of capitalism’, read a slogan emblazoned on posters that popped up in Athens during the opening days of Documenta 14. But on the evidence of the first part of the exhibition (part two, in Documenta’s traditional home, Kassel, opens in June), that accusation – that this edition of the quinquennial event will affirmatively smooth capitalism’s ugly wrinkles – completely misses the target. A geographical split is not the only means by which artistic director Adam Szymczyk has worked against the grain of Documenta’s format. The exhibition, which over the past 60-or-so years has focused on contemporary art, this time includes numerous historical works; it foregoes big names (a few exceptions notwithstanding); and it decentres the presentation by utilising an extraordinary number of venues – in Athens, more than 40 – to house the works.

This Documenta also features an unusually high proportion of performances: a fact that both rejects art’s usual object-and-commodity character and brings into play, as Szymczyk said in an interview on German radio, the ‘individual, the thinking body, which contrasts with power structures’. Above all, this Documenta – subtitled Learning from Athens, though ‘Athens’ here feels to be a metaphor for a larger problem – pointedly rejects the idea of art as the product of an autonomous and merely, as it were, formalist aesthetic. Instead what we see are works characterised, in their own ways, by political qualities and content-driven statements, for example concerning neoliberalism, rightwing populisms, refugee crises. There’s no doubt that this political engagement is necessary in such difficult times as our own, and Athens – with its disastrous economic situation, and the huge influx of refugees coming to Greece, is a symbol of this, at least within Europe.

Potentially a problem in this regard is that Szymczyk’s approach to political art – at least since 2008, when he cocurated the 5th Berlin Biennale with Elena Filipovic – is cautious: an approach that, despite all his implicit criticism of a market-conformist l’art pour l’art, doesn’t forego a determined desire for art per se. This is exactly what’s inscribed on this Documenta, and it turns out to be a good thing. Szymczyk’s Documenta, while light on ‘activist’ art, successfully presents a comprehensive revision of recent art-history and current art-production, one that sounds out the selected artworks and showcases how political content is transported within them, how they take up critical positions with regard to neocolonialism and globalisation, disenchantment with democracy and, for example, climate change.

While light on ‘activist’ art, this Documenta successfully presents a comprehensive revision of recent art-history and current art-production, and how the selected artworks take up critical positions with regard to neocolonialism and globalisation, disenchantment with democracy and, for example, climate change

No artistic genre, medium or style is left out: the spectrum ranges from painting and sculpture to sound and spatial installation, from video art and performance to conceptual and public art. So you can see, for example, Miriam Cahn’s expressive paintings dealing with the global refugee problem; Hiwa K’s minimalist domestic sculpture One Room Apartment (2017) about housing in Iraq; the disturbing sound installation The Ears Between Worlds are Always Speaking (2017), by the artist collective Postcommodity – which, using Long Range Acoustic Device speakers ‘against their intended purpose’ (that being as a weapon), broadcasts multilingual stories of displacement, etc. Other offerings include the conceptual video Report (2016), by Peter Friedl, in which immigrants in Athens perform Frank Kafka’s text ‘A Report for an Academy’ (1917), and the endurance performance-and-installation The Portrait (2016), by South African group iQhiya, dealing with gender and racism, specifically the treatment of black women.

Elsewhere, as many abstract as figurative works hang, old next to new, with collaborations (numerously present here) beside works by individual, international artists (from Norway to Nigeria). How open-mindedly and dedicatedly this revision is carried through is obvious in terms of how aesthetics formerly discredited by the art scene slip into view: for example, allegedly folkloristic dilettantish paintings or the art of Socialist Realism – long treated with suspicion due to its being ‘unfree’, subject to censorship by communist states.

Szymczyk’s curatorial strategy of searching for the political in art is concretely imagined in his selection of painting. At the four-storey EMST (National Museum of Contemporary Art), for example – works from whose collection will, reciprocally, be exhibited in Kassel – a selection of realistic paintings from Albania is on view. Among them is The Action Worker (1966) by Albanian artist Hasan Nallbani. This ostensibly feminist portrait on canvas shows a young female farmworker looking resolutely out of the picture plane. These figurative, party-centric political images are contrasted – apparently to show a whole range of artistic possibilities – with abstract paintings hanging one floor higher in the museum; such as, for example, the ongoing series Sámi Flag Project (1977–) by Synnøve Persen of the Norwegian Sámi Artist Group. Here, a Colour Field aesthetic not only plays with Barnett Newman’s painting Who’s afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue I (1966), but also frames, in a symbolic way, the task of an indigenous population forming a country out of its home.

Also of an abstract nature are paintings, on view next to a church on an Athenian hill, by Swiss artist Vivian Suter, who currently lives in a Guatemalan jungle (as can be seen in Rosalind Nashashibi’s video portrait of her, Vivian’s Garden, 2017, on view elsewhere). The images in her series Nisyros (2016), placed, in Athens, outside and exposed to natural elements, are painted with microorganisms, oil, earth and botanical and volcanic materials rather than conventional pigments. Up for discussion is the relationship between art, nature and environment, an inbuilt reference to global climate change. In contrast, Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu, who disappeared in 1981, paints figuratively: his large series on view in the Benaki Museum, 101 Works (1973–4), deals, in a naive style (if you will), with the brutal history of his homeland, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

Next up, we can look forward to seeing how Szymczyk continues his Documenta in Kassel: whether it repeats the statements made in Athens or perhaps questions them self-critically, and how the German city’s markedly different economic and political situation will change the exhibition. 

Translated from the German by Kimberly Bradley
From the Summer 2017 issue of ArtReview