This year’s documenta 14 is an impatient, heady, and at times stern exhibition urging that the time is now to work to correct our global economic and political crises: situations named by Paul B. Preciado – in the press conference on 6 April – as a ‘new financial hegemony’ characterized by a ‘criminalization of poverty’, and ‘pathologization of all forms of dissidence’. These are serious, big themes, and from what I’ve seen so far of the exhibition, it feels most effortlessly executed when these subjects are scaled down: musical scores – doubling as paintings or graphic prints, by Guillermo Galindo, for example, at the Athens Conservatoire – or in numerous experimental instruments and diagrammatic works, which breezily implement practice and theory while displaying a utopian potential for the reorganization of systems.
Titled ‘Learning from Athens’, the 2017 edition of Documenta has a lot to say about methods of practical engagement in the arts: pedagogy, systems of educational organization, attempts at social organization, and ways of ‘unlearning’ (to quote artistic director Adam Szymczyk’s opening speech). ‘Unlearning’ is a form of learning, and social reorganization and education can offer progressive models to move past Western, ‘neoliberal’, ends-based structures. True to this pedagogical bent, one of the exhibition’s venues is host to a large, slowly-paced presentation at the Athens School of Fine Arts. This section of the exhibition displays an interlinking of art and practical inquiry – something to be lived and experienced outside of professionalized contexts – and opens with instances of radical utopianism from the previous century. Instead of moaning about the desperate state of the world, let’s work to rebuild it, the section seems to say. Entering the spacious, hangar-like school building one sees a number of brisk, ludic works that converge of social practice, performance and community experiments: hanging from the walls at the centre of the main room is a paper installation by Ciudad Abierta, a pedagogical and commune experiment from Chile (Latin South America, 2017). Nearby is a large, score-like schedule of a 24-day experimental performance and learning workshop held in San Francisco and Kentfield, California in 1968: Anna and Lawrence Halprin’s materials from communication workshops (Archival Materials from the Sea Ranch and Driftwood City Workshops, 1962–71). On view are playful, sometimes bordering on sensual, photographs of bodies interlinked, standing in a circle at a beach. Nearby, Rosalind Nashashibi offers a tender filmic portrait of painter Vivian Suter and her mother Elisabeth Wild, herself an artist and textile designer who makes abstract collages, filmed in and around their home in Panajachel, Guatemala (Vivian’s Garden, 2017).
Communitarian and utopian formations – which unite personal testimony and positive artistic organization – are also present in David Perlov’s felt-tip pen drawings such as The Water Tower of Kibbutz Bror Hayil (1958), done when Perlov moved to a Kubbutz in Israel. ‘School’ as a model is critiqued by Allan Sekula’s series ‘School is a Factory’ (1978–80), presented in works comprising photographs and graphic panels. Polish dissident Oskar Hansen’s films and videos from 1975-94, showing playful actions such as blindfolding people and spinning them around, felt fresh and vibrant today, while tying in to this section of the exhibition’s critique of educational orthodoxy, and a flair for the absurd that feels rare here.
Angelo Plessas’s Experimental Education Protocol, Delphi (2017) – a highlight of this section of the exhibition – is part of Plessas’s ongoing series of experimental education platforms, which is constructed around the portrait of a different individual each time. In this installation – including objects, an explanatory statement and a video – Plessas presented a portrait of Maria Zamanou-Mickelson, his one-time neighbour in Athens, who confided in him that she used to be a spy during World War II; passing information to the Allies on the types of planes she spotted flying overhead. Plessas presents some documentation revealing her secret past; a book she gave Plessas about ‘spies’; and a video of Zamanou-Mickelson, who lives, ironically, in Germany today. The work is humorous, linking up Zamanou-Mickelson’s espionage to the Oracle of Delphi, who would offer predictions based on the movements of birds.
Over the course of this presentation, the tenor and mood of the show changes – and eventually the positive, radical utopian intention of social organization matures to a need to ‘learn’ from present and past mistakes. Here’s where the exhibition borders on didacticism, presenting its grand themes with unrelenting directness. A few video works in particular present the effects of the European refugee crisis, for example, head-on in documentary formats. Other visual narratives more abstractly capture a mood of global political tension, such as Amar Kanwar’s Such A Morning (2017). Glimpse (2016–17), by Artur Żmijewski, is a silent, black and white 16mm film offering views of refugee camps and living quarters, filmed in Berlin’s Tempelhof airport, and in Calais and Paris, France. It is a powerful, gritty, unsettling film, including a number of uncomfortable, risky moments: a scene shows the face of a black refugee being painted white, the artist hands a broom to another and seems to encourage him to sweep the Parisian street that is his temporary home. The work attempts to depict the brutality of the refugee experience, switching between an empathetic portrayal and ethnographic instrumentation.
The central work of this exhibition – displayed in its own, large room at the back of the venue – is Bouchra Khalili’s The Tempest Society (2017), an hour-long video offering filmic portraits of different ‘refugees’ living in Greece. ‘Assimilation turned out to be a utopia’; ‘when does one stop being a foreigner?’ asks a man who moved here from Kenya. Here the radical utopianism of the earlier works is linked to society's failed projects – from Europe to the debt crisis to today’s refugee situation. It’s a dark inversion between utopianism as ideal and as pipe dream. Khalili’s work is at times too direct and unidirectional, accusing governments of ‘playing Europeans and Greeks against each other’, yet it succeeds due to the way it offers different portraits of different kinds of ‘refugees’, adding gradient to the understanding of that term.
Learning is enjoyable, yes. But despite the mostly intelligent, carefully assembled material on view, there lingers an oppressive mood of restraint which is surprising for a show that seemingly broke the rules by staging itself in Athens to begin with. While delving into major themes, ultimately the Athens School of Fine Arts contained few bold moves. The works show that safety is good in one way, but less so in others – in this venue, at least, documenta 14 displayed a somewhat strained sense of carefulness.
This is the first in a series of frieze magazine editors’ first impressions from documenta 14 Athens. Check back for reviews of the other four main venues.
Main image: Amar Kanwar, Such a Morning, 2017, digital video, installation view, Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA)—Pireos Street (‘Nikos Kessanlis’ Exhibition Hall), documenta 14. Photograph: Freddie F