It’s my third day of ‘Learning from Athens’. As earlier reports by my colleagues have suggested, the scope of the Athens leg of this year’s documenta 14 is intimidating: upwards of 150 artists in 47 venues across the city. It is not a prospect for those either faint of heart or uncomfortable of shoe. Like Theseus in the labyrinth, I find myself searching for a thread to lead me through.
On the ground floor of the EMST: National Museum of Contemporary Art – the Athens exhibition’s largest venue, which includes works by more than 80 artists and artist collectives installed over the building’s five floors – a thread appears to me, quite literally, in a film by the Congolese artist Sammi Baloji. Part of the installation Tales of the Copper Cross Garden, Episode I (2017), the video documents the mesmerizing process by which copper is drawn into wire from glowing, semi-liquid ingots. A choral mass provides the solemn soundtrack, while sporadic all-caps intertitles weave biographical details (the artist grew up in the mining region of Katanga in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC) with a reflection on the role of the Church in the colonial enterprise in Africa. On a wall perpendicular to the screen, a large-scale blow-up print of a grainy black and white photograph depicts singing choirboys. Over their white robes, they wear large Katanga crosses: copper forms resembling the cross of St Andrew that, since at least the 13th century, were used in the mineral-rich region as a form of currency, as women’s dowry and as talismans buried with the deceased. When, following Congo’s independence from Belgium in 1960, Katanga briefly seceded from the newly formed republic, three crosses appeared on its short-lived flag.
The physical forms in which value(s) – economic, political, ethical – reside, and the extent to which these have been deformed by Western imperialism, offer one path through this dense, extensively researched presentation. Alongside Baloji’s installation, the ground floor gallery houses 22 masks from the series ‘Atlakim’ (1990–2012) by Beau Dick – an artist and Hereditary Chief from a small Dzawada’enux village on Canada’s northwest coast who passed away in March. Their circle formations – one in which the masks face inwards towards each other, one in which they face outwards toward the room – makes me think both of a collective form of dance and gatherings in the ancient agora. Masks are central in Indigenous potlatch ceremonies, which involve the communal sharing of food and other goods (including, in some cases, ‘coppers’) and were banned by the British colonial authorities – to whom potlatch manifested an attitude that was at once dangerously pagan and dangerously anti-capitalist – in the late 1800s. Much of what we know about the culture of the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples (of which the Dzawada’enux are one) comes by way of the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas, who makes an appearance on another floor of the exhibition in an extraordinary set of black and white photographs from 1895. Re-staging a Hamat’sa initiation ceremony – which involves the cannibalistic possession of young men by a man-eating spirit – a shirtless, moustached Boas emerges from a cane hoop as if from another world.
Alternatively, we might see in the hoop the curved lip of the amphora in which the wildman philosopher Diogenes is said to have slept in the ancient Athenian marketplace, given that he appears in the ground floor gallery in the copper plate for an engraving of Nicolas Poussin’s Landscape with Diogenes (1647). In this bucolic reverie Diogenes, who was known for eating, shitting and masturbating in public, watches a young man cup his hands to drink from a stream. Diogenes has set down his bowl – his last remaining possession – while, in the Elysian background, towers the white, high-renaissance form of the Vatican’s Belvedere Palace. (It is no small irony that Poussin’s paean to the renunciation of worldly goods ended up in the collection of Louis XIV; Dick’s masks, on the other hand, are burned every four years in line with potlatch custom proving that, while artistic conventions of production and circulation are hard to circumvent, its not impossible.)
The repetition of motifs, more or less explicit, across floors and between eras and continents, is the great curatorial strength of this show. At a certain point in Baloji’s film, the intertitles frame the Church’s presence in the Congo in terms of ‘lightness’, as compared with the ‘darkness’ of the village. On the museum’s top floor, a dark (uncivilized, unlooked-at, unclean) community is at the heart of a remarkable – almost unbearable – documentary, dating from 1963, by the Iranian director Forough Farrokhzad. The House Is Black was filmed at the (still extant) Bababaghi Hospice leper colony in Iran and intersperses brutally direct footage of residents’ deformities with a narration – almost an incantation – of quotes from the Old Testament and the Koran, and clips of men at prayer. Next door, Lois Weinberger’s Debris Field (2010–16) presents, in simple glass-topped cases on clean white trestles, hundreds of items found beneath the floorboards of his parents’ farmhouse in the Austrian Tyrol. There are scraps of fabric, coins, dessicated animal skeletons, a bewildering number of shoes. Houses are dark: they know all of our secrets. Moreover, as Freud recognized, they can turn very quickly from spaces of comforting familiarity to terrifying alienness.
This alienness is reframed in legal (and political) terms in Maria Eichhorn’s Building as Unowned Property (2017), also on the top floor. The artist is attempting to turn an empty building in central Athens into a ‘property with protected use of “no use” and thus no right to the property rights exercised’: a catch-22 that echoes both Beau Dick’s refusal of Canadian citizenship and of the state’s definition of him as a ‘Status Indian’, as well as evoking the in-between, nationlessness of the tens of thousands of refugees who are currently in camps in Greece. (A general observation: for an exhibition that seems to have gone to great lengths to embed itself within the physical and cultural fabric of the city, there is remarkably little work, at EMST and elsewhere, reflecting on current political realities in Athens. Perhaps the reasoning goes that being here is cause enough for reflection; certainly, the experience, however brief and limited, of rubbing shoulders with daily life in the city provides one way of sidestepping the clichés that have attached themselves to Greece in recent years.)
Not all transitions between the works at ESMT are smooth: the gallery in which the painfully visceral The House Is Black is screened, for instance, is followed by one filled with abstract painting. At points, too, fascinating backstories threaten to overwhelm their means of presentation, as in a room dedicated to the avant-garde Russian composer Arseny Avraamov. Imprisoned in 1912 for Bolshevik propaganda, Avraamov escaped to Norway and had a career as an equestrian, acrobat and musician-clown in a travelling circus before, in 1929, developing a technology for synthesizing sound from light (‘graphical sound’). Mounted on grey walls, in between large tracts of text, pages of black and white graphic scores feel remote and lifeless, while the recording of Avraamov’s groundbreaking Symphony of Sirens (1919–23) plays in the background, inviting distracted rather than focused listening.
At a certain point, around the middle of the fourth floor, the archival and discursive bent of this exhibition starts to feel exhausting. This is a show that demands a lot from us – especially given an absence of contextualizing information (wall texts, catalogue), which occasionally frustrates. But having to work is not necessarily a bad thing. And, while the majority of the works are resolutely unspectacular (to the extent, in fact, that when you reach the scarlet cascade of Cecilia Vicuña’s Quipu Womb [The Story of the Red Thread, Athens], 2017, it seems excessive, almost gaudy) there are occasional moments of exquisite sensuality. A series of sepia-toned prints by the Sri Lankan photographer, pianist and critic Lionel Wendt, for instance, captures then-Ceylon in both its mythico-historical and immanent-erotic dimensions. In one image, a young, dark-skinned man wraps a streaming length of white cotton around his waist; for a split-second, I think he’s going to wrap himself into a toga. And then I catch myself. Through Western eyes, you begin to realize, we cannot help but see Athens everywhere.