Athens is known for its protests and crises, but that’s not all. When the Greek capital co-hosts the famous Documenta art exhibition, what forces might this unleash?
It’s perfectly still up on top of the Acropolis, high above the urban ocean that is Athens. It seems strange to hear nothing of the din of noisy engines and street life far below. Here we are amid ruins almost 2500 years old, and over all of this presides the majestic Parthenon, its mighty columns standing more than ten meters tall. This is where democracy was born; this was once the center of European civilization. Could any place be more steeped in symbolism? And now here comes the sun, slowly peeling itself out of the clouds to cast its beams on the gleaming marble – a true picture postcard moment.
Change of scene. Down in the city center, you have to be careful not to be knocked over even when the crossing light is green. Rough reality reigns here. Gray concrete blocks stand so tightly packed they even appear to overlap. This is the mark the modern age has left on the Greek capital: no rules, no urban planning, no regulatory hand exists. On some facades, boxy air conditioning systems hang like outmoded accessories from the flaking plaster. You have just two choices: to be fascinated or repelled.
The contrast between classic perfection and apparent anarchy also interests artist Andreas Angelidakis, 49, a bald-pated, bearded man with friendly blue eyes. He receives us in his studio on the ground floor of an apartment block. The large windows are draped with light-colored fabric, and there are various things standing and lying around on the floor: a blue occasional table, a kitchen roll, a broken computer. Is this one of his installations? Angelidakis laughs and apologizes for the chaos. He has made an international name for himself with installations and sculptures, and shows his work in Germany and New York, at the Berlin Biennale and the Swiss Institute for Contemporary Art. Now he’s preparing for the next high point in his career, his contribution to Documenta 14. The world’s leading series of contemporary art exhibitions has been going strong since 1955. This year, for the first time, it will be taking place in two cities – first in Athens and later at its home venue in Kassel, Germany.
Starting April 8, the works of international artists will be shown at several public locations across Athens, including the Megaron concert hall and the former headquarters of the mili-
tary police. More than 100 artists have been invited to develop projects for both cities. Angelidakis is not yet willing to divulge what he plans to exhibit in Germany. But he does say
that in Athens, he will be showing an installation and in Kassel “probably” video work featuring his hometown’s “two identities,” the ideal and the real, their ongoing dialogue and the friction between them. On the one hand, there’s the ancient architecture, perfect, democratic, hewn in marble to last forever, and alongside it the anarchic concrete eyesores that have been slammed into the cityscape. It’s a contrast Angelidakis also sees as reflecting the difference between Greece and the rest of Europe. Comparing Kassel and Athens, for instance: “To me, Kassel is everything Athens is not – green, peaceful and clean.” He sees Germany as well organized, protected and working according to plan, “while here in the South, there are many problems.”
For years, one word has tended to sum up the reality of Greece: crisis. It comes up all the time, whether the subject is refugees, the government, the economy, the banks or the EU. Everywhere here, you see shuttered shops, unemployment, people selling single handkerchiefs by the roadside. Money is universally short – especially for the arts. Greece has rarely sponsored contemporary art, instead reserving funding for ancient heritage sites. Many artists lament that new creations are not regarded as particularly significant to the Greek identity. Artists in Greece need private patrons or must finance themselves. Ten years ago, when bankruptcy first threatened the country, many projects already in progress were put on ice. The state slashed subsidies and sponsors withdrew. As a result, the prestigious Benaki Museum was forced to hold fewer exhibitions, the annual budget for the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) was halved, leaving that important state institution without a venue of its own for years.
My hometown has two identities, one ideal, one real
Yet necessity creates opportunities, and while a string of established galleries closed, small spaces opened up, organized by “off” gallerists or artists themselves. “Athenian art has always been guerilla, we’re used to that,” says Angelidakis, sounding confident rather than defiant. He’s a realist and also quite proud that though he’s never had a red carpet rolled out for him, he has still managed to stay innovative and bold. Asked about “Learning from Athens,” the working title for Documenta, he considers, then replies: “People shouldn’t constantly complain about the state of things, but use what’s there.”
That Documenta is coming to a venue explicitly in crisis fits well with the beginnings of the exhibition, which emerged from the ruins of a major West German city ten years after the end
of World War II. Predecessors of Adam Szymczyk, the art director overseeing this year’s Documenta, also visited cities such as Cairo and Kabul with the aim of forming partnerships, but never on the scale of spreading the exhibition across two locations. Szymczyk was the first to convince the selection committee to stage a guest exhibition in the South. By broadening the concept of the show, concept art expert Szymczyk aims to draw attention to Europe’s economic, cultural and social issues. And in his concept, Greece symbolizes the rapidly changing global situation.
Documenta is a great opportunity for local artists, to raise their profile, says curator Helena Papadopoulus, who for the past two-and-a-half years has run the non-profit gallery Radio Athènes, where both artists from Greece and abroad show their work and compare notes. She previously curated in Berlin and New York and understands how important it is for art to receive international attention. “Curators and gallerists from across the world come to Athens, take part in events, and network with local artists, and that leads to new projects.” Now the city must seize its opportunity and play Documenta as a trump card to take things forward – with the opening of the first EMST venue in a disused brewery, say, which will also host Documenta events. The project has made a hopeful, if modest, start – so far only a fraction of the 20 000 available square meters of space is occupied. The remaining rooms, all done out in clinical white, remain untouched as the budget covers neither staff nor the acquisition of a collection. Still, the will to succeed most definitely exists.
The Documenta office is in Exarchia, home of the alternative scene, where much creativity is born of political frustration. Reminiscent of Berlin’s Kreuzberg district in the 1980s, it’s seen as a problem area with a large student and anti-fascist population, junkies and homeless people. But it’s also the home of many intellectuals, and a good breeding ground for creativity and fierce protest – against the Archbishop, against militarism in all its forms, and again and again against the government. The streets of Exarchia are one big graffiti gallery, with barely an empty space on its walls. “Lose,” “Hate,” “Crash” – anti-Merkel tags abound. Posters call for support at demonstrations. Art is purposely “right in the middle of things” here.
Follow the culture trail
It’s a peaceful Thursday evening in Exarchia. A few young people are standing outside the 3137 artist-run space, beer in hand, chatting in English. The tone is respectful, cosmopolitan. British curator Poppy Bowers, who has worked for the prestigious Whitechapel Gallery in London, is opening an exhibition. Documenta Committee staff are also present. Chrysanthi Koumianaki, a slight, youthful-looking woman in her early thirties, was one of the young artists who started the 3137 gallery in 2011. She takes her motivation from the enduring crisis, but doesn’t expect it to last forever – even the most ardent enthusiast eventually tires. She mentions several artists who reached that point and then left Greece. Her opinion of Documenta? Koumianaki takes a realistic view. She doesn’t expect it to turn Athens into an art hotspot. “We will have to wait and see what remains when it’s over.” But the timing is just right, she says. “Because Documenta will bring new inspiration to the Greek art scene,” and also, at last, a platform on which to present itself to the art world.
Our author was fascinated by Athens’s gray concrete landscapes, but would gladly have forgone the aches and stiffness that lingered after walking up and down the city’s hills.