Courting Crisis: Condescension, Disaster Tourism, and “Learning from Athens”

Zafos Xagoraris, "The Welcoming Gate," 2017. Former Underground Train Station (KulturBahnhof), Kassel, documenta 14. Photo: Jasper Kettner.
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The pedagogical framework espoused by the title of this year’s two-city, quinquennial documenta – Learning from Athens – preemptively suggests an ethnographic or neocolonial study, especially considering its presentation by an established German art institution in the Greek context, and the countries’ fraught economic relationship over the last decade. What does documenta 14 teach us about Athens? Since the 2008 financial crisis ravaged the Greek economy, the trickling aid from Germany to Greece has placed the latter in the position of a “de facto colony,” its fate decided by German electoral politics. How, then, does a major art event – co-produced between the two countries – stand within this dire political reality?

Since the Athens opening in April, what we are learning from Athenians – as opposed to the official voice of the Greek Ministry of Culture – is that the large-scale art exhibition has, at best, failed to engage with realities of political struggle on the ground. At worst, it has flagrantly hindered them. Leading up to the event, there’s been a massive, Olympic-scale urban clean-up, effectively “artwashing” neighborhoods for future gentrification. Despite progressive rhetoric, documenta has created an influx of real estate speculation, a spike in temporary Airbnb-style housing, and has indirectly led to evictions from squats and low-income housing.

Additionally, the condescending framing of documenta 14 as a “gift” to Athens has prompted far-reaching criticism. Former finance minister and DiEM25 leader Yanis Varoufakis, called the event “disaster tourism” and remarked that: “Adding the veneer of a left-wing narrative against neoliberalism to a purely extractive neocolonial project that’s framed as a gift to Greece is adding insult to injury.” Against this heated political backdrop, a lot hinged on the curatorial framework’s execution in the exhibition’s home country of Germany.

Unsurprisingly, very little reflection on this turmoil comes through in Kassel’s iteration (which opened in early June, two months after the Athens edition began). Instead, Adam Szymczyk’s curating relies on a sweeping, formal critique of capitalism, racism, and patriarchy, and a fetishization of crisis that feels dated. In fairness, the exhibition concept was conceived four years ago, in a considerably different political climate. Yet there remains a political shortsightedness that goes beyond the conditions surrounding the 2015 Greek bailout referendum: while aiming to deliver a non-Eurocentric and politically radical exhibition to the public, the organizational team seems to have forgotten their own standing within the market-driven artworld apparatus. Operating as a massive art spectacle – funded by airlines, car companies, and banks – creates a kind of collusion and impenetrability that renders critique moot as far as radicality is concerned. This year’s documenta has set its target on the ever-amorphous political and economic concept of ‘neoliberalism’ without exploring in greater depth its own complicity in that very paradigm.

Andreas Angelidakis, “Polemos,” 2017. Photo: Nils Klinger.

At the press conference on the opening preview day, grand statements were proffered about the radical nature of the exhibition by hard-hitting theorists and curators like Paul B. Preciado and Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung. The insistent rhetoric was convincing, but the exhibition itself fell short of delivering a strong focus on the economic realities of the city it had appointed as pedagogue.

An installation by Dakar-born Pélagie Gbaguidi in the Neue Galerie, titled The Missing Link. Dicolonisation Education by Mrs Smiling Stone (2017), serves as a metaphor for the curatorial framework and its best intentions. Along a windowed corridor of the gallery, Gbaguidi has created a makeshift school room with delicate, hanging pastel drawings and desks covered in translucent paper, lightly covering over violent and powerful photographs of South African Apartheid. Taken literally, the piece presents education as a weapon against fading memory. A similar emphasis on colonial histories runs through documenta’s venues in Kassel, yet the possibility of viewing Greece as an example of a new colonial paradigm is insufficiently treated.

Pélagie Gbaguidi, “The Missing Link. Dicolonisation Education by Mrs Smiling Stone,” 2017. Photo: Mathias Völzke.

This year, the central Fridericianum exhibition space houses the collection of the EMST, the Greek National Museum of Contemporary Art, which, due to financial reasons, was only partially opened in 2016 after 12 years of legal and political battles. The collection’s inclusion here feels like a charity project: extracting the collection from its unstable home to act as a cultural artifact in the refined German building. While the display in the Fridericianum is impressive – featuring works by established Greek artists alongside high-profile international artists like Lynda Benglis and Mona Hatoum – it sits uneasily in the context of the whole program, almost an afterthought nod to the city that otherwise feels conspicuously absent throughout Kassel’s other venues. Athens itself takes on a nebulous form, reinforcing its interest more as metaphor than fact.

Banu Cennetoğlu, “BEINGSAFEISSCARY,” 2017. Photo: Roman März.

In this absence of specificity, at least, there is a gesture toward universalizing the struggle that Greece has endured, particularly as a landing point for recent refugee migration. A huge preoccupation of the other exhibition spaces in Kassel is the specter of Nazism, both present and past. The city was a main manufacturer of armored vehicles during the Second World War, and is a known enclave of neonazi activity targeting immigrants today.

This recent history in Germany is treated throughout documenta 14 as a point of critical self-reflection. One of the most fascinating pieces in Kassel is Forensic Architecture’s thorough treatment of the circumstances surrounding the racially-motivated murder of Halit Yozgat. Using 3D modelling and simulation, as well as video reenactment, FA examines the testimony of a Hessian secret service agent, Andreas Temme, who happened to be in the café at the time of the murder, committed by a member of the National Socialist Underground (NSU). The agent claims to have seen nothing, a story which FA debunks by retracing all of his possible movements. Their findings suggest implication, or willful disinterest, at all levels of the state apparatus in the chain of murders (the same gun used to kill Halit was employed in eight other similarly motivated murders over six years). By focusing closely on this rash of local criminal activity, which targeted immigrant populations in the very neighborhood where the installation is displayed, the Forensic Architecture piece turns inward the political call of documenta 14 as a whole.

The Society of Friends of Halit with contributions by Forensic Architecture, “Initiative 6. April, the People’s Tribunal ‘Unraveling the NSU Complex’, and spot_the_silence,” installation view, Neue Neue Galerie, Kassel, documenta 14. Photo: Michael Nast.

It’s this kind of self-reflection that is missing with respect to documenta’s relationship to Greece. Instead, the pedagogical theme, tied as it is to a specific locale, gets lost amidst a surplus of other struggles. Presented in the German context, Athens becomes little more than an aestheticized symbol of economic upheaval and dependency, even as it’s gripped daily with new financial restrictions and humiliations by the same host country. There is an egregious disconnect, in Athens, between the critical politics employed by the curatorial team of documenta 14 and the institution’s real presence – as an agent of the German state.

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