A few steps across the border

documenta 14




Documenta 14 closed two months ago, and yet the international press is still full of news related to the super-production of contemporary art that lasted altogether half a year in two cities (Athens, Kassel). However, instead of analysing the successful or somewhat less justifiable works exhibited in the scope of documenta 14’s Artistic Director Adam Szymczyk’s concept and the subtle associations between the two exhibitions located thousands of kilometres from each other, these articles rather delve into the underlying causalities behind the – to say the least – problematic financial balance of last year’s documenta. There is an ongoing quest to find those responsible for its deficit adding up to millions of Euros despite the monstrous budget of 37 million, already substantially swollen compared to the original plans.

The tense atmosphere surrounding documenta was certainly not placated by the autumn election campaign. This is illustrated by the controversy surrounding Olu Oguibe’s Monument for strangers and refugees erected on Kassel’s Königsplatz, which the city’s committee has recently decided to purchase. The giant obelisk cites a Biblical line from Matthew (in German, English, Arab and Turkish): “I was a stranger and you took me in.” The city’s representatives of the far-right AfD party unsurprisingly demanded the statue to be removed, recruiting a number of supporters among the city’s residents, but the obelisk appears to be staying. At least for now.

“Artistic license does not mean that the budget can also be handled licentiously,” goes the stakeholders’ response to Szymczyk’s attempts at fending off accusations by blaming curatorial competences and unforeseen consequences. Participating artists have also joined the ruckus by writing an open letter in support of the curatorial team, arguing that the measure of an exhibition’s success is not its financial profitability.

The relation between documenta’s fiscal and symbolic stakes is a timely topic for several reasons, from the role of museums and galleries through the financial interests of collectors and investors to issues not only concerning contemporary German politics, but also the effect of biennialisation as such on contemporary art and the art market, in which the role of documenta is indubitable. Regarding the financial profitability of these productions the question is not whether they are profitable or not. The question is much rather how, as Szymczyk and his curatorial team point out in a statement.

Apart from, or rather, in spite of all this, documenta is the most important event of contemporary art, which can, in addition to its commercial benefits, be an outstanding reference or source of inspiration – perhaps in relation to the very criticism regarding documenta – for (institutional) contemporary art praxes, curatorial work and not least in education. Therefore in the following paragraphs, I will expound upon the individual works and the factors that link them, seeking answers to Szymczyk’s curatorial proposal: what have we learned from Athens?

In addition to the main question of this year’s documenta, it is worthwhile to ponder whether Athens has learned (or more practically, if it has profited) from documenta? Although d14 was salvaged from impending bankruptcy by a German bailout, the resolution of economic and political tensions intensifying since 2010 between the two countries is far from this easy: its short- and long-term consequences have repercussions beyond the borders of the European Union.

The selection made by documenta’s artistic director Adam Szymczyk and his team is completely devoid of any reference to this current (diplomatic) tension. However, antecedents with a purport beyond the conflict between the two countries, as well as the background of a series of financial and social crises warranting an intricate network of relations pervading economic world powers and “aided” countries, had a prominent role in documenta’s discursive space.

Regarding the Greek host’s reactions alone it is worthwhile to mention the statements made by former minister of finance Yanis Varoufakis, or the two-year research program involving Greek sociologists, anthropologists and curators (Learning from documenta). The graffiti speak for themselves, criticising documenta from the fringes, excluded from its practically hidden official venues across Athens. Citizens of Athens have probably seen a lot more of these on their way to work in the challenging tropical heat than, for instance, of the works exhibited at the deep-frozen sterile spaces of the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), reopened specifically for this occasion.

The thematic harmony of nearly 160 works on display at more than 50 venues (documenta’s staff made a full statistical summary) offered a number of associative scenarios for the spectator to toy with, along such buzzwords as democracy, archive, community, migration, politics of memory, history and decolonialisation. Szymczyk expanded and relinked the individual (sub)topics from the perspective of different local stories in ways that despite the seemingly unbridgeable (geographical, historical, ideological) distances, a series of global puzzle-maps can be pieced together. The question is not how many different combinations the “curatorial codes” have, but based on what criteria the rules of the game determine the sphere of players.

One possible narrative that links the aforementioned list of topics together is the critique of institutionalised forms of knowledge and learning methods and the introduction of alternatives (viable in long term) to replace these. All of this is placed within well-argumented historical coordinates by Szymczyk: the second half of the 1960s was the age of the devaluation of hierarchical knowledge represented by institutions and the crisis of the social structure and ideologies considered secure, lasting and democratic in Western Europe.

Elsewhere, however, this period was characterised by the rule of dictatorships. In Greece, a six-year military junta ended in 1974, references to which were abundant at this year’s documenta: the Athens Municipality Arts Centre, once headquarters of the military police, and the Museum of Anti-dictatorial and Democratic Resistance were both venues of documenta.

In addition to talks and lectures about the topic, historians of the Contemporary Social History Archives organised city walks commemorating the events of the ‘70s. Related works – at least based on their dates of creation – were also exhibited at Fridericianum in Kassel, in the hall displaying a selection of works by great Greek masters from the collection of EMST, except there was no “guide” – in either the exhibition space or on documenta’s website – to help interpret the context, and thus the lineup of Greek masters remained an empty gesture at best.

The Parthenon of Books built on Kassel’s main square is a memorial not only to the Nazi book burnings of the 1930s. Its author is Martha Minujín, who had built the first version of the work in 1983 in Buenos Aires, in the days following the fall of the military junta. While back then the artist used books banned during the dictatorship in Argentina to build her work in the scope of a “flashmob” involving local residents, in the 2017 paraphrase, the Parthenon’s life-size replica is clad in books banned by various fallen and still prevailing regimes. In the context of all of the above, the book-pillars of the Pallas Athena temple in Kassel seem to overwrite the towering symbols of wisdom and knowledge and warn that these chapters of world history and the morals learned from these events must never be forgotten.

Allusions to the Parthenon do not end here: with a similar purpose, the Neue Galerie features a painting by Hitler’s favourite painter, Alexander Kalderach from 1939, displayed not too far from some sketches about Greek antique statues by the founder of documenta, art historian Arnold Bode. In order to interpret the correlation, it is worth to recall that the first edition of documenta in 1955 was organised with the aim of rehabilitating art that had been considered degenerate by Nazi ideology.

So often promulgated by Szymczyk, the practice of unlearning can be associated not only with historical and contemporary examples of reform pedagogical experiments. Unlearning is a conscious process of forgetting, documenta’s examples for which are mostly alternatives to Western neoliberal result-oriented models of learning.

Collaboration with educational institutions in order to unfurl this leitmotif should not come as a surprise: the Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA) and the Athens Polytechnic in Greece and the University of Kassel in Germany.

Boasting a great historical past, formerly known as Royal School of Arts, Athens’ fine arts academy – where an Antifa event happened to be taking place upon our arrival – featured experimental workshops based on the practice of learning and collective experience as an alternative to institutional education. Hungarian audiences are familiar with Oskar Hansen, whose films demonstrating his Open Form theory have been implemented in his architectural work as well as art education. Besides his work, the school displayed documents of Anna Halprin and her architect husband Lawrence’s twenty-day workshop from 1968, with the participation of a group of architects from the Bauhaus school, as well as artists and dancers, recalling the golden age of radical pedagogy.

The aim of the “Experiments in Environment” workshop was “continuous collective creativity” and “experimentation with methods of learning through direct experience and discovery.” The goal of the collective experience was the use of space based on collectively choreographed phases of movement and the simultaneous “scanning” of the environment (both architectural and natural landscape) with this method.

The essence of landscape architect Lawrence Halprin’s collective creativity exercise, the so-called RSVP (resource, score, value, performance) method, is that based on their experiences gained at the workshop, participants make collective decisions about content and form. Also developed into charts, this system is intended not only to be a feasible recipe for experimental movement and dance courses, but also to function as a methodology of collective actions related to urban politics.

The practice of unlearning stirred up the whole of documenta. Documents of the Halprins’ workshops were exhibited in Kassel as well, similarly to more than two-thirds of the artists, who exhibited in both cities based on Szymczyk’s concept. Whether a work was hosted by Athens or Kassel was not necessarily a question of “site-specificity”: the dialogues between the narratives are the most delicate pillars of Szymczyk’s curatorial construct.

One member of the curatorial team implemented the Halprins’ method in Pierre Bal-Blanc’s Collective Exhibition of a Single Body project, which perfectly fit into the Museum für Sepulkralkultur’s (Museum of Sepulchral Culture) permanent exhibition. Presenting the documentation of a performance realised in Athens with the participation of Maria Eichhorn, Anna Halprin, David Lamelas, Prinz Gholam, Kostas Tsioukas, Annie Vigier & Franck Apertet (les gens d’Uterpan), Lois Weinberger, and Artur Żmijewski among others, the complex installation is an “archive” of the phases of movement of human body parts and organs. The collection interprets the practice of “unlearning” as a form of communication built on elemental, physical gestures.

Architects, architecture and community were linked with topics of student resistance and politics of memory at the Athens Polytechnic. Not only is this one of the oldest institutions of higher education in Greece, but it is also regarded as one of the centres of resistance. In 1973, in the last days of the military junta, students occupied it and launched a pirate radio broadcast. The regime in power rapidly responded to their uprising with tanks. Resulting in a student death toll in the dozens, the retribution is a traumatic memento of the military junta: in the frame of documenta’s discursive program, the details of the events were recalled by three former rebels at the site.

It was not only they who returned to the Polytechnic, but the 1933 CIAM conference that had taken place on a boat trip was also commemorated by an exhibition. Archival footages documenting the conference featured such figures as Moholy-Nagy, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto and Fernand Léger. The marine program’s closing event in 1933 was the Functional City exhibition in Athens at a venue none other than the Polytechnic, laying the foundations of functionalist urban planning. For documenta 14, in collaboration with local and international students, Rainer Oldendorf built a study exhibition recalling Athens’ modernist architectural past among other things.

The diverse global historical events of the 1970s, including the student uprisings, are featured at many instances throughout documenta. This is not merely a tribute to the dreadful events of 1970s Greece, but a meta-layer of documenta’s narrative, wherein local collective memory is interpreted in a broader geopolitical context. The same period is commemorated by re-painted press documents covering the student uprising in Thailand (Arin Rungjang: Tomorrow we will become Thailand, 2016) at the Benaki Museum in Athens, along with the recollection of the history of Congo by Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu’s paintings (101 Works) from 1973, combining folkloristic storytelling and urban “popular style”.

The paintings of the African artist who had disappeared without a trace when he was 34 recall barbarous episodes from the colonial history of Congo: the figure of Lumumba, who was Congo’s first ruler following its declaration of independence in 1960 until his arrest 10 weeks later, as well as the dictator Mobutu, who ruled the country as its leader from 1965 (for more than 31 years). Viewed from our vantage point, these paintings seem to render the history of Black Africa’s past forty years ever-current: pawns in a global game of economics, dictatorial regimes become servants of recolonising efforts.

One of the most complex – and let me add: astonishing – works about global historical correlations is Naeem Mohaiemen’s three-channel video and sound installation Two Meetings and a Funeral at the Hessisches Landesmuseum. Currently living in New York, the Bangladeshi filmmaker is a PhD student of anthropology. His exhibited work resembles an investigative documentary, exploring and exposing the role and (changing) political positions of Bangladesh in the scope of the diplomatic advocacy of countries within the Non-Aligned Movement and the ideological clashes (socialism vs Islamism) of African states.

Barely touched upon by Hungarian history books, the movement was conceived amidst the height of the Cold War period and before the disintegration of colonial empires with the purpose of marking a third way independent of superpowers intending to divide the world into two poles. The 88-minute film uses archival footages (e.g. the 1973 summit conference in Algiers, the first time Bangladesh was recognised as an independent state by Non-Aligned countries) and interviews with experts interpreting the events of the period, yielding such an intricate narrative reminiscent of a political thriller, which throws light on the reasons for the failure of the “Third World Project” in the Cold War period, as well as its consequences reverberating into our present.

The film begins by recalling an event in 1957, when the first Sputnik was launched by the Soviets. The United States panicked and launched a comprehensive (public) education program ushering the youngest generation towards natural sciences and astronomy, hoping that having acquired the necessary knowledge, they would knock the Soviets out of space. The launch of Sputnik contributed not only to retailoring the “national curriculum”, but also to the popularity of science fiction literature. We also learn from the film that in the 1960s, Sputnik had a prominent position on the list of popular first names in India.

The protagonist of the 95-minute film Tripoli Cancelled, screened at EMST in Athens, is not taking to the skies any longer: dressed in a pilot’s uniform, the middle-aged Muslim man re-enacts the past, or rather, imagines a desired future aboard an aircraft on an abandoned airfield. He lives alone in the once flourishing Ellinikon Airport of Athens, shut down for good in 2001. With infantile enthusiasm, sometimes he conquers its abandoned planes and other functionless equipment abraded into melancholy scenery.

The documented afterlife of the airport (recently the site of a transit zone for Syrian refugees, which has been cleared out and negotiations about a luxury real estate project are currently under way) then pulls the spectator back into a reality that relativizes the various practices of mobility. The privilege of mobility is not given to all. The paradox this poses is perhaps most accurately phrased by Homi Bhabha, in a poetic manner that suits Mohaiemen’s film: “The globe shrinks for those who own it; for the displaced or the dispossessed, the migrant or refugee, no distance is more awesome than the few feet across borders or frontiers.” (1)



Translated by Dániel Sipos

(1) Miwon Kwon: One Place after Another: Notes on Site Specificity. October, Vol. 80 (Spring, 1997), pp. 85-110. p. 110.