This weekend, “Learning from Athens,” the Greek leg of documenta 14 comes to a close after a 100-day run. Adam Szymczyk’s decision to bring the exhibition to the debt-plagued country has been polarizing opinions from the moment it was announced in 2014, with some lauding it as a brilliant move, and others, questioning its ethics, like the controversial former finance minister of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis, who famously called the event “disaster tourism.”
Doubtlessly, the show’s most immediate impact has been in the sheer number of visitors. Several publications have cited record visitor numbers already, which documenta’s press office did not confirm, as they will not release numbers until after the Kassel component ends in mid-September. (They also do not have statistics available at this point on how many Greeks saw the Athens exhibition.)
documenta 14 in Athens also inaugurated the long-dormant National Museum of Contemporary Art, EMST (whose future now remains uncertain); it helped to restore a rare modular synthesizer at the Athens Conservatoire; and a collaboration between the art academies of Athens, Kassel, and Besançon, France, has been announced as its single follow-up project.
It also put the art-world spotlight on Athens for a spate, the impact of which is less immediately measurable. What is left for the local art scene after documenta breaks camp on July 16? Has the presence of the show in the Greek capital really amounted to nothing more than “slumming?” Surely, at the very least, the influx of visitors helped forge new connections, but it may have achieved much more than that, considering the recent spike in art-world talk about relocating to Athens.
“What will come out of this remains to be seen,” said Helena Papadopoulos, founding director of Radio Athènes, a non-profit project space aiming at advancing contemporary visual culture in Greece. Along with Thomas Boutoux, Papadopoulos curated “All: Collected Voices,” an audio archive produced by the Goethe-Institut Athens in collaboration with Radio Athènes to record the resonance of the exhibitions and host original sound works during the spring and summer of 2017. (Not to be confused with documenta 14’s own radio program, “Every Time A Ear di Soun.”)
“Depending on whom you’re talking to, you will get different responses,” she told artnet News. “The influx of visitors to the city was considerable and the presence of art professionals like researchers, curators and artists had a great impact. We had a vibrant local art scene before, but its voice was limited to certain artistic circles.”
“Some of the visitors looked beyond documenta,” she added. “There were, for instance, art schools and researchers who were eager to learn more about our program, how we are operating, what difficulties we are facing and so on.”
“With an institution of that scale coming to Athens, there were skeptical voices together with the welcoming ones,” she said. “This sparked a debate not only about the content of the actual exhibition, but also with regard to many axes: Germany and Greece, fragile versus robust institutions, how this event was consumed locally, and how it was perceived internationally. There are so many discussions to be had still. It was emancipatory for the art scene, and there will certainly be an echo.”
For Papadopoulos, it’s clear what needs to happen next: “I believe there will be future exchange, but it’s also up to the institutions in Athens to pick up on the interest and develop it.”
But not everyone agrees that the interest needs to be developed along similar lines to those exhibited at documenta. “There’s a growing interest in local artists and projects as a side-effect of the international mobility caused by the presence of documenta 14,” said Kostis Stafylakis, an artist and theorist based in Athens. However, he sharply criticized what he sees as its reductionist curatorial approach: “The local art scene is not a unified phenomenon or some kind of concrete expression of social and aesthetic concerns. Even local expressions of critical radicality seem to follow diverse paths.”
According to him, the question of impact can’t be addressed without adding more nuance. “The real question is: which projects, artists, thinkers, and collective structures did documenta’s curatorial process seek to engage? Those who seem to be complicit with the social and pseudo-historical narrative that documenta’s orientalist gaze wished to construct for a larger audience with universal humanist concerns.”
Stafylakis argues that, “Instead of a thorough understanding of the recent history and its composite identities, documenta strived to nurture the nationalist self-victimization of Greeks by painting them as guileless agents of ‘indigenous resistance.’ Major, lasting, and current expressions of nationalism, traditionalism, anti-Semitism in Greek society were left unmentioned.”
He also claims that some local artistic practices that “reproduce neo-patriotic sentiments” were included in the show, while those overtly criticizing Greek neo-patriotism and ideologies of ‘Greekness’ had been “meticulously ignored.”
Artist and architect Andreas Angelidakis, whose work was included in both the Athens and Kassel shows of the quinquennial, noted that it’s probably too soon to evaluate the lasting effects on Athens’s artistic environment: “There has been a constant stream of art professional visitors, and they usually look at everything that is going on in the city, from documenta events to artist-run spaces and local institutions. Perhaps the Kassel part was more crucial in providing visibility to Greek artists because of the placing of the EMST collection at Fridericianum.”
Angelidakis points his criticism elsewhere. “There is a lot of energy in the city because of documenta and the attention it brought. It didn’t open new spaces but chose to collaborate with and empower existing institutions. I’m personally a bit disappointed in some parts of the local scene and the way they reacted towards documenta with silly nationalistic hysteria. I think their energy could have been spent in much more constructive ways,” he opined.
Stathis Panagoulis and George Vamvakidis of The Breeder Gallery, who represent Greek artists included in the exhibition, expect an “enormous influence” on the local scene, saying it “enabled an intellectual discourse in a very emotionally charged and dramatic time setting, revisiting ancient Greek art and its influence on European Enlightenment while at the same time including Greek artists from the early modernism like Pikionis, as well as contemporary artists.”
Gallerist Eleni Koroneou agreed that the mega exhibition brought an international art crowd to the city. “But due to the fact that the exhibition was spread throughout the city and demanded quite some effort from the visitors, those people mostly didn’t have the time to experience and only partially got a read of the Athenian art scene outside of the documenta venues,” she said, adding, “I met the members of the organization team mostly at the airports, but not in my gallery.”
Koroneou disagrees with the criticism levied against Athenians. “The local art environment tried their best to take advantage of this temporary condition to increase their visibility. Initiatives were created from a down-top perspective, like artist-run or non-profit spaces.”
“There was an interest in Greek artists, but I’m not sure whether this was ephemeral or will have a lasting effect. It’s very early to say and we’ll have to wait and see. Nevertheless, Athens has been on the international art map for years and I’ve noticed art producers moving here because of the low living costs,” she said.
Despina Zefkili, an art critic and senior editor for the cultural guide Athinorama offers another perspective. “The local art scene was searching for tactics of survival in the midst of the crisis and the precarious environment. Athens was the stereotypical image of a place bustling with creative energy where you could make art without much money. When documenta came about two and a half years ago, it came into a scene with no institutional infrastructure or cultural policy for contemporary art at all,” she told artnet News.
But she doesn’t mince words when it comes to Adam Szymczyk’s strategy: “documenta wanted to challenge itself, and the most interesting thing was the gesture to move part of it to Athens. But it still remains a mega canonizing institution. I think that it was reductionist and romanticizing, a kind of dramatized mourning and celebration of the resistance subtext of Prometheus, of ancient history, and a present-day Greece that is striving against austerity measures and neoliberal policies.”
She also points out, as many local voices have done, the fact the documenta coincided with the 2017 Athens Biennale but did not interact with it in any way. “Documenta mainly worked with public institutions, leaving aside the actual, non-institutional artistic forces like the Athens Biennale that matter more for the contemporary art scene.”
“Nevertheless, it had positive collateral effects,” Zefkili added. “With all the foreign people and the attention, artists and galleries can make new connections and interesting collaborations may come up in the future. There’s also a raised awareness to the role of contemporary art locally.”
Yet the lack of infrastructure would make it difficult to build upon this momentum when documenta ends. “If we don’t find a way to build strong institutions locally, this will dissolve just like after the 2004 Olympics. For me, the most important effect of documenta on Athens so far is that it created a local discourse about the role of cultural policies,” she concludes.
Elina Kountouri, the managing director of NEON Foundation, also thinks the ball is in the Athenians’ court now. “It is early to judge the long-term effect and the sustainability of any change. But now that there’s momentum, a consensus of collaboration is needed to be sustained.”
“For the local scene two things are needed,” she told artnet News. “One, an active acknowledgement from the state that investing in visual arts is instrumental for society-eventually leading to a strategic policy on the sustainability and support of the visual arts industry from the government, without excluding the private sector. And two, opportunities for artists and art professionals to liaise and constructively interact with the international scene. This goes beyond documenta. This is up to us now, to open up this city to its full potential.”
At the opening of documenta 14 in Athens, mayor Giorgos Kaminis told the German Press Agency dpa that he wanted to work on a strong cultural agenda for his city. However, for now, and presumably as long as the European union does not grant Greece debt relief, the individuals and institutions within the local contemporary art scene are left only with energized spirits and the resonating halo of a foreign, well-endowed institution. What they make out of it, and whether they can maintain the attention remains to be seen.