Post-Documenta 14, what happens now?


Since Documenta 14 departed from Athens in mid-July, there has been little done to support the foundations laid by this contemporary art celebration and address the issues highlighted. As the summer months roll on, Athenians have begun to leave the mainland for their summer holidays, as one is incapacitated by the stagnant heat. “Nothing happens in August” a local told me, cigar in one hand, as he sat down for his second coffee of the day. Yet the refugees, previously at the centre of attention of Documenta 14, still wait in anticipation of having new work, starting to build a better life for themselves within the city, or moving on to a new destination. It appears after their moment in the spotlight; the art world is bored of Greece and its current economic and humanitarian crisis. They have left the socially driven artwork of Documenta, in anticipation of the next art fair.

Adam Szymczyk’s Documenta 14: Learning from Athens has already been criticised for failing to integrate itself with contemporary Hellenes, and indeed to look to aid the current crisis experienced by their community. I was relieved to see upon return that the ‘Victoria Square Project’ (VSP), American artist Rick Lowe’s Social Sculpture[1], was still open. Despite the reduced programme in August, VSP’s plan is to be back in full swing by early September. VSP helps provide a platform to educate participants about the community’s dynamic cultural and historical path to the present; creating an understanding between its residents. VSP has aimed to dispel the difference felt in the community, between the refugee and local populations within District 6. This is partly due to the recent camps created in the streets around Victoria, the competition for work, and the ongoing fear that refugee aid costs are putting the Greek economy into further debt.

Rick Lowe described VSP as a case of determination, working on a month-by-month basis. No longer supported by Documenta, the Project tries to seek financial aid from the Greek Municipality. Though a fruitless attempt in most cases, it does remind the Council of VSP’s value, particularly at a time when many of the NGOs within the city are being closed. Lowe hopes to maintain it for this reason, teaming up with local organisations to provide activities and a place of refuge.

Upon return in August, I was invited out to Eleonas where VSP had joined up with ACTIVE BANK, an artist group working in Athens, for a clay sculpting workshop. Refugees from the neighbouring camp were invited to come and make clay faces to be fired the same week, and share in a meal we took out to them. Focused on creating a positive experience, a relaxed atmosphere arose. This is where the true aid happened. Those attending reflected on how much they enjoyed doing rather than sitting in their room all day. A young man talked to me about how he sat an exam the day before, he was going to college to learn English. He said it had gone badly, but an assessor said it was okay, because it would help them know what class to start him in. He was excited that he was getting somewhere at last.

Clay faces workshop, ‘FACE ME’ at Souzy Tros, Eleonas, Athens

Relationships are at the heart of these types of community-driven art works and are doing rather than discussing. The discussion that has arisen from Documenta 14 is only beneficial if meaningful actions follow through.

Documenta has only highlighted our immunity to the horrors of today. If we were truly emotionally available, would we not be on hand to take food to the homeless, to spend time with those less fortunate?

Lowe theorises only till September that the true ‘Documenta depression’ will be shown, when Athenians are back at work in the city. One can hope that the American won’t get cold feet and retreat to some of his more secure projects back in Houston. But then how can we blame him if we, ourselves, are not helping?

Documenta has only highlighted our immunity to the horrors of today. If we were truly emotionally available, would we not be on hand to take food to the homeless, to spend time with those less fortunate?

Maybe Szymczyk has succeeded in reflecting the contemporary condition back to us, we are image-saturated to the point of missing what is being said. Art goers came to Athens, saw and left. It was no fault of Szymczyk’s that they didn’t realise their temporary presence was insufficient for real change.

Documenta is typically an art exhibition held in Kassel, Germany every five years. Documenta 14 was split between two venues Athens and Kassel (8th April-16th July, 10th June-17th September 2017 respectively), curated by Adam Szymczyk.

[1] Social Sculpture: It is what people make of it and it implies caring for society as if it were a collective work of art.


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