documenta 14: Athens musings and highlights

17 June 2017

The five yearly German art event, documenta, has created an outpost in Athens this year and, despite some criticism of curator Adam Szymczyk, it seems like an inspired move to me. With relations between Germany and Greece somewhat strained, the move makes a strong statement about how art can operate in the world and address issues from an alternative, expansive and less literal perspective.

documenta’s theme this year is 'learning from Athens’ and it has real power where symbols of ancient might abound with the ruins of the Acropolis and Parthenon towering over a crumbling city struggling to thrive. Articulating the learnings may be near impossible, but the challenge is important. Many of the works showing speak evocatively to the bleak, to darkness, sounding a warning for the need for alertness and for eyes to be kept wide open to seeing broadly.

One of my most memorable works was Naeem Mohaiemen’s new film Tripoli Cancelled. What does it feel like to be a displaced person, homeless, a refugee? Mohaiemen, drawing on his father’s experience of being stuck at Athens airport without a passport for nine days in 1979, poetically, hauntingly and memorably takes us into that space. His film is located in that now abandoned airport. The site (replaced for the Athens Olympics) was used for several years as a refugee camp and that use was particularly foregrounded for me watching the film with a friend’s daughter who currently works in a refugee camp an hour north of Athens.

In a series of vignettes, the 95-minute film explores the confinement of one nameless, charismatic and lonely figure who explores the empty site and composes letters to his distant wife, telling her of his experience. As he cruises departure lounges, static luggage carousels, escalators and even an abandoned broken down helicopter (which provides one of the lighter moments as the man reverts to childhood and brmm, brmms the absent throttle into flight), he canvasses an inevitable range of emotions from hope to curiosity to sadness and despair — particularly poignant is a scene where he sits on an escalator and gently sings the 60s Greek hit song Never on Sunday, and weeps.

That same range of emotions were portrayed in a digital representation of a 1963 black and white film of a leper colony. This too was compelling viewing — “like the birds, we too wait for light and pray for justice”, observed one man but even in the bleakness here there were moments of levity.

It was also good to see in the entrance foyer of the same venue — the newish EMST—National Museum of Contemporary Art — Nathan Pohio’s Walters Prize finalist work. Paradoxically here, his reproduction of an historic photo seemed both well-contextualised as a strategy and strangely out of context in content resulting in greater impact than in New Zealand.

Finally I must mention the most photogenic work in documenta Athens, Cecilia Vicuña’s dyed wool work Quipu Womb (The story of the Red Thread, Athens), which seems to capture so much of what is at play in this exhibition: blood, suffering, the encoding of content and ideas in imagery and abstract form, and the human need for devices to help us recall and remember and learn.


Images (L–R): Naeem Mohaiemen’s Tripoli Cancelled / Nathan Pohio's Raise the anchor, unfurl the sails, set course to the centre of an ever setting sun! / Cecilia Vicuña’s Quipu Womb (The story of the Red Thread, Athens)