I will take the only character of Naeem Mohaiemen’s quiet yet startlingly powerful 95-minute video Tripoli Cancelled (2017) as the starting point for my engagement with the Athens portion of Adam Szymczyk’s documenta 14. As I wandered the city and took in the show’s many venues and artworks, my mind often returned to Mohaiemen’s unnamed refugee (played by Vassilis Koukalani), trapped in the limbo of a decrepit abandoned airport. A middle-aged man, dressed in a wrinkled tan suit, and with a carefully manicured moustache, he wonders at the decaying terminals and runways, weeds peeking through the cracks of the asphalt. He speaks of others in his situation, refugees caught between nations and unmoored from both a meaningful past and a recognizable future. He goes through the motions of self-grooming, shaving and brushing his teeth, though for whom is uncertain. Perhaps it’s for his absent wife, who remains in his country of origin and whom he pretends to call by broken payphone. He eats beans from aluminum cans while sitting in a rundown helicopter. Later, in a particularly bittersweet scene, he playacts as if he’s flying the chopper through rough weather, supplying sounds for a fantasy motor as he jerks the controls back and forth. Elsewhere he turns on a radio and vaults into a solitary dance routine among the fallen ceiling panels and exposed wiring of the ruins. At the end of the long, captivating film, he sits on a broken escalator, lights a cigarette, and sadly sings the Chordettes classic Never on a Sunday, before bursting into tears. Like everything he does, his sobbing is infused with unspeakable sadness and graceful reserve.
In a show filled with overt references to refugee crises unfolding throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, Mohaiemen’s work, co-commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation and Art Jameel, is the most heartbreaking and most representative of documenta 14 in Athens. The show, which is split between that city and its home city of Kassel, is preoccupied with a world in the midst of self-induced calamity. As one of the places most impacted by the surge of refugees from the east and south, and a country in the midst of an economic crisis exacerbated and prolonged by imposed austerity, Greece is an appropriate if not unproblematic site to mount an artistic contemplation of our deeply troubled present.
Reading Szymczyk’s introduction to the show’s voluminous reader, it’s clear the curator believes in the ethical call of his show’s title, “Learning from Athens.” The 14th version of the five-yearly, 100-day exhibition, by taking the art to the front lines of the militant, activist struggle against “economic violence enacted […] almost experimentally upon the population of Greece,” is meant to engage directly with the key traumas and politics of the day in a generous, somewhat utopian act of openness toward “the other.” That the other is defined as Greece, against the overbearing politico-economic centers of Germany, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, seems slightly ironic, given that documenta is a German cultural event. As many critics have already noted, a specter of neo-colonialism haunts Szymczyk’s call to learn from Athens (which has echoes of Jacque Ranciere’s thoughts on democratic pedagogy and intellectual emancipation), a call that at least partially manifests as jet-setting arts professionals swooping in on a politically and economically downtrodden locale to “learn” from its inhabitants while offering nothing apart from tourist dollars in return. Szymczyk claims, “I would argue that, rather than only being a tool of German cultural policy and an event expected to have a significant impact on Kassel and the region, documenta must be considered an autonomous, commonly owned, transnational and inclusive self-organized artistic undertaking – one that is carried out by a multitude and not limited to any location in particular.” The provocation to become part-owners in this event has the potential to ring hollow in a Greek context, not only because documenta is owned by the German state, but because of the rapacious economic stranglehold placed on the nation by Angela Merkel’s government and her EU cohort.
But that is not to say the move to Athens is entirely wrong-footed, if only for the creative possibilities opened by the act of institutional displacement itself. While it remains unclear how much learning from Athens documenta 14 is facilitating, the show is most at home with itself when it’s deliberating on the homelessness of the contemporary refugee. Like Mohaiemen’s protagonist, it is an exhibition caught between places, as unable to offer a cohesive vision of the future as it is inextricably tangled in a tragic in-between. As given form by many of its artworks, this is a distressing place from which to take in the world. But it also seems ethically necessary at this juncture, and as an ethical responsibility it’s one Szymczyck and the participating artists take up with mostly productive and poignant results.
This approach results in many artworks that serve as records, documents, or other devices of memory keeping for stories from refugees or other economically impoverished peoples. Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña dramatically materializes this desire for memory in her new dyed-wool sculpture Quipu Womb (The Story of the Red Thread, Athens), which monumentalizes the Andean knotted record-keeping apparatus. Ghana’s Ibrahim Mahama staged a performance in the recently demonstration-occupied Syntagma Square, inviting passersby to help sew a sprawling, building-sized quilt made from frayed jute sacks. In their original use, these threadbare bags are shipped from Ghana carrying exports like cocoa, ride, beans and coffee, but here they become a woven tapestry that evokes the various forms of backbreaking human labor that goes into producing and disseminating these globally traded goods. Lebanese-Dutch artist Mounira Al Solh creates a home for refugee narratives in her Sperveri, an embroidered tent that houses written stories from Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees. In contrast to the soft warmth exuded by the tent itself, the tales are harrowing in their attention to the hideously violent details that define contemporary refugee existences.
Those three artists’ use of soft materials to lay claim to and safeguard stories from the margins finds poetic form in Aboubakar Fofana’s strange and almost-hidden intervention in the gardens behind the Agricultural University of Athens. Ka touba Farafina yé (Africa Blessing) is a flock of 54 sheep, dyed blue by the Malian artist. Eschewing chemical dyes, Fofana draws out the indigotin pigment in vats treated with special bacteria. His whole process is alive, a vital, principled and even spiritual stand for traditional materials, artistic methods and ways of being. His practice is the artistic flip-side of the world represented in Emeka Ogboh’s The Way Earthly Things Are Going (2017), a multichannel sound installation located in the basement theater of the Athens Conservatoire. In the Nigerian artist’s vision of capitalism gone dreadfully awry, a room-spanning real-time LED display spits out world stock indexes as a Greek chorus solemnly intones a patchwork collage of a song written by Ogboh from scraps of archival records concerning financial collapse during the modern era.
The victims of this crisis-prone late capitalist voraciousness are represented everywhere in documenta 14, as well as those who struggle against it. Haitian artist Kettly Noël’s Zombification (2017) is a grim forest of hanging cloth figures with broken mirrors for faces, ghoulish remnants of those left out of the game of progress.
Late Kwakwaka’wakw artist Beau Dick is represented at the National Museum of Contemporary Art by an army of his carved Atlakim masks, works that belong to a tradition once outlawed by colonial authorities but continued in secret protest. Moroccan-French artist Bouchra Khalili’s 2017 film The Tempest Society documents three Athenians who gather together in remembrance of Al Assifa (The Tempest), a radical French newspaper produced in the 1970s by North African immigrant workers and French students. Occupying a stage repurposed as a creative space of civic engagement, the three discuss their own political activism in relation to the morally bankrupt European response to the current refugee crisis.
And in an affecting and tragic sculpture, Turkish artist Banu Cennetoğlu has converted militant Kurdish radical Gurbetelli Ersöz’s diaries into 145 lithographic limestone slabs. Presented on a set of spare metal shelves, the press-ready stones tell the story of how Ersöz, originally a journalist devoted to covering the conflict between Turkish Armed Forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, eventually joined the guerrilla forces herself after being arrested, tortured and imprisoned for three years for her reporting. She was killed in Southern Kurdistan in 1997.
If the wandering exile is the key figure of documenta 14 in Athens, it is Hiwa K’s work in the exhibition that provides its most potent representation, with a bare minimum of means. The Kurdish artist’s One Room Apartment occupies the stately courtyard of the Benaki Museum like an unwanted guest. It is a concrete wall with a staircase leading up one side to a spare twin bed on metal frame. The bed rests on a platform that juts out from the top of the wall, as if floating precariously above the viewer’s grounded space. And Hiwa K’s film Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue) tells a story similar to Tripoli Cancelled, though this time the artist himself wanders as a refugee through the countryside and cities of Greece. Throughout the journey, he balances a complex apparatus of steel poles and mirrors on his upturned forehead, reflecting the landscape back onto itself in jittery, jostled glimpses. “Everyone on my journey asks me where I am based,” the artist narrates. “I say I am based on my feet. They ask where are your feet based. I say my feet are never based.” His words echo those of Theodor Adorno, another exile from a different time and different war-torn and atrocity ridden country: “The highest form of morality is not to feel at home in one’s own home.”
At its brightest moments, documenta 14 in Athens produces brief impressions of that form of groundless morality, like flashes from Hiwa K’s peripatetic mirrors. One wonders, however, if that is much consolation to those whose wanderings are not a product of artistic practice and philosophical rumination, but a state enforced by new global precarities that seemingly multiply with each passing day. In his essay, Szymczyk inquires, “The question we ask — what about freedom not limited to artistic expression only, freedom that is not at all conditional on the ‘artistic’ qualifier? — remains to be answered in documenta 14.” Unfortunately, the show does not fulfill its curator’s mandate in this regard, and freedom outside the realm of the arts remains elusive as both a fully defined idea and a reality during these troubled times. But in lieu of this, it does offer powerfully affecting figurations of our shared moment, even if they do not lead to concrete lessons to be learned.
As much as the Athens portion of documenta 14 explored the state of forced transience that comes with refugee existence, the Kassel part seems driven toward a sort of settlement, of finding home or some approximation thereof. This is not a home found in security or stability, but one that often must be constructed in transit and in extremism as a result of atrocity or poverty. The third floor of the Kassel Stadtmuseum is dedicated to World War II, a conflict that famously led to the destruction of 90 percent of the German industrial city by Allied bombing. At the center of the display is a scale model of Kassel following the war, most of it a smoldering, colorless husk. A few steps away is Hiwa K’s View from Above (2017), a video produced for documenta 14 displayed on a large high-definition television. It explores the post-war Kassel model in intimate detail, panning slowly across the ruined crags of decimated churches, museums and apartment buildings as the artist narrates a story about two asylum-seeking refugees, himself and a friend. The screen shows a miniaturized lunar half-world left behind by Allied bombs, as Hiwa K discusses the byzantine processes refugees must endure to secure safety in another country, one hopefully far from the war they are attempting to escape. Since the friend is from a region of Kurdistan considered by the UN as relatively unscathed by conflict, he is initially turned down for asylum and turns to Hiwa K to help him devise a fictional autobiography that will help him obtain shelter. Later, long after the two formulate a story that fools the gatekeepers, the artist encounters his old friend in their nation of exile. His friend has forgotten not only him, but all of his life before achieving asylum. “I think he forgot his own story because he no longer needed it to survive,” Hiwa K sadly observes.
Many of the more powerful artworks on display at Kassel grapple with the knot of yearning, fear, loss and mourning that attends this desire for a new home amid catastrophe. The questions of whether the concept of home is even possible within such circumstances, and what changes we must collectively make to the concept for it to fit contemporary realities, are pointedly asked by many of the artists in the Kassel half of the show.
These questions are most touchingly realized in the photographic “reportages” of Palestinian artist Ahlam Shibli. In Athens, Shibli presented Occupation (2016-17), a suite of photographs documenting the ways Palestinians have adjusted the space of their homes and urban communities to the trauma of Israeli occupation settlement. The second series, Heimat, explores the immigrant communities that first came to Kassel following World War II. Both works tell of difficult cultural compromises, grueling poverty, unspeakable violence, nearly ceaseless political oppression and —sparingly — hope in the form of transformed environments. Many of those pictured in Heimat came from Turkey, Eastern Europe and Africa after the war to shore up the decimated workforce of Kassel’s industrial sector. Their descendants now mostly live in the Nordstadt neighborhood, a site that also currently houses many of documenta 14’s satellite exhibition sites. In a genre of exhibition too often filled with huge and spectacular artworks that lack real impact, Shibli’s quietly intimate photographs of people and their places create beautifully rendered image-narratives of displacement, trauma, and the daily, sometimes herculean work of making do.
The show’s more enormous works are often conceptually flat and poorly actualized, with the now-famous Parthenon of Books by Argentinian artist Marta Minujín the most glaring culprit. While produced through countless acts of audience participation in the form of banned book donations, the work’s ostensible politics of collaboration and democratic defense of free speech seem far too pat in the face of the myriad global catastrophes engaged more thoughtfully by other works in the show. A to-scale architectural copy of the Athenian Parthenon, composed of metal girders and plastic-wrapped books that are now or once were banned, the work is visually anemic in addition to being politically inert, its obvious reach for sensational affect dimmed by its rather thin appearance in Kassel’s Friedrichsplatz, the site of a historic Nazi book-burning.
Located in the same square, Hiwa K’s monumental sculpture When We Were Exhaling Images (2017) makes much better use of its large scale, presenting a bundle of huge clay pipes which contain various trappings of home, including potted plants, prayer rugs, radios, books, reading lamps and mattresses. Like the stark suspended bed of his One-Room Apartment in Athens, Images materializes the refugee condition with the startling frankness of everyday objects. Unlike the Athens sculpture, however, there is a warmth to the affectionately realized and cozy homes-in-transit ensconced by the tight interiors of the pipes. Especially at night, when the makeshift shelters glow from within, the work elicits a powerful, if provisional, sense of hospitality.
Mounira Al Solh achieves a similar intimacy in her suite of drawn portraits exhibited in a storefront on Kurt-Schumacher-Strasse, the wide boulevard that separates Nordtsadt from the commercial center of the city. Around 140 portraits occupy the basement of the space, each drawn on paper from lined, yellow legal pads, the sometimes haunting but often gently enrapturing visages of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa surrounding the viewer on all sides. Titled I Strongly Believe in Our Right to Be Frivolous, the project to which these works belong also functions as an oral history, with the stories of displaced persons recorded alongside their swiftly but lovingly rendered portraits. Like Solh’s embroidered tent, Sperveri, in the Athens part of the show, these drawings — or “time documents,” to use the artist’s term — act as repositories for stories of forced migration, providing a glimpse into the labyrinthine and often deeply traumatic process of international movement. In the floor above the portraits, Solh recreates her father’s bakery in Beirut as a utopian space of hospitality. The bakery, which was destroyed during the Lebanese civil war, once provided bread and jobs to the homeless and the developmentally disabled. The reimagined version gives a home to Solh’s portraits, representations and stories in need of care and greater consideration.
Finally, there is Algerian artist Narimane Mari’s enigmatic, frustrating, and often achingly beautiful 140-minute film Le fort des fous. Languorous in its attention to its tropical seaside locales as well as its pace, the film tells the story of young soldiers who escape their colonized nation by raiding a military outpost and striking out across the sea with a French soldier in tow. When they wash up on unnamed shores, a small gang of utopian outsiders drags their unconscious bodies to dry land, saying, “They look dead. They look like the dead.” In a dreamy, sometimes hallucinatory sequence, the band goes about creating a community, sharing ideas, protecting each other and making art. Eventually, the narrative vanishes altogether, replaced by a cinematic dialog between a Syrian freedom fighter and a French intellectual, each interviewed by Mari in separate locations. Both discuss the urgent concerns of emancipatory politics amid imperial violence and oppression. Speaking in cafes and well-furnished offices, the intellectual comes off as fatally disconnected from actual struggle, a reality that the Syrian rebel knows all too well as he discusses the near-certainty of a brutal demise.
The film cuts between these two perspectives repeatedly without any connective tissue to join them. Is Mari suggesting that there is little overlap between the front lines of (often non-Western) emancipatory struggle and the Western attempts to historicize, intellectualize and philosophize it? These are questions that apply a special kind of pressure to documenta 14, with its attempt to “learn from Athens” by situating half its show amid the front lines of a hard-fought and ongoing effort for radical emancipation. Do the homey imaginaries on display in Kassel provide a utopian figuration for onward labor, a sort of cultural succor or promise for what lies at the end of the fight? Or are they naïve and cynical cash-ins, the result of a German cultural event that has exploited a nation that is currently under the thumb of financial-political power that often finds its expression in German foreign policy? I believe that the answer is both, that utopia and compromise exist hand-in-hand, at least in the context of a well-funded art event like documenta 14. Whether that institutional compromise devalues the work of such painfully human artists like Hiwa K, Al Solh and Mari is, at least to me, entirely unclear.