Saturday 29 July 2017

Documenta 14 at the Athens Conservatoire

Documenta 14,

at the Athens Conservatoire.

We arrived in Athens at the tail-end of the Documenta 14 exhibition which lasted for 100 days and spread over 47 venues, so we tried to make the most of the 10 days we had before it ended. We were pleased with what we saw.

For the first time in its 62-year old history, Documenta, one of Europe's most important modern art exhibitions, is split equally between Kassel, its traditional home, and Athens. The tension between Germany and Greece over debt and bailout forms the backdrop to Adam Szymczyk, the artistic director's decision to divide Documenta. Szymczyk is keen to avoid clichés and allow us to 'learn from Athens', after first unlearning what we think we already know. He states that he has chosen Athens as 'a city that has become emblematic of global contemporary crises'. He continues: 'in Athens, the actual hardship of daily life is mixed with the humiliating stigma of 'crisis' imprinted on the communal body in a well-known, pseudo-compassionate, moralising and in its essence neocolonial and neoliberal formula'.

The starkly modernist Athens Conservatoire, an unfinished cultural complex, with its concrete shell of a performance space, is probably the most beautiful venue for this exhibition .

Kettly Noel, Zombification, 2017

In Zombification by Haitian choreographer, dancer and artist Kettly Noel, the puppets are made from hessian bags and ropes and have mirror-panel faces reflecting the viewer's own face; these voodoo figures move as zombies within this bamboo-stick installation, seen as 'nonfolkloric figures responsible for current, real and globalised violence'. And they have our faces.

'A visual submersion in the shadows of memory, mingling the guedes -Voudoun's loas (spirits) of death - with the Sonderkommandos of Ebola, evoking at once slavery, lynchings, death camps, the killing fields of Vietnam or Rwanda, massacres past or future, and the blackest faces of our history.
Zombification refers to images that ceaselessly haunt contemporary people and that preclude the conception of modern visions.

A woman, a reincarnated Orpheus, attempts to survive amidst illusionary corpses in an incessant and absurd ballet of dehumanised bodies, served by enigmatic undertakers - an impossible task that conciliates Haitan surrealism and contemporary art. Zombification, the obliteration of all consciousness and free will, is global.

No one will escape'.
Kettly Noel.

There was no live performance while we were there, but we were able to see a video of the performances that have taken place

This was by far my favourite work of Documenta - a very powerful piece.

Pelagie Gbaguidi,  The Missing Link. Dicolonisation Education by Mrs Smiling Stone, 2017

This installation comprises walls of hanging paper, each scrawled with scratchy, disjoined figurative drawings made with lipstick, a series of school desks, a single video and a microphone wrapped in paper. On the desks, placed beneath large sheets of glassine paper, are images captured by South African photographer Peter Magubane of black figures caught within the violence of Apartheid. In covering these images of suffering - and fairly transparently, packaging the microphone - Gbaguidi draws attention to the way in which inconvenient legacies of oppression are circumvented - and thus preserved - through education systems and therefore official histories. If we are ever to truly learn, Gbaguidi suggests, we must remove the paper and confront the worst things that we have done.

Beatriz Gonzales, Interior Decoration, 1981

Interior Decoration is taken from a series of paintings chronicling the life and times of Colombian president Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala, whose regime was marred by endless accounts of corruption and loose morals. It was originally realised as a 140-metre-long curtain based on a newspaper photograph that depicted Turbay alongside a group of women united in festive song.

Ganesh Haloi, Untitled, (gouache on paper)

Ganesh Haloi, Untitled, (gouache on paper)

Ganesh Haloi, Untitled, (gouache on paper)


We then moved on to a different gallery where all the artworks were in one way or another related to music, very appropriate given that we were in the Athens Conservatoire.


Nevin Aladag, Music Room, 2017

An assemblage of household furniture, each item of which has been reimagined and refashioned as a musical instrument. Chair becomes guitar, desk becomes wind-chime, stool becomes drum, and so forth. Aladag references tarantism, mainly practiced by women who 'dance away the pain of any poison'.

Unfortunately there were no performances while we were there.

This gallery space is truly amazing, a vast space, with just four paintings hanging on the walls

The 'A Tent on the Roof  of a Car', series by Edi Hila

I did not understand the relationship of the paintings to the title, but I enjoyed looking at them

and loved being in that vast, industrial space

We then moved on to a small gallery, where we looked at Sedge Hemon's geometric oil paintings


As we were leaving, just by the entrance we saw:

Yannis Tsarouchis' Semi-Nude Pianist, (1971) which was used as an illustration for Manos Hadjidakis' album Liturgical Songs

 Giullermo Galindo, Exit, (2016-17)

An ensemble of homemade instruments constructed from the detritus found at a refugee camp near Kassel. These odes to border crossings:  plastic combs, water bottles and boat parts reference how Mesoamerican peoples saw instruments as talismans for movement between worlds.


By one of the entrances to the building we came across:

European Everything, (2017), installation and performance

European Everything is a nomadic stage structure built from scavenged and found materials on site in Athens. During the exhibition period a variety of  politically aware artists and performers have been invited to contribute and interact with the space. Unfortunately, there were no performances while we were there.


  1. Like you, I am greatly intrigued by Zombification, but I also agree that the building itself is perhaps greater than its contents.

  2. It's a fabulous building, Olga. They used to exhibit regularly there, but not so much recently. Documenta 14 is the first one in a while. A terrible waste....