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Fuori Biennale / 57th Venice Biennale

Hanging from the vestibule of the Central Pavilion, and disrupting the white rationality of the entry colonnade, is Sam Gilliam’s Yves Klein Blue (2015). Its soft and colorful draping adorns a cheerfully carefree biennial, devoted to a Eurocentric joie de vivre.

Indeed, according to Christine Macel, art is a space that allows an escape from the present political turmoil, to reflect on the self and restart from the subject (a notion the curator defines as “neo-humanism”). “Viva Arte Viva” declares the defeat of art as an engine of transformation, offering instead a retreat into an autopoietic imaginative universe. To mark the border between interior and exterior and to underline the division between political and artistic realms are Gilliam’s polychrome banners. The flag represents a rejection of the present and a reaction to the past — more precisely, to Okwui Enwezor’s biennale and to Oscar Murillo’s black flags, which in 2015 were located in the same position as Gilliam’s work. But can a signal flag completely exclude today’s injuries, tragedies and emergencies? Is it enough to furl the previous standard and put an end to a discourse regarding, in this case, art as a tool for an ideal, for tangible regeneration?

In Laguna there are several examples of exhibitions able to capture the uninterrupted process of contestation and renegotiation. “Space Force Construction” is presented by V-A-C Foundation — a Moscow-based foundation opened in 2009 by Leonid Mikhelson, dedicated to the promotion and study of Russian art — in their new Venetian space at Palazzo delle Zattere. The exhibition deals elegantly with the relationship between political ideals and artistic utopias, proposing a dialogue between a hundred works of the Bolshevik period and others by contemporary artists including Wolfgang Tillmans, Tania Bruguera, Barbara Kruger, Cao Fei, Christian Nyampeta, and Irina Korina. The setup plays with scenography, reenacting historical installations (El Lissitzky’s Room for Constructive Art, 1926) or works never realized (Gustav Klutsis’s Design for Loudspeaker from 1922, preserved in a series of drawings by the artist) in a masterful balance between reality and fiction.

Another show that exploits the theatrical apparatus is Fondazione Prada’s “The Boat is Leaking. The Captain Lied” at Ca’ Corner della Regina. The exhibition questions the very condition of the image, taken to its limit, to a place where reality and deception blur. Artist Thomas Demand, director Alexander Kluge and set designer Anna Viebrock pool their expertise, crafts and visions into a total work of art: an expanded carillon that drives the viewer into a labyrinthine reflection on our era of post-truth media.

Macel has repeatedly described “Viva Arte Viva” as a hymn to creation. The curator’s balanced, harmonious tune and clean musicality tend not to correspond with today’s distortion and asynchrony — as the collateral events by Samson Young for Hong Kong and James Richards for Wales demonstrate. In his site-specific “Songs for a Disaster Relief” project, Young appropriates a number of hit singles created for charity, redeploying and distorting them to describe the absurdity of a pop culture unable to get to the root of the issues it purports to address. Richards offers an immersive experience: a reflection on an inner landscape accessed by rites of initiation, here via a sampling of sounds for the spaces of the church of Santa Maria Ausiliatrice.

Shirin Neshat’s film Roja (2016) uses an alter ego to conjure surrealistic visions of the fear of the other and the desire to reattach to one’s homeland. This may be the most powerful work in her exhibition at Museo Correr, one of a larger constellation of monographic shows in Venice that includes the Italians Alighiero Boetti, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Ettore Sottsass, Marzia Migliora and Yuri Ancarani, as well as Marina Abramović, Pierre Huyghe and Philip Guston.

The exhibitions of Boetti and Sottsass are distinguished by the elegance of their settings (reflecting the collaboration with Fondazione Cini), while the shows by Migliora and Ancarani at Palazzo Ca’ Rezzonico and Café Florian respectively testify to the vitality of a mid-career Italian generation whose practices and areas of research are being constantly redefined.

The Philip Guston retrospective at Gallerie dell’Accademia frames the artist’s production within the literary and poetic milieu that surrounded him: from Lawrence, Yeats and Eliot to Stevens and Montale.

Palazzo Fortuny’s exhibition “Intuition” shares the Macellian discourse of the artist-shaman for whom creation is an uncontrollable act. The show is ambitious for the sheer number of artists included and the complexity of the installation; it presents works with a primigenial strength, such as Gilles Delmas and Damien Jalet’s video The Ferryman (Le passeur des lieux) (2016). Unfortunately the pieces are not always integrated within the whole, partly due to the building’s storied stratification.

Returning to Gilliam’s banners, their presence had the effect of highlighting the distance between the anesthetizing veneer of the biennale and the genuinely reformational spirit of the external exhibitions. This latter tendency is especially marked in the interventions proposed by countries whose freedoms are restricted, and by communities seeking independence or international recognition. A case in point is Taiwan, whose exhibition “Doing Time” at Palazzo delle Prigioni presents a small sampling of work by Tehching Hsieh, an artist whose envelope-pushing One Year Performances are always framed by a set of strictly self-imposed rules. Likewise, the project for the Native American pavilion, titled “Indian Water,” is conceived by artists Nicholas Galanin and Oscar Tuazon as a platform for cooperation and dialogue. Over the summer, the pavilion is due to host debates on the subjects of environmental catastrophe, seawater decontamination and global pollution — issues whose gravity has been magnified by Trump’s anti-environmental policies.

Taking a final step inside the Iraqi pavilion at Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti, part of the official circuit of national pavilions, one feels ambivalence regarding history –– reunion and rupture, reverence and iconoclasm. Ancient artifacts, saved from looting at the Iraqi National Museum, and recent works, are displayed in showcases, reiterating both a distance between the work of art and the flow of life and the requirement for protection of the artistic object. At the end of the hall one encounters Untitled, Mosul, Iraq, 31 Oct 2016 (2017) by Francis Alÿs. This video, shot in the city of Mosul, films a hand that soaks a brush in a palette of ocher, earth and beige colors. With quick and determined gestures the artist tries to portray the Kurdish Peshmerga and the tanks that appear in the background. At a certain point the hand grabs a rag, scrapes off the painting and the action starts from the beginning.

It seems that the faceless author attempts to render an image both attuned to the situation and infinitely failing. This is because the world cannot be fixed in one form; but that does not mean, as Alÿs asserts, the artist can stop bearing witness.

by Giulia Gregnanin

(Translated from Italian by Alex Estorick)
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Art Athina / Athens

By the second day, the octopus had begun to stink. Exhibiters were grumbling. It lay rotting on the floor, hooked up to a car battery, sweating into the carpet — the work of American artist Tony Hope, shown in the booth of Ashes/Ashes. I was told the piece was meant to suggest the resuscitation of the creature, which, as attested to by the deepening stench, was surely a joke.

Really it would seem the young American sought to dramatize the nightmare of austerity and the doomed fable of reanimation in Greece with a staple of taverna cuisine. By day three, they had swapped the creature out for a fresh one.

Those of us who traveled from abroad to the twenty-second edition of Art Athina, the art fair founded by the Hellenic Art Galleries Association, inevitably read the event against the backdrop of the ongoing Greek crisis, even if that took the form of inert caricature, a dead cephalopod. Much as art fairs are designed to operate in a convention center bubble — a non-place where you are always spitting distance from New York, London, Berlin, Dubai — the Faliro Sports Pavilion Arena doesn’t hide the markings of its history so easily. Built to host taekwondo at the 2004 Olympics — Greece won silver in both men’s heavyweight and women’s middleweight — it has more recently been used for Syriza rallies and to house Syrian refugees. The stadium is part of a vast complex erected for the games, which now bears a distinctly neglected feeling — a contemporary ruin by the port of Piraeus. Lacerations and fixes make a patchwork of the temporary fencing around the grounds. I’m told that the government forbade any changes, improvements or even painting inside. The retractable stadium seating, stacked high against the walls, loomed over the booths, huge swaths of thinning dark cloth blacked out the windows, and small signs of entropy were everywhere.

The history of Art Athina itself was, in a way, inescapable as well. Founded in 1993, the fair has been marked by periodic scandal and corruption and has undergone a number of changes in direction. This year is the latest reboot, with a new director, Stamatia Dimitrakopoulos, brought in just three months before the opening and charged with, among other things, attracting more international participation to the fair, which has generally been exclusively Greek in focus. I learned that this is the fourth such peripeteia, in a section called Survey, a fascinating thumbnail exhibition documenting the institutional history of Art Athina through ephemera, newspaper clippings and a selection of works that had appeared in earlier editions. It posed the question of how to tell this history when faced with years of mismanagement and the failure to preserve materials and documentation. Among the works on display was Eva Stefani’s video installation National Anthem (2007), which combines pornographic images with the Greek national anthem, and which was confiscated from the fair in 2007 and led to the arrest of the director.

Across the rest of the curated parallel program you could trace a set of themes — distance and locality, Greece and the world. There was a tribute to Greek artist Jannis Kounellis, a key figure in Arte Povera who died earlier this year, focusing on his 1994 exhibition on a cargo ship in the port of Piraeus. It featured Heinz-Peter Schwerfel’s film Frammenti di un diario (1996), which follows Kounellis around Europe, folding his travels and the exhibition in the harbor into a kind of fictional diary. A video section, curated by Alexander Burenkov, presented a selection of works dealing with surveillance, precarity and interconnectivity, installed in a replica of Edward Snowden’s hotel room at the Mira Hong Kong. All of this was up on a large balcony overlooking the stadium floor.

Below, the game was, to state the obvious, one of sales. I heard rumors of who did well and who did not, but I wasn’t keeping score. The key dynamic that emerged as you moved down the rows of booths was one that grew out of this latest revision to Art Athina, the efforts to transform it from provincial art fair to something a little more global. Greek galleries predominated, rounded out by a handful from elsewhere in Europe and the United States. I was unfamiliar with nearly all of the work shown in the Greek booths, and it ran the gamut from lovely to kitsch. Painter Sofia Stevi’s booth with the Breeder offered an exhilarating moment in the sometimes-stifling arena, and AD Gallery had up a beautiful piece from Bia Davou’s Serial Structures 2 (1981), colorful threads woven vertically into a narrow strip of unstretched canvas, a craft translation of the rhythms of The Odyssey. Fascinating in its own way, however, was to see the work from some of the other Greek galleries, stuff that doesn’t conform to any of the familiar concerns, forms and figures of contemporary art — that is, truly local art — put in dialogue with the shipped-in booths, as in Shana Moulton at Galerie Gregor Staiger and Sophia Al Maria at the Third Line. Lingering over all of this was a question: not whether Art Athina might succeed in becoming a global art fair, nor whether that would, in turn, compromise something of its distinctively Greek character, but rather whether this has all come too late. You hear from gallerists how the fair circuit is becoming increasingly unsustainable; the model is in crisis. We might have another dead octopus on our hands.

by Eli Diner

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Viva Arte Viva / 57th Venice Biennale

At the Sterling Pavilion I find a copy of Representations of the Intellectual by Edward W. Said (Vintage Books, New York, 1996). It’s one of the volumes chosen by Frances Stark for Unpacking My Library, a parallel project within the “Viva Arte Viva” exhibition for which curator Christine Macel has invited participating artists to share their “favorite readings” with Biennale visitors.

Representations collects the talks given by Said on BBC Radio, in 1993, as part of the prestigious “Reith Lectures” series. It’s an impassioned examination of the public role of the intellectual, understood as outsider, “dilettante,” contester: what distinguishes the role, according to Said, “is a spirit in opposition, rather than in accommodation”; a spirit “that grips me, because the romance, the interest, the challenge of intellectual life is to be found in dissent against the status quo at a time when the struggle on behalf of underrepresented and disadvantaged groups seems so unfairly weighted against them” (p. xvii). From a remote shelf in the “Viva Arte Viva” library, the slightly more than one hundred pages of Representations offer themselves to me like an objection to a show that, setting aside the facts of the world in order to rediscover the most genuine expressions of human creativity, presents art as a contemplative, emotional and, at least, therapeutic activity; yet, at the same time, it presents it as a nonprogrammatic and disengaged activity, seemingly discarding that which Said identifies as “the vocation of the intellectual” and therefore of the artist: “maintaining a state of constant alertness” with respect to the exercise of power (p. 23). Prompted instead by the notion of the Latin otium — according to the press release, the interval “of laborious inertia and of the work of the spirit” in which the artwork is born — “Viva Arte Viva” flattens its contents into innocuous displays of isolation and evasion. The vitality of art, which, personally, I have always discerned in the possibility of giving space to feelings of misalignment and antagonism, takes on pastel hues and is consumed in the festivity of the kermesse. (On the other hand, the inoffensiveness of “Viva Arte Viva” justifies the response, bordering on collective hysteria, provoked by a project such as Anne Imhof’s for the German Pavilion, in whose narrative of defiance against institutional power the visitor searching in art for a form of dissent exorcizes precisely his own libido).

A big show that eschews any sense of the epic inevitably compromises itself. Such is the case with “Viva Arte Viva,” in which the works shown are rarely dramatic and, though neatly organized, attend one another without an engaging syntax, without a climax. The installation by Liliana Porter, El hombre con el hacha y otras situaciones breves (The Man with the Ax and Other Brief Situations, 2013) — a diorama in which the figurine of a man holding a hatchet seems responsible for an apocalyptic landscape that pours forth, a crescendo of waste that culminates in a real, eviscerated piano — is not only an exception that proves the rule, but, presented in one of the last rooms of the Arsenale, seems like a sarcastic metaphor for what this show is not. The vehemence that permeates Porter’s installation is largely missing in Macel’s exhibition.

Instead, “Viva Arte Viva” unfolds through idyllic representations. On the one hand, there is otium, the inactivity that stands as the prerogative of artistic activity. Mladen Stilinović’s photographic series Artist at Work (1978), in which Stilinović depicts himself serenely asleep in his bed, is echoed by a group of works by Franz West, among them photographs showing West languishing on one of his chaise longues; a drawing and collage by Frances Stark, Behold Man! (2013), in which Stark depicts herself chilling on her sofa, surrounded by a picture gallery displaying her own visual references; and an installation by Yelena Vorobyeva and Viktor Vorobyev, The Artist is Asleep (1996), a reconstruction of a domestic bedroom environment in which an individual appears asleep. During my visit to “Viva Arte Viva,” I even encountered Dawn Kasper, whose contribution consists of having relocated her studio to within the show for the entirety of its duration, sleeping on a cot.

Now, every worker has the unquestionable right to rest. But in “Viva Arte Viva,” unproductiveness does not affirm itself as a counterproject to the logics of productivism — logics from which artistic work is obviously not exempt; and the inertia of doing appears more like the artist’s privilege, an attitude rooted in her lifestyle. (In the Central Pavilion, surrounded by all these artists at rest, the only ones “busy” are the young refugees assembling the Green Light lamps in Olafur Eliasson’s workshop; meanwhile Eliasson’s paternalistic project necessarily ends up insinuating a disparity founded on the exploitation of the workforce, ironically in the same room where Marx’s Capital was read out loud two years ago.)

At the other extreme of the exhibition’s thematic parabola lies transcendence. A project of emancipating the work of art from facile materialistic readings is needed and warranted; but Macel’s exploration of metaphysics in art doesn’t go much further than presenting nonnarrative and hieratic works. Indeed, suspension is the most frequent “figuration” here: in Broken Fall (organic) (1971) by Bas Jan Ader, the artist is suspended over a canal; in Law of Situation (1971/2017) by Kishio Suga, ten flat stones lie suspended on the surface of a body of water; in The Worldly Cave (2017) by Zhou Tao, groups of individuals are suspended in limbo-environments between dream and reality. There are many more similar examples. But the mesmerizing power of these works is short-circuited: Jan Ader soon falls into the canal beneath him; Suga’s stones rest on a visible fiberglass platform; and Zhou’s surreal spaces are clearly ruins of industrial civilization. Contrary to the curator’s metaphysical aspirations, for me, these works resist spirituality by falling back on reminders that physics, as well as equally pervasive and concrete powers, are at work in artists’ practices.

Even in the realm of direct action, which “Viva Arte Viva” does tangentially consider, Macel chooses gestures that are underwritten by an ambition to redefine an ideal of collectivity alongside others that are instead more acupunctural “practices of everyday life,” the latter foiling the former. This happens, for example, in the second room in the Arsenal, in which Lee Mingwei’s action The Mending Project (2009–15) is placed alongside photographs documenting Maria Laii’s collective action Legarsi alla montagna (Tying Oneself to the Mountain, 1981). In The Mending Project, Mingwei or one of his assistants offers to mend articles of worn clothing given to them by visitors, using colored thread from the dozens of spools hanging on the walls around the work table; eventually, they store the repaired items in the exhibition space. In Legarsi, Lai used a ribbon to “tie” together the houses (and the families) of her native Sardinian village of Ulassai, and in turn tie Ulassai to the mountain that overhangs it. Both of these works are rituals for exorcizing individualism, first of all on a micropolitical level; ça va sans dire that the challenge Lai throws at her community — to think itself as a holistic organism, fused with the landscape in which it is immersed — betrays a “vocation” much broader in scope. By virtue of this vocation, and despite being symbolic and anti-monumental, Legarsi emerges as “grandiose”; yet the proximity of Mingwei’s bid to “tie” visitors’ clothes to the exhibition space, in what feels like merely another participatory art-cum-stitching project, annihilates Lai’s gesture.

In Legarsi, Lai demonstrates what the artist can and must be: to say it once again with Said, “a crusty, eloquent, fantastically courageous and angry individual for whom no worldly power is too big and imposing to be criticized and pointedly taken to task” (p. 8). Unfortunately, in “Viva Arte Viva,” her voice — and the voices of several other committed artists — is undermined by a system of loose associations. If these facilitate the visitor’s approach to the conceptual and formal strategies employed by artists, they suffocate artists’ promptness in responding to historical and political circumstances — the challenge of every intellectual life.

by Michele D’Aurizio

(Translated from Italian by Tijana Mamula)
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National Pavilions / 57th Venice Biennale

“Art is not the way to change the world, not the place to change the world, otherwise we would know it.” Artistic director Christine Macel’s soothing words of realartistik on the opening morning of the Biennale served to problematize the experience of the real pavilions as much as her “Trans-Pavilions” that demarcate the space and punctuate the course of the International Exhibition.

Given the bluntly political nature of the national pavilions, the question this year was whether they would cultivate the guise of apolitical safe spaces, approximating narratives of sanitization and disengagement, or perhaps worse, pseudo-engagement.

Yet a number nurture positions of canny ambivalence appropriate to this strange island of nations. Anne Imhof’s turbulent appropriation of the German pavilion –– modified by transparent false flooring and occupied by her team of performing sculpture-antagonists –– situates its perpetual trail of visitors in an uncomfortable role-relay between subject and object, hunter and hunted. Entitled Faust, and guarded by a pair of caged Dobermans whose periodic dashes back into the pavilion uncannily replicate the looping rhythm of the internal performance, this five-hour Gesamtkunstwerk trades in irony for a biting critique of consumer culture. With jarring flashes of branded leisurewear interrupting their largely black garb, the performers are simultaneously implicated as hipster-specters perpetuating the system –– the pillars of a neoclassical institution. At a time when irony has become the cloak of choice for extremist ideologies, Imhof’s glare is laser-sighted.

Geta Brătescu’s own treatment of Faust (1981–2), a “mental studio” of thirty-one works on paper, is part of a formidable retrospective at the Romanian pavilion. Ranging effortlessly across media, Brătescu assimilates and reorients modernist visual strategies while addressing female subjectivity. Her 1978 film The Studio, whose tripartite structure –– Sleep, Waking, and Play –– narrates her from object to active subject, accords with a Biennale “by artists, and for artists.” By contrast, Xavier Veilhan’s French pavilion is avowedly relational. Titled, Studio Venezia, this free-form recording studio-cum-market square embraces accident by encouraging musical experiment. By turns underwhelming and overwhelming, the space serves here as a neutral zone seemingly unencumbered by the normal institutional levers, and a working prototype for further incarnations in Lisbon and Buenos Aires.

Alberto Giacometti forever refused to represent his native Switzerland at the Biennale, opting instead to present his sculpted Women of Venice at the French pavilion in 1956. In Flora, a documentary film installation by artist couple Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler, the Swiss pavilion becomes the site for a historical reconstruction of Giacometti’s early biography, specifically his relationship with American artist Flora Mayo. Via moving footage of Mayo’s son’s recollections, the extent of Giacometti’s emotional and artistic bond with Mayo –– practically eliminated from art history –– becomes clear, and is further annunciated in Bust, a reproduction of her destroyed portrait of Giacometti, known previously only from a photograph.

A different kind of historical reexamination occupies the Finnish pavilion. Situating visitors alongside animatronic sculptures conversing in space and on video, Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen’s The Aalto Natives imagines a pair of Messiah-types from the future returning to debate and critique a Finland they once created. In a tone of disarming absurdism, Geb and Atum provide penetrating political observations on our time of historically irrational decision-making; just as, in a paean to porousness, Phyllida Barlow’s folly spills out of the British pavilion with a lightness belying its bulbous concrete forms. Mark Bradford develops a comparable language for the United States pavilion. Seeking to avoid what he calls “Instagram perfection,” his monumental paintings and sculptures share a willful obtrusiveness that shows up “the culture industry and the gray economy” for what it is. While, over at the Chinese pavilion, Tang Nannan’s mesmerizing video seascapes in monochrome slow the pulse, soon to freeze in Dirk Braeckman’s ashen-hued photographs at the Belgian pavilion. Veiling his subjects: figures and landscapes, Braeckman scours our digital reality for the analogue truth.

Having experienced life in Mongolia when it was a Soviet satellite, as well as its recent history of extreme globalization and resource exploitation, Chimeddorj Shagdarjar’s contribution to the Mongolia pavilion is an ensemble of sixty bronze cranes, titled Bird (2016). Based on the image of a crowd of young Mongolian men and women lining up for visas, his splicing of the bird’s trudging legs with the form of a bent-barreled sniper rifle juxtaposes the seasonal movement of cranes across Asia with the paradox of a landlocked nation rooted in nomadism. Coupled with Raped (2016), a video by his compatriot Bolortuvshin Jargalsaikhan in which she asks: “Why are we raping mother nature?…It feels like parts of my body are falling apart,” the Mongolia pavilion defines a Biennale in which transhumance analogizes disembodied times.

The Tunisian pavilion addresses the plight of migrants entering Europe head on. Comprising three kiosks located around the city, visitors are offered the chance to obtain a “Freesa,” a document notionally allowing universal free movement, but in practice designed to elevate a narrative of historic tragedy to one about the aspirations of migrants themselves, including those manning these very kiosks. Next to this, grandiloquent press releases describing how “visitors as performers experience both settledness and nomadism, containment and exclusion, mobility and immobility” (describing the otherwise exceptional Erwin Wurm at the Austrian pavilion) are difficult to stomach, though they reflect a tendency in Western art speak to catastrophize so as to legitimize works of art. Of course the opposite of this tendency is the demand for palatability in the digestion of the unpalatable. And it is this syndrome that Candice Breitz addresses in her six-screen video installation at the South African pavilion, entitled Love Story. Offered the choice between hearing the same harrowing stories from the immigrants themselves or by Hollywood actors on a big screen, we are forced to face up to our own willed detachment.

Other pavilions unpick these threads more obliquely. The Greek pavilion reframes Aeschylus’s Suppliant Women, specifically the dilemma between saving the foreigner and preserving the native, as an experiment relayed on a series of monitors. Forced to decide between allowing one cell population to interact with a second, foreign population, or to isolate the latter and condemn it to extinction, this collision of cultures is left unresolved. By contrast, Gal Weinstein’s Sun Stand Still at the Israel pavilion fully embraces biohazard through a combination of eclectic materials –– metallic wool, felt, pillow stuffing, coffee, and mold –– that together transforms the space into a Petri dish whose unnatural funk is a statement of Western decay as disconcerting as it is beguiling.

According to the Neapolitan philosopher and anthropologist Ernesto de Martino, only magic can resolve this crisis and reconcile our presence in the world. If so, Roberto Cuoghi’s factory of imitation Christs at the Italian pavilion exudes a black magic indeed. And while Adelita Husni-Bey’s tarot reading next door begs us not to despair, Giorgio Andreotta Calò’s basilica of silence prays we reflect.

by Alex Estorick

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More than Documenta / Athens

A city associated with economic troubles and reverence for ancient culture, Athens isn’t known as an epicenter for contemporary art. And yet, during the opening of Documenta 14, the local art scene grabbed the opportunity to make an impression.

Many visitors gravitated toward the NEON Foundation’s site-specific exhibition by British artist Michael Landy. After relocating to Athens for several months, Landy took over an entire floor of the empty, slightly crumbling Diplarios School in the city center. His project takes advantage of an abundance of empty classroom space, now filled with found images, drawings and texts submitted by the Athenian public. Using these materials for reference, Landy copies the images and transforms them into larger-scale blue-and-white paintings, whose color scheme clearly refers to typically Greek aesthetics.

The artist positions himself not as the primary author, but instead as a vehicle, or platform, for the local population to tell their own stories. During the exhibition, Landy could be found continually adding new works to the exhibition and chatting with visitors. Engagement with the local population is central to the exhibition concept; as a result, the old school is reactivated as a place of learning, cultural exchange and contemporary political discourse.

Contemporary Greek politics were strongly felt at local gallery exhibitions as well, many of which outshined the lackluster official Documenta programming. In the Kolonaki area, Kalfayan Galleries presented “Perished Sun,” a three-artist show featuring works by Yiannis Papadopoulos, Panos Tsagaris and Kostis Velonis. All three explore various mathematical and solar systems through painting, sculpture and photography. “Perished Sun” references the ancient Greek view of the solar eclipse as an evil omen, an ominous sign that foreshadows conflict and suffering. Papadopoulos’s representation of a historic sixth-century map by Cosmas Indicopleustes offers an alternative view of the world order, vastly different from contemporary reality. Tsagaris’s multilayered silkscreens and gold-filled abstractions of the front page of the New York Times reference the often-problematic media coverage of the Greek crisis. Velonis’s architectural sculptures expose empty space and evoke this city’s complicated past.

Down the road, Maria Kriara has a solo show at CAN Gallery, titled “The Pawnshop.” Fascinated by ephemera from the past, Kriara collects images and phrases and reworks them for viewer, presenting old artifacts in a new context. Old photographs, signs and clippings are stripped of their historical or sentimental connotations. Their meaning is abstracted, their origin cloaked in mystery. In some ways like Michael Landy, Kriara sees herself not so much as the creator of new work and ideas, but a vehicle for history. She doesn’t make art as much as she repackages and abstracts the past, making us aware of the tenuousness of our own understanding of history.

Spread around the city center, Bernier/ Eliades Gallery, The Breeder, Qbox and Gagosian’s local outpost presented similarly well-curated, focused exhibitions. Several local museums presented strong contemporary programming in time for the crowds, juxtaposing the work of contemporary artists alongside ancient Greek treasures. Two of the most notable institutional shows included the DESTE Prize anniversary exhibition at the Museum of Cycladic Art, showcasing works by nine recipients of the prestigious Greek art prize over the years, and “Paratoxic Paradoxes” at the Benaki Museum, featuring an international roster of (mostly female) video artists exploring post-internet aesthetics and new mediums.

Athens’s art scene has slowly grown as foreign artists, drawn to the pleasant weather and low cost of living, have set up studios here. The city’s abundance of abandoned buildings is ripe for takeover by creatives looking for inexpensive exhibition space. The Greek capital’s position as a port for refugees and a symbol of Europe’s economic tensions offer plenty of material for artists looking for stimulation. The city’s evolving art scene certainly has much to offer. Let’s hope that continues.

by Zoe Cooper

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Condemned to Roam, Without Repose / Documenta 14

“We will fail. But we will try.” Wandering through the streets of Athens, I read these words in the much-leafed-through pages of my About Documenta 14 pamphlet. The words rightly address the difficulty of harnessing coherent, critical agency amid such a mega exhibition. Pursuing a politicized reading of our present moment and its attendant histories, Artistic Director Adam Szymczyk cited “unlearning” — a play on the working title “Learning from Athens” — as a way to enter into an exhibition that attempts to sidestep any hegemonic narratives and allow space for manifold approaches and multilayered, unfolding interpretations.

And yet, from the word go at the press conference, where Jani Christou’s Epicycle (1968/2017) was performed by the participating artists and the curatorial team, who hissed, wailed and stamped their feet like a group of wild, untameable animals (being conducted by a white man), it was difficult to glean any clear methodology.

Spanning four main venues — the Athens Conservatoire (Odeion), the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), the Benaki Museum – Pireos Street Annexe and the Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA) — with additional performances and happenings taking place throughout the city, the exhibition offers hundreds of works to write about.

Originally founded in 1871 as a musical institution, the Athens Conservatoire (Odeion) features projects by artists who deal with sound or reconsider its use-value. Susan Hiller’s video work The Last Silent Movie (2007) draws visitors into a pitch-black space where, sitting in old-fashioned cinema stalls, they listen to archival recordings of extinct and endangered languages. Understood only as variants of noise, pitch, tone and vibration, a constellation of dying communication is mapped, the supernova before the ultimate silencing of these minority groups. In Nevin Aladağ’s Music Room (Athens) (2017), performers play musical instruments constructed from furniture: stools as drums; sofas plucked as guitars; chair cellos; metal tables adorned with bells to shrill effect. She references tarantism, mainly practiced by women who “dance away the pain of any poison.” Yet as people observed the performance, no one danced, choosing to soak up the experience with passive eyes rather than active bodies.

Archival materials from the Scratch Orchestra are presented nearby (an example of Documenta, true to form, offering up hidden histories but making them feel didactic and dry, boxed in vitrines). This musical community, representing varying levels of expertise, formed in 1969 in London to perform music “from scratch,” often based on written instructions and graphic scores. Daniel Knorr’s performative installation Materialization (2017), in which a mountain of detritus from the streets of Athens is pressed, object by object, into books for visitors, feels like an overliteral and sentimental spectacle of what we might “take away” from Athens. More subversive are the instruments made (and played) by Mexican artist Guillermo Galindo, also comprising discarded matter. These odes to border crossings use plastic combs, water bottles and boat parts to reference how Mesoamerican peoples saw instruments as talismans for movement between worlds.

Nigerian Emeka Ogboh’s The Way of Earthly Things Are Going (2017) wraps an amphitheater-of-sorts within a sonorous landscape, transforming data into musical scores from documents about financial crises from 1929 to the present day. A real-time LED display of world stock indexes runs simultaneously, its bright red and green digits charting the world of finance, which feels jarringly stark amid the ambient sounds. Performances at the Conservatoire abounded, including Haitian choreographer Kettly Noël’s Zombification (2017), in which puppets made from hessian bags and ropes have mirror-panel visages reflecting the viewer’s own face; these voodoo figures move as zombies within a bamboo-stick installation, seen as “nonfolkloric figures responsible for current, real, globalized violence.” And they’ve got our faces.

The National Museum of Contemporary Art, housed in a former brewery that was abandoned in 1982, has only recently reopened after a long-term reconstruction project. Nigerian Olu Oguibe’s Biafra Time Capsule (2017) reflects present-day narratives of displacement through books, photographs and magazines representing the human tragedy experienced by Biafra during the 1960s Nigerian civil war. French filmmaker Michel Auder’s Gulf War TV War Untitled (1991, edited 2017) depicts him filming his TV while constantly changing channels. I was reminded of my own 1990s childhood, when I sat and stared and flipped past the static between stations, from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to news reports on George H. W. Bush’s “Operation Desert Storm” in Iraq to easy-to-watch commercials.

Chilean Cecilia Vicuña’s sculpture Quipu Womb (The Story of the Red Thread, Athens) (2017) suspends thick masses of knotted red wool from a circular metal frame. Reminiscent of umbilical cords, blood or even matted hair, quipu was originally an Incan system for recording events with knotted strings. Here, the poet Vicuña symbolically suggests the joining of word, narrative history and flesh as we imagine the bloodshed of past regimes, including Chile’s Pinochet, which resonates with today’s landscape of war and brutality.

On Pireos Street, the Benaki Museum seeks to investigate untold, unfinished or overshadowed histories. Israeli artist Roee Rosen fictionalizes the life of Eva Braun (Live and Die as Eva Braun, 1995–97), writing texts that place the reader in the subjective position of Hitler’s wife. This does two things: make us see Braun as human, and reminds us that we too are emotional, fallible and capable of committing evils. The standout work is Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s somniloquies (2017). A seventy-minute film of hazy, indistinguishable body parts, as if seen through squinting eyes in a dream, is overlaid with 1960s recordings of the world’s most prolific sleep-talker, American musician Dion McGregor. His descriptions veer from being cruel to intriguing and sometimes funny, as extreme sexual scenarios are interspersed with the sounds of snoring. Though the histories we amass in our dreams are often lost to the night, here we experience a half-open window onto that world.

Projects at the Athens School of Fine Arts (where one could also visit the studios of students) supposedly address notions of creativity and educational experimentation. Photographs, magazine articles and texts about Anna and Lawrence Halprin’s dance deck (on the hills outside San Francisco), where innovative dance pieces and improvisations took shape in the 1960s, reinforce current rereadings of the history of Minimalism, inserting dance and movement into the story. Artur Źmijewski’s film Glimpse (2016–17) is a staged documentary depicting the refugee camps of Berlin and Calais. The artist paints men’s faces white, marks their clothes with crosses and gives them new shoes. Although Źmijewski raises important questions regarding the place of art in the world and its impact on our reality, his work here feels both patronizing and exploitative.

The first chapter of Documenta 14 in Athens poses an open-ended question regarding what art can be during times of economic and humanitarian crisis. What it doesn’t answer is what art can ever really do, or where the agency of this exhibition lies (and the subsequent use-value of its €37 million budget). In an open letter about artist and refugee evictions as implemented by the city of Athens, written by the local activist group Artists Against Evictions to Documenta 14 visitors, they urge: “You say you want to learn from Athens, well first open your eyes to the city and listen to the streets.” The exhibition is complex and obfuscated, just like the world in which we live, and at times it’s hard to tell what is happening and why — again, an excellent reflection of our times. But we need more than a mirror image. Culture can do more, has done more, and should strive to stimulate social change. By reflecting a complicated world within which we’re already becoming lost, it feels as if the many voices of the artists in the exhibition drown one another out. We are left “condemned to roam, without repose.”¹

by Louisa Elderton

¹ from “Conversation,” a poem by Olu Oguibe, quoted in Documenta 14: Daybook
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