PRINT September 2017


Graffiti, Dionysiou Areopagitou Street, Athens, April 9, 2017. Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/Getty Images.

INAUGURATED BY ARNOLD BODE in 1955 in the bombed-out ruins of Kassel, a formerly industrial city that ended up on the eastern fringes of what had newly become West Germany, Documenta was famously intended to heal the wounds of recent European history by affirming the continuity of (Western) modernism. At the core of this civilizing mission was abstraction, whose formal language became a symbol of individualism and artistic freedom, and a means to differentiate West from East in the early years of the Cold War. Kassel thus became the stage for the construction of the contemporary in relation to highly contested (art-) historical, sociopolitical, and ideological entanglements. Circa 1955, the formation and future of “Europe” as moral arbiter and guardian of humanistic values was given a place and an aestheticin Kassel, underscoring its identity as the border of the West.

More than sixty years later, the artistic director of Documenta 14, Adam Szymczyk, and his curatorial team have considered some more recent permutations of these foundational conditions, myths, and aspirations.The show, split and shared between Athens and Kassel, updates the mega-exhibition’s historical status as a frontier and bellwether of Western humanism for contemporary conditions of neoliberal global capitalism. Under the so-called working title “Learning from Athens,” the curators have responded to the changed landscape of today with a self-professed “transnational, and anti-identitarian parliament of bodies” that grapples above all with timely questions about borders and their power to police people, knowledge, and (art) history. The curators were aware of the stakes in choosing Athens as an exemplary city for these issues (“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, moralizing and in its essence neocolonial and neoliberal formula”), even if the abundant graffiti on the city’s public walls suggested inhabitants were seething with anger against the German-subsidized spectacle: DEAR DOCUMENTA, I REFUSE TO EXOTICIZE MYSELF TO INCREASE YOUR CULTURAL CAPITAL; EARNING FROM ATHENS; THE CRISIS OF A COMMODITY OR THE COMMODITY OF CRISIS?; CAN YOU KILL THE HIERARCHY WITHIN YOU? Documenta’s import of German financial resources and its discursive solidarity with the global precariat may have been a bid for historic reconciliation, but the often-bitter public reactions made it clear how deeply the asymmetrical power relations between Germany and Greece are embedded in the show’s structure. In the face of such frictions, it is worth asking what it meant for Documenta to expand its borders to Greece while also claiming to dissolve so many symbolic borders—between past and present, East and West, North and South—in order to bring better- and lesser-known histories and horrors of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries into our common space.

As Étienne Balibar has said, borders are polysemic mechanisms that regulate the inclusion and exclusion of individuals within two contradictory notions of “the people”: demos, “the collective subject of representation, decision-making, and rights;” and ethnos, “an imagined community of membership and filiation.” Seeking to perform the border itself as form, Szymczyk’s exhibition implemented these concepts of the border in its structure, which included not only the binational program and the requisite movement within Europe’s theoretically passport-free Schengen Area but also the show’s curatorial methods, choices of artistic positions, and discursive apparatus. The constant dissonance between demos and ethnos could not have been more jarring: When I flew to Kassel from Athens, multiple security checkpoints and teams of polizei were in place, gesturing to current anxieties about “protecting” the contemporary European demos from migrants and the specter of terrorism. In this chilly encounter, the representative democracy of the nation-state superseded Documenta’s attempt to enable a “presentist democracy,” to borrow a term coined by political scientist Isabell Lorey: The tightly controlled administrative border at the Kassel airport trumped the more inclusive notion of the people as something constituted in the aleatory moment of their assembly. In talking about the show, Szymczyk emphasized the idea that each visitor should have a share in the exhibition, thus creating a “real-time” ethnos built on what Lorey calls a “radical contingency of equals” that is precarious, incomplete, and based on difference.

To this end, though the same roster of artists was present in both cities, the process of searching for them in multiple venues (not only between cities but also within each city) could turn quickly from gratifying to frustrating. Forced to perform this deliberately curated choreography, the viewer found herself variously included and excluded, with the result that any incipient sense of sovereignty was undermined. Visitors could also book a member of the “chorus” to accompany them while “instigating dialogue, debate, and questioning,” as a way of supplanting the didactic and hierarchical transfer of information of conventional exhibitions. With minimal signage, scant information, and the chorus all working to upend the standard hierarchies of producing and receiving knowledge, this Documenta was a jumble of serendipitous, baffling, and missed encounters that kept exceeding the confines of its venues.

Of particular note was how the self-conscious relinking of our “contemporaneity” with the interwar and postwar periods successfully muddied the periodizing borders of (art) history, which have so often cast the present as emerging fully constituted post-1989. These same borders have also dictated the narrativization of the present as a foregone conclusion, the only possible teleological end point of neoliberal capitalism. As the works on view in Documenta make clear, however, many artists working between 1945 and 1989 confronted the fragmentation and redistribution of political space and the ideological appropriation of aesthetic idioms as a deeply contested process with no clear outcome. In the Greek context, this includes the period of the right-wing military junta, also called the Regime of the Colonels (1967–74), whose road to power can be traced back to the Axis occupation of the country during World War II. While some artists of the postwar era were witness to struggles for decolonization and acts of solidarity between liberation movements across the globe, others had to live with the aftermaths of Nazism, Fascism, and totalitarianism, which were still very much embedded in structures of everyday life, and of course not only in Greece and Germany. For example, between 1945 and 1949, when socialist realism became the official doctrine in Poland, Andrzej Wróblewski developed a style of “direct realism” that aesthetically mediated the “has-been” and the “yet to come” in ways that shift our understanding of figuration in a time when the nature of postwar reality was still taking shape. In Execution Against a Wall,1949, for instance (on view at EMST | National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens; other works of the artist’s are in the Neue Galerie in Kassel), Wróblewski’s painterly experiments turn the body into a phenomenological territory in which the fractional space between life and death, between biopower and necro-politics, speaks to the trauma of a barely buried past still lingering in the present.

A number of contemporary artists, too, retrospectively engage this fraught period in ways that broaden the discussion far beyond Eurocentric notions of East and West, with the relationship of Germany and Greece often serving as a metaphor or mirror of North-South relations more generally. Specifically, many works in the show revisit moments when history seemed open-ended—those fragile junctures in which various futures were equally possible and plausible before they became concretized, especially in the trajectories of the emerging nation-states that would go on to constitute the Global South. A standout in this regard is Naeem Mohaiemen’s riveting three-channel video installation Two Meetings and a Funeral, 2017, on view in the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Kassel,which investigates the newly independent Bangladesh’s navigation between two historic meetings—the Algiers Conference of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1973 and the Lahore Summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Pakistan a year later—tracing the country’s turn from the embrace of socialism to solidarity with the Islamic world. With original film footage and the narration of historian Vijay Prashad (who also appears as a protagonist), Mohaiemen examines the charged processes of consolidation and corrosion through which the “Third World” articulated itself as an alternative to the Western and Eastern Blocs.In Athens, by contrast, the artist showed Tripoli Cancelled, 2017, a film inspired by his father’s experience of being trapped in Athens’s Hellinikon Airport without a passport for nine days in 1977. In the film, the man’s life has been suspended for a decade, his fate comparable to that of the refugees who lived in the same, now disused, airport until their makeshift camp was closed down by Greek police this past June.

Countless other artists likewise present works that make visible the multiple narratives and subjectivities that have been contained, repressed, or erased by the dominant powers and the histories they tell. Among my personal discoveries were Erna Rosenstein, whose 1979 paintings of her parents, murdered trying to flee the Lwów Ghetto, are rendered in a haunting surrealist figuration; and Edi Hila, whose muted paintings show Albanian land- and cityscapes in a state of postsocialist decay. A few works spoke directly to the immense distances and vastly different contexts involved in the exhibition’s integration of the border into its formal structure—for example, Sokol Beqiri’s Adonis, 2017, for which the Kosovo-born artist grafted branches from an oak tree in Kassel onto an Athenian oak at Athens Polytechnic, a symbolic site where student protesters were killed in great numbers after staging an uprising against the right-wing government in 1973.

The intention behind both the selection of artists and the twin settings of a regional German city and the Greek capital was clearly to push viewers beyond formal appreciation or facile spectatorship in order to call into question the conditions of knowledge that frame our meeting with the other. Seeking to introduce “a symmetrical situation of the encounter of equals,” the curatorial strategy of deploying the border as form encouraged a participatory engagement that oscillated between empowering (we are all actors contributing to the scene/polis, we all have the right to speak, we are all simultaneously strangers and citizens) and authoritarian (a pressure to comply with this methodology and an a priori discrediting of “traditional” modes of knowledge). Along the way, however, viewers were provided myriad guides: Oskar Hansen’s “Open Form,” Artur Żmijewski’s behavioral experiments, Cornelius Cardew’s incomplete scores, and Bouchra Khalili’s alternative historiographies, to name but a few.

Despite seeming at a loss as to how to address its elemental shortcoming—the unequal power relations between Germany and Greece—this is the Documenta I always wanted: difficult, demanding, experimental, and unafraid to take risks. In our current necropolitical paradigm, as a border politics of inclusion and exclusion dictates who may live and who must die, the foremost struggle is to invent a new image of the people who can move fluidly between borders, including but not limited to those of demos and ethnos, the administrative and the fictive, the national and the supranational. If, as Balibar claims, our social space is constituted by a grid of multiple, differential borders—external but also internal—that discriminate between “those who circulate capital” and “those whom capital circulates,” it is only fair to ask: What can public (art) institutions, which are supported by the traditional forms of city, region, and state, do to inhabit borders in critical ways or to propose new ways of working, learning, and living together? In his judicious deployment of a powerful tool of postwar German cultural policy, whose own raison d’être was the border of the Iron Curtain, Szymczyk asks the all-important question: Who owns Documenta? To put it more starkly, Who has the right to the border? “Ownership” implies having a share in controlling the border, yet those who control borders will never be those who risk their lives crossing them. While Documenta cannot solve this conundrum, it can, Szymczyk suggests, show a way to appropriate and reimagine borders in ways particular to our needs. This is Documenta’s humanist strain, which it simultaneously asserts, challenges, and mourns by assimilating the border into its form, as a site of both maximum agency and utter impotence.

Documenta 14 is on view in Kassel through September 17.

Nuit Banai is professor of contemporary art in the department of art history at the University of Vienna.