If you don’t know how to read the city, it might appear that spring arrives suddenly in Athens. Even though it’s still chilly in late February, when the first buds appear on the branches of the bitter-orange trees lining the streets of this densely built metropolis, you know that the seasons are changing. Perhaps it’s a clumsy metaphor but Athens, on the whole, is, and always has been, similarly hard to read: you might not notice that things are happening unless you’re paying close attention.
Amidst Greece’s well-documented economic, political and humanitarian crises, in recent years the art scene in Athens has experienced a major shift. documenta 14 – one of contemporary art’s biggest events, which takes place every five years in Kassel – is being co-hosted by the Greek capital. This is the first time in the exhibition’s 62-year history that a part of it has been held outside Germany. While this is undoubtedly recognition that Athens is a major art centre, a quiet revolution has been taking place in the city for years and it is this art infrastructure that has made documenta’s move here possible. While Greece lacks a robust art market, a network of independent and non-profit spaces – some run with great passion on nearly non-existent budgets; others supported by local foundations such as Deste and Neon – has laid the groundwork for a healthy art scene over the past two decades. documenta’s focus on Athens didn’t emerge from a vacuum – but it’s not without its controversies.
In many ways, Athens can be divided into two cities. One is in crisis mode and has to cope on a daily basis with financial doom, political turmoil and the plight of refugees – almost one million have passed through Greece in the past two years – many of whom are stranded in Athens and looking for shelter. The other is an appealing destination for young artists and writers, attracted by the city’s vibrant life and anarchic architectural beauty. One newly arrived foreign friend described it as ‘a laboratory of the future’. Danai Giannoglou and Vasilis Papageorgiou, who run the independent art space Enterprise Projects, have witnessed this first hand. They told me: ‘It shows in the kind of people who visit our exhibitions; Greeks have now been joined by people who come from all over the world.’
These two cities mix and co-exist, especially in the more central neighbourhoods, such as Exarchia and Metaxourgio. Eleftheria Tseliou, who runs an eponymous gallery in Kolonaki, an area not far from the graffiti-laden streets of Exarchia, says it has always been like this: ‘The art world has had to cope with the challenges of the political and economic crisis. It’s a sensitive part of society. Things do influence each other and it’s visible. It’s difficult not to be immediately affected.’
There is a chance that documenta 14 will provide a way of responding to a political climate which threatens freedom of expression.
When documenta 14 opens its doors to the public on 8 April, the city will be commemorating a sombre anniversary. Fifty years ago, on 21 April 1967, a military junta – known as the Regime of the Colonels – overthrew the Greek government and embroiled the country in a seven-year nightmare of repression, regression, censorship and terror. One of the defining features of this dark era, as with most modern dictatorships, was its aesthetic decadence and love of kitsch. This history has left its marks on the city, not only in its terrible urban planning and shabby infrastructure, but also culturally: due to the high levels of censorship, unless Greek artists moved elsewhere, they were excluded from the explosion of creativity sweeping the West in the 1960s and ’70s.
The series of events and exhibitions that have been staged prior to documenta’s official launch have delved into Athens’s memories. As part of its series of events, ‘34 Exercises in Freedom’, documenta has invited historians to lead the public on walking tours, such as the ‘Torture and Freedom Tour of Athens’ exploring ‘the historical traces of oppression, violence and the quest for freedom during the military dictatorship of 1967–74’. But it’s no simple task to address recent history, because it doesn’t feel as if it’s behind us. Now, as then, we are witnessing a global resurgence of the same kind of fascism that confronted Greece 50 years ago. The reason that Athens might be seen as a laboratory of the future is because it hasn’t healed the wounds of its past; they’re still festering, for all to see.
The Olympic Games of 2004 attempted to kickstart a new, division-free Greece, but its only legacy is a huge debt and crumbling buildings in the Athenian suburbs. It was supposed to offer an alternative vision of the country, in which the trauma of fascism hadn’t occurred; a positive version of a national culture that transcends borders. But the past can’t be simply forgotten, no matter how much money you throw at it. As iLiana Fokianaki – curator of Extra City Kunsthal in Antwerp and the founder, in 2013, of State of Concept, the first non-profit space in Athens – told me: ‘There will certainly be a post-documenta depression, primarily for those who have had high expectations of it.’
The past few years have brought to Athens (and Greece in general) artists, journalists and activists who want to witness first hand the ways in which a society might respond to a major crisis. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is, of course, the most high profile example. A victim of censorship and a repressive government, Ai felt compelled to visit the refugee camp near the border with Macedonia and then the island of Lesvos, where almost one million people have passed through on their way to Europe from Turkey. As ever, art is being called upon to act as a catalyst for the different sides of Athens to communicate and to interact. I’m not entirely certain about the efficacy of this: the city’s social divisions feel too great. Perhaps the latent cynicism of the past seven years cannot be overcome through a single joyous occasion that, by definition, is aimed at a very particular audience. However, there is a chance that documenta 14 will provide a way of responding to a political climate which threatens freedom of expression, human rights and the Athenian’s right to shape our own city. ‘[While] Greece does not have the financial infrastructure,’ Fokianaki told me, ‘it could sustain the already-vast cultural activity that pre-existed documenta 14.’ Giannoglou and Papageorgiou agree: ‘No new model of funding is emerging but there is a mobilization of independent structures to create one.’
This is a conversation that is already very much underway in Athens. If documenta 14 can provide a conduit and a bigger platform for more in-depth discussion, then it might well make art relevant and necessary to the lives of the people in the city. More importantly, it will hopefully also amplify the message to the world that, even amidst bleakness and pessimism, we can build the future we envision for ourselves.
Lead image: Exhibition view of 'Through the Fog: Descripting the Present' at State of Concept, Athens. Courtesy: State of Concept; photograph: Constantinos Caravetellis