A thick black cable is locked around the front doors of Stavropooulou 15, a two-story building on a quiet, leafy block near Amerikis Square, which is a bit north of most of Documenta’s 47 sites in Athens. There is no sign, but this is a work by Maria Eichhorn, who acquired the stately but dilapidated structure with €140,000 (about $158,000) in funding from Zurich’s Migros Museum. She plans to turn it into a legally unowned property, and eventually it may be home to studios or residencies or some other projects, but for now it is empty, its shutters closed, the paint on its façade peeling.
“You have come to Athens for only three days?” the young man renting me a bicycle said as we stood outside in the morning sun, a few blocks from the Acropolis. “For Documenta?”
He was incredulous but amused, and told me that he liked the part of the show he had seen, at the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), a huge, pristinely renovated new space that was once a Fix brewery. The exhibition’s artistic director, Adam Szymczyk, and his team have taken over the whole building, and works from the EMST’s collection have been sent to Kassel, where they will go on view today at the Fridericianum. Some locals have not been pleased with the German institution’s presence in town, accusing its organizers and some of its artists of colonialism and of exploiting the fraught situation in Greece for material. One particularly flavorful poster I saw reads, “DOCUMENTA FUCK OFF!”
The exhibition alludes rather wanly to the ongoing animosity between Germany and Greece. At the Athens School of Fine Arts site, Bili Bidjocka has set up a chess match between teams named Kassel and Athens. Visitors can vote on the next move on tablets, with one side taking a turn each day. Kassel is winning a close game right now—holding a rook on a board otherwise filled with pawns. At the Athens Conservatoire, David Lamelas has hung a trio of televisions from the ceiling with live feeds, two showing action in the parliaments of Greece and Germany, and one looking up at the Acropolis, the Parthenon just barely visible. The same work is also greeting arrivals flooding into the Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe train station this week.
At the Archaeological Museum of Piraeus, out by the Aegean Sea, a roughly 20-minute subway ride from the center of Athens, a woman was sitting on the floor on a hazy afternoon, slumped over with her legs spread. Ever so slowly, she began to turn onto her side and push one of her arms between her legs. A tall grave monument from Kallithea, dating to around 330 B.C., loomed above her. Soon a man was walking around the room at a deliberate pace, measuring sculptures and architectural forms with his hand and forearm. They were enacting “Collective Exhibition for a Single Body,” curated by Pierre Bal-Blanc, which invited various artists in Documenta to create actions to be scored and performed by choreographer Kostas Tsioukas and dancers Myrto Kontoni and Tassos Koukoutas. A third man walked into the room, sat down, and watched the action, the women rolling in slow motion and the man moving about the room, taking stock of things. Only a few other people were in the room watching with me.
Documenta sends its visitors to hunt for art in museums and archaeological sites, to theaters and bars, to apartments and parks. Sometimes you arrive to find only a small brick of copper, as is the case at the Numismatic Museum. (That work, by Dan Peterman, is based on ancient talents used before coinage existed.) But when the contemporary art disappoints, the locations themselves often stun. (Nearby that copper piece is a display of coins that were buried for various reasons over the past few millennia.)
At a few very special moments, the ancient remnants and the new work synergize, becoming more than their two parts. One floor up from that performance in Piraeus, for instance, there is a stone from the 4th century B.C. that was once housed in Salamis, Cyprus, carved with images of a hand, a forearm, an arm, and a foot, as a tool for ensuring uniform measurements. Downstairs, nearly 2,500 years after the creation of that block, a man was quietly, carefully engaged in a similar pursuit—using his body to make sense of the world, and to secure his place within it.
Rain was pouring down, and the streets were flooded near the Athens School of Fine Arts’s exhibition hall. The water moved quickly, ferrying along oranges from nearby trees as well as bits of garbage. Considering that it had been around 90 degrees before the skies suddenly turned dark, it was surprisingly cold, and I tried to stay dry under a subway entrance. The rain was not stopping, so I finally made a mad dash for the ASFA on bike and arrived soaked. The roof there had been leaking and plastic buckets were catching drips as a woman mopped up water from the floor.
Photo-text works from 1978–80 by Allan Sekula were on view, brutally stark classics that depict and describe labor, one showing a woman interviewing for a teaching job at a California art school. “Since she’s a Latina,” it reads, “the mere fact of the interview satisfies affirmative action requirements. She doesn’t get the job.” One room over is a miniature survey of intoxicatingly weird, funny films that the Israeli filmmaker David Perlov made in the 1950s using drawings by an adolescent girl in Lyon, France, in the 19th century that he happened upon.
At its very best moments, which are regrettably rare, Documenta 14 abounds with such surprising juxtapositions—it splices together sharp politics, formal invention, and sui generis private worlds. You feel you are being told remarkable secrets. More often, though, it is a willfully obscure and incoherent jumble.
Twee little signs appear in some places in the city, pointing the way to various Documenta sites—sort of. I spent an hour on the Filopappaou Hill trying to find a rather groan-inducing marble refugee tent by Rebecca Belmore that overlooks the Parthenon. (To be honest, this may have actually been my fault: I hadn’t purchased the thick map booklet, which has decent directions in most cases.) The plus side of being lost there, though, is that you get some remarkable views of the city and may happen upon the legendary location of Socrates’s prison.
While I was marveling at Georgia Sagri’s strange and charming flat-metal sculptures of large body parts in a storefront gallery, two women came in and said they couldn’t find any Documenta works at the nearby Polytechnion university. I wandered over there next and was also at a loss. It was Whit Monday, and the campus, which is covered in graffiti, was pretty much abandoned. Sokol Beqiri has apparently planted an oak tree on the grounds with limbs grafted on from a tree in Kassel—a kind of symbol for the forced coupling that is Documenta 14—but it was nowhere to be found.
A feeling of sadness always sets in for me on the second or third day of navigating these giant shows, as I come to realize all of the works that I won’t be able to see, or will only be able to catch a few minutes of, but at Documenta 14 in Athens that mood was particularly pronounced. Many performances long ago came and went. A film by Douglas Gordon, about the journey undertaken by a young Jonas Mekas as a refugee during World War II, was not screening in the open-air cinema the nights I visited, and I didn’t make it to the communal dinners presented by Rasheed Araeen in Kotzia Square.
This feeling was about more than missing works. It feels intimately intertwined with the themes of the show, which is about, and made up of, fragments and incomplete narratives. It is about how culture—objects, languages, ideas, utopian dreams—endure across centuries, although sometimes only in the form of fragments or ruins or memories. Things are lost and not always recovered.
It was early evening, and the ornate tombs at the First Cemetery of Athens were casting long shadows. A Documenta employee sat near the entrance, writing in a notebook. Next to her was a door that leads to a long series of rooms—a former café, maybe—that have been almost entirely cleared out, save for a wilting plant and an old espresso machine with a key and a little picture of a painting of Christ atop it. At the back of the space, near two locked bathroom stalls, a man with a large camera was snapping photo after photo of his girlfriend, telling her in German how to pose. He was going absolutely wild! After a few minutes, however, they made their way out, and I was alone. It was eerily silent.
As is the case throughout the exhibition, the title of the work here is printed on a paper laid on the ground—Whispering Campaign (2016–17)—and the name of the artist appears on a small rectangular stone atop it: Pope.L. Its materials are articulated as “Nation, people, sentiment, language, time,” and its duration as 9,438 hours. To be quite honest, I had no idea what I was supposed to be looking or listening for.
The piece is also listed as being present in other places I had visited—a bathroom on the top floor of the EMST, the Panathenaic Stadium—and I had not actually encountered it yet (or, at least, I didn’t think I had), so I was not too optimistic. I lingered for a bit, took a selfie in a mirror, and then decided to go get dinner. But just as I reached the entrance, a deep and gravelly voice—that of an older black man from the United States, would be my guess—emerged from one of the stalls, singing what sounded like a spiritual. His voice was slightly distorted and it echoed, so I could not make out the words, but the tune was slightly syncopated and forceful and beautiful, and it ended abruptly.