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Summer 2017 issue:

Men in High Castles
– Simone Zelitch

A Concrete Worm
– Travis Diehl

Storytelling: The Octavia E. Butler Collection
– Natalie Russell

Dick Index

Review: documenta 14
– Fanny Singer

Summer 2017
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documenta 14:
Learning from Athens

Athens, Greece

Text / Fanny Singer

Rebecca Belmore, Biinjiya'iing Onji (From inside), 2017, marble, Filopappou Hill, Athens
[photo: Fanis Vlastaras; courtesy of documenta 14]

Early April is a particularly sympathetic time to visit Athens—the weather is clement; the air, not yet summer-hot, is tender and neroli-scented from the thousands of blooming citrus trees lining the city's streets. It is still spring, not yet high tourist season, so the early visitor to the Greek portion of the 14th edition of documenta [April 8–July 16, 2017], the international quinquennial art exhibition typically held only in Kassel, Germany, had the crush of neither heat nor humanity to hinder her progress. And yet, she would have still found it difficult, exhausting even, to navigate the exhibition's 40-plus venues featuring more than 160 artists—to say nothing of the supporting program of events, concerts, performances, talks, tours, and launches that runs in tandem. This edition of documenta, helmed by artistic director Adam Szymczyk, is the first to take place, since the institution's inception in 1955, across two locations: overlapping by a bit more than a month, the Kassel chapter opened on June 10, 2017, and will run through mid-September.

The decision to stage this exhibition—founded by Arnold Bode in the hope of contributing to the cultural rehabilitation of postwar Germany—at least partly in the Greek capital was, of course, a charged one. Kassel and Athens are cities facing an imbricated set of crises (most prominently, migration and financial recession, respectively) in countries whose political maneuverings have very directly impacted one another, contributing to the fraying of European unity. Germany's alleged recent tampering with the democratic proceedings of Greek elections, not to mention the antagonism inherent in any lender-debtor relationship, could hardly have engendered feelings of receptivity vis-à-vis an exhibition funded by the EU goliath. Although no previous documenta has had its own subtitle, this one adopted the "working title" (which, so far, has been left unchanged) of "Learning from Athens," a moniker that felt at once inconsistent with the exhibition's contents, overwhelmingly earnest, if not outright glib, and even condescending: the West has been learning from Athens for the better part of recorded history.

As with any exhibition of this scale, there is plenty of room for inner conflict, contradiction, inconsistency, blunder, and (indeed) beauty. In this respect, documenta 14 does not disappoint. In part because of these internal tensions, its Athens component is also an exhibition that refused to readily quit the collective psyche of the members of the art world who had attended its opening—for weeks afterward, I found myself at gatherings in which heated discourse erupted around the subject. And it is an exhibition with plenty of politically charged content to discuss, in works that range from the somewhat silly and absurdist to the genuinely affecting. In the former category is Payment of Greek Debt to Germany with Olives and Art (2017), a sculpture by Marta Minujín. She installed a shallow, rectangular container brimming with olives in the lobby of the largest documenta venue, the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens (EMST), where occasional performances by an Angela Merkel impersonator accompanied it. Placed on Filopappou Hill, overlooking the Parthenon, Rebecca Belmore's Biinjiya'iing Onji (From Inside), (2017), an impenetrable marble tent—a symbolic refugee shelter rendered in the material of ancient temples—is an over-elegant, over-obvious distillation of the present political context. And then there is the contentious but powerful piece by Polish artist Artur Zmijewski called Glimpse (2016–2017), a pregnantly silent 20-minute, 16mm black-and-white film made in large part in the famously inhumane Calais Jungle, and whose subject is the ethics of an artist's sociopolitical engagement. In the film, Zmijewski offers various "gifts" to refugees in the camp, but proceeds to both pose and disrupt the recipients, by, for example, covering the face of a black man in white paint, having only just extended him the gift of a new piece of clothing. Although these works, and a spattering of others, allude to the refugee crisis that Greece—of all the EU members—continues to feel most acutely, with as many as several thousand migrants arriving daily on its shores, the exhibition still managed not to feel stridently polemical. But make no mistake, there are still many, many works throughout whose subjects included such fare as genocide, war, imperialism, the decimation of aboriginal cultures, the suppression of minority communities, the failures of capitalism, etc.

Pope.L, Whispering Campaign, 2016–17, installation view, Cantina Social, Athens
[photo: Freddie F.; courtesy of documenta 14]

Although the overall experience of documenta 14 in Athens is difficult to synthesize, certain particularly tangible strands nonetheless emerge. The proliferation of sonic works, and works relating—archivally or otherwise—to music, sound, and composition constitutes one such thread. In fact, if anything, the exhibition felt abundantly polyphonic, whether through the works on display or the cacophony of voices emitted by the ungainly curatorial team. Few decisions seemed to have been made in advance as to how best to unify the institutional voice of interpretations and print materials; it ranged from "Occupy-lite" to academic jargon. Visitors were invited to join tours of the exhibition led by members of a "Chorus," presumably consisting of art students willing to trudge around the city with a group of discursive strangers. Given that a staggering 60 of the exhibited artists are no longer living, this aural motif often produced the sensation of walking around listening for voices from beyond the grave. Among the more poignant works in this vein is the stirring "sonic graffiti" by Benjamin Patterson (who died last year during preparations for documenta). Inspired by Aristophanes' The Frogs (405 BCE), When Elephants Fight, It Is the Frogs That Suffer (2016) embeds the sounds of croaking frogs, punctuated by apposite pronouncements such as "All is flux," within the overgrown grasses that hem a stream flowing through the Byzantine and Christian Museum's gardens. Pope.L's citywide Whispering Campaign (2016–2017), in which 9,438 hours of eerie susurration issues from alcoves and corners at multiple venues, felt genetically linked to Patterson's work. Described as consisting of "Nation, people, sentiment, language, time," Pope.L's installation narrates an abstracted, fragmented history of Kassel and Athens, assembled from the artist's interviews with migrants in both cities. Back at EMST, choreographers Annie Vigier and Franck Apertet (aka "les gens d'Uterpan") created a hulking, multisided structure filling one of the galleries nearly to its edges—an enclosure that functioned as a towering white wall, devoid of any evident point of ingress. As the viewer walks its periphery, she might hear but not see the dancers operating within: the staccato of their steps as they sprint its length, or their panting breath. The work is a visual performance rendered auditory, reduced to the sounds of labor—perhaps not intended as such, but an apt metaphor nonetheless for the invisible, inscrutable machinations of government.

In an adjacent gallery plays a startling "documentary" film called The House Is Black, dating from 1963. The Iranian director Forough Farrokhzad filmed this unsettling masterpiece at the Bababaghi Hospice leper colony, a still-extant community in northwestern Iran. Stylistically on par with the best of the French New Wave, it depicts the brutal deformities of the residents and their everyday activities (sports, education, mealtimes) with such mesmeric beauty that one finds it near impossible to look away. Overlaid with incantatory quotes from the Old Testament and the Koran, the film seems bent on summoning forth something from the grave. The choice to screen it here is potent: documenta 14 appears so intently, even strenuously to be looking backward, and film, even if fleetingly, reanimates the dead. Notably, the exhibition largely excluded any so-called Net or Post-Internet art, as well as the now usual 21st-century biennial suspects—Rose, Atkins, Arcangel, Wolfson, etc.—perhaps mainly to skirt the trends of the commercial mainstream.

The distortions that separate a live act from its echo, or the present from even the very recent past, are the essence of Alvin Lucier's extraordinary I am sitting in a room (1969), which the artist performed live during the exhibition's opening days. Sitting on a spartan chair on the cold, subterranean floor of the Athens Conservatoire, the octogenarian softly read into a microphone: "The resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed." At once a description and the content of the piece, this line was amplified and picked up by microphones placed in the center of the assembled audience, then looped back, repeatedly, through speakers placed within close proximity to the microphones. In the near-dark of the room, Lucier's phrase, even the discreteness of the individual words, retained its integrity for a remarkably long time, before, all at once, seeming to deliquesce into waves of liquid sound, as much felt by the body as heard. Even with the source of the sound still present in the room (Lucier himself), the frequencies, separated from his form and distorted by technology and space, lost their human shape, became mere melancholic vibration, before falling off entirely into a thrumming emptiness.

Upstairs at the same venue, Emeka Ogboh's sound installation presented a different kind of disembodied voice. The Way Earthly Things Are Going (2017) is a multichannel sound installation broadcast from a ring of human-height standing speakers placed in a strikingly raw concrete amphitheater. Against the backdrop of a real-time LED display of world stock indexes, these speakers offered a chorus of voices singing musical scores that were created by Greek and Igbo composers, and were based on data from Ogboh's research on financial crises from 1929 to the present. Given that this piece, like most, was absent much in the way of a wall text to explain its conceptual underpinnings, it was hard to square the gorgeous sounds of clear and vivid voices in harmony, reverberating richly within the chamber, with the presence of the LED ticker—a juxtaposition that was at once a heavy-handed gesture and a preemptively wishful memento mori of capitalism.

Also at the Conservatoire is a video installation by Susan Hiller called The Last Silent Movie (2007-2008), previously shown by Szymczyk in his 2008 Berlin Biennial—clearly a work of considerable importance to him. Its soundtrack incorporates a series of historical field recordings of extinct and endangered languages, which Hiller excavated from libraries and archives. As these dying, or dead, words wash over the viewer, she sees nothing but a black screen emblazoned with subtitles, translating a diversity of obsolescence into English, the most dominant and rapacious of tongues. Again, these voices come from beyond the grave: a reminder that Western imperialism doesn't just bring about the obvious deaths, but also the more ineffable ones.

—Fanny Singer

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