Athens Documenta Diary, Day 1: Thirsty Work at EMST

Today, on my way to start my first full day at documenta 14 at the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), I took a detour past the Lysikrates Monument. This small cylindrical building was erected in 335/4 BCE (a few years after Philip of Macedon’s conquest of Greece) to commemorate the work of the ‘chorus-producer’ (choregos) the wealthy aristocrat Lysikrates. The monument, which would have originally have displayed a bronze tripod, a large three-legged bronze cauldron, was one of several constructed along this area behind the Theater of Dionysus (known as the Street of Tripods).

As well as displaying a small frieze with scenes from the life of the Dionysus, the monument also had a description that, in addition to the main-man Lysikrates, celebrated his tribe (Akamantis), a current archon (chief magistrate) (Euainetos), the director of the performance (Lysiades) and even the flute player (Theon).

Leaving the monument behind, I was reminded of how, a few years later, such lavish celebrations by private citizens for their artistic philanthropy, even when they acknowledged the support of others involved, were the target of the Hellenistic governor of Athens, the philosopher Demitrios of Phaleron. During his ten years in office (317-301 BCE) he passed legislation that curbed ostentatious displays of wealth, including the building of choregic monuments, as well as lavish tombs.

On finally arriving at EMST I sat down on the steps of Takis Zenetos and Mararitis Apostilidis’ impressive building, and did some initial research about the artists whom I would encounter within this central cog of documenta 14.In terms of the building, it used to be a brewery, then after a contest to turn it into a museum, the building was opened in 2014. Writing about the works on display in the museum (the permanent collection is currently on show in Kassel), the curators describe the works contained in this ‘quintessentially public institution’ as an extension of what they dub its ‘libidinal economy’ (no doubt after Jean-François Lyotard’s concept) :

coupling the bank and the museum (both machines for collecting surplus value); genders and genres (or the disciplining of valuable forces); and labor and love (including the work of the sun).

Looping back to its former life as a brewery, the introduction to this site ends by invoking Diogenes of Sinope:

We might ask then what (kind of citizen) this factory can still produce? The figure of Diogenes – the Cynic and the cosmopolitan, banished from Sinope for the debasement of currency, and self-proclaimed citizen of the world – is with us. We find him on the ground floor, at the lower right of the original copperplate for an engraving of Nicolas Poussin’s Landscape with Diogenes. The wide river described in the inscription could be the ancient Ilissos River that once flowed past what is now the eastern side of EMST. On the hill above, instead of the Parthenon, which Pericles built from tribute paid to the Delian League – banking precious ivory and gold in its massive statue of Athena – Poussin painted Rome’s Palace of Belvedere, which the Vatican used for storing a wealth of antiquities. Diogenes, meanwhile, observing a youth using his bare hands to drink water, dispenses even with his cup.

This account of Diogenes as both the kind of citizen produced by the museum as factory and also his learning the simple lesson from the refined youth, all amid the luxuriousness of Poussin’s Romanized Athens, made me think back to the Lysikrates monument I had just passed. Sure, the thirst for simplicity provoked Demetrios the philosopher to denounce and stop the development of flashy vanity buildings like this. But wasn’t there at least something of a collective, community spirit to the nature of the aristocrat’s celebration of the choral performance, acknowledging the lowly flute player, that would be lost without them? In short, as I started to explore EMST, I found myself not only searching for our model citizen of the world, the critical and anarchic Diogenes, but also for the moments of community that make more uneasy and compromising bed-fellows with the excesses of capitalism.

There were numerous options for the Diogenes of docuementa 14. One is Krzysztof Niemczyk, described by the wall-text (well, a lot of wall-text at documenta is floor-text) as a series of questioned roles: ‘artist? revolutionary? saint? pervert? strategist?’.

Then there is the anarchist artist Christopher D’Arcangelo, whose slim archive I leafed through with white gloves, the street video of people by Hans Eijkelboom could be our Diogenes with his lantern, while of course we cannot forget Pope L. with his cunning whispering works scattered across the city and with two editions in EMST. In terms of the water-drinking youth, however, the work that stood out for me as teaching the values of Diogenes amid the most excessive and capitalist conditions was the film 15 Hours by Chinese artist Wang Bing.

On passing through the gallery and seeing a snippet of this film, one could immediately take it for a simplistic critique of the working conditions for Chinese workers in a clothing industry, supported by Western megacapitalism. It depicts an elongated working day at a private capital-based garment company in Zhili Twon, part of Huzhou City in the Zhejiang province, a town that is home to 18000 small factories that produce 80% of China’s output of children’s clothes. Yet I decided to devote an hour to watching this work, which, albeit a fraction of the 15 hour running time, revealed something different. After a sequence of an energetic, but hunched over young man, rapidly switching in fabric to sew on humming machines, we start to see how the workers interact with each other as characters. A family member makes a visit, they start playing music and singing along, they joke with each other, at the same time as they boast as to how much they can produce. All the time they are fully conscious of the alien presence of Bing’s camera, playing up to it at times, ignoring it to focus at others. Of course this work doesn’t show that these working conditions are ideal, far from it. But it does display the human need to maneuver within an oppressive system by seeking out the help and camaraderie of others in the same situation. I have no idea how Bing’s ending credits look, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all of these characters that I came to know and appreciate when only watching for an hour, were acknowledged, like the flute-player in Lysikrates’ monument. Of course, we prefer to follow citizen of the world Diogenes when faced with excess wealth, inequality and poor labor conditions, and may even support a moralizing leader like Demetrios to help us achieve it, but Bing’s characters’ approach to their thirsty work, like the youth in Poussin and the flute-player in Lysikrates’ monument, can also teach us something about the emergence of community amid hostile conditions as well.

Speaking of emerging communities, click here for the video of tonight’s Social Dissonance performance.

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