America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing
America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956
– Allen Ginsberg ‘America’
When Plato died, the only material possessions he left behind were a small garden next to the Academy, two slaves, a bowl with which he made offerings to the gods and a tiny gold earring he used to wear as a boy. In contrast, his intellectual legacy is immense, he bequeathed a unique brand of philosophia, preserved in the literary masterpieces of his dialogues and his ideas (and not just his Ideas!) spread all over the ancient world and he is still read, studied and debated today.
When we look back at documenta 14, what kind of legacy will we see? In spite of the best intentions of the curators, there has been considerable skepticism in the press on the minimal economic impact of the German exhibition being spent on Athens and its arts and educational infrastructure. But at the same time, plans are already in motion to address the question of a less tangible legacy in years to come, with a team of sociologists and art historians primed to discuss the question of ‘Learning from Documenta’.
Personally, when I look back at these days in Athens, I will remember today as the most convincing evidence that the legacy of this documenta will be not accountable in either purely intellectual or economic terms, but in recalling how we visitors share the space of the city and how we reflect on the momentary interactions with both art and people in this shared space. Furthermore, it is the momentary ‘clicks’ that happens within this sharing and interacting that ground the legacy of the experience. Let me offer you an example.
Today I visited the site of Plato’s Academy, and while Aristotle’s Lyceum is now a beautifully preserved and ticketed archaeological site (with its own documenta intervention by the collective Postcommodity, that I’m yet to experience), the ruins of Plato’s school are only partially excavated amid a public park. Yet as I wandered north from the hustle of the Sunday flea market in the Kerameikos area, rather than leaving the bustle of Athens behind, as Plato’s students would have done, I encountered people out and about in the park amid the scattered stones of the gymnasium and other unidentified parts of the Academy complex. There was a noisy children’s party, as well as preparations for some kind of reception lunch (perhaps following a wedding?). As the rain started to fall and I was scrambling through the rocks, the park emptied out. Then I started to see the less positive side of human interaction with the space. Areas where people had been sleeping rough, piles of trash and makeshift cardboard bedding. Of course, archaeologists can bewail the state of the site, but there is something to the living, everyday use of the space (for celebrations or survival), as a functional public park, that made me think about Plato’s little garden and his modest material legacy.
Looking back on the rest of my day at documenta, the more I appreciated this way of thinking about Plato’s Academy. My ultimate destination was the contemporary art building of the Benaki Museum, on Pireos street. I was coming from a long treck to see Aboubakar Fofana’s indigo-dyed sheep at the Agricultural University of Athens and I crossed an area alongside the railway tracks where I saw people foraging with shopping carts and other sleeping under the freeway bridge. To then arrive at the pristine museum with its swish cafe was somewhat of a shock. (I almost didn’t recognize this as the place that I saw the Ametria exhibition back in 2015 on my first visit to Athens thanks to my participation in Paul Chan’s Hippias Minor project). At the same time, in the grand courtyard of the new museum, I registered with some relief Hiwa K’s spare, yet dramatic, installation One-Room-Apartment (2017).
I almost felt as if the curators of documenta 14 were reassuring me that they knew what I had walked through to get there and to acknowledge that the deprivation and precarity of this city and, by extension the world, are still visible even within a refined and plush museum filled with art-tourists sipping their martinis.
But it wasn’t merely the route that I had taken and the poverty that I had witnessed that primed me for Hiwa K’s work at the Benaki, it was an encounter with an artwork and a person at another branch of the museum: the Museum of Islamic Art. As I stood transfixed by Mounira Al Solh’s Sperveri (2017) – an embroidered tent and bed with testimonies and visual imagery from letters written by recent refugees to both Athens and Kassel from war-torn Middle Eastern countries such as Syria and Iraq – the documenta 14 guard/representative at the museum asked me if I wanted to discuss the work. [I am still having technical issues with uploading photos, but somehow I managed the most important one!]
This began a more than 30 minute conversation that ranged from mapping the tragic and surreal symbolism of the letters (a woman who dreams of her unborn child as a tiger, a snake or ‘a winged king surrounded by funny houses’; a husband who imagines his wife as a mermaid and the story of Ahmad’s speaking left leg) to pointing out the connections between the patterns and iconography of Islamic art that populated the rest of the museum. We discussed other sites of documenta and ancient sites, walking to the roof to point out the ruins of the Kerameikos area and to the basement of the museum to show me the remnants of the 4th Century BCE wall and fortifications. She told me about her work as an art history student here in Athens, her interest in Abstract Expressionism and Barnett Newman and her plans to work in Venice later in the Summer. I mentioned writing this blog as my own work towards my research on a book about the way ancient sites are activated and engaged by contemporary artists, exhibitions and institutions and how I was inspired by Enrique Vila-Matas’ The Illogic of Kassel to explore the remnants of that documenta when I visit Kassel as a comparable investigation into cultural and local memory. All the time we would keep coming back to Al Solh’s work, her conversations with the artist, the focus on the tent as a theme in documenta as a whole, from the paintings of Edi Hila to the marble monument of Rebecca Belmore. I felt like I was speaking to the custodian of the work, its guide and also the person best placed to write about and expound on its legacy for this documenta and for Athens. Yet amid all of this exchange and talk of the future and our own projects, neither of us forgot the bitter and horrific stories beautifully sewn into the texts and icons of the work, and how this was a memorial in and of itself, beyond any future memorialization of the exhibition and city it participated in.
As always I ended my day by once again participating in Bilbaino artist Mattin’s Social Dissonance (here is the link for today) and as with other times, I left the performance in conversation with the participants. However, perhaps because my luck was still good from earlier in the day, I also had the opportunity to speak to the two Greek performers/instigators of the work as a result of my repeated participation. You could argue that to go back again and again to the same work of art amid all that there is to see at a documenta is a waste of time, but tonight the interaction was more than worth it.
I felt as if, amid a complex debate with intellectuals about the intricacies of Plato’s philosophy, someone had interrupted to say: ‘But what about that garden? And what do you think about his earring? How could he give so much to us and yet, in the end, have nothing?’. That reminds me, I really need to look again at Andreas Ragnar Kassipis’ paintings of objects.