Three Athenians in Kassel, Episode Twelve: The Homecoming

Come on let me out or I’ll explode…I am Noman…of Ithaca, son of Runawayhorse…

– Philocleon in Aristophanes’ Wasps

Our three Athenians living in Kassel have just finished their daily performance for documenta 14 and they are feeling especially happy and content with their day’s work. Since returning from their act of defiance and resistance, when they abandoned their performance to embark on a quest for the ultimate performance, their lives in Kassel have been transformed. The documenta 14 authorities, finally acknowledging the vital and important work they are doing, moved them into a large apartment and doubled their salary. So, as well as no longer having squeeze into their tiny house, they could also quit their tedious day jobs (no more back-breaking piano moving for Alexis, no more joyless joyrides for Bia and no more deadly boring Beuys tours for Nina). Furthermore, they were no longer required to carry out the meticulous ‘witnessing’ and ’embodying’ research for their performance, nor did they have to deliver the number-crunching post-performance report to a documenta 14 official. In short, all they had to do was spend one hour a day performing and the rest of the time was free for them to do as they wished. Sometimes they would just wander around the city, visiting places that they didn’t have the time to explore before now, such as this strange-looking church:

They had a new skip in their step and were seeing their lives in Kassel in a completely fresh light. Of course, this has a great deal to do with their now more comfortable position, but there was also a ripple effect from something that happened on the first day of their newly-won freedom, that brought the three of them closer together and also allowed them to make peace with their being in Kassel.

Unsure what to do the morning before their performance, without their work and preparation to occupy their time, Nina, Bia and Alexis decided to visit the Fridericianum where the expansive exhibition ANTIDORON: Works from the EMST Collection at documenta 14 was housed. EMST is Greece’s National Museum of Contemporary Art and even though it has been open to the public for temporary exhibitions for several years, due to various bureaucratic and financial difficulties, the permanent collection has never been displayed. Even after documenta 14, it looks like the collection will continue its itinerant existence, and it is uncertain when it will make it home to Athens.

While they were happy to be there, amidst the works of so many of their fellow Greek artists, our three Athenians also felt the pang of nostalgia for their home in Athens that they were deprived of during their months in Kassel. As they wandered through the galleries of the displaced collection, however, something happened to break this melancholy feeling and which finally made them feel at home exactly where they were.

As they stood before Nina Papaconstantinou’s Diary (Robinson Crusoe) (2008), our Nina started to tell her two friends the story of how her parents named her after this artist. While she was still at art school in Athens, Papaconstantinou had rescued our Nina’s father from a fishing accident during a terrible storm and when his pregnant wife gave birth to a daughter later that year, they decided to name her after the young artist who had saved her father’s life. “When my parents told me this story as a girl”, Nina continued, “I decided there and then I wanted to be an artist, just like Nina Papaconstantinou. I remember, a few years ago, when I first saw this work back in Athens, it made me think about the idea of self-sufficiency of Robinson Crusoe, who like my father, saved by this young artist, still needed other people to survive. When the opportunity to become part of our performance at documenta 14 arose, I again thought about how art can help the collective subject emerge, even from the most isolated and alienating conditions.

“Today whenever I think of Nina Papaconstantinou”, Nina continued, “her heroic act, her art and my decision to be an artist, there is a song that comes to my mind and I cannot help but sing it”. “I know the one”, Bia interrupted, “You sang it in the bar last night!”. “Yes that’s it”, said Nina with a smile. “Do you remember how it goes?”

 

After they had all paused to remember Nina’s song, Bia jumped at the chance to announce: “Well, I was named after Bia Davou”, swiveling around and pointing at the dramatic installation Sails (1981-2) which was reflected in the glass case of Nina’s namesake’s book. She described how her parents loved Homer’s Odyssey, especially the central love story of Penelope and Odysseus, united in their cunning. Bia described how her mother found out that Davou’s Sails combined woven quotations from Homer’s poem and wanted to meet the artist. Our Bia’s mother and Davou became close friends and when her daughter arrived, there was no doubt that she would be given the artist’s name.

“I remember”, Bia continued, “when I was a little girl, visiting aunt Bia, as I used to call her. Even though she was very sick, she used to play with me and tell me stories from the Odyssey. At that time she was working on this piece you see here”. Bia pointed at the wall of small drawings called Serial De-Re-Structures.

“While I was visiting her she would describe the pain of her illness, but also the joy that art had given to her life. These 367 drawings, each made in one day, were for her the proof of the power of art to keep her living. When I heard about our performance, how it was a ‘durational score’ lasting 163 days between Athens and Kassel, I knew I had to do it, if only to acknowledge the importance of Bia Davou’s work in my life and my decision to become an artist.”

Grinning from ear to ear, Alexis could hardly contain his excitement. “Come with me he said”, grabbing Nina and Bia by the hands and running through the galleries. Everyone stopped and starred at these three joyous Athenians as they raced through the museum like that scene Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 film Bande à part, when the three friends run through the Louvre. Finally, Alexis brought them, breathless, to a wall of curious wooden structures that looked like both suitcases and boxes of trash or rare archaeological finds.

“I was named after an artist here too!”, Alexis announced, “Alexis Akrithakis, although my story is not as heroic or romantic as either of yours”.

“But I thought you were named after your father?” Nina interrupted. “Well”, said Alexis, “I was, and I am, but this other Alexis had a role to play in my naming as well!”

Alexis pointed at one of the works before them and continued.

“These are called Eight Suitcases with Rubbish from a Beach and Akrithakis made them in 1972. The beach where he collected the rubbish – Glyfada – was also where my parents used to visit in the summers when they first met, several years before I was born. They remembered seeing this strange bearded man collecting all kinds of trash on the coast and one day my father decided to go to speak to him. They started talking, and found out they had the same name, and then, after a while they realized that they also shared the same psychoanalyst – the most reputable Lacanian in Athens. When my father returned to his parking business in the city, he couldn’t get his namesake, this scruffy artist on the beach, out of his mind. At his next session, he asked his analyst about the artist Alexis whom he had met, but of course, due to codes of confidentiality, his shrink couldn’t tell my father anything. Still, he wondered to himself, “But how can I, a respectable businessman and him, a dirty, poor artist, have the same name and the same analyst in common? How on earth this great student of Lacan help me if he is helping the likes of him at the same time?” Many years later, when I was born, my father was still preoccupied by the figure of Akrithakis and I am sure that is why he named me Alexis, not only after himself, in a typical patriarchal and narcissistic gesture, but also in an unconscious tribute to the abject force that this other Alexis had had on him. He was relieved later in life when I told him that I didn’t want to be an artist, but to study the history, culture and philosophy of art instead. When I heard of this performance, and how it aimed to reflect on the I/we relation, I was inspired by the story of my naming, the split between my father’s name – the “nom du père” – and that of an artist who he met collecting trash on a beach, which made me sensitive to the question of our own identities as subjects being always already both multiple and partial – am I Alexis? Or are we (myself, my father and the artist) all Alexis? Or are none of us wholly Alexis?”

As our three Athenians left the Fridericianum, musing on what had just happened, feeling the intimacy of their shared stories of their naming, not only with the Athenian artists of previous generations, but also with each other, they turned to face this iconic building and its temporary name, transformed by the work of Banu Cennetoğlu, BEINGSAFEISSCARY (2017).

Like them, this work was an amalgamation of the past and present, of Athens and Kassel, as the ten aluminum letters borrowed from the Fridericianum were joined by six letters cast in brass after the existing ones, to create the phrase found in graffiti existing on a wall at the National Technical University of Athens. This powerful work made our three Athenians wonder about how, even though they longed to be home in Athens, back in the city where they live and where their families and friends are, they also needed to be here, in Kassel, the reason that their long homecoming, like Odysseus’ wanderings, was necessary for them. It was a more scary thought that they could have stayed home safe in Athens and all its luxury, and had never left their Ithacas to come to the crisis-ridden city and social experiment that was Kassel. Finally, as they walked back to their now much larger apartment, they thanked documenta 14 and the artist whose performance had brought them on this adventure. They knew that they would be forever changed by this experience and that made them feel, if not safe, at least somehow more willing to confront the challenges ahead in all their difficulties and dissonance.

[Three Athenians in Kassel is a Minus Plato production. I would like to thank Danai Liodaki, Giannis Sarris and Eleni Zervou for their willingness to participate in this fiction, as well as their friends in Kassel and their visitors from Athens for their cameo roles. (I also want to acknowledge our fourth Athenian, Dafni Krazoudi, who didn’t make it to Kassel). I would like to thank Mattin for the gift of his work Social Dissonance that is the central performance that has inspired this Greek comedy and other investigations. These episodes are proof of one of the key ideas to documenta 14 being held between Athens and Kassel – that of hospitality – and I hope that this they in some minor way inspire future visitors to Athens or Kassel, to documenta 14 and in the future, to immerse themselves as fully as they can in the sometimes difficult role of being a guest.]

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