Documenta 14: Teaching in Athens
In a scene from the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading (2008) there is a great dialogue between the Director of the CIA (J. K. Simmons) and CIA officer Palmer Smith (David Rasche). It is a paradoxical conversation in which Simmons tries to find a lesson in all that’s happened, only to conclude that there is none. I want to start from here, and from my personal answer (through others’ words) to a question that posed us all when Adam Szymczyk chose Learning from Athens as working title for this Documenta 14: What is the legacy of this Documenta 14, and what will be of Athens after all these days?
Flying back from Athens, I read an interview with Szymczyk on Aegean Airlines’ Blue Magazine, and besides Szymczyk liking grilled fish and Moscofilero, the answer that caught my attention was the one regarding the lesson we should take from this experience. The curator says: “I learnt again about the crucial importance of solidarity, openness to strangers, trust in others, and freedom. Simple things that get easily forgotten and that are hard to do without”. It made me think that after all this story of Athens, apparently, the Documenta 14 curator was only interested in Athens as a metaphor, and nothing will be left of this big event for the Greeks. Athens as a sort of alternative education – like in the astonishing artwork by Angelo Plessas Experimental Education Protocol, Delphi (2017), exhibited at the Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA). The “otherness” of Athens as Cultural Heritage. A big deal.
What is “cultural heritage” in the framework of contemporary art? Personally, I think that cultural heritage is always the legacy of intangible attributes of a society that must be elaborated and maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations. This statement is a sort of utensil, something useful to bring us in the mood of this Documenta 14 in Athens. There are several cultural heritages, and its conception changes from one context to another. But as I’ve stated before, in some contemporary art approaches, cultural heritage is mostly the legacy of a social policy.
This Documenta 14 receives and transmits what’s left the deepest marks on contemporary society, and I’m not talking of wars or struggles, but debt. As Maurizio Lazzarato said better than anybody else, contemporary capitalism is not based on liberal market economies or coordinated market economies, but on the economy of debt. Apart from the rhetorics of the European and Western debt towards Greek culture, it is time to see what is really happening and move away from political clichés, because this time again Documenta seems to be too influential for something, and too irrelevant for other things.
Documenta 14 comes after five years of horrible changes in international politics. Five years where the main issue of the so-called West seems to be a not-better-identified feeling of longing and nostalgia. It seems, but maybe I’m wrong, that the West has lost something and keeps blaming an undefined other, asking to give it back.
On the other hand, the West appears to be constantly looking for a new political theory to save itself from an always renewing world configuration that the West itself has produced. Something close to schizophrenia, a conception that in a way seems to advance – once again and from all the perspectives – the idea that the West has always embodied the doctrines and values of democracy and equality. In Athens’ Conservatoire’s (Odeion) basement, the sound installation by Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh The Way Earthly Things Are Going (2017) synthesizes this huge contradiction. Emeka Ogboh squeezes the concept of political schizophrenia together with a clear reference to current socioeconomic instances and their conflicting relationship with the human factor. The spectator gets lost in the magnificence of the sound, while standing at center stage in front a non existing audience.
Lately, I assisted to an interesting Facebook conversation about how Pensiero Debole («weak thought», Vattimo and Rovatti) made us weak. The discussants have moved immediately to argue that this is what made the West vulnerable. But if a certain, above-mentioned type of politics has identified the reasons of this weakness in the so-called “other”, what is culture (contemporary art) doing to deny this reasoning? Is it enough to say that we have to learn from Athens, and to raise Athens to a status of critical but possible solution?
Even if I don’t know if I know what I’ve learned, now that I’m thinking and re-thinking about the show, it seems to me that again, this time, we find ourselves talking about ourselves among ourselves, and that sometimes this Pensiero Debole is not so weak, mostly because sometimes it works slyly, and we pretend to learn when we actually keep teaching.
Documenta 14 Athens • 8/4 – 16/7/2017