Learning from Athenian Street Art
by Rachel Kubrick
September 20th, 2017
Every five years in Kassel, Germany, the art world is graced by documenta, an influential exhibition showing tons of new and exciting contemporary art by established and upcoming artists for 100 days. For the fourteenth edition of documenta, however, artistic director Adam Szymczyk chose to expand the exhibition from its typical German home, and bring the first half of documenta to Athens, the capital of a country that is the complete antithesis to Germany, in culture and in political and economic tendencies.
documenta has sprawled itself throughout the city in over 40 venues, and primarily in the National Museum of Contemporary Art, or EMST, established in 2000 in an old brewery for the Hellenic beer, Fix. Most of the art featured in documenta is undoubtedly high quality, discussing relevant issues such as gender and sexuality, the refugee crisis, and postcolonialism. All political controversy aside, it is also quite refreshing to see contemporary art take center stage in a city where the grand majority of cultural tourism is dedicated to ancient work. Nevertheless, many Greek citizens and other critics do not appreciate documenta’s expansion into Athens.
If you are interested in reading a review of the art of documenta itself, please look elsewhere toward the myriad of reviews on the exhibit. Instead, it may be more interesting to explore the art that has come about in response to documenta, manifesting in the abundant street art culture of the Greek capital.
Street art criticizing documenta in Athens has popped up all over the city. Much of the street art focuses around the title of the Athenian portion of documenta, called “Learning from Athens.” This title has proven itself ripe for puns, providing graffiti parodies such as “Earning from Athens” and “Learning from Capitalism.” The majority of the work by two artists- one using the tag “the indigenous” and the other using “crapumenta 14.”
The use of the tag “indigenous” is particularly intriguing, as documenta itself has featured a lot of work focusing on indigenous issues, such as that of Finland by the Sámi Artist Group and that of Canada by Beau Dick, as well as references to Peru, the Congo, and Nigeria. It is fitting for a protesting street artist to recontextualize themself in this indigenous idea. It brings up possible hypocrisy in the exhibition; the curators are so preoccupied with indigenous and postcolonial questions globally that they have overlooked their own role as German pseudo-colonizers in Greece. “The Indigenous” make their views strikingly clear in one piece of art the reads: “Dear Documenta, I refuse to exotisize myself to increase your cultural capital.”
Another Indigenous work can be seen outside of EMST, asking passersby to vote on a documenta comparison. In a stencil lettering it reads: “Quiz. Documenta 14 is like: A. The Worlds Fair B. The Eurogroup C. The Eurovision D. All of the Above” Next to each choice several visitors have placed chewed up gum, penned check marks, and even a bandaid, casting their vote. The clear winner is “C. The Eurovision,” an annual international song competition, perhaps due to the artistic nature of the subject.
Like the Indigenous, Crapumenta 14 has also chosen to critique documenta in Athens through textual graffiti. Outside the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a restored ancient theater under the shadow of the Acropolis, tourists will likely recognize Rhett Butler’s famous line “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” said to Scarlett O’Hara at the dramatic end of the iconic 1939 film Gone with the Wind. The artist had accompanied the quote with the closing date of documenta’s stint in Greece. Here, the artist signifies their disinterest in the toxic relationship between documenta and Athens, sending the German art expo off with a literary “FU.”
Finally, we come to a rather strategically placed work, viewable from the rooftop balcony of EMST. Beneath a stunning view of the Acropolis and its Parthenon, an unnamed street artist has painted “Welcome and enjoy the ruins,” from a perspective so that it is clearly meant for EMST patrons. Whether or not this work was done specifically in response to documenta is unclear. What is also unclear is the artist’s intentions. Is he or she truly welcoming the presumably tourist patrons of EMST to Athens, or is this actually a snide comment questioning the viewer on why they would bother themselves with a visit to a contemporary art exhibit in a city known for its ruins. Another likely interpretation is that the artist is criticizing their own country, referring to Greece’s ruined economy, as well as the ignorance of tourists who do not bother themselves with any education on Greece’s troubles and only want to cross an item off their bucket list. Whichever meaning you decide is most fitting, the work unquestionably creates a more engaging image of the Acropolis than your typical postcard-ready picture.
When it comes to exhibitions like documenta that have such magnitude and influence, it is critical that future curators and artistic directors realize the legitimacy of local responses, not just that of high brow art critics. Hopefully, documenta 15 will have taken to heart its predecessor’s title and truly learned from Athens.