By early summer 2015 it was becoming common knowledge that the big art event documenta was to take place in both Athens and its native Kassel in 2017, and that this was somehow a big deal. Exactly how it was a big deal was unknown and predictions ranged from positive to negative. However, years of crushing political and economic crises combined with uprisings and defeats, fascist wet dreams and waves of refugee influxes had by this point seen Athens move from hot to forgotten a few times. That art and creativity existed in a unique and inspiring way in Athens felt like a well kept secret, far from the mainstream and even invisible to the imagination of many locals who would rather dream of the ghost of Berlin past.
Though the conditions are ripe for experimentation and allow for creative infrastructures due to a broader disintegration of economic stability and a solid state, lack of income in the form of art funding and a market also counter the emergence and solidification of art currents. It is very possible to create various kinds of art spaces and live in Greece with a certain form of economic freedom due to the relative low cost of living, but of course this is balanced by the lack of money. This is not a new condition for artists however, as artists tend to be poor and therefore have often congregated in pre-gentrification or pre-development areas, so a location in a limbo of multiple crises fits as an artist habitat.
I believe this to be the main reason for an influx of international artists in Athens in the last years, especially young ones, who can have breathing space and contemplate their future moves, a luxury not offered by the expensive capitals of north-western Europe such as Paris, Amsterdam and London. And so it should perhaps not come as such a surprise that documenta appears in Athens, seemingly out of the blue but drawn by those very same conditions that have disappeared in many European capitals. One can also speculate that this old giant of art events came here to gather some kind of relevance as whatever post-WWII rejection and renewal laid at its foundation had long ago become dated, and Kassel as a location feels obsolete.
As part of our research, we at the Holobiont Project have often taken up this impending influential art event with artists, academics and other cultural workers both within Greece and internationally, in order to try to understand it but also to gather impressions and expectations. Our findings have almost been entirely negative, with expectations being expressed through terms such as exploitation, exoticisation and colonialism, painting a picture of a massive art market monster invading Athens, feeding itself on voluntary work and subsidies for the benefit of a few strong art powers whilst giving nothing back but empty hope. It has been suggested that looking at the aftermath of documenta might be more interesting than speculating about the event itself, as a retrospective perspective would allow for clearer analysis of the real impact.
An early insight into these feelings was well represented by a stencil that we first spotted at the walls of Circuits and Currents, a space run by students from the Athens School of Fine Arts and a product of a cooperation with the Academy of Fine Art in Munich. The stencil said: “DEAR DOCUMENTA: I REFUSE TO EXOTISIZE MYSELF TO INCREASE YOUR CULTURAL CAPITAL. SINCERELY, OI I8AGENEIS”. The translation of the signature means The Indigenous. More than a year later documenta had established itself more thoroughly and after the opening of an office in the historically important Polytechnic University in Exarchia, Athens, and several smaller talks and presentations, the more significant 34 Exercises of Freedom began in September 2016 in a building at Parko Eleftheria (Park of Freedom). The events that started to take place there, and are still ongoing, opened up a multitude of themes and infused both international and local perspectives into a forum for art theory and issues about representation. The inclusive and diverse nature of these talks offers a surprising countering of the initial expectations of documenta that we gathered from a broad range of discussions. This seems to indicate that the documenta team are not entirely cut out from the local reality and critical voices, and that the theme of this specific edition of documenta, ‘Learning from Athens’, is more than a phrase but rather an actual approach.
-Some images from the initial exhibition.
We are very happy to be welcoming the Finnish artists Salla Lahtinen and Kirsikka Ruohonen in early December. They are working towards creating the next step of their exhibition FANTASIA=IKKUNA (which means FANTASY=WINDOW) in Athens and will be researching various opportunities for the realisation of this. The themes of the first exhibition are described by the artists as:
"Salla Lahtinen & Kirsikka Ruohonen are the components of an open collective that arranges exhibitions and other creative events and acts. The foundation of the work is visual arts, and it centers on topics of identity, sexuality and contemporary communicational tools. The collective's first exhibition FANTASIA=IKKUNA combined painting, drawing, sound art, video, and events. Some of the notable events included, an evening of discussion about sexuality in connection to images, and gigs performed by the artists that collaborated with Lahtinen & Ruohonen on the exhibition.
The first exhibition took place in January 2016 at Asematila in Helsinki."
The next phase of the exhibition will involve installation, painting and sculpture/performance, and will lead to an overall installation through the creative process. The exhibition will consist of Lahtinen’s work “You should smile more”, which is an installation made of organic cotton canvas with repetitive prints of Lahtinen’s own smile. Ruohonen’s new series of paintings, displayed under the term “Rakastan” (“I love”), depicts penises from pornographic sources. She studies the absence of female gaze in pornography and how it urges the women consuming porn to identify with penises of the male actors. Ruohonen will continue with the same style as in the paintings of butts that were a central part of the initial exhibition, using acrylic, mineral pigment and Japanese paper.
The first FANTASIA=IKKUNA exhibition was about individual experience derived from sexting and self-representations of sexuality, whilst this continuation will focus more on general representations. Lahtinen’s work will circulate around the topic of keeping up appearances and the pressure of cultural conventions that individuals need to follow in western society (combined with the personal experiences of being demanded by strangers to smile more). Adding to this will be Ruohonen’s phallic paintings that will add an absurd and strange sexual atmosphere. The collective will open up to include works and participation by the Athenian artist Antigoni Tsagkarapoulou, who will complement the themes through her own work. Furthermore, Ruohonen will perform as her rap alter ego “Adikia”, in what we hope to be a series of events taking place around the exhibition and including local artists.
This visit will be based on meeting partners, collaborators and identifying spaces suitable for the realisation of this next phase of the exhibition.
For more info about the artists and their work, click on photos below: