Under this edition’s title “Learning from Athens,” the curators, led by artistic director Adam Szymczyk, have made Athens their home for the last few years, while they worked with local institutions and artists. They even declared at the Kassel press conference that they now felt like Athenians — a feeling other Athenians, based there for longer than just a curatorial project, reportedly did not share. The curators have set up the two cities as symbolic poles of today’s Europe: Kassel a working-class town in economically flourishing Germany, Athens the capital of struggling Greece; Kassel with barely any buildings constructed before WWII remaining, Athens crammed with layers of cultural history, the very image of Western civilization. Germany is Greece’s biggest creditor and engineered the austerity policies that had Greece debating whether to leave the EU in 2015; it has opened its borders to Syrian refugees, who have overwhelmingly landed on Greece’s shores. It is within this palpably strained relationship between the two countries that this year’s documenta is situated.
The decision to open the exhibition in Athens is perhaps a gesture to include the Greeks in the cultural and material wealth of Germany. But it might as well just be an opportunity for the established exhibition to connect itself with the radical, anti-capitalist “bad boy” of Europe. The exhibition in Kassel is likewise propped up on grand curatorial gestures, to varying degrees of success. The traditional home base of the exhibition, the historical Fridericianum museum, displays the collection of Greece’s National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), while the EMST building in Athens, which has stood empty for years due to delays in construction and budget cuts, is documenta’s main venue there. In Kassel this remains a largely conceptual gesture: in losing the specificity of its locale, the Greek national collection makes little sense there.