ATHENS — An art festival that organizers and politicians hoped would mend fences between Germany and Greece has instead stoked tensions and led to accusations of German cultural imperialism.
The Documenta festival, which is held every five years in the German city of Kassel and is partly funded by the government, made the decision in 2013 to split the event in two, with half at its regular home and half in Athens. The festival, which opened on April 8 and runs until July 16, is called “Learning from Athens.” More than 160 artists are showcasing new works, touching upon issues such as migration, censorship and the financial crisis.
It’s proven controversial from the get-go.
On the opening day, Argentinian artist Marta Minujín put on a performance piece entitled “Payment of Greek debt to Germany with olives and art.” It featured Minujín and a spookily accurate Angela Merkel impersonator walking in circles around a metal tray covered in thousands of Greek olives. After a quick speech, “Angela” agreed to write off Greece’s debt in return for a handful of the olives.
The idea of a German-funded piece of art poking fun at Berlin’s attitude to its southern European partner will doubtless have caused some embarrassment, but “this exhibition has never been a comfort zone for politicians,” said new German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who opened the festival along with his Greek counterpart Prokopis Pavlopoulos (although he had left by the time fake Merkel was eating olives).
Adam Szymczyk, Documenta’s artistic director, said he hoped the festival would challenge the northern European view of Greece as a “backward country, not up to European standards.”
It’s a message the German and Greek governments are keen to share after years of bickering over Greece’s troubled finances.
“This will be a very good opportunity to attempt a shift of perspective: to focus on Greek-German relations and our cooperation in Europe from a different perspective,” Steinmeier told Greek daily Kathimerini.
“Greece still has not reached the end destination. It will take additional reforms, even if economic indicators are improving,” he added.
Ongoing negations between Greece and its international creditors — especially Germany — have overshadowed the festival. The day before it opened, the Eurogroup (the eurozone’s finance ministers) met in Malta and told Athens to introduce measures on pensions and taxation in return for the next disbursement of bailout cash. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ popularity is at its lowest level since taking office as he implements measures he had pledged to resist.
While Athens and Berlin see Documenta — which started in 1955 and in 2012 drew more than 900,000 visitors — as an opportunity to push German-Greek friendship and cooperation, some in Greece believe it’s patronizing.
Notable criticism came from former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, who described the festival as “crisis tourism” and “a gimmick by which to exploit the tragedy in Greece …] like rich Americans taking a tour in a poor African country.”
Artistic director Szymczyk didn’t help matters when he told Deutschland Radio Kultur he never had any intention of supporting the Greek arts scene but was rather interested in Athens as a city, along with “Lagos [and] Guatemala City.”
For Iliana Fokianaki, a Greek curator and art critic, Documenta’s appearance in Athens is about exploiting the crisis for cultural gain. “Crisis is sexy! We first had the philosophers and academics who came here and now we have the artists,” she said with irony.
She does, however, believe there is the potential for the Greek arts scene to benefit from the festival.
“We’ll need one to two years to see the effect of Documenta,” she said. “At least they have forced the Greek state to look at a thing called contemporary art because they were all completely ignorant before.”
Art meets politics
Social divisions in Greece and the effects of the financial crisis are front and center in the work of Mary Zygouri, a Greek performance artist taking part in the festival.
“I have many friends who are artists and they are mostly very critical [of Documenta],” she said. “But I am really pleased. It is a great opportunity for me.”
Held in the working-class neighborhood of Nikaia, far from the galleries of central Athens, Zygouri’s performance piece — called “The round-up project: Kokkinia 1979 – Kokkinia 2017” — looks at Greece’s violent past.
Set on the site of a 1944 massacre by German soldiers in which hundreds were killed, the piece, which dealt with political killings in the country since World War II, reduced many members of the mostly Greek audience to tears.
“I strongly believe in the force of art,” Zygouri said. “Not for big changes but at least to ask the right questions.”
Another artwork that highlights Greece’s troubles is Rasheed Araeen’s “Shamiyaana — Food for thought: Thought for change,” an open kitchen in a central Athens square serving free meals twice a day.
It’s been a hit with everyone from German art aficionados to Greek pensioners and Syrian refugees.
Salomi Spyropoulou, a local pensioner, said she has suffered under Greek austerity but has been enjoying the free meals.
“I’m very happy about Documenta,” she said. “Greece is a paradise. It is the best place for art and culture.”
Asked if she would be visiting any of the other exhibitions, she said “only if they’re free. I think art should be free.
“So what if it is a German festival? They’re paying for it. After all, they are the ones who have the money!”