Civilization and Its Discontents: Adam Szymczyk Talks with Michelle Kuo about Documenta 14

By Kuo, Michelle | Artforum International, April 2017 | Go to article overview

Civilization and Its Discontents: Adam Szymczyk Talks with Michelle Kuo about Documenta 14


Kuo, Michelle, Artforum International


THIS YEAR, the vaunted quinquennial Documenta 14 will take place in two cities, opening in Athens on April 8 and in Kassel on June 10. Artistic director Adam Szymczyk--who is collaborating with an extensive team that includes curators Pierre Bal-Blanc, Hendrik Folkerts, Candice Hopkins, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Hila Peleg, Dieter Roelstraete, and Monika Szewczyk--sat down with Artforum editor Michelle Kuo to discuss the broad range of sites, forms, and ideas at play, from the democratic ideals of classical antiquity to the crisis of contemporary austerity.

MICHELLE KUO: Athens was at the epicenter of global financial and political turmoil when you began organizing Documenta 14, and of course many additional upheavals have occurred since then--the refugee crisis and the entire crisis of Europe. How has your thinking about the exhibition evolved as these events have unfolded?

ADAM SZYMCZYK: In the fall of 2013, I proposed to the Documenta 14 search committee to hold the exhibition in Athens as well as in Kassel. At that time, Greece's problems were frequently front-page news in Germany. The German press and politicians were keen on offering advice, in an admonishing tone--and they soon began to instruct this relatively poor southern European country to institute capital controls, to levy more and more taxes on people who have little if any income. The implicit or explicit theme was that Greece is a backward country, not up to European standards.

That attitude was ironic, to say the least, considering that classical Greece, so widely held to be the cradle of civilization, was a touchstone in the formation of German national consciousness. The early Romantics claimed classical Greece as the origin point in a progression leading straight to them. As it happens, Kassel was also the home of two of the major protagonists in the German Romantic nationalist project, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Their collecting of German fairy tales and efforts to create a complete German dictionary provided elements of both a mythical and a linguistic foundation for the construction of German identity.

MK: So the cultural and political imaginary of Germany takes shape in and around Kassel.

AS: Yes, at least to a degree. In terms of more recent events in Greece, the introduction of austerity measures was justified by Protestant moralism and a strange logic whereby the populace, the people, were blamed for their circumstances. And when you make the people as a whole culpable, you instill a sense of guilt and a sense of inferiority that produces a lot of frustration and self-hate.

MK: Yes, and fear.

AS: And resentment, and I think ultimately xenophobia-as demonstrated in Greece by Golden Dawn, a local neofascist party that made significant gains in parliament between 2009 and 2012 as economic turmoil increased. One of the reasons to work in Athens in parallel to Kassel is precisely to make the exhibition in a place where you can see how problematic things are at the moment, and how much worse they may soon become--though not, naturally, to simply induce passive spectatorship. Our rubric "Learning from Athens" emphasizes an idea of active exchange--not an extraction but rather a distribution of knowledge that propagates outward, reconfiguring the relationship between those who speak and those who are spoken about. That notion of reciprocity also meant rejecting a geographic construct of Kassel as home base and Athens as peripheral or as an outpost. Instead, we envisioned the exhibition as a kind of divided cell, with most artists working in both places. So, from the beginning, we committed to this open-ended, ongoing process that would ideally produce knowledge about conditions within and far beyond Athens, conditions that are themselves constantly evolving.

MK: Your concept of the exhibition was accompanied by the idea of a Parliament of Bodies, foregrounding the political valences of this paradigm. …

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