DOCUMENTA 14 announced on March 7, at the press conference held at Kassel’s Fridericianum, that the main institution it will be collaborating with here in Athens, is Greece’s National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST). And indeed, seeing as the title of this documenta is ‘Learning from Athens’, it certainly has chosen the right institution to learn a few things from. Firstly, it will learn how despite so many obstacles in EMST’s path in the past, the museum has managed to evolve and survive, even if that meant living in a ‘nomadic state’ for years. And now, despite the ongoing crisis, EMST has managed to ‘go home’ (now reinstalled in its renovated/restructured Fix building), and is going from strength to strength.
EMST director Katerina Koskina and Adam Szymczyk (Artistic Director of documenta 14) announced at the press conference that documenta 14 in Athens will be hosted by EMST, i.e. it will be the largest venue for this historic German quinquennial exhibition (the first of which was inaugurated back in 1955). In turn, documenta 14 will also host part of EMST’s collection at the Fridericianum in Kassel, presenting a curated selection from this valuable public collection of Greek and international contemporary art, prior to the expected inauguration of the permanent collection’s display at EMST – due later this year in Athens. At the core of the collaboration is a shared concern: ‘How are art and its institutions made public and part of the common good?’
Documenta 14 will be revving up in Athens April 6-8, and running till July 16, and in Kassel from June 10-September 17. Events have already started taking place at Parko Eleftherias, since September, plus ERT 2 has been airing art films on Monday nights as part of the documenta events, but that’s just a small taster of what’s to come. Thousands of journalists and art lovers are expected to flock to Athens for the event.
Koskina stated at the press conference: “We believe that documenta 14 comes to Athens just at the right time. Despite the crisis and its impact on our daily lives, there has been a vivid reaction expressed through a great interest for creation and culture, especially from the younger generations.”
EMST’s exhibition at the Fridericianum during documenta 14 in Kassel marks the first time that the collection of Greece’s National Museum of Contemporary Art will be presented in Germany. The exhibition will be made up of around 200 works, two thirds of which will be by Greek artists – a great showcase for Greek art: “The display of the works will reveal the contradictions, dichotomies of parallel realities that the country and the world have experienced during the last decades”, stated Koskina, and added that the show will be structured around three main axes: one political, one which explores the crossing of borders/boundaries, and one which presents personal mythologies.
Koskina concluded that “This is a turning point in EMST’s life and both a challenge and an opportunity for the Greek artists. Believe me they deserve it!”
Here in Athens, documenta will also be collaborating with other public institutions – the Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA), the Athens Municipality Arts Center at Parko Elefterias, where the Parliament of Bodies (documenta 14’s Public Programs), was launched in September 2016, as well as certain parts of the Benaki Museum complex, several archeological sites and museums, archives, institutions of higher learning, and other more ‘street wise’ sites.
Two very different institutions
Since it was founded in 2000, the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) has collected works by Greek and international artists from the 1960s to the present. During the past years, works of the growing collection were contextualized through exhibitions presented in numerous spaces such as the Athens Concert Hall (Megaron), the Athens Conservatoire, as well as in the public space, as an important step to make the museum and its collection public, despite the challenges EMST faced. In the meantime, preparations were made for a move into the museum’s permanent home in the former Fix Brewery on Syngrou Avenue. This move took place in 2015 and the future plan to fully open this quintessential public institution – making its building, its collection, and its exhibition program available to all who live in and come to Athens – was inaugurated by the program ‘EMST in the World’. Despite austerity measures, EMST managed to forge collaborations and thus show its collection in dialogue with works from other international museums and art institutions.
In contrast to EMST’s ‘heroic’ fight to realise a national museum of contemporary art, plus to provide a platform for contemporary Greek and international art, the story of documenta is rather different: Its capacity to produce an exhibition at the forefront of contemporary art and theory is sustained by stable financial commitments from public funders such as the city of Kassel, the state of Hessen, and the German Federal Cultural Foundation. The history of this exhibition, however, reveals its ideological underpinnings as a West German institution, transformed after 1989 to encompass global art towards the present moment, in which it needs to carefully balance multiple aspects: its relationship to the international art market, its economic impact on the city of Kassel, and the importance of its accessibility to all publics versus the necessity to bolster the exhibition budget through income from ticket sales.
It has therefore become crucial for documenta to answer the question of what it means to be public today, on all levels—artistic, political, and financial. Adam Szymczyk’s proposal to organize documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel interrogates the position of the institution by reversing the role of host that it has grown so accustomed to, instead shaping an exhibition in a context where it is a guest, and where its calling card is an invitation for a shared learning experience.
Fredericianum & EMST: buildings with history
The Fredericianum was established in 1779 as the first public museum in mainland Europe. It then became a library, and finally a Kunsthalle as well as, of course being the birthplace of documenta (in 1955). What’s more, the Fridericianum’s history also includes its function as a house of parliament for the short-lived Kingdom of Westphalia (1807–13) – the first parliamentary representation in the history of Germany.
The EMST building was designed in 1961 as a brewery by the visionary Greek modernist architect Takis Zenetos (1926–77) in collaboration with Margaritis Apostolidis (1922–2005) – a mighty four-story horizontal slab of concrete inserted into the city’s older fabric, with production lines visible from the street. The full vertical span of the building will be given over to the presentation of the documenta 14 exhibition in Athens.
The EMST collection
In her talk, Koskina outlined the EMST collection, and its history:
“The collection numbers today more than 1000 works of Greek and international artists from 1960s onwards, that cover a wide range of artistic media and practices. It explores concepts and practices regarding cultural pluralism, the intersection of cultures, the relation of politics and art and cultural nomadism. I would like to mention some of the Greek and foreign artists of our collection, such as Stephen Antonakos, Constantin (Dikos) Byzantios, Vlassis Caniaris, Chryssa, Mona Hatoun, Gary Hill, Emily Jacir, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Nikos Kessanlis, Jannis Kounellis, Shirin Neshat, Lucas Samaras, Costas Tsoclis, Bill Viola, et.al. It is constantly being enriched through acquisitions and donations. It is very moving, that since May, many works have been donated directly mainly by artists. This exhibition will not be realized based on the most recognizable artists or on what is usually presented as the collection highlights. There will be a clear selection of works that are related to the most relevant artistic practices and to what is happening today in Greece and in the rest of the world.”
- EMST’s History
Koskina also outlined the history of EMST, at the press conference. What follows is a more concise version (with a few of my own comments added), for those who aren’t familiar with EMST’s history:
• EMST was founded by Law (2557) in 1997.
• EMST begins operating in 2000 at the former Fix brewery on Syngrou Avenue. The first exhibition hosted in the Fix building and before the museum started its operation and program, was that of Yannis Tsarouchis, in 2000.
• The second exhibition in the same building and the first realized by EMST, was ‘Synopsis 1- Communications’. Many exhibitions followed, organized by the museum’s founding director Anna Kafetsi.
• Other exhibitions follow: ‘George Hatzimichalis, Artworks from 1985- 2000’; ‘Costas Tsoclis, Retrospective’; ‘Chen –Zhen: Metaphors of the Body’; ‘Synopsis 2: Theologies’.
• From 2003-2008 EMST is temporarily relocated to the Athens Concert Hall (its ‘nomadic years’), in order for the reconstruction of the Fix building to commence. Exhibitions continue to be realised: ‘Synopsis 3 – Testimonies: between fiction and reality’; ‘Transcultures’.
• In 2004 during the Olympic Games. Most of the artworks shown are now in the permanent collection of the museum. In 2004 EMST also presented a solo exhibition of Jannis Kounellis, which was hailed as a major art event during the Olympic Games. Kounellis’ work ‘Untitled’ (2004), characterized by the artist himself as an “in situ” installation, made of iron, wood, charcoal and sack-cloths, is one of the most emblematic works of the EMST collection. It was displayed in a 600 m2 space.
• In 2005, the exhibition ‘The Years of Defiance: The art of the 70’s’ in Greece was organized showcasing this important generation of Greek artists, who didn’t have the chance to exhibit, due to dictatorship and other factors, many of whom have donated their important works to the EMST collection.
• In the summer of 2006 EMST organized the international exhibition ‘The Grand Promenade’ along and around the ‘Grand Promenade’ of the Archaeological Sites in Athens.
• From 2008 until March 2015, EMST moved again and was hosted this time in sections of the building of the Athens Conservatoire (the 2nd phase of the museum’s ‘nomadic years’). Many exhibitions were organized there, e.g.: ‘Ulrich Ruckriem: Shadows of the stone’, ‘David Claerbout’; ‘Shirin Neshat:Women Without Men’; the ‘Afresh’ exhibition focusing on the emerging art scene, as well as exhibitions with works from the EMST collection. The last exhibition in the Athens Conservatory was Andreas Angelidakis’ solo exhibition ‘Every End is A Beginning’.
• In 2014 the Fix building was completed, in terms of construction.
• In May 2015, though the circumstances were not conducive, the move was made back to the now reconstructed Fix building. Although there were still bureaucratic and administrative issues and approvals pending from the state, that obstructed the complete functioning of the museum, it nevertheless started functioning to the best of its ability, preferring “partial but regular operation” as opposed to wasting time by waiting.
• The activities of EMST, begin in its new “home” on May 19th, 2016 with the performance ‘Lagune’ by Dennis Savary, in collaboration with the Flux Laboratory and Fluxum Foundation. Collaborations have followed with: the Greek National Opera (G.N.O.) the Museum of People’s Free Thinking (Μ.Ε.S.Α.) , The Onassis Cultural Center and the Trisha Brown Dance Company in the framework of the festival ‘Dancing Athens’, the British Council for the program ‘Transforming Future Museums: International Museum Academy’ (IMA). These were the initial events that enlivened EMST and forged its character within its ‘Prologues’ series of events. The space has now evolved with a wide, transparent and open scope, believing in synergies with foreign and Greek institutions and aiming to work as an open platform with a new extroverted policy.
• November 2016 – a new series of exhibitions is launched, under the title ‘EMST in the World’. The first exhibition of this series, is ‘Urgent Conversations: Athens – Antwerp’, ( 31-10-2016 till 5-2- 2017). This collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp (M HKA), was realized as an urgent need to react to the inertia that the crisis has caused. In April, the exhibition will travel to Belgium. More than 20.000 people visited it here in Athens.
• 30-11-2016 to 7-1-2017: EMST participated together with the National Gallery and the State Museum of Contemporary Art with emblematic works from their permanent collections, in the exhibition ‘Genii loci. Greek art from 1930 until today’. The exhibition was realized at the Manege Museum in St. Petersburg.
• In 2016 EMST also took over the Commissioner’s role of the National Representation at the 57th International Venice Biennale Art Exhibition, with the narrative installation ‘Laboratory of Dilemmas’ by George Drivas.
- Apart from the upcoming collaboration with Documenta 14, EMST is also planning a major retrospective of the recently deceased, world-acclaimed Greek artist Jannis Kounellis in two years’ time. Furthermore, the hall of the museum’s permanent exhibition space will also be named after him.