Subversive Ideals and Idealized Ruins. d14 Artists Engaging with Greek Antiquity

Subversive Ideals and Idealized Ruins. d14 Artists Engaging with Greek Antiquity

Eleana Yalouri

Introduction. ‘The Olympics of Art’?

When documenta first announced its intention to stage its 14th edition in Athens, a friend from the Athenian art world, who wished to point out to me the significance of this initiative, described this international art event as ‘the Olympic Games of Art.’ I heard that comparison made again on several occasions after that, [1] and it had a particular resonance for me, given that my own research interests and activities in the past included the sociocultural and political parameters of 2004 Olympics in Athens. [2] Since the 1990s, I have been working on the politics of ancient Greek heritage, the stereotypes involved, the ideological motivations shaping its value in Greece and in the West, and the roles it has played in contesting Greek interests internationally. [3] So, inevitably, the prospect of documenta coming to Greece as ‘another Olympics’ made me wonder about the role contemporary art might play in the midst of the Greek financial crisis, and whether it would emulate the ancient Greek heritage’s involvement in negotiating the cultural position of Greece within Europe. Contemporary art in Greece has always been overshadowed by the powerful aura of ancient Greek art, but perhaps the presence of a major international contemporary art institution in Athens would change that, affecting local cultural policies concerning both ancient and contemporary Greek cultural assets. (Contemporary) art is often considered an unnecessary luxury, especially when compared to the pressing issues of the financial crisis. But perhaps this could also change if it were to be actively and officially implicated (as ancient Greek art often is) in managing the difficult socio-economic Greek conditions within the wider context of a policy of ‘soft diplomacy.’ Moreover, contemporary art might gain value and status by being connected to antiquity.

Another thing that influenced my thoughts on the coming of documenta ‘as another Olympics’, was the fact that despite and/or as a form of resistance to Greek attachment to and yearning for the classical past, a new field of artistic expression had begun to emerge in Greece over the last decades. [4] More recently, a young generation of artists, raised and educated in a culture that reveres the paradigm of classicism and romanticism and draws extensively on this national heritage as a cultural resource and/or an aesthetic ideal, had started adopting different aesthetic forms to problematize or question dominant narratives about the classical past. [5] In their approach, the past was not sought out as a source οf inspiration or a model for imitation, as had traditionally been the case, but as a form and means of displaying resistance to, and critiquing, established versions of history. I had collaborated with some of these artists and was fascinated by the way their work, tools, and methods opened up new avenues for me to reflect on academic matters I had been concerned with over the last few decades. These experiences also defined my expectations of, and interest in, the ways an international art institution at the forefront of developments in the art world might approach the Greek classical heritage.

All these thoughts seemed to come down to and meet in two preliminary questions: Would d14 and its artists engage with Greek antiquity at all? If so, would it be by affirmatively reproducing stereotypical representations, or by subverting and problematizing the mainstream’s relationship with Greek antiquity, thus offering a fresh perspective on dealing with the classical past? As it turned out, even before the official opening of the exhibition, d14 had made programmatic announcements and published papers in d14’s Reader [6] and in d14’s Athens-based journal South as a State of Mind, [7] which answered my first question in the positive. The d14 artistic director’s analysis of the central curatorial concept, as set out in interviews and public talks, pointed to the adoption of a postcolonial theoretical perspective, which would be critical of long-established stereotypes and would suggest new ways of looking at the past. Τhe presence of Dieter Roelstraete in the d14 curatorial team, a curator and art theorist who had extensively analyzed the ‘archaeological turn’ in art and had collaborated with artists whose work dovetailed the reflective and deconstructive gaze towards the past, which followed the post-Cold War period, was also promising a critical approach to these matters. [8] What remained to be seen was the ways in which these ideas would materialize and how they would translate into specific artworks.

II. Reinventing and/or Reappropriating the Classical?

Athens, a city of the proverbial ‘South’ is a place with a difficult ‘golden’ past and an equally difficult present. When it became the reference point for the d14 exhibition, it was located at the intersection of multiple contemporary issues: the EU’s economic troubles; the Greek recession; the refugee crisis; and a series of other ongoing political upheavals in nearby Egypt, Libya, Syria and Turkey. [9] And yet despite, or maybe even because of, these conjunctures, Athens had acquired new allure. In the years preceding d14’s coming to Athens, it had stereotypically been represented as an exhausted city, worn out from battling economic hardship, but at the same time marked by a wave of creative energy that was revitalizing previously depressed or ‘rough’ areas. [10] A great deal of romanticizing and a hint of condescension often framed that depiction, and thus translated the concept of the stereotypical, much-discussed oscillation between East and West (that has accompanied Western and Greece’s own understanding of the place of Athens in the order of things ever since its establishment as the capital of the modern Greek state) into a tension between the northern European urban centers and the global south. Since Romanticism, the aesthetics of ruins have enchanted western European travelers. But, whereas the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travelers wished to get closer to an idealized ancient Greek past, recent developments had led to a new wave of visitors, activists, artists, and academics, looking for inspiration not so much from Athens’ ancient ruins as in its modern ones. [11]

From the terrace of the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), which was one of the main venues of documenta 14, visitors had a direct view of a piece of graffiti saying “Welcome and enjoy the ruins,” in lettering reminiscent of the fonts documenta 14 used in its public material. Despite a clear statement by d14’s artistic director that the aim of staging documenta partly in Athens was not related to any kind of “poornography,”[12] intended to direct the tourist gaze towards poverty in Athens, documenta 14 did not escape being seen by a politically ‘sensitive’ international art world in the context of this more general interest in or even enjoyment of the urban ruins of an economic crisis.

However, documenta 14, also displayed a direct interest in ancient Greek ruins. It would be untrue to suggest that the exhibition reproduced an altogether unproblematized, nineteenth-century yearning for ancient Greek ruins. documenta 14’s “memory and primary seat of its historical consciousness,” the Neue Galerie in Kassel, [13] was pretty successful in registering the complex ways in which the rise of Neoclassicism as a dominant aesthetic form, and philhellenism in, Germany and western Europe were connected to German nationalism and imperialism in the nineteenth century, with several references to relevant work by intellectuals, architects and artists, such as Leo Von Klenze, Louis Gurlitt, Johann Joachim Winckelmann. [14] The Neue Galerie recast the question of art’s historical relationship with colonial wars and conquest. It exposed art’s own implication in looting, ownership, dispossession and trauma and its entanglement in nationhood, institution building, the economy and cultural politics through works such as those by Maria Eichhorn and Sammy Baloji in Kassel. [15] In doing so, it exposed the history of documenta itself (and documenta 14 for that matter) as a product of long-established legacies and local and global histories, which also inevitably shaped the Kassel-Athens perspective. Both the official proclamations of d14 and its publications [16] make it clear that the curatorial team was keen to highlight the ambiguous role ancient Greek ruins have played in Greece and abroad since the establishment of the Greek state, and critically read this role through the lens of postcolonial theories that challenged nationalist and other dominant practices and discourses. But were their intentions acted upon in the work of the individual artists participating in d14? And, if so, in what way?

Part of the d14 library, hosted in Neue Galerie. Courtesy of Yorgos Samantas

On various occasions the chief curator of d14 painstakingly noted that documenta would strive to avoid invoking the over-used symbolic capital of the ancient Greek heritage, as well as “the cultural clichés of bygone days and harsh everyday life.” [17] Yet, the artwork, which stood out most prominently and emblematically right in front of the Fridericianum, documenta’s ur-venue in Kassel, was Marta Minujín’s Parthenon of Books

Marta Minujín, Parthenon of Books. Photo taken by the author.

Marta Minujín, Parthenon of Books. Photo taken by the author

This was a scale replica of the Athenian Parthenon consisting of copies of banned books from around the world mounted in plastic pockets attached to a scaffolding. Originally erected in Buenos Aires in 1983, this work was conceived as a monument to the restoration of democracy in Argentina. According to the official site of documenta 14, Minujín’s Parthenon “symbolizes the aesthetic and political ideals of the world’s first democracy.” [18] Thus, even though the artist’s work was meant as an anti-monument, it was still a monument, building upon and/or appropriating the symbolic capital of classical Greece, and emblematically invoking Athens by connecting it to its glorious past, which gave birth to the world’s first democracy.

Minujín had invited members of the public, who would “thus become part of the artwork,” to donate censored books from a list she had compiled. But when I visited the work, the metal scaffolding still looked sadly empty. The curator Pierre Bal-Blanc had presented the artist’s works as “mass participation projects,” which “dilapidate the fortune the myths represent.” [19] But participation may take different forms that challenge rather than support the artwork. For example, in front of the Parthenon of Books artwork someone dressed as an ancient Greek (with a hint of Roman) posed so others could take pictures for a fee . [20]

Appropriations of the classical ideal. Posing for tourists in front of The Parthenon of Books. Courtesy of Yorgos Samantas

Minujín, like all artists participating in d14, contributed to both the Athens and Kassel exhibitions. Her contribution to the Athens part was a performance entitled Payment of Greek debt to Germany with Olives and Art, where an Angela Merkel lookalike gave a speech at the end of which she agreed to write off Greece’s debt before shaking hands with the artist, who offered her a handful of olives. The performance was a remake of an earlier, 1985, version in which the artist had discussed paying off Argentina’s foreign debt using corn with Andy Warhol. As a matter of fact, Minujín is a conceptual artist whose work also references pop art [21] and, if her approach to the olives (as well as to the Parthenon) were interpreted through such a perspective, i.e. seeing them as consumable commodities, rather than aesthetic objects, it could have been more relevant to the emphasis placed on the post/neocolonial by the d14. However, the setting as well as the artist’s presentation of the concept did not allow for any such interpretation. Her performance took place on the opening day of d14 in Athens in the foyer of the EMST, amongst works and photos referring to Western colonialism, and reverberated with stereotypical binary oppositions, [22] such as Greece vs Germany, northern monetary capital vs southern agricultural wealth, perpetrators vs victims of colonialism, while in an interview she stated:

“I really believe that here, in this country in this continent, where 4000 years ago the Greeks invented democracy, created the Parthenon and so many other fantastic things, and all of the Occidental culture too, that it is impossible to have a debt that you have to pay with money. It’s impossible, because the whole world is indebted to Greece. Because their culture comes from here.”

In the same interview Minujin also referred to the importance of the Greek culinary culture, including olives (which she used in her performance) and bread, before she concluded: “Everything comes from Greece. The debt is already paid. So by doing this performance, maybe people will understand this.” [23]

Payment of Greek debt to Germany with Olives and Art by Marta Minujin. Courtesy of Dimitra Kondylatou

d14 had claimed that it wished to learn from Athens “not as from the cradle of Western civilization, but as a place where the contradictions of the contemporary world, embodied by loaded directionals like East and West, North and South, meet and clash.” [24] By repeating the metaphor of Greece as the cradle of European civilization, Minujín’s performance (and words), however, put emphasis on exactly what d14 had originally claimed it was not interested in. And despite the fact that her work referred directly to contradictions within the contemporary world, these took the form of a simplistic Greece vs Germany dichotomy, which d14 had allegedly been trying to avoid.

Re-thinking democracy was a recurring theme in d14. Inspired by this aspiration, DEMOS by Andreas Angelidakis provided “the soft architecture” for the “Parliament of Bodies,” d14’s public program of events in Athens, which proclaimed notions of democracy opposed to those of neoliberalism and western hegemonic discourses. [25] DEMOS was meant to comment on the ruins of a democratic parliament and was installed in the building in Parko Eleftherias that had served as the headquarters of the military police during the junta. It consisted of a collection of foam blocks resembling concrete ruins, which were intended to be assembled, rearranged, and used as seating in various ways that avoided “positioning the audience as aesthetic visitors or neoliberal consumers.” [26]

DEMOS by Andreas Angelidakis. Courtesy of Dimitra Kondylatou

According to the artist, DEMOS alluded, on the one hand, to the ancient steps up the Athenian Pnyx Hill, and to the ideas of democracy that became the model for spaces of authority such as parliaments, libraries, and courthouses all over Europe. On the other hand, it alluded to the framework of the modernist concrete structures known in Greek as polykatoikies, i.e. the blocks of flats that expanded across Greek urban spaces from the 1970s onwards, borrowed from Europe and used to democratize the way modern Athens was built.

Even though DEMOS was meant to critically evoke the idea of democracy, it was framed in a format that was able to accommodate different, if not opposing, ideological standpoints. It is worth noting that, if for Adam Szymczyk Athens was a place that reflected “the uncertain future of democracy,” [27] for the then Greek Minister of Culture (who praised documenta’s presence in Athens), Athens was the place to meditate on democracy, but as an ultimately ancient, and by extension Greek achievement. [28] DEMOS was thus remaining as generic as the concept of democracy itself and as emblematic as d14’s conceptualization of Athens, which stood for something larger than itself, a trope of or proxy for global politics more generally.

Τhe connection between antiquity and modernity, ancient and contemporary ruins was also sought and established in a discussion on the subject of: “Is Modernity our Antiquity?,” a central theme in the 2007 documenta 12 exhibition. The discussion was organized as part of documenta 14’s public education program by Arnisa Zeqo, who was responsible for this program, and it was conducted by her and archaeologist Yannis Hamilakis. [32]

The event was appropriately located on the Philopappos Hill, a place intimately connected with Greek modernist intellectual and artistic quests, particularly through the landscaping interventions of the architect Dimitris Pikionis who in the 1950s attempted to define Greekness by emphasizing the dynamic interaction between the landscape and monuments from the past. Zeqo referred to documenta’s own emergence from the ruins of WWII in Kassel, while Hamilakis discussed the ways photography, a technological device of Western modernity, was pressed into service by colonial archaeology and participated in the construction of dominant narratives about Greek antiquity and the romanticization of its ruins. The discussion was followed by a walk to Canadian artist Rebecca Belmore’s artwork for d14, From Inside, a marble tent installed on the top of the Philopappos Hill overlooking the Acropolis. The walk, under the starry sky and in the dim light of the lanterns the walkers were given to find their way to the top of the hill, resembled a solemn procession or pilgrimage with a performative touch. It culminated in Zeqo reciting “Language is migrant” by Cecilia Vicuña in front of Belmore’s From Inside.

According to the d14 site, the aim of the whole event was to pursue “an archaeology of modernity” and to reflect “on how the colonial/national nexus once defining the archaeological has changed in the era of the ‘indebted man,’ global migration, and the ‘reception crisis’ of the global North.” [33] But while the discussion had set the framework for critical reflection on the technologies and the aesthetics of the colonial nexus that had defined ‘the archaeological,’ and could have led to a critical archaeology of the contemporary, something at the organizational and sensorial level resisted the ideological: the walk romanticized rather than problematized the relationship between antiquity and modernity. It confused ancient ruins with modern-day remnants of contemporary forced migration and once again rendered the ancient Greek topos and democracy an idealized point of reference for approaching burning issues in the here and now.

Rebecca Belmore’s elegant creation, a work of modest proportions, was installed on the Philopappos Hill, like an eye winking at the monumental Athenian Acropolis on the opposite hill. The tent, the iconic shelter of refugees worldwide, aimed “to raise awareness of humanitarian issues at a time of international crisis and increasing numbers of refugees and economic migrants […].” and evoked the artist’s personal history connected to the wigwam homes of the indigenous Anishinaabe people in Canada. [34]

When the Central Archaeological Committee, which was to decide on the permission to install the tent on this specific site, asked Marina Fokidis, the artistic director of the d14 office in Athens why this particular location had been chosen, she replied: “The objective is [to create] a conversation between the artwork and the Parthenon, the universal monument. […] Moreover, the tent […] has multiple meanings: precariousness, frugality, refugeeness, a substitute for the house.” When asked why marble was chosen for this artwork, Fokidis replied: “This material monumentalizes the idea of the refugee crisis, while the oxymoron of constructing a transportable tent out of heavy marble (in contrast to the light, igloo type ‘house’ of the indigenous people) offers another ‘reading:’ the refugees’ difficulties in respect of mobility. As for the choice of white marble, the artist considered that the color would blend in well with the environment.” [35]

It remains ethically and politically debatable why anyone would wish to present refugees and indigenous peoples as one abstract, generalized, and homogeneous category summed up in the symbol of the tent in the first place. But that reflected a more general tendency in d14, evident also in its public program where an undifferentiated collective of ‘the queer’ was promoted as a more general notion of a radical critique of regimes of the normative. [36] The question also remains as to why anyone would wish to “monumentalize the idea of the refugee crisis” and thus elevate it to the monumental, generic, and abstract spheres associated with the Acropolis, rather than accentuate the present “social time” in which the refugees are experiencing such violent displacement. [37]

It is worth noting that in 2019 a major retrospective of Belmore’s work was entitled Facing the Monumental, most probably alluding to her engagement with pressing contemporary (and monumental) issues, such as “conflicts and issues related to climate change, access to water, land use, homelessness, and human migration and displacement.” [38] Similarly, From Inside was inviting its visitors to literally face the monumental Acropolis from inside the tent, thus, returning or reversing, the gaze of the Acropolis, which like a panopticon, overlooks and controls the landscape. [39] In that sense, it is more likely that From Inside was meant to operate as a critique of monumentalization, even though the material chosen for the tent was the ‘monumental’ white marble (visually reproducing the thing that is otherwise disavowed), rather than the light polychromous bentwood of young trees the Wigwam tents are made of.

If the intention to “monumentalize the idea of the refugee crisis” is not attributed to the artist herself, but to the curator and/or the institution which hosted the work, then one cannot help but notice an inherent contradiction within d14’s overall curatorial anti-hegemonic, bottom-up approach. It also makes me wonder if it could be that the monumental character of documenta itself and of the big issues it engaged with did not allow it to operate in ‘a social’ rather than ‘a monumental time’? Or, could it be that anything associated with the ancient Greek topos is inevitably elevated beyond everyday social trivia? Or, perhaps, in its efforts to communicate with the official discourse of the Central Archaeological Council, the supreme advisory body for all matters pertaining to the “protection of antiquities and cultural patrimony in general” in Greece, d14 had to adopt the latter’s idioms?

Rebecca Belmore’s From Inside. Photo taken by the author

These questions arise once again with reference to the Scottish artist Ross Birrell’s project. Birell organized a 100-day, trans-European journey on horseback entitled The Athens–Kassel Ride: The Transit of Hermes, involving five horses and four experienced long-distance riders, covering the 3,000 kilometers from Athens to Kassel. The ride started at the pedestrian route that circles the Acropolis, and passed through former war zones in the Balkans before ending in Kassel. [40]

Birrell’s original inspiration was a Swiss teacher, Aimé Félix Tschiffely, who traveled from Buenos Aires to Washington DC and on to New York on two Argentinian criollo horses back in the 1920s. Birrell’s contribution to the Kassel part of the exhibition was a seven-minute film, Criollo, exhibited at Neue Galerie, which featured a South American horse standing at a gateway to Central Park New York. The Athens-Kassel Ride was born as a companion work to Criollo due to the bi-locational structure of d14, and was described as “mobile, open and participatory human-equine ensemble, perhaps foregrounding notions of border crossing and ‘companion species.’” [41]

The public launch of The Athens–Kassel Ride took place at the foot of the Acropolis Hill, with the participation of riders and horses who formed a visual echo of the ancient Panathenaic Festival as depicted on the Parthenon frieze. The Central Archaeological Council had given its approval for the event, scheduled to take place in the vicinity of the Acropolis, provided that the horses were of normal size and not the little Skyrian ponies that documenta 14 curators were originally planning to use. “The horses depicted on the Parthenon frieze were not miniatures,” the Central Archaeological Council insisted. [42] If any contemporary art event was to be allowed to allude to or even coexist with the ancient one, it had to conform with the principles of the prototype, which had to remain the main protagonist. The ride, led by a horse named Hermes, alluded to the ancient Greek ‘god of the crossroads,’ one of the deities depicted on the Parthenon frieze, and was framed “by the increasingly tensile architecture of the European Union, and European politics more generally,” that had further exacerbated he plight of those refugees fleeing Syria, Libya and Afghanistan, among other war zones,” [43]

The official departure took place on a Sunday, a day when Athenian families are usually to be seen strolling along the pedestrian zone. Some people had specifically come to attend the event, while the contingent strollers seemed perplexed by the unusually festive atmosphere created by busy members of d14 staff, who were making space in the crowd for the horses to pass through. Like Chinese whispers, the news about the upcoming d14 event circulated among the crowd, taking various forms: “The Germans are organizing some event,” or as I heard some whispering, “The Germans are coming.” [44] On the sidelines of the mounted parade and as a response to it, the queer performative group, Documena, was performing “a queer indigenous catwalk,” which attracted equal or even bigger number of passersby flashlights, who may have taken it as the scheduled main event. [45] Members of Documena had been staging performances challenging d14’s theoretical discourse and practice in Athens throughout d14’s presence in Athens. On this occasion, they wore traditional Greek costumes stereotypically connected to a macho-male heroic Greek national past, and were rocking to the soundtrack of local folk songs in a catwalk fashion thus creating a dissonant experience. By employing their usual idiom of ‘οveridentification’ and ‘subversive affirmation,” they were parodying d14’s engagement with ‘indigeneity’ as an undifferentiated category and were also making direct references to the mounted parade as a self-complacent catwalk. 

A queer Indigenous Catwalk. Courtesy of Dokumena

Even though in his inaugural speech the artistic director decidedly avoided connecting the performance with the ancient Greek heritage or any reference to indigeneity by emphasizing that The Transit of Hermes was “a physical act before it becomes a metaphor or allegory,” participants in the art project made extended reference to Greek mythology, to the Acropolis as a symbol of humanity, and to the “purely Greek origins of Hermes’ race.” That dissonance left some d14 visitors wondering whether the d14 performance should be taken at face value or as an ironic comment to the official discourse, and some other local passersby, familiar with and used to this discourse, indifferent.

Perhaps d14 had to turn a blind eye to the official narratives adopted by those parts of the public sector, such as the Central Archaeological Committee and the Ministry of Culture, with which it collaborated and on which it depended for permits, the use of sites and so on. Or perhaps, d14 did not think it right to impose any predefined reading of Birrel’s artwork. However, this approach, along with the choice of the lead horse’s name and the allusion to the Panathenaic festival and the Parthenon frieze, seem to indicate that, once an artwork is meant to be associated with Athens, it is hard to deviate from established symbols and official narratives about classical Greece, despite expressed intentions to the contrary.

Ross Birell, The Transit of Hermes. The official departure from the foot of the Acropolis Hill

There was, however, one case where a d14 work could have critically addressed the multiple roles the ruins in general and the ruins of classical antiquity in particular assume in the national imagination in such a way as to point to alternative meanings, values, and engagements enacted by different subjects and collectivities.

The idea behind Roger Bernat’s The Place of the Thing, with dramaturgy by Roberto Fratini, [46] was that an exact replica of the oath stone from the Athenian Agora would first be exhibited in the gardens of the Athens archaeological museum (with the museum’s permission), and would then be taken on tour round other places in Athens by different collectives and groups. This tour would serve as a farewell ceremony prior to the stone’s transfer to and burial in Thingplatz, Landau, around 30 kilometers from Kassel. The presentation of the project in Kassel highlighted the potential of the project’s conceptualization, as it instantiated various moments in the stone’s biography as it moved from the museum to urban spaces all over Athens and suggested different assumed uses, meanings and roles.

The artist had approached several collectives and refugee groups in Athens and asked them to organize performances focused on the replica of the stone in order to see how they would negotiate “the absolute pretext the object represents (or also in which [sic] measure they [would] develop a kind of belief in its artificial charisma).” But eventually, due to unforeseen developments, things went awry: an LGBTQIA+ refugee group abducted the stone in protest at what they considered to be the “instrumentalization” and “exoticization” of the refugees’ condition and produced a video celebrating their cause. [47]

The reaction of Bernat and Fratini did not exactly exemplify the ethics socially engaged art allegedly espouses, and exposed the paradoxes arising out of an artwork asked to operate under the curatorial concept of “learning from Athens,” but which could not escape its self-referential agenda that made the general curatorial as well as the (more specifically) Athenian context irrelevant. They published an angry and sarcastic press release, [48] accusing the LGBTQIA+ refugees of making an empty “Robin Hood” gesture, and of lacking a political agenda on the basis that they were giving some kind of symbolical value to and sacralizing “a cheap fake,” which was “nothing of a ‘work of art:’…if they really wanted to attack the establishment, maybe they should steal a REAL work of art from the EMST or any museum,” they argued, thus invoking a real/fake ontology and siding with the fake as subaltern. They also accused the group of chasing “a personal moment of glory” and of “gaining visibility in an art manifestation” through their actions. Finally, they ironically thanked the group for the visibility they had given to their project and for contributing to its success.

Instead of “learning from Athens” and from the people who had been made part of this work, Bernat and Fratini did not allow any deviation from ‘the script.’ They predetermined the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways of approaching the stone and employed a didactic and elitist tone to teach the protesters the ‘right’ way of doing politics, despite d14’s original declared intention of allowing the people and collectives involved direct control over their own truth and engagement with the stone. The possibility of re-imagining or re-inventing ways of looking at antiquity and its material remains ‘from below’ had been lost.


Most of the d14 works I have presented here were designed to critically comment on big issues, such as censorship, democracy, refugee-ness, or national borders and war zones. Such criticism may become more powerful when presented in the name of or in the vicinity of the ancient Athenian topos, but it also remains safe in the knowledge that nothing is at stake when big symbols are used to comment on concepts that remain as generic as the means employed to approach them. If Learning from Athens was intended to be “a site-specific project” with the declared aim of taking “action in the real world,” [49] and in a specific city, the ‘specificity’ of the site and the ‘reality’ of its world remained trapped in the name and emblem of ruinous Athens.

If we are to evaluate the ways in which an artwork ‘acts’ locally, (especially when this artwork is associated with a major institution that has declared its intention of learning from a local setting), we need to take into account the socio-cultural and historical context in which it is exhibited as well as its relevance to a city that has developed a difficult relationship with its ancient legacy. In discussing these artworks, I have attempted to highlight the different ways in which the basic difficulty that results from an idealized, generalized, and ideologized representation of antiquity is managed, and to record how the tendencies of institutions of contemporary art and of individual artists are tested by such a difficulty. [51] While art may have something to offer in helping society to shake up stereotypes and to collectively reflect “on the imaginary figures it depends upon for its very consistency, its self-understanding,” [52] and if it can change the world instead of merely symbolically representing it, [53] then the artworks I have presented here also invite us to reflect on the role contemporary art is asked to play (and plays) in the promotion, reproduction, contestation, or activation of the past in the present; its ability to act in a subversive manner disturbing the mainstream; and its potentiality to render the classical heritage less ‘difficult’ for contemporary Athenians to live with. 

Eleana Yalouri is an Associate Professor at the Department of Social Anthropology at Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Athens, Greece. She has a BA in Archaeology (University of Crete, Greece) an MPhil in Museum studies (University of Cambridge) and a PhD in Social Anthropology (University College London), while she undertook postdoctoral research at the University of Princeton, USA. She has been a visiting lecturer at the University of Westminster, London, and at the University of Malta, and a lecturer at the Department of Anthropology of University College London. Her teaching, research interests and her publications in periodicals and edited volumes include the following issues: Theories of Material Culture; Issues of national identity and the representation of the past; cultural heritage and the politics of remembering and forgetting; theories of space and the social construction of landscape; Anthropology and Art; Anthropology and Archaeology. Her current research projects involve collaborations with visual artists and art historians exploring the borders between contemporary art and fields of inquiry dealing with the material culture of the past or present, such as archaeology and anthropology.


[1] George Kaminis, the mayor of Athens at that time, had also described d14 as ‘the Olympic Games of Art’. With this analogy, he allowed the assumption that a major cultural event such as this might serve to bring Greece into the spotlight and let it assume the role of an ambassador acting on behalf of the country’s interests.
(accessed 02/09/20)

[2] Athens 2004 was an ambitious and controversial event framed by a restitutive rhetoric about ‘the homecoming’ of Greek national heritage and by a critical discussion regarding its financial, environmental and architectural repercussions locally and nationally. On the role of the revival of the Olympic Games in Greece, see Eleana Yalouri, “When the New World meets the Ancient. American and Greek experiences of the 1896 ‘revival’ of the Olympic Games”, 2004, in Athens, Olympic City 1896-1906, ed. Christina  Koulouri (Athens: International Olympic Committee), 297-335, and Eleana Yalouri “Fanning the Flame: Transformations of the 2004 Olympic Flame”, International Journal of the History of Sport, 27,12 (2010): 2155-2183.

[3] A thriving bibliographical universe has been devoted to similar matters since the 1990s. See, for example: Michael Herzfeld, Ours Once More: Folklore, Ideology and the Making of Modern Greece (Austin (TX): Texas University Press, 1982); Michael Herzfeld, A Place in History: Social and Monumental in a Cretan Town (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1991); Roxane Caftanzoglou, “Profane Settlement: Place, Memory and Identity under the Acropolis,” Oral History, no 28,1 (2000): 43-51; Roxanne Caftantzoglou, Στη Σκιά του Ιερού Βράχου [In the Shadow of the Sacred Rock] (Athens: Hellenika Grammata, 2001); Yannis Hamilakis, The Nation and its Ruins: Antiquity, Archaeology, and National Imagination in Greece, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Dimitris Damaskos and Dimitris Plantzos, eds., A Singular Antiquity. Archaeology and Hellenic Identity in Twentieth Century Greece, (Athens: Benaki Museum, 2008); Αnna Stroulia and Susan Buck-Sutton, eds., Archaeology in Situ: Sites, Archaeology and Communities in Greece, (Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto and Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books, 2010); Dimitris Tziovas, ed., Re-imagining the Past: Antiquity and Modern Greek Culture, (Oxford: Classical Presences, 2014).

[4] This shift is in tune with a more general theoretical critique that draws on postcolonial theory and related academic studies, and it is also akin to other socio-political, financial and artistic developments that have been taking place locally since the 2000s.

[5] Some [of these] artists have employed archival research to transfer their attention from the grand narratives of history to seemingly ‘unimportant details,’ which, however, reveal power relations and problematize the role of archaeology and archaeologists. See for example, the work Foreign Archaeologists from an Upright to a Stooped Position (National Museum of Contemporary Art, in December 2012, curated by Daphne Vitali) (accessed 02/09/2020). See also, the works A Plan for Planting and Letter E for Agatha. An analysis of the former can be found in Elpida Rikou and Eleana Yalouri, “Of Roots and Cultures,” in The Other Designs: Historical Authenticity as Artistic Project, ed. Heiko Schmid and Kostis Stafylakis, (Zürich: Dossier Internationales and the Department of Art and Media, Zürich University of Arts, 2014), 59-64. An analysis of the latter can be found in Eleana Yalouri, “The Return of the Unreal”, in The Art of Research Practices between Art and Anthropology, eds. Elpida Rikou and Eleana Yalouri, special issue of Field. A Journal of Socially Engaged Art Criticism 11(2018)). Some have commented on the difficult relationship between Greeks and their ancient heritage by employing a playful, ironic or carnivalesque idiom. See for example Archaeostress by Io Chaviara (accessed 02/09/2020), and Cargo by Panos Sklavenitis
(accessed 02/09/2020). Others, engage in performances which take the form of socio-artistic actions, which assert the value of political and poetic experiences of contested sites over corporate interests. See for example, Microgeographies (accessed 02/09/2020).And yet others, are producing work between art, archaeology, and anthropology to explore possible ways of thinking about and doing things differently. See for example the work produced and exhibited during the workshop ‘Archaeology, Anthropology and Contemporary Art’, which took place as part of the Archaeological Dialogues conference that was held in Athens, Greece in January 2015
(accessed 02/09/2020). See also Sklavenitis and Yalouri (accessed 02/09/2020); Maria Loizidou, curated by Sirago Tsiara,
; Yannis Hamilakis and Efthymis Theou, “Enacted multi-temporality: the archaeological site as a shared, performative space,” in Reclaiming Archaeology: Beyond the Tropes of Modernity, ed. Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal, (London: Routledge, 2013), 181-194).

[6] e.g. see Adam Szymczyk “14: Iterability and Otherness – Learning and Working from Athens”, in Documenta 14 Reader, (Munich, London, New York: Prestel Verlag, 2017[2016]), 19-42, and Yannis Hamilakis “Some Debts can never be repaid: the archaeo-politics of the crisis”, in Documenta 14 Reader, (Munich, London, New York: Prestel Verlag, 2017[2016]), 495-540.

[7] e.g. see Aristide Antonas, “The Construction of Southern Ruins, or Instructions for Dealing with Debt,” South as a State of Mind 6 (2015): 63-76.

[8] In addition to ‘the artist as historian’, who delves into the archives (as described by the historian and art theorist Mark Godfrey), and the ‘artist as ethnographer’, who conducts fieldwork (as analyzed by another historian and art theorist Hal Foster), a new form of artist has also emerged: ‘the artist as archaeologist’. S/he has been extensively discussed by Dieter Roelstraete, who has pointed to the preoccupation of contemporary art with the past as a phenomenon, which may not be new in art, but what is new is its scope, the specific historical and socio-political developments that have driven it, as well as the choice of themes and techniques that have accompanied it. Roelstraete connects this trend with a shift in the gaze of the post-Cold War world towards the past. This gaze which often focuses in a romantic and nostalgic fashion on the ‘difference’ of another, older political world, has also been reflective and deconstructive, a consequence of the weight attributed to historical events, historical consciousness and collective memory, especially from the 80s onwards. See Dieter Roelstraete, The Way of the Shovel (Chicago and London: Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and University of Chicago Press, 2013).

[9] Iason Athanasiadis, “Athenian Panopticon, Art Review,
(accessed 02/09/2020).

[10] See also Despina Zefkili, “Escaping the trope of the ‘Southern experiment’ in creative sustainability”, Art Papers, May/June 2016.

[11] Eleana Yalouri, “Afterword. Hellenomanias Past, Present, and Future”, in Hellenomania, eds. Nicoletta Momigliano and Katherine Harloe, (London: Routledge and BSA, 2018); Eleana Yalouri “Ruinous Pasts, Presents and Futures”, this issue.

(accessed 02/09/2020).

(accessed 02/09/2020)

(accessed 02/09/2020).

(accessed 02/09/2020),, respectively.

[16] e.g. see Hamilakis “Some Debts can never be repaid: the archaeo-politics of the crisis”, in Documenta 14 Reader, (Munich, London, New York: Prestel Verlag, 2017[2016]), 495-540; Aristide Antonas, “The Construction of Southern Ruins, or Instructions for Dealing with Debt,” South as a State of Mind 6 (2015): 63-76.

(accessed 02/09/2020)

(accessed 02/09/2020)

[19] Pierre Bal-Blanc, “Marta Minujin”, documenta 14 Daybook, (Munich, London, New York Prestel).

[20] George Samantas, personal communication. See also a relevant report and comment by Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, ‘Beautiful strangers’ Artforum June 12, 2017: ‘On Friday afternoon, I had lunch with one of the more cantankerous elder artists in the exhibition. We were sitting in the rain when he looked up at Marta Minujín’s Parthenon of Books and said: “What is that, anyway? Why is it so fucking big? What’s the use of all those banned books up high and closed up in plastic? Take them down, put them on the floor, and let people read them.”’

(accessed 02/09/2020)

[22] Yorgos Yannakopoulos, “documenta και Iστορία στον Δημόσιο Χώρο. Εικόνες και Συμφραζόμενα” [documenta and history in the Public Space. Images and context]


[24] Quinn Latimer, Adam Szymczyk, ‘Editors’ letter’, South As a State of Mind, 6 (2015)

(accessed 02/09/2020)

[26] Despina Zefkili, “Exercises of Freedom Documenta 14”, THIRD TEXT Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Art and Culture,
February 2017 (accessed 02/09/2020).

[27] Kouparanis Panagiotis, “How Greece is defending culture in a state of crisis”,
, January 25, 2017 (accessed 02/09/2020).

[28] See also Eleana Yalouri, “Afterword. Hellenomanias Past, Present, and Future,” in Hellenomania, eds. Nicoletta Momigliano and Katherine Harloe (London: Routledge and BSA, 2018).



[31] Paul B. Preciado, An Apartment on Uranus, translated by Charlotte Mandelle, (London: Fitzcarraldo editions, 2020).

(accessed 02/09/2020).

[33] ibid

[34] (accessed 02/09/2020); rotita/2016/archaiologikous-
(accessed 02/09/2020);

 (accessed 02/09/2020)
See also Eleana Yalouri 2018. “Afterword. Hellenomanias Past, Present, and Future,” in Hellenomania, eds. Nicoletta Momigliano and Katherine Harloe, (London: Routledge and BSA 2018); Eleana Yalouri, ‘Difficult’ Representations. Visual Art engaging with the Refugee Crisis. Visual Studies,,
September, 10, 2019 (accessed 02/09/2020).

[36] See Peter Rehberg, this issue

[37] on monumental vs social time, see Michael Herzfeld. A Place in History: Social and Monumental in a Cretan Town, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).


[39] Eleana Yalouri “Η δυναμική των μνημείων: Αναζητήσεις στο πεδίο της μνήμης και της λήθης” (The dynamics of monuments. Explorations in the field of memory and forgetting), 2010, in Αμφισβητούμενοι χώροι. Χωρικές προσεγγίσεις του πολιτισμού (Contested Places, Spatial Approaches to Culture), eds Κostas Yannakopoulos and Y. Yannitsiotis, (Athens, Alexandreia, 2010).

[40] See also Eleana Yalouri, “Afterword. Hellenomanias Past, Present, and Future,” in Hellenomania, eds. Nicoletta Momigliano and Katherine Harloe, (London: Routledge and BSA 2018).

[41] Lisa Moravec, “Ross Birrell: ‘I saw a possible way to draw a relationship between art and emancipatory politics’” Studio International, 2017,
(accessed 02/09/2020).

[42] ‘Documenta 14 horseback event to recreating [sic] Parthenon frieze scenes’,
14-horse back-event-to-recreating-parthenon-frieze-scenes.html
 (accessed 02/09/2020).

[43] Ross Birrell, ‘Notes on works for documenta 14, Athens and Kassell’ Journal of Visual Art Practice 2019 (18.1), 9.

[45] (accessed 02/09/2020).

[46] (accessed 02/09/2020); see also Fotiadi, this issue; and Anagnostopoulos, this issue.

(accessed 02/09/2020).

[48] (accessed 02/09/2020).

[49] Adam Szymczyk “14: Iterability and Otherness – Learning and Working from Athens”, in Documenta 14 Reader, (Munich, London, New York: Prestel Verlag, 2017[2016]), Szymczyk 2017, 26 &

(accessed 02/09/2020).

[50] cf. Kompatsiaris, Panos, “Curating Resistances: Ambivalences and Potentials of Contemporary Art Biennials”, Communication, Culture and Critique, no 7 (2014), 76.

[51] Eleana Yalouri and Elpida Rikou, “Contemporary Art and ‘Difficult Heritage’. Three case studies from Athens”, in Contested Antiquity, ed. Esther Solomon, (Indiana University Press 2020).

[52] Chantalle Mouffe, “Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces”, Art and Research 1(2), 2007.

[53] Alfred Gell, Art and Agency. An Anthropological Theory. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1988).