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Athens Documenta: A place for the displaced at the Acropolis

The quinquennial art exhibition Documenta provides creative impetus and surprising encounters in Athens. Greeks and international guests have discovered a new side of the city.

The Canadian artist Rebecca Belmore built a marble tent on Philopappos Hill, which offers a breathtaking view of the Acropolis. The heavy marble piece looks light as a feather. One can imagine refugees waking up at dawn, with the Parthenon at their feet. It is a symbol of Europe's encounter with the people who have fled war and hardship.

There are many tourists on the hill, but none of the Greeks seem to be looking at the marble sculpture. Maybe the interest in art wanes as the temperature rises it is 28 C (80 F) in the shade. Many people who have always wanted to visit Greece now have a new incentive to travel to Athens this year. Documenta, the quinquennial art exhibition, which is usually located in Kassel, Germany, is taking place in Athens and Kassel this year.

Climate conditions are much more pleasant at EMST, the National Museum of Contemporary Art, which is Documenta's most important venue in Athens. Visitors can expect neon light installations, aboriginal art, political art from the era of the Greek dictatorship (1967-1974), and much more. Among all these works, one also finds sonic art by Russian futurist Arseny Avraamov, who used bells and street noise in his "Symphony of Sirens." Avraamov turned hammers and horns into art. And now, Documenta has turned Athens into an art capital. Ersi Krouska, a young Greek architect and designer, walks through the bright spaces of the museum and takes her time to look at all the exhibited art. In an interview with DW, Krouska enthusiastically says, "These works can completely revamp Athens's art scene." She visits the new museum often. She also enjoys the art performances that take place every day - sometimes in remote parts of the city.

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Learning From Athens - documenta 14

'A social role'

The opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art is a work of art in itself. The EMST was founded in 1997 and was scheduled to open five years ago, but the official deadline was constantly postponed due to a lack of funds. That is why the museum cannot exhibit its own collection in its own country. But now, Documenta seems to be making miracles happen.

EMST director Katerina Koskina thinks it is "great" that the permanent collection will be presented in Kassel for the first time. She wants DW to pass on a "bravo" to Documenta's artistic director, Adam Szymczyk. In her opinion, Documenta in Athens is a success. "By the end of May, 180,000 people visited our museum. Even the general public is now discussing what modern art means," says Koskina. This is new in a country defined by antiquity. But many Greeks ask themselves whether their troubled country should instead focus on other priorities. Many ask themselves whether art that is incomprehensible fulfills its purpose. "Many believe that art is only an embellishment," Koskina said. "But that is not always true. Art also plays a social role: It gets us thinking and delivers messages."

According to this logic, the American artist Rick Lowe has managed to create an impressive work of art. In the rundown Victoria district, one of the 45 exhibition venues in Athens, he brings together locals, immigrants, old people and young people. They meet to talk, play dominoes and make plans. There are almost no rules. Everyone can come and go as they please. Lowe speaks of a "social sculpture", inspired bythe German artist Joseph Beuys . Lowe told DW that his project's location is no coincidence. Victoria Square was in the new headlines all over the world in 2015, when thousands of displaced people slept there. They are now gone. Can art revive the neighborhood?

The owner of the bakery around the corner, Yorgos Liontos, thinks it is good that Documenta is taking place in Athens. But he has not looked at any art himself. He says modern is "too lofty for our area." Victoria Square was actually once a posh district, said Liontos, who is the third-generation owner of his family's baking business. Many people had to leave this area in the 1980s after the damage caused by an earthquake. Ever since then, things have slowly been falling apart. Liontas considers art something good, but, he said, "most importantly, people here need a livelihood."

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