The Athens of Adam Szymczyk, Curator of documenta 14

An interview with the man behind documenta 14 and the decision to bring the legendary modern art exhibition to Athens.

On Saturday April 8, across 40 indoor and open-air spaces throughout Athens, the vision of Adam Szymczyk for documenta 14  – one that until now has been kept under close wraps – will begin to unfold to the excitement of Athens and its visitors. But at the time of our interview, the 47-year-old curator of Polish descent and the artistic director of documenta 14 appears weary after a packed day of meetings and interviews in Kassel, Germany (the home of this major international modern art event). He sinks into his seat opposite four Greek journalists and three of his close aides.

It is early March and he has just announced documenta’s partnership with Athens’s new National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) and its director, Katerina Koskina. Addressing the potential future of the museum following documenta (over which questions still hover) Szymczyk says simply, “The state needs to decide if it wants a modern art museum or not, otherwise there is no point us discussing it between ourselves.” Cosmopolitan and insightful, he answers questions with a manner that indicates he has understood more about the Greek (and perhaps human) condition than he is willing to let on.

“I am trying to understand what is going on and how far we can go with this exhibition, such that we don’t create the impression that we are putting on a show of luxury or excessive ambition in the manner of some other large artistic events that have taken place in Greece from time to time. You have a sense of responsibility and duty to do something only because you feel the need to improve the situation. But how will it improve? The only thing you can do is that which is dictated by your reality. Perhaps, indeed, it is better to work only in the field that you are specialized in; and that for me is modern art.

We observe that the Public Programs in Eleftherias Park that were a forerunner of the documenta 14 had the air of a history lesson and were perhaps an experiment in approaching the reality of Athens in crisis from an extreme leftist viewpoint (our thoughts). Szymczyk responds, “You might be right. But perhaps you are asking a lot. It is not easy to create a dominant narrative which will appeal to everyone. Not even politicians can achieve that… Perhaps in the Public Programs we placed too much stress on the content that concerned the period of the military dictatorship in Greece. Perhaps, again, for all of us it was a form of exorcism. Personally I learnt a lot about Greek history over the past 50 years, more than from the books that I read. Additionally don’t forget that we are speaking from the point of view of the foreigner who observes things in Greece from the outside.”

“In your country everyone is a politician. Everyone refers to history and is interested in politics. These three years preparing documenta 14, I have had discussions with many people, from university professors to the cashier at a country supermarket. We did not focus on one side, wanting to reject the other. We did not sign on in favor of any one political opinion, beyond our belief that reactionary politics need to stop.”

Szymczyk stated early on that Greece is an “experimentation ground for foreigners.” Today, without abandoning that view, he recognizes that there is, “a combination of issues.” “I couldn’t understand why elsewhere things went better and some measures worked,” he says.

But now he acknowledges that, “there are many factors that intensify the internal weakness of the structures of the state: bureaucracy, corruption, the lack of a strong sense of responsibility on the part of citizens, the lack of trust in the state, clientelism, nepotism.”

For Adam Szymczyk however there is at least one ascertainment that remains unchanged: “those who are paying for the crisis are not those who caused it.”


By Maria Katsounaki

Read More


Professor Edith Hall On the “Greek Miracle”

The classics scholar and author of "Introducing the Ancient Greeks"...


Aegean Airlines to Fly from Athens to Kassel for documenta 14

Direct flights will allow art lovers and exhibition attendees to...