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German art exhibit Documenta debuts shared Athens experience

AFP , Sunday 9 Apr 2017
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, left, and his wife Elke Buedenbender visit the "Documenta 14" art exhibition inside the Greek Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens, on Saturday, April 8, 2017. Documenta 14, a multimedia exhibition showcasing over 160 international artists, was inaugurated by the presidents of Germany and Greece, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Prokopis Pavlopoulos on Saturday. (Photo: AP/Yorgos Karahalis)

One of the world's premier art events opened in Athens on Saturday, bringing a much-needed spotlight, artistic inspiration and visitor boost to crisis-hit Greece's run-down capital.

Documenta 14, the contemporary art exhibition held every five years in Kassel, Germany, puts over 160 international artists on display across the city in over 40 public institutions, squares, cinemas, university campuses and libraries, showcasing painting, performances, sculpture and sound art.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who inaugurated the event with Greek counterpart Prokopis Pavlopoulos, said the event aims to break down "the political and economic barriers that divide make us understand the world that surrounds us."

Germans who look closer will discover that Greeks have gone through major hardship, Steinmeier said. And Greeks will find that other Europeans are not "cold and one-sided".

"We can learn from each other...and we should do it more often in Europe...but this is only possible if we do not merely seek to confirm our stereotypes," he said through a translator.

Documenta was originally launched in 1955 by art professor Arnold Bode to draw attention to works banned by the Nazis as degenerate.

"Knowledge must be conquered again and again, lest it be forgotten. Democracy is under attack in many places, even in Europe," former foreign minister Steinmeier said.

The event has travelled outside its birthplace for the first time.

Some 860,000 people visited the last exhibition in 2012. Athens officials hope the Greek leg will draw over 6,500 visitors.

In Kassel, the event will run from June to September 17.

In Athens, Documenta will be headquartered at the recently-completed National Museum of Contemporary Art, a former brewery inaugurated in October after years of restoration work.

Shrouded in secrecy until the last minute, the 100-day Greek leg is titled 'Learning from Athens'.

In choosing to co-host the event in the Greek capital, organisers said they were inspired by the country's economic crisis and immigration challenges.

Appropriately, a large segment is devoted to immigration and displacement.

Saturday's inauguration will feature the Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra, an ensemble largely made up of war refugees.

"We want to spur people to dialogue and improve conditions here," said Kassel mayor Bertram Hilgen.

Over a million refugees and migrants have come through Greece since 2015, most of them fleeing civil war in Syria, and over 50,000 remain stuck in camps.

Greece is still struggling with recession and soaring unemployment seven years after nearly going bankrupt in 2010.

Throughout this period, Athens and Berlin -- which has footed a large share of the country's rescue -- have repeatedly clashed over budget targets and Greece's perceived resistance to economic reform.

"What did we learn from Athens? That we all must abandon our prejudices and plunge into the darkness of not knowing," Documenta's Polish-born artistic director Adam Szymczyk told reporters earlier this week.

On Sunday, horse riders will file beneath the Acropolis in a re-enactment of the Panathenaic procession, a 5th century BC celebration to honour goddess Athena, and immortalised as a frieze atop the Parthenon.

Titled 'The Transit of Hermes', the procession conceptualised by Glasgow-born Ross Birrell will travel 3,000 kilometres (1,864 miles) to Kessel, following the same Balkans route taken by refugees and migrants who last year poured into Europe to escape war and poverty.

Highlights of the exhibition, which runs to July, include the 'Parthenon of Books' by Argentine artist Marta Minujin -- a replica of the Classical Greek temple built with some 100,000 copies of banned books.

For the duration of the exhibit, a jet of white smoke will be emitted into the Kassel sky twice daily, an intervention by Romania-born artist Daniel Knorr.

A tiny town in central Germany, Kassel itself has a camp with hundreds of refugees. During World War II, the town had a forced labour camp and was badly bombed by the Allies.

It is also where Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm compiled their collection of fairy tales in the mid-19th century.

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