Documenta 14: Ten things we learned from Athens

Our very unofficial guide to Athens

documenta 14 athens
The Acropolis of Athens

The first part of Documenta 14 has opened in Athens, much to the anticipation of the art world. Taking place every five years and usually in Kassel, this iteration partnered with the Greek capital as a way to engage with a city still reeling from the effects of an EU-imposed austerity plan. Thousands of years after inventing democracy and other, now obsolete concepts, Athens remains a fascinating place with its own rules and know-how that is taught through lived experience. As “Learning from Athens” is Documenta 14’s tagline, here’s the ten useful things we learned from the Greek capital.

1. Free travel as public art

Because many of the ticket inspectors were sacked as part of the austerity measures, the barriers in the metro are open constantly. However, the rumor has it that this is perhaps an act of public art intervention, and if it is, it’s a rather splendid one. Ride for free at your own risk, though.

2. Yanis Varoufakis is not a hero

The former Greek Minister of Finance might be the new Left’s darling, given his countless appearances in lefty talk shows. However, at mention of his name in Greece, it becomes apparent that he’s a persona non grata (which means person not great) in the country. When asked why, a local simply said “because he quit”, in reference to Varoufakis’s resignation when his plan didn’t get approved.

Yanis Varoufakis
Yanis Varoufakis. Courtesy Australian National Review

3. There are two Greeces

When talking about Greece, one thing has to be acknowledged: there are two Greeces – the mainland and the islands. While Athens might be slowly collapsing under the weight of unrelenting cuts to public services, on the islands everything is paradise as usual. To give you a clearer idea: Mykonos has two Louis Vuitton shops, one of which is one of the most profitable in the world.

4. Ferry tickets are cheaper at the counter

No travel guide will tell you this, and locals are confused themselves, but ferry tickets to the islands are cheaper at the counter than online. You’re welcome.

5. There’s no milk alternatives

Milky drinks that aren’t dairy are virtually unheard of in Greece. Should you be allergic to dairy – or just really picky – be sure to check luggage containing your preferred milk substitute.

6. Anyone can find an archaeological site

There are countless archeological sites in Athens and legend has it that if you dig deeper than 50cm you’re bound to discover one yourself. Many locals have found ancient vases while casually excavating. These usually contain ancient jewels but of course when handed to the authorities these tend to be empty. Good luck though!

7. The modern city grew too rapidly

Polykatoikia, the modern architecture of the city of Athens, was quickly built in the ’50s and ’60s much like in east London after WW2. This means that the quality is not the best, but unlike London that’s reflected in the property prices.

8. They have a wine that gives no hangovers

Some eateries are known to serve a particular type of white wine that doesn’t give hangovers. Explanations to this are unavailable, but we suspect that Bacchus might have something to do with it.


9. Not everything at the Acropolis is genuine

The five caryatids statues present at the Erechtheion are in fact replicas (just like the ones on London’s Euston Road). The original ones are at the Acropolis Museum (and the sixth at the British museum) to be protected against the elements and presumably the British and the Germans.

10. The Greek cultural influence is endless

The Greek cultural gifts to the world, from the Olympic games to the hipster beard, can be found in every corner of Athens (or Athina as you say it in Greek). For instance, the character used in dictionaries to indicate the sound of the English “th” comes from Greek; so perhaps Greece could actually pay off its monetary debt if the rest of Europe first paid its own cultural debt to Greece.

Documenta 14 takes place in Athens, Greece, from 8 April to 16 July 2017 and in Kassel, Germany, from 10 June to 17 September 2017

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