documenta 14:
A “Queer” Case of Hospitality

Yannis Androulakis


Since 1959, documenta’s has been converted into a major periodical art exhibition. Its second most recent manifestation, documenta 14 (d14), reenacted itself while challenging its own topological space. Being based on a twofold structure, Learning from Athens took place in its usual home in Kassel and the Greek capital. What contributed to Adam Szymczyk’s (artistic director of d14) intention was the divergent socio-economic and historical settings of the two cities, together with the European and global political situation.1 That context was also the one to motivate artistic production. In the symposium held at the academy of fine arts in Kassel on October 7, 2014, Szymczyk, being very well aware of the binary logic between North and South, emphasized the need to typify the issues of the current global crisis while overcoming the former polarization. While the exhibition had been the topic of heavy criticism for the oblivious aim towards Athens, Szymczyk had little to say about this. As Iliana Fokianaki wrote, “The only thing he declared was that documenta would be ‘guest’ rather than the host in Athens.”

The dislocation of d14 to the Southern periphery of Greece, I argued, was not the first time foreign institution or organization impose unitlateral plans in the guise of an amiable promise of financial or cultural prosperity. While the paper examined documentas’ status and the tension between docuemnta and Greece, the current text primarily addresses Greece’s inability to host d14. Thus the following lines serve as a description of the Greek state, the official hosti-ing country for its guest -documenta.

Chapter I

In a broader geopolitical context, despite Greece’s integration into the European Union (EU), the state situated itself outside the European ideological realm due to its geographical, historical, and financial settings. Moreover, as a peripheral country with no colonial past on the one hand and heavy industry on the other, Greece lacks both the necessary prosperity and political sovereignty to be incorporated into the policies of the core European countries.2

The lack of sovereignty in state and international affairs was imminent since the establishment of the modern Greek state in 1830 when the Bavarian Prince Otto was appointed king of Greece by the Franco-German axis. Moving forward to Greece’s modern history, the civil war in 1945-1949 between the communist social movement, National Liberation Front (EAM), and the right-wing Greek government is another example of the foreigner’s dominion over the country. During World War II, the British initially funded the EAM for its resistance against the Nazi occupation.3 However, after the withdrawal of Nazi forces, Churchill and Stalin made an agreement that divided the influence of Britain and the USSR over the South-Eastern part of Europe. As a result, Britain took over 90 percent of Greece and began to assert constraints on the EAM, despite the initial alliance during the World War. The civil war subsequently commenced. In the late warfare stage, the US offered financial and military support to the Greek right-wing government to finalize its violent suppression of the EAM, ending the most violent civil war in the 20th century.4 Nonetheless, even after the end of the civil war, the trauma of the conflict between the two opposing poles, the leftist and the right-wing movement, was still prevalent in the country’s political scene. Of great importance is the identity crisis that arose from this ideological polarization. It becomes evident, especially after the dictatorship - junta (1967-1974), during the liberalization of the Greek state, the desire of Greece to resolve the crisis and align with the ideal of the European sovereign state has become dominant. Equally, contemporary Greece still suffers from the same fictional idea, which wants the country to be on an equal basis with the rest of the central European member states. The latter entails the mimicry attitude of the politicians and thus the alternes of a nation-state according to the will of the powerful other. I would suggest that the adoption of the euro currency in Greece consists of one such example by which one country attempts to copy the behavioral mechanism of a better-off state. The copying of the “colonizing” culture was also evident during the Olympics in 2004. To proclaim its purported “prosperity,” Greece undertook the Olympics project, which caused a financial downturn that accelerated in 2009.5

It was also evident in documenta’s disposition to the Athenian capital. After all, a western cultural import such as documenta would undoubtedly attract the authorities’ attention as a cultural and geopolitical affirmation. Greece, nevertheless, was never a strong sovereign state. Its deficiency to institute political authority and activities within the social and cultural realm was prevalent since the inception of the modern Greek nation-state.6 What contributed to the lack of sovereignty was the role with which the external forces or guests shaped the nation state or the state’s national economy.

The incident on May 2, 2010, is the latest example of Greece’s inability to define its state relations. Accordingly, amid the debt crisis, the Greek government, the European Commission (EC), the European Central Bank (ECB), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) signed the first memorandum. The troika, consisting of the EC, ECB, and the IMF, was formed ad hoc to provide bailouts and financial measures within this very context. Troika thereafter was the one to monitor and administer the financial aid given to the Greek government. As a condition for the troika’s financial assistance, Greece has been forced to implement a set of drastic austerity measures, including the privatization of several state-owned companies. Troika’s plan to reduce Greece’s sovereign debt crisis has been translated into the forceful selling and leasing of its government’s economically viable assets (ports, land, mines, etcetera.). It is also crucial to mention that despite selling its public assets, there is no significant investment being made in the country. The social welfare and domestic production in Greece continued to decrease as the debt grew larger.

To cite Paul B. Preciado, d14 in Athens was in a state of transition from Kassel to the Greek capital.7 As if seeking a new narrative, it located itself within the ruins of a bankrupt state, which at that year also opposed the bailout and austerity measures of the troika’s plan. Therefore, by refusing its compliance to the current representative politics, the institution is considered to have negated the internal colonial reason surrounding the European Union while creating a synthetic alliance of people. The latter, as said above, manifested vividly in its dislocation to Athens. It is nonetheless a peculiar sensation I have in regards to the latter. Although I considered it to be an innovative and rigid project at the start, I have unfortunately started to reconsider what at first seemed to be a beneficial idea between Greece and documenta, between the host and guest.8

Chapter II.

Derrida’s interpretation of hospitality provides a useful understanding of the relationship between d14 and Greece.

— Derrida defined hospitality as inviting and welcoming the ‘stranger’. This takes place on different levels: the personal level where the ‘stranger’ is welcomed into the home; and the level of individual countries.  His interest was heightened by the etymology of ‘hospitality’, being from a Latin root, but derived from two proto-Indo-European words which have the meanings of ‘stranger’, ‘guest’ and ‘power’.9

In this sense, the “deconstructed” idea of hospitality resonates with the binary power relation between guest and host; but also, as:

— an essential ‘self limitation’ built right into the idea of hospitality, which preserves the distance between one’s own and the ‘stranger’, between owning one’s own property and inviting the ‘other’ into one’s home.10

Therefore, according to Derrida, hospitality is always conditional. Derrida proposed that hospitality negates its own definition by entailing a form of hostility with the term he invented. The host is always the one who sets the rules for the guest. Therefore, the virtue of hospitableness entails the host’s power to provide shelter to the guest. In other words, for hospitality to take place, there should be an a priori knowledge of the guest as the ‘other’ or ‘outsider.’ Vice versa, the guest, must meet the criteria of this a priori knowledge stated by its host for hospitality to finally take place. If not, then we speak about the concept of absolute, or unconditional hospitality, according to which the host is unaware of the outsider’s nature:

— Unconditional hospitality implies that you don’t ask the other, the newcomer, the guest to give anything back, or even to identify himself or herself. Even if the other deprives you of your mastery or your home, you have to accept this. It is terrible to accept this, but that is the condition of unconditional hospitality: that you give up the mastery of your space, your home, your nation. It is unbearable. If, however, there is pure hospitality, it should be pushed to this extreme.11

This, of course, is an impossible ideal. Thus we arrive at the modern hospitality enigma: unable to realize the limit of hospitality and the impossibility of ideal hospitality.

In European politics, the pursuit of the ideal hospitality coincides with the discourse around the topic of diversity and decolonization as framed within governments and mega-institutions. Accordingly, cultural institutions have been structured upon a certain civilized way of behaving, especially when it concerns the ‘other.’ There seems to be nonetheless a paradox. This discourse is based on the traditional European structural logic of the government or the institution. As Fokianaki states:

The presentation and discussion of this behavior is undeniably reminiscent of older Western notions of how a civilized host should perform toward an exotic, uncivilized other.12
In this case, even though these cultural institutions oppose colonial practices of the past and reflect on contemporary political issues as an act of hospitality, this attitude places them on higher moral ground. Hence, even when being a guest, due to the former hegemonic moral rule, the institution (usually located within the EU) is prevailing and thus acts as a host.

The power relations between the guest and host are visible in d14. Annette Kulenkampff’s statement, former CEO of documenta, likewise feeds off this positivist vision of diversity and decolonization. Accordingly, she considers the exhibition to be “a gift” to Greece.13 Here, an act of hospitality was taking place: Greece welcomed its friendly, gift-bearing guest. However, this statement is relatively scandalous and problematic. It entails an elitist and monolithic point of view; it also signifies the ideological apparatus within which documenta, as a Northern institution, has been formulated. Accordingly, d14 failed to recognize its nature as an institution whose actions always imbued unequal power structures.

In that manner, documenta, while being a guest, obliged its host to behave in a particular civilized way. Or put it more radically, the initial roles between documenta and Greece had then been reversed: documenta was acting as a host while it treated Greece as its guest, the exotic ‘other.’


Documenta’s attitude towards Greece reminds me of the support mechanism given to the state during its first memorandum. The sort of guardianship provided by the EU for Greece not to default. On the one hand, Troika came to Greece to ensure euro’s stability and to enhance the fiscal policies of the nation. d14, on the other hand, was hosted in Athens in order to learn from the city and its people. However, in both cases, there is an obscure changing of roles. Once more, the guest or the foreigner takes the form of the host while Greece, in that manner, loses the mastery of its home.

1 “Learning from Athens.” Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art.

2 Fokianaki, Iliana. “Redistribution via Appropriation: White(Washing) Marbles - Journal #91 May 2018 - e-Flux.” e-Flux.

3 Lengel, Edward G. “The Greek Civil War, 1944-1949: The National WWII Museum: New Orleans.”

4 Ibid.

Fokianaki, Iliana, Varoufakis, Yanis. “‘We Come Bearing Gifts’-Iliana Fokianaki and Yanis Varoufakis on Documenta 14 Athens.” e-Flux.

6 Thomson, Janice E. “State Sovereignty in International Relations: Bridging the Gap between Theory and Empirical Research.” International Studies Quarterly, 39(2) (1995): p. 214.

7 “Exposed to the Unknown: Paul B. Preciado and Georgia Sagri.” Mousse Magazine and Publishing, 16 Sept. 2021.

8 Fokianaki, Iliana, Varoufakis, Yanis. “‘We Come Bearing Gifts’-Iliana Fokianaki and Yanis Varoufakis on Documenta 14 Athens.” e-flux.

9 O’Gorman, Kevin. “Jacques Derrida’s philosophy of hospitality”. Hospitality Review. 8, (2006), p.51.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid., p.53.

12  Fokianaki, Iliana. “Redistribution via Appropriation: White(Washing)Marbles – Journal #91”, May 2018. e-Flux.

13 Fokianaki, Iliana, Varoufakis, Yanis. “ ‘We Come Bearing Gifts’– Iliana Fokianaki and Yanis Varoufakis on Documenta 14 Athens.” e-Flux.