ATHENS — In 2013, the curator Adam Szymczyk proposed a radical reinvention of Documenta, the prestigious contemporary art exhibition held every five years in Kassel, Germany: to split the show for the first time between its cozy German hometown and Athens, the epicenter of Europe’s economic, migration and democratic crises. The two-act exhibition would use culture to call attention to those crises and re-examine, maybe even shift, the power dynamics of Europe.
Mr. Szymczyk was granted his wish. And more. The 14th edition of Documenta opens here this week — amid controversy. Some German art critics fear that the show will lose its coherence, and in Kassel, where the second act opens on June 10, there’s concern about losing visitors. In Greece, where sensitivities run high after years of recession and austerity mandated by a Germany-led European Union, some see the exhibition as a form of German cultural imperialism, or misery tourism.
“No good deed goes unpunished,” said Mr. Szymczyk (pronounced ZIM-chik), 46, the show’s Polish-born artistic director. A leftist, he seemed uncomfortable with the accusations of cultural imperialism. He was sitting in the headquarters of Documenta’s public programs here, near a building once used by Greece’s military dictatorship to interrogate prisoners — a choice of venue some Greeks found provocative if not insulting even though Mr. Szymczyk said it was intended to call attention to the country’s troubled history.
In Athens, “there’s a temperature in discussions,” he said. “You get a feeling that what you do matters. It’s not lukewarm.”
An art show with a heavy dose of political theater, Documenta 14 has works by around 160 artists, most of whom are showing in both cities. The exhibition is called “Learning From Athens,” and many works touch on issues of value, identity and migration. “Athens was synonymous with the economic crisis and social crisis that ensued in Europe,” Mr. Szymczyk said. “Metonymically, it was a place that was seen as standing for developments within this crisis.”
There are many paradoxes. Even as the curators intend Documenta’s presence here to question what they call the “neoliberal” economic order, the exhibition’s arrival has also been seen as the most vivid manifestation of German soft power in Europe since the debt crisis began around 2010. On Saturday, the show will be inaugurated here by the presidents of Greece and Germany.
“It’s just about creating an awareness, creating a kind of, ‘Don’t forget our European brothers and sisters in the homeland of democracy,’” said Martin Roth, an adviser to the German culture ministry on international cultural relations who stepped down last year as the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Mr. Szymczyk, who had been the director of the Kunsthalle Basel and moved to Athens in 2014 with some of his curatorial team, dismissed the idea that he was, as he put it, a “functionary” of the German state. He and the curators want Documenta to think beyond nationalisms, not become ensnared in them. “Documenta isn’t the U.N.,” he said. “It’s a global art exhibit.”
Documenta has been political since its first edition in 1955, when it showed so-called degenerate art that had been banned by the Nazis. This year, Mr. Szymczyk said he wanted the exhibition to make Germany look at Greece differently. “A cultural enterprise of this magnitude has power to influence politics,” he said.
Half of Documenta 14’s budget of 37 million euros (slightly less than $40 million) spread between 2013 and 2018 comes from the German state. The other half comes from ticket sales (mostly in Kassel, though some Athens venues will charge admission), private donations and corporate sponsorship. A spokeswoman for Documenta said it was hard to say how the budget would be split between the two sites. But the Athens installment “is not a low-budget version of Kassel,” Mr. Szymczyk said, adding that Documenta had increased the funding “significantly” for this year’s edition.
The show runs in Athens until July 16 and in Kassel from June 10 until Sept. 17.
The Greek state isn’t contributing funding to Documenta, but Aegean Airlines opened direct flights between the two cities, and Greek public television is broadcasting programming about the exhibition. The city of Athens is providing services and the use of some public spaces. “It’s good for the morale of the people,” said Giorgos Kaminis, the mayor of Athens.
The art in Documenta touches on themes from resistance to transgender identity. It begins with an ambitious inaugural program. On Saturday, the artist Ross Birrell is to commence “The Transit of Hermes,” in which equestrians will begin a ride from the Acropolis to Kassel. Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle, a self-described “ecosexual sexicologist,” are offering “Cuddling Athens,” a mattress on which they’ll hug visitors. In “Shamiyaana – Food for Thought: Thought for Change,” the British-Pakistani artist Rasheed Araeen set up a tent in an Athens square serving food. It has drawn Athenians and Syrian refugees far removed from the contemporary art world, who gather to share a meal and talk.
The Athens art world is delighted to have Documenta bringing energy and international attention to the city’s increasingly vibrant art scene. “People are waiting for people from abroad to show up,” said Rebecca Camhi, a gallery owner here.
But even those who welcome Documenta said they were upset that the exhibition didn’t focus enough on Greek art — a criticism rarely heard in Kassel about German art — and said that the Documenta curators didn’t engage intensely enough with the local art scene.
“It’s a disappointment for both sides,” said Hanno Rauterberg, the art critic for Die Zeit, a German weekly newspaper.
“Most people won’t come to Athens and won’t see the whole Documenta,” he said.
The city of Athens says it’s expecting 8,000 people for the exhibition’s opening this week, and after that about 1,200 people a week as tourists and not necessarily for Documenta. In 2012, Documenta 13 drew 900,000 people to Kassel.
In Athens, Documenta is using some of the city’s premier art venues, including the Benaki Museum and the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, or EMST, in a former beer factory, whose opening has been delayed for years and mired in conflict.
The installation in EMST features giant masks by Beau Dick, a Canadian artist and activist of the Kwakwaka’wakw people of Northwest Canada, who died last month, as well as by the New Zealand artist Nathan Pohio, who is of Maori descent, and a work by Synnove Persen, from the Sami, an indigenous people of Scandinavia.
The curators said the idea was to erase the border between the art historical and the ethnographic, and to start conversations about how art can take on anticolonial resonances even in colonial museums.
But it’s not clear how it will resonate in Athens, where one of the main critiques of Documenta is that the exhibition organizers have taken an anthropological approach to the locals. Anonymous graffiti has popped up across the city, reading: “Dear Documenta: I refuse to exoticize myself to increase your cultural capital. Sincerely, the people.”
“They’ve learned ‘at’ us a lot,” said the Greek artist Eirene Efstathiou. “When locals are involved, it’s on Documenta’s terms,” she added. She finds the approach theoretical: “It’s in an academic sort of way, ‘Isn’t the economic crisis interesting?’”
She and others said that Documenta’s public programming, which is directed by the transgender writer and critic Paul B. Preciado, seemed to embrace romantic notions of Greek resistance, such as when it invited the Italian leftist radical Toni Negri to speak about his life last fall, when the public programming began.
Asked how he defines Documenta’s success, Mr. Szymczyk didn’t hesitate. “The fact that it happens,” he said.
“I think we have asked questions here, and many people are responding,” he added. “I think it’s going to leave a quite terrific immaterial heritage. There will be stuff for discussions for decades to come.”