Blood Moon

Lauren O’Neill-Butler on openings in Greece

A flag by Kiki Smith.

THE ISLAND PROCESSION began around 8 PM on a muggy night. A long queue of people ceremoniously walked—there are no cars here, only mules for transport—from the old town that hugs a crescent-shaped harbor up a steep, craggy road. After passing olive, pine, and cypress trees, and whitewashed buildings creeping up the cliffs, everyone arrived at a small structure overlooking the sea, with wind-whipped flags under a Sagittarius full moon.

This is where Kiki Smith unveiled her winsome show “Memory,” for Dakis Joannou’s Deste Foundation project, in a small, erstwhile abattoir on the Aegean Sea. It was my first trip to Hydra, and it seemed auspiciously timed—a thought confirmed when several regulars claimed it was their favorite edition yet. “Deeply considered,” said one. “An artist who gives no fucks,” said another.

Here’s Smith, excerpted from an exquisite text she wrote to accompany the event:

“I was once on the island of Bequia, of St. Vincent and Grenadines, where they hunted whales from small boats and slaughtered goats. One day a goat’s entrails floated in the water as we swam, and then washed up on the sands. I made photographs and drawings of the organs, which got me drawing again after several years of not doing so. Later that month, a hurricane came and took away two or three meters of the sand beach.”

Her project is, consequently, “an offering to the Greek sea from New York.”

The opening night crowd at “Memory” by Kiki Smith.

It is said that the waters once ran red around Hydra—the blood of the killed animals, perhaps from the slaughterhouse, fed the fish, and then the fish merged with flesh. Smith’s installation appears as a tribute to the hybrid sea goat, or mer-goat, an ancient god. A talisman of this deity fittingly sits atop the slaughterhouse. Installed inside and around the space are Smith’s bronze animals, many resonant with Hydra: stray cats, a tired donkey, an owl, and a sculpture made for looking out onto the horizon. Smith replaced the building’s windows with heavy Rubio pink glass, which casts a rosy hue inside. I still don’t quite have the words to describe this effect interacting with the sunset. Suffice it to say, I saw new colors.

A long smorgasbord of offerings from local restaurants hugged the side of the road. The art worshippers gathered in small groups or sat on benches while they ate souvlaki and grilled haloumi and drank wine. The imbibing continued well after midnight in a few bars around town, complete with night swimming. It was a full moon, after all.

People make pilgrimages to Greece for so many reasons: ancient relics, food, beaches, and, surely, contemporary art. Like Leonard Cohen in Hydra, some stay and set down roots for decades. Cohen’s house appears to be for sale: Patrons who have the means to create residencies, please take note. For the past few years, artists have increasingly flocked to Athens. The city’s art scene is vibrant, mutable, and impossible to pin down. I visited this past October for “ANTI,” the Sixth Athens Biennial, and even over a handful of months, the city seems to have completely changed—perhaps because it’s now sweltering and swamped with tourists. Various events were whirling in the warmth around Deste’s annual event in Hydra two weekends ago: Jeff Wall had an opening at the George Economou Collection; Kelly Akashi’s show at the new residency and exhibition space Arch would be unveiled the following week. During a Sunday brunch at the Joannous’s villa overlooking Athens, someone described this time of year as when “Athens’s art scene goes to Mars.” That seemed about right.

Martin Parr takes a picture.

Taking its title from Heraclitus’s famous dictum on impermanency, the elegantly installed group show “The Same River Twice” opened at the Benaki Museum on Pireos Street later that night. Copresented by the Benaki, the New Museum in New York, and Deste, the exhibition offers a sweeping and selective gathering of thirty-one artists based in Athens. Nearly all the artists were born in Athens as well, mostly in the 1970s and ’80s. The oldest is eighty-one and the youngest is a mere twenty-six. An interest in the ever-changing status of their city unites much of the work on view. I caught up with the show’s curators—the New Museum’s Margot Norton and Natalie Bell—while they were in town last October, during one of several trips they made to Athens for studio visits. The sheer joy they shared after visiting Dimitris Tsouanatos’s punk concept store Remember Fashion, founded in 1978, comes through in the show. Tsouanatos’s dazzling presentation of designs, collages, and archival footage in an installation with paintings, music, and sculptures by Delia Gonzalez is a real treat.

Curators Natalie Bell and Margot Norton.

Amid the intergenerational, mostly Greek crowd that night, an observer who had just flown in from Art Basel seemed perplexed: “Is this a nationalistic display?” I didn’t think so. The portrait of Athens that unfolds here is neither triumphant nor heroic. Even during high tourist season, Greece still visibly suffers from the effects of the decade-long economic crisis and resultant austerity program imposed on it. A set of powerful photographs of men captured on city streets by Yorgos Prinos conjures a tense and melancholic mood, while Evi Kalogiropoulou’s 2018 video Neighbours documents a family of men working in an Athenian scrap-metal yard and plainly discussing the transition of neighborhoods from olive groves to refugee camps. Some of the racist ideas expressed in the video echoes those of local politicians, who continue to weaponize a fear of migrants in the lead-up to the July 7 legislative election.

A standout large-scale wall work by the pioneering artist Rena Papaspyrou, Photocopies Directly from Matter, 1980–82, offers a black-and-white grid of the city’s detritus, and it’s one of several pieces in the show that transform relics and castoffs. Take, for instance, the found fluorescent ceiling bulbs from abandoned Athenian factories and offices in an installation by Iris Touliatou, which are kept in various, flickering states of operation. Touliatou’s graceful solo show at Radio Athènes had just debuted the Friday night before, but that evening I was across town at Eleni Koroneou’s gallery, as—full disclosure—my husband, Arthur Ou, had his own exhibition to open. The Benaki show thankfully brought us all together, while the lavish afterparty in the courtyard boasted a buffet of regional dishes, which we washed down with the open bar. It was just the “art-mitzvah” vibe, as someone called it, and the loud DJ set that made me a little less inclined to stay. There was a ferry to catch to Hydra the next morning, anyway, and that meant going to Athens’s famous port, “down to the Piraeus,” like Socrates in the opening line of Plato’s Republic. While departing in the morning, I remembered that Socrates and Glaucon travel to Pireaus to witness a parade—a novel procession and oblation. And then, goddess bless, I caught another one on Hydra that night.

Burning sage during Kiki Smith's opening.

Artist Dionisis Kavallieratos.

Artist Iris Touliatou and Radio Athènes founding director Helena Papadopoulos.

Artist James Welling and Filmmaker Jane Weinstock.

Artist Kelly Akashi and dealer François Ghebaly.

Artists Alexandros Tzannis, Rena Papaspyrou, Rallou Panagiotou, and architect Maria Maneta.

Collector Laurie Ziegler and Dmitry Komis.

Dealers Alexandra and Eleni Koroneou with artist Arthur Ou.

Flags by Kiki Smith.

Kiki Smith's look out to the sea.

Kiki Smith's owl.

Leonard Cohen's house.

Full moon over Hydra.