Samo Samos

Cathryn Drake on Harun Farocki at the Culture Hotel Pythagoras art museum

Left: Curators Apostolos Vasilopoulos and Jason Kontovrakis. Right: Festival artistic director Konstantia Gourzi, artist Harun Farocki, and architect Penny Petrakou. (All photos: Cathryn Drake)

THE ISLAND OF SAMOS was the scene of a recent summertime détente between Greeks and Germans on the occasion of Harun Farocki’s “Between Eye and Hand,” the inaugural exhibition of the Culture Hotel Pythagoras art museum and residency. Munich-based entrepreneur Kurt Schwarz and his Greek wife, Chiona Xanthopoulou-Schwarz, bought and renovated the abandoned hotel, long an eyesore on the quaint touristic harbor of Pythagoreio, where the eponymous mathematician lived. Also initiating that weekend was the Samos Young Artists Festival, a series of concerts taking place every August in the ancient theater, founded by the couple three years ago and directed by composer Konstantia Gourzi. I arrived on a Friday by boat from Chios and joined the museum’s director, Alexandros Stanas, and curatorial team—Jason Kontovrakis, Apostolos Vasilopoulos, Yannis Arvanitis—at a kitschy beach bar for an organizational meeting in the guise of cocktails until sunrise.

For the opening the next evening, the famed Samian nectar flowed as a convivial mix of Germans, Austrians, and Greeks repaired to the museum terrace, circumscribed by a marina, a playground, and a beach. Not a bad location at all: With a taverna attached to the back of the building and a kiosk selling beach supplies and cigarettes near the front entrance, you have just about everything you need. A Greek island may seem an odd location for an international art institution, but Samos once was a major artistic center, peaking around 600 BC, when it achieved the greatest engineering feat in antiquity, the Eupalinos tunnel, among other wonders. And then the Athenians destroyed it all out of jealousy. “It’s not really on the map; it took me eleven hours to get here from Salzburg,” said Arne Ehmann, director of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac. “At first I thought it was a crazy idea, but it is perfect. The view from the reading room is like an Alex Katz painting.”

Left: Artists Arthur Summereder and Katharina Schild and curator Yannis Arvanitis. Right: Marek Bartelik, president of AICA, architect Penny Petrakou, and Culture Hotel Pythagoras director Alexandros Stanas.

During his official speech, Schwarz lauded Farocki’s work: “We saw a video two years ago at Art Basel, and my wife said it would fit perfectly here because it is political but also tells stories.” Farocki returned the favor and praised the pristine white venue as ideal for showing video work, comparing his own approach to music and poetry. I went inside to see the evidence: Projected on a double screen, Comparison via a Third uses traditional montage to juxtapose the contrasting ways bricks are produced in different cultures—mind-numbing Western machine–operated mass production versus the communal approach of artisans in India, for example, who work together to shape and fire the clay by hand. It is an evocative, and sad, commentary on the alienating effect of advanced technology on humankind.

Later everyone sauntered to a beachfront restaurant down the street. At the head table was a lively discussion of Farocki’s series “Serious Games,” depicting US military training exercises using computers with simulated battle scenarios very much like children’s video games. “For me it is not about one country or the other,” Xanthopoulou-Schwarz commented. “I am worried about our children.” More than war, the videos are about the postmodern disengagement of society and its fragmented view of reality through a screen. Subtitles from Eye/Machine III, a rapid montage of images taken by 1980s cruise missiles alternating with stored data portraying the same terrain, point to the perversity: “Meant to threaten and entertain.” “A genre prone to exaggeration. Hardly suitable to depict death.” In one video psychologists illustrate the virtual reality immersion programs used to treat PTSD, which are nearly indistinguishable from those used in training. “It took six months to get permission from the military to film, not because it was sensitive material but because the press officers are lazy,” Farocki explained. “When they saw the end product they did not know what to make of it since there was no commentary.”

Left: Elculture’s Calliope Alpitsi and Nikos Ververidis. Right: Nathalie Hosp of the Samos Young Artists Festival and a friend.

Sunday night there was a festival celebrating the anniversary of the Mykali sea battle, wherein the Greeks defeated the Ottomans. “Low budget!” exclaimed a curator as we watched a less than spectacular simulation of a Turkish frigate burning. Not to mention anachronistic, especially at this moment in history. “Why are we celebrating a long-ago naval battle when we have an economic war going on now?” a fellow spectator asked. I walked to the other end of the harbor to watch the traditional dancers doing the sirtos, but then decided to partake in the age-old ritual of ouzo drinking.

Monday night was the inaugural concert of the Young Artists Festival, this year titled “Music Flows Across the Sea.” I took up a tranquil spot under some pine trees in the ancient theater on the hillside. The music, a mix of compositions from Greece to Asia Minor by the Ross Daly Quartet, was from a time when national borders were more expansive. I ended the night on the museum balcony with a view to the sea and Turkey. Over a bottle of tsipouro, Kontovrakis and Vasilopoulos reported that some artists visiting that day, on their way back from Documenta, had read about the exhibition at Culture Hotel Pythagoras and thought it must be a mistake. Another tourist asked if there was a room available.

Left: The Culture Hotel Pythagoras and beach. Right: The Mykali Battle Festival.