THE ROAD TO ATHENS is lined with empty billboards. One after another, endless and contentless, in various stages of abandon. Small irony that each is topped with a small placard, presumably the name of the parent company: REMEDY. When you enter Athens, however, there’s at least a superficial sense of a city on the mend. From Kolonaki to Kypseli, there’s a new world of design hotels and hipster bars, where cabs come when called and upstart, all-caps ventures like CAN and LIGHTROOM Projects cultivate a decidedly Athenian sensibility.
“You in Greece should know about things falling apart,” Urs Fischer cracked, good-naturedly. “I just wanted to speed up the process so we can all enjoy it.” It was Sunday afternoon, and the artist was addressing a young crowd at the city’s Cycladic Museum. More specifically, he was discussing the mechanics of clay, the main material of “Yes,” the latest in Deste’s annual events in an abandoned slaughterhouse on the island of Hydra. Fischer’s “Yes” is not about simple optimism; it’s about permissiveness, and a process of accumulation and imagination, of an affirmation that’s less about agreeability than it is about constant creativity, in its crudest elements.
This kind of flexibility pervaded “The System of Objects,” an eye-opening selection from the Dakis Joannou collection on view at the Deste space in Athens. “Reloaded” by architect Andreas Angelidakis, with help from design curator Maria Cristina Didero, the survey mingled art, furniture, and fashion. Rather than serve up more “Skin Fruit,” (the cause célèbre collection show curated by Jeff Koons at the New Museum), this exhibition reveals deeper roots. Sure, there was Koons, but only as a backdrop to Joannou’s flock of Baroque figurines. The collector’s sometime adviser Jeffrey Deitch joined me in front of one particularly jaunty Christ child: “Dakis was buying these kinds of things before anyone else, just on his own intuition, because he liked them. How prescient was that?”
To emphasize the “foundational” aspect, Angeladakis attacked the architecture, hollowing out spaces, exposing support rods, and repurposing packing materials as pedestals. Objects on display ranged from Joannou’s very first acquisition (a Lucio Del Pezzo, a graduation gift from his parents), to a sofa shaped like a bird’s nest, to recent drawings from the likes of Christiana Soulou, Paul Chan, and Sam Durant, which were hung salon style within a spare, wood-beam structure. In another room, drywall display columns showcased singular works, from a fiercely patterned Cypriot vase to a jaw-dropping Picabia to a pair of red sparkly American Apparel leggings from a Juergen Teller photo shoot with Daisy Lowe, an aspiring something-or-other. The last large gallery contained a pyramid of shipping crates festooned with works by Elad Lassry, Haris Epaminonda, and Robert Gober. The history lesson concluded in a room wallpapered with documentary snapshots from the Deste archive. “Well, this is embarrassing,” moaned current Venice Biennale artistic director Massimiliano Gioni, pointing to a group photo. “I think I’m probably twelve years old in this picture.”
From there it was on to the collector’s home and ad hoc exhibition space, where a room peopled with Paweł Althamer sculptures prefaced a sampling of Andro Wekua’s mnemosyne architecture. I skipped the lychee cocktails, slipping into a crowd that included dealers Barbara Gladstone, Javier Peres, and Andrzej Przywara; Christie’s Francis Outred; and curators and museum folk like Lisa Phillips, Ann Temkin, and Nadja Argyropoulou. I spotted artist Jakub Julian Ziolkowski wearing an eyeball pin, similar to the one Gioni had sported on his lapel the day before. “Jakub made it and gave it to me,” the curator grinned. “He says I have a good eye.”
The main crowd-pleaser that evening turned out to be the food, which was no-frills, just delicious. I staked out a poolside seat with Wekua, 032c editor Jörg Koch, Victoria Yee Howe, and a crew from Maurizio Cattelan’s Toilet Paper magazine, but the table guests would shuffle frequently as the buffet beckoned. When it came time for dessert, an ice cream cart was rolled out, offering respite to those who didn’t manage to get their gelato fix in cold, rainy Venice. Cattelan had caught a cold of his own—a tragedy, as I’m told he always inaugurates the dance floor—so it was left to Althamer to do the honors. Damn, did he ever, shimmying, sliding, and twirling in ways counter to what we know of physics. “Watching him dance, I suddenly understand his figures,” Deitch marveled, drawing closer. Joannou smiled, nodding: “He’s got the moves.”
The next morning, a handful of guests reassembled on Guilty, Joannou’s yacht, for the trip to Hydra. Following the tradition of artist-designed boats (Jenny Holzer outfitted the first), Koons covered this vessel with a combination of Lichtenstein and “Razzle Dazzle,” a British submarine camouflage pattern. “There’s an ode to Iggy Pop on the roof, but you can only see that from the harbor,” curator Cecilia Alemani. I personally preferred the Doug Aitken flag, identifying the boat’s port-of-call as “Wherever the fuck I am.”
Once on the island, we forwent the local custom of loading luggage onto donkeys and beelined to the slaughterhouse, where Fischer was surrounded by mounds of unformed clay. Last month, Fischer had brought a version of “Yes” to LA MoCA, where he invited community members to create their own clay sculptures—thousands of them. The results filled the entire Geffen building. In Hydra, the artist took a different approach, starting with a miniature model of Hydra fashioned by local schoolchildren. Under the relentless Greek sun, the clay weathered almost immediately, evincing an Acropolis vibe in just a day or two. “It’s as if these sculptures sprouted there naturally,” Argyropoulou observed, surveying the rocky bank to the slaughterhouse. As the project progressed, the hillside became home to all manner of sleeping mermaids, sphinxes, portraits of the local harbormaster, and Teller’s minimalist camera, a rectangle with a flash bulb, after the lens cracked and broke off. (While still a universal medium, clay is trickier than our preschool memories would have us believe.) When we poked our heads in, Fischer was taking a break while Tara Subkoff put the final feathers on what was to be a dead dove. “You should make some smiling ones,” Fischer called from the corner. (The artist at work.)
When the official opening time rolled around, the artist was still lingering over a sunset cocktail. I was having drinks at Pirate Bar with Sadie Coles, Teller, Ketuta Alexi, Wekua, and Mirabelle Marden, who was sporadically greeted by island-dwellers, all eager to remind her how they fondly remembered her and her sister as children. When we finally wandered down the slope to the slaughterhouse, guests had gathered in variations of Hellenic attire. We were greeted with “red” (Greek rosé) or “yellow” (“gasoline wine”), and offered plastic gloves and blocks of clay, so that we could add to the collection of figurines slowly colonizing the hillside.
Inside the abattoir, two local teenagers—modern Greek gods, stripped to sweat-soaked denim shorts—labored over a particularly complex piece: a gas-masked mother clutching her gas-masked infant through a set of iron bars. I had a perfect view of the process from my seat at the family-style dinner, one long table for all 350 guests, mostly locals, which stretched down one of the island’s car-free, cat-infested roads. Joannou watched the boys a moment: “It’s amazing to have them produce something so similar to Paweł’s work.” Turning to Fischer, he added: “Actually, Paweł’s down there right now with ten tons of clay. You may have some competition soon.” “Just as long as it isn’t on the dance floor,” Fischer shot back.
The next day, more ambitious guests waited in line for ferries back to Athens to catch the opening of Taryn Simon at the George Economou Collection, or the first of Martino Gamper’s “100 Chairs in 100 Days” at the Benaki Museum Annex. Others lingered behind, spending another day in the sun, then boarding evening boats to the Peloponnese for the second edition of Lustlands, a farmhouse festival organized by Argyropoulou and Athens’s Ionas brothers, Lakis and Aris (better known as “The Callas”). This year’s theme—On the Great Eastern—cited the scandalous eight-volume novel by psychoanalyst and photographer Andreas Empiricos. Written in the late 1940s but only published in 1991, the epic follows the erotic misadventures of passengers aboard a steam ship. (Think a Cinemax remake of The Love Boat.)
Accordingly, artists including Maria Papadimitrou, Poka-Yio, Rallou Panagiotou, and ATOPOS CVC produced duly provocative works (among them, a pretty pink painting of an acrobatic pig performing fellatio, and a placard reading MY VIBRATOR IS AN OCEAN LINER), which were sown through the surrounding fields in Thermissia. We arrived more or less “on time,” only to find most of the artists downing Heinekens around the barbecue or setting up projectors in the rundown farmhouse. Tents were set up in the citrus grove, an indication that the participants were in no rush. Why should they be? “It may be a cliché, but the crisis really is what makes these kinds of relaxed festivals possible,” a French-born artist explained, handing me a plastic cup of wine from a thermos. “Look, everyone wants to talk about the crisis, but Greece will be fine,” critic Glykeria Stathopolou assured me later. “Come back for the biennial; see for yourself.”