IN SOME PLACES, the art bubble can be benevolent—say, in Greece, the birthplace of democratic ideals.
If the country is in crisis politically, its art world is thriving. Or so it seemed when the plane landed in Athens during a drenching rain, unusual for the middle of June. Perhaps the gods objected to the art horde arriving from Basel for a weekend jaunt. Perhaps they just wanted to wash away the turmoil of the past—the recent past, that is. Ancient history lives in the visible foundations of this city. And what are foundations for if not to build something new?
There lies Documenta 14, or “Learning from Athens,” as artistic director Adam Szymczyk has labeled it. Partly thanks to this allover exhibition, Greeks really have it going on.
This was week eleven of D14, which had no less than forty-seven different sites to visit and a fulsome program of films and performances to behold. What’s more, the George Economou Collection was opening a solo show of sculpture by Charles Ray, and the Museum of Cycladic Art had positioned a surprising group show of contemporary artworks next to a dazzling historical exhibition, where the modern (Cy Twombly) mirrored the mythology of the ancients.
Before the weekend was out, that legacy would come up again, in “Athens Dialogues,” a marathon of interviews organized by Serpentine Gallery artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist and sponsored by collector Dakis Joannou’s Deste Foundation.
For Swiss Institute director Simon Castets, entry into this activity was smoothed, or should I say soothed, by a welcoming seafood and salads dinner with resident artists and curators at Ta Kanaria, an unpretentious restaurant on a residential street that reminded me of Havana, but without the tourists.
Our hosts were Radio Athènes founding director Helena Papadopoulos and the two cofounders of her project space in central Athens, Andreas Melas and Ion Costas. Also at the table were Athens Dialogues co-organizers Karen Marta and Tommaso Speretta. Another guest was artist Marina Karella, whose two-person show with Jack Pierson had just opened at Zamboulakis Gallery in Kolonaki Square. I felt right at home.
One thing Athens has over Kassel, where D14’s German counterpart is in progress, is piles of fresh prawns. Since its opening in April, Athens has been as good for the exhibition as it has been for Athens. “It’s created jobs and brought a lot of new people,” said Angelo Plessas, a Documenta artist who, like many of the nearly two hundred others in the exhibition, have been shuttling from Athens to Kassel and back. “The texture of the city has changed,” noted Papadopoulos, adding that the concrete “fireplace” by Oscar Tuazon currently occupying the street outside of Radio Athènes had become a popular hearth for the whole community.
Well, maybe not in the rain that went on all night, but the dawn brought clear skies, dry heat and vans and cars to shuttle visitors from Joannou’s Intercontinental Hotel to the Museum of Cycladic Art, an institutional jewel well below the Acropolis hill.
On hand were several contributors to the show celebrating the eighteenth anniversary of the Deste Prize, given between 1999 and 2015 to once emerging Greek and Cypriot artists like Christodoulos Panayiotou, Georgia Sagri, and Maria Papadimitriou, whose installation of handmade shoes was one of the top contributions.
In the connecting building, a Neoclassical mansion, curator Aphrodite Gonou and resident archeologist George Papamichelakis led a tour through “Divine Dialogues: Cy Twombly and Greek Antiquity.” “The biggest surprise of this show is that no one thought of doing it before,” said dealer Curt Marcus. It really was divine, and had a genuine star in the Francois Vase, aka the Kleitias and Ergotimos Krater. It’s the Rosetta Stone of Greek mythology—a kind of family tree of gods and goddesses—and was enjoying its first return to the homeland since its sale at the time of its making, in 570 BC, to wealthy Etruscans. It’s been in Italy ever since, and has been on view at the Archeological Museum in Florence since archeologists dug it up, broken, in mid-nineteenth-century Siena.
As the story goes, a hotheaded guard infuriated by a superior picked the prize pottery up and smashed it to the ground, where it broke into 638 pieces. After a meticulous restoration, it went back on view, but in the 1970s unhappy conservationists went at it again, and what we were seeing was their work. Perfection.
That left the day to tour galleries and start investigating Szymczyk’s initially bewildering vision, a drawback that is also one of its strong points.
I didn’t have nearly enough time to find everything, but with Szymczyk’s colleague Katerina Tselou as my guide I made godspeed for the afternoon. We started at the Music Conservatory and stopped at a few off-sites with solo presentations (all good) before detouring to the National Observatory for Adriàn Villar Rojas’s indoor/outdoor commission from collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos’s Neon Foundation.
Outside, in a dredged-from-the-earth-and-sky antidote to Damien Hirst’s salvaged-from-the-depths extravaganza in Venice, Villar Rojas has installed vitrines containing all manner of twentieth-century artifacts in a lush, tropical garden that he’d planted on what had been a hillside of dust. Inside was like a peep show, with the Acropolis as the object of desire.
Funny place to run into people from New York and Los Angeles—namely the curators Massimiliano Gioni, Cecilia Alemani, Maria Papini, and Ali Subotnik, who arrived with artists Maurizio Cattelan and Dan Finsel. But maybe not so unusual on a weekend like this.
“We saw everything,” said collector Beth Rudin DeWoody, who drove around town over the weekend with Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin and dealer Marc Selwyn. “We saw every single site,” said dealer Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, who was traveling with her sister Jackie and her daughter Chloe. “It’s so interesting,” the Salon 94 founder said. “I really like it.”
We were now at the Economou Collection, which attracted an impressive number of American and British museum directors—nine, all told—to Ray’s first solo show in Athens. They were treated to just four sculptures dating from 1973 to now, and a talk by the artist that was as baffling as Documenta first had been. The show’s guest curator, the Dallas Museum of Art’s Gavin Delahunty, could barely get in a word, nor did he try after Ray began to speak of his new, Greek mythology–themed aluminum relief as a slowly germinating, hybridized “copy of a copy” of a sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum. He topped it off by characterizing the earliest work on view, a column of bricks slicing through a plank on two sawhorses, as “a teenager’s erection,” and the show as a rain of ejaculate flowing up through the ceiling to the hatching, embryonic bird of a steel sculpture on a floor above.
Indicating the aluminum relief, Delahunty asked, finally, “What does this work tell us about your future direction?” Ray didn’t have to think about that. “Nothing,” he replied.
I tell you, he was breathtaking. It can’t be easy to hold such heard-and-seen-it-all company like Tate Modern director Frances Morris and curator Mark Godfrey, Dallas Museum of Art director Agustín Arteaga, Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg, Dia Foundation director Jessica Morgan, Pinault Foundation curator Caroline Bourgeois, MoMA curator Yasmil Raymond, Judd Foundation co-president Rainer Judd, dealers Jeffrey Deitch, Fergus McCaffrey, and Matthew Marks, and collectors Richard Chang, Jill Brienza, DeWoody, and Rohatyn completely rapt.
The gods cried out. The rain returned, this time in buckets, just as dinner in an outdoor courtyard off the Plaka was about to begin.
Economou’s team had, um, erected a clear plastic roof overhead, so we could still see the Acropolis in all its nighttime glory, but it was a little… well, damp. No matter. This is all part of the art experience.
The good weather returned for another clear morning for Documenta spelunking, followed by a grand brunch at Joannou’s art gallery of a home in the Athenian hills. There, among several works by Greek artists and more by Kaari Upson, Urs Fischer, and Finsel (among others), Cattelan was introduced to the Scottish artist David Shrigley. “Are you really that funny?” the Italian cut-up asked. He must be. Everyone laughed.
At cocktail time, Nadia Argyropoulou and Obrist launched their Deste book, The Marathon Marathon in Athens, at the Benaki Museum’s main building—also the venue for “Liquid Antiquity,” a Deste show of artist video portraits. (Think Jeff Koons, Matthew Barney, Fischer, and Upson, etc.)
The museum’s rooftop terrace was a lovely spot for “Athens Dialogues,” which Obrist promised would run just three hours. A promise not kept, even though there were only seven respondents—Villar Rojas, architect Elizabeth Diller, Raqs Media Collective’s Shuddhabrata Sengupta, and Hito Steyerl among them—all quite chatty. I left, ravenous, at 10 PM and it wasn’t half over.
The next day, Monday, was gorgeous, especially for sailing the Aegean from Athens to the island of Hydra on the Guilty, the yacht Koons painted for Joannou. No mistaking that boat for any other, that’s for sure. Here is one collector whose warmth and joy in the art life is contagious.
At Gioni’s behest, the half-dozen artists on board repaid the host with an exquisite cadavre-exquise that he took, literally, to heart. In high spirits, we docked in time for lunch and a swim before the opening of “Figa,” by Kara Walker, the first female artist to command the Slaughterhouse, the Deste Foundation’s project space on the island. Walker made it a reliquary.
Hundreds of people lined up outside the concrete hut to view Walker’s sculpture—the left hand from A Subtlety, the magnificent sugar sphinx that Walker made two years ago for her Creative Time exhibition at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn. Only now the fuck-you gesture of the thumb thrust between two figures at the sea was far more pronounced—symbolic retribution for the refugees who have been pouring from Syria into Greece. (An opening-night video showing their painful journeys was controversial among the Greeks in attendance.)
“We made a curatorial intervention!” squealed Hammer curator Aram Moshayedi, after turning off the lights inside the Slaughterhouse and leaving it only in candlelight. And sure enough, a ghostly face emerged from the depths of another piece on the floor. It was really chilling.
The only thing to do was the only thing to do every night on Hydra—repair to the Pirate Bar in the port for nightcaps. And everyone did. On the way, I spotted Szymczyk and asked how he felt about his Documenta. “I’m just happy it happened,” he said—with a (rare) grin. Cattelan was leaving early the next morning. So were the Joannous, Dakis and Lieta.
But once you’ve been to Greece for a Deste weekend, trust me: It will never leave you.