Diary

Sun Worshippers

Linda Yablonsky around Athens and Hydra

Maurizio Cattelan, Dakis Joannou, and Jeff Koons. All photos: Linda Yablonsky.

WHAT A RUSH to arrive in Athens and find it in the throes of a cultural renaissance! What else to make of the June 16 opening of the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), where the number of first-nighters topped five thousand? Of the new gallery district near the port of Piraeus, where Rodeo, Balice Hertling, and The Intermission were cohosting a show by Camille Blatrix, while such proudly post-crisis spaces as artist Angelo Plessas’s P.E.T. Projects are standing up for the local avant-garde?

Then there was “Brice Marden and Antiquity” at the Museum of Cycladic Art. This compact survey of works made by the artist in Greece from 1971 to now is almost too exquisite to bear. Also unmissable was “Dream On” at the Tobacco Factory, a ginormous building that the very civic-minded collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos leased for his NEON Foundation from the Greek Parliament, next door. This eye-popping installation’s mostly large-scale works by the likes of Thomas Hirschhorn, David Hammons, Annette Messager, Wangechi Mutu, and John Bock are among the 350 that Daskalopoulos—a fabulous person—has divided into all-expenses-paid gifts to four museums: EMST, Tate Modern, the Guggenheim Museum, and the MCA Chicago. “Everybody was happy and no one was jealous,” the collector joked, during one of a dozen or so programs taking place around town in the three-day “Art for Tomorrow” conference organized by the Athens office of the Democracy and Culture Foundation.

Certainly, the Athenians who swarmed EMST’s vast exhibition spaces had reason to be cheerful. After the Greek government designated the former FIX brewery as a public repository for recent art, they waited twenty-two years to see it become fully operational. At the center of the commotion was EMST’s jubilant artistic director, Katerina Gregos, who took up her position just as the Covid pandemic shut the city down. Now she has a permanent collection beefed up by 140 works from NEON and is earning kudos as the curator of the temporary exhibition, “Statecraft and Beyond.” This show may be longer on research and geopolitics than visual splendor, but it boldy tackles such thorny issues as citizenship, nationhood, autocracy, state bureaucracy, and the power structures behind all of it. Whitney director Adam Weinberg liked it very much. So did Dia Foundation director Jessica Morgan.

Adam and Lorraine Weinberg.

Both were among the international cohort of artists, collectors, curators, and gallerists who joined their Greek counterparts for a frenzied weekend of cascading events that brought the opening of Katharina Fritsch’s first solo exhibition in Greece to the George Economou Collection in Maroussi, a splendid and affecting exhibition of the late Kaari Upson’s work to collector Dakis Joannou’s Deste Foundation, and ultimately peaked with a blowout on the island of Hydra that no one who was there is likely to forget. The reason for that was Jeff Koons. His surpassing new work for Deste’s Slaughterhouse project was not only a return to peak form that cast a kind of spell on Hydra, but also a salute to his thirty-five-year friendship with Joannou. (More about that in a moment.)

Though credited as curator of Fritsch’s standout installation of recent and older works with Economou Collection director, Skarlet Smatana, Morgan said, “Katharina really curated it herself,” pointing out that the artist owns most of the modestly scaled works on view. They included a celadon-colored cast of the artist’s hand and a fascinating, braided black resin turban that reminded attentive guests of the knotted tails binding the colossal rodents of her 1993 masterwork, Rat-King. Economou has acquired three new freestanding sculptures, presumably from Matthew Marks, the dealer who shepherded Fritsch to a dinner in her honor on the rooftop terrace of that extraordinary house of Byzantine treasures, the Benaki Museum.

Guests numbered around a hundred, a small sampling of the throng gathered at the Onassis Cultural Center on the June 18 to witness “Art for Tomorrow”’s concluding program: a conversation with Koons and the New Museum’s Massimiliano Gioni moderated by Farah Nayeri, a reporter for the New York Times based in London.

His listeners were eager to hear about his proprietary collaboration with NASA and SpaceX to install a five-inch square cube containing 125 images of lunar phases on the moon, and they did, eventually. To the visible consternation of all, an alternately fawning and reproachful Nayeri gave the floor to Gioni for most of the hour, as if the artist weren’t there. Gamely improvising, Gioni did his best with her overarching question, “Can you explain how Jeff Koons became a household name?”

This was no mystery to Qatar Museums Authority director Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad Al Thani, who was front row-center with Weinberg and Joannou; each has hosted major surveys of the Koons oeuvre in their respective institutions. Nor was it a puzzle for Sir Norman Rosenthal, MoMA PS1 founder Alanna Heiss, Acute Art director Daniel Birnbaum, or Renaissance Society director Myriam Ben Salah. All were seated nearby, with artists Maurizio Cattelan, Sue Webster, and Brian Donnelly (aka KAWS, another conference speaker), deputy culture minister Nicholas Yatromanolakis, and the president of Culture and Democracy, Achilles Tsaltas.

Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Sandra Marinopoulos, and Aprhodite Gonou.

Inevitably, Nayeri raised the specter of Koons’s headline-grabbing prices and (literally) sky-rocketing production costs. In response, the mild-mannered artist dipped his arrow in poison. “It shows the limited quality of the press to have a dialogue about art. What’s easier for them to talk about is money, because I think the writers are too insecure to speak about art.” That prompted Gioni to remark, “Sometimes I tease Jeff and say he’s a little bit crazy.”

In the final minutes of this awkward conversation, Nayeri asked Koons to reveal something about “Apollo,” his commission from Deste for the Slaughterhouse on Hydra. Produced in total secrecy, even Joannou had no idea what was coming. “I think I’ll keep that a surprise,” Koons replied.

“Surprise” doesn’t quite capture the amazement with which passengers on boats nearing the island’s port greeted their first sight of the exhibition. There, on the roof of the Slaughterhouse, a stone shed perched on a bluff overlooking the Aegean Sea, was a golden, double-sided wind spinner with the face of the Sun God, welcoming people to the island the way Lady Liberty does travelers entering New York Harbor. Thinking of Koons’s fondness for lawn ornaments, I realized it was also a giant pinwheel.

I arrived a day ahead of the exhibition’s opening with Koons studio chief Gary McCraw and his other half, Siri Kuptamethee, the most fashionable couple on the island that weekend. Koons was at the Slaughterhouse, working with Marina Vranopoulou, Deste’s project coordinator. She was so consumed by the project that she missed the opening of Dio Hora, her splendid new gallery atop an archeological site close to the Acropolis Museum. “Technical problems,” she said.

Throughout the following day, the town filled with more and more people. Every single hotel room and AirBnB was taken. Beginning at sunset that evening, the steady procession to the Slaughterhouse went on for hours. As people approached, I heard a dozen different interpretations of the spinner.

Jeff Koons’s Apollo wind spinner atop the Slaughterhouse.

“It’s the Fornasetti sun,” said the art critic Brooks Adams. Another person on the line saw the Versace logo. “It’s Versailles—the Sun King!” exclaimed the French dealer Jérôme de Noirmont, who played a role in the 2008 Koons takeover of the palace. “No,” said the dealer Rebecca Camhi. “It’s the Star of Vergina,” an ancient image that for some time has been the official emblem of the Greek Republic. “We’ve all been so excited since the scaffolding came down,” noted a young woman who worked at my hotel. “Everyone in Hydra is coming here.”

But no one, not admirers or skeptics or the merely curious, was prepared for what Koons had in store. In the three stalls outside the Slaughterhouse, which was a working abattoir for a very long time, were a goat, a sheep, and a ram guarded by a young man dressed in the white toga of an ancient senator. Was this a performance? “I’m not supposed to talk to anyone,” he said. I asked for his name. “Romeo,” he replied. Really, it is.

Outside the door to the exhibition space, where two similarly costumed female sentries were posted, Koons was still tinkering, rearranging uneven wooden planks surrounding an old worktable on which he’d placed several objects: a half-dozen fake, rhinestone-studded Rolexes of the sort sold on Canal Street (where Koons shopped for readymades in the ’70s); a urinal and a bicycle wheel—nods to Duchamp and to Joannou, who owns an edition of Duchamp’s Fountain—and the kind of straight-back chair that features in a seminal work of conceptual art by Joseph Kosuth, the artist who inspired Joannou—another fabulous person!—to establish a foundation in the first place.

An exterior installation view of Jeff Koons’s “Apollo.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of a large plate of koulouri (seeded rolls) on the table, but after I saw a man chowing down on one, I turned to ask Koons’s wife, Justine, who was lighting a pot of sage. It seems they were an offering, free to all. And the bling? “That’s the Moral Dilemma,” she told me. “You have to decide whether to take one or not.” If anyone does, they can. No one will blame them. If the watches go missing, Koons will just replace them.

Then I stepped inside—and suddenly was in Pompeii! Every wall was frescoed in the style of homes in that beleaguered ancient city; patterned mosaic tiles covered the floor. In the center was an eight-foot-tall, polychromed nude (and anatomically correct) figure of Apollo Kithara—Apollo with an antecedent of a guitar—benignly staring down as a threatening, animatronic python unwrapped itself from sculpture’s body and lashed its tongue in people’s faces. Apollo may be the god of healing but, like most deities, can also be cruel. “That’s about his violence,” Koons said of the serpent. For a few of us, it also recalled the snake with which Ilona Staller, his ex-wife, performed as the porn star Cicciolina. The Apollo figure, noted Vincenz Brinkmann, an archeologist and expert in the polychromed figures of the ancients, “contains a lot of knowledge, but this one goes against all expectations.”

I hoped the former MOCA LA curator Paul Schimmel was joking when he said, “Is that all there is?” But there was more. A recorded soundtrack of classical Greek choral tunes and pop songs by Britney Spears and Oasis floated through the space. A mirrored, silver “gazing ball” the size of a king’s globe of the earth was outside on the balcony, reflecting the shed, the spectators, the sea and the setting sun. And over the doors were wise words from Socrates, “Know thyself.” “Narcissism stops you at the gate,” Koons murmured. “Reflection is self-knowledge.”

Serpent and Maiden.

So, I reflected—and realized that we were not in Pompeii at all but in Plato’s Cave, where illusion becomes more authentic than reality—a central tenet of Koonsian metaphysics since the early ’80s as well as the Baudriallardian conceit that accurately diagnoses life in the world today. “I’m going to be thinking about this for years,” said Sue Webster. “Do you know if Jeff has taken ayahuasca?”

All I know is that, initially, he had me fooled. The mosaics were real but the “frescoes” were scanned from a room in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and printed on vinyl. An equally realistic pair of dangling Nike shoes turned out to be painted bronze.

If spectators were befuddled by Koons’s Disneyfication of Greek myth, they also enjoyed it. Everyone was smiling. No other artist who accepted this commission previously has done anything to mask the Slaughterhouse’s cracked concrete floor and peeling walls, or the drain and chute that once swept slaughtered animals’ blood out to sea. For those of us who had been there before, Koons’s total transformation of the space into a temple came as a shock. Even for naysayers who felt that Koons had “buried himself in ballerinas,” as one put it, it was a revelation.

Cattelan paid Koons the ultimate compliment. “Jeff,” he said, “It’s a masterpiece.” The dealer and former Deste curator Jeffrey Deitch concurred. “For me, one of the greatest sensations imaginable is an encounter with a work of art that’s totally unexpected and absolutely astonishing,” he said, comparing his experience of “Apollo” to the 1992 debut of Koons’s Puppy in Arolsen, Germany. “I’m absolutely amazed.”

So were the people of Hydra. According to its mayor, George Koukoudakis, they want to keep the wind spinner for the island. It could happen. A friend in Greece told me so. What that would mean for the future of the Slaughterhouse is anyone’s guess. “I may have to change the format,” Joannou wrote in an email, adding, “Jeff gave me a big present by keeping the project secret. “The gift of First Experience, when intellect and emotion become one.”

As Gioni put it, “Jeff is a hard act to follow.”

Jeff Koons, Mayor George Koukoudakis, and Dakis Joannou.

Katerina Gregos.

Dmitris Daskalopoulos and Madeline Grynsztejn.

Katharina Fritsch.

Alanna Heiss and Marina Karella.

Angelo Plessas.

Brian Donnelly (KAWS) and Daniel Birnbaum.

Aphrodite Gonou.

Arturo Galansino and Achilles Tsaltas.

Camille Blatrix

Christian de Kjaerulf and David Morehouse.

Chrysanne Stathacos.

Denis Pernet.

Eugenio and Olga Re Rebaudengo, Nathan Clements-Gillespie.

George Economou.

George Vamvakidis.

Ilenia Durazzi with a Maurizio Cattelan work in Jouannou’s collection.

Jeff Koons.

Jessica Morgan.

Brooks Adams.

Lietta Joannou.

Massimiliano Gioni and Daniel Birnbaum.

Myriam Ben Salah.

Nadia Argyropoulou and Sylvia Kouvali.

Nicholas Yatromanolakis and Dakis Joannou.

Nicoletta Fiorucci.

Noema Kosuth and Joseph Kosuth.

Sandra Marinopoulos.

Shane Ackeroyd and Nicola Chu.

Sharif Farrag.

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Sheikha Mayassa al Thani and Farah Nayeri.

Valentina Castellani and Gianluca Violante.

Amy Cappellazzo and Joanne Rosen.

Andro Wekua.

Jeff Koons’s Apollo.

Brooks Adams.

Daniele Balice and Artemis Baltoyanni.

Evan Chow and Laura Skoler.

Frances Upritchard, Martino Gamper, and Martin Hatebur.

Jérôme and Emmanuelle de Noirmont.

Jerome de Noirmont.

Justine Koons.

Marc Glimcher and Fairfax Dorn.

Artist Maria Joannou at the opening of her show “Wet,” on Hydra.

Marina Vranopoulou.

Nadija Argyropoulou.

Philomene Magers.

Romeo.

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Siri Kuptamethee and Gary McCraw.

Slaughterhouse Maidens.

Sylvia Kouvali.

Vincenz Brinkmann.

Jeff Koons’s Apollo.

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