ANTI-GOVERNMENT PROTESTERS were parading through Syntagma Square when I arrived in Athens on June 18 for the following day’s opening of Dakis Joannou’s annual post-Basel exhibitions at his Deste Foundation and its project space on Hydra. “Greece, the birthplace of drama,” commented architect Andreas Angelidakis, who met me at a nearby hotel. The city definitely had theater, that’s for sure, in the port of Piraeus, where the annual Athens and Epidaurus Festival was taking place. Topping the bill was Doug Aitken’s Black Mirror, a live stage show with video projections coproduced by the festival and Deste.
It had two performances on a barge docked at the festival site, but that afternoon Aitken was sailing his floating amphitheater to Hydra, where Joannou’s guests would see it. So I followed Angelidakis and artist Angelo Plessas to the ten-year-old National Museum of Contemporary Art. Until its own building is completed, the museum has taken temporary residence in the concrete basement of the Athens music conservatory, overlooking the dusty, weed-strewn pit that was once Plato’s Academy. What would the ancients have made of Plessas’s Angelo Foundation School of Music? The Internet-based project was installed on computers in a hallway, where museumgoers could plink out random tunes when cued by Tantric symbols on the monitors. “They get together and make the sound of fertility,” Plessas explained.
Paris-based dealer Alex Hertling joined us later that evening for an after-hours visit to Rebecca Camhi’s gallery and a dinner in an outdoor lesbian bar large enough to fill an entire plaza. The protesters didn’t know what they were missing! Next morning found Hertling and Gavin Brown director Bridget Donahue trying on hats and platform shoes at Remember, an ’80s punk boutique in the heart of the Plaka, the touristy market behind the Acropolis hill. An eager saleswoman showed us snapshots of Chloë Sevigny, the star of Aitken’s show, who had visited the day before—on a research trip, no doubt.
Debt-ridden Greece might not be expected to support the outsize ambitions of many contemporary artists. But the country still has outsize collectors like Joannou, who seem immune to its flailing economy. Basically retired from his construction empire, he now devotes his time to art and some of the people who make it—artists like Jeff Koons, Maurizio Cattelan, Urs Fischer, Robert Gober, Paweł Althamer, and, lately, Jakub Ziółkowski and Kerstin Brätsch.
The last two, and Catellan (a favorite son), were among the guests at Deste on Sunday night for a private view of “Investigations of a Dog—Works from the FACE Collections,” a traveling show making its final stop on a tour of the five private European collections that partnered to supply it with material. At Deste, curated by Nadia Agryropulou, it amounted to a visual version of a primo mix tape. Upstairs, Brätsch and her collaborator Das Institut (Adele Roeder) were modeling limited-edition silk scarves printed with the patterns of Brätsch’s paintings, on view in a room of moving mirrors, a permanent installation by Urs Fischer. Ziółkowski’s cartoony, scatological “Story of the Eye” drawings, selected by Cecilia Alemani, had their own black-walled room, as did Paul Chan’s digital projection My Birds . . . Trash . . . The Future.
There was nowhere to go from here but the roof terrace, where Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, one of the lenders for the show, bent elbows with an equally eclectic bunch: lender Joao Rendeiro; Greek culture minister Pavlos Geroulanos; curators Paolo Colombo and Denys Zacharopoulos; Hollywood agent-collector Dan Aloni; collectors Jean-Pierre and Rachel Lehmann; Armory Show VP Paul Morris; and Aitken dealers Lisa Spellman, Eva Presenhuber, Victoria Miro, and Shaun Caley Regen.
Vans ferried the party to a bountiful dinner at the hilltop Joannou home, where the usual plethora of Koons works, including his red Balloon Dog, had been displaced by a number of Althamer sculptures that Joannou installed himself. “The Balloon Dog has been out there for twelve years,” he said. “It was time to shake things up.” Tate Modern’s new director Chris Dercon was on his own tear, decrying art magazines that publish only positive reviews. “The visual arts are like a sponge that soaks up everything,” he complained. “There’s no discourse anymore. We need writers willing to write bad reviews!”
Sorry, but “The Last Grand Tour,” one of two shows the group visited at the Museum of Cycladic Art the next morning, was not as hokey as it first sounded, even if Leonard Cohen’s Hydra-inspired “Bird on a Wire” was wafting through the galleries. Curated by the Tate’s Jessica Morgan, it rounded up an enviable selection of works by artists like Brice Marden, Martin Kippenberger, Daniel Spoerri, Cy Twombly, and Lynda Benglis, all of whom have had studios in Greece at some point over the past sixty years.
The museum was also hosting an exhibition of the five finalists for the 2011 Deste Prize, awarded every two years by an international jury to a young Greek artist. The big favorite was Theodoros Stamatogiannis’s parquet-door-in-the-parquet-floor, a perfect meld of architecture and sculpture, though an athletic pole-dancing routine performed in another gallery by choreographer Alexandra Bachzetsis and two skimpily clad dancers made everyone suddenly so conscious of their own bodies, it registered as a successful new way to consider the human form.
The pole dancers were a minor topic of conversation on the hydrofoil taking us to Hydra for Black Mirror and its related installation in the island’s former slaughterhouse, now an exhibition space overlooking the Aegean. At sundown, the art tribe gathered portside to await the arrival of Aitken’s theater barge, a decommissioned ferry on which the artist had erected four drive-in movie–size screens around a platform stage. “I can’t believe all these people are here,” said Marden, who was coincidentally on the island to attend a wedding with his daughter Mirabelle.
Drummers stationed above the deck thrummed a processional pace as the audience, nearly three hundred strong, came on board and took seats on two sides of the stage. A cityscape image that looked vaguely like Los Angeles remained onscreen as the barge took off to drift along the coast. The show lasted fifty minutes. It seemed longer, but the setting was so beautiful and the sounds so lulling, most of us were happy to drift along and think about it later.
Though the stage had a simple, motel room set, Black Mirror really takes place in the digital cloud, where rootless people embodied by an affectless Sevigny can virtually move across the world, connecting only by email before moving off again. “Check in, check out,” said Sevigny, whenever she appeared on the motel set. The phrase would become the mantra of the week.
Trapped on the boat, the audience hung in, yawning a bit as it waited for drama and watched seductive images of airplanes, room keys, islands, palm trees, neon signs—images of the physical world—float by on the projection screens. The feeling was that of an endless present. “We don’t talk about the future much,” Sevigny intoned at one point. “Anything longer than a day is too much time. . . . It’s almost too much to hold on to.”
Two gospel singers imported from LA appeared and performed “I Only Have Eyes for You,” the show’s theme song, in the classic 1959 doo-wop version by the Flamingos. One of the singers, Leo Gallo, threw on a hoodie to do a clogging tap-dance number. The two-man band No Age took the stage to rock the boat. A bullwhip cracker did a percussive set with two whips snapping out a Morse code–like rhythm. Stagehands took apart the set, leaving only the vertical poles supporting it in each corner, when—what are the odds?—four Olympian pole dancers took to them to perform a dazzling routine even more athletic than the one in the museum earlier in the day. Has pole dancing become the art world’s new obsession?
Dinner took place on the road above the slaughterhouse, at a table set for all three hundred, an amenable tradition that Joannou established three years ago, when Matthew Barney and Elizabeth Peyton were the exhibiting artists. (Urs Fischer will do the honors next year.) Here, there were several entertainments: Curators Massimiliano Gioni and Francesco Bonami traded penguin jokes, for example, and the irrepressible whip cracker put out lit cigarettes with his weapon. Inside the slaughterhouse, a slightly different version of Aitken’s film played on small monitors set into the black mirrors with which he had covered the walls and ceiling, creating a sense of infinity and cohesion that by most estimations the staged show lacked.
The idea, Aitken told me later, was to evoke a dematerialized world where a person becomes a vehicle of distribution, communicating only in textlike fragments. “Our responsibility as artists is to experiment, not to fulfill expectations,” he said, adding that he wanted people in the audience to assemble the fragments for themselves and “sort out the system we’re living in.” Perhaps this was too much work for the vacationing viewers. Scrolling through their BlackBerrys and iPhones, Twittering their impressions, they certainly mirrored Aitken’s theme, moving between a continuing cycle of biennials, art fairs, and other events, exchanging short bursts and drifting into the sunset.