AFTER ART BASEL, but before Brexit, there was Greece.
In this ancient and modern land, root of a glorious past and home to a beleaguered present, collector Dakis Joannou ushered in summer with his annual Deste Foundation weekend (June 19-20) in Athens and on the island of Hydra.
It was hot.
On the 18th, temperatures in the capital stuck to a hundred, but it was a dry heat. Tolerable. Thanks to a national holiday that sent residents to island beaches, the city of the Acropolis was a ghost town.
Radio Athènes founder Helena Papadopoulos easily snared tables for sixteen of us—Greek, American, and French artists, dealers, writers and curators—for an ad hoc welcome dinner at Yperokeanio, a seafood place in the port of Piraeus.
Papadopoulos necessarily runs Radio Athènes as a nonprofit exhibition and gallery space in a tiny, downtown storefront. It’s one of many artist- or curator-initiated project spaces that have cropped up here during years of political and social turmoil. Asked how she kept going, Papadopoulos winced, then broke into a smile. “It’s been hard,” she said. “But we’ve had a fantastic response.”
Creative undergrounds can encourage artists in impoverished places to vent their collective anger and let their imaginations fly. That’s what I found in Athens, and is one reason why Adam Szymczyk is staging half of next year’s Documenta 14 here.
Szymczyk was in Kassel, but Andreas Angelidakis and Angelo Plessas, two of the few Greek artists participating in Documenta, were at the table, wilting in the heat with dealer Rebecca Camhi, independent curator Nadia Argyropoulou, and guests of Deste, such as editor Karen Marta and artist Cyril Duval—all ready for anything, particularly foodwise. “This is delicious,” said dealer Paul Judelson, passing a plate of grilled calamari to Contemporary Austin director Louis Grachos. “Try the salad,” offered Miami ICA chief curator Alex Gartenfeld, briefly in town for studio visits with his co-curator of the 2018 New Museum triennial, Gary Carrion-Murayari.
Over the next twenty-four hours, Carrion-Murayari and other representatives of his institution would enjoy an unusually large presence in Athens. Credit Joannou—a New Museum trustee—who was celebrating his foundation’s thirty-third anniversary at the Benaki Museum’s contemporary branch with “The Equilibrists,” a group exhibition of work by thirty-three young, Greek-born artists yet to cross the paths of nearly everyone here, including Joannou.
Working with New Museum assistant curator Helga Cristofferson and artistic director Massimiliano Gioni, the sophisticated show that Carrion-Murayari put together proved a sustained journey of discovery. “They really did good research!” exclaimed Argyropoulou. “There are a lot of good artists around here,” Carrion-Murayari said. “It’s nice to see so much fresh work,” agreed collector J.K. Brown, president of the New Museum board. Stephanie French, another board member, was also pleased, but she arrived with collector Armand Bartos in already high spirits induced by a stopover on Italy’s Lake Iseo, where Christo had just installed his latest miracle, The Floating Piers. “Go!” they said. “It’s spectacular.”
Other guests, like the Los Angeles–based collector Grazka Taylor, would soon be on their way to the Aïshti Foundation in Beirut for the June 22nd opening of “Good Dreams, Bad Dreams,” an exhibition curated by Gioni.
Yes, the globalized art world still can be this small.
But you wouldn’t guess that from “The Equilibrists,” where Maria Anastassiou, Dmitris Ameladiotis, Eleni Bagaki, Zoi Gaitanidou, Irini Miga, and Malvina Panagiotidi were among the several standouts. (Remember these names.) “Finally, Greece is making a good impression,” commented Maurizio Cattelan, who was especially taken with Bagaki’s deliciously rude, printed T-shirts and videos. “These artists have something to say about the depression,” he added, “and they should be heard.”
Eva Giannakopoulou and Persefoni Myrtsov, Greek artists living in Berlin, each had fallen in love with a Turkish man. Their film, the first of a trilogy, personalized creeping (and creepy) nationalism by documenting the thinly veiled bigotry each partner faced from family members. “It was interesting,” Giannakopoulou told New York dealer Photi Giovanis, “because everything changed when they were in front of the camera.”
The world was getting smaller all the time.
Deste’s holdings, on the other hand, are sweeping and international, but Joannou’s insistently personal relationships with the artists involved make his foundation’s activities feel more like family picnics than formal propositions. Such was the case that evening, when he and his wife Lieta hosted a buffet dinner and dance party at their home overlooking the city.
The dinner is also an annual event, as is the hang of recent acquisitions in the recessed, white marble gallery at the center of the house. Sculpture by Andra Ursuta led into a mini-retrospective for Kaari Upson, who was surprised to see early works that Joannou had purchased without her knowledge. “He’s amazing!” she said, looking a little shell-shocked by an installation that included figural sculpture and spay-painted soda cans as well as her newer “exploded sofas,” one scarlet, one silver.
A side room had another solo presentation—of perversely oedipal, 1980s paintings by Apostolos Georgiou that were among Joannou’s earliest acquisitions. One pictured a mother lying dead or passed out on the floor of her kitchen while her husband gave a bottle to their baby. Was it autobiographical? “It’s all fiction,” the artist said in halting English, “but it has universal truth.”
Also universal is the will to be social. While artist Dan Finsel, a recent addition to Joannou’s collection, skulked through the crowd with dealer Mike Egan, guests seated themselves on the terrace, in the living room, and on the patio by the bar. The party went late, but by ten the next morning, the entire crowd was boarding hydrofoils and yachts to Hydra.
Joannou’s Jeff Koons–painted yacht, Guilty, sliced through water too blue to be true. “It’s confusing,” the collector explained to one passenger, Jean-Pierre Lehmann. “From another boat, you can’t tell the front from the back, or whether we’re coming at you or moving away.”
What’s more, judging from the distance that the captain maintained from the wheel, the ship seemed to steer itself. That didn’t matter to Paweł Althamer, who sat outside the wheelhouse with Jakub Julian Ziolkowski, their faces to the wind, while Palais de Tokyo’s public programs curator Myriam Ben Salah slept off the previous night on a rear deck. No one cared how much time went by, as long as we docked before Roberto Cuoghi’s exhibition and performance that evening at the Slaughterhouse, Deste’s project space on Hydra. “I hear there will be fire and explosions,” warned Rachel Lehmann, Cuoghi’s dealer in New York. “And crabs.”
Indeed, smoke was billowing from the Slaughterhouse as we sailed past, planning an afternoon at one of Hydra’s beaches. Cuoghi’s Parisian dealer Chantal Crousel wondered where to go. I suggested The Four Seasons. “You’re joking,” she said. I wasn’t. Even though this waterfront café is not that Four Seasons, it’s where I found LACMA curator Jarrett Gregory lunching and sunning with Cooking for Artists author Mina Stone, her husband Alex Eagleton, and the actor Thomas McDonell, who just happened to be vacationing in Hydra.
But really, there was no way to prepare for Putifero, the show that Cuoghi put on that night, as the full, strawberry moon rose to signal the summer solstice.
A table at least a quarter of a mile long groaned with food for the 150 or so people during cocktails on the road above the old stone Slaughterhouse by the sea. Some, like Geneva’s Contemporary Art Center director, Andrea Bellini, and New York dealer Nathalie Karg, were foreigners, but an impressive number were Greeks who came on their own from Athens, attracted by a history of precedent-setting exhibitions on the island that began in 2009 with Matthew Barney’s elaborate collaboration with Elizabeth Peyton.
When the sun set over the Aegean, a drone buzzed overhead, filming the action as Cuoghi lit stacks of wood in two tall papier-mâché teepees, one on the path to the Slaughterhouse and one on its roof.
With fire slowly consumed the teepees, two assistants—Cuoghi’s housemates in Milan, Crousel said—opened the mouths of one of five, beehive-shaped, wood-burning kilns. Inside these primitive shells, 3D-printed clay forms were baking. In the light of the fires, Cuoghi’s floppy hat, welder’s mask, flame-retardant sliver gloves, and deconstructed coat made him look like a medieval madman.
Over the next three, bewitching hours, spectators drifted back and forth between the buffet and a stone wall where I sat, opposite the kilns, with dealer Sylvia Kouvali, Crousel, and Karg. As we watched, caught up in his ritualized movements, the artist raised and lowered a pair of long, iron tongs and methodically removed forty red-hot ceramic crabs from the kilns before plunging each in one of four mineral baths. He disappeared in clouds of steam, then reappeared to lay each sculpture on the ground for cooling. After inspecting his work under a headlamp, he started the process again.
Cuoghi had been experimenting with glazes for a year, Joannou told us. “Roberto is like an alchemist,” he said, “mixing metals with coffee and tea and transforming them. It’s fantastic.”
Art historian Tommaso Speretta explained that the title of Cuoghi’s show, Putifero, is an Italian word for “mess”—specifically the smell of the mess created by fire. “He’s so hands-on, it’s supercool,” said Karg, staring into the fire of an open kiln. “I want a claw! Just a claw. They’re so beautiful.”
During short breaks from the heat of the fires, Cuoghi allowed small groups to enter the Slaughterhouse—it’s only the size of a tenement bedroom—where an exhibition of previously fired ceramic crabs was waiting. A few were mechanized and made startling sounds. That led some people to think live crabs were buried within clusters of the ceramic ones set on the cement floor. A big one, which looked more like a cactus, sat on a platform surrounded by fake cold coins—presumably the toll paid to cross the River Styx. A claw, or a beak, hung like butchered meat from a rope. Other crabs were stuck to a wall, where they looked like African masks.
In fact, Cuoghi had created a new slaughterhouse, or an approximation of Hitchcock’s The Birds, only with dozens of crabs, crab fragments, and other monstrous creatures of an unidentifiable past civilization, some skewered to an iron pole that ran horizontally across the room. “It’s like an archeological find,” Kouvali marveled.
But why crabs? While researching his project, Crousel told us, Cuoghi had come across an image of Hercules attempting to slay the nine-headed serpent Hydra, while a giant crab—Hydra’s protector—bit into Hercules’s foot. She showed us a photo that she’d taken of a tablet on the Parthenon frieze. On it was a giant crab.
This crustacean, let’s not forget, is also a sign of the Zodiac. And this was the solstice when the sun entered Cancer. Many, if not most of the crabs, also looked diseased and spongelike, like fossils of red or green or brown malignancies.
At midnight, the crowd drifted to the Pirate Bar for nightcaps. As if one could ever sleep! What an extraordinary place this art world can be, I thought.
The moon was now high over the port, too bright to make out any single constellation, but I knew what was there.