Collecting Is an Adventure

Dakis Joannou, DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art

We meet Dakis Joannou at his home in Athens, Greece. His house is reached up a steep drive, overlooking the city and built around a courtyard. It was extended, he says, to accommodate his art collection. A “Mount Olympus of art”, we comment.

One can spot the art lover and a serious, life-long collector as distinct from the art investor/opportunist from the way they show their collection.

Dakis Joannou delights in giving us the tour personally, drawing attention to every detail and explaining how it fits in with the layout of the building.

We go past the striking Maurizio Cattelan taxidermied horse plunging into the wall and into a marble-clad, museum size room, dedicated for the most part to Jeff Koons’ work. On the way, Joannou points to a metal grille on the floor which could easily be overlooked as a fixture. It is, in fact, another art installation, “Untitled (Man in Drain)”, one of the most characteristic Robert Gober works, showing a male torso pierced by a drain.

Joannou is well known for collecting Jeff Koons’ works, having started well before Koons works reached the iconic status of today, so it comes as no surprise to see the room dominated by the artist’s work from different production periods: from the giant “Hulk” canvasses to the Michael Jackson and Bubbles porcelain statue to the stainless steel train carrying Bourbon.

The interplay of the works within the marble room, as well as the rest of the house, as Joannou explains, is a challenge and a way for him to live with the works and better understand their possible affinities and/or differences.

Dakis Joannou began collecting “seriously” in 1985, but has had an abiding love of art his entire life.

One ante-room bears testimony to his student days’ passion for art and displays a row of rather extraordinary figurines he acquired in Italy where he studied architecture after completing a degree in engineering in the US.

He could have happily remained the eternal student, he says, but had to join the family business, construction, at the end of these 10 years of academic endeavours.

The tour of the house is circular and circuitous and we end where we began, but not before seeing a succession of rooms displaying a diverse and eclectic, collection, reflecting the collector’s personal relationship with the artists and their work. The collection is 100% contemporary art, with works by, to name a few, Jeff Koons, Robert Gober, Charles Ray, Maurizio Cattelan, Jenny Holzer, Kiki Smith, Paul Chan, Seth Price, Verne Dawson, Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelley, Chris Ofili, Christopher Wool, Ashley Bickerton, George Condo, Mark Grotjahn, Pawel Althamer, Wangechi Mutu, David Altmejd, Barnaby Furnas, Tim Noble & Sue Webster, David Shrigley, John Bock, Allan McCollum, Joseph Kosuth, Piotr Uklanski, Gillian Wearing, Richard Prince, Dan Colen, Roberto Cuoghi, Friedrich Kunath, John Dogg, …

Art is part of all spaces and all spaces are lived in by the many members of the Joannou family (children and grandchildren included), thus the nonchalant, warm feeling of a house and not a ‘gallery space’.

We sit on a low 60s cream leather sofa, part of a collection of furniture of that time, and he opens one of the Beyond Black books I have brought for him.

He dwells briefly on the Thomas Flohr profile and his yacht, designed, he says by the same designer, Ivana Porfiri who worked on his yacht, Guilty.

This is a perfect opening for my first question, concerning the art experiment that Guilty proved to be.

Joannou recalls his decision to trust Porfiri with the project. Her ability to work on a standard boat shape with clever and significant changes and her ability to combine fantasy and practicality in reshaping reality, matched the collector’s own approach.

With his boat, designer and client decided to do “something completely fresh” and this involved a boat “completely flat and very open”, as Joannou explains, “a kind of a platform for a new experience”. Art was considered fundamental to the project and ‘simple but not obvious’ was a guideline shared by both, Joannou and Porfiri. Joannou didn’t want the yacht to exceed 110/115’ in size so as to be able to get into smaller marinas. The hull Ivana found, however, was 120 ft. In order to accommodate her client she simply cut off the nose of the hull, which immediately gave the boat a particular character of its own. “This became a key design concept”, says Joannou.

Entering this conversation about the boat, Jeff Koons, suggested a kind of an optical disruption – a ‘camouflage’ which would bring the potential of painting in the boat’s architecture and function: an idea with an interesting artistic background (Razzle Dazzle was the term for the paint scheme, invented by painter and naval officer Norman Wilkinson for war vessels and Koons aimed at a tribute to Roy Liechtenstein who had painted Andy Warhol’s boat) as well as a historic application (this was done in World War I in order to confuse the enemy as to the boat’s intentions and directions).

As it transpired, Ivana had had the exact same idea, but didn’t quite know how to break it to her client. “ The whole project fitted together”, says Joannou, “as the design was so well integrated” – giving him the most unconventional yacht of all times. This “beyond the ordinary” approach is something that reflects his genuine curiosity about life and art.

I ask him about the explosion of contemporary art prices that preceded the recession and how hype has conspired with opportunism to drive them well beyond some pieces’ intrinsic worth.

“ Time will sort things out”, says Joannou philosophically.

He, of course, started collecting some of today’s most prominent artists when they were still relatively unknown, so the satisfaction of having made the right decisions, commercially as well as aesthetically, must be enormous.
Still, the man is totally unprepossessing and while he lights up when talks of his new projects, it is without a trace of smugness.

He is not investing, he says, but buying to add to the collection.

Does he sell? Yes, occasionally – even museums sell.

Who was the first artist whose work he bought?

Jeff Koons was the first artist he started to collect, he clarifies.

How does he choose what he buys? Is it love at first sight, or the concept of the piece or the texture?

For Joannou “everything has to work” and this has to do with a rather complex and personal way of experiencing one’s life time. Art is an intrinsic part of this experience.

Joannou establishes personal relationships with the artists he collects: he starts a dialogue and builds a rapport with them. This goes beyond a simple Q&A about their work, to a genuine communication. One he, significantly, describes as “just talk”.

Does he buy one offs or does he collect works by the same artists?

As he explains, he does both as he builds the character and special twists of the collection. It is quite important for him to “give the collection breadth” and with this he means a unique juxtaposition of various artists and varied artworks. One which may involve masterpieces as well as surprises and experiments.

Joannou started with an initially questioning approach towards collecting. He set up the Deste Foundation, after a discussion with Pierre Restany in Athens, as a way to get involved with art without detaching the latter from life’s very paradox, its many accidents and wonders.

The Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art was born in 1983. Seminal shows like “Cultural Geometry”, “Post Human” and “Everything that’s Interesting is New” followed – in Greece, Cyprus and Switzerland- until 1998 . Then Deste moved to its first permanent space in Neo Psychico, Athens and an ambitious exhibition program developed, including “Global Vision” (1999), Jeff Koons’“A Millenium Celebration” and Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s “Masters of the Universe”. As part of the 2004 Olympic Games, Deste organized “Monument to Now” and in 2006, the foundation moved to its present venue, a renovated factory in Nea Ionia, Athens. It’s current program focuses on “exploring the connections between art and fashion, music, film, architecture, design and contemporary culture”.

Apart from the shows that draw on works from the Dakis Joannou collection, Deste also initiates a number of ongoing projects like, the Deste Prize, awarded biannually to an emerging Greek artist, the Hydra Slaughterhouse Project and the Deste fashion collection.

How did he come up with idea of fashion as art?

The concept of fashion as art always fascinated him, as Joannou explains, but he lacked focus. He always watched for turning points and genuine inspiration in the fashion world and he still has the Artforum magazine which published that picture of an Issey Miyake piece on its cover in 1982.

The Joannou concept took shape in the course of discussions with designers Michael Amzalag & Mathias Augustyniak (M/M Paris). Dennis Freedman, a friend and creative director of W magazine, entered the conversation a little later. It finally became an interesting curatorial approach and a unique experiment: Each year DESTE commissions artists from different fields, familiar with fashion, to choose five striking designs and interpret them visually and/or verbally. Each artist thus creates from the selected fashion items, five related works, which become part of a unique ‘capsule collection’. Each project is published in an art and fashion magazine and plans are to show the first exhibition of the destefashioncollection project as a whole, after five years from its conception.

The interpretations to date have been by: Michael Amzalag and Mathias Augustyniak (M/M Paris)/2007, Juergen Teller/2008, Helmut Lang/2009, Patrizia Cavalli (scheduled for 2010)

When Joannou is asked if he has ever collected fine art, he offers an answer which is indicative of his constant interest in ‘the experience of art’. He explains that when he started the collection, he bought some pieces to give reference to the collection and to put young unknown artists into context. “ Twenty years later” he says, “they are the context”. His collection, starting from 1985, contains today concentrations of works of some of the most influential artists of the late 20th and the beginning of the 21st century.

Joannou does not collect country-specific art, but he prefers to look at the merit of each work. One of the Deste Foundation’s aims, however, is to highlight the work of Greek artists and create a new platform, facilitate this work’s interaction with the international art scene.

How does he want to be remembered?

He says he is not concerned with posterity, but with the present. The eternal Now. Art is both his language and his tool within this understanding of time and this is why he prefers his shows, projects and art choices to ‘speak’ for him.

Concurrent with this stand is Joannou’s conviction that art’s purpose is not (and should not be) to influence public opinion in any way. People should experience art as a free broadening of their minds, as another level of reality, of presence and meaning.

Dakis Joannou’s personal relevance on the global art scene is unquestionable. The scale and focus of his collection, as well as Joannou’s own drive and ideas, make it one of the most remarkable and interesting privately owned contemporary art collections today.