Our magazine is privileged to be invited to the annual exhibition/social gathering of Dakis Joannou and his art foundation, DESTE. This year marks a return to one of the most eagerly anticipated and unique events in the global art calendar, after a two-year COVID hiatus.
To understand the significance of Dakis Joannou in the art world we should define – in a sweepingly general sense – what a contemporary art collector is.
Contemporary art collectors tend to broadly fit into the following categories: the impulse buyer; the investor buyer; and the market maker collector at the very top of the pile. Opaqueness, pretension, exclusion, secrecy even and intellectual snootiness dominate the haughty end of the art world; various start-up attempts to democratise and make it more transparent notwithstanding.
The DESTE events are a phenomenon in that they seek to include, educate and celebrate art in all its forms in an atmosphere of unprecedented conviviality and approachability. Some of the biggest names in the art world descend on Athens and Hydra each year, for guests to meet and engage conversationally in a social context.
Dakis Joannou is no ordinary collector. In fact, there is absolutely nothing ordinary about him. He belongs to the rarefied realm of art patrons who can make or break an artist and/or create an entire art movement. Joannou has a life-long history of forging close relationships with artists and building them up through his collections, museum and gallery exhibitions, and DESTE.
No one knows the extent of Joannou’s art collection, but visitors are regaled with a curated show of pieces during a brunch hosted at his home. In years past, he has held larger exhibitions at different venues in Athens, and DESTE maintains a permanent display of some fraction of the decades-spanning collection.
One gets the sense that he is here to provoke: challenging, teasing and observing the viewer and their interaction with the art, and deriving obvious pleasure from it all.
How do you get the art world to trek to Athens? Even with Jeff Koons in attendance, it would require some heavy-duty corporate sponsorship, PR, and a great deal of cajoling to summon the crème de la crème of the art world anywhere.
The answer is that the annual DESTE events are private affairs, intended for the artists, collectors, curators and friends of Dakis Joannou. To these people – and perhaps the locals on Hydra who care to accept the open invitation there – it is an effortless draw.
Joannou is more than just a collector-patron: a provocateur, a pusher of boundaries and a philanthropist, he has single-handedly transformed the cultural scenes of Athens and Hydra. Blue-chip galleries such as Gagosian Gallery, Rodeo Gallery and The Breeder Gallery have followed where he has led, gobbling up large spaces in swanky Kolonaki or up-and-coming Piraeus.
His private art collection itself represents the evolving trajectory of the collector’s own taste on one hand and a relationship with the artists on the other; having championed their work for several decades and subsequently propelled many into the realm of international stardom.
The Joannou collection – comprising artists such as Maurizio Cattelan, George Condo, Roberto Cuoghi, and of course Jeff Koons – is a visual story of artistic evolution among the luminaries of contemporary art. It is also the story of a collector who has nurtured, encouraged and supported talent; and, finally, a patron who has provided an independent platform, via DESTE and its outpost on Hydra, to create art for arts’ sake. It is a Duchampian concept, the ultimate art premise, at the heart of the foundation and its project: Joannou is, after all, one of the owners of Duchamp’s seminal urinals.
This year’s exhibition at DESTE Athens is Never Enough, commemorating the late Kaari Upson (1970-2021):
Over her brief yet prolific 15-year career, Kaari Upson developed an elaborate universe woven out of memory, conjecture, fact, and fiction. Imbued with a mystical animism, each sculpture, painting, drawing, and video merges personal and collective traumas, desires, fears, and fantasies. For Upson the key to accessing oneself could be found in one’s possessions, especially those contained in the home.DESTE Foundation, extract from Never Enough exhibition description
Joannou, who was a close friend of Upson, personally curated the collection of over 30 pieces spanning her career. From the photograph It’s Never Enough, shown at Upson’s CalArts MFA exhibition, to final pieces like Portrait (Vain German) (2020) DESTE’s unconventional exhibition enables interpretation of the artist’s work both as individual pieces and as a summary of her career.
On Hydra, the queue to the entrance of the Slaughterhouse is vast. The sun is setting. Once a year the art crowd descends upon the island to see the artistic reincarnation of DESTE’s outpost here. This year it is exhibiting the work of Jeff Koons, with the artist in attendance, and has been a hotly anticipated ticket for the last two years.
Koons’s exhibition, Apollo, takes over the Slaughterhouse in every sense. A large, spinning sun on its roof can be seen from the sea on approaching the island. A urinal (could it be an original Duchamp?) lies at the entrance, alongside a set of glittering watches. Most of the queuers wind past the table, either too eager to get inside the main space or too perplexed by the objects.
In mythology, Apollo is one of the most important Greek Gods. A God of music and dance, of poetry; a God of the sun and light; a God of archery, and a God of healing – all referenced throughout the exhibition.
The interiors of the Slaughterhouse have been transformed: mosaics tiles line the floor; the walls have been turned into frescoes and stars have been painted onto a blue ceiling. Taking centre stage is Apollo, the God himself. A super-sized statue, an homage to antiquity, sports tresses of golden hair: the Greek ‘ideal’ form in a draping robe. The hand holds a lyre – or something like it – and is engulfed by a life-like Python, which moves around and occasionally flicks its tongue out.
A variety of objects surround the statue: a pair of painted bronze trainers; a large, reflective ball; to dangling geometric chimes in the corner of the room. The piece combines the quintessential, shimmering works of Koons with ancient, half-remembered mysticism. In the background they are streaming 90s music hits.
The whole exhibition is impressive for the attention to suggestively enigmatic details. I questioned Koons directly, ‘what is it about?’. His evasive answer – ‘It is what you interpret it to be. It is what you feel’ – might seem typical, yet only adds to the mystery of the whole experience. I follow up by asking Koons if his 30-plus year relationship with Dakis Joannou (36 years, he clarifies) has influenced his art and concepts, or has he remained a purist? The response is diplomatic: ‘I am trying to show my love for Dakis and my love for art together in the same exhibition.’
Being Dakis Joannou’s daughter, Maria has been immersed in the art world her entire life and consequently caught the creative bug. She trained formally as an artist in Boston, but did not pursue a career in art until the protracted Covid-19 lockdown, the enforced sequestration prompting pent-up artistic expression.
This year she presents her first solo exhibition, also on Hydra, titled Wet: a series of self-portraits featuring unexpected angles of the body and clothes, and differing textures on both when wet. The exhibition is refreshing for its rawness and simplicity of subject. I asked Maria if, having been exposed to conceptual art and artists from her father’s collection, her own representational and figurative art is a kind of rebellion? She says that it is ‘simply an expression of how she feels’ – just as it should be.
I ask what she is planning to do next. Dry?
‘Dry Martini, perhaps!’, she replies laughingly.