Art collectors love nothing more than being in on the joke. Peter Brant’s striking nude sculpture of his wife Stephanie Seymour, depicted as a ship’s figurehead by artist Maurizio Cattelan, is called Trophy Wife. Steven A. Cohen, Wall Street’s most ruthless profit machine, is the proud possessor of Damien Hirst’s famous 14-foot-long Tiger Shark in a fish tank. And Dakis Joannou has a 114-foot-long yacht painted in a kaleidoscopic pattern of yellow, blue and black by Jeff Koons, and christened Guilty.
So, it should come as no surprise that Joannou would invite 300 art-world insiders to take a long trip to a remote place to see a multimedia show about long trips and remote places.
And thus it was earlier this week, June 19-20, 2011, when the Greek art mogul brought guests first to Athens, home of his DESTE Art Foundation, official sponsor of the event, and then to the bucolic isle of Hydra, for two days of parties, exhibitions and an invitation-only presentation of 43-year-old artist Doug Aitken’s Black Mirror, a multichannel video and live performance starring the artist’s old pal, Chloë Sevigny.
Staged on a barge that had been converted for the occasion into a floating amphitheater -- the craft took off before the performance and motored along the coastline until the show finished, at which point it docked -- Black Mirror starred Sevigny as a dead-eyed modern nomad roaming from airport to hotel room and back again. Scenes of palm trees and bustling cityscapes flash on digital screens, but our protagonist meets no one, shows no affect and always ends up where she began.
Aitken himself, though a quintessential blond and blue-eyed Southern California surfer (he uses adjectives like "epic!"), has long been fascinated by lonely subjects like geographic dispossession and information-age ennui. In 2007, he projected an eight-screen meditation on urban isolation, Sleepwalkers, onto the exterior of the Museum of Modern Art. He again took up the theme of displacement in his 2008 film Migration, a series of shots of large animals in motel rooms.
But he had yet to produce a work entirely in motion, and the opportunity to design a performance for an international audience on a ship floating around a Greek isle -- one that bans automobiles, as it happens -- was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
"I was interested in the idea of trade and distribution and this was once a major hub," Aitken said to Artnet Magazine during the expedition. "And that collided with some curiosity I’ve had about the idea of a borderless world."
The commission also served to induce Aitken into the canon of Joannou, a collector who is considered to be a powerful, almost paternalistic champion of his artists. "They’re all my friends," said Joannou, who has the tranquil but resolutely self-assured manner of a golden-ager. And though Joannou is known for collecting superstars like Koons, who curated the controversial "Skin Fruit" exhibition from Joannou’s collection at the New Museum last year, he bought his first work by the artist 25 years ago for just $2,700. He has since become a godfather to Koons’ children.
For the 2010 project at Hydra, Joannou invited his longtime friend and confidant Maurizio Cattelan to do something for the DESTE Project Space, a restored stone slaughterhouse near the island’s rocky shore. The Italian artist installed a bed occupied by two shrunken wax models of himself, each wearing a dark, funereal suit. (Such macabre themes have become the norm at Hydra, it seems -- in the event’s inaugural installation, in 2009, Matthew Barney and Elizabeth Peyton gathered guests at sunrise to ritualistically raise a coffin from the Aegean, followed by a feasting of a sacrificial shark.)
Joannou’s style has always been to collect by instinct, he said, and he always "just knew" when he stumbled across a great piece of work. Today, his instincts tend toward the youthful, and he buys "only work made after 1985."
Lately, he’s been promoting the 31-year-old Polish painter Jakub Ziolkowski. The artist said that Joannou began buying his paintings and other works about three years ago. He had his first solo show at Hauser & Wirth in New York last year. “I’m very interested in about three artists right now, and he is one of them,” Joannou said. The list could well include video animator Paul Chan and painter and designer Kerstin Brätsch, both of whom currently have exhibitions at DESTE.
Needless to say, events like these are a great way of introducing young artists to art-world insiders. Ziolkowski’s smutty, cartoonish paintings of eyeballs engaging in every imaginable sex act -- and occasionally unimaginable ones -- were on view both at DESTE and at Joannou’s home in Athens, where he hosted a dinner party. The collector’s appreciation of Ziolkowski’s fleshy works should come as no surprise for those who saw "Skin Fruit," which was marked by a number of expressive, naked figures, by Polish artist Pawel Althamer, as well as others.
Otherwise, Casa Joannou was decorated with a Jeff Koons ceramic dog vase centerpiece on the dining table, plus about a half-dozen works by Josh Smith, and paintings by George Condo, Wangechi Mutu and Christopher Wool. Over a buffet-style dinner, served poolside, guests gaped at the art and chatted with the host, who was surprisingly laid back. As the evening wore on, a tidily dressed Maurizio Cattelan started a dance party in the courtyard.
A visit to the Museum of Cycladic Art was scheduled for the next morning, and then everyone boarded a catamaran from Piraeus, the port of Athens, for the 75-kilometer trip to join Aitken on Hydra.
At sunset, the event began in earnest, as the ship-turned-stage arrived at the dock, heralded by three Greek percussionists ceremonially perched on platforms near the masts. Passengers seated themselves on bleachers set up on either side of the hull, and Sevigny, dressed in practical, loose-fitting travelwear, took the stage, which was decorated as a generic motel room. Overhead, four screens played lush videos of Sevigny alone in a succession of mundane landscapes -- driving in the desert, texting in bed, gazing out the window. Much of the footage, it turns out, was shot during a road trip Aitken and Sevigny took around Mexico and the southwestern U.S.
Meanwhile, Sevigny’s character is surrounded by dance, music and beautiful things that she just doesn’t see. The show included music throughout, which added to the excitement. A performance by the Los Angeles band No Age was a highlight, as was an act by a group of pole dancers and a gospel duo that performed a haunting a cappella rendition of The Flamingos’ I Only Have Eyes for You.
Later, in response to a question about his sources of inspiration, Aitken recited a lyric from the song -- "I don’t know if we’re in a garden, or on a crowded avenue. . . I only have eyes for you" -- which I think he meant as a reference to the Minimalist single-mindedness of Donald Juddor Robert Smithson.
After the performance, guests were escorted to an endless dinner table that wrapped around the island on the road near the slaughterhouse. Inside the old building Aitken had covered the walls with black mirrors to infinitely reflect the images on the five video screens.
Rumor has it that the performance may appear in London next, but Aitken says nothing’s been confirmed.
As for Hydra, Urs Fischer, famous for excavating the floors of art galleries and removing chunks of museum gallery walls, has signed on to do next year’s installation. Apparently, the good-humored Joannou isn’t worried about turning the destructive artist loose on his quaint little island. “Luckily,” he said, “Greece is a country full of archaeologists.”