CultureZohn: The Deste Foundation: As Greece Struggles, The Private Sector Steps Up

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Putiferio, by Roberto Cuoghi

The sun is just setting over the hot and scrubby island of Hydra and a sorcerer with a scarf and a helmet to protect him from the intense flames of a giant handmade kiln readies a giant pair of tongs to retrieve a fiery clay crustacean with the help of one of his two assistants with a golden apron (the women are both self-described as "girlfriends") to sprinkle it with clay dust in the ancient Japanese style and then bathe it in a giant cauldron of water. The process goes on for hours as the many kilns and fires form a kind of sacrifice to the Gods, on this, the eve of the summer solstice.

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Coughi after the performance

It is the annual retreat of the Deste Foundation ("to see"), founded by Greek-Cypriot industrial magnate Dakis Joannou, who himself modestly attired in a beige shirt stuck to his body in the intense heat, joins the international art-crowd arrayed above artist-sorcerer Italian Roberto Coughi--one of his favored artists-- munching on cheese pies, corn on the cob, smoothies, and souvlaki. Despite the heat however and the saturation with art world eventing (Art Basel, Christo, Zurich, the annual June pilgrimages), all are transfixed by the smoke and fire pouring out of the kilns in the exhibit entitled Putiferio.

Double Double Toil and trouble fire burn and cauldron bubble is what comes to mind, the Shakespearean witches chant.

I am always on guard for pretention and artifice in the contemporary art world, the one upsmanship that so infects many of the events that now swirl around the once staid discipline. As with the Christo I am nervous that I am participant in something superfluous to the migrant and economic crises at hand.

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Yet as the clay crabs and lobsters pile up, and the artist and his two partners work intensely the performance instead becomes very real and authentic, even charming, the friendly creatures snug in their dirt beds in afterbirth.

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Crustaceans in Slaughterhouse

In the ancient Slaughterhouse--the Deste site annually repurposed by each invited artist-- down the craggy hill, the crustaceans creep, crawl, hang and attach themselves to walls and objects like a pre-school full of wayward toddlers failing at conflict resolution more than a cadre of crabs off to their death. Yet on the roof of a cement hut below is what Coughi is calling the Crab Cemetery.

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Crab Cemetery

Early the following morning Cuoghi, Duchamp-ian, and his assistants/amours are cleaning up and repairing the broken objects. In the light of day, they are less sorcerers and witches than tired artists who have committed to a physical, performative practice which has endeared me to them.

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Coughi, the morning after

The questions about the role of artists vis a vis the role of the .001% does haunt me. Just as in the US, it is often private wealth that sustains many artists. What benefit these wealthy citizens derive in the competition for recognition for something other than their business acumen is different for each.

Joannou, a serious collector who impresses me as entirely authentic, has in his own way tried to bridge the gap. Passionate about art in a very sincere way, he has historically supported emerging--and blue chip artists-- all over the world in their quest to make their art. That he also has an enormous Jeff Koons designed boat (called Guilty) that sits in the Hydra harbor is the flip side of his populist magnanimity. But I see that Joannou inspires both ingenues and veterans.

Maurizio Catalan, who has joined the retreat, says, "I believe that to get in touch with Dakis it's a milestone in an artist's life; he's a sharp-witted person and really open minded, and at the same time very straightforward, he won't say he likes what he doesn't."

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Joannou boat Guilty designed by Jeff Koons

Yet his flourish and show are probably not that different from the highly decorated war heroes whose display of arms, trophy medallions and sumptuous costume at the local history museum testify to Hydra's long standing home as a preserve of wealth and bounty from its role in the ancient lucrative shipping trade. Even further back, Bard professor Daniel Mendelsohn says," the great aristocratic families of an earlier era in the city's history continued to hold and to covet power... Pericles, for instance, belonged to a family that might well be compared to the Vanderbilts or the Rockefellers of a later age". Greece is now home to many foundations that contribute to contemporary art and artists in a meaningful way and Joannou is leading the pack.

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Donkey parade at the port of Hydra

In counterpoint to the pyrotechnics on the island, 33 young Greek artists have been meticulously selected by curators Gary Carrion-Murayari, Helga Christofferson and Massimiliano Gioni from the New Museum in New York in a collaborative art project, The Equilibrists, with support from the Deste at the newer branch of the Benaki. From over 500 submissions and 100 studio visits, they have culled these native artists who--though not all living in Greece-- have faced down the economic challenges which are particularly piercing in this country which is falling off a fiscal cliff.

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Installation view, Deste Foundation/New Museum/Benaki Museum, The Equilibrists

The artists in turn have marshaled resources, supporting each other on video productions, engaging with start up galleries, forming collectives, eager to not be marginalized by the perilous straits they find themselves in. A National Museum of Contemporary Art still has an iron construction fence around though it was supposedly finished more than two years ago.

Though there is pathos, despite the challenges, there is also humor aplenty in the Deste/Benaki/New Museum exhibition. Especially engaging are the ersatz tent cities of Yannis Karpouzis, the Jetsons-like video attempts of Orestis Mavroudis to fly, the meticulous updating of the traditional art of Greek embroidery by Zoi Gaitanidou, the unstretched canvases of Sofia Stevi, the accumulations of a life by Giorgos Gerontides and the printed feminist t-shirts by Eleni Bagaki (entitled with singular precision, Tears made his dick hard/He made me drink from the floor/For his birthday I fucked somebody else/In my bedroom it must be hard to be you)

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Installation view, Deste Foundation/New Museum/Benaki Museum, The Equilibrists

Lisa Phillips, director of the New Museum whose previous collaboration with Dakis Joannou came under scrutiny because of his seat on her board (this exhibition will not travel to New York), says, "Athens could be the new Berlin," e.g affordable, congenial to artists in the face of the distinctly harsh economic and political challenges. Curator Christofferson reminds me that I shouldn't "romanticize what's going on with the artists, that this self-organization and solidarity comes out of need." A bit of hopeful news is that a site of the art exhibition Documenta 14 will take place in Athens next year. That women curators, gallerists and artists have an important role in the exhibition is another hopeful sign.

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Female mask, 1st century AD

A one-day kamikaze visit to the historic Athens museums reminds of the ancient tradition of portrayals of strong women throughout Greek mythology. At the Acropolis Museum, there is an "Athena" path one can follow as she battles alongside her serpent, the Korai (maidens) who serve and Caryatids supporting the pediments on their heads have pride of place; at the Anthropological Museum the vast holdings are overwhelming but I make my way through the centuries of gold and marble, passing alas, in a somewhat forlorn corner, after all the brouhaha over its return to the Greek patrimony, the vase of American collector Shelby White. One mini sculpture from the storage vaults looks remarkably like Fischli/Weiss.

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Ancient Fischli/Weiss

At the Benaki Museum (original branch), the women's costumes are highly embroidered and layered and the jewelry at every stage of Greek history is modern and magnificent. Even at the Hydra historical museum, the polychrome heads of women are prominently displayed amidst the male, military splendor.

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Terracotta sphinx, 630 BC

Bastienne Schmidt, a German /Greek artist who lives in New York says, "Women were put on a pedestal but not part of the official public life, they were constrained to the house. I think Greek women are very strong, and they run the villages. But still, men go to the kafenion,(and hang out and have coffee and chat) and the women must stay at home." Certainly female Greek artists are not succumbing to ancient tradition.

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Cycladic Museum

At the Cycladic museum, after seeing more extraordinary sculptures of women, I pause at a sidebar to his own exhibit Ai Wei Wei has curated to bring attention to the refugee crisis on Lesbos with a display of the work mostly amateur photographers who have documented the thousands of families risking the perilous journey to safety and freedom. Ai has also made a wallpaper of selfies with the refugees as his contribution. Artists themselves are not exempt from my antennae.

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Changing of the Guard at the Parliament building

At the changing of the guard at the Parliament where soldiers wear their wool leggings and pom-pommed shoes and fesi hats even in the crushing heat, their long swords raised high in salute, I am reminded that the Greek government also has understood that they can rely on their antiquities for only so long and must embrace the new.

Dakis Joannou is not thus attired. But in a way, I feel he is a major general proudly sending forth young artist-warriors into the world--Hydrated via the Deste Foundation-- so they don't end up in an artists' version of the crab cemetery.

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Both The Equilibrists and Putiferio will be on display throughout the summer

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Stavros Niarchos Foundation and Park designed by Renzo Piano and Deborah Nevins

(At the last minute, I was able to tour the new massive Renzo Piano project for the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center scheduled to open officially in about a year, including the National Library, the National Opera on land donated by government from former Olympic site. Another private project which is being gifted to the state is temporarily opening its graceful mediterranean park by American landscape designer Deborah Nevins for a public--impatient to partake of this bounty-- for four days. Inevitably, and not without some local controversy, culture has taken pride of place. In time, I'll have updated information)