In the brightly lit living room of his yacht Guilty, Dakis Joannou displays his new set of publications 2000 Words conceived by his good friend Massimiliano Gioni. “My relationship with Massimiliano goes way back. He interviewed me for Flash Art, when he was twenty-five, or maybe even younger. In 2004 he was one of the five curators of the exhibition Monument to Now and after that he started having an active role.” That he will be the 2013 Venice Biennale curator comes as no surprise to the Greek Cypriot collector. “It was almost overdue.” Despite being almost overdue, Gioni did arrive a little early – the youngest curator in more than a hundred years to direct the Venice Biennale– with the suggestion that audiences view contemporary art as a form of “conceptual gymnastics.”
For Joannou the gymnastic exercises involve “trying to get a better feeling for what the work is all about and for the person taking intellectual responsibility.” Having this approach in mind, Joannou and Gioni jointly produced the rainbow colored monographs to shed light on the work and lives of the younger artists in Joannou’s collection. “We ask a writer who is well known and familiar with their work to write a 2000 word essay. The essays are short, easy to read, and illustrated with the works in the collection.” While the publications illuminate the artists, Dakis also owns a series of intriguing portraits, each worth 1000 words, that turn the spotlight on him.
One striking portrait, signed by George Condo, shows two men against a dichromatic background. They stand side by side, like an odd version of the Blues Brothers. One man is short with a round face; the other is tall and skinny in clerical apparel. Both have glaring eyes, but we get distracted by Joannou’s lime green nose and the carrot that pierces Cattelan’s head. Condo composed the portrait in twenty minutes. “I told George, ‘I only have twenty minutes.’ He said, ‘That’s plenty of time.’ He took an existing painting of a sea and a sky, turned it around and drew over it very rapidly.” Joannou recalls a funny detail. “We had a disagreement on how my hair looked in the painting but that was quickly resolved with a ‘haircut.’” Condo did two more portraits of the Greco-Roman duo. One shows the accomplices amidst fluffy clouds, while in the other portrait Joannou and Cattelan are shown against a shiny golden yellow backdrop wearing matching striped shirts.
In real life collector and artist have a natural rapport and their creative approaches complement each other beautifully. Sometimes the result touches the macabre and other times it becomes borderline pornographic. “Maurizio’s work goes beyond the surface. Somebody said that the three elements you have to deal with are life, sex and death, and I think Maurizio is dealing with all three of them.” For Joannou’s satellite project space, a former slaughterhouse on the island of Hydra, Cattelan designed two seemingly dead undersized wax self-portraits. “His work might be perceived as a joke, but I assure you he is deadly serious.” Cattelan’s work can also provide social commentary with a splash of situational humor. In his office Joannou keeps a small copy of what looks like the Greek flag except that the canton that normally bears a white cross has now been replaced by the face of Jesus Christ. “That’s Maurizio’s interpretation of the Greek flag.” He sensed and captured that Christian Orthodox faith is in the DNA of the Greeks. Once Cattelan decided to stop being an artist and instead launch an artist’s magazine Toilet Paper with photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari. “We did the first four issues together and I think it has proven very successful and popular!”
The two also collaborated when Joannou decided to document his 1968 furniture collection in a catalogue inspired by “Playboy Architecture” an exhibition organized by acclaimed Princeton University architectural historian and theorist Beatriz Colomina. He bought ten years of Playboy, from ‘65 to ’75, and discovered how his ’68 furniture matched the images in them. Cattelan together with Ferrari materialized what the collector had in mind: eye-catching photographs filled with sexual innuendo. Two leopard Due Piu chairs designed by Nanda Vigo are photographed with two naked women looking like the agile and stealthy predators that leopards are. The Bazaar sofa from Superstudio, the Capitello armchair from Studio 65, Guido Drocco’s Cactus coat stand, and other more radical design items are casually arranged in the garden of the collector’s summer estate in Corfu, where two couples reenact a new version of Adam and Eve. While Joannou assigned Cattelan the ‘68 furniture catalogue, Cattelan appointed Joannou “the architect” (Joannou has a Doctorate in Architecture from Sapienza University of Rome) for the design of the Family Business project space, “a space open to experimentation and irreverent exhibition formats” initiated by Cattelan and Gioni at Palais de Tokyo in Paris. Joannou designed a little hybrid house (a cross between a basement and an attic) that will act as the backdrop to various art performances. “I provide the space. The rest is up to them.”
In addition to the portraits of Joannou and Cattelan, Condo also created a bronze bust of Joannou and his wife that shows Lietta as an extension of Dakis’s head, discreetly in the background but firmly united. It was she, for instance, who arranged four oversize straw hats on the dark blue sea of the sofa in the living room of the yacht to evoke umbrella shaped jellyfish. “The hats are not artworks. Lietta thought that they looked good there.” Every summer they effortlessly host a three-day extravaganza, a reunion of the international art world to which artists, curators, and collectors come after Art Basel to attend the Joannou openings in Hydra and Athens.
In his Athens home. Megas Dakis by Italian artist Roberto Cuoghi would be a wholly realistic wax profile except that toy doll bits escape from his head – possibly a reference to a mind that is constantly overflowing with ideas- and a hedgehog female figure flows from his chest like the carved figurehead of a vessel. “Ali Subtonick, founder of The Wrong Gallery, together with Cattelan and Gioni introduced me to Roberto. I was interested in his work but it was very difficult to find pieces, so Massimo de Carlo, the owner of the gallery representing him, suggested that Roberto do my portrait. So I went to his studio and Roberto took many very close up photographs. Details of my face. He wasn’t sure what he would do. In the process he recomposed the pictures and that’s how this profile came about.” Whether the name of the artwork alludes to Megas Alexandros, the great military commander and influential ruler, is a question that remains unanswered, but what is certain is that Joannou identifies with Cuoghi’s interpretation. “He understood very well who I am.” He points out an Assyrian demon hidden in the artwork. “That’s Pazuzu. A good demon meant to keep away the bad demons.” Joannou also owns a giant sculpture of this king of the demon of the winds, based on a small bronze Pazuzu totem at the Louvre. His version he has aptly installed at his estate in Corfu, in the forest.
While he didn’t include a hidden demon in his sculpture, Polish artist Pawel Althamer (assigned the 2014 Hydra slaughterhouse installation) also chose to depict Joannou as a leader, a Native American chief with an eagle-feather war bonnet, amongst his regular cast of characters. For his 2011 Deutsche Guggenheim commission, Althamer had installed machines from a plastics manufacturing firm his father had founded and operated in Wesoła, a suburb of Warsaw. He then cast the faces of various people and mounted them on metal understructures covered with ribbons of plastic, creating a set of unique sculptural portraits. “He cast my face and I was supposed to go the next day and choose the understructure or shape that I wanted to use. I told him, ‘I leave it up to you.’ The result was the Indian chief!” Originally Althamer wanted to make all his close friends Indians, but Joannou was reluctant. “I told him that’s not the relationship I have with them. I feel them as peers, so it wouldn’t be accurate,” but Urs Fischer called Joannou from L.A. to ask why he was interfering with Pawel’s work. Dakis responded, “What are you talking about? Do whatever you like.” Althamer reconfigured the imaginary grouping. Jeff Koons is dressed in religious garb, Urs Fischer is a cyborg, Maurizio Cattelan is a bird, Massimiliano Gioni is shown with a cross on his back, and Jeffrey Deitch is the rabbi. Joannou can still be thought as the leader of the tribe, who, like a proper Native American chief, would have the duty to lead the council until, following a discussion, they all reach a consensus.
It’s like a web that you cannot really unravel or explain ...Dakis Joannou
According to Joannou, “each collaboration leads intuitively to the next one. Think of it as a network of complex and undefined relationships that bring together the various elements. It’s like a web that you cannot really unravel or you cannot explain.” The very first time that Gioni met Joannou, fifteen years ago, he realized how paramount relationships are for him. “I know that for Dakis the dialogue and the relationships with the artists are the most important part. It’s the continuous defining principle of Deste.” Jeff Koons, the “priest” in the group, credits Joannou for redefining the collector and artist relationship. “Dakis was the first collector I developed an intimate relationship with. Before, I’d been a very bohemian artist. Artists didn’t trust collectors. I thought artists should be with other artists, but Dakis and his wife, Lietta, were so disarming. Their collection is really an excuse to bring a larger community together and let them interact with each other. Art is about what it can do to make human life better, not about inanimate life. Life is about friendship and being supportive and embracing each other. It was natural to swim in that type of environment.”
Koons is the artist who marks the starting point of Joannou’s collection. “One ball total equilibrium tank,” a basketball that floats mysteriously in the centre of a glass tank, is the first piece he ever bought. “The magnetism of that piece drew me into a totally different world. I found that world very exciting and I went right into it, to collecting.” That subtle but incredibly enchanting piece contradicts the wildly exotic Razzle Dazzle camouflage with which Koons decorated the exterior of Guilty. When the shipyard saw the design, “they were incredibly enthusiastic. Jeff always surprises and always manages to stay current and relevant.” Koons also guest curated Skin Fruit in 2010 at the New Museum in New York City featuring artworks from Joannou’s private collection. While Joannou thinks that “it was one of the most interesting shows we have ever done,” the show was caught in controversy mainly because Joannou is one of the Museum’s trustees and also because Koons is featured prominently in his collection. Amidst those controversy clouds Joannou defended the show. “Jeff is not a curator, but because he knows me well and knows how I relate to the collection he managed to bring everything together in a totally masterly way. The show is an extension of what we have always been doing.”
A key artist in the collection is the Swiss born Urs Fischer, the cyborg of the group, whom Joannou met at the 2003 Venice Biennale curated by Francesco Bonami. “Urs had the installation Skinny Afternoon – a skeleton reclines in front of a chest of drawers and its breath fogs the mirror in front – by the Greek pavilion. I got that work, which I keep at home, and from then onwards it has been an ongoing collaboration and friendship. Urs was brilliant in designing the exhibition Fractured Figure.” In 2013 for the Hydra project space, Fischer invited all the locals together with tourists and visitors to create objects out of colored clay. “We had a socially minded artist who decided to engage the people. So in contrast to previous years, the show was active with over a thousand people sculpting in clay.” Over time the artworks were destroyed, partly by nature and partly by human intervention. “The meaning lies within the materials that take a life of their own. At the end we had ruins, but that was the whole point. Greece is home to famed ruins and in a way this project alludes to that. Ruins here take up a whole different meaning.”
In Fischer’s work there is decay, but also rebirth according to Jeffrey Deitch art dealer, curator, former MOCA director and the “Rabbi” of the sculpture group. Deitch never misses a Deste show in Athens or Hydra and always makes an impression with his tailored Italian suits and trademark round rimmed glasses. They met in Geneva back in the early 80s and together they explored the vibrant art scene in New York. They got to know the established artists better (“Jeffrey and I had dinner with Andy Warhol at Indochine”) and discovered new talent. New York has been practically a second home for Joannou. He studied civil engineering in undergraduate and graduate programs at Cornell and Columbia universities and later worked for D’Arcy advertising agency which had just lost the Coca Cola account at the time. A polaroid picture of his colleagues in New York brings to life what was a great time for advertising. “Just like the show Mad Men.” Now he regularly travels there residing at his ultramodern, graffiti-decorated Fifth Avenue apartment.
Artforum’s February 1982 cover featured Issey Miyake’s “Rattan-vine Body.” It was the first time clothing had appeared on the cover of an art magazine and sparked Joannou’s interest. “It took me almost thirty years to decide how to collect fashion.” Finally one night at a cozy Athenian restaurant Joannou together with M/M found a formula called destefashioncollection. Every year a curator would be appointed to choose the five most remarkable fashion items of that year and interpret them independently to create a capsule collection. Dennis Freedman, creative director of Barney’s, suggested varying the choice of curators so as to include a poet, an architect, and a musician making it even more interesting. “Mixing all these various disciplines of art is at the end what makes our culture.” In New York in June 2012, in the windows of the Madison Avenue department store Barney’s, Joannou first “announced” his fashion project The windows presented examples from five capsule collections. In 2014 all eight capsule collections dating from 2007 to 2014 will be shown in a comprehensive exhibition, curated by Mark Wasiuta of the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, at the Benaki Museum in Athens. “It’s all this package that makes a statement about fashion. Now what that statement is I really don’t know yet. But I am interested to find out.”
Joannou’s pursuit and interest in art is far from academic. “My collection is basically about life, not about art history or art theory.” The main thing to realize is that “there is no formula to great art. Artists are people with personalities and characters and each one responds to how he feels.” In addition, he stresses the importance of living with the art because “if you don’t live with the art, you are not involved with the art. It is necessary to interact with the various pieces and also to change the environment and the pieces you are living with so you are always kind of excited, always on edge.” In his office he keeps a photograph to remind him that Life without art is stupid.
The various portraits of Joannou could be thought of as the tessellating pieces of a jigsaw puzzle: the accomplice with the intense eyes and green ears, the friend, the spouse, the chief, the fertile mind. What is missing? When Joannou stands in front of the Anish Kapoor mirror sculpture on Guilty, the small honeycomb shaped cells create a cubist portrait, a beehive of distortion with the hint of a smile.
All photos © Alexia Antsakli Vardinoyanni www.artflyer.net