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 and curator of the 2013 Venice art biennale 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.”
Did it come as a surprise to hear that Gioni would be the 2013 Venice Biennale curator? “It was almost overdue,” the Greek Cypriot collector says. Despite being almost overdue, Gioni still came a little early as the youngest curator in more than a hundred years to direct the Venice Biennale.
The Italian phenomenon urged the audience to view contemporary art as a form of “conceptual gymnastics,” a thought that he shared with the Wall Street Journal few months before the opening.
For Joannou the exercise is “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, they jointly produced the rainbow colored monographs, which attempt to shed light on the work and lives of the artists. “We use the younger artists of the collection and ask a writer who is well known and familiar with their work to write a 2000 word essay. The essays are short and easy to read and illustrated with the works of the collection.” While the essays reveal the artists, a series of intriguing portraits owned, by Joannou and worth 1000 words each turn the spotlight on him.
One striking portrait is signed by George Condo and 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 and the other is tall and skinny in clerical apparel. Both have a glaring look in their 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 a 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 with each other and their creative voices compliment 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. Then there was the time, “ Maurizio had this idea to stop being an artist and decided to 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!”
When Joannou decided to document his 1968 furniture collection in a catalogue, he had a rough idea of how he wanted it to look. Inspired by “Playboy Architecture” an exhibition organized by acclaimed Princeton University architectural historian and theorist Beatriz Colomina, Joannou wished to capture that same aesthetic that defined the late 60s and early 70s. “I bought ten years of Playboy from ‘65 to ‘75, looked at the images and found how close the ‘68 collection was to the images of these magazines.” 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, while two couples reenact a new version of Adam and Eve. While Joannou assigned Cattelan the ‘68 furniture catalogue, Cattelan assigned Joannou “the architect” (Joannou has a Doctorate in Architecture from Sapienza University of Rome) 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 weird little 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”.
Condo is also responsible for a bronze bust of Joannou and his wife. Lietta is shown as an extension of Dakis’ s head, discreetly in the background but firmly united. Indeed he frequently lovingly mentions his wife pointing out, for example, that she decided to arrange in a coordinated manner the four oversize straw hats to evoke umbrella shaped jellyfish on the dark blue sea of the sofa in the living room of the yacht. “The hats are not artworks. Lietta thought that they looked good there.” When Lietta boards Guilty with a group of friends for a weekend autumn cruise to the Saronic islands, we see in real life how they complement each other and how as a couple they have mastered the art of entertainment. Every summer they effortlessly host a three-day extravaganza to which artists, curators, and collectors come after Art Basel, the reunion of the international art world, to attend the Joannou’s openings in Hydra and Athens.
Another revealing portrait is found in his Athens home and made by Italian artist Roberto Cuoghi. Megas Dakis is a wildly realistic wax profile but with toy doll bits escaping from his forehead – possibly a reference to a mind that is constantly overflowing with ideas- and a hedgehog female figure flowing 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 Masssimo 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.” Is the name of the artwork alluding to Megas Alexandros, the great military commander and most influential ruler? That question remains unanswered, but what is certain is that Joannou identifies with Cuoghi’s interpretation. “He understood very well who I am.” Discussing the portrait Joannou reveals a hidden Assyrian demon present in the artwork. “That’s Pazuzu. A good demon meant to keep away the bad demons.” Joannou also owns a giant sculptural depiction of Pazuzu (the king of the demon of the winds) that is based on a small bronze Pazuzu totem at the Louvre. The collector has cleverly placed the giant sculpture in the forest part of his estate in Corfu.
It is no coincidence that Polish artist Pawel Althamer -assigned the 2014 Hydra slaughterhouse installation- also chose to depict him as a leader in the form of an Indian chief with an eagle-feather war bonnet in the company of his regular cast of characters. For his 2011 Deutsche Guggenheimcommission Althamer installed machines coming from a plastics manufacturing firm that 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 in this way 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.” Fischer called Joannou from L.A “why do you interfere with Pawel’s work? I said what are you talking about. Do whatever you like.” Althamer reconfigured the imaginary set up by dressing Jeff Koons 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, all together reach a consensus.
It’s like a web that you cannot really unravel or explain ...Dakis Joannou
All these people connect, “each collaboration leads intuitively to the next one. Think of it as a network of complex and undefined kind of 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. I 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 of the collection is the Swiss born Urs Fischer, the cyborg of the group. Fischer 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 it 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, Fischer invited all the locals together with tourists and visitors to create objects out of colored clay for the Hydra project space. “We had a social 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 because 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 Italian tailored made 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 better the established artists “Jeffrey [Deitch] and I had dinner with Andy Warhol at Indochine” and discovered new talent. New York is practically a second home for Joannou. He studied undergraduate and graduate programs of civil engineering at Cornell and Columbia universities and later worked for D’Arcyadvertising agency who had just lost the Coca Cola account at the time. “Here is a polaroid picture of my colleagues in New York. It 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 flat.
In New York in June 2012, in the windows of the Madison Avenue department store Barney’s, Joannou first “announced” his fashion project. “It took me almost thirty years to decide how to collect fashion.” Artforum’s February 1982 cover featuring Issey Miyake’s “Rattan-vine Body,” the first time clothing appeared on the cover of an art magazine, sparked his interest. 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.” 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 to that 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.
In an unexpected manner the portraits could be thought of as the tessellating pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. All contain fascinating clues that when put together produce a complete picture about how remarkably creative Joannou is. The portraits have revealed the accomplice with the intense eyes and green ears, the friend, the spouse, the chief, the fertile mind. What have we missed? When Joannou stands in front of the Anish Kapoor mirror sculpture on Guilty, the small honeycomb shaped cells create a cubist portrait, a beehive distortion with the hint of a smile.
All photos © Alexia Antsakli Vardinoyanni www.artflyer.net