In Greece, such exhibitions hold a paradigmatic place in the unfolding history of the contemporary art scene in the country. Today, DESTE supports the biennial DESTE prize, which awards young Greek contemporary artists, and stages a yearly exhibition/event at the DESTE project space, The Slaughterhouse, on the island of Hydra. Then there are the annual museum-quality exhibitions staged at DESTE Foundation’s headquarters in Neo Ionia, an industrial neighbourhood sandwiched between the northern suburbs and Athens’s heaving city centre. It is here I meet Joannou for this interview, which begins with a discussion on current 2013 DESTE summer exhibition in Athens, curated by Angelidakis and Maria Cristina Didero, The System of Objects.
The exhibition is a historical exploration of Joannou’s collection and all the exhibitions that have been staged by the DESTE Foundation, including works by Elad Lassry, Andro Wekua, and Peter Halley. It is an exhibition-as-abstract portrait of Joannou as DESTE’s founder and patron, and what Joannou sees as one of the most exciting things DESTE has ever done: "A reflection of thirty years of ideas, work, collecting, thinking and playing," he says. "What we are looking at is our original idea! It’s about art and culture, and this integration of culture with art."
Joannou recalls how DESTE began five years before the collection was established, "I wanted to be involved in the dialogue," Joannou remembers. "It really started from this interest in the relationship between culture and art. One of the first projects we did was called COCA – Contemporary Museum of Culture and Art – a provocative name! We did a huge amount of research, and a lot of people took part in the vision, including Jannis Kounellis."
For Joannou, DESTE is first and foremost a platform for dialogue. "It's free and available for everybody who wants to see and participate in it. This is what we are trying to do. We are not playing power games or trying to dominate the Greek art scene. We are just here and we are open for people to share in what we are doing" he explains.
DESTE’s collection extends beyond contemporary art and this has been mirrored in The System of Objects. The exhibition also includes key pieces from DESTE’s furniture and fashion collection, including a pair of red, shiny American Apparel leggings used by Juergen Teller for a photo shoot on Hydra. Joannou notes how the fashion collection was an idea he had in mind for some twenty years, inspired by a 1983 Artforum cover by Issey Miyake. Joannou continues: "From when I first saw that Artforum issue to 2009, when we started our fashion collection, it materialised because the idea matured."
In general, Joannou’s collection and DESTE’s thematic leanings communicate an innate interest in the human condition, the productive need to create art, and that intellectual search for a ‘contemporary moment’. I ask Joannou how he perceives such a moment in The System of Objects, in terms of how it has approached the diversity and eclecticism in his collection. He replies: "The contemporary moment that this exhibition expresses is about the situation developing in art in that it has become a much more open field. I think that’s what counts to the ‘contemporary moment’. Of course, it’s not like we went after it deliberately, but it was in the air. Things are spread out; people are not talking about masterpieces anymore or major, big artworks. On the other hand, I think masterpieces are important; that’s why they will remain in history."
This idea of history – both documenting and making it – is something else that guides DESTE’s direction. Collecting Architecture Territories, an exhibition presented at DESTE in the summer of 2012 was a collaboration between DESTE and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation. It included an investigation into some of the different art foundations in the world and, in Joannou’s words, "what was interesting about the 2012 exhibition was how it engaged with the artistic networks in the art world, from the gallery to the collector and the museum. It included research into foundations and collectors, but it was about the networked cultures of the art world in some ways."
And last year was just an analysis, the next phase is about conclusions. "What they are talking about now is continuing this programme with another collector and to investigate other models," Joannou elaborates (he gets excited talking about this). "But of course, this is an ongoing thing. We started the project as something to be continued. In this sense, you will always have new models emerging, because these things happen."
Thinking about models, foundations and art world networks, I ask Joannou how he feels his projects have been perceived both at home and abroad and he immediately brings up the criticisms thrown at Skin Fruit, an exhibition of Joannou’s collection at the New Museum in 2010 and curated by Jeff Koons. Considering how the media backlash against the exhibition was centred in part on Joannou’s friendship with Koons, Joannou notes: "What was the problem with an artist curating an exhibition? We’ve always had artists curating exhibitions; Haim Steinbach curated our first."
Indeed, as a collector, Joannou is known to develop relationships with the artists he works with. When I ask how he finds the artists he collects, he quips, "from the phonebook!" before solemnly replying that it really is more of a network. Both answers point to an interest in communication. "I connect with the artists and I’m very close to most of the artists in my collection. For me, this is important; talking with them, getting new ideas; you always keep your mind fresh. Collecting is an excuse to talk to artists. Maybe I’m overstating it, but not too much. The first artist I connected with Jeff Koons and then Koons connected me to Peter Nagy who connected with Meyer Vaisman who connected me to Peter Halley and so on."
He admits that he can get over-involved. Stories include how Joannou worked with the Campana brothers (and challenged them in a good way, as they noted in conversation once) on the YES Hotel in downtown Athens (Joannou is an industrialist and hotelier); how he carried work back and forth while assisting Angelidakis and Didero in installing The System of Objects; how he meticulously curated last summer’s excellent Hydra show, Animal Spirits, from his iPad; how he can remember each and every work in his collection, including the dimensions of pieces (even when those dimensions have been listed incorrectly).
For Joannou, being a collector is about being a participant. In terms of how this expresses his view of ‘the collector’s role’, Joannou puts it this way: "The way I see it is that it is shown by the work we are doing here. The question is answered by looking at what we are doing. That doesn’t mean that it is the right or the best thing, but it’s my thing. Other collectors are doing different things."
My final question to Joannou is about his unquenchable passion to engage in the discussions surrounding contemporary art. What drives him? He smiles and replies, "That’s how people are made; some people are searching for a golf ball or an ace of hearts." And does this drive reflect itself in the work he has done with DESTE? "Yes, that’s how I feel. That’s how I respond to things", he says with absolution, after a fleeting moment of consideration. "That reflects in the collection, the programme of this foundation, and it reflects on my life, too."— [O]
Dakis Joannou was in conversation with Stephanie Bailey