ON A WHITE MARBLE COLUMN, topped by the goddess Athena, that presides over the Pedion Areos Park in Athens, someone has scrawled in black an anarchy symbol. A few steps farther—under lush green trees down Mavromateon Street, past dozens of stray cats haunting the shadows cast by grand bourgeois apartment buildings—are clusters of humans talking under the streetlights in the sticky humidity of the June night. It’s only when you get close do you see they’re cooking and smoking heroin, tongues of flame licking at glass tubes. Beaming down from the fifth floor of one of the buildings, a neon heart with an arrow advertises architect/curator Despoina Damaskou’s “You Cannot Hide for More than Seven Years,” an occasional curatorial venture, this time featuring artist Malvina Panagiotidi’s show “It Was Evening All Afternoon.” In a grand living room of the old apartment, blown-glass shapes hover between candles cast from dozens of hands, each reaching from pools of wax and melting from their own tongues of flame. The wetness of the night felt just as melty. Another floor up, a giant terrace overlooking the city was packed with a dance party presided over by goth queen DJ Lycabettus Hill. You could see the Acropolis on the hills behind her. Curators and artists and dealers streamed by, kicking off an unofficial beginning to a week in Greece of projects and openings, fairs and talks, centered around collector Dakis Joannou’s annual party/exhibition for his Deste Foundation at the Slaughterhouse in Hydra and this year’s edition of Art Athina.
The following day, I found myself at a luncheon at Dakis and his wife Lietta’s mansion overlooking Athens from a different perspective, enjoying a meal before the Slaughterhouse event. This year they were premiering a video and performance produced by David Shrigley. The luncheon included white ceramic dispensers by Shrigley on every table, marked “invisible dust.” I saw a few people try to employ them as saltshakers and a woman slip one into her purse. The party ended abruptly with a downpour, the humidity finally giving in.
After the storm, Rodeo Gallery opened its newest space in the port of Piraeus with an exhibition of new paintings by Leidy Churchman. Except for a few small architectural interventions, Leidy’s paintings hung from the raw, crumbling walls of the 1902 warehouse, a cavalcade of animals taking the roles of humans. The crowd moved back and forth between the gallery and the dinner—something like a summer camp vibe started to emerge, all the faces appearing again and again at different events, the slightly awkward exchanges. The vibe was stronger after seeing many of the same faces on the ferry to Hydra the next day. (Not everyone can fit on Dakis’s famous boat, dazzle-painted by Jeff Koons: Guilty.)
At sunset, we hoofed it past tourists riding donkeys along a stone road hugging a cliff over the Saronic Gulf. Kids played in the dust and old ladies ate gyros and teenagers slurped ice cream along with the assembled international art invitees. Inside the steamy concrete box that makes up the Slaughterhouse, Shrigley premiered Laughterhouse, a documentary about goats shot in Malta and Scotland––each animal neighing with peculiarly human voices––with close-ups of head-butts and cloven hoofs, floppy ears and cute little coughs as they slurp from bowels of milk. After everyone ate the vegetarian buffet (someone joked that it might have been better to have served goat), a trio of guitarists in all black strummed a softly sweet rock ballad next to a video of the goats, occasionally chiming in with a “baa,” their voices hanging in the humid air and carrying over the sea with the breeze. After the musicians finished, they put the England-Tunisia World Cup game on the screen. On the way back to town, someone spotted Dakis on his yacht, watching the match. The rest of the night was a wash of wandering up and down stony streets, drinking too much, and swimming naked in the sea. At some point after 2 AM, Shrigley said to me, as a point in an argument, “I am a professional fine artist.”
The hangover lasted through to the following days openings of the Forty-Fifth Art Athina, the second under the directorship of curator Stamatia Dimitrakopoulos and the first to be held in the Athens Conservatoire, an epic stone Bauhaus school for music which was one of the many venues for last year’s Documenta. One of the exhibition halls featured a wide array of Greek galleries and the second a mix of both local and international exhibitors, which began with a section organized by curator Artemis Baltoyanni, who remarked, “I’m here because I think it’s important to show the Greek people this kind of work.” Callicoon Fine Arts opened the second section with a beautiful show of works by Etel Adnan. High Art had bright domestic scenes by Panayiotis Loukas and an installation of dreamy plein-air paintings by LA’s Nathan Zeidman on view. Dealer Daniele Balice presided over a curved room with paintings by Enzo Cucchi and Alex Ayed. “We’re in Greece, so we wanted a theater,” he said. As the president of Greece came by for the opening and to congratulate all the exhibitors, Balice might have been too busy flirting with his bodyguards to shake his hand.
Past a narrow hallway, the Breeder showed comfy ruins by Andreas Angelidakis (an excellent place to lounge), and young Athenian alt space Hot Wheels showed works made alongside a graphic novel by Valinia Svoronou, described to me by proprietor Hugo Wheeler as “Romanticism in a post-human context.” At London’s brand-new Soft Opening (which just opened in the Piccadilly Circus tube station), curator turned gallerist Antonia Marsh had sold out her booth, and more, to mostly Greek collectors, with work including diaphanous paintings by Ariana Papademetropoulos and carved alabaster ears atop Greek columns by Bennet Schlesinger.
As the fair started to empty out, the late sunset painted colors over the crowd and a host of dealers, artists, and collectors climbed onto buses to eat dinner at a restaurant alongside the sea. In the line to get out, I overheard one collector complain: “Does the world need another regional art fair?” Maybe not, but Greece is beautiful and Athens has heart, and after the rubble of the crisis and the dust of Documenta, the art and artists, dealers and curators, here have a magic and charm that endure.