BY Elizabeth Janus in Reviews | 06 SEP 96
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Issue 29

Everything that's Interesting is New: The Dakis Joannou Collection

BY Elizabeth Janus in Reviews | 06 SEP 96

When Dakis Joannou first showed part of his collection at the House of Cyprus in Athens in the 1988 exhibition 'Cultural Geometry', he became permanently associated with the group of 'commodity' or Neo-Geo artists that formed the nucleus of his collection at the time. These artists were given an enormous boost not only by his financial support but by the very public dissemination of their works through the flashy publications that accompanied the exhibition and the others that would follow. 'Cultural Geometry' and, to a slightly lesser extent, 'Artificial Nature' (1990) and 'Post-Human' (1992) ­ all organised by Joannou's influential advisor, Jeffrey Deitch ­ identified certain trends in the art of the period that had, until then, remained largely fragmented; confined to a few individuals in certain European cities or to the East Village and SoHo in New York. These exhibitions also brought to light the fact, confirmed by this latest and more comprehensive presentation, that Joannou was in the process of building a collection of art from the late 80s that would rival in scale, breadth and focus the collection of Minimal and Conceptual art formed in the 70s by Giuseppe Panza di Biumo.

The present sampling of more than 200 works by nearly 100 artists (predominantly Americans) gives a broad, if slightly lopsided, view of contemporary art from the last ten years. Particular emphasis has been placed on several artists who, by the quantity of work included, become key to understanding the motivation behind the collection as well as the particulars of Joannou's taste. The artist who undeniably dominates the collection is Jeff Koons, with at least one piece from almost every period of his production included here ­ from the early vacuum cleaner and floating basketball sculptures, through to a stainless steel train set made from Bourbon decanters, the porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson and his pet chimpanzee Bubbles, up to the latest Cicciolina phase. From this staggering presence, and the space allotted in the accompanying catalogue to a conversation between patron and artist, one has the impression that Joannou sees Koons as his alter-ego. This is also implied by the fact that Joannou has hung his only portrait (a dour-looking photograph by Clegg & Guttmann in which he contemplates a Koons steel bust) inside a small room dedicated to Koons' notorious Made in Heaven series. Such a placement is not haphazard since this series, in which the artist's fantasies are played out in the name of art, is perhaps the most perfect visual expression of Koons' artistic philosophy.

Among the other artists collected in depth are Robert Gober and Kiki Smith, whose disturbingly poetic objects are the perfect contrast to those of Koons. From Gober there is a very early (1980) doll's house that exudes a nostalgic longing for a mythical domesticity ­ a feeling that can be found in much of his later work. There are also the more well known beds, sinks and wax legs, and the recent installation Untitled (Man in Drain) (1993-94), which is a metal grille let into the floor through which a male torso pierced by a drain can be seen. Kiki Smith has an equally strong presence with, among other works, two beautiful female figures made of paper ­ one dangling by its neck from the ceiling and the other attached to the wall with its lowered head pouring a cascade of real hair ­ and two wax models, Mother/Son (1993), depicting a woman suckling her own breast and a man sucking his penis.

The installation itself, in a space that resembles a converted warehouse or hangar, is revealing in that it seems guided as much by the power of acquisition as by the desire to fully grasp the artists' intentions. The sheer number of objects is initially overwhelming and sometimes their placement is determined by misguided or overly simplistic criteria that reflect a collector's personal engagement with his collection rather than a curator's critical eye. Two of the most obvious examples of this are a room near the entrance that is literally crammed with work by Gerhard Merz, Juan Muñoz, Rosemarie Trockel, Thomas Schütte and Jan Vercruysse (among others) and a superficially formal combination of a Robert Smithson collage of King Kong with a stuffed animal piece by Mike Kelley.

What is interesting, though, is that the exhibition is peppered with historical pieces, such as Marcel Duchamp's urinal (placed on a pedestal in iconic solitude at the end of the main corridor), two James Rosenquist paintings, an Andy Warhol Brillo box, an early Joseph Kosuth and examples of Arte Povera artists Jannis Kounellis and Pino Pascali. This is an attempt to set up a Pop-Conceptual dichotomy linking the contemporary art to its historical precedents. But this 'big-picture' approach, while initially giving the collection a sense of seriousness and direction, also has the negative effect of fixing it more permanently into the period in which it was formed. This was evident from the way that the few pieces by younger artists (such as Vanessa Beecroft, Cheryl Donegan and Wolfgang Tillmans), who reflect a spirit altogether different from the majority of the collection, looked strangely out of place.