A few decades ago, the sea below ran red with blood. On this windy day, the modest structure is crowned by a sparkling sculpture of a sun that is spinning madly like a weathervane. While the piece looks at home here, perhaps a remnant from centuries ago, it’s part of a temporary installation by the American artist Jeff Koons, his first solo exhibition in Greece in more than 20 years.
Jeff Koons: Apollo, which runs through the end of October, features new sculptures alongside quotidian objects—including a dangling pair of bronze Nike sneakers—that are meant to inspire a dialogue between the contemporary and the ancient. Inside, the slaughterhouse has been transformed into a temple of Apollo centered around the sculpture Apollo Kithara, which depicts the ancient god playing the forebearer of the guitar alongside a lifelike slithering snake. With the doors thrown open, the sea breeze makes the drapes on the ceiling beams billow and Elvis Presley plays on the speakers.
The story of how the most expensive living artist landed an exhibition on a little Greek island begins with a friendship forged in the 1980s. The slaughterhouse project is operated by the Athens-based DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art, founded by the Greek-Cypriot industrialist, collector, and owner of several of our Greek hotels, Dakis Joannou. Set in the Athenian suburb of Nea Ionia, the foundation promotes both emerging and established artists and aims to start a dialogue about contemporary art and modern society. Each summer, the foundation invites an artist to create a unique installation for the space as the DESTE Project Space Slaughterhouse. The exhibitions are open to the public and free to visit.
While Joannou himself decides which artists he invites to take over the space, for years, he never asked Koons to take part. “We are very close friends, but I never asked him because we have a very limited budget,” he tells us. This is a deliberate choice, as his goal of the project is to challenge a mid-career artist to do something very restricted. “But Jeff and I were having lunch in New York and talking about Hydra and he said, ‘I’d love to do it.’ So I said okay.”
The exhibition was put off for two years due to the pandemic, and throughout all that time Joannou had no insight into Koons’ plan. “I didn’t know anything about it until two hours before the show. He even had my assistant sign an NDA.”
For Joannou, it was well worth the wait. “For me, it came full circle. My first impression of him was the One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, which is the first piece I purchased—the one that started the collection. So it was really an incredible gift, if I can call it that, to have that first impression right before the show. It was absolutely amazing. I didn’t expect anything like that at all.”