BERLIN — Here in northern Europe the leaves are turning colors at an alarming rate. In the US, Labor Day came and went. But in Greece it’s still summer-summer — meaning there’s still time to visit the island of Hydra and see Polish artist Pawel Althamer’s rather anti-spectacular exhibition at the Deste Foundation Project Space Slaughterhouse.
I say “anti-spectacular” since, as most who read Artforum’s Scene and Herd column know by now, the foundation’s Hydra outpost — founded in 2009 by Cypriot-Greek megacollector Dakis Joannou (Deste’s main Athens space dates to the early 1980s) — is known for the spectacular events that kick off its summer-long shows. Each June, a star artist or artist duo from the collector’s network is given free rein at the Slaughterhouse to create a site-specific exhibition that stays up until the end of September.
The opening event is usually a performative extravaganza in and around the building. A star-studded, largely international audience is treated to, say, Matthew Barney and Elizabeth Peyton leading a funeral march for a dogfish; or Doug Aitken screening a movie starring Chloë Sevigny on a massive moving barge; or, like last year, my first time, Urs Fisher gathering people to join in creating hundreds of sculptures and placing them in and around the slaughterhouse, a surprisingly small stone edifice perched on a steep pitch a short walk from Hydra’s harbor (the Fischer project was actually an adaptation of a show he did at LA MOCA not long before).
The night then traditionally moves on to a Greek dinner at a table set for hundreds (whose ranks generally include people like but not limited to Jeffrey Deitch, Maurizio Cattelan, Paul Chan, Kim Gordon, Massimiliano Gioni and Cecilia Alemani, and major collectors like Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo) running along a dirt road behind the slaughterhouse — one of the few roads on an island whose only other modes of transport involve legs, two human or four donkey.
This year, Althamer kept things low-key, small-scale, vaguely interactive, and definitely mystical. His exhibition, called The Secret of the Phaistos Disc, takes as its point of departure a fired-clay Bronze-Age disc found on Crete in the early 1900s and bearing symbols whose code has never been satisfactorily deciphered. What do the etchings on the Phaistos Disc mean? Nobody knows, but here, Althamer asks his audience to consider what they might mean … through, apparently, his own ideas of family. (Explaining the show to me, one Deste employee said, “All understanding starts with your own family.” If she knew my family, she might reconsider that comment.)
And so, Althamer has transformed the slaughterhouse’s rough-hewn main space into an oversize dollhouse, with a suspended solar system hanging over a landscape of dolls depicting the Althamer family and a few others, including Dakis and Lietta Joannou. On opening night, I saw two different sets of children playing for hours with the dolls and miniature furniture — sitting on well-worn Oriental rugs and probably not thinking about the Secret at all, but making for a charming, kindergarten-like tableau for those of us who were.
As an eerie sound piece played, Althamer himself created abstract drawings and object collages with his young son in one of the building’s former stalls. The exhibition includes a stall filled with books and another filled with murals, kids’ clothing, and bric-a-brac — all prompts to ground viewers and inspire thought. Visual echoes of the Phaistos Disc crop up in strange places: a tiny version of it on a door, another mini-disc held by the doll version of Mr. Joannou, a finger-painted spiral. Deste employees handed out round pieces of thick paper, which were apparently more mini-discs upon which to draw one’s own hieroglyphics, as well as copies of Althamer’s second inspiration for the show, the Emerald Tablet, a text that deals with alchemy.
Let’s not mince words: the exhibition itself doesn’t work particularly well. The Disc and Tablet mysteries are too arcane to thread into a narrative, the tumble of objects too disparate; at one point a Greek friend whispered to me, “Hey … do you know what this means? I’m so confused.” Most importantly, the call to communal activity, i.e. interactivity, doesn’t feel powerful enough, especially for those of us who remember the previous year’s Urs Fischer clay-fest (then, each of us got a cool slab and off we went — I made a tiny dragon and laid it in the shadow of a pair of oversize feet, apparently made by Sadie Coles). I also remember Althamer’s own “Draftmen’s Congress” from the 7th Berlin Biennale, recreated in New York’s New Museum earlier this year, which offered an interactive room where anyone could join in conversations and simply draw on the walls, and most people did. Not here. And finally, while Althamer’s work is often straightforward and dramatic (consider his famous sinewy wraith-like mask sculptures), at the Slaughterhouse the magical connections between concept and object get lost somewhere along the way.
Some of us at the bountiful dinner pulled out our paper discs, drew a bit on them, and discussed exactly these things over lots of Greek wine. The previous two days in Athens, we’d all seen a Jürgen Teller solo show called Macho in the Deste Foundation spaces and the very blingy (but surprisingly fabulous — kudos to the curators and exhibition designers, Nadja Argyropoulou, Adam M. Bandler, and Mark Wasiuta) Destefashioncollection: 1 to 8 in the Benaki Museum’s annex space. We agreed that Althamer’s show felt, at least on a superficial level, a bit anticlimactic.
But much later, away from Hydra’s sultry soft light and away from the sparkling sea, the company, the sight of Mr. Joannou benevolently presiding over it all, I considered how subdued Althamer’s edition of the affair was, especially in comparison to previous Slaughterhouse pilgrimages. And it seemed that just maybe the artist had been very clever in quietly remaining true to his quirky, spiritual, dark-sided self despite the expectations of the art industry represented by the glitterati opening audience. Perhaps The Secret of the Phaistos Disc is meant to deliberately show that an artist can still be as weird as he wants to be, can still harbor, explore, and expose secrets.
In the few months that have passed since the show opened, the objects on view have certainly been shifted and modified by subsequent visitors, as they were meant to be, and now might be the best time to go and contemplate (not to mention that September is a luscious time to experience Greece). The one echo of Althamer’s more salable, popular work is a lone sculpture of a doglike creature on the Slaughterhouse’s rooftop, appearing to gaze out over the sea — a poignant coda, perhaps, to the riot of colors inside. As difficult as it is to understand the exhibition’s multiple elements and mystical reference points, its lack of pretense, conformity, and spectacle might just be one of the strongest statements an artist can make in a go-go art world at this juncture.
Pawel Althamer: The Secret of the Phaistos Disc continues through September 29 at the Deste Foundation Project Space Slaughterhouse (Hydra, Greece).