Art Space Pythagorion


Send a fistful of youngish art-world denizens off to fete an exhibition on a Greek isle in August and the term “opening” no longer seems appropriate. But what to call it, this sunny brew of beach beds and sweet wine, artists and curators and writers? Junket, retreat, vacation—bliss?

Lest I seduce you, disloyally, with tales of boat trips and tanned biennial directors, first a quick clarification of the context. Although it’s now the site, thanks to Art Space Pythagorion, of a laudable annual exhibition series—Harun Farocki in 2012, Slavs and Tatars in 2013, Nevin Aladağ in 2014—Samos is not how contemporary art typically reacts to saltwater. Samos is not Jeffrey Deitch admiring Matthew Barney smear petroleum jelly in Dakis Joannou’s slaughterhouse. Not VIP rooms by Audi and hors d’oeuvres by Rolex. Not glittering yachts and infinity edges. Samos, my Greek friends report, is not Mykonos, not Santorini, not Rhodes. In other words, Samos is so not where you’d expect a Munich entrepreneur, Kurt Schwarz, and his Greek-born wife, Chiona Xanthopoulou-Schwarz, to plant a new art institution.

Off the beach and into Pythagorion, via silver chartered bus, we went Monday night for the opening of Aladağ’s “Borderline,” a rumination on migration, the murkiness of cultural identity, the malleability of boundaries, and, of course, borders of any and all kinds. Such themes have been on the mind and in the work of the Turkish-born, Germany-raised artist for some time now, so there was less surprise upon encountering the display than a certain incitement to reconsider. To reconsider the water in which I had just swum, the backdrop to my hotel room’s picture-perfect view, the imperceptible geopolitical theater that beach chairs are front-row seats for on this part of the island, on this part of the earth.

At their nearest points, Samos and Turkey are barely 4,500 feet apart. “So close you can discern the cars going up and down the hills,” as ASP curator Marina Fokidis described the distance to the Turkish mainland. It’s tempting to call them close, but they are only close if by close we also mean nonproximity, disjunction, fissure. This rift—one that facilitates weighty distinctions like “Turkey” and “Greece,” “Asia” and “Europe,” “East” and “West”—is the space from which Aladağ’s newly commissioned work issues. Only because thereis not quite here could fifteen wooden coils be wrapped with black fishing rope the length of that gap and then permit, as sculptural installation (Beeline), political and cartographic questions to pass through an aesthetic prism. For Borderline, a video work that gives the show its title, Aladağ navigates—by boat, aided by GPS—along the seam dividing the two countries. There is no story, only the record of an appearance and disappearance of a line, of the “real” border rendered, momentarily, by the boat’s quickly dispersing backwash.

It was summer, it was Greece, so naturally most fled the darkened galleries for the breezy, playground-adjacent patio. It was there that organizers had promised something that might once have been called a poetry reading—had one or another recent “turn” not mandated every art-funded utterance don a Pedagogy badge—but was now being billed as a “poetic lecture.” Lecture, thankfully, is not what poet Quinn Latimer did. She drew in rather than thinned out the crowd, crooned over rambunctious children’s shrieks and their parents’ shhs, and concluded with an ecstatically recursive accounting of oh so many bounded categories that were being scuttled by all of us, by the hour. “Border of cult / Border of leisure / Border of culture / Border of labor.” And on and on and on.

The next day’s gap in the art itinerary left abundant opportunity to test just how soft the wall dividing work and play was. While many had come to Samos with specific duties—n.b.k.’s Sophie Goltz, Tate Modern’s Andrea Lissoni, ARTER’s Başak Doğa Temür, and art-agenda’s Filipa Ramos were running workshops for ASP’s curatorial fellows; Künstlerhaus Stuttgart’s Adnan Yildiz, curator Chus Martínez, and writer Ingo Niermann were participating in Wednesday evening’s roundtable—in this maritime barter economy, a couple of hours of speaking was trading for a few seaside days, and no one was feeling guilty about the exchange rate. By Tuesday afternoon, most everyone had fled south, by boat, to the barbell-shaped Samiopoula to commune with wild goats, the tiny island’s only permanent residents, and to down what felt like the thirtieth and thirty-first grilled fish in two days.

By night, all were back at Glicorisa Beach communing, cash-bar assisted, on a hotel terrace perfect for—well, you know. Choreographer Alexandra Bachzetsis was the first to show her stuff. Then Alkis, the resort’s star cabana boy (does a ripped, barrel-chested thirty-year-old still count as a “boy”?), showed his, and anyone still seated now appeared more prude than prudent. Once the sound system was ours, right before midnight, Documenta king-in-waiting Adam Szymczyk offered a four-song set—New Order, Joy Division, the Smiths, A Certain Ratio—that ignited all kinds of wild speculation across the dance floor. What does this mean for the next Documenta? was the question posed, with varying urgency, to me by not one, not two, but three artists—each trying, clairvoyantly, to read the back-to-back British postpunk as if curatorial tea leaves.

Wednesday’s archaeological tour had seemed like the ideal preface to that evening’s talks, centered as they were on the symbolism of East and West in Europe. Yet the guide’s violent chatter about wars, piracy, pillaging, and plundering was discordant with the mood that had settled in by day three. To each impassioned nonquestion that consumed the postroundtable Q&A and sent more than a few eyes rolling, Martínez, admirable show stealer, responded with a brainy graciousness. “Nice is the new cool,” Temür announced to me on our walk to dinner, pushing back against the idea that only the toughest curators survive. Composure, too, was the vibe down at my end of the table. To one side of me sat the perpetually understated Niermann, and to the other the always-on Yildiz, who was not only more serene that eve but was also, I had noticed, abstaining from the beef. “Meat makes me aggressive,” he confessed.

What had made everyone so tranquil, so soft? The sun? The art? The air? Who cares. Here’s to hoping that a bit of Samos calm survives September’s hectic openings.