“YOU LIKE BILL CLINTON?” It was the first English my cab driver had spoken since my arrival at the Pristina International Airport. All too aware of my status as an American tourist in Kosovo, I was still measuring my response when we passed an eleven-foot tall bronze statue of the forty-second president of the United States, all smiles on the corner of Bulevardi Bill Klinton, with one arm raised in a friendly wave, Ronald McDonald–style. Just two storefronts down, Boutique Hillary—specializing in pantsuits—had a sign advertising 50 percent off. “There’s a really dodgy story behind that monument,” philosopher Agon Hamza would warn me later. (He was mum about the pantsuits.)
The Republic of Kosovo is now hitting the seven-year itch of an independence many see as purely symbolic. As Slavoj Žižek jibes in From Myth to Symptom: the Case of Kosovo (a book coauthored by Hamza), NATO prefers its Kosovo “decaffeinated.” Under the banner of humanitarian calls for big-D Democracy, the country has been effectively “managed” by a tribe of foreign advisors, embassies, and NGOs, whose actions—such as privatizing Kosovo’s most profitable public services—have ensured a population that is empowered in mission statement only. Its citizens struggle with restricted mobility, not only under an economy deliberately crafted to be one of Europe’s most vulnerable, but also because almost half of UN Member Nations (Spain, Russia, and China among them) still don’t recognize the Kosovar passport, complicating travel.
To add to the logistical obstacles, Kosovo’s art scene has had to grapple with pressure to reinforce popular myths of the Balkans as Europe’s last frontier, a land of insatiable passions and centuries-old ethnic and cultural tensions, as codified in a wave of “discovery” exhibitions through the mid-aughts. Even as late as 2013, a New York Times article pointed to the “schism” between Kosovar Serb and Albanian artists as the most “formidable barrier” facing the art scene.
Most artists I met argued that this is a fiction. “People like to pretend there was no communication between artists in Pristina and Belgrade during the war,” artist Albert Heta sighed. Together with his partner, architect Vala Osmani, Heta founded Stacion Center for Contemporary Art as a way to help propagate a different narrative. Their first project was a 2006 conference that focused specifically on the long history of interaction between artists in Kosovo and Serbia. Nearly a decade later, Stacion has developed a full exhibition program (with upcoming projects by Pilvi Takala, Alfredo Jaar, and Adrian Paci) as well as a summer school open to emerging curators from the region. With few other local opportunities for artists—the Academy’s recently opened student gallery has primarily focused on showing its esteemed professors—there is still little infrastructure to support what strides Stacion has been making.
Vienna-based curators Katharina Schendl and Isabella Ritter hope to help remedy this with LambdaLambdaLambda, which opened January 19 as one of the first international art galleries in the Kosovar capital. As for the name, blame Seth Price: “Seth suggested it over dinner,” Schendl explained. “In physics, the lamda is the sign for a frequency, which we liked. And then, it’s also the name of the fraternity in Revenge of the Nerds? Something like that.”
It was sorority that prevailed for LambdaLambdaLambda’s inaugural show, “switching protocols,” which brought together Nadja Athanassowa and Flaka Haliti, the Munich-based artist recently announced as Kosovo’s representative in this year’s Venice Biennale. It will be the second time the country has been represented, following the 2013 debut of the pavilion (which is wedged between Chile and Turkey in the Arsenale). LambdaLambdaLambda’s opening had been timed to overlap with the biennial’s first official press conference, where Haliti announced other members of her production team, including Schendl, architect Philip Nitsche, and artist Dren Maliqi, before introducing her selected curator, Kunsthalle Wien director Nicolaus Schafhausen, who is no stranger to the Giardini, having curated two previous German Pavilions. “It made sense, as I’m from Pristina, but I study in Vienna and live in Munich,” Haliti explained. “It was important to me that I work with someone who can understand this kind of experience.”
While in town, Schafhausen delivered an afternoon lecture at the National Gallery of Art as part of a conversation series that featured Ayse Erkman, Sebastian Cichocki, and Marjetica Potrč. With a rather rocky history unto itself, the National Gallery has recently blossomed under its latest director, Erzen Shkololli, an artist and cofounder of the alternative space EXIT, which brought artists like Erkman, Dan Perjovschi, and Anri Sala to Shkololli’s hometown of Pejë. “It’s a luxury to be just an artist here,” Shkololli told me. “If you’re serious, then you have to help others to build the scene.”
Judging from the packed lecture hall, Shkololli has a lot to work with. Boasting an average age of twenty-five, Pristina is bustling with nightclubs and hipster coffee joints. Understandably, the country has one of the highest Internet usage rates in the region, though, as powerhouse publisher Besa Luci lamented, “blogging culture hasn’t really caught on.” In 2010 while still in her twenties, Luci founded the trilingual web-portal Kosovo 2.0 to encourage people to tell their own stories. A year later, Kosovo 2.0 launched a print edition, with themed issues like Public Space, Sex, and, most recently, Sports, whose accompanying crowd-funding campaign, “Kosovo Wants to Play” had to be delayed until Luci could find a platform that recognizes Kosovo.
I spotted both Luci and Shkololli at the LambdaLambdaLambda opening, where the crowd spilled out of the space and into Baba Ganoush, the vegetarian restaurant next door. “We wouldn’t have been able to pull this off without our neighbors,” Schendl confessed, recounting multiple instances of left luggage, keys, and afterhours falafel. As it would happen, neighborliness was at the heart of Haliti’s project, two mounted aluminum panels with images of fences from the surrounding side streets of Pejton. These weren’t your standard-issue, post-NATO fences; one looked like what’s leftover when you pull the cut biscuits out of rolled-out dough. “When I was a kid, all the fences looked like these,” Haliti reminisced. “You could talk through them, kids could climb over them. They were a method of communication. Now it’s all these solid panels. I wanted to try to record the few old fences still left.”
Left: Kosovo 2.0 founder Besa Luci and Austrian Embassy representative Astrid Reinprecht. Right: Collector Hampus Lindwall.
Promptly at 9 PM, selected guests including artists Alban Muja, Brilant Pirevca, collectors Rron Dalladaku and Hampus Lindwell, and Gipsy Groove’s Bajrabi Kafu Kinulli slipped out of the alleyway and across the courtyard to a dinner hosted by the Austrian Embassy at a subterranean restaurant on George Bush Road (which begins, quite naturally, at the intersection of Mother Teresa and Garibaldi). Over stewed vegetables and spicy cheeses, talk turned to the parallel system that operated in the 1990s when ethnic Albanians were barred from entering public buildings, like schools, theaters, and even the National Library, Pristina’s foremost architectural monument. Education was primarily self-organized through a system of salons. One artist learned his craft by sitting in on his father’s painting classes; another’s parents hosted seminars on law and agriculture, not because they were particularly interested in either topic, but because that was what was needed. “It wasn’t the kind of instruction that necessarily encouraged critical thinking,” confessed Luci, who, apart from her duties at Kosovo 2.0 is at work on a documentary about education under the parallel system.
Several bottles later, conversation turned to the afterparty, with Muja, Kinelli, and Schendl all weighing in on which of Pristina’s clubs would be the best bet for the night. Just as we had narrowed down the selections to two—one tended to be smokier but had this killer Albanian DJ, another was just where everyone’s friends already were—a round of gunshots rang out from the courtyard. Pirevca shrugged. “Maybe we should just get another bottle here?” Unanimous agreement.
“WE CAN LEARN A LOT FROM PIRATES,” artist Jonas Staal assured us. We had just finished the “Violence & Non-Violence” panel that closed day two of Artist Organisations International (AOI), a congress initiated by Staal with the Berlin-based curators Florian Malzacher and Joanna Warsza and held at the Hebbel am Ufer complex in Kreuzberg. According to Staal, “pirate ships run on a model of direct democracy.” The metaphor wasn’t totally off; we may have been on dry land, inside a theater rather than a boat, but the three-day event at times felt as rudderless as a Ship of Fools.
The AOI gathered representatives of twenty-some socially and politically engaged artist organizations flown in from as far as the Philippines and the unrecognized sub-Saharan state of Azawad in northern Mali. The “forums,” “büros,” “associations,” “laboratories,” and “institutes,” listed alphabetically in the AOI event leaflet—from the Artists of Rojava to the Zentrum für Politische Schönheit (Center for Political Beauty)—made up a “bestiary of artist organizations,” as Forensic Architecture’s Lorenzo Pezzani put it. But what sort of beast were we dealing with overall?
Things got off to a rocky start. An anonymous letter voicing “discomfort” with the whole proposition for an “Artist Organization International”—and specifically the “genre-fication of political art” that it entailed—circulated in the foyer on the opening night. Dedicated to “Propaganda & Counter-Propaganda,” the first session was running behind schedule as a group of students who refused to pay the hefty admission fee—thirty-three euros, albeit with a substantial reduction for art workers—unsuccessfully tried to storm the place.
Left: Writer Vincent W. J. van Gerven Oei and HAU artistic director Annemie Vanackere. Right: Writer and comedian Moussa Ag Assarid. (Photos: Agnieszka Gratza)
Our agenda for the coming days was visually expressed in Staal, Remco van Bladel, and Paul Kuiper’s erratic architectural design, inspired by El Lissitzky’s 1929 Model for Sergei Tretyakov’s I Want a Child for Meyerhold’s Unrealized Production. Tuareg spokesman Mazou Ibrahim Touré argued that slogans are a “poetry of manifestations,” and these texts had pride of place during the proceedings. Written out on banners overlooking the theater space and spread over the different lecterns used by the speakers, they at once explored the common ground among artist organizations and gestured toward the umbrella artist organization to come.
The inaugural panel began with presentations by delegates of the Zentrum für Politische Schönheit, who chose to foreground a Federal Emergency Program modeled on the British Kindertransport scheme, which helped bring 55,000 Syrian children over to Germany; they were followed by the Concerned Artists of the Philippines. These gave way to a rousing reading by Susanne Sachsse, representing Yael Bartana’s Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland, who ended with the injunction: “Join us and Europe will be stunned.”
Trouble began after the break, when the panel’s chair, Matteo Lucchetti, announced that Tania Bruguera, who was going to speak on the panel but was unable to leave Cuba pending a decision regarding her trial, had agreed to talk to us about the Immigrant Movement International and the circumstances surrounding her arrests in late December. The barely audible phone interview, which Lucchetti conducted, was interrupted shortly after it got going by the arrival of a state security agent summoning Bruguera to her daily interrogation. The artist used the occasion to instruct the agent in her ideas about arte útil (useful art); then, just as Bruguera had broached a sensitive topic, the connection went dead.
Bruguera explained what had happened, apologizing “for the stupid and unnecessary drama” this created, in an email that Warsza read to us the next morning. But the fact that Lucchetti carried on interviewing Bruguera in the face of her growing agitation, prompted the ZPS to accuse him of insensitivity. ZPS went further, voicing their issues with the AOI and asking themselves why they were there. “I’ve got real issues with your use of aesthetics in the Syrian project,” artist Blake Shaw blurted out at that point, gradually working himself into an oratorical frenzy. The heated debate that ensued threatened to degenerate, with Staal denouncing the ZPS members for attempting to derail the discussion.
Such mutiny did not bode well for the remainder of the summit, but the AOI organizers succeeded in putting things back on track without dismissing the incident. After all, as Malzacher reminded us, theaters are “agonistic spaces” where crises of representation are permanently addressed. Nowhere more so perhaps than at the Hebbel Theatre, where director Erwin Piscator was active in the 1920s and which was used by the American occupational authorities to “re-educate” the German public at the end of World War II. This is also where the messy experiment of “Selbstbestimmungs Theatre” took place in the early 1970s. Not unlike pirate ships, the self-governing theater gave all its employees the right to vote on matters of artistic policy.
Berlin itself has a strong ethos of self-organizing and a penchant for lively debate which can rapidly turn to rhetorical violence—as the AOI event illustrated. The genius loci was reflected in the panel titles that read as so many propositions and counter-propositions, seemingly at strife: (i) “Propaganda & Counter-Propaganda,” (ii.) “Learning & Unlearning,” (iii.) “State & Statelessness,” (iv.) “Violence & Non-Violence,” and (v.) “Solidarity & Unionising.”
Commenting on the energetic design riffing on Russian constructivism, curator Ekaterina Degot said that we seemed to be characters in a play for which no one was ready. The five acts of the AOI drama unfolded against this backdrop until the final debate, for which the lecterns were removed and the banners came down to reveal, beneath all the visual clutter, the curved mahogany lines of the Jugendstil theater. The seating was rearranged to break down the divide between audience and invited speakers in order to, as Staal put it, “collectively explore what remained to be discussed.”
Tasked with chairing the final debate, Van Abbemuseum director Charles Esche spoke for many when he voiced his fear that the summit may have been a missed opportunity. Yet he also argued that this was one of the more interesting conferences he had attended precisely because it gave rise to vocal disagreements. Some were quick to dismiss it as a “trendy and fashionable event.” Others scoffed at the pragmatic proposal to use the meeting as a platform for future exchanges, starting with a mailing list, which was deemed an “unglamorous ending” to a congress that set itself up as a proposal for an Artist Organisations International. “I don’t want to be part of that mailing list,” someone added.
It fell to Moussa Ag Assarid, the Tuareg storyteller, to lift our battered spirits with an edifying tale about the founding of his nomadic School of the Sands, named after Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, whose Little Prince was the first book that fell between his hands. The story ended with a plea: “What can artists propose to give us hope? Let us have faith in artists. Mazou and I can then go back to the desert.”
ALL NEW YEARS FEEL LIKE GOOD YEARS. For a few days 2015 certainly did. Even with the party of self-interest taking control of the United (ha!) States Congress, it arrived full of promise. Then came the Homeland-like January 7 massacre of ten Charlie Hebdo staffers and two cops in Paris. It was a shocking wake-up call to remember that we live in an age of terrorism, that bigotry remains widespread, and that thousands of raised pencils can make as powerful an image as the sight of raised fists.
That night in New York, where large public gatherings tend to take place chiefly on the Internet, one of the art world’s few satirists, Jayson Musson, opened the winter gallery season with the premiere of his new web series, The Adventures of Jamel, the Time-Traveling B-Boy at Salon 94 Bowery. The episode is hilarious. So many crimes have been committed in the name of one god or another that it was almost a comfort to get a secular poke in the ribs.
The next evening, with the mercury dipping well below twenty degrees, opening receptions in Chelsea felt both normal and numbing. Nothing on tap suggested anything that anyone would kill for, though the excellent Israeli artist Yael Bartana raised hackles at the last São Paulo Bienal by casting a drag queen in Inferno, one of two films she is showing at Petzel Gallery. The film, which has all the pomp and bloodshed of a sword-and-sandals Hollywood epic, involves the building and destruction of Solomon’s Temple by a Pentecostal sect in São Paulo, and the strange juxtaposition of piety and commercialism attending religious and social rituals. The only comment I heard was, “That’s heavy.”
David Zwirner, meanwhile, was hosting two shows, theatrical paintings of interiors and women in Swedish costumes by Mamma Andersson, and nature video projections by Diana Thater. Two of Thater’s flat-screen video walls take viewers into outer space without leaving Earth, thanks to the Griffith Observatory (where she filmed it), while a projection on the ceiling gives us a unique opportunity to watch a pair of dung beetles climb through their shit. Thater’s last show here was the first to follow the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. “That’s right,” Zwirner recalled. “That was just two weeks after the flood, when we looked like we were back in business but we were really dead.”
Flame-haired Susan Philipsz, the Scottish Turner Prize winner in 2010, brought a show of photographs and music to Tanya Bonakdar. Its subject is the forgotten composer Hanns Eisler, who collaborated with Bertolt Brecht before fleeing Nazi Germany for Hollywood, only to be crushed by the McCarthy-era blacklist and deported. (You want history? Come to Chelsea!) Single, poignant tones from Eisler scores played through twelve speakers as Philipsz spoke of her plunge into the FBI’s website for redacted files on Eisler that she superimposed on the composer’s annotated scores for large photographs that tell the story of his life. Anyone can look up his or her FBI files, Philipsz said. As we know from Edward Snowden, the government has secret files of one kind or another on all of us. Creepy, isn’t it?
Back outside, the sidewalks of Chelsea were filled with unsuspecting gallerygoers speed-walking though the frosty air to warm themselves at Paul Kasmin’s first show in twenty years in New York for Jiri Georg Dokoupil, or to Manuel Ocampo’s show at Tyler Rollins, or to Zach Feuer’s gallery, which fairly vibrated with new paintings by Matthew Chambers and Elaine Reicheck’s tiny, embroidered appropriations—“swatches”—of famous paintings by the likes of Mondrian, Magritte, and Matisse. “You think art is decorative?” she said. “Ah-ha!”
Uptown on Fifth Avenue, former Swiss Institute curator Piper Marshall chose artist and choreographer Ryan McNamara for her inaugural curatorial outing at Mary Boone. McNamara had cleverly turned costumes for his popular Performa 13 commission, MEƎM: A Story Ballet About the Internet, into sculpture that suggested dance moves. That got first-nighters, who included collectors (Charlotte Ford, Andy Stillpass, Shelley Aarons), museum people (Chrissie Iles, Ari Wiseman) and other artists (Liam Gillick, Peter Saul, David Colman, Jacolby Satterwhite) in the mood for the party that followed at Mimi’s piano bar on Second Avenue. Here, a bald man who goes by the name Chicken Delicious—a onetime sex slave, rumor had it—commanded the piano, singing and playing music from every songbook imaginable, changing costumes for each new set. “This is a different sort of art dinner, isn’t it?” said Boone.
Next day came the sobering news of more murders in Paris—this time of Jews shopping at a kosher supermarket—followed by the deaths of the terrorists at the hands of the French police. In Manhattan, however, art carried on with openings on the Lower East Side at Lehmann Maupin, Canada and Jack Hanley, and group shows in Chelsea at Wallspace and Derek Eller, where crowds skewed young and healthy. But at Marianne Boesky Gallery, some people dressed in the manner of Chicken Delicious for the opening of “Beverly Hills John,” the latest from the art world’s satirist-in-chief, John Waters.
On show was an s/m baby carriage, a film of bewigged children performing a table reading of Pink Flamingoes, and hilarious photos pairing the pulp paperback covers of movie scripts for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Some Like It Hot with their porn counterparts, Clitty Clitty Bang Bang and Some Like It Hard. A big winner was a poster-size front page of a fictional tabloid skewering literary figures and screaming headlines like, “Joan Didion Hits 250 Pounds!” And over a picture of Joyce Carol Oates, “Help! I’ve Got Writer’s Block!”
“If I was the editor of one of those newspapers, these are the stories I’d want to publish,” Waters said, during a genteel party with old friends in a private room at Toro, behind an unmarked entrance that even for veterans of New York’s onetime underground was unbelievably hard to find.
On Saturday night, Marshall was back in action, presenting paintings by John Miller at both Mary Boone and Metro Pictures in Chelsea. It’s been a while since Miller—a popular teacher by the look of some followers—showed paintings. These addressed game shows and reality shows on television, and people caught unawares in the street. The favorites were the people paintings (installed at Metro), and a large cube at Boone that featured reality-show personalities doing what they do best, emoting. “I love the way John uses technology to make paintings by hand,” said Wild Style filmmaker Charlie Ahearn. “I never saw a reality show till I did these paintings,” Miller confessed.
Gillick prepared for the evening by watching game shows. “Jeopardy is really difficult,” he said over a dinner at Bottino, where the guests included Hal Foster, Gavin Brown, Joan Jonas, Marilyn Minter, and Kim Gordon, whose memoir is coming out next month. “I hear it has no sex, drugs, or rock ‘n roll,” said the droll Mike Smith. Then what? Politics? But Gordon wasn’t the only one of few words in the room. For her toast to Miller, Marshall said, “John, it is an honor to work with you. Thank you for a critical and strong show. Thank you Mary Boone and Metro Pictures for this collaboration,” and sat down. “I wanted more,” a mystified Valerie Smith commented. “Did I say too little?” Marshall asked.
Left: Artist Emily Roysdon, Participant, Inc. founder Lia Gangitano, MoMA curator Stuart Comer, and artist Ginger Brooks Takahashi. Right: Artists Diana Thater and T Kelly Mason.
More was coming on Sunday, when Anita Ekberg died in Italy, the Golden Globes went on in Hollywood, and literally millions—absent, inexplicably, the American president— took to the streets in France in a massive show of support for sharp tongues and keen minds everywhere. French-born 303 Gallery director Thomas Arsac was fresh off a plane from his home country when he arrived at Lisa Cooley’s gallery for Lucy Kim’s impressive debut there. “The march was incredible,” he said, his face barely visible beneath his winter armor. “You’re walking with all of these people and suddenly you’re in tears and you don’t know why.”
At James Fuentes, Amalia Ulman, recovered from a horrible accident that kept her hospitalized for months, held her own with wire sculptures of wheelchairs, bicycles, carts, and other modes of transportation she depended on while in rehabilitation. Other galleries on the Lower East Side—Laurel Gitlen, Simone Subal, Marianne Boesky, Bureau, Capricious 88, James Fuentes, Rachel Uffner, Participant—filled with bright-eyed minions beating back the cold with community.
It made New York feel small and almost backstage in a world theater that is by turns horrifying, tragic, confounding, outrageous, scurrilous, twisted, and courageous.
It will take some work for more art to engage with it.
Left: Jewelry designer Mish Tworkowski with Aspen Art Museum director Heidi Zuckerman. Right: “The Now” dinner at the St. Regis ballroom.
IN THE LAST DAYS of the old year, while most of the art world was enjoying blissful hibernation, the Aspen Art Museum hosted its winter dinner dance called “The Now,” the first cold-weather benefit since the new Shigeru Ban–designed building opened in the center of town. The fund-raiser was held in the ballroom of the St. Regis at the base of Aspen Mountain, where many guests had spent the afternoon swishing down the slopes with Anne Collier–designed lift tickets in their very deep pockets. Art, nature, and grandeur find an easy symbiosis in Aspen. Thankfully, the beneficiary, lovely as it is, is the antithesis of a vanity project. On the contrary, the Aspen Art Museum is possibly America’s best version of a European kunsthalle—adventurous, noncollecting, and appropriately ensconced in an alpine terrain.
Before the event I visited the second round of shows filling the new museum’s six galleries. A selection of Agnes Martin paintings and drawings spanning five decades serves as a counterpoint to works on paper sketched by Lutz Bacher in Aspen in 2010, which surround a monumental jumble of plaster molds that retain a cloudlike levity despite their considerable heft. Nick Relph’s Thre Stryppis Quhite Upon ane Blak Field is an ode to overlays: three documentaries (about Ellsworth Kelly, avant-garde designer Rei Kawakubo, and plaid textiles) whose red, green, and blue projections are superimposed upon one another in a complex phenomenological allegory.
The standouts are a survey of Gabriel Kuri’s recent work—from the oversize knit receipts to sundry playful sculptures combining inanimate characters from nature and the manmade world—and a revisitation of a 1974 project by Marcel Broodthaers. The latter, Décor: A Conquest, was originally conceived as the inaugural show for the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, and casts cannons, AstroTurf, candelabras, houseplants, stage lights, and a tremendous stuffed snake in a sexy, rigorous study of the relationship between war and furniture.
Left: A fashion show at “The Now” fundraiser. Right: Kris Jenner (far right).
At the hotel, event cochairs Kitzia Goodman and Susan Miller (not the astrologer) mingled with museum patrons like the De Soles, the Magoons, the Marxs, the Parisers, and the Phelans, as well as celebrities Melanie Griffith, Lance Armstrong, and Kardashian matriarch Kris Jenner. First were cocktails and caviar accompanying a silent auction of rare wines and endangered purses, then a dinner staged around a runway where furrier Dennis Basso presented a fashion show of six-figure couture pelts.
But before the PETA-displeasing choreography commenced, an auctioneer sped through a handful of one-of-a-kind lots, like a visit to Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. “Heidi’s never even been there!” she said coming to the latter, referring to the museum’s intrepid director Heidi Zuckerman. There was also a chair by “fine art design furniture object-maker” (and fashion designer) Rick Owens. It was this quintessentially Rockies ox bone and moose antler throne that captivated Jenner, who confessed she was crushed when the singular fine-art-design-furniture-object was pulled out from under her by a more adventurous bidder. By the end of the night the room had raised more than $500,000 for the museum, a holiday windfall in 2014’s eleventh hour.
“ART” CAN’T QUITE COMPETE with life incarnate, creatures in the alert, furry-limbed, tail-twitching flesh. Calico, tabby, tuxedo, tiger stripe, tortoise shell, monochrome: Felis catus are modern, effortlessly stylish, and lux in any situation. Pussies are the ultimate icons of elegant self-possession—excessively aesthetic. Of course, it’s neither fair nor necessary to pit art and animals against each other, and anyway, who would want them to be separate? (Certainly not Pierre Huyghe, whose LACMA retrospective across town is a buzzing menagerie of bees, crabs, fishes, a masked monkey, that much-fussed-over pink-legged dog—and, of course, humans.)
Rhonda Lieberman has always known, like furever, that art and cats are on the same team. Bringing them into each other’s frame has long been her mission, finally realized in the traveling art circus that is her Cats-in-Residence Program—proof that art and cats are mutually affirming aesthetic forces. In collaboration with nine feline purrformers, the show is part performance piece, part curated exhibition, part social sculpture, part meditation hangout, and (large) part adoption cativism. Someone told me there are upwards of eighty-five million pet cats in America; Lieberman thinks we can do better.
This is the third installment of her nomadic project (which is in search of a permanent institutional home). It debuted in Lieberman’s “The Cat Show” at White Columns in 2013 and followed up with a recent stint at Real Art Ways in Hartford, Connecticut. Those first two showings set the adoption bar high, placing forty-three shelter cats into homes. Its LA iteration also marks the end of a trilogy of feline shows at 356 S. Mission Road, preceded this past summer by “Another Cats Show” (featuring what felt like and actually was 250 puss-in-boots-loving artists) and those spectacular huge blooms painted by the felicitously named Alex Katz before that.
The action is packed inside a big, netted cylinder enclosure—the CatAviary, designed by Gia Wolff and Freecell—lined with wall-to-wall purple carpeting and furnished with artist-made cozy crawl spaces, crates, cushions, climbing structures, scratch posts, cat dancers, a catnip-covered portrait bust, and dining ware…everything the resident rescue kitties could want from domestic life. Jonathan Horowitz’s carpeted Cat Pedestal is both highly scratchable and a tidy way to display cat-as-sculpture: win-win. Joe Scanlan’s upholstered pallets and Ruth Root’s fabric Cat Tunnels and Cat-nap Mats are neo-geo color-block playgrounds. Sam Roeck’s luxury-loft condo tower and Dane Johnson’s twin high-rises are favorites with aspiring fat cats who prefur an aloof perch where they can play at being 1 purrcenters, napping between existential yawns emitting a whiff of ennui—or is that tuna? Down below is Paul McMahon’s cardboard Kitty City for underground slinking and shady hideouts. There are chunky ceramic water bowls by Ann Leese and sloganeering knit pillows by Lisa Anne Auerbach. An elaborate tube maze hangs suspended like a treetop canopy, or maybe that’s the molecular structure of happiness. A video of chirping birdies runs at cat-eye level, the sound track of simple dreams.
The Sunday afternoon opening at 356 was full-on communal playtime—and, seemingly, a beacon to all local vegetarians and parents. Family-friendly fun! Free touch therapy! Interspecies bonding! Infants and toddlers ran the show. Cuteness was off the charts. There were squeals of euphoria and lots of cats skedaddling past small sticky hands still learning how and how not to pet. One oblivious little girl chased a tired old grimalkin into the mega litter box (Rob Pruitt’s Zen Litter Tray)… eww, yucky. Impossible to say who was entertaining who. Sitting in the viewing aquarium or circling it from the outside, I felt some kind of role-play social trap starting to take hold. Then again, cats are well known to breed suspicion and paranoia… and weed is, like, basically legal here.
A volunteer did population control to maintain equitable cross-species relations, admitting up to nine people at a time. The cats were total scene-stealers. Violet, who is spotless white with a prim gray cap, is catmander-in-chief, diva, and dowager all rolled into one, permanently ensconced at the room’s epicenter where she lounges atop the staircase that is her throne. Cubby is the neighborhood’s nicest nice guy, eager to meet and greet, snuggling up to your ankles and peddling his best “adopt-meeeow!” hard sell. I think he even has Ned Flanders’s auburn hair and mustache. The heart-melting tiny twin tuxedo kittens, Cicely and Puppy, take snoozing seriously and were mostly curled up out of reach in their modernist bedrooms where they drew constant adoring crowds. Coco is solid black and shared her stealth celebrity sparingly, making brief special appearances; a real cat-tease. Diesel looks like an ocelot and stalks like one too; he’s got that feral fearful symmetry that triggers feline fever in any red-blooded, double-X-chromosomed mammal—I have my eye on him. As Lieberman put it, “Tabby goes with everything.”
Rhonda Lieberman gives a talk at 356 S. Mission Road.
At 4 PM, she gave a contextualizing slide-show talk that posed pussies atop the Minimalist canon, tailing cats as repressed art-historical material and tracking their influence: litter from Judd’s boxes and LeWitt’s jungle gyms to Sandback’s taut yarn and Bruce Meowman’s nocturnal cat-and-mouse games. More than representational, art wants to be new ways of living. Politically, Lieberman’s exhibition is a strong animal rights—or should I say (in honor of Sandra, the twenty-nine-year-old orangutan who just had her day in Argentinean court) “non-human person” rights show. This pet project gives a damn about all the planetary life humanity reduces to mere collateral damage. And if her presentation reminded us of anything, it’s that Lieberman is also a born writer who loves cats for the puns they play into and the psychic projections they so gracefully articulate in all their innate physical intelligence, like a clowder of metaphors.
An hour or so later, playtime started to wind down for adults, kiddies, and kitties alike as the sun set through the windows in hot electric hues. Overexercising one’s anthropomorphizing muscle all day is emotionally exhausting, and the impenetrability of the nonhuman other remained in me like a hangover after the group interspecies high. Ultimately, the purrsistent impossibility of comprehending the cat returns—uh-oh, melancholy was setting in. The only solution: Put the cat in my bag, take Diesel home.
THE BERKELEY ART MUSEUM BUILDING, a bold but seismically iffy piece of Brutalist architecture, has been on borrowed time for a while now. Bracing was added more than a decade ago, but it still rates poor on the safety scale. A new, more stable, and conveniently located building designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro is nearing completion, and so the museum threw itself a daylong celebration of its soon to be former home on the shortest day of the year.
Architect Mario Ciampi’s edifice, which opened to the public in 1970, is all about exposed concrete, verticality, and buttress landings overlooking a ground-floor atrium, which in recent years has been utilized for social gatherings with commissioned conversation-pit pieces (by ReBar and Thom Faulders). On Sunday afternoon, the cavernous space echoed with sound-based performances, most created to highlight the building’s dramatic character. Which meant that the shindig was austere, and maybe a little anticlimactic, as no one is quite sure of the building’s fate after the museum vacates.
The event, though, was about memories. There were spots to record them, areas on the concrete walls to post notecards with recollections. An arts administrator who worked at the museum a few decades ago recalled how every show was a battle between the art and the building, with the building usually winning. There were exceptions—Jonathan Borofsky’s vertically generous 1985 exhibition “All Is One” may have used it best. Others brought up Maria Nordman’s 1979 summer solstice event, in which the museum became a grand vessel for ambient light, with no security guards—the kind of uncompromising artistic gesture that’s hard to imagine happening anywhere else, including the new BAM.
If anyone would have memories of the place, it would be BAM/PFA’s founding director, the ninety-five-year-old Peter Selz, who admitted he couldn’t believe that he’d outlived the building. Less seasoned arts professionals told me they were surprised by how emotional they felt about the museum closure; with SF MoMA closed until mid-2016, there are going to be some serious gaps in the city’s cultural landscape. Patricia Maloney, founder of the online journal Art Practical, said she was already missing the building’s “spatial chaos.” She pointed to the way that young and old audience members were sprawled on the cold, hard floor in circular formation, as if in someone’s living room.
Left: The T Sisters leading a parade to the new BAM/PFA building. (Photo: Marisa Darabi). Right: Jay, Gizmo, and Johnny5 of TURFinc. (Photo: Peter Cavagnaro)
Acoustically, the space is problematic—audio confusion is easy to generate. When I arrived, there was a distant female chorale of what the schedule termed “exquisite harmonies from Eastern Europe and beyond,” which gently filled the museum. This was followed by TURFinc dance battles, which involved young people dancing, etc., to hip-hop, and some elders clutching their ears and heading outside. The building itself seemed to have a pulse, with crowds ebbing and flowing, filling and diminishing, and filling once again. Sound artist and Machine Projects regular Chris Kallmyer created an austere horn-and-percussion piece that he told me was inspired by the discrepancies between the architect’s intentions—Ciampi apparently wanted it to be a particularly social space—and Kallmyer’s view that the building was in fact an extremely awkward social environment.
Next was a ritual farewell by Dohee Lee, which ended with the crowd encircling her and stomping their feet, an act that was more marked by movement than sound; the solid floor just doesn’t give. This led into the finale, a performance of György Ligeti’s Poéme Symphonique, a score for one hundred metronomes that were wound and set loose to a ticking rhythm that lasted about twenty minutes. The sound recalled the previous week’s rainstorms, which had revealed leaks in the ceiling that required the removal of at least one work.
Luckily, it was a temperate winter solstice as the event concluded with a New Orleans–meets–Burning Man parade from the old museum to the new one under construction. Berkeley had recently been rocked with Ferguson-inspired marches that had met with tear gas and rubber bullets, and word was that the museum gave advance warning to the local police department that this was a celebratory endeavor. Museum director Larry Rinder, who carried a papier-mâché giraffe head on a stick, led us, and a Southern jazz band, through wooded paths of the UC Berkeley campus, past the new building under construction where colored spotlights illuminated the fenced exterior. The march concluded on a round plaza on a hillside across the street from the new building, where there was more music, singing, and cider, sweet gestures that will have to tide us over till the big housewarming in 2016.