Left: Ani DiFranco. Middle: Ric Ocasek, Ani DiFranco, Steve Albini, Sasha Frere-Jones, and the RZA. Right: The RZA.
If my first stop at the New Yorker Festival doled out a satisfying amount of bilemostly directed at Hollywoodthe next panel on my docket promised greater internal acidity. After a calming hour in the sun at Bryant Park, I steeled myself for my appointment with the RZA, the LZA (Ani DiFranco), the Old Skinny Popster (Ric Ocasek), and the Rapeman (Steve Albini)not exactly Wu-Tang, but some kind of hell-spawned super-group nevertheless. Moderated by Sasha Frere-Jones, the magazine’s pop music critic, the panel was guaranteed to be volatile, based on the presence of Albini alone. An angry pencil-neck made goodas the frontman of Big Black, Rapeman, and Shellac, and as a prolific if absurdly Spartan producerand a notorious musical puritan, Albini has, over the years, lashed his sharp tongue at bands that made his aesthetic famous (The Pixies, Nirvana) and at just about everyone else who doesn’t meet his curmudgeonly underground standards. Matching him with Cars frontman Ocasek, his near twin in the pale-skinny department but mortal enemy in terms of musical sensibilities, seemed perverse in the extreme. Then there was the RZA, whose crew’s handling of gender issues has been less than sensitive, paired with the personal-is-political righteous folkie babe DiFranco. The potential for harsh words, even violence, was high.
Which is why I was not merely surprised but gobsmacked to see the RZA head-nod approvingly to a DiFranco-produced song and Albini clapping enthusiastically afterward. A kinder, gentler Albini? Say it ain’t so! Indeed, the scrawny rock gadfly seemed positively avuncular, timidly stumbling over his words and politely waiting for the other panelists to finish before interjecting. Perhaps he was cowed by the presence of the RZA, a big man with street cred to burn. Or maybe it was the patina of mainstream cultural acceptance the magazine’s sponsorship conferred. Whatever the reason, I began to wonder if this Albini was some kind of animatronic stooge filling in for the real Steve. Until, that is, he indulged himself in an extended metaphor comparing music production to gynecologya producer should get no more emotionally involved in his client’s music than a gynecologist should in his patient’s privatesa deadpan burst of verbal license that embarrassed the pants off the RZA and had the crowd roaring. Albini then said that while he may come to enjoy the fruits of his production labor after the job is done, during the recording process they’re all “bummers of equal magnitude,” leading Frere-Jones to quip, “just like writing for the magazine I work for.”
DiFranco, who self-produced her many albums and is the picture of confidence when performing, seemed scattered and shy as a panelist, unable to give definitive answers, while Ocasek had the easygoing cool of an aging rock star who’s sold a gazillion records. The RZA was unexpectedly humble and funny, noting that if recording engineers are not on point at a hip-hop session, they can be, and often are, physically attacked by impatient MCs, and that, in certain ways, producing the Wu isn’t much different than scoring a film with a symphony orchestrarappers and first violinists smoke dope with equal ardor in the studio, he asserted. This last observation provided the image that, to me, summed up the best intentions of the Festival in general and these events in particular. After all, if you find yourself sitting in a midtown venue listening to the RZA and Steve Albini, with the MTV studios clearly visible across the street and the children of the head monk of the Shaolin Temple of New York capering through the aisles, some sort of cultural cross-pollination is definitely occurring.
Left: Matt Maiellaro, Brad Bird, Tad Friend, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Dave Willis. Right: Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
Where do you go to hear that TV executives are censorious cowards, that Tom Cruise is indeed gay, and that, despite their efforts to appear cuddly and approachable, the Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothin’ to fuck with? To the New Yorker Festival, of course, the annual culture grope that, with its elbow-patched tweeds, perilously perched reading glasses, and mock seriousness, heralds the arrival of capital-F Fall. Avoiding the standard literary fare, I exhumed a patchless tweed blazer from its naphthalene crypt and set out for the Festival’s marginsevents peopled by the kinds of characters who in decades past would have caused the magazine’s fabled little old lady in Dubuque to cancel her subscription. Potty-mouthed pranksters, stoned kid’s-show creators, geeks who make albums called Songs About Fucking, and hardcore machete-carrying rappers from Staten Islandin short, godless heathens from the cultural elite hell-bent on corrupting the morals of our nation’s youth. They came. I saw. The Christian Right, if only for an afternoon, was conquered.
At the Saturday afternoon “Anarchy and Animation” panel, the animatorsthe guys behind South Park, the guys behind Aqua Teen Hunger Force, the director of The Incredibles, maladjusted honkies to a manbemoaned: Puritanical network Standards & Practices; the ghettoization of cartoons by the Emmys and Oscars; Tom Cruise (gay); Magic: The Gathering (“fucking gay”); and Sean Penn (not gay, but as loathsome as Donald Rumsfeld). Evidence for the persistent snobbery of the film and television industries toward animation was confirmed, coincidentally, by the event’s venueThe Directors Guild, which none of the panelists are eligible to join. Naturally, this ensured that a fair amount of rancor would be emanating from the stage, most of it entertainingly sardonic. Brad Bird of Pixar, who used to work on The Simpsons, related how, after years of sweeping the animation Emmys, the show lobbied successfully to be included in the live-action comedy category, only to lose to Friends and return to its painted cellblock, where it continued to win as easily as “knocking out your grandmother.”
Other hollow triumphs were recounted in the cartoonists’ war against censors. Religion, said Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro of Aqua Teen, is the chief taboo, forcing the pair to change references to Jesus to “Gee-Whiz” in one episode and spurring them to make a riotously irreverent clip about Standards & Practices, which was shown, to the audience’s delight. Disabilities are also a big no-no, in principle, as Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park found when they encountered strong initial resistance to a wheelchair-bound character named Timmyuntil the character became popular, that is. Then the network started salivating over T-shirt and merch profits and begged the creators to boost Timmy’s profile on the show.
Ultimately, the panelists agreed, the division between animated and live-action filmmaking is a false one, at least in terms of artistic value and audience breadth. Parker and Stone noted that Looney Toons classics were as much for adults as for kids, and Bird maintained that present-day animation upholds the tradition of silent film comedythe dogged process of marrying motion to timing for precise comic effect is the same in Pixar’s supercomputers as it was in Chaplin’s endless outtakes. That some of the best, most scathingly satirical television of the past decadeBeavis & Butthead, The Simpsons, South Parkhas come from animators would seem to prove their point. If only the Emmys were listening.
Last Wednesday, following months of art-world speculation and a plug in Vogue, former Gagosian staffers Stefania Bortolami and Amalia Dayan (granddaughter of eyepatch-wearing erstwhile Israeli defense minister Moshe) opened their spanking-new 2,700-square-foot Chelsea gallery. Bejeweled socialites and Prada-clad collectors mingled with artists, MFA candidates, and the occasional stray bike messenger who had stumbled upon the two fully stocked open bars in the garage-turned-party-venue/performance space adjoining the gallery. The space, itself a converted garage, was designed by veteran art-world architect Bill Katz, with vertiginously high ceilings (twenty-plus feet) and peaked skylights. Like first-time home buyers leaving their shoes by the welcome mat, the gallerists had instituted a prudent “no drinks inside” policy that kept the bulk of the revelries safely out of jostling range of works by Sylvia Fleury, Jim Shaw, David Salle, Eric Wesley, Paul Pfeiffer, and young Italian conceptual artist Piero Golia. A mysterious back room behind a swinging white door held a number of (presumably) secondary-market goodies that were not part of the inaugural show, including Maurizio Cattelan’s miniature suit in Beuysian felt, Ruscha’s Good Reading in beet juice, and a Calder mobilelending credence to art-world sniping that the new gallery’s stable of artists was coming out of the gate a couple of lengths behind their glamorous digs.
Back in the garage, beneath the freshly sandblasted underbelly of the High Line, the burgeoning crowds awaited the scheduled performance by bilingual art/rock/pop duo Milena Musquiz and Martiniano Lopez-Crozet, aka Los Super Elegantes. Assuming the stage in the guise of Latin lounge singers (with a typically autoethnographic flair), they began with the dirge-like “Where’s My Whiskey?” It was the first time the duo had performed in New York with their backup band, and they have no future performances scheduled“We’re the world’s most disorganized band,” boasted Lopez-Crozet. Picking up the pace in later songs, LSE soon set heads a-nodding, with photographer Jessica Craig-Martin bursting through the audience at the set’s climax to dance solo at the foot of the stage in a crushed velvet gown. I snaked through the crowd as the band played on, turning back to glimpse Musquiz, apparently improvising with the props at hand, being borne aloft on a scissor lift. I emerged onto the street to behold New York Social Diary darling Helen Lee Shifter holding court en plein air, wrapped in a voluminous pavement-length dress that fell in great bunches, occupying a full square of sidewalk around her slender frame. Artists Will Cotton, Jack Pierson (who presented two works in the gallery), and Hope Atherton (with a piece on view in the back room) were also glimpsed in the crush, but the business side was better represented: I noted Mary Boone, Jeffrey Deitch, Gavin Brown, Melissa Bent of Rivington Arms, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, Dominique Levy (whose new presence on Seventy-eighth Street changes C&M Arts to L&M Arts, Daniella Luxembourg, and Philippe Segalot, as well as Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer. Dayan’s panegyric on favorite designer Chloé in Vogue (“Bohemian, chic … It’s downtown and it’s uptown”) describes the glamorous high-low vibeand given that the show’s artists have all thoroughly digested their Pop, it seemed inevitable that someone would invoke the master himself. Sure enough, jack-of-all-trades/man-about-town Ricky Clifton eyed an engraved pendant worn by collector/communications heir (and Dayan’s boyfriend) Adam Lindemann and compared it to a charm engraved with an image of John Travolta that he had bought in Times Square years ago and given to Andy. “He wrote about it in the diaries,” Clifton added. And now, it seems, so have I.
Left: Wingdale Community Singers (left-to-right: Hannah Marcus, Rick Moody, and David Grubbs). Right: Painter Ann Craven's caricature portrait booth .
If you believe that the sudden simultaneous vending of gyros, unicorn-based jewelry, and Santa-Fe-or-Trenchtown-appropriate schmattes goes beyond the purview of mere “craft,” then every Manhattan street fair is, in its own insidious way, a work of fine art. This was perhaps especially true of The Kitchen High Line Block Party, a festival staged last Saturday on Nineteenth Street between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues by the eponymous exhibition-and-performance space to celebrate the eponymous elevated railway viaduct in West Chelseasoon to be, after years of advocacy by Friends of the High Line, a public park and boardwalk designed by Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. (Overheard in the crowd: “This whole area is going to be very different in 2009.”)
This was not only because of the artsy hippie-meets-hipster tendencies of the photo-booth (“We do a lot of, like, biographical work, so this is part of it”); the collaborative reading room; the do-it-yourself Byzantine icon table; the flag-making stand; the juggling workshops; the superhero face-painting stall; and the main stage (“Feel free to dance, folks”). The Deitch Projects-meets-Childrens’-Television-Workshop vibe of the crowd added a certain seriousness about the arts as well. (“Can you feed the dog not from the water bottle, honey?”;“Is that Mumia as in ‘Free’?”)
But this street fair, unlike many, led the casual observer inexorably into a genuine high-end artwork. Sunset Island, 2005, a droll new video installation by Dara Friedman, was easy to find in The Kitchen’s gallery after a few wrong turns behind the main stage and the mask-making parlor. Friedman’s work confronts you with twin screens featuring a photogenic woman and man. Drifting through separate apartments, these two intone a set of relationship-based questions that range from banal to sublime. For instance: Why are we together? Are we alone? Did you leave the light on? What’s that smell? How often have I almost died? The work is at first glance superficially charming, then cloying, then fascinating, then chilling; and, like the archetypical Manhattan street fair, it acquires through repetition and transience a surprising permanence in the mind.
Left: Fan-making booth with artists Kayrock and Wolfy. (Photo: Cody Trepte) Right: Artist Jennifer McCoy and The Kitchen director Deb Singer (dressed as Kevin McCoy).
What strikes you as you stumble out of the second-floor gallery, outside, and back past the main stage (“Can we have a round of applause for the walk-on breakdancer?”) and puppet-making seminar, is that perhaps one reason Friedman’s skittish couple fit in so well at the Block Party is that they are on the cusp of its two essential demographics. Perhaps finding the answers to their many questions will transform these two mod thirty-somethings from the oldest, angstiest kids in school into young mortgage-slave parents with strong ideas about both Ritalin and the White Stripes; both Danish stroller-buggies and Imitation of Christ; both street fairs and The High Line. Are you better looking than me? (“Do you want to look like the Incredible Hulk?”) Is this as good as it gets? (“No, it’s only Thai iced tea.”) What will become of us? (“We’re heading over to Mulberry Street for the Feast of San Gennaro.”)
Left: Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun. Middle: Phil Collins and curator Xabier Arakistain. Right: Curator Natasa Petresin.
Despite the qualms brought on by an e-mail query“How many biennials are you going to this September?”the decision to trek to Istanbul was a fairly easy one. With smart curators Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun in charge of the seven venues (thankfully all within walking distance of one another), a bearable number of participating artists (sixty), and a context-specific theme (“Istanbul”), my anticipation ran high. Pair that with the thrill of spending some time in one of the world’s most fascinating cities and the decision was even easier for quite a large number of international art-world travelers. Throw in artist Pierre Bismuth’s wedding reception, and, well, you have a party. Some of the most active jet-set collectors (Francesca von Habsburg, for instance) and a huge group of devoted professionals (curators Okwui Enwezor, Pier Luigi Tazzi, and Jens Hoffmann) predictably flew in, but younger visitors, many in Istanbul for the first time, mobbed the private views and parties.
Jaded biennial veterans were astonished to find a well organized and logistically smooth opening. There were only a few bumps in the roadsome literal, like the nearby demolition project bedeviling the installation of Turkish artist Serkan Özkaya’s nine-meter-tall golden replica of Michelangelo’s David, or those felt by VIPs like Documenta XII curator Roger M. Buergel, who sat on the floor of a packed shuttle bus to one party. Later on, at the man-made island in the middle of the Bosporus, the reward for enduring the shuttles came in the form of skinny-dipping in a swimming pool with a bunch of the aforementioned younger visitors and at least one of the biennial’s assistant curators.
The general consensus is that this is a very good exhibition. One visitor ventured a comparison that wouldn’t sound out of place in Wine Spectator: “The best biennial since Sao Paolo ‘98.” There were, of course, exceptions to the rule, like another biennial-circuit curator who was overheard several times stating sourly that he “didn’t see anything of interest at this over-controlled show.”
To me, though, this exhibition was well thought-out and refreshing, a quality that was especially evident after the opening of “Center of Gravity,” the first international group show at the new Istanbul Modern Museum, curated by director Rosa Martinez. The show, which was independent of the biennial, boasted typical pieces by big-name artists, but, curiously, the presentation reminded one more of an art fair than a museum. (The inclusion of an old Monica Bonvicini piece was a surprisenot least to the artist herself, who was rumored to have not been informed about, or commissioned to do, the re-creation.)
The highlights of “Istanbul” itself include Nedko Solakov’s intervention, titled Art & Life (in my part of the world), which is located in the rundown Deniz Palace Apartments. His humorous comments, written in black next to various marks, nails, or holes in the walls, featured a pitch-perfect blend of humor and pathos. In the same building was a “museum” dedicated to a fictional mistress of Kemal Atatürk by Michael Blum, and Phil Collins’s karaoke video featuring Turkish fans doing heartfelt renditions of Smiths songs. The concept leapt off the screen at one of the official parties when Esche could be seen strutting his stuff on the stage in full Morrissey mode, to the delight of the assembled crowd.
Left: Artist Nancy Holt and Elyse Goldberg of James Cohan Gallery. Right: Robert Smithson's Floating Island.
“If they really cared about Robert Smithson, they wouldn’t have put down Astroturf!” In one of a precious few ill-tempered (though, one suspects, tongue-in-cheek) remarks overheard at Saturday’s public launch of Smithson’s Floating Island to Travel Around the Island of Manhattan, this exacting visitor was complaining about the apparent conceptual inconsistency of artificially “greening” Pier 46, the arm of Hudson River Park that served as official viewing spot. But it would have taken a hard heart indeed to allow such miniscule details to seriously impinge on the enjoyment of an exceptionally good-natured event and some uncommonly affecting art.
Sketched out by the late artist in 1970 (the same year Spiral Jetty was completed) and realized only now, with the help of the Whitney Museum of American Art, nonprofit arts organization Minetta Brook, and Smithson’s wife, artist Nancy Holt, Floating Island is a thirty-by-ninety-foot barge landscaped with earth, rocks, and greenery, designed to be towed around Manhattan (all day, for nine days) by a small tugboat. Reflecting Smithson’s admiration for Frederick Law Olmstead’s Central Park (from which Floating Island’s rocks were borrowed, and for which its trees are destined), the work is a result of the artist’s deep fascination with primordial terrain and simultaneous immersion in the modern urban realm (he and Holt were Greenwich Village residentsand downstairs neighbors of Grace Joneswhen the idea for the project was conceived).
So, at around five o’clock on a pleasant Saturday afternoon, crowds began to gather and virgin mojitos began to flow in anticipation of a drive-byor rather, tug-byview of the newly unveiled Floating Island. Free of charge and open to all, the party was staffed by black-clad museum employees and catered by an entity called Social Miami at the Sagamore Hotel, but otherwise had none of the clubby feel of most New York art-world shindigs. Joining those in the know were dozens of curious cyclists and rollerbladers, tourists and children, passersby and bystanders. The invitation didn’t stipulate “festive” attire, but such was the look and mood until, as an unexpected preamble to the “remarks” scheduled for six o’clock, Minetta Brook director Diane Shamash announced that someone had fainted and asked if there was a doctor present. The crisis addressed, she then introduced the project and began reeling off her thank-you list, only to interrupt herself with an excited cry of “Here it comes!”
Sure enough, there it was, moving upriver at a surprising clip. Against a pale sunset, Floating Island closed in, prompting Whitney director Adam Weinberg to comment, “it looks kind of cute!” He also, in describing both the hardworking tug Rachel Marie and the hardworking individuals who had negotiated years of red tape to bring the project to fruition, evoked Watty Piper’s Little Engine that Could (though Hardie Gramatky’s Little Toot the Tugboat would clearly have been the more apt reference). As captain Bob Henry’s vessel and its unique consignment neared the end of the pier, there was a flurry of camera (and cameraphone) activity, and Holt, recalling the work’s genesis, had some trouble making herself heard above the hubbub. As Floating Island embarked on its lap of honor, her commentary seemed to become a disjointed sequence of Smithsonisms“layers of time,” “the non-site,” “center and periphery”but the theoretical baggage of the work fell away in favor of its sheer hallucinatory strangeness. Water taxis ploughed past and a helicopter circled overhead, but the leafy riverbound plot remained unruffled, a tranquil slice of unreal estate so exclusive as to make the celebrity-stuffed Richard Meier-designed apartment buildings across West Street seem a dime a dozen. “Why didn’t they put some animals on it, some raccoons or deer or something?” someone asked, but easy gags seemed fatuous in response to such stately beauty. In fading light and under gathering cloud, boat and barge paused momentarily, and then vanished like a dream.
Left: Nicolas Bourriaud and Jèrôme Sans. Right: Assistants preparing the Martin Creed installation on Saturday, September 9. (Photo: John B. Baloumba)
The title of the current installment of the Lyon Biennale—“L’experience de la durée” (Experiencing Duration)— put me in mind of the famous Parisian tearoom Ladurée. But alas, no pastel-perfect macaroons were on offer at La Sucrière, the old sugar warehouse that serves as the event’s core venue. Even if there had been, I would likely have demurred, for fear of ingesting psychotropic substances—doctored pastries being more or less in keeping with the show’s theme. Artistic director Thierry Raspail had appointed “odd couple” Nicolas Bourriaud and Jérôme Sans curators of the exhibition, which they based on a notion of temporality derived from hippie-era axioms. Their aim is to reactivate “a counter-culture” that grappled with issues that remain “the problematics of the early 21st century: Feminism, multiculturalism, the struggle of sexual minorities, new age sprirituality,” proposing “above all a model for rejecting the consumer society.” As I cruised through La Sucrière shortly after arriving in Lyon on Tuesday, I did find, in lieu of pastries, many large-scale, nicely installed installations. Unlike many biennial exhibitions, this one featured almost no videos (one notable exception near the entrance being Andy Warhol’s Sleep, 1963.) My companions and I had the place almost to ourselves, and this curious dearth of viewers heightened the eeriness of the silent, soundtrack-free atmosphere.
A luminous green fog wafted through much of the ground floor spaces. Ann Veronica Janssens, the artist responsible, told me that normally the fog should be contained within a room. As it happens, the escaped vapor creates a dreamy and calm atmosphere appropriate to the work of Terry Riley, La Monte Young & Marian Zazeela, Tony Conrad, and Robert Malaval (the installation and drawings by the last two, respectively, are great). New age immersion also came in the form of Martin Creed’s famous installation Half the air in a given space, 1998a roomful of hundreds of balloons (pink, in this incarnation) we passed through despite the warning by guards to stay out if we were stressed, claustrophobic, or suffered from heart conditions. We survived.
On the second floor, Kader Attia shocked, or tried to, with his “flying rats” installation, in which a playground full of life-size sculptures of children (whose bodies are made of grain) are devoured by hundreds of live pigeons. It was sold immediately to collector Pierre Huber. On another note, there must be something in the air about Le Corbusier: He featured here in Pierre Huyghe’s recent film about the architect’s only U.S. building (Harvard University’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts), as well as in Surasi Kusolwong’s notable Erratum musical, 2005, a classroom of sorts in the form of one of Corbu’s detached houses. Continuing my search for themes, I followed the musical thread to Power Chords, 2005, an installation by Saâdane Afif that featured guitars resting next to amplifiers whose seemingly random emissions were in fact based on ‘70s artist Andre Cadere’s (quite complicated) color permutation system.
Left: In Ann Veronica Janssen's installation. Right: The fashion show, with artist Wang Du at center. (Photo: Fabio Cypriano)
Next stop: Renzo Piano’s Musée d’art Contemporain. No sooner had we boarded the elevator than we were asked to exit. The French minister of culture and his noisy posse had just showed up and apparently could not waitor use the stairs. All fifteen passengers protested in unison: “What? No way!” The chorus left the guards so flummoxed that we were able to quickly close the doors and ascend. We arrived on the third floor just in time to catch the beginning of Philippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s new piece, a still-in-progress filmed suite of urban moments shot in China. Ten minutes in, however, a technician restarted the film. The minister had caught up with us, and this time he would have his way. “Who do they think they are?” demanded an outraged foreigner, apparently unaware that France holds to the divine right of politicians.
Such contretemps precipitated much discussionabout power (read: money) and representation. On Monday night, a luxury brand that shall remain nameless (enough publicity!) shelled out more than €150,000 to secure a dozen top Lyon chefs to cook for the assembled VIPs. Dessert arrived in the form of fashion show devoted to the concern's menswear line. When the models hit the catwalk, the crowd was more than a little surprised to see Sans and Bourriaud, not to mention a few of the exhibition's featured artists, among them Wang Du (whose anti-media missile rested on top of an army truck nearby), sashaying down the runway. These days, few large-scale art events in France escape corporate sponsorship, but now it appears the cash can't flow without some compromises—albeit sexy ones!
After finishing up at the museum where pieces were few but large (Brian Eno, Daniel Buren, Dieter Roth) followed by quick bus trip to the most far-flung venue, Fort Saint Jean, we made itjust ahead of hunger and fatigueto our last stop, the Villeurbanne Institute of Contemporary Art. Since founder Jean-Louis Mauban retired, it has been a kind of orphan institution; a public search for a new director has so far been fruitless, but someone from ministry of culture (again!) announced that the post is promised to Nathalie Ergino, current director of the Musèe d’art Contemporain Marseilles. I love how the French administration pokes its nose into every cultural affair. But let’s get back to the art at hand: This installation boasted a great selection of Douglas Huebler’s “Variable,” “Duration,” and “Location” pieces from the ‘70s. When I tried to snap a picture, the guard told me that the artist wouldn’t approve. “He’s dead,” I protested. He was not convinced.
A new piece from Henrik Hakansson took the biennial’s theme of flower-power temporality to heart: A real-time look at a day in the life of a bloom, the film, alas, was not to find its ideal viewers in my group—at least not at the end of this marathon opening. We were exhausted and out of time. And what’s more, the venerable Brasserie George awaited us. Lyon without choucroute is not Lyon. Before collapsing into bed, I tuned in to Euronews for a moment and was surprised to catch a report on the Biennale featuring a Spencer Tunick performance! I hadn’t heard about that one, and wondered if the curators had simply slipped out of their Spring/Summer ’06 designs and taken to the streets.
Left: Anthony Burdin during his performance. Middle: Artist Christian Jankowski. Right: The handwritten set list for Burdin's performance.
At half past eight on Sunday night, I walked into a dark, low-ceilinged room in the basement of Michele Maccarone’s Canal Street gallery and all but bumped into the critics Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith (Voice and Times, respectively), both engrossed in a two-screen video by Los Angeles-based artist Anthony Burdin. It was my third run-in with the duo in four days, signaling the hectic start of another art season, a weekend that not only involved the usual spate of openings, but also parties, performances, and, this year, parades. The teeming crowd of gallery goers in Chelsea on Thursday night had by Sunday dwindled to intrepid devoteesthe “hard core,” in Saltz’s wordswho had trekked to Chinatown for the opening of Burdin’s first New York solo exhibition and/or the opening of a new group show around the corner at the newish, collaboratively run Orchard, where artists Gareth James, Andrea Fraser, and Dan Graham and curator Bennett Simpson were hanging out.
The video reeled me in too. It was a claustrophobic exploration of the unkempt interior of the artist’s car set to a cassette recording of his own cover of the James Bond theme song. Its camera workshaky, invasive, and owing a lot to Paul McCarthy’s techniquewas trained for some time on the head of a snare drum that he beat arhythmically, occasionally nosing off toward the keys left in the ignition (which he tickled like a windchime) or some undifferentiated mess on the floor. Burdin is rumored to have lived in his car for some time, and it looks like it. The work has no discernible narrative, and its strangeness is only enhanced by the amusing revelation, about twenty minutes in, that the whole grimy affair takes place in the parking lot of a southern California Whole Foods.
At a little bit past nine, Burdin’s first guitar chord rang out, and I followed the artist Carol Bove up to the gallery’s third floor. About twenty people, mostly artists, were seated on the floor facing Burdin, who stood with his guitar near a wall-size video projection of himself playing drums. With little fanfare, the “recording artist” started in on live covers of his recorded covers of hard rock classics, keeping up and occasionally bantering with his prerecorded selfreminding me of Wynne Greenwood’s performances as Tracy and the Plastics. In person, with his long, stringy hair obscuring his face and an orange cardigan haphazardly buttoned, he was a ringer for Kurt Cobain (or, since Burdin was playing second-generation copies, Michael Pitt as Cobain in Gus Van Sant’s Last Days). On video, in a black mesh shirt, his look was spot-on Danzig.
At the outset, Burdin had an audience of about forty; after eight or ten hits, including a cover of “Paint it Black,” his one-man Battle of the Bands began to feel like a battle of wills between artist and audience. I tried to put on my critical thinking cap, but it was loud. The room was hot. There was beer downstairs. All three factors made it difficult to think about what issues might be in play herequestions about the “culture of the copy”? The artist as promiscuous roleplayer?or even to figure out what song Burdin was playing at any given moment. Eventually the audience dwindled to about a dozen. Finally, after the last note and a burst of applause, Burdin hammered his guitar into the wallpure Cobainand left it there; “I was here” evidence for future gallery visitors.
But then this relatively uneventful performance lurched wildly off track. An audience member no one recognizedtall, with scruffy facial hair, wearing a suit and carrying shopping bagsgot up off the floor, walked across the room, and pried the guitar from the wall. Burdin tussled with him, punched the guitar through the drywall once again and swung the mic stand menacingly at the interloper, thus blocking the beer bottle that was being thrown at him. The visitor got up to once again remove the guitar, at which point gallery owner Maccarone was drawn in, screaming at him furiously to “get the fuck out of my gallery” and to leave the art alone. It was all so over-the-top that I suspected it might be part of the act, but if so, no one was admitting it. Either way, Burdin’s antagonist left without greater incident. In the stunned silence that followed this dramatic denouement, Burdin admitted that he “was a little scared” by the turn of events. But it was all recorded by two video camerasas is just about everything Burdin is involved withand, as the videographer commented, “it looked fucking great.”
Left: In the back row, Allan Corduner as Danny, Alexis Zegerman as Tammy, Caroline Gruber as Rachel, and Nitzan Sharron as Tzachi. In the front row, Samantha Spiro as Michelle and John Burgess as Dave. Middle: Ben Caplan as Josh. Right: The play's poster.
The tease tactics that ran up to the opening of Mike Leigh’s first play in twelve years were incongruously akin to the short trailers before summer blockbusters, in which a baritone voice booms nonsensically while explosive vagaries of sex and violence whip across the screen, a far-off date hovering portentously. Giddy anticipation is inevitable, though even the nippers know that very little to justify it has been revealed. And so it went with the advance press for Two Thousand Years at the National Theatre, a play so mysterious that it didn’t have a title until two days before the first scheduled performance. It was known as A New Play by Mike Leigh, which of course is fine as a working title but looked mighty strange on the promotional poster pasted around the South Bank Centre, a poster that in itself sparked a daft and protracted media guessing game thanks to its image of a solitary palm tree in the desert. “Could it be about the war?” we salivated. All 16,000 available tickets were snapped up weeks in advance.
Since the first two performances were cancelled due to the director’s improvisational scripting technique and the play being “not ready” as a result (cue yet more instant buzz and column inches effortlessly filled), my plum spot in row J on the third night of previews turned out to be more special than even I had anticipated. Leigh was in the back corner nearest to the exit, as one might have expected. The National Theatre’s artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, was visibly nervous, sitting off to the side; a long-time crush of mine, the beautiful actress Natasha McElhone, waltzed past in an attention-grabbing quilted coat and four-inch wedge heels; film producer Eric Abraham and his wife Sigrid Rausing, the food packaging heiress and perhaps the wealthiest woman in Britain, had even better seats than me; and at my feet was an unidentifiable bald, obese fellow in a t-shirt that said STONED AGAIN in large blurred lettersthe most intriguing and, I’d guess, given his who-cares demeanor, among the more important people in the room. Then Daniel Radcliffea.k.a. Harry Potter himself, an emblem, like Leigh, of British excellence and international success––sat down in my row. These days his appearance is about as emphatic a cause for patriotic flag-waving as Prince Charles’s. Hats off and huzzah!
Now that the trailer’s come and gone I should probably say whether Two Thousand Years was a super Spider-Man or a dead-in-the-water Godzilla. Well, thanks to ancient protocol the critics won’t be touching it until this weekend. The most that The Guardian (the protagonists' paper-of-choice) has ventured is that the play was “enthusiastically received.” Hmm. No shit. So we will have to wait until after the official premiere, when the critical floodgates open. We shall see if the intensely observed portrait of three generations of non-practicing Jews in a middle-class London suburb will make any sense to the general public; I’m sure the copious Hebrew and Yiddish won’t. We’ll see whether the onslaught of one dense, heady intellectual discussion after another covering Iraq, Israel, and even New Orleans, will serve a larger purpose or merely ease the minds of thespians wondering if they’re able to make a difference on the stage. I will say that Mike Leigh’s quiet, singular talents don’t benefit a bit from the decidedly un-British publicity machine that this play unwittingly set into motion. But I’d love to see the production again, if you happen to know where I could get a ticket.
Left: Galleriest Chantal Crousel with artists Jean-Luc Moulène, Melik Ohanian, and Sophie Calle. Middle: Wolfgang Tillmans signing copies of his new book. Right: Hans Peter Feldman.
Un, deux, trois, let’s do it again! Saturday, September 10 was the day of the “rentrée”a new season at the Paris galleries. A crowd of tanned art lovers came back from their Provence holidays with new resolutions, such as to stop drinking and smoking. I guess we’re getting old. At least thirty galleries listed in the Galeries Mode d’Emploi held simultaneous receptions for this ostensibly wholesome crowd. My own rentrée had actually taken place the previous Tuesday at Marian Goodman’s gallery where, in an apparent spirit of iconoclasm or perhaps just a desire to beat the crowds, the gallerist had gotten things off to an early start with a new solo show by Christian Boltanski, his first in Goodman’s Paris branch after several exhibitions at her New York flagship.
The show, titled “Prendre la Parole” (To Speak), consisted of three installations, the biggest of which, on the main floor, had raincoats propped on leglike wooden supports and loudspeakers emitting strange voices saying stranger things (“I’m fat, I’m fat!”). A video presented mix-and-match mouths, noses, and eyes that viewers could manipulate like a child’s game. The archival images were drawn from newspapers published on Boltanski’s birthdaySeptember 6from 1944 to 2004. I learned that night that we share a birthday (but not the same year, I should add). It was a shame we couldn’t take any celebratory pictures together: As usual at his shows, it was too dark.
Thaddaus Ropac also opened a blockbuster on Tuesdaya show of new Imi Knoebel paintingsbut no surprises there. On Saturday, though, in his basementI mean, in his project roomI found something more unexpected: weird, life-size sculptures of children by Judy Fox. Nearby, Emmanuel Perrotin, who settled into the old Cosmic Galerie space this past spring, has spurred activity on rue Saint Claude, attracting new gallerists, and showing new artists in new spaces. I had hardly heard of any of them, but the street was full of people brandishing a flyer that exhorted, “Join the rue saint Claude!” What was happening here? Would the famous rue Louise Weiss, in the thirteenth arrondissement, get a run for its money from the once-dowdy Marais? Eric Mircher, formerly of Ropac, opened a new space here. Down the block, Frank Elbaz was showing paintings by Dominique Renson, who puts Parisian eccentrics in a white boxliterallyand paints portraits of them. Fashion designer Rick Owens immediately snapped up his own portrait. Several television crews came to have a look at the “Creatures,” as the show is called, as if they had never before seen a transvestite. Elbaz invited me to Le Barron, the former strip club that has gone from trendy to overflowing with young “studs” in nine short months. André, the graffiti artist who owns the club, has decided to open a new space. Good idea! How long until we’re bored of that one?
Left: Painter Lisa Milroy. Middle: Guillermo Calzadilla and Jennifer Allora. Right: Christian Marclay.
Martine Aboucaya, a former partner of Yvon Lambert, presented the one great exhibition of the evening. In her space, once inhabited by the famous fashion DJ Frederic Sanchez (purveyor of Prada’s catwalk music), she presented a Hans Peter Feldman mini-retrospective, with a book component organized by the fabulous bookseller Florence Loewy. Lambert invited us to the new Baci restaurant for a big dinner for Christian Marclay. But the place to be was Chantal Crousel’s new space. Not only had she left the Beaubourg area for new digs in the Marais, she was also celebrating twenty-five years in the business with work by a range of artists, including Cindy Sherman, Thomas Hirschhorn, Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla, Fabrice Gygi, and Fikret Atay. She had asked the artists to think about her program and make a work in response and the results were interesting. Rirkrit Tiravanij for instance made a new painting asking “Where is Jack Goldstein?” Anyway, they all went to the Jenny Brasserie to celebrate but I left. I had more art to see!
I ended up over on rue Louise Weiss, and after a whirlwind tour I found myself at L’Haudierne, a really bad restaurant with an unappetizing fixed menu“Blanquette de veau,” quite disgustingwhere all the galleries host dinners together. But Florence Bonnefous from Air de Paris is always good at saving the day with great iPod mixes to play on the bad stereo. The dinner conversation seemed to focus on a Chihuahua sitting on the lap of Joseph Grigely, who is presenting new work, as is his wife Amy Vogel, at Air de Paris. He wrote me a list of famous dogs on those little blue cards familiar from his art: Toto, Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Rex. Back on the block, I had seen a nice show at gb agency gallery, which has moved into the space recently vacated by Perrotin. The gallery is presenting a Deimantas Narkevicius work and a few great little stickers by London-based artist Ryan Gander. Elswhere, collectors cleaned out Sam Durant’s show at Praz Delavallade, his first in Paris.
With all this running around, I cannot remember the end of the evening too clearly. Somehow I ended up with curator-writers Stephanie Moisdon and Eric Troncy and dealer Bonnefous in an old windmillfull of artist squatters!on an island somewhere in the thirteenth arrondissement. Somehow the charms of the scene were lost on us and we had to wonder, “Are we boring?” Or is Paris?
“If your house is underwater, you're not thinking about art,” said Arthur Danto, at apexart last Wednesday. “Unless,” he added, pointing to a large piece of carved cedar propped against one wall, “you have an Ursula von Rydingsvard to use as a raft!” It was one of twelve pieces in “The Art of 9/11,” a group show that Danto volunteered for the anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Numbed by the horror of post-Katrina New Orleans and sickened by the government negligence attending it, I had set out for the opening of the fall art season, wondering what I would find and if it would rise to the occasion. In his gallery statement, Danto asked similar questions: What is art for? Who does it serve? (I'm interpreting.)
At Deitch Projects, Jim Isermann's undulating walls of distorted white plastic squares served mostly to induce rubber-room vertigo. What I needed was strength. On Thursday night, the streets of Chelsea resembled nothing so much as an ant colony on Planet Thorazine. Hundreds of underdressed art appreciators of all ages moved along alternating currents of curiosity and calumny, soldiering through nearly one hundred different galleries to see what was up with the new art: “Some good, some bad, some neither good nor bad," as Michel Auder put it, when I saw him at D'Amelio Terras.
Frankly, one of the best pieces I saw was from 1972, a hypnotic slide-projection sculpture by Anthony McCall at Leslie Tonkonow. A precursor to his 1973 Line Describing a Cone (a crowd-pleaser in Chrissie Iles's “Into the Light” show at the Whitney in 2003), it gave material form to quick bursts of light. Perfectly paired with two 1977 Peter Campus close-up videos of a “misanthropic man” and a “sad young woman” that are not as static as they might seem, the show snubbed all those PhDs who think the vogue for pristine ‘70s art has been replaced by nostalgia for the image-laden ‘80s. These human-scale works had none of the touchy-feely, after-school handwork of much on display elsewhere, yet they emanated a physical presence that quietly filled the room.
A new question: Why bother having a dustbin of history if someone is always going to clean it out? Because some art only assumes authority with age? Or because turning ashes to gold is so profitable? As McCall put it, “The good thing about not selling anything in the '70s is that it's all available now!” (In editions of five.)
How good it was to see Sue Williams's splat of vomit again! Art for troubled times, indeed. Adam McEwen put it in his group show at Klagsbrun, which included a 1970 video of Joseph Beuys in Ireland by Rory McEwen, Adam's dad. (Those ‘70s again.) At Marianne Boesky, Angelenos Jon Pylypchuk and Frances Stark seemed dazed as they emerged from the crowd of Japanese youths climbing over Yoshitomo Nara's tiresome playhouse.
In fact, most openings were too jammed to see anything, so most of what I know is what I heard. At PaceWildenstein, I heard Philip-Lorca DiCorcia tell Nayland Blake how a Hasidic man appearing in a picture from the photographer's last show of big heads was suing him for $1.6 million. No wonder he's sticking to pole dancers now. I doubt they mind anyone looking.
At Clementine, I heard that gallery owners Abby Messitte and Elizabeth Burke had signed leases with Derek Eller, Oliver Kamm, John Connelly, Wallspace, and Foxy Productions in a building on Twenty-Seventh Street west of Eleventh Avenue, a psychogeographical divide equivalent to the East River. Well, we crossed that to get to Brooklyn. Now we'll do this. Makes you wonder how far off Hoboken can be.
We could see that town's rebuilt waterfront from the model apartment in Richard Meier's new tower at 165 Charles Street, where Lehmann Maupin had its fashionable afterparty. In conversation, Deb Singer displayed an impressive command of New York building codes, the result of a recent tangle with new commercial development around the High Line involving her revamp of the Kitchen and permits for future nonprofits. Her experience made Hoboken look even closer.
Meanwhile, the gallery madness continued Friday night with Yuken Teruya's sellout show of shopping bag trees at Josée Bienvenu and White Columns's return to Gordon Matta-Clark's “Fake Estates” (those ‘70s again!). There, amid a summery crowd with a stubborn nicotine habit, Dennis Oppenheim's giant paintbrush high-rise gave new meaning to artist housing and an assistant encouraged consumers to freeze one of Mierle Laderman Ukeles's three-dollar baklava because, “It'll be worth a million dollars in just a few years!” Only a few were buyingso much for the future of nonprofits.
By Saturday, one pooped trouper, I circled back to Zwirner, struck by how accurately Marcel Dzama's drawings of a nightmare society reflected the chaos bedeviling New Orleans. Perhaps it has been this way all along? Or does it just seem so given this Republican White House? At Petzel, Pylypchuk created his own tragicomic family of furry Godots in a universe of hapless underdogs. (Democrats all, no doubt.) The costumed sculptures in both shows set me up perfectly for the Art Parade in SoHo, where young, Wigstock-worthy artists made up as clowns, pirates, and lap dancers tootled happily behind brass marching bands to the Deitch garage on Wooster Street. There, a blue-painted, prodigiously outfitted Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black took the stage to lead us in a rousing, welcome to, well, Fashion Week.
Left: Oliver Payne in the DJ booth at Umbaba. Middle: Ben Keyworth, who appeared in several early Relph and Payne videos. Right: The crowd at Umbaba.
Here’s a recent Faust fable: One day you’re an artist about whom a few people know a lot; a few days later you’re an artist about whom tons and tons of different people enthusiastically know very little. With a solo retrospective at the Serpentine Gallerythat charming former tea pavilion with the billionaire patrons, storied history, and Michelin-starred Walther Koenig bookshopOliver Payne and Nick Relph are back in England and weathering this transition as I write. Payne and Relphtwenty-something Englishmen who recently moved to Manhattan, where they show with Gavin Brown–have made seven films in six years, the most recent of which, Sonic the Warhol, 2005, debuted at the Serpentine. Like most of their films (all of which are about a half hour long) Sonic the Warhol is about resistance, awareness, and brotherhood, and also rock, jokes, poetry, Pokémon, and nature. It’s abstruse and entertaining, asusual. I flew to London for the private view, a garden party held at dusk, in order to see how the newly minted top boys were doing.
The nasty part of the Faustian bargain goes like this: England is a very small country, and the arrival of press and prestige can spread hollow buzz and parochial rhetoric very efficiently, almost without trying. That is the imminent threat to Payne and Relph, who are now part of this world. While certainly not obscure before, at least among the gallery-going set, their renown seems poised on the brink of a qualitative leap: Breathless two-sentence preview picks in the liberal dailies and a blinkered, condescending feature in Rupert Murdoch’s Times alerted me to the possibility that they are soon to play a new, more substantial role in British culture. They are being talked about and put forward as a social and political gathering point, as in “I’ll meet you at Payne and Relph.” All this made for a super weird party. Among the 400-strong crowd lolling on the grass outside the gallery were various cliques straight from the office: Gelled chaps with loosened Windsor knots knocking back Kronenberg while pencil-skirted chicks kept tacit pace. Perhaps they worked for Bloomberg or Lavazza or one of the other companies whose logos elbowed for space on the searchlight-splashed sign at the entrance. Meanwhile, Payne and Relph were just kind of hanging out, often by themselves. The preponderance of idle Londoners at their party allowed the artists to continue as before, hatching new ideas and participating at a slight, smiling distance from the world. Payne was leaning against a wall alone, uncharacteristically drinking water (albeit from a wineglass) when I saw him for the first time. Gavin Brown walked past with his young son, who was wearing an Allan Houston Knicks jersey. Oliver nodded at them both and they nodded back. “The DJ booth at the afterparty is inside a giant cauldron,” he told me a few minutes later after not saying much. “Pretty crazy.”
Left: Wendy Yao, proprietor of L.A. boutique Ooga Booga. Center left: Artist Mark Leckey. Center right: Emily Speers-Mears. Right: Artist Nick Relph.
An hour later we found ourselves at a club called Umbaba. It was indeed pretty crazy, and tacky tooan upscale underground cavern off Carnaby Street bogusly styled as an imaginary African republic. It filled up slowly with more fashionable (but equally anonymous, to me at least) variants on the Kronenberg crews. The gifted London artist Mark Leckey stood out, in part because he looked like a hippie instead of the mod sharp I always had him pegged for. I stood on a banquette for a dance but quickly got back down. I saw something up there. Everywhere around there were people who had appeared in the duo’s films: Normal people––extended family––unchanged by the spotlight. Relph had spent much of the evening hanging out with one of the Timmins twins, a teenage punk in a Supreme baseball cap who has been a strong on-screen presence from the earliest films to the present. There was a fraternal sweetness between them as they chewed the fat. Who needed banquette bouncing?
Left: Curator Daniel Birnbaum and Swedish Minister of Culture Leif Pagrotsky. Middle: Curator Rosa Martinez and MMK director Udo Kittelmann. Right: Moderna Museet director Lars Nittve and Magasin 3 director David Neuman.
The autumn art season in Stockholm traditionally begins with an opening at Magasin 3, the privately owned kunsthalle/museum situated among the expansive warehouses near the city’s docksan event that is always enthusiastically anticipated by the locals. This year some extra sparkle was added to the proceedings by the institution’s internationally renowned “associated curators:" Portikus director Daniel Birnbaum, 51st Venice Biennale cocurator Rosa Martínez, Palais de Tokyo codirector and cocurator of this year’s Lyon Biennale Jérôme Sans, and Israel Museum curator Sarit Shapira. Their combined efforts had yielded “Here Comes the Sun,” an exhibition bringing together ten equally renowned artists, and Magasin 3 made the most of the glamorous occasion. The whirlwind program of press conferences, interviews, and public seminars led by the curators started three whole days before the official opening. (There were, of course, more exclusive private seminars, followed by dinners, where the “fantastic four” were proudly shown off to local art scene VIPs like IASPIS director Maria Lind and Malmö Konsthall director Lars Grambye.) Everyone even remotely interested in contemporary art in Sweden showed up to sip the (conservatively poured) glasses of white wine offered at the opening.
The galleries at this see-and-be-seen event were packed to the point that one worried about the art; it’s a wonder that Rivane Neuenschwander’s installation of dripping, water-filled buckets, Chove Chuva, 2002, survived the back-to-school crush. Other artworks in the show include Tobias Rehberger’s 222 colorful glass lamps, Seven Ends of the World, 2003, which was originally exhibited in the Birnbaum-cocurated Italian Pavilion at that year’s Venice Biennale; its suspended orbs function as a big, complicated solar clock. Slightly more site-specific is Olafur Eliasson’s proposal for a new Stockholm art museum, the design of which is based on the varying angles of sunlight throughout a year in the city. Also fitting neatly into the sun theme were Tacita Dean’s films about solar eclipses, Banewl (1999) and Diamond Ring (2002).
Left: Former IASPIS director Karina Ericsson Wärn and currect director Maria Lind. Right: Gallery owner Natalia Goldin and artist Allen Gubresic.
According to Magasin 3 director David Neuman, cooperating with four associate curators is the starting point of a new path for the institution. Neuman’s vision seems to revolve around using brainpower to “push boundaries,” both literal and metaphorical. Norrköpings Museum of Art curator Marianne Hultman, for one, wasn’t impressed, commenting on the namby-pamby nature of the exhibition by rhetorically asking, “How come no matter what artists or curators you put into Magasin 3, the results always look the same? Neat, tidy, stiff, and a bit boring.” Perhaps this is what consensus among four opinionated curators looks like. Out on the balcony, the chain-smoking Sans came to the show’s defense, stating that it is a very “poetic” show. In my own opinion, it’s a shame that “Here Comes the Sun” doesn’t include more brand-new work, though it was good to see an ambitious exhibition of biennial-circuit artists in Stockholm.
Two hundred guests wined (less conservatively) and dined afterwards in the Magasin 3 project space. Among them were the newly bearded Swedish Minister of Culture, Leif Pagrotsky; Moscow Biennial curator Joseph Backstein; Udo Kittelmann, the director of the MMK in Frankfurt; Lars Nittve, the director of the Moderna Museet; dealers Burkhard Riemschneider and Ciléne Andréhn; and artists Carsten Höller and Miriam Bäckström, all wolfing down a traditional Swedish feast of crayfish and vodka. To my disappointment and despite the best efforts of the DJ, the inebriated crowd never made it to the dance floor; people seemed more interested in chatting and huddling up by the bar. At some point artist Juan Pedro Fabra Guemberena painted a “tattoo,” apparently titled Ass on Fire, directly onto my arm and two other artists (who, at their entreaties, shall remain anonymous) decided to decorate the tablecloth with other unmentionables. The next day was dubbed “Aspirin Day” by widespread consent. The season had officially begun.