Left: Don and Mera Rubell with Art LA director Tim Fleming. (Photo: Patrick McMullan) Right: Dealer and Art LA consultant Daniel Hug. (Photo: David Velasco)
There was something uneasy in the Los Angeles air last Saturday afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension. But it was not the Santa Ana conspiring to nettle moods, merely an unusual spell of glumly persistent rain. Despite the weather and the sober occasion, a mob had formed at Bergamot Station for Benjamin H. D. Buchloh’s lecture “Strategies of Voiding the Void,” on Michael Asher’s exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. The turnout took Buchloh by surprise. “It’s just my East Coast and European prejudices,” he announced, surveying the tightly packed audience, “but I didn’t expect a Saturday afternoon would look like this in Los Angeles.”
The august Conceptualist’s exhibition—a claustrophobic, intimidating warren of raw metal wall studs demarcating the floor plans of every show the museum put on between May 1998 (Liza Lou; Beck and Al Hansen) and December 2007 (William Pope.L)—is practically an invitation for exegesis. The scene at the lecture was a familiar social arena; certain players arrived, only to be shuttled to the VIP area of reserved seats in the front row. Artists Christopher Williams, Mary Kelly, Walead Beshty, and Emily Sundblad, MoCA curator Ann Goldstein, art historians Miwon Kwon and Julie Ault, and Asher himself were all present. There were many more faces I didn’t recognize. “It’s more UCLA than CalArts in here,” whispered a student. Someone handed me his card. Behind me, sotto voce, a man actually uttered: “We should get together. Let’s do lunch.” Hollywood academia. (Which is really, simply, academia everywhere.)
Left: Dealer David Kordansky with artists Markus Amm and Eli Langer. Right: Dealer Emi Fontana. (Photos: David Velasco)
Buchloh is, unsurprisingly, an erudite and forceful speaker. Much of his hour-plus lecture focused on Asher’s work as a counteractive to the “aestheticization of everyday life”: For Buchloh, Asher’s repetition compulsion is an “epistemic resistance” to the imperative for innovation in contemporary art. Buchloh sees contemporary art’s “magnetism” as motivated by two factors: art’s seemingly magic ability to generate infinite surplus value, and belief in art’s redemptive potential, its capacity to produce instant—near-spiritual—gratification. He inveighed against museums’ focus on audience attendance and their spectacularization of architecture. This felt like the buildup to something, and indeed, midway through, he took a swipe at the Takashi Murakami survey at MoCA, attributing to Paul Schimmel a quote claiming that “Murakami is the most influential artist of the beginning of the twenty-first century.” He then added, “Which, I have to admit, sounds pretty amazing; breathtaking, even—though the twenty-first century is only seven years old.” The audience broke into thunderous applause. I didn’t know people could clap so loud while holding notebooks. Schimmel was actually seated in the front row. A few people craned to see his expression.
No one bothered to mention the bugbear lying just up I-10 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. The latest edition of Art LA opened Thursday evening with a great deal more momentum than last year, but still relatively little fanfare. (Blame the rain.) This year, the fair hosted sixty-four galleries, nearly all of them high quality and upwardly mobile, with a significant international presence. Daniel Hug, the Los Angeles dealer and fair consultant (who also happens to be Moholy-Nagy’s grandson), credited the low fees (“about half what it costs to participate in Frieze or Miami Basel”), as well as timing and strategy. “Everyone—Volta, Liste—wants to be big, but why? We’re playing up our scrappiness.”
While no celebrities hit the gala, some notable local collectors (Benedikt Taschen, Sam Schwartz, Shirley Morales, and Stavros Merjos) made the trek. The Rubells had flown in from Miami that morning. Dean Valentine, who typically doesn’t even bother with other fairs, remarked that this one was “a billion times better” than last year’s. “It’s a bit like the days of the Gramercy Art Fair at Chateau Marmont.” Numerous dealers not in the fair came to scope out the scene—303 Gallery’s Lisa Spellman, Marc Foxx, Jeff Poe, Rivington Arms’s Mirabelle Marden, John Connelly. A smattering of artists made it, too.
A few good pieces stood up and saluted, among them Frank Benson’s large, leaning glass wall at Taxter & Spengemann. (A mix of Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, and John McCracken—so very LA.) Matthew Marks rep Sabrina Buell pointed out some smart sculptures at Tomio Koyama by artist Kishio Suga. Dicksmith Gallery dedicated their booth to soigné abstract oils by Alistair Frost. And David Kordansky—who is rumored to be opening a new space in Culver City—had excellent, crude new sculptures by Aaron Curry and Thomas Houseago. “Is the booth too brown?” he had anxiously asked passersby during Wednesday’s installation.
Despite the low costs—and thus low stakes—of this fair, few galleries took the opportunity to produce grand Art Fair Art gestures; those present were generally back-to-basics relational aesthetics (a rehash of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Magazine Station at West of Rome; Terence Koh and Bruce LaBruce’s fully operational re-creation of Twin Peaks’s Bang Bang Bar at Peres Projects). But the most ludic—and most discussed—was without a doubt Piero Golia’s smashed-up, thirty-five-seat bus for Bortolami. A few people took pleasure in noting that the Rubells were interested. “The Rubells are interested” is, of course, a leitmotif of fair culture. If there’s any truth to the talk, they are interested in everything.
As it so happens, the bus was bought by Colección Jumex founder Eugenio López to go in his backyard in Beverly Hills. Crushed to the precise dimensions of Bortolami’s booth and installed well before the erection of the fair’s cubicles, Golia’s work inherits the pragmatic dimensions of its administrative context—a foot violently bound to conform to the size of its shoe. Is the work, to put it glibly, the positive to Asher’s negative? (Buchloh, in his lecture, might as well have been addressing the fair. It teaches the same lesson, anyway: Everything new will always be the same.)
A fair isn’t a fair without a little hoopla. Friday night, despite the inclement weather, Chinatown became an outdoor carnival, with openings or performances at most of the galleries in the neighborhood. At Kordansky, William E. Jones signed copies of his latest artist’s book, Tearoom, which highlights his graphic found footage of 1962 surveillance tapes of gay sex in restrooms in Mansfield, Ohio, a smart doubling of the act of surveillance and the (guilty) pleasures of voyeurism. (The piece is to be included in this year’s Whitney Biennial.) Holy Shit played their hip, droning guitar rock at Daniel Hug, while Peres Projects launched Teen Daddy, the latest incarnation of Javier Peres’s Daddy magazine. Afterward, people formed long queues outside nightspots Hop Louie and the Mountain Bar, each of which played out a narrative that was, at best, predictable.
Saturday night, amid a slew of openings, there was Regen Projects’ elegant, informal, dinner for painter Daniel Richter at Dominick’s on Beverly Boulevard, as well as a “conceptual book launch” at LAXART for the as-yet-unpublished fourth volume of Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, edited by 2008 Whitney Biennial cocurator Shamim Momin. Talk around town inevitably strayed toward current museum exhibitions (Murakami, Francis Al˙s) or Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s inexplicable arrival in Los Angeles with collector Maja Hoffmann. (“You can be sure of one thing,” someone noted. “He’s not here for the fair.”) Afterward, there was a mild if well-attended party at Shirley Morales’s home in the Hollywood Hills. The rain seemed to dampen everyone’s evening ambitions, meaning that people were either too sleepy or too cautious to make any real noise, and I decamped early. Taking Sunset Boulevard back toward my hotel, I opened the window and thought I caught the scent of jacaranda, even though it wasn’t the season.
Left: Jonathan and Brigitte Meese. Right: Elke and Georg Baselitz. (Photos: Jan Bauer)
Invitations to gallery openings are a dime a dozen, but how often are you asked to celebrate what can only be described as a freak astrological alignment of the art stars? Last Wednesday, January 23, two artists—supernova Georg Baselitz and meteor Jonathan Meese—celebrated their birthdays with a double opening at Contemporary Fine Arts (CFA) in the gallery’s new digs across from Museum Island. Meese, who turned thirty-eight, filled the ground floor with big bronze sculptures and even bigger paintings in vampire shades of red, black, and white. Baselitz, celebrating his grand seventieth, took up the second floor with fresh “remixes” of his own paintings from 1966, which were also on display thanks to loans from the Berlinische Galerie and private collectors.
But could the shared birth date with a German Painting Meister be a mere coincidence? After all, if Meese had been born just one day earlier, he’d be sharing his birthday with Picabia instead of Baselitz. One day later, and we’d all be celebrating with Vito Acconci. I decided to go to the source: Brigitte Meese herself (aka Mummi). Was Frau Meese in on some cosmic plan? “Oh, no, it’s just a coincidence, which the gallery discovered only last fall,” she said, fresh from her interviews with several German television stations. “Our family never had anything to do with art until Jonathan came along.”
Left: Artist Markus Lüpertz. Right: CFA's Bruno Brunnet, Iha Gräfin von der Schulenburg, artist Neo Rauch, and Rosa Loy Rauch. (Photos: Franziska Sinn)
It seems that there were no signs—celestial or otherwise—of a budding talent in baby Johnny. “He was never interested in art,” said Frau Meese. “Then, when he turned twenty-two, he wanted a drawing block for his birthday. I was not at all amused. Back then, a drawing block cost sixty deutsche marks.” Since then, I suppose that the initial investment had paid off—and not just in hard cash. “When Jonathan rewards himself after finishing a major project, it’s by eating and buying books,“ she said, adding in a discreet whisper, “One can see that a little bit on his figure . . .”
Speaking of bibliophilia, CFA produced two gigantic catalogues, which guests were snapping up as mementos for fifty euros apiece. Well-wishers, carrying gifts in all shapes and sizes, had come from near and far: Sir Norman Rosenthal, who organized the Baselitz retrospective at the Royal Academy in London; curator Christophe Joachimides, who co-organized the “Zeitgeist” project in 1982; and German museum directors Max Hollein, of the Schirn Kunsthalle and the Städelmuseum in Frankfurt, and Peter-Klaus Schuster, general director of the Berlin museums. Artists—painters and otherwise—seemed to transform the gallery into a living pantheon: Neo Rauch, Albert Oehlen, Peter Doig, Marc Brandenburg, Katja Strunz, Andreas Slominski, Robert Lucander, Daniel Richter, and Eberhard Havekost, who gave Baselitz a few homemade compilation CDs featuring hip-hop from LA (the Meister had once given him jazz LPs).
There was more music—and merriment—at the Clärchen’s Ballhaus, where three hundred guests gathered for the birthday party with a sit-down dinner followed by dancing to a live band. Bruno Brunnet, taking the stage with CFA owners Philipp Haverkampf and Nicole Hackert (once again wearing the hottest high heels!), announced: “It’s art’s birthday today!” Another guest had also just turned a year older: Baden Baden museum director Karola Grässlin, while ninety-eight-year-old Rudolf Springer, Baselitz’s first dealer, decided to symbolically celebrate his hundredth. For fame and longevity—or for astrological harmony between German artists, museums, and dealers—Aquarius is the sign, and January 23 is the date. Coincidentally, it was also the anniversary of the death of Joseph Beuys.
And what did the birthday boys think of the evening? “Everyone is pretty crazy, especially in Berlin,” said Baselitz, decked out in a snappy black suit and a white tie. “There is no ground, and the sky’s the limit.” I wanted to talk with Meese, but a waiter’s seemingly bottomless bottle of bubbly was too great a distraction, so I gave Meese my pen and my notebook. The next morning, when I could read again, I found the following message written in his scrawling script: “Art is sweetsweetsweet. Mummy is art. Art is bossbaby. The boss is coming, Dr. No, art’s baby.”
Arriving at Jeu de Paume just after 11 AM on Monday for the opening of Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s first retrospective in France, I immediately found the artist, dressed in slim, dark jeans and a pin-striped blazer, holding court in the luminous triple-height entryway. Ahtila gave me a polite hello but quickly urged me down the gray stone ramp toward her newest work, Where Is Where, allegedly finished just two days before. “It takes fifty-two minutes, so go on.” An attentive crowd was gathered inside the six-screen installation, absorbing the poetic drama of mortality and colonial politics. The starting point of the film is a case study presented in Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth of two Algerian boys who killed their European schoolmate acting, some claimed, from internalized anguish caused by the Algerian War. However, Ahtila was quick to point out that she wants this reference to be considered a metaphor rather than a provocation. “Provocation is like throwing a stone,” she explained. “I don’t want to point my finger at anyone. You could put whatever in the place of the Algerian boys: Iraq, Afghanistan . . . I’m not blaming the French, I’m implying everyone.” Where Is Where is also replete with standards of the Christian lexicon—the Lord’s Prayer, a Finnish hymn, and allusions to the afterlife—about which the artist clarified: “I am not a churchgoer, but religion is a central part of world politics. You can’t ignore it.”
A small cocktail lunch followed the morning view. I caught curator Suzanne Pagé sneaking out the door, back to her new offices at Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, where she has recently taken up the post of artistic director of the LVMH Foundation (heading up the megabrand’s alarming Gehry museum project) after having been the director of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris for nearly twenty years. Marian Goodman, who flew in that morning from New York, arrived just in time for the 2 PM screening. Pausing for a moment to greet Jeu de Paume director Marta Gili, Goodman seemed anxious to see the final version of Ahtila’s new installation.
Left: Ellipse Foundation curator Alexandre Melo and Marian Goodman senior director Agnčs Fierobe. Right: LVMH Foundation artistic director Suzanne Pagé.
At 6 PM, a much bigger crowd gathered for the invite-only evening reception. Quite a few of the foppish characters in the throng were collectors, working in finance, fashion, and the always-nebulous “consulting” business. Thankfully, in the melee, I managed to find Régis Durand, author of one of the catalogue texts and an initiator of the exhibition. He explained that the starting point for Where Is Where has a personal resonance for him—he remembers friends going off to fight in the Algerian War in the late 1950s and early ’60s (at the time, the French government was calling the situation a “police action”). Durand found the work’s “anchorage in a particular situation” its most compelling aspect.
Throughout the day, I had heard conflicting explanations about who was responsible for programming Ahtila’s exhibition at Jeu de Paume—Durand while he was still director or Marta Gili after she took over. Gili, working the crowd in a bright red jacket, clarified: “When I arrived in 2006, the exhibition program of 2007 was already planned and discussions had already started with Ahtila.” Gili had included Ahtila, as well as Richard Avedon, in her proposed program and was surprised to find exhibitions with both artists already in the works when she arrived. In fact, Gili showed Ahtila’s Consolation Service at Sala Montcada in Barcelona in 2001. About the newest work, Gili exclaimed, “It’s the strongest piece she’s ever done!” Rushing toward Gili as we talked, Guillaume Piens and Valérie Fougeirol, coordinators of Paris Photo, sang her praises: “She’s a breath of fresh air for Paris! Marta, bravo!”
At about 8 PM, the senior director of Marian Goodman’s Paris gallery, Agnčs Fierobe, slipped me a tiny piece of paper with the address of a local restaurant, Pinxo, for a dinner following. About an hour later, at a cozy table, Alexandre Melo and Pedro Lapa, curators at the Ellipse Foundation in Portugal (host, in March, of the next presentation of Where Is Where), and John Zepetelli, curator at DHC Art in Montreal—hoping to snag the North American debut of the work—cozied up to Goodman, Fierobe, and a director of the gallery’s New York outpost, Rose Lord. As we enjoyed an eclectic (and aesthetically challenging) series of bite-size dishes (poached eggs in tomato jelly?), champagne, and red wine, conversation returned to the new element in Ahtila’s work: politics. But we were no longer speaking in metaphors. Goodman declared Mitt Romney “crap, no really, crap” and Giuliani “crazy.” And of course she loved Gloria Steinem’s recent editorial in the New York Times. So as we feted Ahtila’s new work (not to mention Gili’s efforts at Jeu de Paume), Steinem’s words remained relevant: We’re supporting her because she’s a great artist “and because she’s a woman.” It’s about time politics made its way back into art.
Left: DHC Art curator John Zepetelli and Marian Goodman director Rose Lord. Right: Paris Photo fair manager Valérie Fougeirol, Marta Gili, and Paris Photo media coordinator Guillaume Piens.
Last Thursday, while I waited for Robert Redford to show up at the Leaf Lounge on Main Street, the temperature outside hovered at eighteen degrees and the street was jammed with temporary migrants here for the Sundance Film Festival. Something like sixty thousand people are expected to attend the twenty-fourth edition of the event, and it seemed as if they were all on Main, cruising for distribution deals or hunting for stars to snap, paparazzi-style, as they rushed from one media fete to the next. At one moment or another, Quentin Tarantino walked by, as did Paris Hilton in pink, Sir Ben Kingsley, and a scruffy Colin Farrell, here as star of opening night’s all-too-pat black comedy–cum–morality tale, In Bruges. Sundance has swollen so large that Park City can barely handle the crowds, the venues for this year’s estimated 125 films and eighty-five shorts, and the A-list party crawl that lasts until the snow-drenched dawn.
Redford, the founder of Sundance, has been widely quoted for his remark at the packed opening press conference that this year’s festival is all about change—a theme that immediately rhymed with the slogans of politicians now stumping around the country. But I’m here to talk with Redford about a different species of change. “New Frontier on Main” is an artists’ showcase in its second year at Sundance, curated with verve by programmer Shari Frilot and consultant Mike Plante and eccentrically sited in a subterranean purple lounge in a shopping mall. I suggest to him that the true possibility of change that the exhibition incites is toward new kinds of visual thinking. “That’s right,” he replied, with that quick, appraising Redford smile. “Start with the fact that I began as a painter, studying in Paris and then at Pratt Institute. So I’ve always wanted to show art. It’s taken a long time to get there, but we decided the best way to do it was in combination with new technology, to give filmmakers ideas about the ways artists are using new means to tell stories. If there can be some crossover between new film and new art that’s symbiotic, that’s going to be an important part of the future for Sundance—and for film.”
Left: Director Martin McDonagh interviewed on Main Street. Right: “New Frontier on Main” programmers Mike Plante and Shari Frilot. (Photos: Steven Henry Madoff.)
Down in the purple cave, there were eighteen works on view, many of them familiar to the art world but surely new to the film crowds that packed in, curious and evidently entertained. Doug Aitken was represented by a single-channel version of Sleepwalkers, and Robert Boyd screened Xanadu, his deliriously dystopian assembly of video clips about man’s unslaked thirst for mayhem and apocalypse, set to a disco beat. Hasan Elahi’s video starred the artist in a roomful of simulated monitors, surveilling himself every minute of the day to abet (and, in fact, deluge) the government’s own surveillance operation, which had mistaken him for a terrorist. In a side gallery, Eddo Stern stumped amateur gamers with his perverse two-person shooter Darkgame, while out in the main space, Jennifer Steinkamp exhibited her well-known animations of a quartet of trees metamorphosing through the seasons like a sylvan dream of Ovid. Marina Zurkow, inspired by Asian scroll painting, presented three elegantly simple and unsettling panels of animation, depicting a polar bear and several characters firing off guns in the globally warmed Arctic north. Other works left less of an impression and made me wish for a little more thematic coherence, but Brent Green’s Whitmanesque, hallucinatory performance with the band Califone rocked my spirit in front of his funky film animations, and Stephanie Rothenberg and Jeff Crouse’s Invisible Threads: A Virtual Sweatshop in Second Life, in which workers who are members of the online community get paid ninety cents an hour to design facsimile blue jeans that are then printed and assembled on the spot at “New Frontier on Main” for waiting viewers, really is a new kind of interactive storytelling with obvious social and political heft.
The artists floated in and out of the show over the four days I was there and could be glimpsed here and there at the endless parties, like the one John Johnson (the founder of Eyebeam) threw for his new, eco-minded Harmony Project, where Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky, chatted with Danny Glover and Oliver Stone, or U2’s bash at the Riverhouse on Main after they premiered U2 3D, their high-tech concert spectacle codirected by Irish artist Catherine Owens, who said that “artists have been exploring 3-D forever, from Vermeer to Hockney. 3-D is like installation art—I could actually integrate art pieces into the set that felt physically present in 3-D—and film offers a larger conversation than the narrow focus of the art world, though technology is beginning to change that.”
At one point, Miller and Elahi entered into a deep dissection of the moment that “New Frontier on Main” confronts, in keeping with Frilot’s remark “Cinema is in our pockets now, in our malls, in our cabs. That’s the technology. It’s moment-to-moment all around us. I call it physical cinema.” Riffing, Elahi said, “Actually, I think the physicality is deteriorating. YouTube changed everything.” Miller: “It’s like Deleuze’s idea of deterritorialization. The cell phone, the iPod, the Web—the whole idea of a centralized screen, of the totalitarian imagination for centralized distribution, is changing. You see what you want where you want.”
I wanted to see some old-school cinema, too, though. Among the films were The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins, Pietra Brettkelly’s fascinating blow-by-blow documentary about Vanessa Beecroft’s slightly mad, questionably intentioned obsession to adopt two motherless children amid the bare-bones poverty of Sudan; and Derek, Isaac Julien’s heartbreaking and giddily alive biopic about filmmaker, painter, and general renegade Derek Jarman. Tilda Swinton’s gorgeous presence, ripe with immensely articulate and sometimes mournful reminiscences, walks through the film like a grave revenant. I caught up with Julien the night before I left. He said, “I’m curating a show of Derek’s paintings at the Serpentine Gallery in February, so there’s a nice crossover between the art world and cinema with this project. And, you know, I think there are still so many misunderstandings between the art and film worlds because of the different languages they use. But with the rise of digital everything, they’re becoming more closely linked because they’re both being invaded by new economies. ‘New Frontier on Main’ gets at that, though I think it has a ways to go. It has to grow. It has to take itself more seriously. But then, don’t we all?”
Left: Artist and filmmaker Catherine Owens. (Photo: George Pimentel/WireImage) Right: Performance view of Invisible Threads: A Virtual Sweatshop in Second Life. (Photo: Rebecca Sapp/WireImage)
“I’m not going to talk about the exhibition in any detail now, as many people would fall asleep.” Okwui Enwezor is usually not one for such rhetorical caginess, as evinced by his thorough dissection of last summer’s European “Grand Tour” in September's Artforum, yet in addressing the crowd at the Thursday-morning press preview of his new group exhibition at New York’s International Center of Photography, he had evidently decided that it would be best to save his theoretical chops for a more opportune moment. Introduced as “our globe-trotting adjunct curator,” the slender, dark-suited Enwezor thus gave only the briefest of introductions to “Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art,” but later led an energetic walk-through that saw the assembled scribes eddying through the ICP’s extensively reconfigured lower galleries in a desperate effort to keep up. Barbara Bloom, whose exhibition “The Collections of Barbara Bloom” (characterized with wearisome frequency by staffers and the artist herself as “a cross between a midcareer retrospective and an estate sale”) occupied the upstairs galleries, was a shade more exploratory in her own thank-you speech but also saved the serious stuff for her guided tour.
The shows’ evening openings may have suffered a little from inclement weather and an early-closing bar (necessitated by insurance concerns), but were busy nonetheless. Bloom and Enwezor were present and correct, as were a smattering of artists from the latter’s show, including Stan Douglas, Lamia Joreige, and Ilán Lieberman. (“Archive Fever”—Derrida devotees will recognize the title—also features work by the likes of Walid Raad, Lorna Simpson, Hans-Peter Feldmann, and Anri Sala, among others.) Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, senior curator at large Francesco Bonami, arriving with entourage, momentarily confused Bloom’s multifaceted arrangement with Enwezor’s, but soon solved the puzzle and headed downstairs. There, ICP chief curator Brian Wallis and director Willis Hartshorn were occupied ushering visitors around the space—made rather bunkerlike by a black and tan color scheme—while Bloom lorded, amiably, over her visually brighter presentation above. Both shows have plenty to offer; Bloom’s arrangement is playful and personal (it doesn’t get much more personal than her signature installation, The Reign of Narcissism), while Enwezor’s, which takes Hal Foster’s formulation of an “archival impulse” as its jumping-off point, is complex, persuasive, and not in the least soporific.
Left: Artist Barbara Bloom. Right: ICP chief curator Brian Wallis. (Photos: David Velasco)
The following evening, an overambitious attempt to haul ass from a party in honor of artist Jen DeNike at MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach’s Chinatown apartment to a musical performance at the smaller of Friedrich Petzel Gallery’s two Chelsea spaces in just ten minutes left me ten minutes late—and hanging around an awkward corner from the action. I ought to have anticipated the mob; raising the ruckus were avant-garde musician and filmmaker Tony Conrad and artists John Miller, Mike Kelley, and Jutta Koether. Critic Martha Schwendener and I exchanged notes and attempted, in vain, to see around the most impenetrable of walls as the sound emanating from behind it swelled.
We weren’t alone in our frustration; an understandably disgruntled-looking Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon were at our backs, as was Performa curator RoseLee Goldberg. Writer and editor Domenick Ammirati and I exchanged “Is this good?” shrugs across Petzel’s lobby as we tried to imagine the sources of the various disjointed bellows, scrapes, slaps, thumps, hoots, and rumbles that drifted our way from the room itself. Periodic bursts of applause or laughter (“There’s something really funny happening now,” someone offered, helpfully) further piqued my curiosity, and a couple of sneaked photographs revealed some curious goings-on indeed: Kelley wielding a long, polelike instrument and Conrad dressed, leprechaunlike, entirely in emerald green. Quitting the scene alongside curator Bob Nickas and artist Kathe Burkhart, I resolved to stake my claim a little earlier next time; ten minutes is a long time in the art world.
“That was the first time I sat next to people who were actually interesting at an event like this,” a Shanghai fashion agent quipped as he exited ShanghART Night, Zhao Bandi’s Panda Couture fashion extravaganza staged on a two-hour cruise up and down the neon-splashed Huangpu River on Tuesday night. “I think it was all a little over the top” a jaded socialite muttered as she swished coffee around her champagne glass. As the yacht docked, the evening’s VIPs filed slowly off into the freezing night.
The event witnessed the most recent conceptual provocation in Zhao’s long career of mainstream manipulation. After a short stint making paintings and installations, Zhao broke out of the contemporary art world’s crystal cage to engage that nebulous entity—the public—in a series of colorful stunts. It was in 1996 that Zhao established both the panda image and the use of celebrities as conduits through which he could connect with the masses, implicating them as he did in works involving subway posters, marathons, mock Olympic ceremonies, and now—fashion shows.
Zhao’s floating burlesque, hosted by Shanghart, Shanghai’s longest-standing gallery, was a scaled-down version of the artist’s inauguration into the world of haute couture just a couple months ago, during China Fashion Week in Beijing. That event had garnered a wave of media attention not only because one of the models, none other than China’s blogger-cum–sex celebrity Sister Lotus, experienced a wardrobe malfunction as she pirouetted on the catwalk one time too many, but because the Chengdu Municipal Committee (habitat of China’s last living pandas), which interpreted the entire escapade as another vicious exploitation of the beloved panda, decided to take legal action.
Left: Bandi models. Right: Contrasts gallery's Pearl Lam, choreographer Jin Xing, and writer Mian Mian.
The show this evening began with a quiet cocktail party, where the usual Shanghai art elite—including dealer/patron Pearl Lam, writer Mian Mian, and artist Zhou Tiehai—mingled with fashion folks like rising-star fashion designer Lu Kun and, of course, the stray mainstream-media pundit. It was a calculated crowd of fifty, assembled with precision to cross disciplines effectively and garner maximum exposure. MTV was there, working hard to maneuver a large camera in the tight quarters while simultaneously blocking the Chinese press corps from getting in the way of its runway shot. The dinner gave way to a pumping beat and dimming house lights, and the panda show began. Zhao’s collection was a crossbreed of the furry endangered animal and societal archetypes: Panda Teacher, Panda Student, Panda Policeman, Panda Corrupt Official, and so on. The juxtaposition of China’s chubby black-and-white bear (whose low procreation records suggests they’re the most prudish of creatures) against the lanky sexiness of the models created a surprisingly interesting aesthetic—a little like Leigh Bowery goes to the zoo.
Surrounded by his “panda concubines,” Zhao bellowed: “China has entered the age of luxury. This line represents Chinese luxury.” Then, in response to the evening’s MC (Guangdong Television fashion correspondent Ou Zhihan) asking why he brought the show to Shanghai, Zhao recited the story of an American fashion designer who in 1936 brought the first panda to the city. “It’s time for the panda to return to Shanghai.”
Left: Bandi models with curator Biljana Ciric (middle). Right: Guangdong Television fashion correspondent Ou Zhihan.
This panda spectacle had quite the fitting postscript: an auction. “After all, what would a contemporary art event in China be without one?” noted one magazine editor. The Panda Policeman outfit, hand-tailored white leather and thin black stitching, started at an inexpensive figure, but after the MC mentioned the Chinese artist’s quickly ascending values, the bids began pouring in. One of the bidders was none other than the son of the late, great artist (and auction-record breaker) Chen Yifei. But he was left in the dust by a volley of bids that increased in enormous increments, eventually ending up at the outstanding hammer price of Ľ600,000 ($83,000). Everybody looked at one another as the event got a notch more surreal. Business as usual in Shanghai.
The chatter at the opening, on Sunday, of Tom Burr’s exhibition “Addict-Love” at the SculptureCenter in Queens concerned in part the three f’s of international art tourism—flights, fairs, and fatigue. Burr’s London dealer, Stuart Shave, for instance, shared with the group his smart new travel tactic: limiting trips to two days and never getting off UK time. Others predicted that Art LA 2008, which opens next week, would soon rival Art Basel Miami Beach. But while the list of talking points for the event may have been standard, there was one late addition, which visitors tossed around with particular fervor: art-world porn.
The tattle had reached just about everyone. Next weekend, Lawrence Weiner would be shooting an update to his 1976 art-world skin flick, using as a set Burr’s other current New York show, a double-feature with photographer Walter Pfeiffer at the Swiss Institute. Speculation ran wild. Who would participate? Was casting closed? How did one “audition”? Details had yet to be established. In the meantime, I found myself viewing the Long Island City exhibition through “blue”-tinted glasses. Burr’s black hinged-plywood constructions looked like reclining figures or some form of s/m chaise longue; his platforms, with their velvet curtains and red spotlights, like strippers' booths; the normally puritanical colonial balustrades like warm-up bars; the straitjackets like—er, you get the idea. The sprawl of sculptural vignettes, all of which relate to three figures who championed “the modern” of their respective times—Weimar composer Kurt Weill, early- to mid-century Wadsworth Atheneum director Chick Austin, and the New York School’s Frank O’Hara (a poem of whose lends the show its title)—looked, well, sexy.
Left: Dealer Stefania Bortolami, Galerie Neu's Alexander Schroeder, and Modern Art's Stuart Shave. Right: Artist Fia Backström with Swiss Institute director Gianni Jetzer.
According to New York dealer Stefania Bortolami, it also looked “theatrical.” Such a vibe was aided, in large part, by Burr himself, who stood center stage joking with friends, charming visitors, letting out a hearty laugh when one visitor knocked over the chair featured in one of his works. Clad in a sharp jacket and a long scarf, the artist was not unlike a contemporary version of the suave guy appealed to by the vintage Esquire ads, Architectural Digest spreads, and modernist design objects that populate his works, all of which point to a cinematic notion of the American gentleman: tumbler in hand, one foot in Connecticut.
In any case, for many New Yorkers, a trek to Long Island City seems just that, so the big turnout was a welcome surprise, making as it did for a festive occasion and for reunions all around. “Hell-o-o-o-o-o-o,” Mary Ceruti, SculptureCenter director, piped to Liz Mulholland, Andrew Kreps Gallery director. “So good to see you,” artists Angelo Plessas and Andreas Angelidakis, in from Athens, said to a friend. Artists Rachel Harrison, Robert Beck, and Peter Coffin were out and about, as was Whitney Biennial 2008 cocurator Shamim Momin. Nick Mauss, who also shows with Galerie Neu, Burr’s Berlin gallery, noted that the white rubber flooring in one work was the same material that Chick Austin had throughout his house.
Other voices, other rooms. The group show downstairs seemed good enough in that derelict Lower East Side way, an impression enhanced by its dank, claustrophobic environs. Agathe Snow’s contribution—a corridor hung with kitschy wreaths, beginning with an entryway of running vacuum cleaners—seemed popular. Tickling my fancy was Drew Heitzler’s Night Tide (for Sailors, Mermaids, Mystics), 2007—a re-edit of the titular 1961 noir film, in which a young Dennis Hopper plays a sailor, on leave in Venice, California, who falls in love with a sideshow performer, Mora the Mermaid.
An informal dinner followed at local Italian joint Manducatis, but it wasn’t until the after-party at LIC Bar, where I spotted Swiss Institute director Gianni Jetzer, that I was able to follow up on the porn rumors. My first question: Just how open were the open casting calls? Jetzer smiled slyly: “We are casting for every type of scene: men-men, women-women, men-women . . .” Would he himself be participating? Outlook not so good. But he did joke that some situations, if entered into for “professional reasons,” might not be as sticky as they seem. Letting my mind wander, I found myself sharing the sentiments expressed at dinner by Burr when, as we tried to imagine just what the action would entail—would the players interact either on or with the sculptures?—a look of mock horror shot across his face: “That’s untreated wood!”
Left: Artist Mai-Thu Perret and Elizabeth Valdez. Right: Artists Andreas Angelidakis and Angelo Plessas.
The New York Times's Carol Vogel with artist Jeff Koons. (All photos: Wellington Lee)
From Mel Brooks to Martha Stewart, the New York Times “Arts and Leisure Week” serves up a high-class menu of achievers, live. Alas, I attended “Big Art, Big Ideas” to hear Jeff Koons (according to the brochure) “talk about his career creating sky-high art with sky-high prices,” interviewed by the Times’s Carol Vogel.
Entering the sleek new TimesCenter in Times Square (“by Renzo Piano,” volunteered the nice culture vulture who helped me operate the design-y sink in the ladies' room), I grabbed a coffee in the “Kia Lounge.” A big screen advertised the event’s sponsors (the Container Store, HBO, Rodney Strong Vineyard, Sedona SUVs, and Greater Fort Lauderdale) to rows of dummy JetBlue airplane seats and tables stacked with featured authors’ books, thus setting the tone for entitled consumption, be it closet organizers, vacations, or Art. At the threshold of the plush auditorium, I had to stop, mesmerized by the schlocky display of Times-branded swag: a pink baseball cap with the Times “T” logo (for lady Times readers?) and, worse (for the Times-loving long-term-care patient?), stripey fleece lounge pants in red, yellow, and white with the most hideous imaginable blouse to match, a “T” stigmata at the breast. What better hors-d’oeuvre for Koons’s wildly expensive affirmations of kitsch?
Koons, as always, resembled Howdy Doody’s handsomer brother. Introduced as “the world’s most expensive artist at auction,” the audience (a middle-aged, Upper West Side–looking crowd and a smattering of art-student types) listened up in reverence. Instead of an interview or a conversation, what followed was more like an artist’s infomercial, with Vogel prompting Koons for dates and materials as if she were a dutiful grad student putting together a catalogue raisonné. Rather than probing his unflappable, peculiar Tony Robbins–meets-art-CEO shtick, she just took everything at face value. Beneath a slide show of his oeuvre, the ex–Wall Street broker free-associated about “accepting yourself” and other self-help platitudes, compared his various luxe-kitsch pieces to the old masters, made vague remarks about “the sexual aspects” and anthropomorphism of vacuum cleaners and the (super-expensively refabricated) found objets he produces, overseeing over eighty “in-house” employees for “efficiency.” (“My responsibility is to educate people on what I’m looking for—every moment of the day.”) All delivered in the soothing, condescending tones of a nurse in a mental ward: "You know, Carol, what I really love about art is the ability it has to bring transcendence into your life.” On the screen above them was his Hummel-esque porcelain piglet with three frolicking tots, titled Ushering in Banality: “It’s so important that people accept themselves. Then you can be more objective and transcend.” Carol nodded, in a tasteful black suit. The next image was another porcelain figure, a lady grasping her giant boobies with red talons, Woman in Tub—surprised by a snorkel, a piece inspired by the artist’s uncle’s naughty ashtray: “Carol, children learn about their bodies in the tub . . . and acceptance of the self . . .”
Carol Vogel with Jeff Koons.
Perhaps the most disciplined salesman in the contemporary art world who isn’t himself a dealer, Koons is notoriously “on message.” Clearly, old-master references mingled with self help–isms slathered with gobs of luxury-sales-style condescension is a formula that works! When asked about the sometimes unstable materials of his quasi-found pieces: “A lot of my work has a maintenance aspect,” Koons patiently explained, “Being a collector is a responsibility. We try to educate people about their ongoing obligations.” Throughout, I was appalled to note that Vogel didn't even try to engage any of this material, she just enabled her subject’s self-promotional bubble. (Is this the recent New York Times model of the journalist as stenographer to power?) It was unsettling to watch.
The only breath of fresh air came during the closing Q&A. A rumpled, bearish guy asked: “Regarding prices [like Koons’s recent $23.6 million record for one of his Hanging Hearts in November], is there some level of absurdity that’s going on with your staff of eighty and your readymade housed in a private collection like a treasury note?” I wish this guy had done the interview.
“I’m grateful to the art world for the opportunity,” Koons intoned, apparently oblivious to the understatement. “The artist had better come up with something that is really strong and make people’s lives better than they were the day before.”
Who knew that the real Tinseltown was Queens, New York? I sure didn’t. Not, at least, until last Saturday, when I attended a celebration of film critic J. Hoberman’s thirty-year tenure at the Village Voice. I suppose I should have been tipped off by the borough’s retina-scorching holiday lawn art, but this was news to me. Given that both Hoberman and his legendary predecessor Andrew Sarris grew up in Queens, however, and that the evening’s venue, the noble Museum of the Moving Image, is in Astoria, the proclamation by chief curator David Schwartz that we were sitting in the heart of film culture had, at least, some provisional validity. The Mets, the Ramones, film culture . . . why not? MC Shan once sold a lot of records and started an interborough battle by claiming that hip-hop began in Queensbridge, so, for tonight, let’s just pretend.
Soon after Schwartz gave big ups to the borough, he began to praise the evening’s honoree, noting that Hoberman’s top-ten lists were great and offering one of his own. He spoke so quickly that I couldn’t catch all ten, but he did reveal to the uninitiated that the iconic J. stands for Jim. This after a joke relating how, in response to a Hoberman review of Shoah, an anti-Semitic reader wrote, “I know what the J. really stands for.” This got big laughs. Next, Schwartz introduced Hoberman’s interlocutor for the evening, New York Times film critic and comrade-in-initials A. O. Scott, who was, I realized when looking at the program, in my college class. I probably should be jealous of his cushy job, his free movie tickets, his Cannes junkets, but I didn’t know the guy back then, so I guess I’ll be high-minded and say, “Go, A. O., go.” All praises due to the alma mater. If only the career counseling office were still open to twenty-year alumni.
A. O. took the stage, looking like a close relative of Thomas Frank. (An obscure physical reference, I know, but film critics don’t look like movie stars; they look like other writers.) He noted that he was once mistaken for Hoberman on a reserved seating list at Cannes (the initial thing, I guess). He briefly introduced J., who then appeared onstage, looking like a writer, but not a known one. A. O. mentioned J.’s essay “The Film Critic of Tomorrow, Today” and read a paragraph from it aloud, saying that it served as inspiration for the younger critic. He talked about the 1970s American film renaissance that Hoberman grew up during and asked J. what that was like. Hoberman, in a slight borough accent, described the wealth of repertory theaters and grindhouses available to the film-obsessed New York teen and went on to say that the “mythologized” era was coming to a close by the time he took up the critic’s pen. His first Voice review was of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, then playing to stray weirdos at Cinema Village in 1977. J. and Jonathan Rosenbaum would go on to write Midnight Movies, a book about the dying era of the cult film, which became a calling card for both critics.
Left: Filmmaker Albert Maysles with Rochelle Slovin. Right: Museum of the Moving Image chief curator David Schwartz.
A. O. then posed the film critic’s dilemma: underpaid cheerleader or serious historian? J. responded that there is such a thing as film culture, and it should be treated with the same spirit of inquiry and breadth of analytic reference as any body of history. A. O. asked what happened to the historical-reclamation project that drove Cahiers du Cinéma and auteur-theory film criticism. J. replied that today it is usually artists who resurrect and champion forgotten old movies, though he noted that Donnie Darko followed the cult-movie pattern—opening to tepid reviews, closing quickly, but playing at certain repertory houses for months on end until it built up an obsessive fan base. The two then got into current movies. J. said that No Country for Old Men was “academically constructed”—not exactly a pejorative, but close. A. O. countered that I’m Not There—one of Hoberman’s top ten for 2007—also seemed academically constructed, straight out of the Brown semiotics department. Ho, ho! Academically constructed humor. A. O. said he is impressed by J.’s use of history to write about film and vice versa. J. responded that “movies are like time capsules” and cited Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler as a foundational text that shaped this aspect of his criticism. “Reagan made this obvious,” he added.
The two critics discussed the evening’s screening, Julia Loktev’s low-budget, claustrophobic suicide-bomber thriller, Day Night Day Night, another of Hoberman’s 2007 picks. Loktev is in the audience, they noted. Then, unceremoniously, the two men thanked each other and parted. The audience was treated to two shorts—a 1977 Situationist-style film by Hoberman that scores quick-cut close-ups of Maoist propaganda art with an old recording of “Shanghai Lil,” and a nighttime documentary of 1967 Times Square by Rudolph Burckhardt. Day Night Day Night began, and while it was very promising, I decided to leave during the five-minute sequence of the suicide bomber scrubbing, shaving, and cutting her toenails. My stomach was rumbling, so I bid ta-ta to Tinseltown and walked out onto the grim Steinway Strip, where it was raining.