Left: Curator Francesco Bonami. Right: Elizabeth Dee director Jayne Drost, artist Mika Tajima, and dealer Elizabeth Dee. (Photos: Joanne Kim/X Initiative)
AN APOCALYPTIC MONSOON SEASON in Manhattan abated briefly on Tuesday, just in time for the apocalyptic opening of “No Soul For Sale,” a five-day “festival” in Chelsea for thirty-eight nonprofit and independent art spaces and publications from all over the world. The participation-by-invitation event was conceived as an ecstatically rudderless convocation—with taped borders on the floor as its only curatorial affect—by X-Initiative, a yearlong not-for-profit exhibition experiment in the old Dia space on Twenty-second Street. It took the hungry crowd thirty minutes to conjure a Bosch-like hell scene out of this engineered informality. By the time I had pawed to the fourth floor, an amused text came through with the news that Francesco Bonami was squashed between a crowd and a guard at the now-barricaded entrance, and though an envoy was sent to his rescue, one can only wonder when the super-curator last had to wait in a hot throng of haircuts and free-beer enthusiasts. I had just passed Maurizio Cattelan, safely wedged, but just about as stuck, in a stairwell corner.
An international art fair stripped of musty and intractable affiliations, godhead collectors, and daily sales goals, “No Soul” would grow to figure out what it was, live, as the evening unfolded, and for this the X team should be applauded. The fact that most people wanted to go to the roof and hang out there drinking their promotional coconut water for the whole evening, as they did in the hundreds, spoke mostly to the fact that New York hadn’t soaked in a real sunset in what felt like weeks. Yet while watching an absent solo display of grinning and faint staggering from Brian Kerstetter, the unhinged star of Olaf Breuning’s glorious Whitney Biennial contribution last spring, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this idle rooftop scene was quite what the top-class PR firms heavily promoting this event were hired in hopes of providing.
A chopped-up compilation of historical video art care of a group named B’L’ing (pronounced “bootlegging” on the night) was projected behind the Rhizome desk. “They got permission to use this footage from all the artists’ estates,” said the organization’s righteous ambassador, twice, before the inquirer on the other side noted, “That’s not exactly bootlegging, then.” I feared it wouldn’t take many more wags before they struck that line from their pitch, but this was a sweet exchange indicative of the affair: Without the cues, rules, and stakes of explicit commerce—space was supplied to exhibitors free of charge—amateur blunders were there for the making. “This was not supposed to be a performance,” Stefano Cernuschi from Mousse happily confided as we watched Ian Tweedy finish a photorealistic self-portrait on the wall. No one from the Milanese magazine saw the point in being too fussed over it.
With the absence of an ante, unheard-of in New York, the majority of locals in attendance took a deliciously “whatever” stance. X-Initiative advisory-board member Gabrielle Giattino was mentally miles away, markedly more concerned with Kai Althoff and Brandon Stosuy’s elaborate show opening at her minuscule DISPATCH space in Chinatown on Sunday than with her “No Soul” display. “The rest of these haven’t come back from Basel yet,” she said, waving vaguely at the incomplete print portfolio leaning against the wall. She scrunched her brow for further explanation but could only manage a going-nowhere “you know” to express exactly how interested she is in the rigmarole of international capitalism. This is not how you hustle a client.
Artists Matt Keegan and Fia Backström buddied up and hugged the walls, sidestepping shrews who were somehow able to see their many friends while at no point doing anything more than “leaving.” Jordan Wolfson, hovering by Barcelona’s Latitudes, took several prods before he could even remember that he was participating in a group show with healthy buzz opening at I-20 Gallery round the corner later in the week. Eventually waking up to the idea that he was a professional artist talking to a writer, Wolfson pointed at a nearby projector. “I lent that to them,” he volunteered with a goofy puff of pride. “That’s my claim to fame.” With competition for the “Who cares?” prize as fierce as this, it took a languidly heroic trifecta from White Columns to take the cake. Director Matthew Higgs was diagonal on a folding chair, an industrial floor fan pointed at him alone, lost in his display of works from Oakland’s Creative Growth Art Center. “This work makes me happy, so I’m happy,” was all the plain Zen the man needed to offer from his seat that night.
SOME PEOPLE HAVE MONEY AND NO TASTE. Greek collector Dakis Joannou has both and knows how to share the wealth. Last week he and his wife, Lietta, played host to scores of art pilgrims arriving in Athens for four days of events that culminated in a happening staged by Matthew Barney on the island of Hydra, involving a collaboration with Elizabeth Peyton, a herd of goats, a sacrificial shark, and all the natural beauty anyone could ever want.
Joannou’s program got its start in Athens, with the opening of “A Guest + A Host = A Ghost,” an exhibition that New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni culled from the inventory of the Deste Foundation, where the bulk of the construction tycoon’s provocative collection resides in white-box splendor. Stationing themselves just inside Deste’s door, built to resemble a cargo hold, the Joannous shook the hands and bussed the cheeks of nearly two hundred guests arriving from Venice, Basel, and a disco-feverish gay-pride march that had taken place downtown the previous afternoon, following a preview of the second Athens Biennale.
The Deste reception––technically for artists in the show like Andro Wekua and Maurizio Cattelan––was surprisingly low-key for a gathering that brought together Tate director Nicholas Serota, the New Museum’s Lisa Phillips, and MoMA’s Kathy Halbreich with dealers Barbara Gladstone, Jeffrey Deitch, Anton Kern, and Eva Presenhuber, not to mention auction-house rivals Amy Cappellazzo and Tobias Meyer. Curators and consultants Christian Rattemeyer, Aphrodite Gonou, Mark Fletcher, and Kim Heirston were on hand, too, as were Peyton’s exes Rirkrit Tiravanija and Tony Just, who showed up to support her participation, as did Gavin Brown gallerymates Rob Pruitt and Jonathan Horowitz. Ashley Bickerton and the team of Tim Noble and Sue Webster came for the hell of it. And why not? Onetime-only experiences like these are theater, not life, and therefore both elevating and desirable.
“I don’t know which is more fascinating, Wekua or his work,” said Bickerton, making his first acquaintance with both. “I could wake up to this piece every day of my life and still love it,” enthused dealer Javier Peres about Wekua’s motorized wax sculpture of a half-dressed schoolboy missing its genitals. Peres, along with a number of other galleries, was participating in ReMap 2, a smart, eclectic, independently organized flowering of exhibitions and events taking place in the decrepit Kerameikos-Metaxourgeio district of Athens, better known for its brothels and drug trade. Naturally, artists now live there, too.
The brainchild of developer Iasson Tsakonas, ReMap 2 was among the most engaging projects of the week. Though the cab driver who took me there with architect Miggi Hood told us to be sure we got out of there before dark—the “immigrants,” as he put it, were dangerous—our walk down its villagelike alleys and into exhibitions in abandoned buildings with director Effie Komninou reminded me of the first Gramercy Art Fair, the forerunner to the Armory Show in the then-shabby Gramercy Hotel, and the East Village in the ’80s—and so felt more like home than anything else we did. Artist-altered bicycles were available for tooling around the exhibitions, which included an outdoor screening room. Photojournalist Ramzi Haidar’s work with Palestinian refugee children had a terrific, roll-up-the-gates installation at Zakira Gallery’s space in a vacant apartment building. Johann König introduced Polish conceptualist Alicja Kwade, London's Ibid Projects had two floors of edgy sculpture and painting, and the Breeder, one of two well-established galleries in the area (Rebecca Camhi is the other), was showing work by New Yorker Lizzi Bougatsos.
Left: Dealer Jeffrey Deitch with collector David Teiger. Right: Dealer Javier Peres.
In fact, it’s hard to say what the biggest draw was: Joannou, the confluence of art events in Athens, or the Barney-Peyton combo. Collector Jean-Pierre Lehmann had high praise for Joannou, who tends to favor work in any medium that probes the darker reaches of the human psyche. “Dakis is the best private collector I know,” Lehmann said. “He leaves people like Pinault in the dust.” Judging from the presence of connoisseurs like Marion Lambert, Panos and Sandra Marinopoulos, Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Andy Stillpass, Laura Skoler, David Teiger, Julia Stoschek, and the entire Rubell family of Miami, I don’t think anyone there would have argued. Certainly not the three fashionable sisters from Bahrain who traveled with ten large suitcases, the better to change their fantastic flounces and five-inch heels three times a day.
Piling into waiting taxis, the caravan moved from the opening at Deste to dinner at the Joannou residence in the Athenian hills. No one was discreet about prowling through the house to check out the art. Dealer Carol Greene, dressed in nearly the same blue suit as Charles Ray’s Woman, posed for pictures with the giant figure. It was startling to enter under Cattelan’s stuffed horse, and fascinating to see that artist’s barefoot JFK lying in state in a home where it was impossible not to sit on a fabulous example of ’60s Italian furniture, which the Joannous also collect. “Never leave me alone in this house,” MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach warned. “I would just want to steal everything.”
He would need a container ship. Instead, shuttle buses came next morning to take the group, still recovering from a night of flowing ouzo and dancing before Jeff Koons’s red Balloon Dog, to the Museum of Cycladic Art, to see an exhibition by six finalists for the Deste Prize, awarded every two years to an emerging Greek artist. This was less tedious than it sounds. With half the institution located in a nineteenth-century mansion––one of the few buildings left in Athens that is not made of indecorous concrete––the show had pleasant surprises for everyone. Afterward, those who didn’t need an injection of caffeine from the museum café were in for an even bigger surprise: the finest collection of Cycladic figures in the world and, weirdly, a Thomas Struth show selected by the artist.
From there it was off to the biennial, titled “Heaven,” actually six discrete exhibitions of international art by as many curators installed in a Kafkaesque maze of a building that had been built for the 2004 Olympics. It was hot and airless in this wasteland, and many in the company wandered out of Cay Sophie Rabinowitz’s section to a café serving iced-coffee frappes. “This is a lot more interesting than the Deste Foundation show,” said one curator, who gave the thumbs-up to “Hotel Paradies,” a section of the biennial organized by Athens-based Nadja Argylopoulou.
Joannou’s largesse grew supreme on Hydra, where the group grew to over three hundred (not counting the island’s population of stray cats) for a dinner honoring Barney and Peyton in an open-air taverna. The two artists sat with Joannou, Tiravanija at another table with consultant Doris Robbs, and Tobias Meyer at a table way in the back with his London associate Oliver Barker. David Teiger offered the evening’s only toast—to Joannou—with a quote from Carly Simon: “Dakis, nobody does it better.” Big applause. There was no discussion of what would transpire the next day, which required the assembled party to rise before dawn for the 6 AM start of the Barney-Peyton show, Blood of Two. “Only Matthew could get the art world up at 5 AM,” said Deitch, shaking his head.
Left: Artist Juergen Teller and dealer Sadie Coles. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Artist Elizabeth Peyton.
Unable to contain their excitement, dealer Max Wigram, Noble, and Bickerton spent the rest of the night in the Pirate Bar on the harbor and were still swigging beers or gin and tonics when the rest of us reached a rocky point above a cove, about a twenty-minute walk from the main port of Hydra, where the performance was to begin. And there we sat, watching the sun rise over the lapis-blue Aegean and waiting. For a time, the only action came from those jostling for position on a stone wall above a ravine sloping down to the sea. Finally, a boat pulled into the cove, and a couple of divers went into the water. “They’re going to bring it up now,” said Gavin Brown director Corinna Durland, declining to say what “it” might be. “It’s been down there for two months.” After an indeterminate pause, we could see one diver pulling on a rope attached to a winch on the boat.
This went on for quite a while. Eventually, what looked like a table emerged from the water and was placed on the boat, which then put into shore. Ten Greek laborers in T-shirts and jeans roped the table––actually a bronze display case weighing 750 pounds––as if it were a calf and lifted it onto land, hauling it up a zigzagging stone staircase to the road. Watching them struggle to lift this piece of Barneymania up the slope was almost painful, though the sight kept Juergen Teller glued to his camera. Whenever the ropes slipped out of the men’s hands or one lost his footing, it was clear that the process could crush them. Suddenly, a herd of goats and a few lambs appeared on the road, their bells tinkling, and the whole scene began to feel like an outtake from a Bresson movie.
Left: A view of the performance for Blood of Two. Right: Dealer Carol Greene and artist Rob Pruitt.
Then the pallbearers––it was difficult to think of the laborers as anything else––reached the road and placed Barney’s bier on a donkey cart. By this time, we could see five framed drawings under the glass top of the vitrine, which had taken on water. Two of the men appeared carrying a smallish dead shark (a dogfish) and placed it on top. Everyone with a camera closed in on the cart, now hitched to a donkey, and accompanied it in a funereal procession along the coastline toward what was once the island’s slaughterhouse, but is now a Deste Foundation project space, dodging animal droppings all the way. “This road is a perfect metaphor for life,” Gioni commented. “It’s steep and full of shit.”
Inside the slaughterhouse, on a promontory over the sea, a framed still life by Barney and a drawing by Peyton were hanging in former stalls. In the main room, where there was space for only about fifty witnesses, three of the men worked to get the glass top off the bier. At one point, Peyton craned her neck to check out the drawings in their watery case. “They’re still there,” she whispered to Barney. “The cat looks good.” At last, we could hear water rushing out of the vitrine and down the blood drain to the sea, and the men lifted the glass. Barney looked at his watch. “Just about two hours,” he said to Peyton. “Not bad. After all, there’s a limit to how long you can ask people to wait.” Coming from the king of slow, this seemed even more astonishing than the event.
With the glass removed, the drawings became more legible as they dried. By evening, when Joannou’s organization set a single long table for three hundred in the road above the slaughterhouse, they took on a beautiful glow. Dinner went on for a few hours as the shark roasted on a spit till the flesh fell from its bones. “OK, when I count three, everyone clap,” said Gioni. And when we did, the applause moved up and down the table in waves, though no one knew exactly what they were appreciating. It was everything, really. The art, the spectacular sunset, the food, Joannou, and, at least for some of us, our transformation from jaded personalities into humble acolytes. Next year, the slaughterhouse commission will go to another artist, most likely Cattelan. Whoever it is will have a hard act to follow.
A couple days later, walking along the road I passed a large woman with an extraordinary face, a dark mustache, and unruly gray hair. “Are you going to the exhibition?” she asked. I nodded. “That’s good,” she said. “I think it is very good.”
Left: João Fernandes, director of the Serralves Museum. Right: António Gomes Pinho, head of the Serralves Foundation, and Aníbal Cavaco Silva, the president of Portugal. (All photos: Miguel Amado)
THE TENTH ANNIVERSARY PARTY of the Serralves Museum in Porto was so highly anticipated that on the eve of the event even the art crowds in Lisbon were abuzz. In the Portuguese art world, there are few major occasions for celebration, and after the memorable openings of the Ellipse Foundation in 2006 and the Museum Berardo Collection in 2007, last year’s gap left the protagonists of this increasingly vibrant scene anxious. I arrived at the Serralves with the stylish artist Joana Vasconcelos and Spanish curator Agustin Pérez Rubio on the Friday before the Venice Biennale, just in time to catch the official announcements by the head of the Serralves Foundation, António Gomes de Pinho, and Aníbal Cavaco Silva, the president of Portugal.
Gathered around Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s large sculpture of a red shovel, the crowd listened attentively, remarking on Pinho’s demand for more state and private support. The speeches and the events were directed more toward the future than the past. Fittingly, Tate Modern director Vicente Todolí (former director of the Serralves) and artist Miroslaw Balka strolled the galleries alone, instead of with the official group, itself composed of João Fernandes (who replaced Todolí in 2003), Cavaco Silva, and the minister of culture, José António Pinto Ribeiro. Others trailed behind, including the centenarian filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira and Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa, the well-known president of Porto’s soccer team.
Walking around the galleries, I couldn’t help but notice artist José Pedro Croft discussing his work with a friend, while the prime minister’s cultural adviser, Alexandre Melo, observed some works that he had once selected for the collection of a now-collapsing bank and that were bought by the Serralves over the past few years. Given its small acquisitions budget, the Serralves has always relied on corporate and individual donors to build a collection, a fact made manifest by the current display, which focuses largely on small-scale, individual works mostly dated from the 1960s to the ’80s.
Left: Dealers Manuel Santos and Filomena Soares. Right: Curator Filipa Oliveira and dealer Cristina Guerra.
The presentation of the collection, the first survey since the opening of the Serralves, prompted comments of both enthusiasm and disappointment. Someone remarked nastily on the Tony Cragg sculpture in the main room, while dealer José Mário Brandão, who represents the estate of Lygia Pape, was more than happy with the display of her Ttéia. Nevertheless, visitors stressed the museum’s increasingly old-fashioned character, frequently mentioning the lack of emerging artists.
At the open-air reception, I didn’t spot any of the young hedge-fund collector types who populated Lisbon’s gallery openings before the recent market crash. More surprising, though, was the conspicuous absence of several established Lisbon-based and international artists, curators, and dealers, perhaps evidence of the museum’s tenuous bonds beyond the city. London-based dealer Anthony Reynolds was one of the few foreign guests that I recognized, and he spent the evening accompanied by his daughter.
By 10 PM, I began to wonder when the feast would be served. To my dismay, I found that the finger food we’d been snacking on all evening was the dinner. “It’s not that the starters are not good,” said a Porto dealer, “but in Portugal a meal is never made only of snacks.” Someone noted that artist Pedro Cabrita Reis had even skipped the reception once he’d heard of the menu; it simply wasn’t good enough for his gourmet tastes. For those—such as Jorge Barreto Xavier, the jovial head of the Portuguese Arts Council—who stayed to dance to the inspiring yet traditional sounds of Real Combo Lisbonense, the night continued until 4 AM, while some artists (including Manuel Santos Maia) who prefer to hang out in Porto’s clubs managed to entertain themselves well beyond dawn. There are ways, one found, to salvage even the most unglamorous festivities.
Left: Tate Modern director Vicente Todolí. Right: Dealer Anthony Reynolds (right) and daughter.
THE MOST ENTERTAINING ACTIVITY of the past two weeks, as one raced from Venice to Basel, was comparing the vastly differing points of view over the same subjects. Thanks to globalization, which has multiplied the number of countries and artists represented at the fairs and exhibitions, the most diligent marathon runners (artists, dealers, critics, collectors) ended up a bit confused. They seemed most flustered when it came time for one of their favorite activities: judging. There were no clear standards, and what was “brilliant” to one person proved “disappointing” to another. “Splendid” or “vulgar,” “in” or “out”—comments varied as unpredictably as the weather, which itself oscillated between blinding sunshine and severe downpours.
Last Wednesday evening, when I went to the Basel premiere of “Il Tempo del Postino,” an event held to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the city’s eponymous art fair, someone asked me if I had an extra ticket for “Il Tempo del Cappuccino.” We all could have used some coffee, perhaps, but anyway there was only Moët champagne. “Il Tempo del Postino,” a “group exhibition” that “occupies time rather than space” (a bit like a spectacular variety show) was curated and directed by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Philippe Parreno with the help of artists Anri Sala and Rirkrit Tiravanija, and just about everyone and their dealer was in attendance. Those (myself included) who had seen the show’s original premiere at the Manchester International Festival in 2007 were ahead of the others, and I had fun making my neighbors, curator Raimundas Malašauskas and artist Mario García Torres, guess which artist made which work. Some were delighted that Matthew Barney didn’t reproduce the fist-fucking scene that caused such a controversy for the British, while others thought the work had been better with it. (This time, at the end of Barney’s contribution there was only a concert in the lobby performed with a score by Jonathan Bepler.) To keep things exciting, two new works were added to this version of “Il Tempo”: one by Thomas Demand—a projection of a film imitating rain that was “not at all interesting” for some, “absolutely fantastic” for others—and another by Fischli & Weiss featuring their well-known characters, Rat and Bear. For the latter, the pair were represented in child form, and Bear Cub and Baby Rat fiddled with a remote control and closed the stage curtain by accident.
Since the audience consisted exclusively of art enthusiasts, success was guaranteed. The public, moved to ecstasy, shouted for an encore—perhaps the first harmonious opinion this whole trip. All the contemporary art lovers were deliriously happy with Sala’s four geishas, who sang an aria from Madame Butterfly (“Now that’s an opera”), as well as with Doug Aitken’s piece, in which cattle auctioneers dispersed throughout the audience wildly rattled off numbers, their voices coming together in a crescendo of faster and faster bids, while a large onstage screen went from pitch black to bright. Most everyone agreed, too, that the show was very appropriate for a fair and much more inspiring than tiresome talk of a market “return” or “collapse.” After the performance, the artists left for the Schiesser’s, where a dinner had been organized by Fondation Beyeler director (and former Art Basel director) Samuel Keller and press rep Isabela Mora. For those who didn’t attend, the only thing open was a restaurant around the corner serving kebabs, because the three-hour show didn’t end until just before midnight.
It wouldn’t be Basel without a proliferation of parallel fairs, and like musical chairs, Design Miami/Basel found itself plopped in Hall 5 of the city’s Messeplatz convention center. Voltashow, which had once been in Voltaplatz, was moved to the Markthalle, where the Design show used to be; Bâlelatina became the Hot Art fair; Scope moved to the Sportplatz, etc. Along with artist Christian Holstad, I opted to visit the former Wartek beer factory hosting Liste, which has served as the gateway drug to the official fair for the past twelve years. If, at Art Basel, you could find miniature versions of the now-famous installations at the Venice Biennale or the Pinault Foundation (Tomas Saraceno at Tanya Bonakdar, Mike Kelley at Jablonka, Guyton\Walker at Air de Paris, among many others), that’s not quite the case at Liste. This year, as always, some found Liste to be very good, while others complained that the complexity and punk had disappeared. Those who opted to hold solo shows seemed the most satisfied. David Kordansky sold all of Elad Lassry’s photographs as soon as the fair opened, and Overduin and Kite were more than pleased with reactions to Scott Olson’s paintings.
But the art public wasn’t just there for the fairs. The Schaulager, which always organizes a brunch to lure in the famished tourists, this year presented part of the collection of the Kunstmuseum. Most of the works came from the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation (to which the Schaulager belongs), and the show got plenty of attention. Public opinion was much less mitigated about these chefs d’oeuvre, and everyone was amazed to discover that all the works, from Hans Holbein to Wolfgang Tillmans, had been purchased as soon as they had been produced. (Holbein was a longtime Basel resident, and the Kunstmuseum has the largest collection of his works in the world.) Danh Vo’s show at the Kunsthalle was a hit, and alternative spaces, such as the one hosted by New Jerseyy, a collective of artists and curators (Daniel Baumann, Tobias Madison, Emanuel Rossetti, and Dan Solbach), also proved very popular. The evening that Ida Ekblad painted a storefront window and Nils Bech sang a cappella on a ladder was a must-attend, as was the launch of Provence, a new magazine about art hobbies produced by a group of young dandies from Frankfurt’s Städelschule.
On Saturday, after all the madness, I made my way to Dinard, in Brittany, where François Pinault was showing yet another part of his collection. (How much remains?) The show, curated by Caroline Bourgeois, couldn’t be more different from the one at the Dogana and Palazzo Grassi. First of all, the Palais des Arts, where it was held, is a much smaller space (eighty-six hundred square feet), and it is designed for a local public that is less accustomed to contemporary art, which can sometimes be rather provocative. One local newspaper ran the headline “A Shocking Exhibition.” Much more intimate, this show, cheekily titled “Who’s Afraid of Artists?,” features seven sections, ranging from “Around Minimalism,” with classics by Flavin, Manzoni, and Agnes Martin, to “Afraid of Death,” with Maurizio Cattelan’s sculpture of Pope John Paul II being hit by a meteorite and a series of works by Damien Hirst offering evidence of one of the collector’s obsessions: skulls. Pinault, who has always spoken with pride about his simple Breton origins, was welcomed like a prodigal son by a large crowd of badauds that also came to greet ex-president Jacques Chirac and the actress Salma Hayek, who was beaming and holding the arm of Pinault’s son. Very few gallery owners or artists attended this very personal exhibition, and there was little idle chatter at the opening. It seemed as though the great collector had decided to return to his roots modestly, a (relatively) simple, uncomplicated end to June’s festivities.
BASEL IS THE KIND OF RELENTLESSLY PLEASANT small city in which, returning late from a party, one might encounter (as I did) a lone police car pausing to allow a pair of injured, wayward ducks to cross the road. There’s a lovely circus, the Knie, on the Messeplatz, and discerning art executives make a special point of reserving rooms in the Ramada that look down into it, so that they can wake up and contemplate the zebras. There are places called Don’t Worry, Be Happy Bar and Friends Bar, the latter decorated with posters from the eponymous television show. Where is the traction for cynicism, irony? (Consider: This is where Nietzsche fell ill.) Perhaps this is why such attitudes have to be regularly imported, in large doses, in the form of a giant modern and contemporary art fair.
On Monday night, the eve of the fortieth Art Basel, the collecting class and its attendants made the annual pilgrimage to the city’s leviathan convention center for the vernissage of the fair’s “curated” project sections, Art Statements and Art Unlimited. There were no particularly prominent fetes scheduled for Art Basel’s ruby anniversary, yet the mood seemed remarkably sanguine. (Champagne will do that for you.) Marc Spiegler, sporting spotless white Swear shoes (he buys a new pair every Basel), and Annette Schönholzer, the fair’s directors, greeted guests at the gate. Spiegler was alert and upbeat. “With this job, it takes a lot for me to lose sleep.”
Of the two sections, most saved their praise for Art Unlimited, the part of the fair that features large-scale solo projects. It did have some exceptional moments. A beautiful collection of Roni Horn self-portraits sat in a room across from a complete, 126-photo set of Nan Goldin’s “Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” Another room was dedicated to tawny new “Cloud” paintings by Sigmar Polke; a single Nubian meteorite sat in the middle, anchoring the space. “You’d be surprised how many meteorite connoisseurs there are here,” noted Michael Werner director Gordon VeneKlasen.
Left: Michelle Rubell, Olivia Rubell, Jason Rubell, dealer Lisa Spellman, Don Rubell, and Mera Rubell. Right: Brad Pitt.
“I usually sneak into the fair early, but this year I thought, why bother?” said an art adviser that night at a dinner for Yoshitomo Nara hosted by galleries Blum & Poe, Marianne Boesky, and Tomio Koyama. The next morning, though, at just a little after the fair’s 11 AM start, the same adviser complained that they’d just missed nabbing a new Robert Ryman at PaceWildenstein. It seemed an auspicious sign; the spirit of competition was in full force, and word of more sales spread throughout the day. Brad Pitt (being led around on an “educational” tour by collector Alan Hergott) bought a large Neo Rauch at David Zwirner for nearly a million dollars. Christoph Büchel sold a spare set of keys to his home in Basel for $140,000 at Hauser & Wirth. (The buyer can use the house whenever they like, for life.) The first collaboration between Takashi Murakami and pop star Pharrell Williams, a sculpture of a manga-ish monster gnawing on jewel-encrusted detritus (a bag of Doritos, a Magnum condom, and the like), was picked up for $2 million at Emmanuel Perrotin.
Signs of the market in recovery, perhaps, but who can say? The fair affords a view of the plumbing, but not the specific circulations of its contents. “Not spectacular, but not bad,” was dealer William Acquavella’s take. Tim Blum noted that his gallery had nearly cinched the deal on the giant $600,000 Nara house in Art Unlimited, and that otherwise they were selling roughly a piece every hour. It sounded as though the wheels were turning, and faster than they had at the last Frieze or Art Basel Miami Beach. “It’s important to stay positive!” jested Swiss curator Giovanni Carmine. An apotropaic bowl of cherries at Anthony Reynolds gallery echoed the sentiment. (Then there was the young freelance adviser who spurted that it all seemed “just like 2007!” At the time, of course, she was seated across from Pharrell Williams at an HSBC dinner at the Restaurant Schlüsselzunft—not exactly the view from the ground.)
BYE BYE TO BLING read the kick-off headline for the daily Art Newspaper report. The statement was positioned directly above a detail of Andy Warhol’s awe-inspiring, $74 million Big Retrospective Painting, to which Bruno Bischofberger had dedicated his entire booth. (The roughly thirty-six-foot-long canvas, made in 1979, is surely too large to meaningfully reproduce in print.) “This is the sort of work that people would travel to see in a museum,” Bischoffberger stated. “It’s another Guernica.”
Even if “glitter is out,” snobbery still prevails. “I never remember artists’ names until they show at Barbara Gladstone,” one artist was told. Some of the best works at this fair, though, were those that were skeptical of commerce. Damien Hirsts were less conspicuous, but the venerable collective General Idea seemed to be everywhere, with “Achromes” at Esther Schipper and an Art Premiere project (the group’s first film, God Is My Gigolo, made in 1969, before they were even officially a group) hosted by Galerie Frédéric Giroux. Their 1989 AIDS Sculpture was also being “honored” with a Public Art Project on the Messeplatz. “It’s strange to see the work here, within the circumference of the market,” one of the group’s cofounders, A. A. Bronson, admitted. “But then General Idea was always about being critical and complicit simultaneously.”
Two low-key personal favorites harked back to a particularly salient art/fashion moment: Karen Kilimnik’s 1996 fangirl video collage Kate Moss at 303 Gallery offered a nice parallel to Bernadette Corporation’s 1995 video Fall Winter ’95 down the hall at Greene Naftali. The latter comprises actual footage from the art collective’s fashion show that same year at CBGBs; coincidentally, for those who keep score, trendsetter Carol Greene wore Bernadette Corporation to the opening of her space in Chelsea in 1995.
Art Basel isn’t for schlubs; it’s typically a good-looking crowd. But by 8 PM, after nine uninterrupted hours at the fair, most everyone was feeling ragged. One all-male clique trotting down the aisles looked too pretty and pulled together, then, to be just another gaggle of collectors—and anyway, these ones had guards. Without warning, the sea of men parted to reveal a familiar visage, replete with iconic black sunglasses and white ponytail. Otherwise soigné gallery directors gasped and pulled out their camera phones. (Brad Pitt was a “sighting”; Karl Lagerfeld constituted an event.) The venerable designer paused at Gavin Brown’s booth long enough to consider Rob Pruitt’s wall of deadpan paintings featuring “celebrity” signatures (Mike Bloomberg, Rachel Harrison). “Look,” Brown said, leading Lagerfeld toward a canvas. “We put yours above Claudia Schiffer’s.”
Spent from our brief brush with legend-hood, we split the fair with all intentions of heading home. But a forty-dollar taxi ride later and we were at Das Schiff, a large boat-cum-restaurant/club on the river. We’d just missed the dinner for Murakami and Pharrell Williams, but the Le Baron afterparty was hitting its stride. There were a few recognizable collectors (Jason and Michelle Rubell, Maria Baibakova) and dealers, but the crowd appeared to be mostly random rich Baselistas. Le Baron put on Pharrell’s pop classic “Frontin’,” which seemed cheeky until Pharrell himself grabbed a microphone and began to sing along. The crowd cheered and an impromptu concert began. Larry Gagosian and Jay Jopling exchanged high-fives. Pharrell played the audience with shout-outs to Murakami and his dealers. “When Art Basel’s in the house, drop it like it’s hot, drop it like it’s hot, drop it like it’s hot . . .” Party like it’s 2007.
Left: Karl Lagerfeld. Right: Dealer William Acquavella.
ANYONE VISITING VENICE will tell you that La Serenissima is a hypnotic place. That may be because it has a native population whose average age is fifty and who is willing to change only when forced. Never mind the muscle-flexing water-taxi drivers. The pace of life is so unhurried that there is little profit in rushing from place to place when an interminable ride on a sardine-packed vaporetto will get you there, too. Someday.
Local custom, however, does not explain why the fifty-third edition of the Venice Biennale should provide so lethargic an experience of contemporary art. Lines at the American, French, Romanian, Danish, and Nordic pavilions may have been long during previews last week, but most old dogs on the beat felt more compelled to scavenge invitations for collateral events the way greyhounds do for scraps in Giardini, Steve McQueen’s restricted-access nature film at the British pavilion. My own visit began last Thursday with a buffet lunch for 150 on the terrace of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection hosted by Arts Council Korea and Eungie Joo, the New Museum curator who organized the venetian-blind intervention at the Korean pavilion, “Condensation: Haegue Yang.” It attracted an international mix of people whose competing relationships often make for better exhibitions than does much of the art they represent.
Tables here were like islands in the lagoon, only divided by affiliation instead of water––half Korean, half American. As Joo shepherded Yang through a sunny crowd, New Museum–identified guests like Richard Flood, Lisa Phillips, and Stephanie French sat near one another while Studio Museum chief Thelma Golden shared a table with her London-based fashion-designer husband, Duro Olowu, artists Glenn Ligon and Isaac Julien, and dealer Shaun Caley Regen.
When this started feeling too much like home, I hopped a boat to Daniel Birnbaum’s “Making Worlds” and was still outside the cavernous Arsenale section when I spotted Robert Storr, director of the 52nd Biennale, sitting at a café beside artist Joan Jonas, with whom he was about to give a talk. Massimiliano Gioni picked the same spot to meet Nathalie Djurberg for their talk a bit later. It was tempting to stay and keep trading views on the art, but not five minutes into the exhibition hall I found a Stetson-topped Jeffrey Deitch promoting Miranda July’s Eleven Heavy Things, an installation on a distant lawn.
Left: Artist Joan Jonas with curator Rob Storr. Right: Editor Tina Brown.
Whitney curator Shamim Momin was lounging among friends on a hillock watching Kunsthalle Zurich director Beatrix Ruf pose for photographs at each of July’s sculptures, white cast-fiberglass adaptations of the sort of carnival cutouts where people put their heads on painted outsize bodies and have their pictures taken. July’s versions have captions like THIS IS NOT THE FIRST HOLE MY FINGER HAS BEEN IN.
“I make films and write stories,” July said, “but this way people can come and take their pictures with my work and send it around the world on the Internet. Isn’t that great?” Possibly, but mostly because it was less full of itself than the “private” reception for several hundred inaugurating the seventeenth-century customs house known as the Punta della Dogana, one of two semiprivate museums showing off François Pinault’s empire of trophy art in Venice.
The building, ingeniously renovated as an art space by architect Tadao Ando, sits on the point of an island facing the Bay of San Marco, opposite the celebrity-burdened hotel, Il Palazzo. The sunset event was really just a name-dropping opportunity that attracted everyone of importance in Pinault’s several companies, which include Gucci Group and Christie’s. So Naomi Campbell was probably required to be there, as was Stella McCartney, Amy Cappellazzo, and other high-ranking employees who sipped prosecco and took hits of a scrumptious seafood risotto before swanning into the building to see “Mapping the Studio,” a two-part exhibition curated by Alison Gingeras and Francesco Bonami. (The better half is in Pinault’s Palazzo Grassi, a few sweaty vaporetto stops up the Grand Canal.)
“This is like an evening sale at Christie’s,” observed Gavin Brown, gazing at a crowd that included the former empress of Iran Farah Diba, Marc Jacobs, a few Fendis, Lord and Lady Linley, and playwright John Guare with American Academy in Rome president Adele Chatfield-Taylor. American collectors joined Italian, French, and the odd Russian and every dealer Pinault had ever overpaid for an artwork: Larry Gagosian, Jay Jopling, Lorcan O’Neill, Monika Spruth, Massimo De Carlo, Eva Presenhuber, Anton Kern, and Carol Greene, among others.
Left: Dealer Larry Gagosian with Shala Monroque. Right: Curator Germano Celant.
Filling out the mostly Euro business crowd were several artists whose works were on view: Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Rachel Harrison, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Matthew Day Jackson, and Rudolf Stingel, all gussied up and loving it. The exception was Gingeras, who looked great but had to make sweet small talk to all the better-heeled guests. “I am not having a good time!” she exclaimed. “And you can quote me.”
Inside, under the original wooden beams of cathedral-height ceilings, and between new marblelike concrete walls, big works by big-name artists awaited guests who kept praising the building. The piece that attracted the most admirers, especially among the male museum guards, was the ten-foot-tall nude boy by Charles Ray that is now the Dogana’s figurehead, facing the harbor while holding aloft, between two fingers, not a beacon but a white frog, by the tail. The symbolism was lost on no one.
Hopping a friend’s water taxi across the canal, I skipped up the gold steps of the Hotel Monaco lobby to a ballroom where the PaceWildenstein Glimchers, Arne and Marc, were hosting a party for Lucas Samaras with the Benetton Group’s Alessandro Benetton and the Daily Beast’s Tina Brown, but I could stay only long enough to pick up a custom tote bag, the first of at least a dozen I collected on this trip––this was really the tote-bag biennial––before I had to hightail it to the Teatro Goldoni to catch the gala premiere of No Night No Day, an “abstract opera” by Cerith Wyn Evans and Florian Hecker.
Opera is a misnomer. There were no performers, and the music was mostly of the Cagean whoopee-cushion variety, but by the end of the fifty-minute work, which featured slowly moving dark blobs projected on a large white screen, it became quite tranquilizing. “This was about banishing perfume commercials from our lives,” the tuxedoed Wyn Evans told me when the afterparty spilled into the street. One patron, standing on the theater steps, proclaimed the piece “the most god-awful rubbish,” while another asked whether it wasn’t “the best thing you ever saw.” As commissioning sponsor Francesca von Habsburg led guests like Olafur Eliasson, Marina Abramovic, Alanna Heiss, and Angela Bulloch off to dinner, I headed for the Rialto bridge, where a water taxi was waiting to take my second pair of eyes and me to the Island of Certosa, a glorious nature preserve twenty minutes away, where Irish artist John Gerrard was giving a dinner within the ruined walls of a twelfth-century cloister.
Left: Artist Tony Conrad. Right: Artist Miranda July and Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg. (Photo: Ryan McNamara)
Today, Certosa is where Venetians build yachts and store them in winter. But this time of year, wild goats and rabbits roam through its woodlands and over its beaches––an astonishing sight in this archipelago of sinking islands unable to grow a single tree. It was easy to forget where we were, even among 120 multinational guests who came to see Gerrard’s work for the Biennale, Animated Scene, installed on three screens in a warehouse by the dock. In each animation, which takes Gerrard two years to build from archival photographs, a camera orbits a different preindustrial landscape; the work will run in real time for the duration of the Biennale, passing from day to night and season to season.
But why stop for the night when you can beg for a drink on the terrace of the Bauer Hotel, scene of nightly art-world revelries? This is where Paula Cooper can safely hold down a bottle-strewn table with Sophie Calle, Sadie Coles, and Stefan Kalmar, where artist-friendly London restaurateurs Fergus and Margot Henderson can talk about the Leicester Square Hotel they will open next year, and where Aurel Scheibler can grab the ear of Beatrix Ruf. This is the sort of open party where art-world alliances really form or divide in a nocturnal dance of power that no animation can equal.
Left: Greek-pavilion curator Matthew Higgs with artist Tomma Abts. Right: Artist Peter Fischli.
I went to bed wondering what the next day could bring. I needn’t have worried. It started with a song, literally––German lieder performed by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, whom Luhring Augustine was feting with a lunch in a soaring dining room at the Ca’ Sagredo Hotel. For his exhibition in the Palazzo Michiel dal Brusa, Kjartansson is making paintings of his collaborator, performance artist Pall Haukur Bjornsson, accompanied by live and recorded music (the DJs that night were Sigur Ros). You can always tell whether an artist is on the rise by the collectors at his or her lunch in Venice. This one included Maja Hoffman, Alan Hergott, and Beth Rudin DeWoody––an impressive crew of primary-market connoisseurs who buy what they like and like what they buy. When dessert came around, you could see Kjartansson’s prices going up.
That occasioned a trip to the Giardini, but there was no time to relax, not with the opening of the Prada Foundation’s John Wesley retrospective beckoning from the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. There the maverick octogenarian artist held court with his stalwart New York dealers Jessica Fredericks and Andrew Freiser. Frankly, Wesley’s deadpan-naughty, pink-and-blue, Blondie-style cartoon paintings never made more sense than they do here, the last place anyone would ever expect to find such two-cents-plain American art. In fact, Venice was beginning to feel like an American colony until I got back to my hotel in the Dursoduro and discovered that Toby Webster’s Modern Institute was hosting a dinner there for Glaswegian artist Martin Boyce, with dealers Tanya Bonakdar, Eva Presenhuber, and Jorg Johnen.
Johnen was ailing, which left a couple seats free at his table, beside Afterall’s Dieter Roelstraete and his wife, Monika Szewczyk, publications chief at Rotterdam’s Witte de With Contemporary Art Center. Venice is like that. A chance encounter with T Magazine’s Stefano Tonchi, walking arm in arm with Francesco Vezzoli and L’Uomo Vogue cover girl Cindy Sherman, helped me crash Gucci’s disco party at Palazzo Grassi, where McQueen had lost his mother in the enormous crush and Rob Pruitt handed out tote bags with Barbara Kruger’s I SHOP THEREFORE I AM image amended to read I SHOPLIFT THEREFORE I AM. He hoped she wouldn’t mind. “It’s an homage,” he said. “I’m not trying to rip her off.” I looked up at the frieze of Piotr Uklanski’s Hollywood Nazi headshots, at his Saturday Night Fever dance floor lighting up the palazzo atrium, and thought: Of course you’re not ripping her off. It’s Venice, and this is the life. Who ever really owns it?
WLADIMIR KLITSCHKO, the curator of Ukraine’s contribution to the 53rd Venice Biennale, couldn’t attend his own opening Thursday night, as he was preparing for a June 20 heavyweight title match. His brother, Vitali, did drop by, however, and the presence of one almost seven-foot, two-hundred-and-fifty pound boxer was enough to satisfy everyone. Artist Ilya Chichkan had decided to involve Wladimir—in name only, of course—to avoid curatorial interference in his collaboration with Japanese artist Mihara Yasuhiro, which turned Palazzo Papadopoli, site of the Ukrainian event, into a creepy fun house of drones, dim Christmas lights, and disembodied automatons, haunted by an elfin model on roller skates. In the palazzo’s garden, patron Viktor Pinchuk entertained leaders of the Moscow and Kiev art worlds and received brief visits from Jeff Koons and Naomi Campbell. The party climaxed with a performance by Verka Serdyuchka, a robust transvestite whose numbers—all klezmer-inflected tunes over leaden techno beats—included “Everything Will Be Good” and “I’m All, Like, Dolce & Gabbana.”
Outside russophone lands, Serdyuchka is best known for her 2007 second-place performance at Eurovision, a competition that, to the chagrin of pop fans from the G7, is increasingly dominated by newcomers from the East. So there was a wicked dissonance to seeing Serdyuchka live in the context of this highbrow Eurovision, where the West continues to reign despite the ever-growing ranks of third- and second-worlders. Many commented on the inclusiveness of Daniel Birnbaum’s “Making Worlds,” even if most of the included were already fluent in the Euro-American language of messily spectacular installation. One of the exceptions was Anawana Haloba’s pushcart laden with boxes, each of which was labeled with the name of an internationally valued commodity but in fact held candy. “I don’t care for sweets,” an Englishman complained.
As I walked through the Arsenale on Thursday afternoon, I saw more and more of the handsome red-and-black totes advertising the first-ever UAE pavilion. At that exhibition, the artworks proper were upstaged by world’s-fair-type displays: scale models of proposed arts districts in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and video interviews with local players about the tourism infrastructure. “People keep asking me if I was forced to show that stuff,” Tirdad Zolghadr, the pavilion’s curator, said while on a cigarette break. “Actually, I had to fight to show it.”
Inside was a placard with his name next to one for the pavilion’s commissioner, Dr. Lamees Hamdan. But during the “press conference,” their places were occupied by a much better-looking pair who conversed inaudibly as a prerecorded theater piece by performance group Jackson Pollock Bar played over the speakers. An Arab woman’s voice seemed to be defending the UAE pavilion’s right to exist against attacks from one Mr. Smith, but I could barely hear it over the commotion caused by the arrival of an Emirati aristocrat. “Who’s that sheikh?” I asked an attendant. “I don’t know,” she shrugged. “There are lots of them.”
Their distinctive white headgear dotted the crowd outside, a mass headed for the vernissage of ADACH Platform, an initiative of the Abu Dhabi cultural authority. The UAE capital politely went rogue and sponsored its own collateral show curated by Catherine David. The line for the shuttle across the narrow waterway to the Arsenale Novissimo was long. I spotted a forlorn dinghy with a little red sign for the Russian-organized “Unconditional Love,” which was located a few hundred yards west of the ADACH show, so I went there before walking down the embankment.
“Unconditional Love” has works by a dozen artists from almost as many countries, but it was all garnish for a new piece by AES+F, who outdid their appearance in the 2007 Russian pavilion by expanding their animated glamour shots to three channels on nine big screens, arranged in a panoramic circle. But even if it had been viewable from a single vantage point, I doubt it would have been any easier to follow. I recall a cruise ship, a pagoda, calisthenics, foot massages, a black man chucking a spear, and Asians in Indian headdresses shooting arrows until a tsunami killed them all and a flying saucer crashed in its wake.
By the time I reached the ADACH Platform, dozens of guests were already sacking the buffet. I trailed the (another?) sheikh’s entourage through David’s exhibition, which, like the UAE pavilion, was a meditation on urban development, only here it was filtered through the lens of critical documentary, a time-tested biennial tactic. Zolghadr’s project, on the other hand, struck that elusive balance between difference and relevance—an equilibrium that struck me as important on Friday as I looked at some of the less-visited national exhibitions. Dismayed, perhaps, by apathetic reactions to the kitsch painting at its 2007 debut, the Georgian pavilion conformed and displayed two stylishly somber videos by Koka Ramishvili. The defiant Azeris showed paintings by Tahir Salahov, a venerable socialist realist. “They exhibited my work at the Soviet pavilion in 1962,” Salahov said at a garden party hosted by Russia’s honorary consul in Venice. “But they didn’t tell me. People came up to me in the street in Moscow to congratulate me, and I wondered, ‘What for?’”
The same event had much talk of the concurrent birthday celebration for GCCC founder Dasha Zhukova aboard Roman Abramovich’s yacht. One Russian artist was boasting that he had not only attended a breakfast aboard Abramovich’s boat, he had even taken a shit in the toilet. The rest had to settle for an up-close view of another impregnable vessel, Alexander Ponomarev’s semisubmerged submarine anchored opposite François Pinault’s Palazzo Grassi exhibition space. The work of the “marine artist” (his press release’s words) was a goofy, three-dimensional counterpoint to the usual canal art—banners with platitudes, like I AM NOT HERE. —PATRICK MIMRAN or I WILL NOT MAKE ANY MORE BORING ART. —JOHN BALDESSARI. Incidentally, in the Q&A session following Baldessari’s conversation with Birnbaum in the Teatro Piccolo Arsenale, a woman asked the artist to specify what sort of art he considered boring. After a prolonged pause, he replied: “If I remember it, it’s not boring.” A dubious guideline in Venice, where the competition for a scrap of the audience’s memory is brutal and the methods used to win it often have little to do with art. But who knows? Perhaps Baldessari is a connoisseur of banquets, bellinis, and Ukrainian boxers. “Art is rice and watermelon,” said the Thai pavilion’s ad.
I ARRIVED IN VENICE late Monday night for Daniel Birnbaum’s Biennale and boarded what felt like the last vaporetto from Ferrovia. Destination: San Zaccharia and a predictably cramped and overpriced hotel. Leafing through my 2007 tourist guide for directions, I noticed a then-speculative news brief in the “Dorsoduro” chapter titled “Pinault in the Punta?” I briefly considered the tediously lubricious undertones. It seemed a bit tasteless on the book’s part, until I realized I was thinking in Spanish slang, not Italian. Still, François Pinault is indeed “in the Punta” this year, meaning the Punta della Dogana, which Tadao Ando has overhauled to accommodate the collector’s swelling art collection. My newfound faith in the guide’s prescience was only tempered by my skepticism over its current usefulness. Thankfully, change is anathema to Venice.
Bumming around the Giardini on Tuesday, the day before the first invitational preview, I found that few of the pavilions were accessible or even finished. (Some weren’t quite done by Wednesday, either. On Thursday, it seemed Guyton\Walker added a whole new component to the lobby of the newly coined Palazzo delle Esposizioni. I’m only half-willing to commit to the pun here on “installation art.”) Pinault, flanked by cool curators Alison Gingeras and Francesco Bonami, was one of the very few enjoying a private stroll through the park. From all appearances, he got a kick out of his early walk-through of Elmgreen & Dragset’s already much-buzzed-about Danish and Nordic pavilions. The winsome and expensive-looking show, titled “The Collectors,” is something of a camp satire on the market and its protagonists. (A friend jovially recalled the Ab Fab episode in which Edina sublimates her fear of dying by buying a bunch of art.) Most of the rest of the buildings were blockaded by art handlers and press teams preparing for the onslaught. “Countries with populations of over seven million won’t let anyone in this early,” said Liam Gillick, the New York– and London-based British artist who’s incongruously representing the German pavilion. “It’s a symptom of some sort of postcolonial imperialist anxiety, I’m sure.”
There wasn’t much more to see, so I walked across the bridge to the Accademia for a preview of Renzo Piano’s new additions to the Fondazione Vedova, then moved on to a buffet dinner hosted by art pranksters Piero Golia and Fabian Marta at the Spazio Culturale Svizzero, followed by a Galleria Continua afterparty at the popular pile Palazzo Pisani Moretta. The vibe was a bit weddingish, with well-heeled older Italian women grinding to Motown and disco classics. All told, a relatively low-key night.
I headed back to the Giardini at 10 AM the next day, when the first round of “professional previews” commenced. There seemed to be far fewer visitors this year—or at least recognizable ones. “I’ve only seen four people I want to avoid since I arrived,” noted curator Bob Nickas. Perhaps it’s true that, as one New York dealer buoyantly put it, “The recession has made VIP VIP again.” One heard more Italian on the boulevards, saw fewer Americans at events. Naomi Campbell was indeed in town (attending a Cipriani luncheon under the banner “MoCA New” with Eli Broad and museum trustee John Baldessari), but she seemed less ubiquitous than 2007. Didn’t see her once around the Giardini—not even for a photo op.
Unlike the last edition, when Tracey Emin, Sophie Calle, and Isa Genzken ruled three of the major pavilions, this year marks the return of the alpha male. The larger nations have all given the reins to men, a situation hardly leavened by the various collateral events. (One exception might be the new UAE pavilion, which is fronted by the stylish young photographer Lamya Gargash.) Gillick tackled the ever-difficult Albert Speer–designed German pavilion with IKEA modernism suffused with Theory. There was something to do with his cat and R. Kelly’s “Sex in the Kitchen,” though I didn’t quite catch the details. (“Some have complained about the choice,” Süddeutsche Zeitung critic Holger Liebs noted later, “but Gillick’s perhaps more German than the Germans.”) Gillick said that after much contemplation he’d decided to “embrace weakness” and leave the pavilion itself untouched. Across the path, Claude Lévêque did precisely the opposite with the French pavilion, disguising the architectural flourishes with stark, mute walls and transforming the Belle Époque building into an ambivalent, eschatological allegory (blowing black flags, claustrophobic prison bars, air conditioning turned up to a bitter chill). “I hated the Rococo architecture,” sneered the refreshingly thuggish-looking Lévêque, standing before his sparkly silver walls. His curator, Christian Bernard, was more upbeat: “Lévêque sought to seize the pavilion in a single gesture.”
Meanwhile, Bruce Nauman’s American pavilion around the corner sticks out like a sore thumb—aesthetically coarse in Nauman’s usual charming way and filled largely with heady (and hand-y) sculptures and videos from the mid-1990s. (Two attendant off-site projects were more tantalizing, though it seemed few had made it to see them.) To some, though, it was an unexpected selection of pieces. “You’ll have to ask Carlos,” Nauman shrugged, deferring to the American-pavilion curator Carlos Basualdo when pressed to discuss the show. “He chose the works.”
Left: Artist Claude Lévêque. Right: Dealer Jay Jopling.
The two apparent favorites—certainly the slickest—were Steve McQueen’s moody film Giardini for the British pavilion and the Danish and Nordic pavilions. (Sturtevant went against the grain as usual and picked Lévêque.) In what some considered an almost fascistic act of bureaucratic procedure, the Brits required prospective viewers to commit to prescheduled time slots. As we stood loitering outside the adjacent German pavilion, I reassured Michael Craig-Martin that it was a mere thirty minutes. “Half an hour?” he asked, blooming into exaggerated outrage. “That’s a lifetime.”
At the center of it all is Birnbaum’s smartly textured exhibition, “Making Worlds,” at the Padiglione Italia. (Some found the focus on globalism a bit too polite. “‘Making Friends’ is more like it,” one critic was overheard to say.) “I’ve done it before, so I knew what I was up against,” he noted, referring to his stint in 2003 as cocurator, with Bonami, of the then Italian Pavilion. The initial stretch, which featured three younger artists, could be considered something of a risk, though each carried a certain imprimatur. Guyton\Walker (Artforum covers), Tomás Saraceno (Walker solo show), and Nathalie Djurberg (Fondazione Prada beloved) form a chain leading into the pavilion’s heart. Beyond, there’s a melancholic atmosphere, with the show hosting a bevy of artists who didn’t live to reap their just rewards: Öyvind Fahlström, Gordon Matta-Clark, Blinky Palermo, André Cadere—the last of the bunch used to sneak his colorful sticks into exhibitions, guerrilla-style; now, postmortem, he’s there officially. Cruel irony.
Left: Artist Michelangelo Pistoletto. Right: Studio Museum director Thelma Golden with New Museum director Lisa Phillips.
The Elmgreen and Dragset dinner was about to begin in the extravagant Palazzo Contarini Polignac, again on the Accademia. According to the seating labels, Tate Modern curator Stuart Comer was to sit between Kim Cattrall and “Mr. Sturtevant,” though neither guest was able to attend. (Apparently, James Franco was sick with the flu in New York; Michael Stipe had to bail, too, which cleared up a few seats.) We entertained ourselves by rehearsing their prospective conversation. Would Sturtevant ask Cattrall to fake an orgasm? There was no trouble filling the seats. I couldn’t make out all the faces at the other end of the two l-o-o-ng tables, but there were more than a few of the usual troublemakers among those I could see: artists Maurizio Cattelan and Terence Koh; curators Paul Schimmel and Massimiliano Gioni; Yvonne Force-Villareal and Doreen Remen; dealers Victoria Miro, Emmanuel Perrotin, and Massimo De Carlo; Beatrice Trussardi of the Fondazione Trussardi; and, of course, the Rubells. “It looks like a Buñuel film,” said MAMbo curator Andrea Villani, peering down one of the candlelit tables. “I can’t believe so many people showed up for our wedding,” Michael Elmgreen announced, camping it up. Everyone left in good spirits, speed-walking first to the McQueen party at (again) Pisani Moretta before taking water taxis to a vaguely debauched affair at the Bauer hosted by Koh, Stefano Tonchi, and David Maupin. Everyone knew they would see each other again at the next party. I left without saying good-bye.
Left: Dealer Stefania Bortolami and Whitney curator Shamim Momin. Right: Artist Michael Craig-Martin.
MASON’S YARD IN SAINT JAMES’S was the place to be in London on Thursday night for Tracey Emin’s “Those Who Suffer Love” at White Cube, and Abraham Cruzvillegas around the corner at Thomas Dane Gallery. Economic green shoots of recovery or not, the evening provided just the high-spirited fuel injection London needed to remind itself of its indomitable upper lip and famously plucky style.
The weather was superb, the designer shades were big, the heels were death-defying, and there were mountains of décolletage as far as the eye could see—coincidence, perhaps, but I suspected homage to endowed and proud Ms. T. Emin. A steady succession of glossy, purring motors dispatched oiled and dapper Euro-men sporting size 0 arm candy. Everyone was groomed and dressed to the nines—a rare spectacle in London, where the drizzle often defeats even the most determined sartorial efforts. Vaguely familiar-looking model types pushed past aggressive bouncers while the paparazzi circled the building, unsure whom to point their cameras at first.
Celebrity interior designer Nicky Haslam, finally working “a look” befitting both his age and his enthusiasm for fashion, duly paused for some snaps. Inside, copies of One Thousand Drawings, Emin’s new limited-edition book of drawings and monoprints, were flying off the shelf faster than punters could part with their £225.
Where Emin’s work was once shocking and self-consciously “obscene,” it now seems almost quaint; its poetry has outshone its shock value. The exhibition, comprising neon, animation, sculpture, and works on paper, was beautifully hung, and even the animation of a woman (certainly the artist) masturbating felt almost PG-13.
The scene at Thomas Dane Gallery around the corner was sedate and well mannered. Mexican artist Abraham Cruzvillegas’s exhibition featured a two-screen video work of interviews with his parents, a set of drawn musical scores, and a group of sculptures. While the “assemblages” (as they were termed) could have enjoyed a bit more breathing space, overall it’s a visually tactile show, one that incorporates a cornucopia of detritus and found objects, including scrap plywood interwoven with huge aloe vera leaves and even a string of fresh limes.
By contrast, the breathing space over at the new Saatchi Gallery on the ever-trendy Kings Road was so fresh, vast, and gorgeous, it threatened to outstrip the art within. “Abstract America: New Painting and Sculpture,” an exhibition featuring works by thirty-three young American artists, apparently attracted some fifteen hundred guests that night––but it was hard to tell––the space is so huge, even that staggering number of people didn’t make a crowd.
More afterthought than afterparty, the on-site reception for the artists was something of an anticlimax after the dazzle of the gallery. Though the food was delicious and the champagne free-flowing, the small room we were ushered into was airless and unburdened by art-world heavyweights, or even many artists. Meanwhile, back at White Cube HQ, Jay Jopling hosted a celebratory dinner. Few artists could have pulled a more impressive lineup of guests. As fashion and art go hand in hand these days—Emin herself is rarely caught out underdressed—designers were de rigueur and included the iconic Vivienne Westwood, jeweler Theo Fennell, Betty Jackson, and model Natalia Vodianova, as well as fashion designer–cum-DJ and Emin gal pal Pam Hogg. Catering was masterminded by fashionable foodie Mark Hix, featuring his singular take on classic British dining––beef followed by posh jelly (Jello) and fruit.
Capping off the night was a postdinner party hosted by the artist at “her place,” though anyone hoping for a nosy glimpse of le vrai lit d’Emin was in for disappointment, as the party was in her (bedless) studio. Awaiting the arrival of the rest of the mob, I had a look around the space, where canvases were casually placed here and there on the floor, and caterers were bringing out boards laden with cheeses, biscuits, and platter upon platter of oh-so-seasonal chilled asparagus. And speaking of asparagus––every designer-clad woman coming through the door could have hidden behind a single spear.
With still no trace of Emin, guests were getting impatient, and I feared the artist was in danger of becoming one of those Gatsby-esque hosts who fail to attend her own party. But I needn’t have worried. When the hostess finally swept in and hit the dance floor, the party ramped up. The Bee Gees were stayin’ alive on the decks, and the guests followed suit. If the unsinkable Emin has been suffering love, I’m pleased to report she’s showing signs of a positive recovery.