THERE WAS A CARNIVAL FEEL to the New Museum’s Tuesday fete for the crowd-pleasing “Urs Fischer: Marguerite de Ponty.” Art-hungry hordes lined up for their dose of the uncanny, whether taking turns being shocked by Noisette, a lingual jack-in-the-box that sprung from a gallery wall, or queuing for entry to Service a la francaise, Fischer’s hall of mirrors silk-screened with images of consumer detritus rendered luminous by studio strobes.
Despite the dazzle, the three-floor show, which its curator, Massimiliano Gioni, was calling a “tour de force of perception,” also sustained deeper questions into the nature of representation. Fischer’s orthogonally reconstructed consumables played on techniques of projection and the cross section, his objects subjected to surgical incisions before being reproduced on his polished steel monoliths in five high-resolution views. A pillar of Froot Loops had been sheared across two planes, a pear cut across one side, even a cowboy boot was truncated––castrated, maybe, in a nod to the impotence of the late Bush administration. Perhaps due in part to restrictions on access (only forty guests at a time), the mirrored prisms were by far the favored work of the evening. Director Lisa Phillips staked out her place amid the stelae, beaming like a proud mother and chatting up the wide-eyed young artists (and Cindy Sherman and Chuck Close) wandering the works. “Does it make you jealous?” she teased, appraising the show.
Left: Dealer Jeffrey Deitch (left). Right: Artist Tom Sachs and New Museum director Lisa Phillips.
It seemed like half the guests had had a hand in the fabrication of the works on view (well, at least those not made in China). Fischer’s assistant, the artist Darren Bader, explained how the wallpaper that covered every surface on the third floor, including a drop ceiling with false beams constructed for the exhibition, was, in fact, a photographic copy of the space after the deinstallation of the prior show. (The almost imperceptible nail studs evidenced where David Goldblatt photographs had hung only a few weeks before.) The whole trompe l’oeil possessed a decidedly mauve cast, which, setting off what looked like a lavender soft sculpture of a piano (actually aluminum and painted by a mercenary from Jeff Koons’s studio), gave something of the effect of a chromatic afterimage.
Within the purple haze, a simultaneously quotidian and surreal sculpture of a (real) croissant, on which a mounted butterfly appears to alight, hung like a miniature moon. “Urs treats reality as if it could be Photoshopped,” Gioni asserted when I caught up with him outside the seventh-floor Sky Room. “Everything is in focus all at once.” Gioni and Fischer had put together the show in under a year, and several major decisions weren’t made until just before opening night. “Mass and Urs are like a divorced couple,” Rhizome and the New Museum’s Lauren Cornell joked in reference to the sometimes fiery relationship between the curator and the artist, both thirty-six.
Left: Artist Leo Villareal. Right: Dealer Gavin Brown and artist Hope Atherton.
According to what has by now become his custom, Fischer didn’t make an appearance at his opening, leaving the works (and the museum staff) to speak in his stead—and giving over the limelight to celebrity guests like John Waters and David Byrne. Sometime past midnight, long after I had departed the museum for the Interview-sponsored afterparty at Civetta in Nolita, I finally spotted Fischer at the bar upstairs; most everyone else, taking the lead of his dealer Gavin Brown and artist Hope Atherton, was dancing up a storm in the basement lounge. “My exhibition is still there, while everyone is asleep,” he marveled over a vodka tonic. Apparently with an eye on the show’s legacy he added, enigmatically, “In twenty or fifty years it will still be there like it is tonight.” Or perhaps he was simply stating a material fact: that he had created a show of relatively traditional sculptures that—unlike his houses of bread or gallery excavations––might indeed stick around for years to come. Except the croissant, that is.
Left: Mel Chin’s performers rehearsing for his presentation. Right: Artist Edgar Arceneaux. (All photos: Sam Horine/Creative Time)
THIS YEAR I’ve already sat through two art-related pecha kuchas—that’s the new ADD-friendly presentation format from Japan, in which people have a limited time (usually three to five minutes) to rattle through their life’s work. At the end of each speaker’s allocated slot, the next person’s PowerPoint begins, and the previous presenter has to quit the stage pronto. Pecha kucha is like a live version of channel zapping or Internet surfing—not long enough to get really bored, but also not long enough to get really interested. It’s the perfect format for the info-ravenous who crave high quantities of global-culture nuggets but don’t want to travel far from home or engage in personal dialogue.
An epic variant on the pecha kucha model took place last Saturday at the New York Public Library, in the form of Creative Time’s summit “Revolutions in Public Practice.” Each artist or collective had a relatively generous seven (!) minutes to strut their stuff; there would be no questions from the public; when the speaker’s time was up, his/her microphone would be turned down and a live musician would begin to play. This sweetly brutal device was lifted directly from the Academy Awards, but instead of a swirling orchestra, solo instrumentalists were deployed––a perky flute, a guitar, a double bass, a trumpet, and (most entertainingly) a banjo. Those speakers who finished ahead of time and avoided being drowned out by the chipper banjo kept their dignity intact; the rest were brought to a humiliating halt.
So much for the form, what about the content? Curator Nato Thompson confessed in the program’s introduction that he couldn’t really define the term “public practice,” as it encompasses everything from participatory performance to allotment squatting to socially conscious photography. Ten hours and forty presentations later and we had an amazingly comprehensive overview of the good and the bad of the genre. The ultimate artistic judgment, though, had been made the previous evening, when the Yes Men were awarded the Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change. This presented something of an ontological conundrum: The Yes Men adamantly refuse to be called artists (they prefer “activists”). And yet most of their funding comes from art institutions, and their biggest fans seem to be in the art world. Rather than denigrating the Yes Men for lack of loyalty to their paymaster, it seems more productive to view their strategic disavowal of “art” as an indication of the paltry (or, better, ornamental) status of art in US culture. As any walk around Chelsea will affirm, art made in this country is more often a career choice than an existential decision.
This, presumably, is why Thompson calls the alternative to this commercial game a “revolution” in public practice. To be honest, the revolution’s not so new: There was a striking similarity between many of the presentations and 1970s gestures of institutional escape, as well as to early-’90s “new genre” public art (the term coined by artist Suzanne Lacy, who also spoke at the summit). The big difference between then and now was the staggeringly dry and soulless language deployed by many of today’s artists who took to the podium. At countless points in the day, my eyes glazed over to the sound of earnest monologues announcing, “My practice is about creating platforms for a critical interface with overlooked spaces, networking with local communities to provide self-organized resources and coproducing social relations . . .” Aaagh!
This aside, there were some highlights. The women were particularly strong: a moving keynote by Sharon Hayes, an articulate overview of the collective Multiplicity by Francisca Insulza, a polemical presentation by WHW (What, How and for Whom), tough and concise statements by Tania Bruguera, and a rousing activist address by Laurie Jo Reynolds. The guys were hit or miss. The saintly rage of Alfredo Jaar (on Rwanda) was parried by the consummate opacity of Liam Gillick (on Volvo), while two of the most misguided art projects I have ever seen––the work of Vik Muniz and Harrell Fletcher, respectively––generated ripples of embarrassment through the audience for their reality-TV sentimentality. (Fletcher really took the biscuit: On finding out that he’d had a fifteen-hundred-dollar rug delivered twice to his home, he decided to sell the second one to an art gallery and get a grant to find the factory in India where the rug had been produced, at which point he gave this money back to the chap who said he’d made it. Tears of joy!)
As the day wore on, nuance was replaced by rally-style fervor. At the end of a particularly right-on presentation, the already-converted were keen to cheer and whoop. As such, the stick was definitely bent toward entertainment and affirmation rather than analysis and dissensus. Even the day’s most jarring juxtaposition, Gillick and the collective Temporary Services (amusingly grouped together under the evocative title “Ambiguity Is My Political Weapon”), was passed over without comment, seamlessly smoothed over with a bit of merry guitar picking. The only memorable moment of confrontation was in Lacy’s video clip of young black teenagers in a “facilitated debate” (i.e., full-on row) with white policemen in Los Angeles.
Perhaps some friction was happening upstairs in the “Conversation Room”––a large paneled chamber with free fruit and cookies––where speakers were expected to hang for an hour after speaking on stage. This innovative alternative to the Q&A format had the advantage of keeping the main hall fast-paced, but who in the student-heavy audience wanted to miss out on stars like Okwui Enwezor or Thomas Hirschhorn? Word had it that artist Gregory Sholette organized an impromptu panel discussion upstairs following his appearance onstage, but otherwise the predominant tone was of collective agreement and political consensus. In this respect, it was not unlike Thompson’s last major effort in this vein, “Democracy in America: The National Campaign,” the exhibition component of which was held last fall in a similarly majestic space, the Park Avenue Armory.
At its best, the “Revolutions” summit offered an immensely valuable overview of a wide range of engaged practices otherwise lacking visibility in New York, while the discursive format provided an appropriate alternative to the exhibition as a means of presenting this often visually evasive work. Socially, it was dynamic—and in this respect, it had much in common with the energy of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s marathons. On the other hand, the summit was only an overview and did nothing to problematize “public practice” as a direction in contemporary art. It assumed (along with many of the positions presented) that art as a discipline can and should be marshaled toward social justice. I would have liked to see more pondering of the specifically artistic competences that can be deployed toward these ends. The range of positions wheeled onstage clearly indicated that there are artistic innovators in this field who stand leagues ahead of those who laboriously rework worthy clichés. Sorting out the former from the merely well intended takes more than a pecha kucha, but at least this was a start.
IT WAS RAINING CATS AND DOGS when I landed in Turin last Wednesday for “Investigations of a Dog,” an exhibition at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. Inspired by Kafka’s eponymous short story, the show is the inaugural collaboration of FACE, a newly formed group of five European art nonprofits that also includes Athens’s DESTE Foundation; the Ellipse Foundation of Cascais, Portugal; Paris’s La Maison Rouge; and Magasin 3 of Stockholm.
Turin has a homey, sepia-toned feeling, especially when seen through the lens of a bottle of Barbera d’Alba, courtesy of an overworked hotel clerk (who was slammed with throngs of Israeli football fans). The exhibition’s premiere, held a mere fortnight before Artissima and coinciding with the opening night of FIAC in Paris, was missing all its artists save one, DeAnna Maganias, who flew in from Athens. But the nippy weather and unfortunate timing did not deter a rapt audience from filling up the house for an opening conference anchored by the host foundation’s artistic director, Francesco Bonami.
Left: Antoine de Galbert and Paula Aisemberg of Maison Rouge and curator Irene Calderoni. Right: Curators Alexandre Melo and Eleni Michailidi.
The exhibition turned out to be a wide-ranging essay on identification versus isolation, with a surprisingly spare selection of about forty works drawn from the various collections. Mark Dion’s grotesque mole, hanging limply at the entrance with a Kafka-scaled beetle peeking over its shoulder, set a tone of sympathetic/pathetic paranoia. A corresponding effigy, by (and of) Maurizio Cattelan, hung at the start of a long corridor near a similarly cartoonish Animal, by Fischli & Weiss. The most evocative works reflect the paradox of alienation within the familiar or the distortion of the prolonged stare: Maganias’s upside-down The View from Bed brings to mind the surreal bedchamber in “The Metamorphosis”; Gregor Schneider’s ink-black Das Grosse Wichsen invokes the fear of the dark that transforms personal spaces into chambers of horror. Nearby, a series of painterly photographs by Esko Mannikko portrays the meager lives of bachelors in northern Finland with a gorgeousness that only underlines their sense of isolation.
The dinner, at Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s home, was an intimate gathering of heads of some of the most interesting art institutions in Europe; it had the air of an affectionately teasing dysfunctional family. Bonami stood to deliver a toast: “Because we have so many people from uncivilized countries, I will speak English.” The rain pounding the roof of the garden tent nearly drowned him out. “I thought this whole idea was preposterous. Patrizia is a visionary, but she doesn’t know it yet because she is obsessed with table settings, and she always gets it wrong.”
Left: David Neuman of Magasin 3 and DeAnna Maganias. Right: Castello di Rivoli curator Marianna Veceillio and Gail Cochrane of the Spinola Banna Foundation.
Our hostess and roast subject looked smart with one of her vintage Trifari brooches—this time a large Lucite spider—pinned to her pert silver jacket. “When I first mentioned the idea to Dakis, he said it would be impossible,” she said. To that, the DESTE Foundation’s Eleni Michailidi responded, “Only a woman could have done it. Men are not interested in working together; they only care about their egos.” We sat at a corner table with the three fabulous female curators of the other partner foundations. “It was surprisingly easy to work as a team,” said Magasin 3 curator Tessa Praun, who reportedly came up with the exhibition’s title. “But next time,” said La Maison Rouge’s Antoine de Galbert, “we should have a more focused theme.”
Curator Jan Debbaut praised Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s curatorial residency program (for which he had served on the jury the day before), as well as the benefits of freelance curating. “It beats sitting through eight meetings a day at the Tate,” he said. Patrizia elaborated: “There are so many artist residencies in the world, and what good do they do? It seems more effective to bring young curators to meet the Italian artists rather than the other way around.”
After dinner, guests descended like locusts on a table arrayed with twenty-six different homemade desserts, “curated” by Patrizia’s mother. Bonami went at them with particular gusto. “He loves them,” Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s Helen Weaver explained. Under the watchful blank black gazes of Allan McCollum’s 480 Plaster Surrogates, Magasin 3’s David Neuman noted, “It’s not easy for a single collection to produce significant shows, but now we can draw on the resources of all our collections.” He paused, then added, “The museums are watching us with interest—and feeling a bit threatened.” Not to be paranoid or anything.
I HATE TO SOUND like an ugly American who can’t go abroad without wishing it were more like home, but the French really are a myopic lot. First of all, they want everyone to speak French. Then their art institutions produce exhibition brochures only in the native language. Of course, this makes it just like New York, but who wants everyone to be like us? Not me.
Yet it was the lingua franca of contemporary art that created an atmosphere of puzzlement at the Jeu de Paume last Monday night, when Parisians in furs and feathers drifted through the opening of three wildly disparate shows devoted to three wildly different mythologizers: Federico Fellini, Francesco Vezzoli, and Tris Vonna-Michell.
The Fellini show was the main event in this odd trio, filled out by the filmmaker’s caricatures of his friends with photos, movie posters, and films. Vonna-Michell, given a pocket space in the basement beneath a staircase—location, location, location—supplied a voice-over to an impossibly prolix video (in murmured English) about Henri Chopin, while Vezzoli contributed a cultural critique on the branding of art in the form of a fake commercial for an imaginary exhibition based on La dolce vita. “They don’t get it,” Vezzoli said of the befuddled French, who tend to take everything seriously, particularly parodies. They certainly were absorbed by the video Vezzoli made of the star-struck staged reading of a Pirandello play he directed at the Guggenheim two years ago, which at the time had been roundly greeted by yawns. The French were glued to their seats.
Left: Artist Francesco Vezzoli. Right: Dealers Philomene Magers and Sean Kelly.
Chantal Crousel has a theory. “Art fairs reflect their host cities,” said the Parisian dealer, when I stopped by her thoughtfully curated booth in the Grand Palais during Wednesday afternoon’s VIP promenade through the thirty-sixth Foire International d’Art Contemporain (FIAC). Crousel has been participating in the fair, on and off, since 1982. “FIAC offers more to chew on than Frieze,” she said, moments before Amanda Sharp, a director of the London fair, swept through on a two-hour stop in Paris.
Crousel was referring partly to “The Modern Project,” a new addition to FIAC that sent its organizers into promotional overdrive and spurred visiting collectors into dreams of grandeur (easy enough to come by anyway in a city of such operatic grandeur as Paris). Sharing a specially designed booth at the back of the center aisle were ten galleries showing museum-caliber paintings by Picasso, Léger, Mondrian, and the like, with price tags of up to forty million euros.
Not all the twenty-four works offered were for sale, but the experience of seeing Picasso’s Femme ecrivant (Marie-Therese) or Francis Bacon’s Portrait of George Dyer Talking or Warhol’s Green Disaster (Green Disaster Twice) in the context of a fair created involuntary frissons, even if they did come from unsurprising sources like Richard Gray, L&M Arts, and Gagosian, respectively. Malingue, the Paris gallery that had orchestrated the project, brought an especially attractive Surrealist painting from 1938 by Yves Tanguy, and PaceWildenstein had a knockout Roberto Matta, Splash, dated 1960–70.
Left: A view of FIAC. Right: Louvre director Henri Loyrette.
From there, it seemed the fair could only go downhill, but French dealer Almine Rech’s booth was jam-packed—with art by Don Brown, Mark Handforth, Anselm Reyle, and more, as well as plenty of collectors, most of whom appeared to be French. Equally busy was Emmanuel Perrotin, who had commissioned artist Daniel Arsham to design his booth. It suggested an igloo whose doors had been punched out with dynamite, but maybe my impression stemmed from the pronounced chill in the unheated Grand Palais, which may have sent shivers up everyone’s spine but did not slow the shopping.
The artist most prominently featured was George Condo, apparently a heartthrob in Paris. His paintings turned up in three different booths: Sprüth Magers, Simon Lee (showing only Condo works on paper), and Jérôme de Noirmont, Condo’s Paris dealer. “I’m not worried,” de Noirmont said with a shrug. “We’re used to that.” I heard the action was just as swift at the Cour Carrée, the part of the fair reserved for younger galleries at the Louvre, but because a snooty French guard sniffed at my press badge when I arrived for a preview and blocked my way, I couldn’t verify.
Instead I headed for the Pompidou, where its director of cultural development, the curator Bernard Blistène, was leading a tour of installations by Carsten Höller, Manfred Pernice, and others inaugurating the museum’s first annual New Festival. The opening of this five-week conflagration of art, performance, video, and theater attracted a crowd at least one and maybe two generations younger than that at FIAC, and were they ever an eager bunch. Some sat, completely rapt, in a space with a proscenium distinguished by a deformed theatrical mask that suggested a melting Casper the Friendly Ghost of monstrous proportions designed by Sophie Perez and Xavier Boussiron. Under it, New York musician David Moss was performing; at the same time, another performance was going on in a tentlike room designed by Jorge Pardo, but here, too, a guard prevented me from entering.
Left: Gagosian Gallery director Stefan Ratibor and artist Maina Karella. Right: Artist Joseph Kosuth.
Undaunted, I listened to artist Ben Kinmont, an expert on the history of cooking who works at the Bibliothèque Nationale, explain his rather fascinating recipe-as-art project, a collaboration with seven Parisian chefs whose restaurants artgoers can visit for samples. On the basement level, where dance videos were playing, I found a stretch of floor designed by Vincent Lamouroux that rises and falls in several smooth humps. “You’d be surprised how much good it does for the body,” said Lamouroux, who was on crutches. Here again, though I wanted to try it, guards stopped me, explaining that they had to keep the floor clean for a dance performance that was about to start.
But I had only one day in Paris to see everything, so I raced out to catch the opening of Joseph Kosuth’s ni apparence ni illusion (neither appearance nor illusion), a neon text installation in the medieval bowels of the Louvre. This was truly fabulous, a perfect marriage of concept and execution, with warm white neon lines stretching, at intervals, along a thousand curving feet of the museum’s original, twelfth-century sandstone walls. Kosuth’s words, translated into French of course, actually address their surroundings with more poetry than they do in English. (THE WALL IS THE SURFACE OF ITS OWN SUBMERGED HISTORY, one sign begins.)
His installation, curated by Marie-Laure Bernadac, is the second entry in an ongoing project that Louvre director Henri Loyrette has instituted to contemporize a museum that state law prevents from acquiring art dating later than the nineteenth century. (Anselm Kiefer was the first; Cy Twombly is next.) “I’m just reviving a tradition of involving living artists,” Loyrette told me at Kosuth’s dinner at the Louvre’s Café Marly, explaining that artists, including Géricault, had made work for the museum during their lifetimes. “It’s important to renew traditions,” he added, as I took a seat opposite Bernadac, who really should be heading up a French art museum herself. Alas, the boy’s-club tradition still thrives. At least no one stopped us from eating.
Left: Singer-songwriter Paul McMahon with Participant director Lia Gangitano. Right: Performers Trixie Minx and Tony Clifton. (All photos: Mark Tusk)
AS FAR AS POLITICAL CORRECTNESS GOES, the art world has come a long way since the 1980s. How else can one explain downtown gallery space Participant Inc.’s hiring of über-offensive Andy Kaufman/Bob Zmuda character Tony Clifton for a cocktail party/benefit feting their new programs director, Stephen Hepworth? This was like booking Andrew Dice Clay for a Planned Parenthood mixer or Paul Mooney for Farm Aid. Nevertheless, as I entered the gallery and noted the combo of offerings on display—the tail end of a My Barbarian show, previews of an exhibition inspired by the life and work of performance artist/generalized eccentric Stuart Sherman—the Clifton booking made more sense. The host committee, too, was telling, including alt-music stars Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth), Adam Horovitz (Beastie Boys), and Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill). (If she actually approves of Clifton, Ms. Hanna’s sense of humor has come a long way as well.)
Conceived by Kaufman and often performed by him in disguise, Tony Clifton was a pink-dinner-jacket-and-ruffled-tuxedo-shirt-wearing third-rate Vegas lounge singer and comedian who, through Kaufman’s fame from the popular comedy series Taxi, was able to appear on a surprising number of mainstream TV shows in the late ’70s and early ’80s, attempting duets with everyone from Dinah Shore to Miss Piggy. Loud, drunk, and obnoxious, Clifton was created as a counterweight to Kaufman’s meek, sweet Foreign Man character, which was adapted for his role of Latka on Taxi. He was also an elaborate, extended media prank; Kaufman’s collaborator and close friend Bob Zmuda played Clifton more often than Kaufman himself, and the pair seemed to revel in the confusion over Clifton’s identity.
With Andy long dead (despite what some think), Sunday night’s Clifton was clearly Zmuda (or someone who looked and sounded exactly like an older Zmuda/Clifton). After a mutual group introduction/lovefest between My Barbarian member Alex Segade, curator Jonathan Berger, board president Adam Ames, Hepworth, and Participant proprietress Lia Gangitano, the lights dimmed for a video reel of everyone from Merv Griffin to George Hamilton to Robin Williams introducing or talking about Clifton in his heyday. Afterward, Clifton emerged onstage, apparently in the same clothes he wore for his infamous ’80s Letterman appearance. Bearing a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and accompanied by a burlesque dancer named (naturally) Trixie, Clifton looked uglier than earlier iterations, with bright red gin blossoms decorating his distended, ravaged face. He flicked a lit cigarette into the tightly packed audience, took a swig of Jack, and got down to business.
Calling Participant’s East Houston space a “shithole” (he’s used to “playing the big rooms in Vegas”), Clifton complained about not being provided a limo or luxury hotel room. Then he began the comedy portion of his act—a series of mostly awful jokes targeted at every historically maligned demographic group in existence—starting with (who else?) Poles. In rapid succession, women, Jews, gays, African Americans, pedophiles, dead babies, et al. were pilloried on Clifton’s altar of bad taste. (I believe Asians, Indians, and bisexuals were spared, but I may not have been listening closely enough.) Sample joke: “Q: What does eighty-year-old pussy taste like? A: Depends.” (Want more? Thought not.) There was a lot of nervous laughter, some genuine laughter, and, eventually, scattered boos and hisses. A woman yelled, “It’s 2009!” “Oh, yeah?” Clifton retorted. “I’m not living in 2009.” (No question about that.) Later, he responded to boos by saying, “It’s all for charity. Fuck you.” (Which was actually sort of funny.)
Left: Artist Matthew Barney. Right: Artists Lois Weaver and Charles Atlas with Lori Seid, Squid, and Joe Westmoreland.
Segueing into the same Rat Pack medley he performed on Letterman years ago—including “I Gotta Be Me” and “Volare”—Clifton “sang” spiritedly while Trixie bumped and ground beside him. (She ended up on her knees under a gold sheet performing simulated fellatio on the singer.) More jokes followed: “Q: What do you get when you put a baby in a microwave?” Actually, I’ll spare you the answer. Then, Clifton became uncharacteristically gracious (thanking the Participant people) and sentimental (recalling Kaufman and warmly introducing Andy’s brother, who was in the audience). Clifton concluded by disputing rumors that Kaufman faked his own death, and, after sending brother Michael backstage so he didn’t have to watch, sought to prove it by playing a video, allegedly made by a German film crew, of someone driving to the Kaufman family plot in New Jersey and exhuming Andy’s corpse. If the film is authentic, there is a real, desiccated skeleton in Andy Kaufman’s coffin. But as with everything Andy, we’ll never know for sure.
Behind me, a middle-aged woman, who several times during Clifton’s set had asked her companion whether they could leave, sighed loudly and said, “I need a drink.” So did I.
HAILING A CAB to Primrose Hill last Tuesday for the opening of the modestly titled Museum of Everything, one of many events coinciding with the Frieze Art Fair, I found the queue to get in stretching around the block, with rumors of an estimated forty-minute wait. Thankfully, I’d had the foresight to share my cab with a prominent London dealer––it helps to have an in when it comes to outsider art––and we were discreetly shuffled inside.
The Museum of Everything was masterminded by collector James Brett, who invited noteworthy figures from Hans Ulrich Obrist and Jeremy Deller to Nick Cave and Jarvis Cocker to curate selections from his enormous collection of “outsider” art. The museum had been attracting plenty of attention over the week, with a delightfully silly (and ubiquitous) advertising campaign that included a pin-peddling nun stationed outside the entrance to Frieze.
Inside, all manner of self-taught art covered the walls (and ceilings) in a dazzling display that demanded a second trip—minus the crowd. As it was, there were art-world insiders as far as the eye could see (which wasn’t actually that far, given the crush of faux couture). The space, a former dairy, was divided by strange stairwells and narrow hallways, making navigation near impossible—a leitmotif of the week.
At one point, when wedged between a stairwell and a mop-haired New York dealer, Museum of Old and New Art curator Olivier Varenne came to my aid. “Here, drink this,” he said, thrusting a tall blond cocktail into my hand. Given the atmosphere, I half-expected moonshine or some magic Carrollian drink; whatever it was, it was appallingly palatable, heightening the giddy dizziness of the evening.
Magic cocktails notwithstanding, I woke up early the next morning to catch an exhibition that was less outsider and more underground (literally): Conrad Shawcross’s Chord, installed in the abandoned Kingsway Tram Subway in Holborn. The sculpture consists of two train pulleys, each rigged with a set of oversize clockworks strung with 162 spools of multicolored yarn. As the gears spin, the threads intertwine. The giant cat’s cradle eventually produces a single, tightly braided rope in the center.
Viewings are by appointment only and are done via small groups led with spelunking-like sincerity down into the void (flashbacks of the new Miroslaw Balka Turbine Project at the Tate). The early time slot worked to my advantage. The artist had just finished restringing the threads, which allowed us to glimpse how the work functions in its first moments. “I apologize,” the artist said sheepishly, snipping at some stray threads. “This is taking a little longer than I expected.” “It’s London,” one of the visitors reminded him. “We’re used to delays on the platform.”
Left: “Play” artist Gosha Ostretsov and curator Nick Hackworth. (Photo: Kate Sutton) Right: Artist Simon Ounanian performs Circumvision. (Photo courtesy Paradise Row)
Later that evening, I made my way to Mayfair for the raucous group show “Play,” a joint venture between Prakke Contemporary and Paradise Row that includes a more manageable Shawcross piece, as well as works by the Chapmans, Carsten Höller, Gary Webb, and Doug White. Upstairs, a seminude couple swam in a sea of white feathers, part of Olympia Scarry’s Kinder Heaven, while next door, Edward Fornieles had erected a series of playhouses in a padded and dimly lit room whose entrance was cleverly concealed by a Miley Cyrus beach towel. I started to crawl into the first of the forts when I heard some telltale giggling and retreated. Seconds later, a young hipster spilled out the tiny door, his clothes in shameless disarray. He flashed a grin, then rolled over to try his luck in an adjacent playhouse.
Decidedly more well behaved that night was the David Zwirner dinner, held under the Rubens in the majestic Banqueting House in Whitehall. (“We thought we would do something simple this year,” joked gallery director Angela Choon, before speculating which guest would be the first to try out the throne.) The Rubens certainly inspired my tablemates—curators Jens Hoffmann, Jessica Morgan, and Hou Hanru—prompting a champagne-flavored sermon on the politics of production and the dangers of the unchecked artist’s studio (because apparently, this week, all conversational roads led to Damien Hirst).
Thursday night, I dropped by an evening of performances at the David Roberts Art Foundation, walking in on Pierre Huyghe’s Silence Score, in which a violinist performed transcribed ambient noise from John Cage’s 4'33". (This added to the ambient noise of the gallery itself, a backbeat of thumps, shuffles, and apologies as unsuspecting visitors tripped over the uneven floors—Ryan Gander and Mario Garcia Torres’s collaborative contribution to the Foundation’s exhibition “Sculpture of the Space Age.”) Perhaps I should have stayed for Alexandre Singh’s lecture (which promised to merge Manzoni, Klein, and IKEA instructions), but instead I found myself racing the two blocks over to 33 Portland Place, where the former Sierra Leone Embassy was “under siege” by a group of artists who had transformed the building into a consulate for an anonymous, “badly managed” country. They weren’t joking about the poor management. Outside the gates, a rowdy throng pleaded to be let in, assuring the unsympathetic guards that their friends and loved ones were already inside. I couldn’t help but feel an uncomfortable pang of privilege, knowing these people were queuing for cocktails and cultural cache.
I didn’t have much time to reflect on the absurdity of the scene, as Alex Dellal, the kind curator of 20 Hoxton Square (which organized “The Embassy”), snatched my hand and ushered me around to the back and through the kitchen. I emerged into a dark parlor with a dramatically lit boxing ring besieged by scenesters. For a moment, it felt like I might have stepped into the wrong club (or maybe just a Christina Aguilera video). I gave into the crush of the crowd and let myself be shoved down the hallway, where I was pushed past a businessman huddled in a broom closet, frantically feeding documents into a paper shredder; he slammed the door shut when he spotted us.
Toward the end of the long hallway, I bumped into dealer Adam Weymouth and Scarry, who accompanied me on a hunt for Hugo Wilson’s models of heart ventricles in states of “shock.” The piece was elegantly presented directly across from three of the Florida ballot boxes from the notorious 2000 US elections. Peering inside, one could easily make out the infamous hanging chads. The piece raised many questions, though none so important as this: How was I going to make it out of this room, let alone upstairs to the rest of the exhibition?
NOTHING POINTS UP the art-world pecking order like a fair. And nowhere is the division between the haves and the have-nots of glamour and power starker than in class-conscious London, where the rush of parties, performances, and exhibitions surrounding the Frieze Art Fair separates the yobs from the toffs with ruthless economy and pleasure.
The run-up to the fair’s Wednesday opening created something close to a circle jerk on Tuesday night, when competing parties for Damien Hirst, Ed Ruscha, Anish Kapoor, and Ugo Rondinone forced the noses of those A-listed for one dinner against the frosty windows of others, while Patti Smith stopped traffic in Mayfair with a free solo concert she gave at the opening of “Robert Mapplethorpe: A Season in Hell,” at Alison Jacques.
Standing in the gallery doorway with an acoustic guitar, Smith reminisced about her early days in New York with the photographer. She sang several numbers, dedicating each to Mapplethorpe and, at one point, to another of her exes, writer Jim Carroll, who died last month. “Look at Robert and read Jim,” she said, to cheers from a crowd of one thousand scenesters massed in Berners Street. “We love to be free, but we have to love our life and take care of it,” she added, before reciting her 1988 anthem “Power to the People.” She exhorted the people to sing along as she began an a cappella version of “Because the Night,” but mostly they just hung on every word, spellbound.
Not far away, Sadie Coles was hosting a reception for Rondinone and John Bock, who had installed solo shows in her back-to-back galleries. At the Balfour Mews space, guests queued up in front of the service elevator to wait for Bock to take small groups to the basement, where he gave live performances every six minutes. For his part, Rondinone kept the spirit of Arte Povera alive by tripping up visitors to the South Audley Street gallery with “still-life” cast-bronze potatoes, walnuts, and a leaded crust of bread on the floor. “I’m happy!” Rondinone said, working a room that included gallery artists Jim Lambie and Sarah Lucas, the latter of whom handed out fliers for “Nuds,” an unannounced exhibition of an impressively knockered new sculpture—like something between Henry Moore and the Marquis de Sade.
Dinner was at the week-old Hix, celebrity chef Mark Hix’s new establishment amid the sex shops of Soho. (Hix is also catering the Frieze fair this year.) Its decor includes work by Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Lucas, and Hirst, who contributed clear resin mobiles embedded with silverfish-size sharks. The buffet, set out on the bar under the mobiles and in the gaming room downstairs, attracted a night-before-the-deluge mix of dealers including Glasgow’s Toby Webster, New York’s Barbara Gladstone, Zurich’s Eva Presenhuber, and London’s Nicky Verber, as well as fashion doyenne Vivienne Westwood and her husband, Andreas Kronthaler, fresh from opening a new franchise shop in Beirut. “I don’t believe in progress,” said the flame-haired avant-gardist, after describing her visit to a private Lebanese collection of antiquities that sounded like something out of a Steven Spielberg movie but more exclusive and filled with real treasure. If there are masterpieces in contemporary art, we are still too young to know it.
I headed back to Berners Street and the Sanderson Hotel, where Smith was giving a command performance for about fifty swells invited to dine in a white-curtained area that was actually the hotel spa. Frieze Projects curator Neville Wakefield held down one table with Harry Potter producer David Heyman, looking rather bored. Smith’s appearance here held none of the excitement of the street-level performance earlier. Guess she’s right: The people really do have the power.
Next morning, Frieze opened in its Regents Park tent as if the recession had never happened. The energy emanating from within was noticeable even before I got through the door. Sales began at 9 AM, prior to the VIP opening—but well, you know, in London there are VIPs and then there are VIPs. Some buyers were even museums, and not just Roman Abramovich or Norman Foster, who bought a large-scale version of the fabulous Grayson Perry tapestry on offer at Victoria Miro. Perry was in the booth, too, decked out in a Bo Peep bonnet and blue and white dirndl. Art stars (Tracey Emin and Kapoor among them) outnumbered celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Alexander McQueen, but remarkably, it was art itself that carried the day.
And it was flying off the walls. Every single dealer I saw, among the 160 participating, was beaming. It was like the old days, everyone said, except for the discounts. “15 percent is the new 10 percent,” reported David Maupin, who was having little trouble finding takers for Emin’s offer to make a custom-neon portrait for those willing to pony up ten thousand pounds and answer fifteen personal questions ranging from “Do you talk when you make love?” to “Who is your favorite poet?” American collector Beth Swofford was debating whether to buy a Sigmar Polke painting with a higher price tag than she’d reckoned. “I was hoping not to fall in love with anything big and expensive,” she said with a sigh.
Left: Dealers Barbara Gladstone and Eva Presenhuber. Right: Artist Grayson Perry.
Walker Art Center curator Peter Eleey, a member of the committee awarding a ten-thousand-pound prize from sponsor Pommery Champagne to the best booth, let on that New York’s Salon 94 was the hands-down winner. “I could have sold the Barry X Ball pieces ten times over today,” said Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, the gallery’s owner, pointing to two alabaster busts, both carved by hand and with a diamond-cutting machine from the artist’s scan of Corradini’s La Purita (Veiled Woman). “Isn’t that cheating?” asked an onlooker new to the ways of contemporary art.
For repartee, fairgoers could do well at Club Nutz, the brothers Reeder’s booth-size cabaret at the back of the Frame section of the fair, where galleries under six years old gave single-artist presentations. Inside the tiny nightclub, most of which was given to a DJ booth and a narrow stage against a painted brick-wall backdrop, would-be comedians could tell a joke in return for a beer. While I was there, Spencer Sweeney was the DJ, and Scott Reeder was asking the audience, “What is brown and sticky?” Ignoring the scatological shouts from the miniscule mosh pit, he replied: “A stick.”
Left: Collector Peter Brant with dealer Gavin Brown. Right: Artist Sarah Lucas.
At Frame, London’s Limoncello Gallery and Ghent’s Hoet Bekaert Gallery had to hold back waves scanning the MacBook works of Jack Strange and the grisaille assemblages of Amanda Ross-Ho, respectively. Adding to the tumult were the various enterprises rendered by Wakefield’s Frieze Projects. At Lorcan O’Neill’s booth, a young photographer snapped pictures of collector Phyllida Barlow (busy gazing at a Luigi Ontani image) for artist Ryan Gander, who was collecting such photographs of fairgoers and hanging them along the wall at the entrance as if they were lobby cards at a movie house. He had the right idea: Flatter your patrons, and the coffers will fill.
As the day wore on, the aisles only grew more impassable. It’s not as if the museums weren’t offering enough distractions. Baldessari was pulling in crowds at Tate Modern, Ruscha at the Hayward, and Kapoor at the Royal Academy, and local galleries pumped up inventories with new works by Anselm Kiefer (White Cube), Yinka Shonibare (Stephen Friedman), and Glenn Brown (Gagosian). (Baldessari’s new Deco-inflected tableau vivant at Sprueth-Magers—featuring a platinum blond on a white ear-shaped sofa holding a white poodle with a diamond collar—is nothing short of fabulous.) And yet . . . no matter how hard the army of clipboard-carrying sentinels worked to keep the hoi polloi out of private views and invitation-only dinners, the lemmings of the art world and beyond kept coming. When I left the fair on Wednesday night, with two hours left till closing and most of the work inside sold, it was still rush hour at the Regents Park gate. “Let’s go look at some art!” I heard someone exclaim. At that point, of course, the art was beating its chest and hailing a taxi.
Left: Frieze Art Fair. Right: Frieze Projects curator Neville Wakefield.
Left: A view of the service. Right: Genesis P-Orridge. (All photos: Ryan McNamara)
LEGEND HAS IT that a young L. Ron Hubbard once bragged to his friends that he was going to start a religion and make a million dollars. We all know how that went. Less known is a far smaller rogue offshoot of Scientology that exerted disproportionate influence on late-1960s and early-’70s bohemian culture in London, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and other epicenters of radical chic: the Process Church of the Final Judgment, or, simply, the Process.
Formed in 1963 in London by two disenchanted Scientologists—Mary Ann MacLean, a former call girl from Glasgow, and Robert DeGrimston, a well-educated Englishman of more noble birth—the group made unauthorized use of Hubbard’s “E-meter” to identify and exorcise compulsions and complexes. By 1966, the tightly knit group began to believe they were in touch with “Higher Beings” and decamped to an abandoned salt mine in Xtul, Mexico, where the last-minute diversion of a powerful hurricane confirmed to the couple’s followers that they were indeed connected to divine forces.
Returning to England, the Processeans (named after their “processing” of one another during their encounter-group days) quickly attracted the attention of the hipoisie of Swinging London, Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull most famously. (It’s likely that the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request and “Sympathy for the Devil” were inspired by Jagger’s flirtation with the Process.) As with any successful cult or totalitarian state, aesthetics were key to their appeal. The Process Church regularly published a truly bizarre, groundbreaking magazine—full of lurid, hand-cut four-color collage graphics and baffling yet seductive apocalypse-theology writings by DeGrimston—with blunt issue titles like “Sex,” “Fear,” “Love,” and “Death.” Church members would sell the magazines in the street dressed in full-length black robes bearing the Process logo, originally four thick lines inside a circle intersecting to form a small square at the center, later the same pattern composed of four trumpet bells. Routinely condemned as diabolical Satanists, blamed for the Manson Family and the Son of Sam, and assumed to have high-level connections to the intelligence community, the Process Church also had a formative influence on Funkadelic’s George Clinton (who reproduced DeGrimston’s writings inside his band’s album covers) and Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV ringleader Genesis P-Orridge.
So what the hell was I doing at Anthology Film Archives on a Sunday night for a Processean “Sabbath Assembly Ritual and Salon” in 2009? Well, partly to see what all the fuss was about back in the day and partly because the magazine was a fascinating high-water mark of DIY publishing. Hosted by Feral House publisher Adam Parfrey, who first heard of the Process while researching his book Apocalypse Culture, and “starring” Ms. (née Mr.) P-Orridge, Process magazine designer Timothy Wyllie, and the Sabbath Assembly Band, the first half of the sold-out evening was a reverent re-creation of a Process service, with prayers, songs, chants, declarations, convocations, prophecies, etc. The surprisingly young crowd, composed of ex-hippies, goths, hipsters, and Process veterans, was rapt as Genesis led the service and the youthful band—a talented acid-folk combo fronted by two female singers (Jex Thoth and Sophie Gontier) and a striking male falsetto (Lichens’s Robert Lowe)—performed Process “hymns” with high sincerity.
After the service, Parfrey ascended the stage, described his past research into the Process, and showed a fragment of a film in progress about the Church by Skinny Puppy member William Morrison. Parfrey then introduced Wyllie himself, who is the partial author of the new book Love Sex Fear Death: The Inside Story of the Process Church of the Final Judgment. Tall, slim, and with long white hair, Wyllie has the air of an English aristocrat who somewhere along the way fell into a vat of LSD. One of the many rumors dispelled during the second half, however, was that Processeans (like Scientologists) abhorred drugs and that MacLean would banish any member caught using them. Hearing this, Parfrey quipped, “Tim is the most psychedelic person I know.” “I made up for it afterward,” Wyllie explained with a wink.
Other tidbits from Tim included the revelation that while DeGrimston was the scribe and spokesperson of the Process, MacLean really called the shots (“It was a matriarchal cult”); that they declared themselves a church for tax purposes; and that MacLean died of emphysema and DeGrimston now works for Verizon.
Process editor Malachi McCormick chimed in from the audience and was invited onstage. Long-winded and rambling, McCormick took a dimmer view of his former gurus, claiming that MacLean and DeGrimston exploited church members for personal gain. Genesis followed, defending DeGrimston’s writings and recalling that Psychic TV was an effort to honor those “scriptures” while eschewing the rigidly hierarchical power structure the Process ultimately became. Other lower-level former Processeans in the audience said that it didn’t matter whether the Church was a con, as some of the best years of their lives were spent living in Process communes and selling magazines in the snow.
Finally, McCormick attempted to clear up the biggest misconception about the church: that Charles Manson was directly influenced by the Process. This rumor was propagated by Ed Sanders’s sprawling Manson tome, The Family, which included a chapter on the Process that the church successfully sued to have excised from the American edition of the book. (It remained in the UK edition.) As McCormick explained, when Manson was in prison in the mid-’60s, his cellmate was a con man who also happened to be a Scientologist. When Manson was released, he went to the Celebrity Center to join Hubbard’s organization and was rejected. McCormick claimed that it was the Church of Scientology that spread the rumor about Manson’s Process connections after the murders because MacLean and DeGrimston had “stolen the tech” (the E-meter) and were considered apostates by Hubbard.
Comforted by this knowledge, I went outside into the East Village night, thinking about Satanists, Scientologists, and the end of The End. 2012 is around the corner, but somehow I suspect it will be 1969 all over again.
“IT’S LIKE MOCA WEST,” said collector Alan Power. “Saves me a trip downtown.” Artist Alessandro Pessoli concurred: “It’s like a museum.” “The house that Murakami built” was collector Blake Byrne’s take. Then there was artist Drew Heitzler’s summation: “Pretty fucking awesome.” Just a few reactions I polled at the private reception last Friday night inaugurating Blum & Poe’s new twenty-one-thousand-square-foot space in Culver City.
The building is a shock-and-awe affair whose massive galleries are offset by a warren of private viewing rooms, conference spaces, atria, offices, and storage, as well as (for the gallery that has everything) an artist’s apartment. Los Angeles being a car town, it seemed only fitting that the main party would be held in the huge parking lot outside, the bar set back so that all the guests in attendance could admire, with Veuve Clicquot in hand, the behemoth looming before them. Gesturing toward the twilight sky, one joker proclaimed, “Tim and Jeff even arranged for a full moon.”
Though local grandees and city councilman would like to lay claim to Culver City’s ascendancy as Los Angeles’s central gallery district, most of the credit is due to dealers Tim Blum and Jeff Poe. With the opening of their brick-faced space at the confluence of the Merona Creek and La Cienega in 2003, Blum and Poe built a lodestar in Los Angeles that pulled in other galleries from Santa Monica to Chinatown, San Francisco to New York. They saw in Culver City what others eventually saw, too: big spaces, reliable freeways, and, most important, a convenient location—easy access to the east side, where most of the artists live, and the west, where most of the collectors do.
And for the private opening, the collectors came: Dallas Price, David and Susan Gersh, Cliff and Mandy Einstein, Jerry and Linda Janger, Gail and Stanley Hollander, and Spider-Man himself, Tobey Maguire. Reports had it that one collector ran across the gallery to fight over a piece in midsale, the kind of behavior one hears (or heard) about at art fairs but rarely at gallery openings. No word on what the piece was, though the inaugural show itself consists of new works from all the gallery artists, including a few pieces by artists not yet shown at Blum & Poe, including a massive sculpture by Tim Hawkinson, as well as a painting by the Korean artist Lee Ufan.
Midway through the evening, Poe gave me a brief tour of the facilities, pausing in a back gallery off the garden in which was displayed a sterling-silver miniature of Murakami’s Oval Buddha (the one that took center stage at his MoCA-originating retrospective). Poe noted that the relatively diminutive space was the same size as the dealers’ first gallery in Santa Monica. How did he go from that to this? “I don’t know what I’m doing,” Poe said, looking around at the gallery. “It’s a process piece.”
I hung around in a corner of the back parking lot with out-of-town Blum & Poe artists Nigel Cooke and Dirk Skreber. We watched Murakami scurry about in a skirt and pink leggings with a Yoshinoya take-out bag clutched in his hand. Well after the advertised closing time, I caravanned with the remaining stragglers to the Mandrake for the afterparty. I hung around awhile, listening to Dave Muller DJ and watching Poe dispense liberal shots of tequila. I didn’t make it to the end of the night, though, and sadly missed a special performance by Gagosian’s Sam Orlofsky, who reportedly passed out at the bar sometime well after midnight.
I skipped back to Culver City early the following evening for the public opening and ran into another of the night prior’s revelers, who joked, “Tonight it seems they’re actually looking at the art.” Not surprisingly, the early crowd was mostly artists: Ry Rocklen, Brendan Fowler, and Leigh Ledare were among the first people I saw as I cut in through the grand glass doors. Jack Black sauntered in sometime later; Black, having introduced Gustavo Dudamel to a sold-out crowd earlier in the evening, skipped out on the finale for the young conductor’s already storied debut performance at the Hollywood Bowl.
The night was still young. I got into my car and set off for the Hammer Museum, which was hosting a reception for the Robert Gober–curated Charles Burchfield exhibition. The crowd was thinner there but still brimming with talent: Curators Peter Eleey, Douglas Fogle, and Shamim Momin were on hand, as were artists Lari Pittman, Roy Dowell, and Stanya Kahn. After wandering through Burchfield’s spooky, cartoonish landscapes and otherworldly scenes, I parked myself downstairs at the bar, where I ran into Hammer director Ann Philbin. Conversation inevitably turned toward Blum & Poe: “The market has never been that strong in LA,” she said. “Along with the arrival of Matthew Marks, L&M, and Gagosian’s expansion, this signals a real change. There’s something going on here in LA, and I love it.”
Left: MoMA associate director Kathy Halbreich with MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach. Right: Artist Paul Mpagi Sepuya, architect Mark Krayenhoff, Printed Matter director AA Bronson, and artist Scott Hug. (Except where noted, all photos courtesy Printed Matter)
“YES! SAVE SOME TREES!” A gallery assistant’s response to my offer to share a map at the Thursday-evening preview of the 2009 New York Art Book Fair was unarguably commendable, but her enthusiasm seemed a little incongruous given the amount of paper pushed at this annual event. Now in its fourth installment and relocated from Phillips de Pury in Chelsea to P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City, Printed Matter’s publishing jamboree was bigger and better then ever. Expanding on last year’s list by some seventy exhibitors to top two hundred, it sprawled throughout the institution and made a visit to your local Barnes & Noble—if such still exists—seem like a tedious proposition indeed.
Front and center on the first floor was a small but absorbing exhibition of publications by, about, and belonging to noted bibliophile Richard Prince. In the wake of controversy surrounding the recent removal of his iconic Spiritual America from “Pop Life” at Tate Modern in London, I couldn’t resist hunting for some reference to the artist’s rephotographed image of a naked, prepubescent Brooke Shields. I was unsuccessful, the artist’s Naked Nurses collection perhaps coming closest. But moving into the fair proper, it was noticeable that the institutional setting seemed to have encouraged some other stallholders to take a distinctly exhibition-like approach to showing off their wares.
Left: P.S. 1's April Hunt with Antoine Guerrero, P.S. 1 director of operations and exhibitions, and MoMA's Margaret Doyle. Right: A view of Richard Prince's exhibition at the NY Art Book Fair.
The book fair has become as overwhelming as any art fair—perhaps more so given the sheer number of things to be pored over, handled, flipped through, and deciphered, as well as simply looked at. White gloves were thankfully kept to a minimum this time, but the event remained one for which a generous allotment of time and a sturdy bag were essential accessories. A few things that caught my eye included Jim Skuldt’s cheeky print of a future Artforum cover trumpeting the magazine’s expansion into a perfect cube at 2nd Cannons Publications, while nearby, a wall of Josh Smith’s rough-and-ready posters made a striking backdrop for the 38th Street Publishers stand. Also rough-and-ready, or rather picturesquely battered, was a vintage catalogue titled Conceptual Art, Land Art, and Arte Povera at Marcus Campbell Art Books. Condition, however, had scarcely compromised the modest-looking paperback’s value. Asking price? Just shy of two grand. Werkplaats Typografie, by contrast, offered visitors the opportunity to produce their own books on site with a copy machine, which assistants would then bind. The fee? Just a buck.
Chucking-out time at P.S. 1 saw the younger and better insulated of the crowd (it was turning into a distinctly chilly night) head the few blocks to Deitch Studios for a benefit featuring “industrial punk-and-dub duo” IUD (Lizzi Bougatsos of Gang Gang Dance with Sadie Laska of Growing) and DJs Tim Lokiec and Gary Murphy. Outside the waterfront gallery, mobile Pizza Moto Brooklyn and Wafels and Dinges outlets immediately drew hungry mobs, while the beer line inside was quick to appear and very slow to end. The sleepy restaurant and function room across the street would have been a more comfortable option, but hardly in the same spirit. That said, by the time Bougatsos and Laska took the stage, the crowd was beginning to thin, and their abrasive and glitch-plagued set finished off all but the most committed partygoers.
Mark Leckey's In a Long Tail. (Photo: Amy C. Elliott)
“I haven’t started yet, I’m just testing the technology.” Mark Leckey’s apology, delivered the following evening from the stage of the Abrons Arts Center, was somehow hard to believe, his projected display of a Blade Runner–like zoom around an interior too polished to be a mere try-out. Seated in the front row next to critic Paul Laster and curator Renee Riccardo, I settled in for the second night of the Turner Prize–winning British artist’s In the Long Tail. Taking as its starting point a photograph of a prototypical television transmission featuring Felix the Cat, Leckey’s performance-lecture folded a history of broadcasting into a suitably labyrinthine explication of the “long tail” theory of Internet-based economics. If it sounds dry, you’ve never attended one of this soft-spoken Brummie’s events.
Veering from practical demonstrations to convoluted rants in tandem with a battery of aural and visual effects, Leckey’s presentation took in everyone from Hungarian Dimensionalist Tamkó Sirató Károly to the (genuine? invented?) “Bear Negligee Collective” en route to a digital Theory of Everything that got at once more introspective and more cosmic as it thundered toward its denouement. Some griped about the well-worn Chris Anderson–isms, though it was perhaps enlightening to those in the audience not familiar with the finer points of stigmergy and cybernetics. Leckey has a turn of phrase that veers from the pseudo–theoretically verbose to the out-and-out poetic, leaving much of the audience stroking their chins in bafflement one minute and laughing out loud the next.
Screening a video of the affect of sound on liquid, for example, he waxed lyrical about “a self-organizing yogurt, a voluptuous living custard,” that somehow mimicked the behavior of the stock market. Finally, postulating a fusion of his own consciousness with the collective mind of the Web, he roared, “I am the swarm, and the swarm is me!” A furry mechanical “tail” thrashed around center stage, a smoke machine did its thing, and a giant Felix (“a radiant messenger, an angel hesitating near”) rose to assume dominion.
“HOW GERMAN IS IT?” asked Udo Kittelmann on a recent Wednesday at the opening of Thomas Demand’s “Nationalgalerie,” fittingly installed at the Neue Nationalgalerie. Nearly three and a half miles of curtain had been used to transform the Mies van der Rohe building into an intimate Bilderkammer, and the press-savvy Kittelmann was busy talking up the “Gesamtkunstwerk” to journalists. The opening was the kickoff to a week of events in the Berlin art world, and, to be sure, it was a very German affair. Demand’s pictures, some of them never before exhibited, not only showed the (German) forest but offered a “best-of” sampling of (German) history: the bathtub in which conservative politician Uwe Barschel was found dead, the turmoil in the Stasi offices after the fall of the wall, the gangway of a Lufthansa plane.
“Nationalgalerie” is Kittelmann’s first show since taking up his position as director of Berlin’s state museums, and with it he has clearly brought the eponymous institution closer to the twenty-first century. Not coincidentally, this branding effort is fueled by industrial interests: Kittelmann’s introduction was soon followed by a speech from Wulf Bernotat, CEO of the power company EON, the exhibition’s lead sponsor. It’s perhaps a very German irony to romanticize the forest—as Demand does in his Lichtung, in which he folded several hundred thousand pieces of paper into green leaves—and then have a coal company foot the bill.
Anyway, at the dinner that followed, the Königsberger Klopse and the potato soup EON paid for were great, though by midnight there was a strange abundance of leftover currywursts. (Everyone preferred the apple cake.) Le tout Berlin was in attendance: Andreas Gursky with Julia Stoschek, artists Markus Lüpertz and Katharina Sieverding, and big buyers such as Christian Boros, Erika Hoffmann, and of course Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch, whose Surrealism collection is still on display on the Nationalgalerie’s ground floor. I spoke with curator Louise Hojer about the dematerialization of art, absence, and the missing cake; all in all, a pleasant, good-humored evening.
The next day, I found a very different model of history at the Berlinische Galerie’s opening for “Berlin 89/09.” Curator Heinz Stahlhut has assembled a group of artworks derived from local mythologies: from Sophie Calle’s work on the removal of Socialist icons to Arwed Messmer’s chronicle of Potsdamer Platz. The pulse of the show is a sound installation by Nina Fischer and Maroan el Sani, which features giant speakers playing a low-frequency rhythm by Carsten Nicolai: It sounds like the city’s heartbeat. (One recalls that techno beats served as Berlin’s defibrillator after the fall of the wall.) The Berlinische crowd was much more diverse than the one for “Nationalgalerie”: old hippies, young hipsters, serious theorists, and decadent partygoers—the same mix that continues to fuel the Berlin club scene. I chatted with Susan Sontag biographer Daniel Schreiber about how inconvenient it was that we had to pay for our wine; that’s what happens when an energy company isn’t sponsoring the museum.
Whether it was postcrisis earnestness or an echo of the twenty-year anniversary of the wall’s fall, the theme of German identity continued throughout the week. On Friday, artists Andreas Siekmann and Alice Creischer and composer Christian von Borries staged a reenactment of a press conference by the three “generals” of Germany’s major museums. Roughly a year ago, at the Temporäre Kunsthalle, Peter-Klaus Schuster, Martin Roth, and Reinhold Baumstark presented their plans for a universal museum in Dubai. With the actors repeating the speeches word for word, now, in the post-Lehman world, it was hard not to be struck by the megalomania of their vision. During the performance, the organizers interjected images and videos of life and death in Dubai—underscoring the mortality of the immigrants at work on all the giant buildings—while sounds played from Berlin’s phonogram archive. Colonialism, nationalism, culture, the state, Hegel, Humboldt, globalization, the bubble—all this and more were presented. It was boring, unbearable: in sum, a magnificent performance.
An appreciation for critique reemerged on Monday during a ceremony for the Prize for Young Art at the Hamburger Bahnhof. After a determined but long speech by Kittelmann, Centre Pompidou curator Christine Macel announced Omer Fast the winner. Fast’s three-part film installation Nostalgia, which depicts the fate of illegal African immigrants in Europe, was the most critical piece in the show. (The other contenders were Annette Kelm, Keren Cytter, and Danh Vo.) During the champagne-fueled celebration, Kunst-Werke’s Gabi Horn and I spoke with a (uniquely sober) Fast, who outlined his current work involving former underground terrorists from the US. Much of the crowd, however, still preferred champagne to critique; this time, BMW sponsored the bar (another example of the transubstantiation of nongreen economic capital into cultural capital).
The prize’s afterparty was nothing compared to the vodka-doused fete in the old Weimar-style dance joint Clärchens Ballhaus, where Neo Rauch celebrated the opening of his show “Schilfland” at Eigen + Art. My companion and I departed shortly after Contemporary Fine Arts’s Bruno Brunnet removed his shirt and gave a bare-chested speech—loud yet incomprehensible—from the balcony. When we ran into Eigen + Art’s Judy Lybke a couple days later at the Art Forum fair, he told us that we’d missed the best. Brunnet himself said he didn’t know what he’d yelled. “They gave me all this vodka,” he shrugged.
The hunger for critique was almost satisfied by the time Art Forum commenced. Everyone seemed to agree that the fair’s new directors, Eva-Maria Häussler and Peter Vetsch, had done a bang-up job. The quality of participating galleries decidedly improved; even the notoriously critical blue-chip Berlin galleries like Neugerriemschneider and Max Hetzler (both of whom had avoided the fair for years) seemed pleased. “Professional but boring” was about the worst of the grumbles. The amiable atmosphere was so strong it even seemed to extend to a panel discussion, held at the Hamburger Bahnhof, about the necessity (or not) for a more permanent Berlin kunsthalle. Mayor Klaus Wowereit, MoMA’s Klaus Biesenbach, critic Niklas Maak, and artists Monica Bonvicini and Olafur Eliasson all argued the same position: We need a kunsthalle, possibly right next to the Bahnhof. Eliasson went so far as to suggest installing a Knallkopf—he suggested Hans Ulrich Obrist—as director. Who could argue?
ON WEDNESDAY, September 23, the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture welcomed a select group of oligarchs, socialites, and high-ranking workers of culture for a preview of the third edition of the Moscow Biennial, titled “Against Exclusion.” At the after-party, billionaire Roman Abramovich—father of the eight-month-old fetus carried by Garage director Dasha Zhukova—danced onstage with the Virgins before withdrawing to his natural habitat, the VIP zone. I wasn’t invited, polemical inclusiveness of the title be damned, so instead I joined about a thousand other barely important people at the official opening Thursday night.
If curators had greatest-hits albums, “Against Exclusion” would be Jean-Hubert Martin’s. Discoveries from his 1989 exhibition “Magicians of the Earth” (Cyprien Tokoudagba, Esther Mahlangu, Cheri Samba) joined favorites from 2007’s “Arttempo” (Anish Kapoor, Tony Cragg, Berlinde de Bruyckere) in a city that helped propel him to the top by providing material for the groundbreaking “Paris—Moscow” and “Moscow—Paris” exhibitions in the late 1970s. “I wanted to give something back,” Martin said.
Left: Moscow Biennial cocurator Joseph Backstein. Right: Artist Huang Yong Ping.
Collected in a cursory survey, first impressions expressed gratitude, whether with enthusiasm (“Moscow has never seen a show on this level before!”) or restraint (“It’s good . . . for Moscow”). After two biennials in incidental locations—the former Lenin Museum in 2005, an unfinished skyscraper in 2007—the crisp installation in the airy, cavernous Garage was something everyone could be happy about. But detractors felt that Martin’s vigorous defiance of museum categories sometimes smacked of P. T. Barnum. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s decrepit-looking dummies in automated wheelchairs drew comparisons to a bumper-car ride, and many were alarmed that these simulations of deteriorating flesh had been installed in plain sight of diners at the Garage’s café. Thirteenth-generation offspring of Koen Vanmechelen’s chicken-breeding project clucked in their coop, snakes and scorpions crept around Huang Yong Ping’s ornate cages, and Celesté Boursier-Mougent built a sandbox where electric guitars were unwittingly strummed by sparrows in search of a perch. “It’s a zoo!” said Michel Blazy, whose Still Life Garden included an ant farm.
“Against Exclusion” was the centerpiece of an eventful week. A city with a normally modest art calendar scheduled parties at every exhibition space it has—and even some it doesn’t. For me, it all began the preceding Saturday at a subdued apartment show and ended a week later with a festive spate of openings at the Winzavod gallery complex. Art Moscow, the commercial fair that for twelve years had taken place in May, shifted to September to share in the biennial’s traveling audience. But even the Wednesday-night vernissage seemed deserted—a feeling underscored by the half-empty booths of the several European galleries displaying A4 reproductions. (Many works were trapped at customs due to flawed paperwork.)
At an improvised stand, the Saint Petersburg–based group Tajiks-art had migrant workers from Central Asia painting Haring and Basquiat knockoffs live. They also sold vials of hard liquor distilled from Tajik blood for one hundred dollars apiece. Such antics would have been better suited to Universam (Department Store), a lively fair for nonprofit and unprofitable galleries that also opened Wednesday, at the former offices of Izvestia newspaper. Universam certainly drew a bigger audience, or at least so it seemed: Crowd size was exaggerated by the narrow corridors between booths that were built from eleven hundred cardboard boxes because organizers weren’t allowed to hang works on the walls.
On Friday, the premises formerly belonging to the Red October chocolate factory opened up for projects running the entire budgetary gamut, from a scrappy Swedish student show to the Luc Tuymans exhibition at Baibakov Art Projects, where each painting had its own bodyguard. Tuymans was so amused by the thorough security that he asked the guards to sign the catalogue next to their assigned paintings, and they did—all except for the shy guy who guarded Tits. Down the street, Paperworks Gallery presented a solo show of Yuri Albert, whose contribution to “Against Exclusion” was a prize awarded to participating artist Romuald Hazoume guaranteeing that the Moscow Biennial will cover Hazoume’s funeral expenses should he die before its fourth edition. Paperworks displayed placards with questions like: “Would the fact that no Russian artists protested against the war with Georgia cause you to change your attitude toward contemporary Russian art?” Viewers could vote Yes or No by dropping scraps of paper in transparent ballot boxes. “Hans Haacke cared if you were for Vietnam or against it,” Albert said. “It’s all the same to me.”
Albert’s politically pointed but rhetorically ambiguous questions echoed Martin’s method of achieving purely aesthetic thrills through juxtapositions of disparate cultural traditions that just happen to raise the specter of colonial oppression. Russia occupies an awkward spot on the East-West axis—at any rate, the country’s audiences have very different associations with African art than, say, France’s do—and, reflecting the perennial touchiness about Russian art’s peripheral position on the international scene, locals responded to the “Against Exclusion” spirit by exhuming marginal histories close to home. At the Garage, the Blue Noses made a memorial museum to B. U. Kashkin, a Siberian creative eccentric who died in 2005; in a department store, Oleg Kulik installed silhouette projections of reenactments of ’90s performances; and at Proun Gallery, curator Ekaterina Degot rehabilitated the obscure Pyotr Subbotin-Permyak, who brought avant-garde agitprop to the Urals in the ’20s. Perhaps Martin’s philosophy has special resonance in a country that, lacking a coherent history of twentieth-century art, often picks and chooses cultural memories to suit the current mood. “It’s not about reviving the past,” Martin said in a lecture at the Garage on the gray Sunday after all the parties were over. “It’s about how the past can still have something to tell us today.” Outside, the line to see the biennial grew longer and longer.
A FIRM REJOINDER to charges of the French art scene’s insularity, the nineteenth annual Printemps de Septembre has thoroughly taken over the city of Toulouse. This year’s expansive edition, headed for the second (and last) time by MAMCO director Christian Bernard, occupies more than thirty venues across four other additional towns. What Printemps organizer Jean-Max Colard described as “a small, local affair” that (until two years ago) involved just eight or nine venues is now a full-blown cosmopolitan project.
Bernard used poetic language to introduce his “festival of exhibitions” to a crowd of artists, curators, and journalists gathered in the courtyard of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts early Friday afternoon, describing the city as the “amniotic fluid for the contemporary.” He explained that his two editions of the festival are actually “one proposition in two temporalities, one that develops and reconfigures in its second appearance.” Offering his project to the “urban flâneur,” he advised us to take our time, since “time is the last luxury we have.”
The crowd dispersed and followed dozens of painted white arrows directing them through the city’s winding streets. I took Bernard’s advice, strolling and chatting with artists Jim Shaw and Amy O’Neill and curator Fabrice Stroun. “Is there anything like this in the US?” Shaw pondered. O’Neill didn’t think so: “There’s no money.” Shaw jokingly offered the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles as a possible example—but no, that didn’t work either. “I was still roller-skating in 1984,” O’Neill noted.
Left: Artist Jim Shaw and Artissima director Andrea Bellini. Right: Mayor of Toulouse Pierre Cohen with Marie-Thérèse Perrin, president of the Printemps de Septembre Association.
Stroun led us to our first stop—Andreas Döbler at Galerie GHP—where the artist was showing punk-rock-inspired canvases arranged on a black-painted Styrofoam structure. (By way of explanation, Stroun told us that Döbler is a former member of Celtic Frost, one of Europe’s first heavy-metal bands.) Colard soon joined us at the gallery and led us on a tour of some of his festival favorites: at Les Jacobins, Berlinde de Bruyckere’s installation of human limbs cast in wax and a taxidermied horse slung from metal poles; Jean-Luc Verna’s show of drawings at Fondation Espace Ecureuil; and at Galerie Duplex, Pierre-Olivier Arnaud’s elegant black-and-white photographs of jewels, water, and rays of light.
At Les Abattoirs, installations by Shaw and Cosima von Bonin took over the lower level of the museum, and an accrochage of works from public and private collections filled the main floor. “The closest thing you can get to actually moving MAMCO to Toulouse,” Straun quipped. We took a taxi to bbb, an independent space set a little further afield, which featured work by Grégory Derenne and Alexandre Désirée, recent graduates of Paris’s Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. Like last year, Bernard used the independent space to juxtapose large-scale canvases by an abstract painter (Désirée) and a figurative one (Derenne). A highlight of the festival was Cyprien Gaillard’s beautiful new film, Pruitt-Igoe Falls, which made its French premiere in an old municipal waterworks building––a not unsubtle nod to the waterfall depicted in the film, which is projected onto the cloud of dust that rises from a demolished Glaswegian building.
Early Friday evening, O’Neill’s commission for the festival, The Old Woman’s Shoe—a sculpture that will join the permanent collection of the Centre National des Arts Plastiques—was unveiled at the DRAC (Direction Régionale Affaires Culturelle Midi-Pyrénées). She made a speech in French, telling the story of Henri Rousseau and Pablo Picasso at a dinner together in Paris. Rousseau apparently toasted Picasso, saying, “You do Egyptian, and I do modern. Together we encompass it all.”
At the opening-night party in the courtyard of Toulouse’s Beaux-Arts, tuxedo-clad waiters passed canapés while dapper bartenders served Champagne Pommery, fast becoming the unofficial beverage of contemporary art in France, at the crowded bar. I compared notes on Frieze and FIAC with curator Vincent Honoré and dealer Catherine Bastide, and caught up with Gaillard, who was happily back from his residency at Proyectos Monclova in Mexico. He brought over a round of champagne and enjoyed the party a little incognito: “People may know my name, but they don’t know my face.” I left early, but Derenne confirmed that the party continued until first blush. As evidence, when passing by bbb Saturday morning I spotted a fully horizontal Désirée outside the gallery, still clutching his phone and a pack of cigarettes.