OF THE MANY OBSTACLES on the path to transcendence, volcanic ash may not be the most obvious. That said, escalating travel hassles drastically reduced attendance for last week’s art-world-takes-Eastern-Europe tour between a Mark Rothko opening at the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow and a group exhibition, “Sexuality and Transcendence,” at the PinchukArtCentre in Kiev. Following a week of distressed Facebook status messages, many jet-setters reconsidered the merits of flying to Moscow for a dinner party (even a really good one). It wasn’t so much flying in that was the problem. “Let’s face it,” occasional Muscovite Maria Baibakova observed. “No one wants to get stuck in Russia.”
Thankfully, the reduced crowds worked to the advantage of the Wednesday night Rothko opening. The show was sumptuously hung, taking full advantage of the Garage’s recent renovation. With a total of fourteen paintings (including two murals) spanning Rothko’s career, the exhibition represents the largest private holding of the artist’s work (and apparently the second largest overall, after the Smithsonian’s National Gallery).
As art adviser Sandy Heller walked me through the story of each painting, Pace Gallery’s Marc Glimcher cut in with a grin, “Whatever he was saying, let me pick up from there.” Noticing art historian and AbEx scholar Irving Sandler standing nearby, Glimcher immediately reconsidered; “I might try to steal the show from Sandy, but I’m not about to talk about these paintings within earshot of Irving.”
While elegantly executed, the opening had been slightly dampened by news that the hostess of the evening, Dasha Zhukova, was stuck in London. Accordingly, the planned dinner at Spaso House, the US ambassador’s residence, was canceled, though ambassador John Beyrle did put in an early appearance.
Proving volcanoes aren’t entirely merciless, Eyjafjallajökull relented enough for some surprise arrivals: first Naomi Campbell with Vlad Doronin; then the Garage’s international director, Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst; and finally Zhukova herself, who had been given clearance to fly at only 1 o’clock that afternoon. An impromptu dinner was arranged at Nedalny Vostok, whipping the press girls into a frenzy of phone calls and last-minute invitations.
Originally scheduled for Thursday night, Zhukova and Campbell’s five-thousand-Euro-a-head charity auction/fashion show was bumped to May out of concern that choice guests wouldn’t make it. Those who had made the trip clearly found a way to entertain themselves that evening, as Friday’s 10 AM flight to Kiev—fully booked a few days earlier with members of the migrating art crowd—was more or less deserted. Evidently, Moscow’s particular brand of hospitality had inspired rebookings for later flights (a suspicion confirmed by the bleary-eyed late arrivals at the PinchukArtCentre’s evening opening).
Somewhat scandal-worn from protests against the Sergey Bratkov exhibition last January, Kiev had braced itself for the worst with this new show. Despite the provocative title—affectionately redubbed “Sex and Trans”—the exhibition was remarkably dry. Spatially conceived as “nineteen solo exhibitions,” “S&T” featured never-before-exhibited (but still familiar) offerings by a lineup including Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Paul McCarthy, and Jeff Koons. As I heard curator Eckhard Schneider explain to collector Dakis Joannou, Koons is the “quarterback” of the exhibition, which itself spun out of the artist’s observation that “sexuality is a tremendous vehicle for transcendence.”
Not to say that the show was without sex; there were plenty of dirty paperback thrills to be found in Richard Prince’s “Nurse” paintings (appearing here amid a medicine-cabinet display of nurse hats and a nurse-hat “chair”). There were also Boris Mikhailov’s miscreant self-portraits with a dildo and Jan Fabre’s naughty schoolboy drawings, which flanked his Fountain of the World as a Young Artist, a prone, realistic wax figure with an impressive erection ejaculating amid a pile of tombstones. As I surveyed the scene, Fabre leaned in over my shoulder: “That’s me when I was twenty-one, you know,” he said. I opted to take him at his word. Meanwhile, beside me, a Ukrainian woman giggled to her friend, “I thought at first this was a performance!”
With more than half of the nineteen participating artists volcanoed out, the lavish afterparty was nixed in favor of a much more intimate reception at Victor Pinchuk’s apartment in the city. Instead of taking the stage, Ukrainian pop-oddity Jamala took to the corner of the living room, commanding the space with her powerful vocal cords.
Next to me, Pace’s James Lindon looked on with wide-eyed wonder, whispering, “She’s like Lady Gaga meets Amy Winehouse meets a Disney character.” As if on cue, the singer burst into a groaning, writhing, stomping, moaning protest: “I’m not Gaga, I’m not Amy, I’m Jamala . . .”
Pinchuk led the clapping in one song (sheepishly grinning when he missed a beat) and was one of the first on the floor when Jamila broke out an old Soviet chanson number. I took the slow song as my cue and ducked out for a champagne refill alongside fellow revelers including Koons, Joannou, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, Lisson’s Nicholas Logsdail, Haunch of Venison’s Harry Blain, Sotheby’s Loic Gouzer, collector Oleg Baybakov, and the Pace crew. You know, just your typical evening in Kiev . . .
By the time we were kindly encouraged to leave (pictures of Koon’s balloon dog served as departing party favors), we found buses waiting downstairs to take us to a club. (“DecaDance. Original,” Glimcher mused.) Thus began a night of confusing cab rides, confusing pop songs, and countless bottles of champagne. At one point, a small herd huddled outside, waiting for their drivers to take them to yet another club. As the first car pulled up, one dealer stopped abruptly: “Wait! Did anyone actually get that bill?”
The next day, Pinchuk, a consistently thoughtful host, organized a hangover brunch of sorts at his country house, featuring Ukrainian dishes served by women in Old Rus’ attire. I stuck to coffee, and headed instead to the Bessarabsky Rynok, an indoor marketplace directly across from the PinchukArtCentre, where AES+F were inaugurating the newest installation of a ninety-yard banner, part of the Feast of Trimalchio project that premiered last summer in Venice. The work imagines a five-star resort and a cast of characters engaged in an indifferent sort of hedonism; it struck an amusing resonance within Kiev’s marketplace, where it caused quite a lot of excitement among the fruit vendors. Apparently the path to transcendence doesn’t always require jet-setting.
LAST THURSDAY, the Brooklyn Museum’s annual Brooklyn Ball featured Icons, “a once-in-a-lifetime, participatory food journey through the Brooklyn Museum as inspired by some of the greatest icons of contemporary art” devised by “food artist” Jennifer Rubell, daughter of collectors Don and Mera Rubell, who buzzed around the event kvelling like the parents of the bar mitzvah kid. “For Icons”—I continue to quote from the press release, because who could beat this—“Jennifer Rubell will indulge guests with a drink from four Marcel Duchamp inspired champagne fountains, and eight drink paintings in which the ‘drip’ is a cocktail guests serve themselves through a spigot poking through the canvas (in homage to Jackson Pollock). Hors-d’oeuvres will consist of suspended cheese sculptures in the shape of human heads, surrounded by heat bulbs, which cause them to drip onto a pedestal of crackers below, in homage to Bruce Nauman . . . the main course references Joseph Beuys’s work Explaining Pictures to a Dead Hare and features rabbits, pigs, turkeys, and legs of beef to be self-carved by guests who will then be seated at six one-hundred-foot tables covered with grey felt.”
Too bad Thorstein Veblen couldn’t make it. It was droll watching the dressed-up crowd self-serve from the installations in a display of “nonproductive labor” that the inventor of the term “conspicuous consumption” would have relished.
“I just don’t think this should be taken seriously as art,” said a painter as we entered the hors d’oeuvres gallery, which buzzed with cocktail clatter and reeked of fromage. Bare canvas “drink paintings” lined the walls. Paul McCarthy–inspired pedestals were scattered with accumulations of chips, assorted dips in paint tubes, mismatched beverage glasses, and crackers. Solemn guards stood beside each tableau to clarify which was lemonade, which bourbon, which rum and Coke, etc., as the art patrons fumbled with the spigots. Alas, the white wine was warm, as was the flat “champagne” that did however achieve an uncanny “urinal” effect squirting out of the fountain into my glass.
The dripping cheese heads were a highlight. Jerry Saltz, asking people about their shoes and shadowed by a video guy, admitted he was “afraid of it.” Indeed, it was treacherous. As I greedily reached for more melted Gruyère from one of the blobs that had landed on the base, I almost got splattered with a gob on my sleeve, much to the amusement of my friend. Dodging the drips, a bunch of arms with cameras waved upward, shooting the heads as they decomposed; among the photographers was Diane von Furstenberg, who seemed fascinated with the process. Chloë Sevigny wandered around in a cropped denim jacket, black mini, and booties, not seeming to run into anyone she knew. She nonchalantly ate a bunch of chips from a giant pile. Our eyes met, which was weird.
As I watched the fancy crowd nibbling from the various “installations,” I pondered how apt it was that the daughter of major collectors presents “art” as something literally to consume: “Masterpieces of contemporary art” is a party theme to entertain with; “process art” is serving yourself from a sculpture that melts into a spread for your crackers.
In the giant rotunda, on more monolithic serving pedestals, the dinner installation was a festive Night and Fog scenario for carnivores. Accumulations of whole-roasted rabbits (including the heads) were piled up; masses of ducks, birds, huge legs of beef, and entire roasted pigs presented an unsettling nature morte of beasts for the gala guests to feast upon. I recalled my childhood pet bunny, Bugsy (sniff). The piles of animal carcasses were a creepy metaphor for the food chain of consumption that a gala like this celebrates: While I’m all for irreverently foregrounding Art as something to consume (“meritoriously,” Veblen would deadpan, as a “worthy” consumer), the literal carnage on display here was a gruesome reminder of all the violence, all the inequity, all the obscenity that is part and parcel of the luxury food chain. Fabulous.
Left: Chef Mario Batali with the Warhol piñata. Right: Artists Nate Lowman (left) and Todd Eberle (center). (Photo: John Arthur Peetz)
The art patrons’ dessert was a twenty-foot-high piñata in the shape of Andy Warhol’s head. I watched several well-dressed gentlemen vigorously whack the artist’s noggin with baseball bats.
“There’s a lot of anger there,” quipped a chap beside me. “This is called ‘venting,’ ” he chuckled. One lady stepped up to represent for the chicks. She took one good whack with the bat, self-consciously made a victory sign to her pals, and quickly scurried away.
What was inside Warhol’s head?
A variety of snack cakes tumbled out: Funny Bones, Suzy Q’s, Yankee Doodles, and hot pink Sno Balls.
“Nothing would have been perfect.”
“NEO-TOKYO IS is About to Explode!” ran the immortal tagline for Katsuhiro Otomo’s seminal Akira. But it also could have described the hyperbolic anticipation for what was easily the most exclusive ticket in Tokyo last Tuesday: GAGAKOH! (A portmanteau—you know, like Brangelina.) For the event, M·A·C Viva Glam and KCD Worldwide (the special-event experts also behind this week’s Jeanne-Claude memorial at the Met) convinced a new club, Tabloid, to launch their new space with a special performance for nine-hundred guests, each as preciously selected as a six-thousand-yen mango at the Takashimaya gourmet grocery.
Lady Gaga, current M·A·C Viva Glam spokeswoman, brought Terence Koh into the project after doing two other design collaborations with him: the double-headed piano for her duet with Elton John at the 2010 Grammys, and the be-mannequined Baldwin piano she played in February at the Gala for amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research. In Koh, Gaga seems to have found her flamboyant and press-hungry art-world counterpart. Or as she illustrated for me: “When I’m around Terence I just want to poop out art ideas nonstop.”
Their mutual embrace strikes Koh as unusual: “The art world is a bubble that, like the fashion bubble and the music bubble, is just not ready to fuse into a new bubble.” Go on, Terence: “Art is a diamond. The rest is just soft, silk pillows for art to tear apart.”
Left: Artist Cyprien Gaillard. Right: Dancers for GAGAKOH!
The mostly silk-pillow audience nevertheless seemed into the art. Among the fashion vanguard, club-kid elite, and music cognoscenti were Yoshiko Mori, chairperson of the Mori Art Museum, and Mori assistant curator Reiko Tsubaki. And what party would be complete without US Ambassador John Roos?
Guests also included actresses Rinko Kikuchi and Riisa Naka, pop star Crystal Kay, and sumo wrestler Baruto Kaito, recently promoted to ōzeki ranking. More familiar to the artsy stateside crowd, perhaps, was gaikokujin Cyprien Gaillard, who was in Japan to shoot a video. He was also nursing an ankle he sprained when he fell from a tree. “Today, I bought a new cane,” he boasted.
For GAGAKOH!, Koh repatriated the mannequin piano, crowning it with a five-foot-tall papier-mâché bunny head—Koh’s “spirit animal.” Despite a late start, the show was otherwise seamless, but hung by a thread. Koh, inspired by a stately Shinto wedding procession at the Meiji Temple, decided to unplug his original vision—the day before the event. “I wanted something by the Japanese and for the Japanese,” he said. So Koh ordered a traditional bridal headdress and a new batch of fabrics, which sent the production team scrambling through Tokyo garment shops. (Even this writer had to help by consoling his battle-torn boyfriend, who worked on the show.) “It’s like an episode of Project Runway!” cried the stylist, who was filling in for another, grounded in Paris by Eyjafjallajökull.
The result was a ceremonial convoy beginning outside Tabloid, in which four chiseled studs in tighty-whiteys and bunny masks led Gaga and Koh—veiled and silent—into the club. The ephebes ushered them onstage and through the striped curtain that hung from the ceiling, three stories above.
The crowd cheered as the curtain ascended and the stage began to revolve. Gaga opened with “Speechless,” while Koh joined in with atonal vocals sung in the “secret” language he rapped for Art History: 1642–2009, his pedagogical slide show at Performa 2009. Koh’s yodel sounded about as compatible with Gaga’s melody as fans’ graffiti on her new Hermès Birkin. Between verses, Gaga teased Koh. “I can’t understand a word you’re saying!”
Was he putting asunder the art and entertainment bubbles that industry gods had joined together? “All I was thinking was, ‘I sound like a horse and Gaga sounds like a magical angel,’ ” he later confided. “So that makes it art.”
During “Alejandro,” the muscle boys thrusted and writhed until two dancers finally stalked toward each other and locked lips. It was steamy—and more than welcome—but nearly passé amid the other dancers’ overt go-go erotics.
Gaga concluded with “Bad Romance,” and the music simmered to a pulsating bass drone. The dancers slavishly delivered long fluorescent tube lamps to Gaga and Koh, then crawled away. Koh resumed his pseudo-Gregorian crooning, while shuffling toward Gaga like a blind man. He filed behind her, pressing as if asexually consummating their union. The lamps formed into a cross, and artificial snow and cherry blossoms fluttered down from above. “The silk-pillow snowstorm killing everyone” was Koh’s take. Sure, though I thought it was rather pretty.
PREDICTING CLOUD OVER GLASGOW is easy enough, but no one could have anticipated that a cloud of volcanic ash would be the burden of this year’s Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art. With UK airspace on lockdown this past weekend it meant delays and disappointments, or, in some cases, a convenient excuse for respite for trapped and weary travelers. When I arrived at the festival’s opening reception last Thursday at the baroque Kelvingrove Art Gallery, the official speeches had already begun, and a small crowd was eagerly awaiting director Katrina Brown to kick things off so everyone could have their chance to take a cramped walk around the vitrines housing David Shrigley’s new drawings and sculptural works.
After a glass of prosecco and a quick look around, I made my way to the theater/visual art multiplex Tramway for the opening of Christoph Büchel’s latest immersive installation, Last Man Out Turn Off Lights. When I arrived, the space was packed with local artists, fresh-faced art students, and troupes of rather tired looking Glaswegians. I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t see Büchel’s makeshift prison that night—there was a growing queue and a ten-at-a-time restriction on getting inside—and I began to tour the other exhibitions. Hometown boy Douglas Gordon was showing his classic 24 Hour Psycho (again), while Keren Cytter’s Four Seasons video played nearby. I spotted Büchel amid the crowds, his head bandaged, a DIY eye patch on his face. By all accounts, the install had been a stressful one, so I was vaguely surprised to hear that the injury was self-inflicted. (I didn’t inquire further.) There was a free bar, but the growing audience quickly ran it dry. By 1 AM, Susan Philipsz and Büchel had repaired to the official party at hip bar Stereo, where many of the same faces danced off the excess alcohol right to the bitter end.
Left: Mary Mary gallery director Hannah Robinson with the Modern Institute's Lindsey Hanlon. Right: Artists Martin Boyce, Michael Wilkinson, and Richard Wright.
Friday morning I was on the trail, ferried around Glasgow in a taxi to various other hotspots. Highlights on the whistle-stop tour included David Noonan’s sculptural installation at an off-site venue with Washington Garcia, Claire Barclay at Glasgow Print Studio, and the redoubtable Linder at Sorcha Dallas. Later that night I hit the private view for “On Publications, Portraits, Public Art, and Performance” (featuring cameos by Warhol and Elizabeth Peyton) at the Modern Institute’s old Robertson Street space, curated by New Jerseyy’s Daniel Baumann, which kicked off a slew of gallery-associated events. From the after-show party, an even larger group of wearied revelers made their way to the second official party at the Glasgow School of Art, where local DJs Optimo played a gig. (This one I decided to hear about secondhand.)
Saturday the art crowd was again revivified, with help from some additions from London, and it seemed that just about everyone gathered for lunch-cum-supper to celebrate Jim Lambie’s exhibition and the launch of the Modern Institute’s new space on Osborne Street. By the time of the evening preview, a queue had begun to form as the gallery quickly filled to capacity. Inside, Lambie’s new work punctuated the walls with vibrant colors, echoing the lively mood, and gallery directors Toby Webster and Andrew Hamilton both seemed rightly proud of the airy, immaculate space. In the gallery’s library Connor Donlon of Donlon Books set up shop—his Cambridge Heath Road store in London being closed for the duration of the festival. After the opening, we made a pit stop at Mono, a local artist hangout, before heading on to yet another afterparty, this time back in the same, now reorganized, spot where we’d had lunch. Here, the same faces joined a whole raft of others to enjoy the last—and best—knees up of the weekend.
“THE FIRST TIME I built my own database, I actually used hacked data structures!”
That the preliminary chatter among audience members at Seven on Seven—a recent half-day conference staged by Rhizome at the New Museum—was geekier than usual for an art-world event was perhaps to be expected. Organizers Fred Benenson, John Michael Boling, John Borthwick, Lauren Cornell, and Peter Rojas had paired seven artists with seven “game-changing technologists” and challenged them to collaborate on something—anything—new. Having been given only a day to come up with a suitably innovative product, artwork, or app, each duo was now asked to deliver a twenty-minute presentation of their idea, to be followed by some Q&A and the fairly distant prospect (at least in the moment) of a cocktail reception in the institution’s seventh-floor Skyroom.
First to bat was the team of artist Marc Andre Robinson and computer scientist Hilary Mason. Warming up quickly after a hesitant start, the pair unveiled their proposal: an umbrella. Not just any umbrella, mind you—this outwardly unremarkable object was equipped to “record and understand its own history” via an array of features more commonly found on an iPhone. Naturally, the umbrella has its own website, but perhaps less predictably it also speaks JASON, a language that is, according to Mason, “friendly to both humans and robots.” A question citing “push-based technologies” that soared over my head hit home with Mason. Her response—something about “reference implementations”—had me furrowing my brow but prompted gales of laughter from the better-informed. A simpler question— “How much would it cost?”—earned an answer in more prosaic style: “That depends if you buy it with a subsidized data plan or not.”
Next to take the stage were artist Evan Roth and founding developer of the WordPress blogging software Matt Mullenweg. According to Mullenweg, the ready availability of an “overwhelming amount of data” ultimately led the duo back to WordPress. Funny, that. Focusing on the banal styling of the site’s administrative interface and the lack of fanfare greeting the publication of a new post, they added a few supposed enhancements including a “This post is super-awesome!” box and a mysterious “surprise” option. The latter brought forth visions of that film The Box, but no mysterious deaths or million-dollar payouts resulted from pressing this particular button, just a few funny videos. To this writer it all seemed rather silly, but both participants remained evangelical about the Web’s creative potential. Roth: “If you’re interested in eyeballs, brain space, and an influence on the culture, then this is the way to go.”
Team number three comprised artist Tauba Auerbach and artist-engineer Ayah Bdeir. Sharing “a distaste for cute, bulbous things” and an interest in “making technology not look like technology,” they had converged on the idea of a “renegade” interactive sculpture that would physically reconfigure itself only when people were absent. In spite of some problems with the tabletop-size prototype (Auerbach: “With a little coaxing, it kind of works”; Bdeir: “It’s a bit ghetto, but we only had a day”), the idea was an appealing reinvigoration of a tired form. Next came a return to the virtual world as artist Kristin Lucas and Web developer Andrew Kortina presented their scheme for allowing Twitter users to swap online identities. I sank into my chair, but what seemed at first a trivial concept in the mold of Roth and Mullenweg’s was pushed much further to encompass a raft of ideas around the formation, recognition, ownership, and control of individual human traits. Lucas also brought personal experience to bear; in a 2008 work she changed her name legally to the same name, a process she described, winningly, as “like refreshing a Web page.”
Another Web entrepreneur, David Karp, was paired with artist Ryan Trecartin. Their project was a kind of stripped-down YouTube mutation that generated an endless flow of ten-second clips; it was organized by simple thematic tags but otherwise open-ended and entirely anonymous. “YouTube promotes hate,” Trecartin observed in reference to the site’s relentlessly negative comments, and proposed his version as an antiviral, free-associative alternative. Software engineer Joshua Schachter and Raqs Media Collective cofounder Monica Narula also made use of the Web, suggesting an “absolution exchange” that would allow users to post their guilty secrets and receive suggested penances (seemingly confined to charity donations).
Last to present were Cloudera VP Jeff Hammerbacher and artist Aaron Koblin. “We set out to challenge ourselves,” began Hammerbacher, “and maybe we did so a little too successfully.” The duo’s proposed innovation, a reimagining of the DSM guidelines to mental health classification and treatment, was certainly an ambitious one, and on the face of it rather more serious than most, but Hammerbacher’s weakness for off-color terminology (“normal” and “crazy” were juxtaposed too often for comfort), office/college humor (LOL cats?!), and jargon (“all we’ve got is a bunch of Python code”) came close to scuppering the enterprise. All the more fortunate, then, that his closing observation—“Technology and art both have a rich history of being informed by mental illness”—was universally appreciated.
“FOR YEARS, we’ve wanted to celebrate with our friends and embrace our deepest supporters, but we also wanted to take the time to really do it right,” explained Art Production Fund cofounders Yvonne Force Villareal and Doreen Remen. Why else wait ten years to throw a blowout like Monday night’s lavish APF Birthday Party/Benefit at The Standard? “Do you think it was worth the wait?”
With such ageless hostesses, who’s counting, anyway? Force and Remen beamed as they warmly greeted each (!) attendee at the door. Gleeful old friends and new plus-ones coasted in and exchanged blessings, then trotted on to even more open arms (and bottles).
When Anne Pasternak arrived, artist Lucas Michael—the gregarious gals’ former roommate twenty years ago at RISD—noted, “It’s special when the president of Creative Time comes to an Art Production Fund event.” Pasternak giggled as she and Remen compared cleavage, consulting with each other about where to bare one of the Kiki Smith–designed temporary tattoos that, later in the night, would brand almost every chest, shoulder, forearm, and cheek.
“It’s rare that these individuals can gather so intimately,” collector Aby Rosen elucidated. He paused to applaud a glam rock ensemble featuring Kembra Pfahler backed up by Deitch Projects director Kathy Grayson and artist Rosson Crow—all topless, all painted cardinal (or carnal?) red. Rosen continued: “It proves that Yvonne and Doreen are the center of a vital community.”
The performers’ voluminous wigs were rivaled only by the magnificent bouffant of Jane Holzer, whom Force and Remen had toasted moments before. As one of the night’s special honorees, “Baby” Jane answered cries for a speech with a concise, and sultry, “Thank you.” She could say more with her stirring gaze, still electric even forty-five years after her oral courtship with a stick of gum for a Warhol screen test. The birthday/benefit also honored philanthropist Jennifer McSweeney, who directs the munificent Creative Link for the Arts. But ultimately, everyone looked like an honoree, mutually reinforcing fabulosity as the crowd multiplied. The Boom Boom Room was capacious enough to accommodate the rapid influx of hundreds of well-rubbed elbows. As collector scion Kyle DeWoody noted with a smirk, “This isn’t the kind of crowd that waits in a line.”
Midcareer power couple John Currin and Rachel Feinstein held court in one corner, within earshot of Tobias Meyer and Mark Fletcher, while Richard Phillips and Josephine Meckseper, along with Will Cotton and Rose Dergan, shuttled along the entryway corridor. Sean Landers roamed in distinguished-man-of-letters chic, more tempered than the distressed Narcissus articulated in his book, sic, which APF reanimated last month at a reading cosponsored with White Columns. Aimee Mullins (of Cremaster fame) shimmered in a floor-length gown, and Hauser & Wirth’s Cay Sophie Rabinowitz accessorized with a sapphire Tom Binns necklace given to her by the recently late Malcolm McLaren and his partner Young Kim. Dealer Stefania Bortolami, four inches taller than usual, boasted that she was wearing heels “for the first time in years.” And Terence Koh, who is collaborating with Lady Gaga in Tokyo this weekend on a “secret project,” had taken his right-hand men shopping that day at Commes des Garçons to ensure that they be were up to (dress) code: “I’m glad that the recession is over.”
An alien tourist might have wondered: What recession? Flutes of champagne spontaneously materialized; indeed, one might set down one’s glass to shake a hand, then turn back to find that the drink had produced a twin. Leaving no detail unattended, Force and Remen had selected Dom Pérignon 2000. “The millennial vintage,” confirmed Whitney curator Carter Foster.
As the night cooled and the crowd thinned, Remen cooed with Carlos Mota and some dashing ladies’ men, while Force struck chiaroscuro poses in the exotic, candlelit set arranged by Jessica Craig-Martin. Among friends Amy Sacco and Casey Spooner—and a small army of ravishing blondes—Force reclined and vamped like a contemporary Olympia, her smile feline and flawless from all angles.
LAST WEEKEND Venice opened its sleepy eyes to witness a flurry of openings framed, more or less, by the absence of Damien Hirst. Disembarking from the vaporetto on Friday evening in front of the San Stae church, I went straight to the Museo di Palazzo Mocenigo for the inauguration of Tristano Di Robilant’s “Otto Sculture” (Eight Sculptures). Now a museum of period domesticity and costume, the dusty seventeenth-century palazzo feels as if its residents have just gone out, leaving their shoes next to chairs and bath towels draped over the claw-foot tub.
The translucent glass sculptures, displayed on pedestals in a long central salon with windows at either end, conduct the changing sunlight and undulate like timid phantoms. “Like poetry, these works communicate much with few words,” commented the museum’s director, Paola Chiapperino. At one end of the room, an amber sculpture inspired by Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno was composed of three graduated mountain-shaped layers, one inside the other. “It refers to Bruno’s belief in the infinite possibility of other worlds,” Di Robilant said. “The owner of this palazzo, Giovanni Mocenigo, is the one who denounced him as a heretic.” It also just so happens that Mocenigo is the artist’s ancestor.
Just one of a series of coincidences that echoed throughout the weekend. On the way out I met dealer Caterina Tognon. “It’s very interesting to have a gallery in Venice, but also complicated: For long periods there is nothing, and then the whole world is here.” Indeed the Venetian archipelago seems suspended in time, making the anachronistic seem perfectly normal, and the decadent maze of streets, campi, and bridges eventually leads everyone to the same place. The next evening all roads led across town to the Palazzo Palumbo Fossati, where the Galleria Michela Rizzo opened Damien Hirst’s exhibition “Death in Venice.”
Left: Art historian Raphael Cuir and Orlan. Right: Jane and Philip Rylands, director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
In the courtyard I was surprised by a group of Pulcinellas, who presumably had arrived from their native Naples. More in context, if not in period, were gentlemen with plumed hats and ladies embellished with flounces and curly wigs. In the middle of it all was Philip Rylands, director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and his wife Jane. “What a nice party,” she said. “We need more of these. Everybody passes through here but nothing ever seems to happen.” What dominated Hirst’s show upstairs was no surprise: skulls depicted in shimmering acid colors or diamond-dusted silk screens, ten new collages of skulls with human features cut from magazines, dazzling butterfly prints, and a wooden crucifix embellished with pills. “I don’t find these very disturbing,” critic Silvia Moretti Dehò noted. “Maybe it’s because they are too close to contemporary reality, but then perhaps that is the point.”
The afterparty, organized by Antonia Sautter of the annual Doges Ball, was paradise disguised as Dante’s Inferno. It just happened to take place at another Palazzo Mocenigo, now the residence of Baronessa Joanita Van Amerongen and American entrepreneur Steve Green. We were greeted in the entrance by red carpets lined with candles. Funereal music set the tone for a scenario featuring a winged devil, like some extra from a Matthew Barney film, caressing a skull and attended by a diabolical-looking dwarf with a skull scepter and two giant masked crows. I imagine this is what a Marc Jacobs party looks like. I ran into the host and we ascended the stairs together. “Andrea Di Robilant thinks he owns this,” he said as we passed a Napoleonic statue. He was referring to artist Tristano’s brother, who wrote a book about their ancestor, Lucia Memmo Mocenigo, a former resident there and Lord Byron’s landlady. Never underestimate the convolutions of lineage and history in this crazy place. Green paused on the landing to sit on a gold throne.
Left: Dealer Paul Stolper and daughters. Right: At the party for Damien Hirst.
The buffet tables were adorned with giant golden serpents and laden with such Venetian delights as pigeon lasagna (hopefully not the same ones that inhabit Piazza San Marco—but then where else would they get them?). A female string quartet, all dressed in virginal white period costume with head plumes, played while the devil in ram horns and his dwarf assistant mingled with the guests—an ecumenical mix of minor celebrities, Italian artists, journalists, Orlan and husband Raphael Cuir, and locals, including two female gondoliers and flamboyant pianist Enrique Pérez de Guzmàn, who sported a diamond-crusted brooch (he also lives on the palatial floor below). Although the next-door neighbors, Brangelina and Johnny Depp, in town to film Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Tourist, were confirmed guests, nobody saw them—and nobody seemed to care much.
Toward the end of the evening, dealer Paul Stolper’s daughter Georgia, stripped of her stifling seventeenth-century dress, arrived at my side with her friend Ruth, both of them flushed and panting. “We have to hide—the devil is chasing us!” she said. The surreal Eyes Wide Shut vibe grew ever more convincing. On our way out, we watched a Milanese model agency owner, flanked by two towering ingenues, wait for a boat taxi while the blonde and brunette shivered in their minis. Hirst himself seems to be everywhere but Venice these days—reportedly Mexico City that night. Green recounted, “Some guy kept asking me, ‘Where is Damien?’ So I told him, ‘Oh, he’s in the other room.’ Brad and Johnny were the ones with the black masks—they didn’t want to be recognized.”
WITH VERY FEW EXCEPTIONS—PBS’s Art:21 and the occasional British import—contemporary art is conspicuous by its absence from mainstream American TV. To some this might seem a rank injustice, but given the obvious pitfalls, it may equally represent a lucky escape. Arriving at the Paley Center for Media for a Wednesday evening preview of Bravo’s new reality series Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, I felt more trepidation than would have accompanied any insider event. How would the art world fare at the hands of producers who aimed to do for it, in the words of the cable channel’s Frances Berwick, “what we’ve done for fashion and food”? Would the featured artists (who are, of course, pitted against one another in the bankable manner of Project Runway, Top Chef, and RuPaul’s Drag Race) survive the presumed emphasis on pizzazz? And would the judges shed all credibility by association with this demotic form?
Taking a seat (the crowd was split between journos and those who I took, by their relatively well-heeled appearance, to be industry types), I settled in for a screening of the hour-long first episode. Intimacy with the subject of such a program tends to make the viewer hypersensitive to the details of its construction, and such was the case here. Editing was staccato and manipulative, competitors seemed to have been chosen entirely for their looks (though the judges later denied this), and “reality” seemed very far away indeed as the familiar struggles of most artists were displaced by a hothouse fantasy of prestocked studios and Project Runway–style accommodations designed to spark rivalry from the get-go.
The artists, competing for the mixed blessing of a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum (Artnet’s Walter Robinson later wondered how the show’s producers, Magical Elves, secured the venue—apparently they just asked), ran the gamut of stereotypes from untrained and overawed to world-weary and imperious, though most had their quirks. And while the majority were young and telegenic, there were one or two exceptions. The host was immaculate ’90s It Girl China Chow (additionally qualified for the role by having been “born into a family of collectors”); the “mentor” was auctioneer Simon de Pury (presumably Tobias Meyer had other commitments); and the judges were Jerry Saltz, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, and Bill Powers, fashion-forward proprietor of Half Gallery. Contributing a bit of real star power, executive producer Sarah Jessica Parker also made a brief appearance.
As the competition’s first challenge—the artists were paired off and asked to make portraits of each other—rattled toward its conclusion (the usual dramatic “voting-off” shenanigans), I found myself paying less and less attention to the (overwhelmingly dire) work and more to compiling a list of sententious quotes: “Wall power, that’s what you want” (de Pury); “To you, it’s a portrait, but to no one else will it ever be a portrait” (Saltz); “I’m getting falling leaves, is what I’m getting off this” (Powers), and the definitive “There’s no excuse for a bad painting” (Saltz again). Also good for a laugh were token tough guy Erik Johnson asking de Pury—to bemused reaction—if he fancied hitting a strip club after the show; senior feminist Judith Braun clashing with junior sexpot Jaclyn Santos; and Chow’s chilling dismissal of the show’s first loser: “It’s been said that good art isn’t what it looks like but what it makes us feel. Your art didn’t make us feel anything.” Ouch.
The Q&A that followed—host and judges, along with SJP and co-producer Dan Cutforth, were all present—was good-natured, perhaps because most questions came from TV folk astonished that a show about art could be anything other than “stuffy” (initially misheard by Saltz as “scuzzy”). Accessibility was stressed again and again, but while it would be po-faced indeed to ignore the show’s more amusing interactions, it was hard to avoid feeling that some valuable middle ground between fusty and trashy was being overlooked. And when the panelists were asked whether they had managed to find “the next great artist,” I think we can take that long, awkward pause—Saltz’s shit-stirring claim “I saw artists here that were better than artists in the Whitney Biennial” notwithstanding—as a probably not. Oh well. The tribe has spoken.
IF APRIL REALLY IS the cruelest month, March comes a close second––particularly in Helsinki. The city’s aged cobblestone streets were still covered in patches of ice when I arrived from New York the Friday before last, and mounds of rigid gray snow lined the roads, recalcitrant in the intermittent freezing rain. Despite the fog and the frost, there was warmth to be found amid the small but energetic local art community, which was kicking off the second annual IHME Days, a three-day program of lectures, workshops, and panels, as well as a “club” that was copresented with the new-media festival Pixelache. This year, the Days probed sound art and public art with special attention given to the 2010 IHME commissioned project by Scottish artist Susan Philipsz. Other annual early spring events include reindeer races and ice-angling marathons in northern Lapland. I kept to the art; some highlights follow.
In Finnish, a (the?) most entrancing language, ihme means “wonder,” which is an amusing word to connect to Nordic contemporary art, given the amount in grants and support Scandinavian artists receive from their governments—even if such “wondrous” funding has diminished in the past few years. The Pro Arte Foundation that manages IHME is privately funded, however, and it is organized by some of Helsinki’s most notable cultural advocates, including chair Tuula Arkio, the founding and now retired director of Kiasma, Helsinki’s contemporary art museum. Arkio kicked off Friday’s events at the city’s Old Student House with a short speech, noting that Philipsz would not be present––the artist had other engagements, her solo show at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery that opened the same day in New York chief among them. A performance of John Cage’s 4'33" by Swedish artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff and Finnish art historian Petri Kuljuntausta on two vintage guitars followed; the moment of silence seemed a suitable way to begin. Kiasma curator Leevi Haapala and IHME project manager Paula Toppila later told me that the Finns invented text messaging so they wouldn’t have to talk to one another. Thanks, Nokia!
Left: Curator Mary Jane Jacob. (Photo: Kai Widell) Right: The outside of the student house hosting IHME Days. (Photo: Lauren O’Neill-Butler)
A more obvious link to the culture could be found in Philipsz’s When Day Closes, which is installed in the most trafficked place in the country: the Saarinen-designed central railway station. The work is an a cappella rendition of a melancholic Finnish lullaby from Aleksis Kivi’s 1870 novel Seven Brothers. On Saturday, Reina Sofía chief curator Lynne Cooke contextualized Philipsz’s art with nods to sound-art poster child Max Neuhaus, as well as Cage, Donald Judd, Richard Serra, and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. (All very Dia, until Cooke began to talk about Philipsz’s recent work at the twelfth-century Spanish monastery Santo Domingo de Silos and its relation to the chants sung by the Gregorian monks who still live there.) Cooke concluded by noting that in Philipsz’s work, “Sound is the material, but it isn’t the art,” a thought that echoed peculiarly a few hours later during a performance of some eighty people rhythmically shouting in the student house, where most of the lectures and events took place. The production, organized by Finland’s famous Mieskuoro Huutajat, a choir of men shouters, was by far the most aberrant moment of the weekend: I was unsure whether it was art or just insanity. There’s a documentary about the group—the first Finnish film to enter Sundance, and a scream, surely.
Later that night at Kosmos, a restaurant co-designed by Alvar Alto, I caught up with the leader of the pack, Petri Sirviö, over some native arctic char, sea buckthorn berry soup, and a tart cloudberry meringue. Sirviö talked about working with fifty or so volunteers, the majority of whom were women, in a three-hour workshop earlier that day. “They were fast learners,” he said and explained that though he sees the choir as something of a men’s club, he also wants the performances to be considered a critique of patriarchy. Not that there’s much to critique in Helsinki; women gained the right to vote in 1906, a first in Europe, and today Finland boasts a woman president, Tarja Halonen. To boot, there aren’t any gender-specific pronouns in Finnish––“We use hän,” the art historian Hanna Johansson told me, “which stands for he or she.”
On Sunday, I skipped the events that were presented only in Finnish, such as presentations by ten contemporary artists about working in public space and a “trial” investigating the arts in Finland and the economic downturn. Instead, I stopped by a few galleries with Helsingin Sanomat critic Timo Valjakka, including the Kluuvi Gallery, where Pekka Nevalainen’s Op-inspired paintings on discarded pieces of wood made a special impression. (The saunas in the 1928 Art Deco Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall were pretty stimulating too.) I doubled back to the closing party at the student house but not before stopping once more at the railway station. In the central hall, I found a few passengers lingering, soothed by Philipsz’s voice. “Grove of Tuoni, grove of peace!” she softly recites. “There all strife and passion cease. Distant the treacherous world.” Or, as T. S. Eliot (and Madonna) would have had it: Shantih, shantih, shantih.
Left: IHME project manager Paula Toppila and Kiasma curator Leevi Haapala. Right: Black Horse playing at a concert presented by IHME Days and Pixelache. (Photos: Lauren O’Neill-Butler)
Left and right: David Thomas as Père Ubu at Le Poisson Rouge in New York. (Photos: Richard Gehr)
DAVID THOMAS IS A “DIFFICULT ARTIST” in every sense of the term. Greil Marcus called him a “crank prophet.” In his band Pere Ubu’s early days, he called himself Crocus Behemoth. I call him batshit crazy. But there’s nothing wrong with that, particularly when you’ve consistently created some of the most challenging and influential music of the past three decades. Tall, stout, tightly wound, given to Tourettic outbursts, Thomas embodies the insecure male id inflated to mammoth proportions, so it’s surprising that it took him so long to assume the character from which his band took its name, the monstrously infantile throne-usurper Ubu Roi (King Ubu). The subject of a scathing and scatological 1896 play by the French proto-Absurdist/Surrealist Alfred Jarry, Ubu symbolizes all that is greedy, power-hungry, and self-serving about humanity. He is a one-size-fits-all villain, in that partisans of every stripe can project their bêtes noires onto him. I may be wrong, but I have a sinking suspicion that, for Thomas, Ubu is Barack Obama.
This is not an intuitive comparison. Ubu is fat, Polish, and destructively moronic (besides the Polish part, something like a retarded Göring); Obama is slim, black, and constructively intelligent. Nevertheless, there were enough hints in Thomas’s adaptation and performance to make me think that he’s currently worried about “liberal fascism” in America. Retitled Bring Me the Head of Ubu Roi in Thomas’s abbreviated musical adaptation, the play found Thomas and his bandmates playing multiple roles, with original animations by the Brothers Quay projected on a screen to the side of the stage. The piece premiered in London in April 2008; Sunday’s scaled-down performance at Le Poisson Rouge was its debut (and perhaps only) staging in the US.
After a long wait (I arrived early to secure a cabaret-style, two-drink-minimum table), the lights dimmed and Thomas emerged, dressed in a long, black raincoat. Thinner than in the old days, though still physically imposing, he resembled Rush Limbaugh as a homeless flasher. He briefly summarized the plot of Ubu Roi (“a fucked-up Macbeth”) and announced that he’d lost his voice (though he hadn’t) and that he would be playing both Père Ubu and his conniving, ambitious wife, Mère Ubu (the latter role was played by ex-Communards singer Sarah Jane Morris in London). He hastened to add in his characteristically impatient way that the play “is not supposed to make sense. When I was growing up, no one ever told me I had to make sense.”
Thomas then intoned the once scandalous first word of the play—“Merdre!” (“shit” with an extra R)—and three of his bandmates marched out and started striking angular Sprockets poses as a harsh drum machine and synth blasted through the PA. Keyboard and theremin player Robert Wheeler was wearing a spelunker’s headlamp. Young drummer Steve Mehlman was wearing a dress. Midway through the first song, Thomas waved his hands and said, “Hold it. Stop. Rewind. I’ve lost my place.” He explained to the audience that there would be many fuck-ups later, but he didn’t want to start off with one. Thomas’s voice for Mère Ubu was a standard falsetto, but his voice for Père Ubu evoked an unhinged Tom Waits (who in turn evoked an unhinged Louis Armstrong—this is one of the Obama clues).
The plot, in Thomas’s abridged adaptation, really was a fucked-up Macbeth, so I won’t recount it here, beyond high- and lowlights. In various songs, Thomas referred to the crown of Poland, which he stole by murdering King Wenceslas, as “the big sombrero.” Ubu decides to “liquidate the nobles and take their coin . . . in order to save the children” (in the original play, but on the eve of the passage of the health care reform bill, another Obama hint). After playing a recording of a child asking why all his community’s traditions were being abandoned, Thomas said that it was a verbatim transcription of a child Senator Chuck Schumer brought in for testimony to “tell us why we all have to change our lives.” “I’ve confused Robert,” Thomas added, “he only watches MSNBC” (more liberal/Obama-baiting).
Throughout the show, Thomas loudly berated his bandmates for perceived errors. During a moment of silence between songs, he yelled, “It’s quiet! I don’t want fucking quiet!” The crowd began to whoop. “I wasn’t talking to you,” he snapped. During another pause he bellowed, “Play! Play, you fucking fucksticks!” “I sympathize with Ubu,” Thomas quipped, “I have to do everything myself too.” When bassist Michele Temple delivered a line as the Polish army, he admonished her for not sounding feminine enough. “But I’m the Polish army,” she replied, sensibly. Thomas also took regular nips of booze in different formats—beer, a red wine bottle, a hip flask. This bolstered the homeless Limbaugh vibe.
In the original play, Ubu often begins sentences with “By my green candle . . .” Honoring this, Thomas was frequently lit with a sickly green spotlight. But he turned this into a snide riff on “green” concerns—global warming and carbon taxing. Père Ubu says that he would never tax the air we breathe in, but he would tax the stuff we breathe out (carbon dioxide). He apologized to Robert, the talented, beleaguered keyboardist, for continually changing the script without telling him. (One wonders if any of the Tea Party–ish right-libertarian elements were in the spring 2008 script.) Near the end of the play, Thomas grabbed a pile of notepapers Robert had on his keyboard (presumably documenting the latest edits) and threw them off stage. “Stop looking at this shit,” he yelled. Finally, and I missed the context, Thomas roared “Free at last!” in the Waits/Armstrong voice. I found this uncomfortable, though no one else seemed to mind.
After the play, the band encored with a few songs from their back catalogue to rousing applause. Before one number, Thomas said that Sting once told him, “David, I dig your band, but you need a cause.” “I’ve got a cause,” Thomas informed the crowd. “Fifty-something ex-punk males—I speak for them.” He then asked, “Is there anyone under forty-three here?” He needed a younger woman to “use” to set up the next song. When one was secured, he told her, “Someday I’ll be your man. I’ll be the best you can do. And all you middle-aged men out there, your wife or girlfriend is turning to you right now and saying, ‘You don’t think like that, do you?’ And you’ll say, ‘No, honey, David’s crazy. He’s bitter and twisted.’ ” A Pere Ubu album from 2006 is titled Why I Hate Women, so this is not news; Thomas may also, however, hate the president.
Peaches Christ Superstar at the Hebbel am Ufer theater in Berlin, March 24, 2010. (All photos: Doro Tuch)
AROUND CERTAIN FIGURES, it can sometimes feel as though the hype is so pervasive that it is difficult to find anyone capable of formulating a genuine opinion. In Berlin, this is especially true for Peaches, the electropop princess of porn, who many in the local, ever-intertwined art/fashion/music/club scenes consider nothing less than a living legend, if not an infallible god. Call me a cynic (I prefer skeptic), but when I heard that Peaches intended to perform, solo, the entirety of Jesus Christ Superstar, with piano accompaniment by close friend and compatriot Chilly Gonzales, my initial reaction was to laugh in the face of the wide-eyed hipster apostle who brought me the good news. Nevertheless, I immediately arranged a ticket for last Thursday’s premiere, half expecting to witness a self-crucifixion, half hoping to finally catch a glimpse of the light.
As it so happens, this skeptic also loves to be proven wrong. Not only did Peaches set it off, she managed to surprise us all by showing off an expansive vocal range, a musician’s natural sensitivity to the dynamics of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score, and an emotive prowess that is rarely if ever displayed in her own, less holy, music. (Her radio-unfriendly, now decade-old hit single “Fuck the Pain Away” was hardly an object lesson in melodic contour.)
The rest of the show wasn’t half bad, either, though it was clear from the beginning that the music would be the star that night. It all began in the blue and white light of the cosmos illuminating the empty stage, the theater’s exposed back wall recalling the self-referential framing that has always famously inflected this album-turned–stage show–turned-film. (Remember the great opening scene with the hippies driving out into the desert and unloading their VW buses?) With a little help from her friends—namely, designers John Renaud and Mundi, as well as a troupe of lithe, punkish dancers who rose up for the finale—all was kept understated and ham-free, while Gonzales, for his part, rendered an athletic accompaniment on grand piano. At times, it seemed that the piano was playing him. He knew the entire score by heart—no sheet music. (I guess two hours of Webber isn’t much for a musician who broke a world record last year with a solo piano performance that lasted 27 hours, 3 minutes, and 44 seconds.) By the time she got to “Everything’s Alright”—rendering Mary Magdalene with a soft restraint that seemed to evoke Nina Simone’s playfulness, before switching to a soulful, gospel-like bravado when singing Jesus’s response—I was sold.
Not that there wasn’t any reason to complain: Number one was the gigantic cross that appeared at the end. The work of Andreas Golder, it looked fantastic—a great purple blobby mess of bones, flesh, and organs, crowned with a giant penis. But could the symbolism be more heavy-handed? (Headed?)
The afterparty, around the corner at the WAU Café, was a subdued affair. Poor Sheila Chipperfield, former bassist of the English band Elastica, was forced to DJ to an empty room; the crowd congregated around picnic tables outside, as Berliners do ecstatically at the first vague sign of warm weather. I spotted Gina V. D’Orio, of the fantastic electrotrash cabaret outfit Cobra Killer, seated alone, and pulled up a chair. She regaled me late into the night with hilarious tour stories, as well as anecdotes of Peaches’s early years as an unknown Berlin transplant—which actually wasn’t very long ago. Indeed, in a city where life tends to proceed at a snail’s pace, Peaches’s meteoric rise to international stardom at the turn of the millennium remains undeniably impressive. It occurred to me that the local fervor that Peaches generated might in fact be a genuine paean of hope in a city brimming with tragically underrecognized talent.
When asked for my overall verdict, I admitted that, while I had previously tended to think of Peaches as “merely” a performer, her Superstar rendition proved that she is also a born singer. “But she’s Peaches,” D’Orio protested. “She doesn’t have to prove anything.” Hmm. I guess some would say the same about Jesus.