Left: Neal Medlyn in “Our Hit Parade” at Joe’s Pub. Right: Hahn-Bin at Joe’s Pub. (Photos: Kevin Yatarola)
NEW YORK FAMILIES mark the holidays in different ways. For some, this might mean piling the kids off to see the Rockettes, sitting down to watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” or joining the crowds to skate in circles in Central Park. Downtown, however, the performance crowd has its own repertoire of campy seasonal attractions: beglittered and bewigged, ambisexual and scantily dressed. I decided to find out more.
First up was “Mx. Bond’s Austerity Holiday Measures: A Snow Job for the Masses” at Abrons Arts Center. Justin Bond, of course, used to be the first half of Kiki and Herb—a duo with Kenny Mellman that started downtown but ended up playing Carnegie Hall and Broadway. But in the past few years Bond has struck out on v’s own, adding “Vivian” as v’s middle name, taking estrogen, and preferring the pronoun “V.” All of this was infamously discussed in a catty New York magazine profile that understandably drew Bond’s ire.
It turned out not to be much of a holiday show in theme but rather a variation on recent gigs: a catholic range of songs (including some by Bond) interspersed with humorous stories and kvetching about current political and economic affairs. The tone was captured by the opening number, LCD Soundsystem’s “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down,” and highlights included Kate Bush’s “Moments of Pleasure” (which brought my friend to tears) and Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon.” The unusually unglamorous Bond characterized vs outfit as “kooky art teacher goes to a holiday party”—a charitable description at best. V closed with a couple of timely songs: Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and the Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas, Darling” (which nearly brought me to tears). The entire evening was marred by a spotlight operator who couldn’t keep lit the barely moving Bond, but the half-full house didn’t seem to mind.
Video from “Mx. Bond’s Austerity Holiday Measures: A Snow Job for the Masses” at Abrons Art Center, December, 2011.
Joe’s Pub was also offering seasonal entertainment. The recent renovations have “bougie-fied” this previously scruffy standby: no more standing room, and no avoiding the two-drink minimum or, at the tables, dreadful overpriced food. Of course, Hahn-Bin’s “Till Dawn Sunday” wasn’t actually billed as a holiday show; instead, this violin prodigy–turned–flamboyant new romantic was staging his own funeral. Discovered by Itzhak Perlman and adopted by Klaus Biesenbach—who invited the violinist to solo in Warhol’s Screen Tests and serenade Madonna—Hahn-Bin started the evening among the audience. A magician cut through a box, from which Hahn-Bin magically emerged intact (ta-da!), clutching a rose between his teeth, and began to play a piece by Astor Piazzolla. Although he billed himself as “the world’s saddest clown,” Hahn-Bin’s glam makeup, beautifully tailored clothes (featured via multiple costume changes), and spectral presence evoked something between Leigh Bowery and Klaus Nomi. There was some more stage business involving a coffin, a short monologue (“Am I a manic depressive or a hoarder of sadness?”), and red balloons, but mainly there was music: soaring selections of classical and popular melodies, from Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky to Gershwin and Arlen (“Somewhere over the Rainbow”), ably accompanied by pianist John Blacklow. A personal highlight was the theme to Young Frankenstein, performed absolutely straight—surely a reflexive nod to Mel Brooks’s spoof of this hammy macabre aesthetic.
Back at Joe’s Pub the following night was “Our Hit Parade,” a monthly sendup of Top Ten songs. I am a devoted fan of OHP, extremely fond of its hosts—Bridget Everett, Neal Medlyn, and Kenny Mellman (yes, formerly the latter half of Kiki and Herb)—and am regularly brought to fits of giggles by the opening chords of “What’s in My Diaper?” (don’t ask). The year-end special didn’t disappoint, with a dozen singers taking on the most aggravatingly ubiquitous singles of the past twelve months, including songs by Lady Gaga, Adele, and, obvs, Katy Perry. The highlight was a cover of Beyoncé’s “Countdown,” in which a half-naked Medlyn and two performers re-created the video’s controversial dance routine, partially lifted from the work of Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
The final destination on my downtown Christmas odyssey was a visit to Ann Liv Young’s solo show at the new Orchard Street gallery Louis B. James. In the guise of Sherry, an aggressive Southerner in a flowing blonde wig, Young was offering “Sherapy” for individuals and couples, a Holiday Masturbation Workshop, and a Christmas show. On arriving at the last of these, I was greeted by Sherry in a Mrs. Claus velvet cape and given a Styrofoam “S” as a tree decoration. Old costumes hung on the walls next to small video monitors showing the performances in which they were worn; a shelf of clear boxes held fake nails, dirty heels, and chewed gum (the exhibition checklist also mentions “poop, glitter”). In the back room were two paintings of Sherry (not bad, but not made by her), a decorated Christmas tree, an illuminated painting of the Last Supper, and a naked older man named “Tommy D” (who may or may not have been a member of the audience). The gallery had a definite bodily odor to it, which became disturbingly vivid as Sherry encouraged us to inhale deeply.
She soon began picking on the audience, in her usual persecutory style. Her aim? To discover “the meaning of Christmas.” About twenty people sat in a semicircle, including dancer David Hallberg, the American Ballet Theatre principal who recently joined the Bolshoi. But Sherry has a sixth sense for easy targets, asking the sexually confused to define themselves and demanding that the shy ones speak up. Although these Q&As can ramble on for hours, this show had a terrific narrative arc: A young Cooper Union student went from being one of Sherry’s early victims to, two hours later, the chosen subject of her serenading. “I feel blessed,” the girl confessed.
That might seem like a Christmas story right there, but the voyeuristic thrill you get from watching Sherry in action can also feel downright creepy; it’s not unlike spying on your neighbor through binoculars. Here, though, audience members pat themselves on the back for avoiding Sherry’s ire or, even better, making it through her grilling unscarred.
But this is downtown Christmas to a tee: a parade of exuberant misfits struggling to find ways to entertain, provoke, and act out. And we, their equally eccentric audience, love them for it. Instead of the family we were born with, this is the family we’ve chosen—and we’re even more dysfunctional.
Left: Loukanikos in the Time magazine online profile. (Photo: Giorgos Moutafis / Anzenberger) Right: Detail of a flyer for D17 Reoccupy.
FOR THE PAST THREE MONTHS New York intellectuals have been climbing all over themselves to get a piece of Occupy Wall Street. Finally we can trade in all this thinking for doing, symbolic action for acting in the real world. Now is the moment to put that pet theorist into practice—Rancière or Agamben or Negri, the whole motherfucking Frankfurt School.
The weekend of December 17 revolved around an action that gave the art world an unusually central role: D17 Reoccupy, a call for an occupation of Duarte Square. Most of the site is used by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for its LentSpace exhibitions, and OWS has made it a target. The activities of the General Assembly’s Arts and Culture committee notwithstanding, the status machine of the art world has not yet been dismantled; if this column is covering political rallies, that means the operations of cultural capital have probably only been transposed into a strange new mode (in writing this piece, clearly, the author may be argued to be benefiting from them himself). Thus, LMCC was considered susceptible to pressure from within the arts community. A petition circulated; hundreds of New York artists, writers, etc., signed; but the document’s December 14 deadline for action passed, and LMCC did not budge.
The lead-up to D17 was quickened by the publication of two magazine articles: Yates McKee’s meticulous 3,200 words in The Nation elaborating the various OWS involvements of the art world and Time magazine’s announcement that their 2011 Person of the Year is “The Protester.” The former text is animated by a cataloguing impulse, and carries the bonus that, if you’ve taken part in pretty much any action in recent months, you can read the piece and feel personally validated. You could feel validated by Time too, though really only if you have megalomaniacal tendencies, or if you are one of the people actually mentioned in Kurt Andersen’s write-up, for example nascently famous anthropologist and author of Debt, David Graeber, and Greek-born artist Georgia Sagri, both cited for key roles in the early days of Zuccotti Park.
The Time package also includes a photographic portfolio of the figure at the heart of Athens’s Syntagma Square protests, Loukanikos. The only individual in an entire global movement that we can safely single out is a stray dog.
With Saturday’s D17 as a focal point, coincidental or otherwise, numerous other events were scheduled for the weekend as well. Some highlights:
Left: At the launch for Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America. (Photo: John Arthur Peetz) Right: Documentation of Alexandra Lerman's Parade of Protests at Storefront for Art and Architecture's “Strategies for Public Occupation.”
Storefront for Art and Architecture launches a one-week, workshop-intensive exhibition called “Strategies for Public Occupation.” Up the street and around the corner, Anthology Film Archives kicks off a weeklong screening series, “Anarchism on Film,” with Lizzie Borden’s 1983 matriarchist revolutionary futurist tract Born in Flames on opening night.
In Dumbo, n+1 magazine and Verso books hold a launch party for Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America, which compiles the first two issues of the Occupy Gazette, published as a broadsheet and pdf by n+1 over the past few months. At the launch, perhaps two hundred people enjoy a view of the Manhattan Bridge so explicit as to be practically sexual. A laptop DJ plays 1980s and ’90s tunes that sound familiar but I can’t quite name, except for one by De La Soul. A video projection presents a loop of Zuccotti footage, which doesn’t seem that long. Every time I look up I seem to see Jem Cohen’s name on the wall.
Occupy!’s editors have been amply engaged in the cause, and profits go to OWS. But the slopes of marketing are slippery: The volume is plugged with the tagline “The first book to cover the Occupy movement,” and on the Verso blog the title is accompanied by a few unfortunately headlined posts; “Keith Gessen describes his arrest, and the lack of bathrooms in jail” taints what is, in fact, a highly self-aware piece by Gessen in the New Yorker. Such promotion, given that it surrounds the people who a year ago brought us What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Investigation, gives Occupy! the air of a flag planted on virgin terrain. And like a premature major-museum retrospective, such a work threatens to mummify its subject, especially now that Zuccotti itself is dead.
Left: International Migrants Day OWS March for Immigrant Respect, December 18, 2011. (Photo: Tania Bruguera) Right: Cover of the first issue of Tidal.
On the other hand: “We should use celebrity status as a resource that gets coupled with a strategic objective.” So argues an author in the zine Tidal, launched this month, which I read on the subway ride to Duarte Square. Tagged “Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy” and printed on tissue-thin newsprint (also available for download), it features a gleeful hodgepodge of contributors; Judith Butler (also a contributor to Occupy!) and Gayatri Spivak share the table of contents with ND (author of the aforementioned “On Celebrities”), Suzahn E. (“An Occupier’s Note”), Rira (“Matrix as the Core Element”), and several poets, one of whom is identified as a fourteen-year-old. The slant is horizontalist, anarchistic, largely indifferent both to reality and to the use of full names. By the time I reach Canal Street several pages have detached from the stapled binding.
At Duarte Square, the light police presence is vaguely insulting. A chain-link fence about ten feet tall has gone up around the lot in question; beyond it is plywood about six feet high half-covered with a band of blue and silver metal discs, à la old signage—a still-installed LMCC commission from 2009 by the design firm Thumb. A barely intelligible and not very loud (noise ordinances?) PA speaker placed on the ground plays WBAI’s in-studio concert set, headlined by Dean and Britta, Titus Andronicus, and Lou Reed.
The afternoon drags on; the crowd’s numbers reach the mid-hundreds. I see X, Y, and Z young artists, a couple of other acquaintances, and Tony Conrad. Other notables: David Graeber (I think), the hipster cop, that guy who wears the Civil War cap briefly famous for having his interview with Fox News squelched for sounding too smart.
The attempt to reoccupy the park turns out to be entirely symbolic. After a brief fake-out march up along Sixth Avenue, protesters climb sturdy-looking homemade ladders, then submit mostly peaceably to arrest. As the cuffing commences, however, demonstrators begin to peel the chain-link off the ground and shake the fence. It could probably come down but something militates against it—the small but determined-looking contingent of riot cops, collective judgment. Within the movement, the violence/nonviolence argument remains perpetual. Police arrest a few credentialed members of the press. By day’s end, after an unpermitted march up to Times Square, which looks pretty fun on UStream, the day’s arrest total stands around fifty.
Left: A view of D17 at Duarte Square. (Photo: Matt Suhgouga) Right: An Occupy Onwards panel. (Photo: Daniel Latorre)
Today’s subway reading: the Sunday Times. Vaclav Havel is dead. “A specter is haunting Eastern Europe: the specter of what in the West is called ‘dissent,’ ” he wrote in 1978. “It was born at a time when this system, for a thousand reasons, can no longer base itself on the unadulterated, brutal, and arbitrary application of power, eliminating all expressions of nonconformity. What is more, the system has become so ossified politically that there is practically no way for such nonconformity to be implemented within its official structures.”
To mark International Migrants Day, a march takes place from Foley Square to Zuccotti Park. (Unsurprisingly, Googling this event turns up a lot more results for right-wing blogs than do the weekend’s other activities.) At 2 PM, artist Tania Bruguera reads the Migrant Manifesto she developed collaboratively at a two-day conference in Corona, Queens; parallel activities take place in locations ranging from Birmingham, Alabama, to Yokohama.
Tania Bruguera speaks at a rally for Immigrant Movement International, December 18, 2011.
The New School hosts the Occupy! Gazette’s hastily arranged conference (“Sorry for the short notice”) Occupy Onwards, an afternoon of panels interspersed with check-ins from OWS groups. The audience arrays itself in rows facing experts behind a folding table. Panel one takes up the subject of the financial system, and in the end it has a microcosmic quality. The discussants come to rather sharp disagreements, essentially over the insoluble question of reform versus revolution, “touching faith in government” versus “touching faith in nonstate modes of organization” as two antagonists put it. During the Q&A, a young person goes down the line telling each panelist how he or she is wrong on exactly one specific point. The last of these corrections he prefaces with, “As someone who has been beaten by the police, and who has been arrested . . .” How these experiences bolster his analysis of fiscal policy is unclear.
While Occupy Onwards goes on, activists gather at 9 AM at Pace University for the all-day Occupation UnConference, organized by Pace and Netroots New York. The setup is for numerous brief small-group sessions and, in the afternoon, a large, hours-long assembly explicitly intended, like the n+1-affiliated event, to address the movement’s future. From the registration-table get-go, the UnConference is Zuccotti-ish in its mixed-up composition, energy, and flailing self-organization. I do not declare myself as a journalist, and as the sessions are open to the general public but not necessarily to the press, what I witness there I keep to myself, aside from one bit of intelligence that I hope is untraitorous to report: The chairs there are arranged in circles, not in rows.
A view of the room during the “Elizabeth Taylor Collection” sale at Christie’s. (All photos: Andy Guzzonatto)
ELIZABETH TAYLOR has been a legend for so long she’s always been undead to anyone alive enough to read this. So the availability of her actual stuff—for mere millions and millions of bucks—is vaguely surreal. This week, I went to the cult of Liz at Christie’s—on Monday, a “museum caliber” viewing of “The Elizabeth Taylor Collection” (looky-loos could get a ticket for thirty dollars), and on Wednesday, the third of six auctions: “The Icon and Her Haute Couture, Evening Sale.”
I’ve always found Liz fabulous in spite of the ostentation rather than because of it. There’s something nauseating and funny in seeing how the ultra-high-end marketing of the auction house turns stardom into money fetishism (as if record-breaking numbers validate the mythology). “Star power boosted the price into the stratosphere!” says the New York Post. Yes, she was very gorgeous—had a genetic mutation that gave her double-eyelashes (as well as a heart condition, it said in some footnote). She comes across as such a fun broad in the Warhol Diaries—a real boozer! And even her beauty was so human—the champagne chin and “a bit short in the leg,” as Richard Burton commented. (I can sympathize there.) She really should have skipped the hot pants—all too well represented in her 1960s wardrobe. “She was wearing hot pants in the airport?” A lady was shocked by Lot 694, aka the Granny hot pants ensemble, “worn at Heathrow Airport in 1971 where Miss Taylor and Richard Burton had just returned from visiting their first grandchild.” Not her best look.
Elizabeth (don’t call her Liz! we learn again in the Warhol Diaries) was basically a high-end hoarder. She liked rocks: Bulgari, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, even Chinese scholars’ stones and big purple geodes. There was a ton of couture (well cared for: Curator Meredith Etherington-Smith commended the megastar’s “museum-quality packing”). Overall, the sensibility was Boca on steroids: enough caftans to dress the Golden Girls for decades, lots of gorgeous beading. My favorite stuff was from the ’60s. (One of the pieces on fire at the auction was a silver-encrusted Dior evening gown and bag that went for $362,500; expected price: $4,000–6,000.) Fugly Versace from the ’80s and early ’90s. Loads of Vuitton luggage with handy lavender tags that said MINE!, lest they get confused with someone else’s ton of Vuitton bags. (Two sets went for $110,000 each.)
“What was so amazing? Those pocketbooks, those pocketbooks,” raved a fellow “viewer,” as we moved in pack formation through “The Collection.” It was hilarious to overhear the cult of Liz commentary, mostly very “done” ladies and honorary ladies who came to gawk at the legendary movie star’s stuff. André Leon Talley was impossible to miss, towering a head above the pack, looking pensive. There was a hubbub at the Lucite barrier keeping us out of the bag shrine—a darling white chamber lined with shelves filled with designer purses in every cracked-out color you could imagine. Lots of feathers. I wanted to move in. (“Just one Judith Leiber?” sniffed a champagne blonde helmet head.) This was a fraction of Elizabeth’s actual purse room in Beverly Hills, as seen in a photograph. In the next gallery, paintings by Van Gogh, Utrillo, Pissarro, Frans Hals, Renoir, and an early self-portrait by Degas were passed by unremarked.
To know Elizabeth was to give her baubles: gifts from pals Michael Jackson (a cute elephant-shaped onyx minaudiere) and Malcolm Forbes sparkled along with offerings from the husbands. (The diamond “Ping-Pong ring” was a little nothing from Richard Burton for winning a game. Went for $134,500; estimated: $5,000–$7,000.) There was so much jewelry, one marveled she found time to even wear it all.
Indeed, the gods of jewelry also help those who help themselves. There’s a funny anecdote in Bob Colacello’s Warhol memoir Holy Terror: In the ’60s, Elizabeth did a movie for producer Franco Rossellini “expenses only”—no salary. But “expenses” for Elizabeth included shopping at Bulgari every day! She popped in there the way I go to Duane Reade. She was “believed to have continued buying dresses, gowns, blouses, and jewelry even as she lay stricken in the hospital last year before her death,” said the New York Post. She literally shopped until she dropped.
There was so much of it—but she wasn’t off-putting, like other greedheads. I reflected with a glamour-maven pal, who observed: “Well, she was up-front about” her greed. “There was a kind of innocence, childlike—she was a child star. And she was so generous, raised millions for AIDS. And if she weren’t so generous, it might be offensive.”
At the end of a purple carpet, the famous thirty-two-carat Elizabeth Taylor diamond, a highlight of The Collection, was regally displayed (estimate: $2,500,000–$3,500,000; sold: $8.8 million). A bored guard stood next to the vitrine where the crowd gushed over the rock nonstop: “OMG!” “Did she wear it?” “She wore it all the time!” “It almost hurts your eyes!” “Richard Burton!” one helmet head hollered to her friend.
It was fabulous. Who did I run into outside but Liz-ophile Kathe Burkhart? In a black fake fur chapeau and heavy Liz-inspired eyeliner, she assessed the Icon’s duds: “Most of that shit I wouldn’t wear to a dogfight.” We watched the cult of Liz as they exited Christie’s into the fresh air of Rockefeller Center: “I’ve never seen so many noses that look exactly alike,” commented the artist. “It was like a nose festival. It’s like there are one or two doctors, they all have the same one: the ski jump model, the button nose model. The obligatory highlights [in the hair]. It’s a place to wear your mink coat—that’s what this is!” As if on cue, a mother and daughter walked by: both blonde, in identical nose jobs and minks. “What can did you two come out of?” Burkhart guffawed, “They live. It’s a glamour show of the 1 percent. There are so many of them. There are more, though, of us. The 1 percent gives me the butt willies!” she cracked herself up. “Write that down!”
Left: Fern Mallis. Right: A view of the room during the Christie’s sale.
IN CONTRAST to the high spirits of the viewing, the auction had the clinical gravitas of a fashion autopsy via big bucks. The sober wood paneling struck a note midway between a church and a bank. Befitting the fabulosity of the merch, the staff was tootsed up yet sedate in tasteful black cocktail attire. Killer heels on the younger lady staff, black tie for the fellows, and one chap inexplicably buzzed around in a kilt and white knee socks. (Was it the Christie’s ancestral tartan?)
The crowd was Upper East Side high-maintenance with a sprinkling of crazy bag lady. In general, if you’re going to an auction like this and you can’t get it together to look polished, just wear crazy shoes, a giant necklace, or something sequined. You’ll blend right in. I noticed two youngish women who looked like they worked in a resale shop: a slim redhead in a gold sequined skirt and bondage heels; her curvy pal in a knit dress under a lumpy feather-trimmed coat that bobbled as she walked. To my surprise, they were bidding away over $20,000 for couture. They never won, but who are these people? I spotted mavens Fern Mallis and Robert Verdi. Fashion model Coco Rocha bought something (she tweeted: “I am now the proud owner of an amazing 1980s yellow and pink Givenchy suit worn and owned by the legendary ELIZABETH TAYLOR!! WHAT!?”).
Over the paneled phone banks, giant head shots of Elizabeth at the height of her glamour haunted the room like a guardian angel of fabulosity and surplus value. She looked like a million bucks, sporting the “Mike Todd Tiara” and the chandelier earrings. This was Christie’s time of reckoning: rendering fantasy into cold, hard cash. Auctioneer Andrea Fiuczynski was mesmerizing. (“I love Andrea,” gushed a Christie’s staffer in black tie. “She looks like an Yves Saint Laurent mannequin from the ’70s. So powerful.”)
She kept things hopping with her mellifluous voice and her poise, with her gestures a cross between a musical conductor, a flight attendant, and a firm disciplinarian: “Fair warning . . . Hammer down!” Her metallic silver frock seemed to twinkle with approval as the bids flowed in (Italy, China, Minnesota came through online. “Grazia, Italia!” she enunciated über-precisely. “Coming back in here in New York?” she scanned the room. “It’s online at $48,000 . . . ”)
In the afterglow of the record-breaking sales she presided over—like a human eBay interface—she mingled with a small group of press.
“You’re the star!” Pat Frost, Christie’s Head of Fashion, hailed her.
“No, Liz is the star,” Andrea replied. Close up, I noticed TV-caliber pancake makeup.
I made like Joan Rivers and asked her who she was wearing. The preternaturally poised auctioneer seemed abashed.
“Was that a not-kosher question?” (I feared the hammer.)
“Not at all. I wish I had a fabulous answer. I don’t know the designer. I just picked it up yesterday at Saks.”
Left: Stylist Robert Verdi and designer Mckenzie Liautaud. Right: Auctioneer Andrea Fiuczynski.
Curator Meredith Etherington-Smith, who’d also organized sales of Diana’s and Marilyn’s stuff, said the record-breaking numbers tonight ($2.6 million) were “the highest for [a] fashion auction anywhere” which “shows [fashion] is part of our culture and is to be taken seriously. Wait till tomorrow when we get to the handbags. It’s going to be very serious.” “Serious” is my new favorite way to say “pricey!”
I repaired to the ladies room. A big gal in a vintage, thrift-shoppish maxi with a “tribal” necklace à la Liz, black eyeliner, and a black bob looked a bit verklempt, sitting on the counter dabbing her eyes.
“Nice frock,” I said. “You’re dressed for the occasion. I feel underdressed.”
“I’m always overdressed. My name is Elizabeth Taylor. Last night was really intense. Stuff started at $150,000 and it would go up so fast.” The numbers “seemed like nothing. But tonight was mellow,” she sniffled, still seemingly overwhelmed. She was a real fan who “came both nights just to say I was here.”
Were you bidding?
“Play bidding! I’m all about online,” (where over nine hundred more lots were being auctioned). “I’m eyeing a caftan. But if I don’t get it, that’s OK, my name is still Elizabeth Taylor,” she said poignantly. “You know her son was here tonight. I was too afraid to speak to him—didn’t want him to think I’m a stalker.”
On my way out, I passed a lavender wall with an Andy Warhol quote on it: “Ohhhh, Elizabeth Taylor. Ohhhh. She is so Glamorous.” (The top seller of the evening was an Andy Warhol lithograph, Liz, dedicated “to Elizabeth with much love.” Purchase price $662,500; estimate: $30,000–$50,000.)
“Elizabeth Taylor” walked by: “You just want to stay here,” she said dreamily. “Don’t you?”
WHILE SOME IN THE ART WORLD continued the party in Miami Beach, an adventurous few chose to dry out on an eastern peninsula on the Persian Gulf, in the sleepy kingdom of Qatar. The occasion that Sunday was the opening at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art of Cai Guo-Qiang’s splendid exhibition “Saraab,” which the artist put together during a fifty-day residency in the fall.
Getting around Doha invariably entails a cruise along the Corniche, and on the drive to the museum that morning we inched past a panorama of the city skyline, freshly punctuated by Jean Nouvel’s sleek, bullet-shaped Tower Qatar. Farther on was the construction site for the new National Museum, a spectacular spaceshiplike composition of discs by the French architect, and the brand-new National Convention Center—inaugurated that day—adorned with a sculptural tree-root facade and a Louise Bourgeois arachnid.
Everything popping out of this stark desert looks extraterrestrial. Blessed with the richest population and the largest natural gas field on the planet, Qatar is characterized by contradictions: It is ruled by voracious, consummate connoisseurs of cosmopolitan culture and yet dominated by the most conservative Muslim society outside of Saudi Arabia. The Nouvel tower makes an apt metaphor, its strident modern shape cloaked in a decorative mashrabiya design.
“The only certainty in life is that everybody will have a taste of death,” Cai stressed at the press conference. The Mathaf courtyard and lobby were arrayed with sixty-two gigantic stones imported from a Chinese mountain and inscribed with passages from the Koran taken from an Islamic cemetery in Quanzhou, the artist’s hometown and the origin of the Silk Road. For his other Middle Eastern project, in Egypt’s Siwa Oasis, the kids flew kites; in Doha, his local collaborators played with fire. Here was a pattern of exploded blossoms in ocher, inspired by Iznik ceramics displayed in the Museum of Islamic Art; there an animated frieze of traditional women’s abayas rendered in textile and gunpowder. “Cai hates the terms fireworks and performance applied to his work,” Mathaf curator Deena Chalabi advised me. “He prefers explosions and social projects.”
On the way to the Al Mourjan restaurant for a Lebanese feast, curator Sara Raza translated one of the inscriptions from Cai’s stones: “If you die in a foreign land, you die a martyr,” which seemed ominous in the context, where immigrants comprise as much as 85 percent of the population. A giant antelope mascot holding an Olympic torch stood in front of the restaurant to signal the Arab Games, which were starting the next day. Our visit also coincided with an international OPEC conference—“the Olympics of energy,” as someone put it—so the country was buzzing. Yet my dining companion, Omar Sharif, who lives down the Gulf coast in booming Dubai, noted that it was “too quiet here.”
At the opening of the exhibition that evening, the only signs of the Emir, Sheikh Hamad, and his glamorous first lady and second wife, Sheikha Mozah, were the imposing portraits by Yan Pei-Ming in the Mathaf’s lobby. But the ebullient founder of the museum, Sheikh Hassan, was around shaking hands, and a few artists of the Middle Eastern and North African diaspora were in attendance, among them Khaled Ramadan, Adel Abidin, and Ibrahim Salahi. The museum’s chairperson, Sheikha Al Mayassa, presided over dinner at a white tent across the road. She was dressed in a simple all-black abaya, as were all of the Qatari women; the men wore long white jellabiyas. In fact everything, down to the black table linens and abstract centerpieces, was black or white.
Museum director Wassan Al- Khudhairi took the stage along with Cai’s personal translator and an Arabic interpreter while images of the show flashed on background screens. “Thank you, Sheikh Hassan, for teaching me so much about Arab culture,” the New York–based artist said through three interpreters. “Now I can count myself to be half Qatari.” An endless list of acknowledgments ensued, the sentiment so charming that only a ravenous diner could lament. “I am also learning from the women around me, first of all my grandmother, who is ninety-seven.” He then thanked his mother, sister, his wife and her sisters, his daughter, and the ladies at his studio. The artist was beaming. “Thank you to the authorities for allowing us to explode gunpowder.” At which point a nearby journalist grabbed a bread roll, whispering, “And the policeman in the street and the staff at the hotel.”
When the dinner—and the acknowledgments!—were finally over, I walked to the museum with Cai and Jeffrey Deitch, who had appeared just in time for the meal, looking as fresh as if he had been zapped in from Miami by a teleportation machine. He walked into each room cooing, “Beautiful, beautiful.” We entered a space full of fog, obscuring a pair of antique wooden fishing boats, from Qatar and Quanzhou, which had the effect of a Romantic painting. “It reflects my lack of clarity about the Qatari culture,” the artist explained. Next door, a camel suspended in the air besieged with falcons represented his perception of Arab culture as variously “humble and homely, or flashy and aggressive.” I asked why the obsession with death. “Because there is always the chance of an accident,” he said cryptically, “and each explosive shell destroys itself.” We ended up reclining on cushions with Italians Francesco Bonami and Fabio Cavallucci to watch the video Al Shaqab, in which Arabian horses were primped, drilled, groomed, and sprayed.
Left: Cai Guo-Qiang and Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. Right: Artist Dia Azzawi and Sheikh Hassan bin Mohamed bin Ali Al Thani, founder of Mathaf.
We finally made our way to the “unofficial” afterparty at the W Hotel’s Wahm lounge, passing dark Oriental rooms defined by elaborately perforated screens, through which mingled shisha smoke and an excellent mix of chilled funk, electronica, and a few remixed Arabic classics. By that time, our intimate group was populated mostly by Mathaf staff members and visitors from the UAE. Art Dubai’s Antonia Carver chatted with Jack Persekian in a dark corner. The Gulf crowd is tight, and Carver, who came to organize the Global Art Forum with the Qataris, paid her respects: “They have a very professional and thorough approach; it is not just about budget—although that doesn’t hurt.” Before long her colleague Farah Atoui and artist Abbas Akhavan were engaged in an impassioned discussion about the foibles of the protest against Persekian’s dismissal from the Sharjah Biennial. By the time we left the hours were long past wee, but there seemed to be no end in sight.
The next day brought the much-anticipated “Black Ceremony,” where 8,300 rounds of explosives would form smoky compositions in the desert. While VIPs filed into a white viewing tent near the museum, our entourage of mostly journalists moved on to the front line, where a carpeted stage was set up with black, thronelike chairs for the royal family, which remained empty. Sheikha Al Mayassa showed up with her husband and children, and hung out with Roger Mandle, chief officer for museums at the Qatar Museums Authority, and a few other dignitaries on the stage, which was soon invaded by TV cameras and general confusion, despite weak appeals for order over the loudspeaker. It truly felt like we were in a quaint fairy-tale Bedouin kingdom from a mythological time. A military platoon sporting purple camouflage had been mobilized for the occasion, as well as a few imported Chinese specialists, which seemed right since they invented the stuff. Everyone got earplugs, and when the rounds began to fire—what looked like a flock of birds in triangular formation, black and yellow gyrating smoke rings, a giant red-hot fireball that was felt as much as seen, a wondrous multicolor rainbow—I was quite happy to see, but not hear, the show.
Left: Curator Simon Njami with artist Mona Hatoum. Right: Artist Imran Channa and curator Nadira Laggoune. (All photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)
THE ALGERIAN EMBASSY in Beirut is not a friendly place, but you’ll never hear me say the staff there are inefficient. After weeks of rejection and indifference, they finally agreed to give me a visa just twelve hours before the flight I’d booked to Algiers was scheduled to depart. Before I could fully process the fact that I’d actually scored the page I needed in my passport, I found myself sitting in the middle of a Zineb Sedira film—in the restaurant of the Hotel Safir, the grand, dilapidated setting for the artist’s mesmeric, split-screen video installation Saphir.
That work is a slow-moving study on alienation, intimacy, and an overwhelming longing to leave. I was unnerved by how easily I could embody the contained turbulence of Sedira’s characters. Staring out the Safir’s enormous plate-glass windows to the port, the ferry terminal, the Bay of Algiers, and the deep blue Mediterranean Sea was enough to make me imagine running through the halls of the hotel in The Shining with a tube of red lipstick in my hand—until the artist Katia Kameli and the curator Simon Njami saved me from having lunch alone.
Sedira and Kameli are two among an increasingly critical mass of early- to midcareer artists who, well beyond the parameters of their own practice, have taken on the task of opening up the contemporary art scene in Algiers to the world. Some—such as Amina Menia and Ammar Bouras—were born in Algeria and live there all the time. Others—such as Sedira, Kameli, and Kader Attia—were born abroad and divide their time between Algiers and Paris or Berlin. They may have been visiting Algeria all of their lives, but only in the past ten years have they been returning often, for art as much as for ancestry, as artists contributing to the local infrastructure, not just collecting material for their own work.
“We always came back for our families,” says Sedira, who is opening a project space next year with Attia, and starting a residency program on her own. “Then we began coming for our work, to shoot films and take photographs. As we were coming back more and more, we began wanting to bring something back, not just take something away.”
A number of curators, scholars, and critics have followed, to the extent that a dynamic young community now periodically materializes in Algiers. The group’s center of gravity—and by all accounts the primary axis on which the city’s nebulous contemporary art scene turns—is Nadira Laggoune, the independent curator who packed the Hotel Safir last week for the third Festival International d’Art Contemporain, otherwise known for its comical negation of the more famous Parisian fair—“not that FIAC, le FIAC.”
Although it has taken place three times in as many years, FIAC is the international biennial of Algiers in all but name. (It is set to follow a two-year schedule from now on.) Laggoune’s edition, titled “Le Retour” (The Return), opened Saturday evening at the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain d’Alger, a little-engine-that-could institution that opened five years ago in a beautifully rehabilitated piece of neutralized neo-Moorish architecture.
The museum, which everyone calls MAMA, is a two-minute walk from the Safir. In the lobby of the hotel, I met the artists Halida Boughriet and Amel Ben Attia, who smuggled me onto a bus to make the ludicrous start-and-stop journey.
Left: Curator Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung. Right: Dealer Fabienne Leclerc and artist Sadik Kwaish Alfraji.
No one gets a tourist visa to Algeria—mine was swiftly improvised as “cultural” after Laggoune dispatched a last-minute invitation letter—and there are no tourists, none, in the capital. In a place that’s heavy on revolution-forever and resistance-every-day rhetoric—the opening of FIAC was bracketed by a festival of politically engaged film and a conference on the legacy of Frantz Fanon—there are also no fast food chains, no recognizable coffee franchises, and no familiar high-street fashion shops in the city, which, in the twilight of 2011, was a special kind of urban bliss.
Algeria’s decadelong civil war—never locally acknowledged as such—wound down after 2002. There are shockingly few traces of armed, brutal conflict visible in the city, where splinter factions, paramilitaries, and the state fought on the level of surgical massacres, disappearances, and fear. As a result no one seems to know how dangerous Algiers is, just that it is or might be, and so there was the bus, brief and eventually abandoned.
MAMA’s interior architecture is a dizzying, escalating swirl of decorative, white-painted woodwork. Laggoune deserves credit for counteracting it all with a minimalist installation for twenty-five artists, all of them emphasizing introspection and imagination in relation to the theme of the return. The show moved from strength to strength with Boughriet’s Mémoire dans l’oubli, portraits of elderly women as defiant and dignified odalisques; Neil Beloufa’s riveting fifteen-minute video Untitled, which re-creates an ostentatious villa in cardboard, and speculates on why a group of guerrillas would ever hide out in a house made of glass; the thematically precise inclusion of Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s work on the twice-made ruin of a former Israeli prison in South Lebanon; and Imran Channa’s enigmatic pencil drawings, copies of photographs documenting key moments in Pakistani politics, which the artist then systematically smudges. “It’s about the fabrication and erasure of history,” he said breezily.
After the opening, there was a dinner in a banquet hall, which felt like a party congress in some lost Soviet bloc, replete with a live band perfectly suited to the dead time between news broadcasts on a sad state television station. I missed the sudden transition to a Michael Jackson marathon, instigated, no doubt, by the Delfina Foundation’s Aaron Cezar, infamous for his dance-till-you-drop approach to the after hours of art events.
The next morning, no worse for wear, we took a longer, more leisurely walk to Gallery Racim—a space run, like MAMA, by Algeria’s Ministry of Culture, effectively the only game in town given the city’s total absence of a sustaining art market or a commercial gallery system—for a symposium on biennials in the global south.
The Tunisian philosopher Rachida Triki, also a curator and critic, set the tone: “The role of the historian is to deal with the drama of globalization,” she said. Biennials and art fairs that select artists from the developing world, the third word, the global south—whatever you want to call it—are privileging “a certain formalism, a certain academicism,” which risks being colonialism all over again, and moreover drives a dangerous wedge between the actuality of daily life and the production of artwork for a distant, unknown audience.
The curator Gabriela Salgado warned about self-exoticism and institutional mission creep. The curator Abdellah Karroum stressed the need to distinguish among terms. Pat Binder and Gerhard Haupt, of the online resource Universes in Universe, revisited the history of the Havana Biennial to caution against using the third word tag to play power politics. A spat ensued with Njami, who said he loved the third world tag, embraced it, and wore it with pride. When Sedira and Attia presented their project space, Art in Algiers, an inevitable rift between generations emerged. Clearly, it’s complicated whenever art is tangled up in nationalist ideology, a fifty-year-old war for independence, and an unspoken war of repression in between.
We packed into the tiny bar of the Hotel Albert Premiere for further debate. Then we decamped to the seaside restaurant Le Dauphin for dinner. The next day, after the art historian Alice Planel introduced me to the inscrutable logic of the Casbah, Menia invited all of us over for a home-cooked meal. I nearly choked when I discovered that her soft-spoken husband, a journalist and playwright, was none other than Mustapha Benfodil, author of the installation that was abruptly banished from last spring’s Sharjah Biennial. That’s another story, but I look forward to pleading down the embassy’s door again soon.
I CAN’T BELIEVE how many people I met in Miami who had not yet made it to the big fair, even though that’s why we were all (ostensibly) there in the first place. It turns out it wasn’t Art Basel that they were interested in, but “Art Basel”—the constitutive surplus of cocktails, galas, parties, and fetes around the fair. ABMB began as an art thing, but has by now become one of the biggest platforms for the luxury-goods market, especially clothing.
It makes sense that Fendi, Audi, and Swarovski were the main sponsors of Art Basel’s sister show, Design Miami. But it was a bit of a surprise to come across the glitzy installation of mannequins dressed in Lanvin to advertise the brand at the Rubell Family Collection’s exhibition “American Exuberance.”
The real novelty this year, though, is that you can now wear Olaf Breuning, Liam Gillick, and Anselm Reyle: They’ve become stylists for Bally, Pringle of Scotland, and Dior, respectively. On Tuesday, Delphine Arnault and W editor Stefano Tonchi welcomed guests to the opening of a Reyle-designed Dior pop-up store, where you could buy accessories (shoes, bags, clutches, etc.) or have your nails painted with a metallic polish also created by the artist. I asked Reyle if these products could be considered art; he said they couldn’t.
That night, Reyle’s dealers, Larry Gagosian and Almine Rech, held a dinner that was splayed out across large black tables at the Moore Building. Arnault reminded us that Monsieur Dior was a gallery owner before he became a designer; so art was in the brand’s DNA, as they say in the industry. VV Brown did a short a capella performance, but no one seemed to give a damn: All eyes were on the feline Pharrell Williams, who, unfortunately, didn’t sing.
Pringle of Scotland opened its pop-up shop next door, in a space designed by Fuhrimann Hächler, which normally designs homes for big collectors. There they presented a new line of accessories (bags, clutches, iPad covers, etc.) created by Gillick and Pringle’s design director, Alistair Carr. Gillick’s dealers, Casey Kaplan and Eva Presenhuber, held a dinner splayed out across large white tables arranged in an installation by Gillick at the Mosaic Building. I asked Gillick if these products could be considered art; he said they could. Though Tilda Swinton, mistress of ceremony and muse of the Pringle brand, didn’t make a speech, plenty of photos of her were taken by Ryan McGinley.
Bally had a section in the VIP lounge of ABMB opposite Cartier, who displayed an installation of precious stones by artist Beatriz Milhazes. On Wednesday, Bally launched a “capsule” collection of accessories (shoes, bags, clutches, iPad covers, etc.) designed by Breuning, who also had photos at the Metro Pictures booth redolent of the ones he used in Bally advertisements. I forgot to ask him if these products could be considered art because there was a lot of noise at Mr. Chow, where the postlaunch dinner was held at the same time as many other fashion dinners.
The love affairs among Ferrari and Sotheby’s, Art.sy and Louis Vuitton, Aby Rosen and Dom Pérignon, even Van Cleef & Arpels and Neville Wakefield—who were joined variously by Renzo Rosso, Roberto Cavalli, and the Hilton sisters—kept the marketing people’s BlackBerrys buzzing nonstop. Used to working regattas and golf tournaments, PR agencies had now discovered a gold mine on the red carpets of contemporary art. (Meanwhile, the rest of us had discovered a gold mine of free dinners and drinks.)
But the scene wasn’t actually much fun, since the objective of these alliances was simply promotion (self or corporate). Everyone turned around a few times to have their picture taken and then left for the next event. Times have changed, business is business, and now it’s in the gym, early morning, that you meet artists and gallery owners. No one really smokes or drinks anymore. Though we do buy shoes, bags, clutches, iPad covers, etc.
In any case, no one even bothered to ask artists to collaborate on anything at Friday’s gathering held by the Guetta family (David and Cathy, not to be confused with Thierry aka Mr. Brainwash). They gave their famous “F*** Me I’m Famous” party at the Fontainebleau’s LIV nightclub to celebrate Art Basel. Apparently, Dean and Dan Caten were there . . .
“THIS CITY STRESSES ME OUT. I get anxiety as soon I land,” said Joel Mesler, cofounder of UNTITLED gallery, as we sat over legs of disembodied octopi during a Blum & Poe dinner at the Soho Beach House on Wednesday night of the Art Basel Miami Beach cavalcade. In all its white-suited trashiness and conspicuous consumption, the Miami fair week is stressful: Dealers stressing about collectors. Collectors stressing about outgunning other collectors. Curators stressed by trustees. Most everyone in the business stressed out about dinners and parties. Wandering aimlessly from free drink to free drink, critics are stressed out by everybody else. Artists should probably just stay home. “I really like colorful things,” the collector across the table told me as dessert arrived. “Did see you any colorful things for sale?”
Out the window, eight floors below in a giant white tent on the beach raged a party thrown by Dasha Zhukova for Art.sy, some kind of Web project that almost no one can say aloud without cringing. A gaggle of dinner-goers followed Tim Blum as we passed other art dinners through corridors guarded by Argus-eyed girls with iPads lighting up their faces and the ubiquitous oversize bouncers, all asking to see our passes. I just kept pointing to the guy next to me, which happened to be artist Anthony Pearson, a strategy that more or less seemed to work. Once down on the beach, drink in hand, one woman told me she worked for an international weapons manufacturer; another kept referring to “clients” in a way that felt synonymous to “dates.” I ran into a somewhat bemused trio of Kitchen director Tim Griffin, MoCA curator Bennett Simpson, and future Ludwig Museum director Philipp Kaiser. The last two joked about being yanked into a picture with Paris Hilton, the looks on their faces ranging from bewildered chagrin to downright delight about their photo op with one of the many heiresses that seemed to litter Miami’s streets.
Left: Dealer Margaret Lee at NADA. Right: Dealer Derek Eller (right) at NADA. (Photo: Andy Guzzonatto)
The following morning I headed to the opening of NADA. Though I’d heard stories about collectors and advisers foaming at the gates for the younger fair’s vernissage, no one seemed to be rushing. I saw tons of people (artist Sam Falls, curator Dominic Molon, Bad at Sports’s Amanda Browder) leisurely having breakfast as I walked the final stretch of Collins Avenue leading to the Deauville. Though the NADA galleries had the best reason to be stressed out (selling young art has slim margins, and one bad fair could break a young dealer), the fair felt collegial and mellow. Fair director Heather Hubbs, now pregnant, and artist Brendan Fowler were high-fiving over the awesomeness of babies. Dealer François Ghebaly looked downright cheerful as he admired a wall stacked with sold Oscar Murillo paintings.
The best energy came from a string of diminutive booths populated mostly by artist-run spaces and nonprofits. Their size made you want to put the word “phone” in front of “booth,” but many made up for lack of space with ingenuity. Night Gallery from Los Angeles painted its walls sky blue and showed paintings by Parker Davis and a stack of silvery boxes by Samara Golden. Like a few others in attendance, Night Gallery had tricked out its room upstairs in the Deauville, too. Proprietresses Mieke Marple and Davida Nemeroff coaxed friends and collectors with promises of cocktails using charmingly janky flyers for local tourist attractions likely nabbed from the lobby; they just crossed everything out and Sharpied their party info on top. A few booths down from them, Brooklyn’s Dumbo Arts Center opened up shop with Barb Choit’s collection of “Attitude Problem” paraphernalia. “I don’t have an attitude problem,” said Choit. “You have a perception problem.”
One of the most interesting artists at the fair had probably the biggest attitude problem (in the best, John Waters-ish sense of that term): the recently deceased cult figure George Kuchar, showing at Richmond, Virginia’s Ada Gallery. With a set of comic book pages from the 1970s on display, dealer John Pollard talked about the time he spent with the filmmaker in hospice before he died. Apparently Kuchar joked about all the doctors who had to check out his ass on his deathbed, while Pollard gave his regrets to Kuchar that he wouldn’t be able to chase any boys on the beach in Miami this year.
Left: Collector Maria Baibakova. Right: Diddy and artist Raphael Mazzucco. (Photos: Billy Farrell Agency)
I didn’t chase any boys either, but I did end up on a treadmill chasing parties. I first landed in the Setai penthouse at a shindig thrown by the radiant Russian art patron Maria Baibakova (along with Vogue and Hugo Boss—everyone gets a sponsor here). Here we were, a room filled with gowned beauties, Lance Bass, a corpulent Daumier caricature in a tracksuit, and the odd, out-of-place writer. Under a Sterling Ruby painting, facing two late works by LA godfathers Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari, Baibakova groused about how weirdly exclusive and frustrating the circuit of Miami launches, dinners, etc. can be even for her, once getting shut out of a party for Visonaire magazine, with which she’s collaborated.
After watching the fifth person trip over a steel Subodh Gupta sculpture of an armchair and ottoman, I split downstairs and next door to Mr. Chow’s at the W for a dinner thrown by Puff Daddy. It promised to be a “revolving” dinner, such that everyone would have a chance to eat, but in practice this only meant that there were way too many diners and way too few seats. Some friends waited in line for what they thought was food, though it just ended up being the line to pay respect to Diddy. Crowds of latecomers huddled at the edge of the room, enviously eyeing the tables and getting progressively drunker on Veuve Clicquot, until somebody (okay, me) began to raid the tables and bring back plates to the temporary hoi polloi. One recommendation: Don’t try to eat lobster without proper utensils; the irony wasn’t lost on me that I almost choked on a lobster shell.
Leaving Mr. Chow’s, I walked thirty yards to grab a drink at the Cardi Black Box/Armani party and then shot over to the NADA fete at the Shore Club where all lists and carefully parsed hierarchies had gone out the window and bedlam reigned. I squeezed into the crowd, where I was pressed against artists Erik Frydenborg and Amanda Ross-Ho and dealers Mihai Nicodim and Johann König, all of us laughing, frustrated, stressed out, caught in a rare democratic moment in a week rife with exclusivity. I tried to convince Ross-Ho to rush the door with me, but then the rope was finally lifted. We surged in, disappearing into the party without looking back.
Left: Curator Cecilia Alemani and New Museum deputy director Massimiliano Gioni at the Cardi Black Box party. Right: Artist Barb Choit and director Alexander Olch at the NADA party. (Photo: Billy Farrell Agency)
A WISE MAN said something once about “mo’ money mo’ problems.” If that’s the case, I was looking forward to a breezy week in Miami. As it turns out, the money’s not all gone, and neither, really, are the problems. Tuesday evening, I went from a nine-hour plane ride to nine straight hours of opening festivities for Art Basel’s tin anniversary. My night began at the fair’s official welcome cocktail at the W hotel. Cohosted by Kreëmart, the event served up desserts designed by artists such as Richard Tuttle, Ryan McNamara, and Regina Silveira. The cake stations were tucked in the various enclaves around the W garden, making them difficult to track down. “Did you catch the Paola Pivi suites?” writer Louisa Buck asked me over a slice of McNamara’s debit card cake. “It’s inside the hotel too?” I marveled, before realizing she meant Pivi’s “sweets,” the González-Torres–esque pile of Swedish fish, shaped into the words FREE TIBET (naturally). “This is clearly a suitable audience for that message,” a friend snarked, surveying the poolside scene of fresh-pressed suits and stilettos.
Two hours down—seven to go. Next up was “Home Alone,” selections from the Adam and Lenore Sender collection, installed in their Miami pied-à-terre—though that’s a bit of a malaprop, since their other house is in Miami too. Curated by Sarah Aibel, the exhibition took over the manor, from the kids’ rooms up through a Sarah Lucas–themed master bedroom and out onto the terrace, where a “naked,” flaccid Frank Benson sculpture regarded the bar. “Anyone who lives here has seen this house before,” a local noted, as I explored a nook in the kitchen. “It’s been all over the real estate listings for months.” What would Richard Prince’s Spiritual America—touchingly installed above the bathtub in the “Kids’ Bathroom”—bring to the asking price?
Left: Designer Ron Arad and Haunch of Venison's Stephanie Schleiffer. Right: At Adam and Lenore Senders’s house.
Our next stop was the Rubell Family Collection, which was reveling in “American Exuberance.” While the show neatly co-opted the remarkable permanent installations by Cady Noland, Jason Rhoades, and Ryan Trecartin, Charles Ray’s orgiastic, sculptural self-portrait Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley . . . was cordoned off with velvet ropes. “Can we add some fornication?” asked an unruly guest. I had a feeling this wasn’t the first time she’d broached the question tonight. “No!” chided Don Rubell. “And that’s exactly why that rope is there.”
We contemplated the Ferrari/Peter Brant/Tobias Meyer party in a parking structure on Lincoln but opted instead to stick with the more, uh, hospitable-sounding Soho Beach House, where White Cube was holding its second annual bash. Dependably crowded, the party was bustling with OBA sightings (Hirst, Emin, etc.) and suspiciously enthusiastic endorsements for the paella. In a back corner, guests could pick up garish bathing suits, glow-in-the-dark sunglasses, and Afro wigs, questionable embellishments to already questionable fashion choices. “It’s ’70s-themed,” a friend shouted over the music, as if this explained something.
Battling jet lag with two hours to go, I capped off my evening at Le Baron’s notorious pop-up at the Delano’s Florida Room. Grabbing a spot atop a booth with dealer Alex Hertling, collector Nathalie Fournier, and Gilles Renaud, I enjoyed an excellent vantage point of all the other early birds getting their worms. Dear Miami, has it already been a year?
Left: Collector Adam Lindemann with dealer Amalia Dayan. Right: Dealer Larry Gagosian.
Wednesday morning and Art Basel’s First Choice preview came all too soon. Just shy of noon, Gagosian’s booth was swarming with the tabloid-friendly entourages of Julian Schnabel, Vlad Doronin and Naomi Campbell, and Diddy (here to host a dinner for a Raphael Mazzucco artist’s book). Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas were around too, but by far the visitor who set the most tongues wagging was collector-blogger Adam Lindemann. His presence was only remarkable in the wake of his online invective, “Occupy Art Basel Miami Beach, Now!” which, in a loose interpretation of the operational verb, actually advocated boycotting the fair. Lindemann, apparently oblivious to irony, claimed he didn’t see the big deal in his showing up after all. Others did. “I’m waiting until he leaves my booth to go back to it,” a gallery director sniffed. The pen, I guess, is mightier than the charge card. You thought Occupations were only for the 99 percent.
Thank God for the art: There was a charming suite of Jack Smith works on paper at Gladstone, a smart new Glenn Ligon text painting at Regen Projects, and some Robert Overbys punctuating the booth at Andrew Kreps. Lots of Gabriel Orozco, too. Like lots lots. The fair wasn’t without peril. At Sies+Hoke, Kris Martin’s metal starbursts were so sharp the gallery had to post a sign telling viewers that they were entering the booth at their own risk. Perhaps more dangerous was Ryan McGinley’s Turken and Tampon, which inspired mass double-takes outside Team Gallery. “It’s hard to imagine a more brutal image,” dealer Jose Freire admitted. “But that’s why I’m showing it.”
After a full day at the fair, we dropped by the opening for Erwin Wurm’s whimsical show at the Bass Museum, though we cut out before the crowd absconded to Mr. Chow. One of this year’s features was the strange (sometimes outright bizarre) bedfellows headlining dinner invitations, which is how I came to dine at the Raleigh with Jeffrey Deitch, Maybach, and the Kingdom of Morocco. Our scant SoBe evening wear seemed insufficient armor for the suddenly chill weather.
“Miami,” Sophia Lamar glowered and shivered as we walked through the lobby. “Shit Miami.”
Anticipating the fanfare of Raleigh parties past, I was slightly surprised to see the dinner confined to a modest area by the pool, with couches lining a Marrakesh-themed tent and tables decorated with A4 sheets reading JEFFREY DEITCH/MOCA, MAYBACH, THE KINGDOM OF MOROCCO, and, charmingly, ONE SEAT RESERVED FOR LAUREN KING. “How do I know whose guest I am?” I whispered to my companion. “It doesn’t matter,” he observed. “There are only enough seats for about half of us. Couldn’t Maybach throw in a few extra tables?” Apparently, we were informed, Mercedes Benz had just announced the discontinuation of the line. Another guest nodded toward the pool, where a Maybach had been installed so that it appeared to be driving across the water: “They must have spent the money trying to float that car in the Esther Williams pool.”
“It makes me feel a little better that Paris and Nicky don’t have a table either,” a friend chimed in; as if she had spoken the magic words, two waiters appeared with a tiny table, which they placed in front of the Hilton sisters, leaving them with two extra chairs. I eyed my companion. “We’ll wait,” he said.
It was a wise call. Deitch soon placed us at a tiny table of our own, which we shared with the fabulous Francesca von Habsburg and her partner. With a touch of situational irony, our proximity to the DJ booth meant we could barely hear the Baroness explain her recent sound art commissions. Deitch—dashing between dinner guests to ensure everyone was seated—periodically paused to ask the DJ to lower the music, but, like the petulant blonde teenager she appeared to be (“That has be a Richards sister”), she would merely wait until the museum director got stuck in a photo op to crank up the volume again.
I stayed for the opening notes of the afterparty, but decamped early to catch S4lem’s live set at the Delano’s Water Station. Slipping into a cabana with Fabiola Beracasa, May Andersen, and Matthew Stone, I staked out a prime poolside seat for the show. Little did I know the unique perks of my perch. As the band broke into a mournful cover of “Better Off Alone,” two strippers began to slide into the pool, culminating in some shallow-end girl-on-girl action that shocked even the more jaded art-worlders. “I found them for, like, a hundred dollars on Craigslist,” the Hole’s Kathy Grayson confessed.
After the show, I stumbled behind Sophia Lamar to Paris! Paris!, Le Baron’s swankier older sister, which was making its Miami debut at the Shelbourne. The club mixes cabaret and karaoke, but by the time I arrived, I couldn’t tell which one I was witnessing. Diversity is encouraged in the late night options, but old habits are hard to break: Somehow or another, I found myself finishing off the evening back at the Florida Room.
Left: Young Kim. Right: The Hole's Kathy Grayson.