“MUNICH IS ONE of the most uncool places,” warned a German curator at a mixer early last week welcoming speakers to the 2013 DLD (Digital-Life-Design) conference. Cool or not, since 2005 the stodgy Bavarian capital has hosted this three-day, invitation-only, digitally driven mini-TED on the cusp of the World Economic Forum in Davos. Previous years have drawn the likes of Arianna Huffington, Jimmy Wales, Marissa Mayer, Mark Zuckerberg, and envoys from Angry Birds to the intimate if overstimulating event. Themed “Patterns that Connect,” this edition’s bold-faced names included New York Times scion Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.; startup Renaissance man and Bilderberg member Peter Thiel; and founders of websites like Kickstarter, Airbnb, and Rap Genius. Scheduled to the gills, there was also a five-minute demonstration of the Twitter Dress: a gown spun of LED fabric that glows to display tweets in real time.
Of course, it was none other than Hans Ulrich Obrist—“a very connected person in the art world and a true humanist,” as DLD founding director Steffi Czerny put it—that programmed the art sidebar of the conference. (He’s done so since DLD06.) And thus it was no surprise that Artsy’s Carter Cleveland was around to discuss his finally launched website with Michaela de Pury, or that Luma Foundation’s Maja Hoffmann and Michelangelo Pistoletto conversed with HUO at the HVB Forum: a former bank transformed into a gleaming communications center complete with vegetable juice bars, Lufthansa-branded masseurs, and smartphone docking stations galore. But the most interesting panel comprised a group of lesser-known delegates: participants in a research initiative called 89plus, co-organized by Obrist and independent curator Simon Castets.
The idea grew out of a blind spot for the pair: artists born after 1989. While this designation might seem as arbitrary as, say, Jesus’s age when he died, that year is overloaded with geopolitical symbolism. Castets outlined some of the major historic events, including, of course, the invention of the World Wide Web and the fall of the Berlin Wall, “but also, further from here, the protests in Tiananmen Square, the end of the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, and the beginning of the end of the apartheid.” One skeptic rolled his eyes: “No one cares about communism anymore.” To which another wag rejoined, “I think that’s precisely what this talk could be about.”
“Welcome to America’s Next Top Twenty-Three-Year-Old!” announced K-Hole’s Dena Yago, setting the loopy tone of the homeroom-like environment during Sunday’s technical run-through for the panel. It was a bit of a misnomer, though. The selection was international, with artists flown in from San Francisco, London, Chicago, Kuwait, and Johannesburg; Hangzhou, China; Van Nuys, California; and Gijón, Spain. And in this group, twenty-three is practically over the hill. A 1988er herself, Yago was aged out of the proceedings and was on hand as a commentator. After a quick round of introductions and some free-associating on the subject of heroes (they ran from Susan Kare, the user-interface designer responsible for the original Mac trash can, to the Qatari artist and writer Sophia Al Maria, who originated the term “Gulf Futurism”), Obrist suggested the presentations should be done in alphabetical order “because everything else is interpreted,” and concluded the meeting.
Left: Alvaro Pulpeiro, Abdullah Al-Mutairi, and Brian Khek. Right: The Chinese State Circus performs at a DLD dinner. (Photos: DLD13)
In lieu of a step-and-repeat, a three-dimensional model of a NASA Mars Exploration Rover sat outside the Chairman’s Dinner that night. (Its design was honored during the meal.) Inside, waiters stalled the main course with rounds of vodka shots, producing a ballroom full of drunk businesspeople—and some exasperated teetotalers. Then, in a display of globalized opulence (timed with the belated duck), performers from the Chinese State Circus took the stage, a frenzy of acrobatics, contortions, and unicycles. “May I throw this wineglass onto your head?” quipped Beatrix Ruf in the spirit of the spectacle, before darting off to bed.
“Where is Zaha Hadid?” the patient audience wondered the next evening. She was due at the podium to receive the DLD’s annual Aenne Burda Award for Creative Leadership. But snow in London delayed her flight, and with it the start of the 89plus panel by about an hour. Eventually, fifteen fresh-faced individuals filed onto the stage, and Brazilian entrepreneur Rony Rodrigues introduced the group by way of his business, Box1824, a market-research company specializing in eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds. Among his observations about the demographic, the one that stuck was the yearning of today’s youth not to identify themselves or their activities with labels but to exist in indefinite blurs. Beijing-based editor Ou Ning reinforced this idea with a selection of profiles from his new book, Young Asia: The Emergence of the Post-Cold War Generation, that features creatives from all over the continent.
Many of the artists were more than happy to evince this sense of fuzzy boundaries. Born in 1990 in Galicia, Spain, Alvaro Pulpeiro’s practice principally concerns architecture, and his recent research has taken him to the Salton Sea, Madison Avenue, and the heart of the Amazon. One of only a handful of programmers of any age to release an iOS app predating Apple’s App Store, Max Weisel (b. 1991) runs a software development company in the Bay Area. He paced the stage like a true CEO, explaining to the audience the tactile, electronic musical instruments he has been developing since building Björk’s Biophila app last year. Niko Karamyan’s (b. 1992) chameleon persona is called Niko the Ikon, and his three-minute presentation was a Los Angeles coming-of-age story told through hyperstylized self-portraiture. He led with a personal truism: “I am my best subject.”
Amalia Ulman (b. 1989) plumbed the aesthetics of the “selfie” before concluding her talk with a disjointed political footnote: “Your animated GIFS run on burnt coal, and your computers—they’re built by slaves.” These words were recycled from artist Daniel Keller’s presentation at the “Ways Beyond the Internet” panel at last year’s DLD, only, according to artist Simon Denny, his phrasing has since been scrubbed from any public record of the conference. Denny wasn’t there himself, but for his brilliant show at the Kunstverein München up the street, he pored over every second of the DLD12’s internal documentation, collapsing each session into a flat, canvas-mounted advertorial. Arranged along a winding, one-way path through the gallery, the head shots and pull quotes are a quick summation of the exigencies of “now,” as it was articulated twelve months ago. Of course, that was then and this is now—and soon too all “this” will be history.
“THIS IS THE HIPPEST opening I’ve been to all year,” I heard several times at last Saturday’s private reception for Cyprien Gaillard’s solo US museum debut, though whether Björk doing tequila shots while Kim Cattrall struts around in a (smart) pantsuit constitutes hip, well . . . I’ll leave to the peanut gallery to judge.
It was half-past seven when we arrived at MoMA PS1, and by then the crowd was a mess of champagne and Givenchy in the staircases, as everyone hustled to take in the art before the 8 PM dinner. “It is his first comprehensive survey,” noted MoMA PS1 curator Christopher Lew, emphasizing the importance of the event. Stavros Niarchos and Sam Orlofsky were in the lobby. Artists Wade Guyton, Hanna Liden, Liz Magic Laser, Dan Colen, and Andro Wekua slipped from room to room. Model Maggie Sands and socialite Claire Courtin-Clarins posed for pictures. Someone “spotted” Sofia Coppola, though no Billy Farrell evidence was to be had. (All this a far cry from the less histrionic if still lively public openings the next day, when the museum toasted its newly renovated galleries and exhibitions by Ed Atkins, Metahaven, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, Huma Bhabha, etc.—one of the more arresting constellations of shows there in recent memory.)
“I didn’t think this was going to be such big deal,” a girl pouted, examining her Converse sneakers. “I would’ve dressed up.”
“Cyprien is super hot,” counseled her friend, who was sporting a dark suede cape and felt hat. She gave her friend a once-over: “Well. It’s better to look like you’re not trying.”
On the third floor, crowds clumped around the wall texts. There’s the video featuring Russian youths brawling in a parking lot (Desniansky Raion, a touchstone of the first New Museum “Generational”), pictures of Gordon Matta-Clark’s grave, and rusted teeth from construction equipment displayed like relics. The centerpiece is Artefacts, a hypnotic, expansive film shot and edited on his iPhone and transferred to 35 mm, which includes footage from the artist’s trip to Iraq and elsewhere: scenes of a wandering soldier, Ishtar Gate, the skirt of a whirling dervish, all against a sound track comprising a sampled loop of David Gray’s song “Babylon,” which was once apparently played at loud levels to torture prisoners at Abu Ghraib. “He makes art about entropy,” explained Frédéric Bugada of the Paris-based Bugada & Cargnel, one of the first galleries to work with Gaillard. Bugada leaned over a row of vitrines, talking about how the artist chases destruction, searching for places in the process of demolition or at the brink of extinction.
The dinner took place inside a large Exploratorium-like dome in the museum’s courtyard. Onto its ceiling Gaillard projected an image of the roof of the greenhouse in the Bronx botanical garden, and so we basked under a powder-blue sky and fluffy clouds, shaded by fat leaves of palm trees. The artist took a seat next to dealer-curator Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld (son of Carine Roitfeld, naturally) and the crowd broke out in thunderous applause, with several young men leaping up and down and shouting Gaillard’s name. MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach took the microphone, and everyone’s heart jumped a bit when he announced he was giving “at least a forty-five-minute speech,” beginning with a tale about the artist’s father: “He is the coolest man I have ever met. I want to be him,” the towheaded curator said definitively.
He went on to toast, among many others, Barbara Gladstone, who tipped her head with approval, PS1 curatorial assistant Jocelyn Miller, who fluttered her hand hello, and Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers, who grinned behind big glasses of wine. Biesenbach finally handed off the mic to Gaillard, who blushed and stared at the ground as the crowd broke into another rousing round of applause. He leaned in and, in a very soft voice, said, “Thank you for being . . . it is a great privilege.” Quiet. “Thank you.” More thunderous applause. (Thankfully, Biesenbach’s salute clocked in at approximately half his estimate.)
After the toasts, the site of the afterparty was of great concern. This, after all, is a crowd bound by their dedication to pursuing glamour to the smallest hours. “Baron?” suggested one. The precocious, twenty-year-old Marlene Zwirner raised her eyebrows: “There is nothing for us there.” The bar at the Four Seasons was suggested and decided. Outside, it was a battle of town cars and big black SUVs. Was this MoMA PS1 or #8?
Once inside a car, we realized Manhattan is abundant with Four Seasonses.
“The bar at the Four Seasons hotel?”
“No, the restaurant; the one that changes its decor to match the season.”
“I am sure it was the hotel.”
“And I am sure that you are wrong.”
This got us nowhere. We pulled up to the hotel, and inside spotted Gaillard comrades by their attire—Alexa Chung’s glittery Carven boots, Aurel Schmidt’s conspicuously pink velveteen jumpsuit. We wandered the palatial halls before security finally demanded our exit: “There is no Cyprien party here.”
At the correct Four Seasons (happily, some five blocks away), the bar staff looked aghast as crowds of party people stormed the stairs. They were about to close up shop, but the bar manager insisted that the place “remain open—indefinitely!” Smooth electro-hip-hop boomed from the speakers and scotch was passed around.
“This was a great idea,” said the girl in the Converse sneakers.
“Cyprien wanted the party to be at a nightclub,” her friend responded. “But you know, Saturday night, they’re all so cheesy.”
THE NEXT EDITION of the Sharjah Biennial won’t open for another seven weeks but already the blitz is on. Held in the sleepiest and most austere of the seven tiny sheikhdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates, this perennial art event is highly unlikely and therefore wholly intriguing. It was a little over a year ago that the Sharjah Art Foundation named Yuko Hasegawa the curator of the next exhibition, and since then, they’ve been carefully parceling out information at a rate of about a press release every other month, leaking an enticingly partial list of artists here, tracing the curious outlines of architectural interventions there. Now, the push for serious support has begun, and the biennial seems to have moved into full-disclosure mode.
Last week, New York’s Museum of Modern Art hosted a brief but potent panel discussion on the event, detailing everything from the concept to the parallel programs (for film, music, and performance), a handful of public gardens (designed by OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen), five new exhibition venues, thirty-seven commissions, and a grand total of ninety-five participating artists, calligraphers, designers, architects, filmmakers, and more. This week, London’s Tate Modern is doing the much same, with the added promise of a public debate on the exhibition’s many themes featuring the artist Wael Shawky and the academic Sarat Maharaj.
Coming at this from a distance, it is still lamentably easy to survey the upper echelons of the international art world and see an old boys’ club among the ranks of major museum directors and global supercurators. In the humbler, heartier pockets of interest tied to the various art scenes of the Middle East and the Arab world, however, not so much. This was palpably clear on Thursday evening as the audience packed into a basement auditorium on West Fifty-Fourth Street. In addition to Hasegawa, there was Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi, daughter of Sharjah’s ruling family, president and director of the foundation she created (after taking over the biennial back in 2003, when she was still in her early twenties), and a capable artist and curator in her own right. There was also Judith Greer, the foundation’s director for international programs, who wrote a book on collecting contemporary art with the hard-nosed journalist Louisa Buck; Livia Alexander and Mahnaz Fancy, the incoming and outgoing directors, respectively, of the New York–based, Middle East–focused nonprofit Arte East; Deena Chalabi, onetime head of strategy for the Mathaf in Doha and former executive director at Alwan for the Arts in Lower Manhattan; the tough-talking, no-nonsense curators Sadia Shirazi and Leeza Ahmady; and a slew of dealers who either do business in the region or represent artists in the biennial, including Tanya Bonakdar, Jane Lombard and Alia Fattouh of Lombard-Freid Projects, Carla Chammas and Nayla Hadchiti of CRG, and Helena Anrather of the newly opened Taymour Grahne Gallery. MoMA PS1’s director Klaus Biesenbach maintained a politely low profile; MoMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey, who was moderating the event, kept his introduction and his questions to the panelists quick and concise.
Of course, it has to be said that the run-up to Sharjah’s eleventh biennial has so far involved some serious bulldozing amnesia over the tenth, which, lest anyone forget, imploded a month after it opened when an installation by the Algerian artist Mustapha Benfodil was pulled from the show and the biennial’s director, Jack Persekian, was unceremoniously sacked. Those fireworks had already followed others, including a protest (timed to coincide with the biennial’s official red-carpet inauguration) against the UAE’s role in suppressing political dissent in Bahrain, and the swift removal of Caveh Zahedi’s short film The Sheikh and I from the program, just days before it was set to screen, on the grounds that it was offensive, or blasphemous, or aesthetically a wreck and conceptually ill conceived. (Zahedi turned it into a feature, which opened in local theaters last month.) All of that provoked a spiky online petition and months of grueling debate within small circles of artists and their ilk who considered themselves professionally, emotionally, or intellectually invested in the biennial and the larger arts infrastructure the Sharjah Art Foundation was trying to create.
And so, counterintuitive as it may seem, it might be to Sheikha Hoor and Hasegawa’s great credit that they have batted away all of those scandals, dismissing them as overblown and buried in the past, while at the same time, without uttering a word of acknowledgment, pinpointing many of the issues underlying the trouble of the last show. They’ve named the event “Re:Emerge” and built a conceptual framework around the courtyard. They’ve emphasized the volatile chain of relations where art encounters audience in some self-styled version of a commons. “We tend to focus on works that are participatory and engage with public space,” said Sheikha Hoor, as she illustrated a fine lineage of public art projects from previous editions of the biennial, recalling how tentative and delicate works such as Olaf Nicolai’s Ritornello, made of laundry strung between the two buildings of the Sharjah Art Museum, were when they were first installed back in 2005. “Things tend to stay as long as they are relevant,” she added, meaning that the foundation keeps public art on view for as long as people find uses for it.
From there Hasegawa took over and, followed by an adorably enthusiastic performance by the Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto (who paced the room and waved his arms and shared his dreams), unfurled a constellation of common references for the biennial, including the desert, an oasis, the silk road, Arab traders, migrant workers, a pearling industry rendered obsolete, oil rigs, a camel, and Edward Said. A consummate professional who has already tucked the Seoul, Istanbul, and Săo Paulo biennials into her portfolio, Hasegawa stressed the importance of courtyards as “social spaces where people meet,” as “metaphorical spaces for generating knowledge,” and as “arenas for learning, critical thinking, and experimentation.” The architects Kersten Geers and David Van Severen had the unenviable task of maintaining Neto’s momentum, and they raised a hundred eyebrows in the audience when they described one of their gardens as a bar. (Alcohol is strictly forbidden in Sharjah; the bar will serve tea, Geers later clarified.) Then, after a bit of succinct back-and-forth on the slippage between decoration and Islamic art and the fine line between large-scale sculpture and architecture, Eleey ended the discussion without opening the floor to questions from the audience, suggesting everyone mingle in the reception area instead. This was totally understandable considering Eleey was three days from opening three shows at MoMA PS1, but given that so much of the ruckus last time came down to the barest of desires for public debate, any opportunity for a little give-and-take about Sharjah that gets shut down by the foundation or its affiliates feels like an act of bad faith.
And indeed, the grumbling outside was fair enough. “Two years after the start of the Arab Spring, do we really need a biennial in the Middle East that is so committed to being quiet?” asked one curator. “Why are we still fetishizing courtyards and peddling in clichés?” asked another. A project manager wondered why there hadn’t been more environmental awareness at play, given how many of the projects involved planting trees and finding ways to irrigate them. “Here comes the art world,” she said, “creating waste and wasting resources.” It may not have been truly public, but good debate was had. The reception went on forever and then tumbled around the block and turned into drinks and dinner at MoMA’s restaurant, the Modern. Hours later, a fellow writer and I packed up our pickled livers, jumped in a cab, and retired to a bar downtown to further scrutinize the list of artists. For every name—including Thomas Demand, Olafur Eliasson, Anri Sala, Gabriel Orozco, Matthew Barney and Elizabeth Peyton, CAMP, Raqs, Marwan Rechmaoui, Joumana Manna, and Amina Menia—we asked three questions: Playing it safe? Assuaging guilt or commerce? Setting the stage for subversion? We’ll know soon enough.
YOU MIGHT BE FORGIVEN for thinking Las Vegas is a desert for contemporary art. I was there last week for a fair, and the only artwork I spotted was an apparent clone of Isa Genzken’s New Museum rose, languishing outside the Prada store on The Strip. “I guess it’s not that weird,” said AIDS-3D’s Daniel Keller, positively ID-ing the flower. “The casino in Berlin and the Freedom Tower in New York both have the same Koons balloon dog outside.” There’s no better place for brand extension than a tourist trap.
But I wasn’t in Vegas for an art fair—per se. What lured me to town was something more . . . experiential: the International CES (Consumer Electronics Show), a spectacle whose volume, expense, and sensory stimuli dwarf anything mustered in hubs of art-world pageantry like Basel, Venice, or Miami. “I don’t know about CES this year. It’s getting too commercial. Too much about the parties.” No one said anything like this there. As the preeminent showcase for new and in-development products using electricity, it’s an essential event for one of the highest-grossing global industries. Interlopers like me just gawked; we left the talking to the army of spokespeople staffing more than 3,250 booths spread across almost two million square feet of the Las Vegas Convention Center and a large swath of the nearby Venetian Resort Hotel Casino.
The sheer breadth of the work on view makes any précis impossible. About 90 percent of the products seemed to be compulsory, best-in-class cords, USB drives, appliances, etc., which nevertheless left room for hundreds of inspired inventions in countless niche markets: digital health, green technology, massage, cooking, sex entertainment, eye-operated mice (for computers). There was a sidebar program on “MommyTech,” and low-concept gadgets for senior citizens like “TV ears” (wireless headphones).
Left: The TV Ears exhibit at the International CES. Right: A representative of Necomimi at the International CES. (Photos: Kevin McGarry)
The best “ears,” though, were to be found in the section of the show devoted to brain-wave reading. A representative of Necomimi—a headband that scans your thoughts and wiggles its furry cat ears in response (popular in Japan)—demonstrated a pair on herself as she explained how it works. “See that gentleman over there?” she added. “His headset doesn’t have kitty ears. But he’s flying a helicopter with his brain waves.” (A toy helicopter, I hoped.) Camp abounded. “Who is this?” I asked, looking at an anthropomorphic robot on display alongside a selection of high-end, Roomba-like machines. “He’s just our mascot, we’re not bringing him to market. But his head is a vacuum cleaner.”
Which company emerged as the de facto Gagosian? Apple doesn’t deign to set up shop in the company of others. Neither does Google. Their absence—along with other tech heavy-hitters like Amazon and Facebook—of course raised the question of whether the whole notion of the “gadget” (or, shudder, “electronic”) wasn’t riddled with a certain utopian nostalgia, an ancien régime fixation on solid things that, well, do stuff. In any case, the biggest dog in the room would have to be Samsung, whose Times Square of an exhibit was anchored by eight huge flat-screens cascading and twirling in a desperate, Busby Berkeley–esque choreography. (The company’s flexible OLED displays unveiled here dominated blogs.) Nearby, Nikon’s booth featured an elaborate Dutch garden, a mad scientist pouring a rainbow of gassing chemicals in and out of beakers, and two breathless flamenco dancers utterly committed to their fourth wall: all ideal subjects for the photographic gear on display.
One booth was full of familiar faces. Three members of the New York trend forecasting collective K-HOLE—artists Greg Fong and Dena Yago and strategist Emily Segal—were there on behalf of the Russian startup Lapka. “Lapka is an environmental monitor,” Segal explained. “A set of four tiny sensors that plug into your iPhone to measure, collect, and play with the hidden qualities of your surroundings—radioactive particles, electromagnetic fields, humidity, and nitrates left behind in raw produce.” Working in the interstices of conceptual and commercial visual culture, K-HOLE has been developing Lapka’s brand story, and they followed the Russian team to Nevada both to participate in the convention and shoot some earthy promotional stills of the device in action.
“Lapka anticipates a more curious future,” added Fong. “It’s not augmented reality; it’s reality!” So, one might argue, is CES, where a telecommunication CEO’s keynote dissolved into a goofy role-play of Gen Y consumer archetypes dissolved into a Big Bird cameo dissolved into an impromptu acoustic concert by Maroon 5. Where else but the casino?
WHEN THE 2013 NEW YORK ART SEASON began last weekend, anyone seeking more bang for the buck must have felt shortchanged. Oh, the art was nice, the people were nice, and so were the parties. But it made the future look like a rolled napkin at an empty seat at the table.
Here was the art world that money has wrought: polished without any spit. Was 2012 so oppressive that few among us are interested in taking a leap? Following the shock of Hurricane Sandy, it may be only natural to resist throwing caution to the winds. Some dealers were happy just to reopen their doors. Others may have been attempting to sidestep a market that only embraces the recycled, the recapitulated, and the reverent. Thank goodness for the exceptions, even if the only rule they proved is that we need new rules.
Artists Space curator Richard Birkett appeared to have done some close, rough-and-tumble looking at New York exhibitions over the year past. The selections he made for the seventh White Columns Annual drew a capacity crowd on Thursday night, when a dozen galleries held receptions in Chelsea and SoHo. “This show is really good,” the dependably cheerful collector Thea Westreich told gallery director Matthew Higgs, clutching her checklist. “Especially the room with the rubbish.”
Left: New Museum associate director Masimilliano Gioni and High Line Art curator Cecilia Alemani. Right: Dealer Casey Kaplan.
She was speaking of the gallery’s White Room 1, now painted gold by Yuji Agematsu, the better to display the delicate sculptures of pressed paper, wire, and dust that he pinned to the walls like butterflies collected by a visionary. Made of detritus picked up from New York City streets over Agematsu’s many years as caretaker of the Judd Foundation building on Spring Street, it was the best shot over the bow that night.
Then again, the paper stripes that Daniel Buren situated on the generous walls of Friedrich Petzel’s gallery were also a showstopper. The artist dedicated the work to his late friend Michael Asher. It attracted the serious. MoMA curator Ann Temkin was just leaving as dealer Philippe Ségalot was coming in. Gallery artists Sean Landers and Dana Schutz held down the fort while the seventy-four-year-old Buren was in situ at Bortolami, where the man who cares less for art objects than the environments they create was nonetheless showing objects: overpainted, printed stripes encased in Plexiglas and fiber optic fabric that lit up—in glowing blue stripes—when plugged in.
A few doors down at Anton Kern, most of the action in David Shrigley’s attempt at three-dimensional one-liners came from viewers who lined up to pound a big black steel gong labeled GONG in white. Casey Kaplan reopened for the first time since the hurricane with minimal paintings on unstretched canvas by Giorgio Griffa, two of which had suffered the flood and been cleaned up. Dating from 1968 to now, they were ready for rediscovery.
Next door, Tanya Bonakdar and Haim Steinbach were striding through the installation of Sabine Hornig’s bus shelter–like Perspex sculptures printed with transparent photographs. They were on their way to dinner. Was it that time already? The White Columns crowd was heading to the back room at Artbar, but the moment had arrived to join Bortolami, Petzel, and friends downstairs at the new Bocca di Bacco to toast Daniel and Chantal Buren’s fifty-first wedding anniversary. “I’m in over my head,” cracked Lawrence Weiner, as usual saying more with less.
David Nolan was in the restaurant at the Hotel Americano, hosting a dinner for Sandra Vásquez de la Horra, while Kern was up on the terrace, seating pals like Andrew Kreps, Anne Collier, Clarissa Dalrymple, Marco Brambilla, and Liz Swig at tables around Shrigley’s. “People don’t know Dave in New York,” he said, and then astonished everyone by talk-singing his toast to the tune of “Words Don’t Come Easy to Me.” No one dared give him the gong.
On rainy Friday night, Paula Cooper was the sole dealer to host an opening—hands-down the most elegant of the year. The object of admiration from a smartly dressed brain trust of ninety was Julian Lethbridge, who had hung some of his new paintings still wet. That was kind of a secret until retired Harper’s magazine editor Lewis Lapham accidentally brushed too close to one of them, pulling away with some of it on his pinstriped sleeve. Oops!
Dinner at Da Umberto was slow in coming, though the burble of polite conversation didn’t flag, but then it wouldn’t with Anne Bass, Agnes Gund, Cecily Brown, Brice Marden, Wade Guyton, David Salle, T. J. Wilcox, Joel Shapiro, Scott Rothkopf, Marla Prather, Donna De Salvo, novelist Michael Cunningham, and Frieze cofounder Amanda Sharp on hand. My entrée didn’t arrive till 11 PM, when it was past time to arrive at the New Museum for its $150-per-ticket Next Generation Party, orchestrated by the cocurators of the museum’s 2015 triennial, Lauren Cornell and Ryan Trecartin.
DJ Bryce Hackford was still spinning in the lobby, where ultrahip DIS magazine had organized a Red Carpet Service, with “Media Companions” performing step-and-repeat routines in logo-festooned, white Zentai bodysuits. Up in the seventh-floor Sky Room, singer Lauren Devine was just finishing her performance of Luv U Far, the Trecartin-produced single she had released on iTunes that day. The crowd here, naturally, was on the young side. “We scared away all the donors,” Cornell reported.
Saturday afternoon brought a champagne reception at Wallspace Gallery, one of the hardest hit in the hurricane, for the reopening of the show by Gaylen Gerber that had just seen the light of day when the storm flooded it. But leave it to the unconventional Michele Maccarone to bring back Andy Kaufman. “On Creating Reality, by Andy Kaufman,” a show of the comedian’s ephemera organized by Jonathan Berger, seemed more primed for eBay than a gallery. Vitrines of 45 rpm records, diaries, photographs, costumes, and even Kaufman’s handwritten will were set across the floor, while there seemed to be a séance going on at a round table where Kaufman’s brother Michael, his Taxi costar Carol Kane, and his best friend Bob Zmuda were gathered to speak to the curious. “This is a show that had to happen,” I heard one fan say.
I departed for the weavings and tires of Nick Relph and bright narrative paintings of Christopher Knowles at Gavin Brown, where theater director Robert Wilson touchingly waxed nostalgic for the days when Knowles was a prodigious teenager starring in such productions as Einstein on the Beach. Back in Chelsea, Andrew Kreps was herding friends out of his first show with Maria Loboda to dinner at the Russian Samovar, while dealer Alexander Gray was at his gallery, speaking of the late Hugh Steers, whose estate he now represents. Steers died in 1995 at thirty-two from AIDS, and his autobiographical paintings brought back all the pain and poignancy of the pandemic at that time.
A party for the Kaufman show, with a performance by Tony Clifton, was starting at Westway, but I had seen enough ghosts for one evening, so I stopped back at Brown’s dinner for his artists. “You missed my toast!” said the dealer, but the party was still alive and kicking. In the absence of any other galvanizing force, what else was there to do but hang on?
I’M TOLD THAT JANUARY 11 is when you can stop saying Happy New Year. It was only the 10th, but already 2013 was feeling a little dusty as we thronged into the Royal Hibernian Academy for the first big art bash of Ireland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union. We’d gotten used to being slightly mortified in European company, vaguely embarrassed about our bank bailout, while we hugged to ourselves the notion that at least we’re better than Greece. But this year we’re feeling good about the European Union, in part because of an extra chunk of funding for cultural projects, in celebration of the fact, that, until June, we’re the ones in charge in Brussels (nominally, at least).
At the RHA, six different exhibitions were opening, and Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) Eamon Gilmore shared the revelation that “art appreciation is a personal experience for all of us.” Other pearls included the insights that the European Union is “not just a currency or a budget,” that “our culture is at the core of who we are,” and that “our artists and performers exemplify the energy of modern Ireland.” Suitably energized, we clapped, grabbed some more wine, and left the minister speaking with Vivienne Roche (whose Spirit and Light installation is in the RHA atrium) to take in the shows.
In Justin Larkin’s “Untitled,” bright, cartoon-style paintings are juxtaposed with intriguing objects on plinths, including an apple that appears as if straight out of Snow White. Artist Alan Phelan thought it looks like “he’s been taking Larry Johnson ’toon pills, washed down with a shot of Paul McCarthy.” We both liked the way it brought some candy-colored, if macabre, brightness to a dampish Dublin night.
Where to be is always a tricky issue for artists at large openings. Do you hover by your work for the duration, or get out there and mingle? I met Algerian artist Amina Menia between a Richter and a Polke; she was clearly keen to get back to her own show, “Becoming Independent,” and filled me in on the complex colonial legacy of French occupation. I began to wonder if there’s any country entirely free of that kind of thing, if you go far enough back in time. We were joined by that exhibition’s curator, Caroline Hancock, in from Paris, whose tales of angling for visas for Menia and her fellow artist Zineb Sidera made us realize that, tiresome as some European Union Directives are, the ability to travel with relative ease between the member states is worth its weight in all the gold we collectively owe.
Perhaps it’s something about living on a small island, but Irish people do get around. Hancock, now based in Paris, is off to do a show in Dakar next month, while the Rubicon Gallery’s Josephine Kelliher is moving to Brussels for the duration of the Irish presidency, opening a branch of the gallery in Ixelles. “It’s never a bad thing to start something new while there’s a special focus on who you are and where you’re from,” she says. With a major show opening of Irish art, from Francis Bacon on, at the Bozar in February, she has a point.
Octogenarian artist Basil Blackshaw solved the problem of where to be by simply staying away from the opening of his retrospective altogether. Instead, curator Riann Coulter was there, politely disclaiming any acclaim for selecting the fifty-plus works, which include a healthy smattering of Blackshaw’s much-loved horse paintings. “Basil picked it,” she said. In fact, everyone was giving credit to everyone else. Martin Hentschel, from Germany’s Kunstmuseen Krefeld, who curated the Polke and Richter works-on-paper exhibition, said it was hard work, but, like a true leader, told me it was all about the team. He was returning to Germany in the morning to work on a pair of shows—Peter Angermann and Michael Craig-Martin. “Separately,” he said. “Not together. They’re like fire and water”—though he declined to say which was which.
That’s the European Union in action: selfless cooperation, and lots of flying about the place on planes (for the sake of art!). Everyone here seemed en route to somewhere else. Artist Liam O’Callaghan will be showing at Rubicon Brussels, while Anita Groener, standing by her stunning installation State, was planning her forthcoming spring show at Galerie Witteveen Amsterdam. Mary Cremin was talking Venice already, as she’s working with Commissioner Anna O’Sullivan on bringing Richard Mosse to the Irish pavilion. “I’m very excited,” she said. “I’d be even more excited if it was me,” added O’Callaghan with a wry smile.
Suddenly it was time to go. RHA director Patrick T. Murphy announced the traditional move to Doheny & Nesbitt, the pub once famed for its gatherings of economists and politicians. Dubbed the Doheny & Nesbitt School of Economics, the group was blamed in a recent New York Times article as the source of all our financial woes. Now Doheny’s is also infamous as the spot for RHA afterparties. As we left the gallery and looked back through the pink masking Groener has added to the windows as part of her installation, I was feeling all loved up on art. But I also wondered: In which direction will those rose-tinted spectacles be working in Ireland in 2013—looking out, or looking in…?
LET’S DISPENSE WITH THE GRISLY DETAILS. The world did not come crashing to a cataclysmic end on 12/12/12 (already the less popular apocalyptic appointment on the Mayan calendar compared with 12/21/12), but on that date a few weeks ago, the first Kochi-Muziris Biennale flung open its doors to give onlookers an eyeful of total organizational chaos and an exhibition in shambles. The artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu—two of the so-called Bombay Boys, who began stirring up the Mumbai art scene back in the late 1990s—cofounded the biennial’s coordinating body just nineteen months ago. As curators of the first edition, they applied the ethos of an artists’ project to an event whose grand ambitions demanded infrastructure and administrative largesse. They invited more than ninety artists—half from India, half from the rest of the world—to find a place among fourteen possible venues and effectively do their own thing there. In lieu of a curatorial concept, Krishnamachari and Komu rummaged through the layered histories of metropolitan Kochi (with its riotous mix of Dutch, Portuguese, Arab, Chinese, Sephardic, and Syrian Catholic influences) and mythical Muziris (an Atlantis-like port city said to have been washed away and lost forever in a flood a few thousand years ago). From that combination of real and imagined cities, they came up with a few vague but serviceable keywords—such as cosmopolitanism and heritage—and hinged their biennial to them.
Meanwhile, the local government (in the state of Kerala, population 33 million, and staunchly communist at the time) agreed to support the biennial with annual financial assistance. Then the government changed. The new party in power not only ripped up the contract but also launched an investigation into how the first tranche of funds (worth five crore rupees, around $900,000) had been spent. The biennial’s board of trustees went to the private sector for help patching up the huge hole in their budget. They elicited great sympathy but came back empty-handed. By the time the inauguration rolled around, things were not going well. Barely half installed, the exhibition was a wreck, a treasure hunt with no map and potentially no treasure either. The day before, when I arrived for an ostensible press preview, the situation had been even worse, tilting toward despair in a wincing vision of shipping crates, stalled labor, discarded tools, half-cleared piles of trash, and thoroughly despondent artists. Not only that, but the dainty streets of touristy Fort Kochi—where most of the biennial’s venues are strung together, like distressed architectural jewels, in crumbling dockside warehouses, seventeenth-century bungalows, and a nineteenth-century clubhouse for colonial-era gentlemen—were awash with posters, graffiti, and an elaborately painted mural depicting the biennial as a resource-sucking labyrinth of misappropriated funds, manipulative marketing, corruption, and corporate intrigue. Because one dark plot deserves another, a critic from Delhi arched an elegant eyebrow and suggested that perhaps the antibiennial campaign was the work of the Naxalites, India’s shadowy Maoist insurgency.
Was that the worst of it? Probably. From that point on, though, the biennial worked its charm on all of us. Hour by hour, installations came together, problems were solved, and artworks that had been stuck for ages due to power cuts, customs issues, technical difficulties, diva drama, or plain doubt began to emerge as concrete things to see and surrender to. I caught up with the Kerala-born artist Vivek Premachandran, aka UBIK, who had been wise to tackle the heaviness of history in three nimble, text-based installations that had been ready to go for days, giving him ample time to watch his colleagues at work. “This is really a DIY biennale,” he said. “It’s like boot camp for a young artist like me. These are some of the legends of modern and contemporary art in India, and I get to see their working process out in the open and in public.” Boot camp for him was an education and a steep learning curve for me—from the Bombay Boys to the Kerala Radicals and beyond—and a quick study in how we got here, to India’s first biennial despite eleven editions of the India Triennale, which launched in 1968 and folded in 2005, and a hard, subsequent push to get a Delhi Biennale off the ground, which ultimately came to nothing and collapsed amid too much talk and no action in 2007.
Bailing out of a press conference on Tuesday that was scrapped five minutes before it began, I jumped into an auto rickshaw with Rami Farook, founder of the Dubai-based design studio Traffic and publisher of a year-old journal called The State. A biennial advisor and supporter, Farook had been traveling between Dubai and Kochi for months, and was helping a handful of artists to get their projects together on time. “To be honest with you, everything is running a couple of days late,” he said in classic soft-spoken understatement. We took a lightning-quick tour of three venues—Pepper House, Moidu’s Heritage Plaza, and Aspinwall, a compound of nineteenth-century warehouses edged along the Arabian Sea—with a driver named Joseph who had clearly gotten the biennial thing down. Weaving new material into the well-worn story of Kochi, he spun us a lovely history of perennial art events from Venice until now as we bumped along in the back seat.
At Aspinwall, Amar Kanwar’s striking installation of The Sovereign Forest, 2010–12—including two videos, four handmade books, and more than two hundred varieties of rice seeds—was an oasis of calm and completion amid the madness in evidence everywhere else. Kanwar had also parked himself inside his own installation to answer visitors’ questions, explain the work, discuss the issues at stake (among them, mining and the loss of Indian farmland), and generally keep an eye on things until a guard turned up (which eventually happened, two days later). “I think there is an audience for this in Kerala. If we didn’t have the biennale, I would never have shown this work here. It’s an important event for art students. It will start all kinds of dialogue,” Kanwar said. “If it survives.” In a building nearby, Vivan Sundaram, one half of the Indian art scene’s reigning power couple (the other half being the critic and curator Geeta Kapur), was struggling to get the lighting right on a mesmerizing floor piece that assembled a model of ancient urbanization from a pile of pottery shards the artist had borrowed from an archaeological excavation site thought to correspond to where Muziris once stood. Beyond that, a small army was trying to hoist up the bow of a traditional Keralan fishing boat, its wooden hull overflowing with the effects (pots, pans, bedding, furniture) of either a large family or a small village—all part of a spectacular sculpture by Subodh Gupta.
Later that night, after a rowdy dinner, a pack of us—including UBIK, Farook, Nina Trojanovic of Traffic, and about half the staff of Art Dubai—returned to Aspinwall to find an improbable hive of industry under newly installed floodlights. Clearly, no one was planning to give it a rest before the opening ceremony on Wednesday morning. I mean afternoon. I mean evening. Valsan Koorma Kolleri, jumping down from a high table and impressively agile for a man just shy of sixty, was turning an old archive room into an incredible installation of dried leaves, palm fronds, peanut shells, coconut husks, and much more. A vast collection of his clay sculptures was strewn across the floor to dry. Volunteers ran through the grounds passing out bottles of water. At Pepper House, the painter KP Reji was hosting an open studio at midnight while putting the finishing touches on a massive triptych. Next door, Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran of CAMP would soon come, see, and install a four-screen video installation without sweating any of the details that had been tying other artists in knots. Ernesto Neto offered lusty explanations for why he was hanging clove, cumin, and turmeric from the ceiling of a disused warehouse, then added: “This is a biennial for amateurs, not professionals. I’m an amateur. An amateur and a lover.”
At some point on Wednesday, the biennial did quietly open to the public, and some 10,000 people streamed through the gates of Aspinwall over the next three days. Welcome to India. Finally getting my hands on a map, I spent hours running around with Khalil Joreige, who had nothing else to do since his work was still missing. We returned several times to a brilliant series of photographs (with hilarious accompanying texts) by Anup Mathew Thomas, who may or may not have stopped us on the stairs to regale us with tall tales of his life as a dope farmer. Nalini Malani, who was showing a wonderful video made from the outtakes of her Documenta 13 commission, reminded me of the unconscionable fact that in an exhibition of ninety-odd artists, only six were women. Sudarshan Shetty’s I Know Nothing of the End, 2012, struck me, at first, as an ill-conceived copy of Pierre Huyghe’s dystopic garden in Kassel, until I stumbled into a beautiful wooden temple that was being hammered together by hand, even as it appeared already half-buried, a ruin in progress.
Left: Artist Ernesto Neto. Right: MIA performing on the Parade Ground in Kochi. (Photo: Swanoop John)
Later, I did my best to avoid catching an elbow in the eye during a concert by MIA, who was participating in the biennial as an artist under her own name (Maya Arulpragasam). She thrilled the mostly male audience on Fort Kochi’s open-air Parade Ground, but nothing compared to the moment she brought the Bollywood heartthrob John Abraham, just voted the sexiest man alive by People India, onstage with her. The crowd went wild. MIA performed “Paper Planes” and then bolted without so much as an encore. We made our way over to the clubhouse for dinner and an afterparty on a badminton court DJ’d by the inimitable Nico De Transilvania, my housemate for the week. Much to my surprise, Santiago Sierra, Ernesto Neto, and Subodh Gupta, who was positively gallant in the five minutes to follow, all rushed to my defense against a nasty bartender who had the nerve to call me “darling” while I was trying and failing to procure the weakest of whisky sodas. It was quickly becoming one of those special international art events that counter institutional failures and organizational shortcomings with an awful lot of heart. Shwetal Patel, the biennial’s executive officer, cocked his head and said to me smoothly: “You’ll be kind to us, won’t you?”
Of course, none of this stopped Krishnamachari from using the word “professional” eleven times in as many minutes when we spoke about what had gone right and wrong in the run-up to 12/12/12—as in, “We wanted to do something professional. It is an artists’ project but we wanted to do it in a professional way.” Then he told me a story. “I was in Sharjah a couple of years ago, and there were some kids playing cricket. We just asked them, ‘Hey, there are a lot of people going into that museum over there. Do you know what’s going on?’ Unfortunately, they didn’t. But everybody in Kochi knows the name ‘biennale’ now.” Is that enough? Is that even true? I’m not so sure. But like so many others who were won over in Kochi, I’m willing to wonder, and to imagine what that could mean.