THIS IS A LOVE LETTER TO BRUSSELS, despite—no, because!—of its myriad contradictions. From the moment I arrived for Art Brussels weekend, everyone was trying in vain to define the city, the latest to be touted the “new Berlin.” But Brussels is hardly Berlin, or it’s all that and more—or maybe it’s just . . . the new Brussels?
I headed straight from the airport to a buzzing dinner hosted by artists Beat Streuli and Marie Le Mounier, where scores of other artists living in Brussels, both foreign and Belgian, mixed with visiting curators: Dobrila Denegri, Antonia Alampi, Elena Sorokina, Chris Fitzpatrick, Maria Artusoo, and Luigi Fassi among them. (Globalization check: Only one of them currently works in her own country.) The relatively inexpensive monthly rent on the spacious and elegant three-story home-studio was discussed in tones of awe. Real-estate advantages and influx of artists aside, the evening presented the first claim against the “new Berlin” theory: The chef bragged that his coq au vin had been heartily complimented by a Frenchman. Indeed, Brussels has not just great beer but very good food. Ta-dum.
Left: Artist Zin Taylor and curator Chris Fitzpatrick. Right: Dealer Barbara Cuglietta and Kunsthalle Basel director Adam Szymczyk.
The whimsical introduction to the fair the next day was Maarten Vanden Eynde’s ‘Brick Era’, +/- 2013 AD, a cluster of brick-and-concrete boulders scattered outside of the entrance, one of several commissioned projects. Inside, artist Walt Van Beek and designer Tom Mares had transformed the halls of the Brussels Expo according to an airport concept, which was introduced by lovely fresh-faced hostesses in bright blue uniforms and pillbox hats (created by Belgian fashion designers Natacha Cadonici and Miss V., respectively). The “Young Talent” booths were up first. “Last year we were in ‘First Call,’ ” said one of the chosen, Berlin dealer Michael Krome. “It seems you can stay young for some time here.” But keeping a fair fresh is more than just placement and categories. “I like Brussels because you can actually discover new things,” said collector Patrick Letovsky. Art Brussels is the best of both worlds: an established market with a youthful frisson.
Solo shows at various booths, selected by Katerina Gregos in her first year as artistic director, created a nice pace. First-time exhibitor Kalfayan Gallery presented Hrair Sarkissian’s timely photographic series “Execution Squares,” 2008, portraits of ominously empty places in Syria; among other disquieting landscapes at the booth were Vartan Avakian’s extreme close-ups of spam. Galerie Perrotin dedicated its booth to shimmering minimal paintings by Pieter Vermeersch, evidence of the new generation of young Belgians returning to painting.
Not only are established artists such as Kendell Geers relocating to Brussels, but many galleries are as well, and I stopped by the panel “Brussels: Marriage of Convenience or Love Match?” to gain insight on the weekend refrain relating the two Bs. Reportedly Belgium has the largest concentration of collectors in Europe, one reason being the more advantageous tax laws compared with surrounding countries, France and the Netherlands in particular. Motive Gallery’s Petra Kuipers explained her move from Amsterdam to Brussels in terms of the city’s central location within Europe. Another plus: “Amsterdam and Paris are cities that are more or less finished, and Brussels is not,” she added. The discussion turned to the proliferation of privately funded and nonprofit spaces, such as Wiels, Komplot, and Argos, making up for the lack of public institutions. “There is a great energy and support from the private sector for creative initiatives,” noted Anne-Claire Schmitz, director of recently established La Loge. “However,” moderator Virginie Devillez said, “it is not naturally organized, and it is fragmented by official policy.” That underlying instability and conflict arising from Belgium’s cultural duality—coupled with money, taste, and a well-developed sense of irony—provides an ideal dynamic for art. Fair director Gregos provided the coda: “I feel so lucky that I moved here in 2006, before the Greek crisis. It is not the new Berlin, though!” Over lunch in the courtyard—accompanied by Belgian fries, natch—a French collector provided an alternative: “Brussels is a Paris suburb.” Voilà!
That evening the Wiels commenced “Experienz,” a series of weekend performances organized by collector Nathalie Guiot. I arrived just in time for Antonio Contador’s Tu te Tus, in which a local police brass band marched in and then out again, before sitting down to their payment in beers and burgers. My favorite, though, was Oliver Beer’s powerful, spiritual symphony of voices. Part of “The Resonance Project,” which uses the building as an instrument, it featured singers arranged up and down the massive stairwell, improvising (within established parameters) while projecting their voices into the corners.
Around the way was the Paris-based Slick Art Fair, now celebrating its second edition. The standout for me was the Revue Noire booth, showcasing the work of African artists, where Joël Andrianomearisoa had installed a luscious Labyrinth of Passions constructed from scaffolds supporting black-tissued canvases. The night ended with a dinner for curators at La Loge and a viewing of the site-specific exhibition “Six Possibilities for a Sculpture,” an ode to art’s “post-medium condition” through a performance-driven ensemble created by several artists that resembled the orgiastic aftermath of a cult ritual. The quirky space, a former Masonic temple, is itself a force to be reckoned with.
Left: Dealers Renato Cardi and Nicolò Cardi. Right: FIAC director Jennifer Flay and artist Harold Ancart.
The next morning, on the way to the Argos Centre for Art and Media, we cruised past the royal palace. “It looks empty,” curator Francesco Stocchi observed. “Maybe they could rent rooms to offset the government debt.” He had been told earlier that there were no police in Brussels because it is too expensive. (Perhaps this explains why the police band was willing to perform for food at Wiels.) Never mind: The country recently seemed to function just fine for more than a year without a government. We made our way through Harun Farocki’s “In Remembrance of Times Past” and then on to Frédéric de Goldschmidt’s permanent collection. “He made the walls speak just as I make buildings sing,” said Beers, looking at Belgian artist Harold Ancart’s starkly sensual installation of black pigment highlighting the texture of a surface. Serendipitously, this was where, two years ago, Xavier Hufkens had encountered Ancart, whose solo show would inaugurate the dealer’s new space that evening.
We all piled into Goldschmidt’s car, only to get lost in the upscale suburbs on the way to the home of collector Nathalie Guiot. There, Emmanuel Lambion had installed his masterful Found in Translation, Chapter M, an iteration of a traveling site-specific series that plays with how a work’s meaning changes in different contexts (in this case, an austere modernist domicile surrounded by woods). We decided to eschew the uptown openings for downtown that evening, our final destination a cozy dinner party at Galerie Greta Meert in honor of exhibitions by painters Michael Venezia and Koen van den Broek. The dealer’s son, Frédéric Mariën, showed us upstairs to the penthouse apartment, where you could view the city through a giant, stunning Isa Genzken picture frame, perched “perilously” over the edge of the terrace. For a moment, the dynamic city seemed to surrender to our own skewed perspective, just one facet of the marvelous panoply.
WHO’D HAVE GUESSED that the award ceremony for this year’s Wolfgang Hahn Prize would be the highlight of Art Cologne week? The press preview on the prior Wednesday morning for the related Andrea Fraser retrospective at the Museum Ludwig had been a routine affair. No journalist dared to ask a question, not even the customary one: “Whatever happened to institutional critique?” And yet we were all wondering about her plans for her award ceremony, a format constitutive to the Fraserian “oeuvre.” In the end, curator Barbara Engelbach gently pushed the artist to reveal some details, and Fraser explained that she’d invited the cultural theorist Helmut Draxler to hold an “anti-laudatio” to follow the official laudation by Kunsthaus Bregenz’s Yilmaz Dziewior. At last, we thought—conflict!
But there was plenty to keep us busy before the main event. On Wednesday night, French curator Fanny Gonella and I wended our way through Cologne’s endless pedestrian precincts from Stefan Müller’s show at the Kölnische Kunstverein and back to Phil Collins’s opening at Museum Ludwig. In the main exhibition space, Collins had installed two small caravans, viewing booths for a video featuring a call-in shopping channel that sells cameos in a Victorian-themed porn production for the bargain price of €9.99. “Basically the show is about three German obsessions,” Collins told me, counting fingers in the air: “Verhör, Porno, Tod.” I ran into record-label owner Martin Hossbach (who just had a surprising success with Rafael Horzon’s “Me, My Shelf and I” [feat. Peaches]) and together we visited Collins’s second installation, listening booths that played, among other things, a lovely Collins-commissioned song by Scritti Politti. Hossbach recently taught a course in Pet Shop Boys Studies at the Leipzig University of Music & Theatre, and he took me to his favorite Kölsch-Brauhaus to expound before we rejoined the crowds on the sidewalk outside the Kunstverein to drink, talk, and smoke into the night.
Left: Curator Kasper König with Museum Ludwig director Philipp Kaiser. Right: Dealer Michael Werner.
“There’s no first-hour-rush of collectors like at Art Basel,” dealer Marie-Blanche Carlier informed me the next morning as Art Cologne proper commenced. The pace is slower here, but dealers seemed to meet their goals, and in the afternoon hours a sort of joyful hum filled the halls. We enjoyed plenty of good art too, some of it via a tour by Julia Stoschek of her formidable video collection, including works by Clemens von Wedemeyer, Monica Bonvicini, and Klara Lidén. Of course as many people were at the fair for the gossip as for the art. Like the fact that Søren Grammel, who has been the director of Kölnischer Kunstverein for a little more than a year, is to leave his position for the Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Basel. Or that Ben Kaufmann, who closed his gallery in Berlin in late 2011, will follow Dorothea Jendricke as the new director of Neuer Aachener Kunstverein (NAK). Kaufmann had told journalists he planned to leave the art world for good and start working as a soccer coach instead. To which we say: Welcome back!
More idle gossip: That night I sat next to Eigen + Art’s Judy Lybke at Restaurant Acht, located in Cologne's hip Belgian quarter, and we discussed Carsten Nicolai’s surprising rise to art-pop stardom. The artist, who also runs a label for experimental electronic music, is the current supporting act for Depeche Mode on their upcoming Eastern Europe tour. Lybke told me Nicolai had taken some time do decide whether or not to join on. DM fans’ intolerance for (if not downright hostility to) supporting acts is a known fact. But perhaps he has a little of the Fraser spirit in him: Who wants to be universally adored?
Left: Dealers Saskia Draxler and Christian Nagel. Right: Collector Christian Boros with critic Gregor Quack.
Before I repaired to my hotel, I met Dominikus Müller at the club Gewölbe, where Kompakt Label was celebrating its twentieth anniversary and also receiving, as Kompakt cofounder Wolfgang Voigt put it, the “knightly accolades from the art world.” Art Cologne director Daniel Hug had invited apologists of the straight 4/4 techno beat to build a sound installation in the entry area of the exhibition halls as well as a “pop ambient chill-out lounge.” While the lounge in the halls felt a bit like a walk-in diorama of the early 1990s, the Kompakt club night turned out to be very entertaining (contemporary, even!).
After Friday’s whirlwind tour of Cologne galleries (Carsten Fock’s paintings at Schmidt & Handrup deserve special mention), the crowds made their way Saturday to Fraser’s survey at the Museum Ludwig for the Wolfgang Hahn award ceremony. During the impressive one-hour event, Dziewior praised the jury for the decision to award Fraser 100,000 euros, which included the acquisition of several works for the Ludwig collection. Draxler, of course, went for the jugular: “How only could you ever accept that prize?” he asked. “Precisely as impostors the audience is recognizing us, bridging the gap between individual ambition and institutional claim with honor, diffusing market values with critical positions completely. There is no escape from that; it seems to be the fate of success, or, in Pierre Bourdieu’s words: Success is ultimate failure.” In her acceptance speech, Fraser didn’t seem affected: “Helmut, you were much too kind.” Afterward, 250 chosen were led to a seated dinner at Alter Wartesaal.
I left Cologne Sunday morning tired, happy, intoxicated. But before departing the Rhineland altogether, I dropped in on Wolfgang Tillmans’s excellent show at K21 in Düsseldorf as well as Gunter Reski’s exhibition at the Kunstverein. The most beautiful of Reski’s large-yet-light watercolors shows a hand piercing the screen of a smartphone, and during my train ride back to Berlin my thoughts kept returning to that image, Die Verbesserung des Fingers—the improvement of the finger. Since the heyday of the 1980s and early ’90s, the Rhineland may have lost its status as uncontested center of the European art world. But the mutual efforts of the fair and regional institutions, galleries, and private collections is paying off: The myth is still alive, if reinvented and condensed.
WE WERE SEATED around a tea table crowded with cakes, scones, and little sandwiches with the crusts cut off. We had our choice of Indian or Chinese tea, and the view was breathtaking: The Blackwater River wound through lush green fields and a picturesque bridge led toward where we sat, high up in Lismore Castle, Irish home of the Dukes of Devonshire and home too to Lismore Castle Arts, an organization set up by the Duke’s son, Lord William Burlington. Proximity to centuries of self-assurance breeds insecurity in those of us who don’t have that history to draw on (occupational hazard), and we were all slightly stilted, and possibly a little too keen to let one another know that we felt the view was just as lovely last year, though possibly even more spectacular the year before.
Legacy, talent, youth, age, wealth, power: This, plus tea and cake, is what keeps the art world spinning. And spin on we did, as soon it was time to change and head to the first of the evening’s openings, for a show of beautiful paintings in the adjacent Saint Carthage Hall by William McKeown, who died tragically young in 2011.
McKeown had lived for a time in the Old Convent, Lismore, so there was a flavor of homecoming to the exhibition. We sipped and looked, but held back a little: Who wants to make a drunken fool of themselves in a place like this? Then it was over the road to the main opening, for Lismore Castle Arts’ one exhibition of the year. This time round it was curated by Mark Sladen, formerly director of exhibitions at London’s ICA and more recently director of the Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen. Looking suitably suave and sporting his trademark mustache, Sladen wondered whether there was a future to be found curating exhibitions in the world’s great castles. (Don’t tell Hans Ulrich Obrist!)
Sladen’s artists—Danh Vo, Pablo Bronstein, Iman Issa, Yorgos Sapountzis, and Aleksandra Mir—responded to the idea of the castle-as-monument. All of course make work that could be considered antimonumental, perhaps the only reasonable response to a world where nothing is certain. Someone asked Matthew Slotover what he thought of setting up the Frieze Art Fair in China, before suggesting that Brazil could be a lot more fun. Fiona Kearney of the Lewis Glucksman Gallery came over for a chat just as we were being pulled in off the lovely lawns of the upper garden to hear the speeches. Pat Moylan, chairman of the Arts Council Ireland, was doing the honors, which made the Irish contingent wonder whether the Lismore people had some future scheme requiring funding up their sleeves.
Sladen spoke of monuments and follies, and announced that we were to be treated to a performance by Sapountzis, whose video was playing in the round tower, the oldest part of the castle, dating back to the days when Sir Walter Raleigh (he who brought tobacco to England, and the potato to Ireland) owned the place, more than five hundred years prior. Maybe I’m being unfair to the reputation of performance art, but the reaction wasn’t one of pure and unadulterated joy, and it was with some trepidation that we filed outside into the evening sunshine to discover what was in store.
We were handed cloaks or spears, and I began to hope that we might take part in a battle. Instead it was a procession. We paused at the stables to watch Sapountzis beating at a piece of sheet metal. Tate Britain director Penelope Curtis, clad in one of the gray cloaks, looked bemused. Chisenhale Gallery director Polly Staple, who curated the 2011 exhibition at the castle, was wearing a cloak too, though I was quite happy with my spear, until it was taken from me.
We moved on to the next courtyard. “No-o-o,” wailed a small child, as a structure assembled from our spears and some fabric panels was hoisted aloft, knocking flights of ancient mortar from Raleigh’s tower as it went. But the woe turned to glee as the child recognized a shape: “It’s a bicycle, it’s a bicycle!” he cried. It wasn’t, but then who are we to judge what another sees in art?
We wandered around the gardens, looking up at the huge walls and battlements. “I think the monuments win,” someone said. “The great thing about contemporary art is its playfulness. When you try to explain it, well . . . ” said the Portuguese ambassador to Ireland, who rejoices in the wonderful name of Bernardo Luís de Carvalho Futscher Pereira. He asked me what I thought of Bronstein’s Pavilion installation, a construction of scaffolding, ladders, barriers, and vinyl in the upper gardens. “The great thing about contemporary art is its playfulness. When you try to . . . ,” I began before an ambassadorial dig in the ribs brought me up short.
It was time for dinner. I recalled, at something similar, being very grateful to Robert Altman and Julian Fellowes for Gosford Park, which gave me some clues as to how to go on. Things were considerably more relaxed this evening, and we filed into the astonishing wood-paneled and candle-lit dining hall to face the lottery of the placements. Whoever does it at Lismore is actually very brilliant. With the exception of Danh Vo, the artists were all there, and there was no obvious “good bit.” I was delighted to be between London-based architect Rossa Prendergast and Lismore Castle Arts director Eamonn Maxwell, both of whom are great company
Left: Lisa LeFeurve of the Henry Moore Foundation. Right: Lismore Director Eamonn Maxwell and Pace Gallery director Emily-Jane Kirwan. (Photos: Paul McCarthy)
“We are standing in a monument,” said the charming Burlington. “And what could be more permanent than a castle, and yet what more impermanent? What could be a greater folly?” He spoke of peeling paint and cracking walls, though the only damage I could think of was the render where the “bicycle” had been hoisted.
We began to mingle and wander back through the castle, where more drinks were served. Someone put some music on, and it was all very mellow. By then we were talking of art, integrity, objective truth—trying to get to grips with what it all meant. The log fires were burning down, but the intoxicating atmosphere of the castle was still exerting its effect. “So what happens next?” Mir asked Bronstein. “We retire and paint satanic crosses, in ox blood, on our chests,” he replied.
In the bright morning, at war with our hangovers, I asked him what happened to the ox blood. “It washes off pretty well,” he said. “Though you can never get the stain off your soul.” This was Bronstein’s first time in Ireland, and he was taken with the lush greenery, the horses dotting the fields, and, of course, the marvelous castle. “We all live like that here,” I told him, thinking our little country could do with the boost in international PR. Stiffness gone, it had become like a big lovely art house party, and that, at least, is worth monumentalizing—if just for a moment.
PITY THE WRITER who coins a term or phrase that becomes a cliché, part of the culture (e.g., “the global village,” “Catch-22,” “cyberspace”). Not only are you asked to revisit and account for this eureka moment for the rest of your career, but you’re also often consigned to ignominious or obscure fates. If you’re Marshall McLuhan, you end up parodying your own ideological ubiquity in a Woody Allen film; if you’re Joseph Heller, you recede into the landscape and disappear. If you’re science-fiction novelist William Gibson, author of Neuromancer (1984) and prime mover of the “cyberpunk” subgenre, you’re compelled to prognosticate endlessly on the digital future as if you’d created the Internet.
Gibson didn’t invent the Web, even conceptually. Indeed, he composed his earliest novels on a manual typewriter from 1927. He did, however, overhaul the image of pre-browser netizen, at the time a painfully nerdy member of a netherworld of computer scientists and other academics, into something improbably cool—leather-clad and mirror-shaded—a process not unlike turning an earnest Spock impersonator into the Keanu Reeves of The Matrix (1999). He was invited to the New York Public Library last Friday night not because he has a new book or any other media product coming out, but simply because he is William Gibson.
Interviewed by Paul Holdengraber, the tall, slim Gibson spoke in a high Southern drawl. Soon after the writer had emerged onstage and exchanged introductory pleasantries with his host, Holdengraber played a short film of William S. Burroughs reading his mordant “Thanksgiving Prayer” (1986). More than any other author, SF or otherwise, Burroughs was Gibson’s primary inspiration and literary guide. An introspective kid in rural Appalachian Virginia during the early Cold War, Gibson grew up with a sense of almost total alienation from his community. A modest book rack at a general store near his home became a Tree of Knowledge in the otherwise culture-free Eden of his surroundings. He would check every day to see if any new books had been added. Early in his teen years, he bought an anthology of Beat literature from the rack, which he hid from his mother and devoured in private. The excerpt of Naked Lunch stood out. Gibson saw science fiction in Burroughs’s “bilious soup of rectal mucous.” He quipped that he’d likely discovered William S. Burroughs and Edgar Rice Burroughs during the same summer, both authors just part of the mix on the book rack.
“If the cover didn’t have something pornographic on it, they weren’t interested,” Gibson recalled of his neighbors. “They vaguely knew there were things called ‘beatniks’ that should be shot if they strayed too far from the Greyhound bus station, but I had actually read Kerouac.” There was a huge gap between him and the “extreme monoculture” of the rest of his peers because he “read too much.” Both of Gibson’s parents had died by the time he turned eighteen, and he fled to Canada to avoid the draft, eventually settling into a bohemian lifestyle in Vancouver, where he tried to become a science fiction writer.
He intuited that the “central shaft of commercial SF” (Heinlein, Asimov, et al.) was no longer relevant to the postpunk early 1980s, rehearsing his distaste for the utopian space-opera tradition in the 1981 short story “The Gernsback Continuum.” He wanted to develop “another realm,” an “arena” where his characters could have a different kind of agency. Knowing little about computers, Gibson found the inspiration for what he came to call “cyberspace” while watching the agitated body language and extreme concentration of kids in early videogame arcades. Their behavior indicated a human longing to be “on the other side of the screen” and was a particularly telling example of simulacra having noticeable effects on the physical realities they simulated.
Although it was derived from the science of cybernetics, Gibson knew his coinage “meant absolutely nothing.” Holdengraber read the now familiar description of cyberspace from Neuromancer: “A consensual hallucination experienced daily. . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.” Gibson joked that it was like a Discovery Channel voice-over—a facile method of selling a dry scientific concept as sexy—and compared it to the “friendly atom” PSAs of his childhood.
While writing Neuromancer, he was more influenced by musicians—Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, David Bowie (whose Diamond Dogs LP Gibson compared to “Moorcock-like SF”)—than other writers, though he credited Rudy Wurlitzer’s screenplay for Monte Hellman’s arty drag-racing film Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) as a model for exploring the man-machine interface through narrative. Holdengraber played the opening shots of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982)—near-future LA as an irredeemable urban blightscape, soaked in acid rain and cloaked in endless night, with low-flying blimps advertising “off-world” migration. Gibson praised the film, but said that despite aesthetic parallels, Neuromancer was not a reaction to it.
He had already written a portion of the novel when Blade Runner came out, and seeing the film upon its ill-fated opening run, he’d left the theater almost in tears, the richly detailed “beauty” of Scott’s vision making the fruits of his own imagination seem “tawdry.” “And then it was gone,” he said, laughing. “Imagine a time when you couldn’t access a movie after its theatrical release had ended.” The commercial death of the film actually renewed Gibson’s confidence in his fledgling manuscript. He recalled having lunch with Scott years later, where they admitted to each other that they’d both been inspired by French comics (likely Moebius and other artists published in Heavy Metal magazine).
Having toured the stack-lined bowels of the NYPL before the evening’s conversation, Gibson compared it to steampunk. “It’s the most Difference Engine–like environment I’ve ever seen,” he enthused, reminding the audience that we were sitting on top of “a massive information retrieval machine,” lined with “ganglia of pneumatic tubes” and housing the better part of recorded human history. Holdengraber read a favorite quote from Proust about the telephone, “a supernatural instrument before whose miracles we used to stand amazed, and which we now employ without giving it a thought, to summon our tailor or to order an ice cream.” Gibson had never heard this before and loved it. “We can’t see technology affecting us,” he said. “We are always simply ‘that which has been affected.’ ”
NO MATTER WHAT THE HOUR or how gridlocked the traffic, there is always time for everything in Mexico City. During Zona Maco México Arte Contemporáneo, the art fair with the Aztecan skull logo, four-hour lunches and late-night dinners blend yesterday into today and tomorrow while somehow imparting a sense of progress.
Tuesday, April 9 began this year’s push to festivity with the annual gallery hop through the Polanco, Roma, Condesa, and San Miguel Chapultepec neighborhoods. Due to a late arrival from New York, I missed much of the tour, but caught up with what Dallas collector Christen Wilson called the VIP “tequila wagon” at Kurimanzutto, which was previewing a Gabriel Orozco exhibition scheduled to open on Saturday.
The show—of carved and inscribed river stones ranging from the size of a human head to a shoebox—made for some voluptuary viewing. Chatty gallery artists Damián Ortega, Abraham Cruzvillegas, and Gabriel Kuri mixed with chummy gringos—collectors, art dealers, museum curators, and visiting art fair chiefs like Frieze cofounder Amanda Sharp, Art Basel director Marc Spiegler, and Ch.ACO (Chile) director Irene Abujatum. Casa Dragones Tequila flowed over the bar in the gallery’s garden commissary, where caterers from Rosetta, one of the city’s better restaurants, served off-the-charts hors d’oeuvres for a party so jolly that it was tempting to stay the night.
However, when curator Mariana Munguia offered a ride to Proyectos Monclova, a bunch of us were off to another boisterous gathering of young artists giving a solid to Edgardo Aragón’s photographs, sculpture, and videos. My thirst for culture not yet slaked, I elbowed my way back to the street and headed to Proyecto Paralelo, the graphic arts arm of Madrid’s estimable La Caja Negra. A pasta dinner celebrating shows by Joan Jonas and José Pedro Croft was in progress in the building’s penthouse. Earlier, Jonas had performed a reading of what she called “an epic list,” actually the poem she wrote for Masks, Dolls and Baskets, her new livre d’artiste from James and Alexandra Brown’s Oaxaca-based Carpe Diem press. Now the indefatigable artist was relaxing with former student Carlos Amorales, the Browns, the collaborative duo Lake Verea, Mexico’s cultural attaché in the UK Vanessa Arelle, and Neuer Berliner Kunstverein curator Sophie Goltz.
Next morning, the VIP caravan, minus the tequila, arrived at the Centro Banamex to preview Zona Maco’s tenth edition. Starting next year, it will take place in February instead of April. Under cofounder and director Zelika Garcia’s guidance, it has gained in stature and sophistication, but its dates, April 10–14 for 2013, fall between other fairs in São Paulo, Cologne, and Brussels. That has hampered its ability to attract young international collectors, said artistic director Pablo del Val, as well as galleries that might do well to try it out. Meanwhile, with about two hundred galleries participating, and more than 35,000 visitors coming through the doors—a family outing for many—this year’s fair was its most conceptually oriented, and most rewarding in the realm of Latin American art, whether offered by galleries south of the border or north.
Zona Maco newbies Stefania Bortolami and Michael Kohn looked a little lonesome at first, unaware that collectors here tend to wait till the fair’s last two days to pounce. “I love the pace of this fair,” said Spiegler. “This is such a strange fair,” countered dealer Daniel Buchholz from his all–Danh Vo booth. “You see some very great things and then it’s like we’re back in the ’70s.” Buchholz had a surprise in store: his Berlin gallery’s new director, Peter Currie. Only the day before, Currie had sent an e-mail announcing that he and Alexander Zachary were not going to open a new space in Harlem after all. “It didn’t work out,” Currie said. “But I think this is a good move for me.” Zachary, he said, would announce his new affiliation in New York soon.
At Kurimanzutto, where Kuri had a beautiful tapestry of printed receipts, writer Sarah Thornton was interviewing Orozco for her next book. A couple of Israeli collectors were doing business at OMR, and at the Proyectos Monclova stand, Kunsthalle Basel director Adam Szymczyk, accompanied by artist Alexandra Bachzetsis and Museum für Gegenwartskunst curator Nikola Dietrich, was buying one of a group of small paintings by the Mexican collective Tercerunquinto—for a friend, he said. Lured by the same paintings, I wished I had been that person.
There was more to keep the eye open—a lot more. Josée Bienvenu brought winning trompe l’oeil drawings of conceptual works by Martí Cormand and sculptures by Dario Escobar, whom she called “the Richard Serra of the poor,” while Michael Fuchs offered striking paintings by Mongolian-born artist Gama, who “grew up in a yurt.”
Zona Maco offers three curated sections organized around the central gallery booths, and Buccholz’s stand was in one of them: Zona Maco Sur, given to solo projects that this year’s curator, Juan Andrés Gaitán, saddled with a “historical consciousness” theme. “I wanted works that were about human encounters with history,” he said, instantly aware that he sounded a wee bit pretentious. But this is where Marc Foxx brought Amalia Pica, Travesia Cuatro had Gonzalo Lebrija, Krinzinger settled on Kader Attia, and Dubai’s Third Line weighed in with Slavs and Tatars. At 80m2 Livia Benavides, Peruvian artist Rita Ponce De León created what she called “a playground for adults,” though small children were the only ones who took up her invitation to rearrange the many small wooden objects that she placed on a mat to double either as toys or weapons. “You can join them or make them disappear,” she said. That was fun, but the favorite sister of the fair was probably artist Teresa Margolles, whose work about deadly drug wars resonates powerfully here.
By the 4 PM start of the vernissage, I had seen barely half the fair. After a break for the inevitably long lunch from the satellite kitchen of the Hotel Habita, I headed for the New Proposals section, where twenty-one galleries presented solo projects by emerging artists. They included Brazilian Carlos Herrera, who bagged and veiled sculptural objects for the Ruth Benzacar booth and is totally into sex, death, and madness. Daniel Pérez Ríos, an entertaining young Mexican sound artist with Alternativa Once gallery, is into politics and pornocore. G. T. Pellizzi collected refuse from the beaches of Tulum for the Massimo Audiello stand, where he also displayed porcelain jugs, toys, combs, and bottles inspired by the garbage.
So goes the art life in Mexico, a most hospitable place. That night the fair held its tenth anniversary dinner for uncounted hundreds in a onetime convent—now a party space, naturally—in the historic downtown. People seated themselves on tall chairs at high tables, from which it was possible to survey the room, and the two white BMWs perched on a platform, lest anyone forget who was sponsoring the event with Audemars Piguet.
All thoughts of commerce flew from the ladies’ room, where two exotics were fluffing up their drag. The taller, transgender one introduced herself as Zemmoa. “I’m a singer,” she said. Strategically placed bills from various currencies were pasted to her friend’s nearly naked body. “I’m her treasure,” said Priscilla Pomeroy of Zemmoa, who is also an underground nightclub host and whose path mine would cross several times that week—starting with later that night at Le Baron’s temporary outpost in the basement of the Hotel Condesa. I might not have mentioned it, but that party was a blast. Tag teams of DJs that the club’s Tolga Al imported from New York kept everyone on their dancing feet for hours—till 7 AM for some, I heard, when Michael Hoppen changed hotels in order to get some rest.
Left: Dealer Niklas Svennung and Frieze cofounder Amanda Sharp. Right: Dealer Jeanne Greenberg Rohaytn.
Strong coffee helped me into the van that drove sleepy stragglers like curator Abaseh Mirvali out to the suburban Jumex factory, where Eugenio López Alonso’s Colección Jumex was getting its last exhibition before moving to its new David Chipperfield–designed headquarters in Polanco. Once again, Gaitán was the guest curator, with Jumex’s Magalí Arriola. Unlike previous shows presenting dozens of works, this one had a modest seventeen—all by male artists. When I asked Gaitan where the women were, he could only shrug. “It just worked out that way,” he said lamely. “We wanted it to be, uh, strong,” he added, clenching his meaty fists. He and Arriola—a woman, he pointed out—had a Tacita Dean in mind for the otherwise handsome show, an affair with nature titled, “The Hunter and the Factory.” Yet somehow Doug Aitken’s Migration got in instead.
I had no quibble with that. Migration is one of Aitken’s best works. But surely there was room for one more—except, perhaps, in the precincts of the muy macho. I didn’t see Arriola, but the general feeling was the same. “It could have used a female sensibility,” Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn agreed. “You’d be surprised how often this still happens.”
All was forgotten, if not forgiven, by evening, when collectors Tato and Gabriela Garza hosted their annual Zona Maco dinner in the garden of their plush, Lomas estate. With about sixty guests, the party was more intimate than usual, but just as grand. And of course everyone took time to check out the art inside the house. One piece was a small block of hair cut from people of competing social classes by Gabriel de la Mora, who lost his own hair in his early twenties. “A balance of the conceptual and the formal—that’s what I’m looking for,” he said.
Next morning, it was off to the cavernous MUAC, the University Museum of Contemporary Art, where there were five exhibitions, including the Asco show imported from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. But the attention getter here was a performance orchestrated by Laura Lima, involving a harnessed naked man attempting to pull the whole building down.
After a quick brunch, we set out for the fortresslike Museo Diego Rivera-Anahuacalli, an astonishing stone pile that the artist built with architect Juan O’Gorman to house his extensive collection of pre-Columbian art. Each year, the institution invites a contemporary artist to make an installation within. This year, James Brown, a Californian living in Mexico, placed his own ceramic sculptures, paintings, and collages throughout the building for a show he called “My Other House.” It was definitely a highlight of the week.
Yet there was more. That evening, the Museo Tamayo stayed open late, so fairgoers could peruse its current exhibitions by Amorales and Pica, as well as an outstanding, even revelatory, retrospective for the late Juan Downey, the Chilean-born buddy of Gordon Matta-Clark. Organized by the Tamayo’s chief curator Julieta González, it had far more space and clarity than the Bronx Museum had been able to give a similar show last year. But Mexico City generally endows its museums with lavish proportions, as if assuming their contents were actually important. So when Zona Maco rolls around again, next winter, expect delightsand brush up on your Español.
“I WANT THERE TO BE A THUNDERSTORM OF GLASS, so it will sound like something very wrong happened,” whispered Jonathas de Andrade as he leaned over a row of five hundred–plus glass-inlaid photos that he had set up like dominoes around the perimeter of the living room of Lina Bo Bardi. The Italian socialist had fled Italy for Brazil in 1946, designing this house of glass for herself and her husband—an Italian art dealer and museum director and onetime friend of Mussolini—atop a jungly mountain in São Paulo. We spoke in hushed voices, kneeling close to the azure-tiled floor. A dozen feet away Hans Ulrich Obrist, SESC director Danilo Santos de Miranda, and Iguatemi CEO Carlos Jereissati sat surrounded by a hive of journalists and video crews who were there to witness a most formal press conference for Obrist’s “O Interior Está No Exterior,” one in a series of exhibitions inspired by and presented within iconic homes around the world. (The next will be at the Calder House in Roxbury, Connecticut.) This phase brought together twenty-some artists, each of who aimed to revive the prescient architect’s spirit. As if on cue, a woman tripped over one of de Andrade’s squares, setting off a chain reaction, each glass cracking into the other and bringing the conference to a jarring halt.
Just twelve hours before, the house—an intellectual and artistic haven throughout the 1950s and ’60s—was alive with the clamor of a more intimate gathering held to toast Obrist’s show. Zé Celso of Teatro Oficina (“one of the most famous directors in the whole country,” a friend said, “known for crazy things, like people masturbating onstage”) paraded through the house in a tuxedo, followed by a woman with long black hair, like something out of Fassbinder, who twirled about in a long black dress, an infant gnawing at one bare breast. “Lina! Lina!” Celso shouted as he lit a joint and led everyone in a rousing rendition of “Maracangalha.”
Left: Artist Ernesto Neto. (Photo: Rirkrit Tiravanija) Right: An actress with Teatro Oficina at Casa de Vidro.
In the kitchen, Rirkrit Tiravanija made pizzas with Inhotim curator Eungie Joo and Olafur Eliasson, who had installed a Bo Bardi–inspired foggy glass mirror in the dining room that refracted the house’s glass walls. “Pizza was her favorite food. She even built a pizza oven outside,” Tiravanija pointed out a window to a white stucco stove with greens doors nestled in the foliage. People waited for slices in the gloaming, smoking cigarettes and munching on baked ants provided by artist Pedro Reyes. “It’s very important to keep Lina alive,” Obrist insisted.
Earlier on Wednesday, the ninth edition of South America’s A-list art fair, SP-Arte, opened amid the sweeping, crisscrossed arteries of the Oscar Niemeyer–designed Bienal pavilion. Lined neatly through two of its three levels were the booths of 128 galleries—eighty-one of them Brazilian, the remaining international. “Brazilians buy from Brazilians,” a São Paulo native confided. (This might also have to do with the prohibitive tax placed on art bought outside of Brazil, which was at least partially lifted for the duration of the fair.) This didn’t deter juggernauts like Pace, Gagosian, and Lisson, all of whom hosted dinners throughout the week that were, appropriately, much like the dinners each generally hosts around the world: Lisson in the dining room of São Paulo’s most elegant hotel, the Fasano, a place where people dress for dinner; Gagosian at Maní Manioca, with a BFA photographer flown in to memorialize the event; Pace at the palatial grounds of collectors Kim Esteve and Barbara Leary, the latter a Helmut Newton muse and former wife of Timothy Leary. And of course there was also the week’s first dinner, hosted by Mendes Wood, Franco Noero, and neugerriemschneider at La Casserole, an elegant old boîte downtown. The invitation read half past eight and food was served at half past eleven. We were on Brazilian time.
Left: Artist Arto Lindsay. (Photo: Rirkrit Tiravanija) Right: Dealer Alexandre Gabriel of Fortes Vilaça.
“It’s funny that the beauty that houses an art fair is the beauty that houses the biennials,” smiled Daniel Roesler of Nara Roesler, one of São Paulo’s blue-chip staples. This resonance was of special interest to the fair’s educational curator, Adriano Pedrosa. He had invited four young curators—Mariana Lorenzi Azevedo, Monica Espinel, Fernando Oliva, and Tomás Toledo—to select works from galleries participating in the fair, constructing installations that considered the relationship between the market and what Pedrosa calls the “other territory” of the art world, the “field of knowledge and information, where art is exhibited, disseminated, and critically discussed.” Of note was Oliva’s “Common Place,” which featured an artist who had torn off the walls of a booth and installed industrial lamps with long necks throughout, each spotlighting piles of white pebbles and green sprouts of leaves. A black maquette that resembled a city sat nearby, a maze of narrow streets, where houses would hide behind tall, thick walls (in actuality, the work is scaled down version of Vermelho’s booth at the fair, found on the second floor).
“More and more artists are deconstructing to reconstruct—you could say destruction is in our heritage,” said Akio Aoki later that week as we stood atop the roof of Vermelho, a space he cofounded ten years ago. Designed by architects José Armênio de Brito Cruz and Pritzker Prize winner Paulo Mendes da Rocha, the building is made of heavy wood and concrete materials that open onto a courtyard. On some sides, it lacks walls and roofs (weather here permits such marvelous things), causing these otherwise formidable materials to seem airy, even weightless. He pointed to a small section of the city with red tile roofs. “It’s the only area that has preservation laws. Brazilians are not attached to the past.”
Aptly, the gallery just opened two shows—one by de Andrade and the other by André Komatsu—both of which home in on urban space. De Andrade poses the question, Is nostalgia an affectation unique to the upper class? Komatsu culled together a variety of construction materials—hacking through each as a way to assemble installations that ponder issues of exclusion innate to a city undergoing rapid economic, cultural, and structural change. “Maybe it is a lack of tradition. This also makes Brazil more tolerant, because things change very fast.”
Testament to the change are two newish nonprofits downtown: Maria Montero’s Phosphorus and Pivô, a thirty-seven-thousand-square-foot space near the base of Copan, a massive Niemeyer building that houses some five thousand people. Lately, a burgeoning group of young enthusiasts have been looking to make space for art outside the market—which, as many local dealers share, is thriving here. “My father thinks I am crazy,” said Pivô’s cofounder Fernanda Brenner, wearing bright orange lipstick that complemented her auburn hair. “He asks: ‘When everyone is making money off of art in São Paulo, why start a nonprofit?’ And I tell him, ‘Because everyone is making money off of art in São Paulo!’ ”
I want to tell you about São Paulo and a week that hummed with the kind of prepackaged but still surprising revelry some of us have come to expect from the premier art fair circuit: the trill of young Paulistas as they took over Cine Joia for the official party thrown by the upstart arrivistes at Emma Thomas Gallery. The look of Sharon Stone auctioning off a kiss from Kate Moss for $50K at the amfAR gala, a very black-tie affair held at the over-the-top digs of playboy Dinho Diniz. The feel of Bo Bardi’s incomparable SESC Pompéia during Arto Lindsay’s jam session, or assume vivid astro focus’s ebullient takeover of Casa Triângulo. Yet . . .
“Time,” Bo Bardi once said, “is a marvelous tangle, where at any moment, points can be selected and solutions invented without beginning or end.” So maybe I can’t fill you in on all that here and now. But we’ll get there eventually.
NACHTEN WACHTEN. Until the Rijksmuseum’s official public opening/celebration this coming weekend, Amsterdammers settle for its mostly untouched neo-gothic exterior and a massive Maarten Baas–designed digital clock on it, counting down the “nights waiting.” Some ten years have passed, and several delays on the museum’s construction and planning too. Nearby, on the sprawling space known as the Museumplein, is a perhaps less catchy but more insistent promotional slogan, which will probably remain on view for longer. I amsterdam—the massive letters are fun for tourists to climb on, take pictures with. You don’t see many locals partaking.
Bypassing both phrases on an unusually frigid spring morning last Thursday, hundreds of international journalists from a buffet of publications flooded Pierre Cuypers’s 1885 building, the “National Museum of the Netherlands,” to attend a preview of the new airy renovations by Spain’s Cruz y Ortiz Arquitectos and over 8,000 objects and artworks elegantly installed in the galleries. The preview was a well-oiled machine, though some attendees wished they had come instead for the opening this Saturday—a festive program, which will include a performance with eight hundred students conceived by Dutch artist Job Koelewijn and directed by “mass choreographer” and Olympics alum Penny Jones, reportedly based on four of the museum’s major works. (Oh, and spoiler alert: I’m told that the kids will not reenact Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, 1642—the crown jewel of the collection. In case you were wondering, or wachtening.)
Bombastic opening pageantry, at this point, may or may not be well received in Amsterdam. Five years have passed since an original deadline for the museum’s opening, and the final $500 million budget raised many eyebrows—not only among the new anti-art conservative coalition in the country. Following arts budget cuts authorized over the past two years during Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s first term, the Dutch art scene has already witnessed the “violent,” as some put it, closures of beloved public organizations: the SKOR Foundation for Art and Public Domain; NIMk (Netherlands Media Art Institute); and STEIM (Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music), to name a few. The mood in the city these days is fraught, and somewhat gloomy, particularly among artists. One friend described the city as a “widower” to its former art-life, unable to cope. Tourism, however, seems to be thriving, and is probably on the rise. (The Rijksmuseum’s minimuseum at the airport is also celebrating its ten-year anniversary.)
Left: Curator Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen with dealer Micheline Szwajcer. (Photo: Tomek Whitfield) Right: Art critic Robert-Jan Muller and artist Jo Baer. (Photo: Lauren O'Neill-Butler)
One of the best companions for viewing Dutch Golden Age canvases obsessed with light—the Rijksmuseum’s specialty—is a painter, and at the press preview Jo Baer marvelously shared her insights as we toured the galleries. Based in Amsterdam since 1984, Baer aptly pointed to a “raw Dutch honesty” running through the museum. “These faces look like the ones I still see on the streets!” she proclaimed about the beatific and pained visages in the medieval galleries. “They haven’t really changed.”
After lunch, we toured the seventeenth century. Avoiding “journo-art talk”—Baer’s phrase for so much of the heavy press handholding around us—we instead considered other takes on Vermeer. For instance of View of Houses in Delft, or, The Little Street, ca. 1658: “It’s a Mondrian waiting to happen,” argued Baer. Indeed, the emphasis on balance and clarity of forms, light and space pervaded all the galleries—all the way up to the third level of the museum, where post-1950 Dutch works are sequestered in two separate wings.
Left: Artist Lucy McKenzie and friends. Right: Artists Sara van der Heide and Christopher Williams with Stedelijk director Ann Goldstein. (Photos: Tomek Whitfield)
On Friday night, Lucy McKenzie opened “Something They Have to Live With,” her solo exhibition at the Stedelijk, curated by Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen. The show is installed not in its new addition—the overly disputed “bathtub”—but in a part of the older building called the Hall of Honor, a fixture among Dutch museums. (I was told these large spaces usually display “big paintings”—“mostly Baselitz” in this specific case.) Here McKenzie presents a suite of her recent works, including two impressive large canvases or “studies” of the Alhambra’s architecture. She seemed pleased. “I’m not going to paint for six months now; I’d rather write.” We wished her luck.
The Stedelijk apparently now requires RSVPs to its private openings. “They were more public and rowdy before,” noted artist James Beckett. “There were more artists who’d come.” Artist Rebecca Sakoun chimed in: “You know, I really believed that support for the arts here was true and widespread, that people were invested in supporting culture as a long-term proposition. But alas, the last government was pulled to the extreme right by a ridiculous populist with a hideous peroxide dye-job screaming about how art was the exclusive domain of the lazy, left-wing elite, and generally working people up into a frenzy.”
During the opening, I spoke again and again with locals who described a new sulk settling over Amsterdam, life after the big museum renovations, as smaller but important Dutch art institutions have disappeared or are on the verge of eventually fading away. But on the upside, I also heard about many new spaces and younger artists who have been opening projects with city (and not state) support, as well as by other means—Lost Property (financed by running a brewery that makes Butcher’s Tears beer), the Bookstore, rongwrong, Kulter., and Outpost, the last a squat in a former Thai restaurant. Amsterdam, it seems, is certainly not dead or doomed.
And across the Museumplein, the Rijksmuseum clock ticked down another day.
“SOMETHING NICE IS HAPPENING IN MILAN,” read the VIP tote bags for the eighteenth edition of MiArt. Usually nice things happening in Milan involve fashion or design, sometimes food, often partying, but hardly ever art fairs. In spite of the city’s dynamic constellation of galleries and vibrant art scene, prior editions of MiArt didn’t quite hit the mark. That said, a local confidant insisted that this year’s edition would be worth an (easyJet) flight, asserting that its newly appointed director, curator and critic Vincenzo de Bellis, was planning to make more than nice.
It doesn’t take much to convince me to travel to Italy. (Isn’t a four-course trattoria meal with a dolce della casa enough?) So there I was on Wednesday, rushing to the Malpensa shuttle to make it in time for the antipasto: Federico Vavassori’s opening of “Macho Amore,” an Italian debut for German artist Sarah Ortmeyer organized by French curator Simon Castets. This younger-than-Jesus trio was symptomatic of the fresh (and international) reboot one sensed throughout the week. Ortmeyer’s intricate draperies conjured the choreographed hostility of Milan’s two rival soccer teams, and drew into the gallery’s small space an eclectic crowd ranging from collector Josef Dalle Nogare to model Afef Jnifen and no less an icon than fashion priestess Franca Sozzani.
A drink at Bar Basso and a piadina later and I was running to join Gelitin’s highly anticipated kickoff to “Liberi Tutti,” Fondazione Nicola Trussardi’s performance festival at Teatro Arsenale, a revivified Milanese architectural jewel. In the cab, a text message warned that there was a queue around the block; the only way to cut the line was to volunteer for what my informant called a “pen in the ass” experience. (Or a “pennello nel culo” as Gelitin’s Ali Janka put it later in Italian, which to my ears sounded like the refrain to a Lucio Battisti song.) Tempting. But I opted for another route into the colorful bacchanal, in which the very bon chic bon genre Trussardi public was getting portrayed by assholes, literally, as the Gelitins stood with paintbrushes stuck in their behinds, charging €100 for each Ritratto Analitico.
Left: Dealer Franco Toselli. Right: Dealer Chiara Repetto, Art Cologne director Daniel Hug, dealer Francesca Kaufmann, and the Repetto Family.
The next day, the Fiera Milano City pavilion hosting MiArt felt like a dolce vita version of an art fair: human sized, sanguine, pleasantly populated, and bright. (I won’t say “sunny”; the closest we got to spring was an ersatz bird-and-flower installation by Andrea Branzi at Isabella Bortolozzi’s booth.) The only snag seemed to be the food, which, according to dealer Jean-Claude Freymond-Guth, resembled Autogrill highway snacks more than Italian cucina.
But the art was grand. With forty new galleries and fifty-five international exhibitors, de Bellis was determined to turn MiArt into a lodestar on the perpetual art pilgrimage. There were the traditional Established and Emergent programs, as well as Object and THENnow, an invite-only section organized by FRAC Champagne-Ardennes’s Florence Derieux and MADRE Napoli’s Andrea Viliani. The curators paired galleries around nine combinations of artists from different generations, with surprising results: Haim Steinbach and Darren Bader took over at Lia Rumma and Franco Noero’s shared booth, Goshka Macuga and Miroslav Tichý were with Andrew Kreps and Guido Costa, and Guy de Cointet and Silke Otto-Knapp buddied up at Air de Paris and greengrassi.
Although some dealers bragged that they “made good contacts” (international artspeak for OK sales), there were plenty of solid collectors in the mix. The Missonis and the Trussardis were au rendezvous; they, along with a group of international first-timers, established MiArt 2.0 as a major art event if not already a hyperprofitable operation.
Evening plans were beginning to take shape and revelers debated Bader’s Trussardi performance or the “full Milanese experience,” which included dropping by the Chanel fashion bash at the beautiful Rotonda della Besana. “They’re planning a surprise concert,” winked Castets. “It could be Grace Jones, you know.” I opted for a Toilet Paper experience instead, following photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari on (what I thought was) a simple location scouting trip that turned into an amusing escapade at an old neighborhood strip club. Except for the crowd, it was not so different from the night before: more naked people performing in a historic location. We finished it all off with pretty much everyone else in Milan at Bar Basso, where we spritz-toasted artist Nikolas Gambaroff on his show, launching the next night at Gió Marconi.
He wasn’t the only one being feted: Friday was openings night—a logistical challenge in Milan, where the “gallery district” spreads from central Brera to the Lambrate former industrial zone and Simonetta’s hip no-man’s-land. There, in Via Stilicone, Steinbach took over an incredible three floors at Lia Rumma’s new space, while on the other side of the street, right inside the Fonderia Artistica Battaglia (the town’s oldest foundry), was the up-and-coming PeepHole, founded by de Bellis. (MiArt’s director is obviously hell-bent in his mission to make something nice happen in Milan.)
I was lucky enough to get the funniest ride around town. “Once you’ve been a driver during Milan Fashion Week, you can handle pretty much any traffic situation,” said our guide as he navigated the tricky circuit—we wanted to see it all! We worked our way through Carlo Benvenuto at Suzy Shammah and Manuel Scano at Room Galleria, from Luisa Lambri at Studio Guenzani to Nikolas Gambaroff at Gió Marconi. It was a miracle we made it to Massimo Grimaldi at Zero and Thomas Zipp at Kaufmann Repetto, where I dropped my charming company before heading to Massimo De Carlo’s dinner for Sanford Biggers at Trattoria Il Carpaccio. Incredibly (refreshingly?), no naked butts that night, though I was seated at Gelitin’s table.
I returned the next night to explore the restaurant’s front window, a tiny and buoyant art showcase called Il Crepaccio (translated literally as “the crevasse”). For over a year, this hole in the wall has been (semi-) secretly featuring the works of emerging local artists. Openings would get more and more crowded, but no one had a clue who was behind it. Finally, on Saturday, curator Caroline Corbetta came out about her mothering the project (but who’s the father . . . ?), and we all settled in to enjoy the show, a selection of videos made by students of Yuri Ancarani. Nothing to sell but lots to admire—food, art, sparkling wit, and of course prosecco: The sidewalks were cheerfully crowded and Milan never looked so alive to me.
“Nice” is one way to put it—I preferred “brilliant.”
ALTHOUGH LAST FRIDAY was not yet Good Friday in Orthodox Athens, a spiritual sort of ritual took place in the Tzisdarakis Mosque on picturesque Monastiraki Square. There rang the melancholy tones of a theremin played by Theodore Pistiolas, part of a performance orchestrated by artist Athanasios Argianas for the inauguration of “Silent Space Stand Still,” curated by Maria Thalia Carras and Sophia Sofia Tournikiotis, a weekly series of four visual art and sound installations by artists from around the politically discordant Eastern Mediterranean region. Next up, Lebanese Tarek Atoui, Turkish Cevdet Erek, and Israeli Dani Gal.
Filling the intimate eighteenth-century mosque, now a museum housing a ceramics collection, the modest crowd comprised a cross-section of the most prominent curators and critics and artists of the Greek contemporary art scene, among them George Skianis, curator of the Elaiourgeio in Elefsina, and artist Stefanos Tsivopoulos, who will represent Greece at the Venice Biennale. The temple doors were closed and there was something ecclesiastical, if not sacred, about the performance. Old frescoes peeked through the plaster just as Ottoman influences still permeate the Greek culture. The improvised piece, Branching Music (Under the Trees Above You), employed musical notation in the form of a slide projection of meandering tree branches, resembling neurological pathways, which the musician’s hand appeared to play as it actually engaged the electronic waves of the instrument. “When I visited Argianas's studio the first time I had no idea he recorded under the name Gavouna, whose music I had in my collection,” critic Sam Thorne explained. “It is surprisingly acoustic and melodic.”
Every now and then an abrupt electronic crashing sound would interrupt from a projection of scallop shells flipping and clapping, an irregular percussion accompaniment. Next to it, a kitschy clay depiction of the notoriously nude Aphrodite of Knidos, kicked out of ancient Kos for obscenity, concealed her womanhood with her right hand, coming off as mock modesty in the modern reproduction. It added a touch of comic bathos to the dark atmosphere.
The curators and artist led a posse—most of them Goldsmiths graduates, including Turkish critic Nazli Gürlek—to a little taverna for dinner, passing by the heaving bars on lovely Agia Irini Square. The biggest national holiday, marking independence from the Ottoman Empire, had been celebrated the weekend before. “The civil war is much more important to Greek cultural identity than the two world wars or even anything after the dictatorship,” artist Theo Prodromos explained over a leg of veal and roasted potatoes. Another Greek artist sniped, “It is a ridiculous holiday; we would be much better off if we were still under the Turks.” It had also been announced that Athens—the only European capital left without an official Islamic place of worship—would finally get a mosque, if you believe Greek government promises. Our group moved on to curator Konstantinos Dagritzikos’s Six Dogs for cocktails and music by DJs Thorne and Argianas, where string music by the Balanescu Quartet competed with electronic beats into the balmy night.
The next evening I arrived late with artist Maria Papadimitriou and dealers Helena Papadopoulos and Andreas Melas for Thorne and Argianias’s talk at the mosque. The gate was padlocked and a couple of signs in Greek proclaimed that the entryway should not be obstructed during a four-hour period and that nobody would be allowed entry after 7 PM due to a performance, which seemed like overkill considering nobody seems to know about the place. Papadimitriou charmed the adjacent street vendors into calling the guard, and a heated discussion ensued. By the time we were told we could enter, we decided instead to head to the friendlier “Artists for Athens Pride” auction being held at the Breeder. We showed up on the dark little street lined with bordellos to find trans activist, photographer, and prostitute Paola Revenioti, who financed the first gay pride celebration in Athens, holding court among the rest of the Athens art world. It was a sort of religious ritual all its own.
Karlheinz Stockhausen's OKTOPHONIE with visuals by Rirkrit Tiravanija at the Park Avenue Armory. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)
“WOULD YOU LIKE to join the inner circle?” Not the kind of invitation I receive nearly often enough, but at the Wednesday night final performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s OKTOPHONIE, the Park Avenue Armory’s latest coup de théâtre, an usher seemed determined to shift me from my arbitrarily chosen middle-section seat to one in the front row. This was after I, along with every other ticket holder, had been asked to remove my shoes and don a white cloak (actually closer to a kind of disposable poncho), before heading for a circular white platform on which were ranged concentric rings of minimalist deck chairs. This visually—and, presumably, spiritually—unifying requirement was the brainchild of jack-of-all-disciplines (installation, cookery, Ping-Pong) Rirkrit Tiravanija, but it also jibed with the late composer’s kosmische aesthetic.
A senior couple behind me noted the mise-en-scène’s similarity to a planetarium’s, also recalling the latter venue’s popularity among smokers. And as if on cue, I could have sworn I detected a familiar heavy-sweet aroma. But most likely it was the power of suggestion, things having become less free-’n’-easy since a marathon performance of most of the composer’s works was staged in a spherical auditorium at the 1970 Osaka World Fair. There was also an undeniable element of Halloween to the setup, as the cloaked masses fumbled for their places in the dimly lit interior like myopic phantoms. (Stockhausen preferred that listeners experience his work in total darkness, but he was usually required to compromise, often projecting a single moonlike disc of light above the performers as a simple visual focus.)
As the crowd settled in, the lights faded to black, then flashed on again to the accompaniment of a burst of electronic noise. This was overseen by “sound projectionist” Kathinka Pasveer, a longtime Stockhausen collaborator and interpreter, who was seated behind a semicircular desk in the center of the hall, a few feet away from me. For the next seventy minutes, Pasveer twiddled knobs on a mixer, perused an array of laptops (the glow of their Apple logos softened by draped white fabric), and bombarded us with music that, courtesy of a cubic speaker arrangement (four speakers just above ground level, another four forty-five feet up), zoomed around the space in a way that made mere quadraphonic reproduction seem rather half-assed. The volume wasn’t overwhelming, but the dimensionality of the sound made for an immersive experience nonetheless.
OKTOPHONIE is part of Stockhausen’s Licht (Light) cycle—seven operas, each of which contains sections that also function as stand-alone works. OKTOPHONIE belongs to the second act of Dienstag (Tuesday), the fourth opera in the cycle. According to the program—which also reproduces a section of the unhinged-looking score as well as technical instructions such as “The rotations roughly follow the pitch contour of the glissandi: in the case of a downward glissando the rotation descends, in the case of an upward glissando it climbs again, more or less parallel with the glissando, and so on” [emphases the composer’s]—Dienstag focuses on the conflict between the angels Michael and Lucifer, and was inspired in part by the composer’s experience of conflict as a teenager during World War II.
Kathinka Pasveer in Karlheinz Stockhausen's OKTOPHONIE at the Park Avenue Armory. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)
Attempting to describe the experience of the piece itself feels as futile as describing music always does. If you’re a Stockhausen fan, you’d probably love it; if not, probably not. As an enthusiast more in theory than in practice—I own one (rarely played) recording, 1968’s Stimmung, and have attended one previous performance, at Frieze Music in London in 2005—I enjoyed the experience without being truly awed. Perhaps the composer, who died in 2007, is a victim of his own success, having become a major influence on composers in both academic and “popular” spheres; it is difficult not to now find his work a little dated. So many of the sounds here have been so thoroughly integrated into electronica and noise music that it’s easy to forget their originality.
Filtering into the ornate Veterans Room post-performance, clutching my free-drink ticket, I remembered a 1995 gambit by the Wire magazine and BBC Radio 3 in which Stockhausen was sent tapes containing music by a clutch of then current post-techno artists, and vice versa. This did result in the odd spark of mutual admiration, but for the most part, the elder composer found the young pretenders’ efforts too repetitive, and the club kids noted their senior counterpart’s compositions’ undanceability. But Richard James, aka Aphex Twin, did at least offer the hand of friendship: “He should hang out with me and my mates: That would be a laugh. I’d be quite into having him ’round.” Regrettably, if unsurprisingly, the date was never arranged.