“LOOK FORWARD and you should see a large spaceship.” Not a sentence one hears every day, but in the new urban paradise of Moscow’s Gorky Park, the Buran test shuttle is one of a few remaining anachronisms. Our crew of internationals—in town for the Moscow Biennale and banner exhibitions of Ilya Kabakov and John Baldessari—had boarded the sightseeing train and was now ambling slowly past the ping-pong courts, salsa-dancing platforms, co-working hubs, and the site of the future Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, a Rem Koolhaas/OMA venture due next year. Winds of change, indeed.
In the current debate over the excesses of Putin’s regime, it is tempting to overlook that some of the recent reforms have left the country for the better. For all the justifiable outrage around the notorious “homosexual propaganda” law, the extent to which this legislation has affected the organized art world remains questionable, at least in the capitals. In Saint Petersburg, the city where the amendment originated, the only additional obstacle the Rizzordi Art Foundation faced in staging New Academy salon queen Bella Matveeva’s paintings of explicit, pansexual orgies was that it had to apply an “18+” rating to the gallery entrance. (“All Ages” is designated as “0+.”) Other, more immediately evident efforts include the revitalization of Gorky Park and the clearing of kiosks and food stands from the streets. While inconvenient for those in need of cheap eats or cigarettes, the latter move has restored dignity to the metro stations and those massive Stalinist buildings that have slept the past few years under a blanket of advertising banners.
“Is it me or are all the Latin letters disappearing, too?” Amei Wallach wondered from her window seat on the train. The filmmaker was in town to premiere her documentary on Kabakov, whose tęte-ŕ-tęte exhibition with El Lissitzky has just traveled from the Van Abbemuseum to the Multimedia Art Museum Moscow (née the Moscow House of Photography). While the third week of September ostensibly belonged to the biennial, Kabakov and Baldessari had stolen the show. The odd couple came together Wednesday night for a conversation cohosted by MAMM and the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, on the neutral turf of the House of the Artists. The theater was packed to capacity. Dasha Zhukova nestled between Olga Sviblova and Emilia Kabakov in the front row, while Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi and the Metropolitan Museum’s Nicholas Cullinan traded notes behind them. Curators Kasper König and Charles Esche staked out seats from the stairwells, alongside artists Dmitry Vilensky, Keti Chukhrov, and Yuri Albert, the last of whom would soon be giving a talk of his own as part of the Garage’s series “Why I (Don’t) Love Baldessari.”
On stage, Hans Ulrich Obrist and the Garage’s freshly minted chief curator Kate Fowle assumed their positions as moderators, but these iconic artists would need no prodding. What followed was something like two shticks in the night. In one corner, a reluctant “9-5” artist, who goes into his studio every day (if only to nap), and who wakes up at 3 AM worrying that he’s making “trinkets for rich people”; in the other, an introverted children’s-book illustrator who became an accidental figurehead for a whole underground movement. Both supposed father figures of Conceptualism, neither could agree on what the term meant. In the Soviet context, “Moscow Romantic Conceptualism” forged a heroic escape from the dominant political ideology; the word is worn like a badge of honor. Meanwhile, the California-bred Baldessari scorns the C-word altogether, attributing it to “lazy journalists.” Kabakov seemed to accept the hushed reverence around him, beaming humbly through the ovations that greeted every pronouncement; Baldessari maintained that he is “an artist with a little ‘a.’ ” “I realize this may make me the bad guy…” he half-kidded, before steering the conversation toward education, harping on the indulgences of art schools only to have Kabakov make a stand for the indispensability of traditional technical training. Obrist for his part sat in uncharacteristic silence, scribbling away on a piece of paper as the artists repeatedly tried and failed to find a common language.
“It was like two entirely different worlds on stage,” marveled Garage director Anton Belov. “Kabakov was using ‘I’ to mean ‘we,’ and Baldessari was using ‘we’ to say ‘I.’ ” As for they? Kabakov had just asked Baldessari about the place of the audience, when an elderly gentleman picked his way through the crowd to the stage, where he demanded a microphone. Yury Zlotnikov, an abstract painter from Kabakov’s generation, felt compelled to correct a few things the more renowned artist had glossed over in his self-mythologizing account of the ways things were. By the time organizers convinced the interloper to put down the mike—“It isn’t your evening”—the point seemed moot. (“Is Zlotnikov the new Brener?” one headline blared, perhaps unaware that the former once caricatured the Moscow Actionist instigator as akin to “a young man who wants to kill an old lady.”)
Left: Manifesta's Hedwig Fijen and Elena Yushina at the Garage. Right: Moscow Biennale commissioner Joseph Backstein.
The next morning was significantly less eventful, as curator Catherine de Zegher, Joseph Backstein, and Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky unveiled the Fifth Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, now relocated to its (purportedly permanent) home in the Moscow Manege, a massive, sunlit hall whose brigade of windows complied with de Zegher’s stated theme, “More Light.” The Belgian curator had used the exhibition to make a case for contemplation, advocating a “slow present”—a radical enough notion, if only the present weren’t so pressing.
“Catherine’s background is in feminist art, and she has made some truly important contributions,” one artist confided. “But presented here, without the protest? It looks like a bunch of embroidery.” Beyond the prevalence of stitches, silks, and sewing patterns, the exhibition embraced natural imagery, with an overt gorgeousness that overpowered most political content (such as the images of torture and suffering fashioned into butteflies by Parastou Forouhar). At a roundtable featuring all Belgian artists (“We couldn’t resist,” de Zegher clucked), David Claerbout lauded the “walk in the park feeling”: “Nothing here is really trying to address you very hard.”
The next day, visitors were treated to an actual walk in the park (ŕ la Gorky) for the Garage’s opening of Baldessari’s “1+1=1.” The artist’s first outing in Russia, the exhibition brought together his most recent series, forty-four paintings that played a guessing game with art history, mixing and matching snatches of iconic images with film and song titles, or the names of other artists. Some of the riddles were relatively simple (a Matisse fishbowl in Warhol drag), but, for all Baldessari’s posturing against art education, he proved to be impressively well versed in the subject. “Rob Storr has guessed the most right out of anyone, and he only guessed nine,” Fowle confessed, as I stood stumped in front of what may have been a Courbet and a…?
On opening night, the line to enter the exhibition stretched all the way down the length of the Shigeru Ban–designed temporary pavilion. Engineered of cardboard and steel, the building is estimated to last between three and ten years. (Quite the margin of error there, but enough to last them through the arrival of the new Koolhaas venue.) Casting an admiring eye along the wood-planked floor, writer William Smith remarked: “You would think stilettos would get stuck in this.” “Oh, they do, believe me,” a voice of experience, Garage’s Brittany Stewart, assured him.
Out on the terrace, DJs Nick Cohen and Taras 3000 kept a steady stream of guilty-pleasure pop playing while the Absolut bar served up special “Double Play” cocktails, a dubious aquamarine concoction. “That’s the one!” artist Trevor Paglen laughed, reaching for a martini glass. “I see Roman must have stopped at Costco on the way over,” a visiting writer riffed, waving away a tray of shrimp rolls. At that moment, Abramovich himself casually strolled past, the surrounding Muscovites now acclimated to his presence, and vice versa. Zhukova, meanwhile, had absconded with Derek Blasberg to pose for pictures out on the lawn.
All in all, it was a marked evolution from the slick glitz of the Garage of yore. Indeed, Fowle’s arrival is a sign of a more public-minded institution, with a focus on education, an archival library in the works, and a publishing program translating critical texts by Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, and John Berger into Russian. Other initiatives include stipends for emerging local artists and research grants for the international community (current recipients include Anton Vidokle, who is probing the depths of Cosmism, and Koyo Kouoh, who is investigating the links between African filmmakers and Moscow film schools). Also in the works is a curatorial training program, modeled after the Independent Curators International, for which Fowle remains director-at-large. Fowle looked me straight in the eye: “The idea is that in five years, we”—motioning to herself and Belov—“won’t be here. There is so much talent here in Russia—just watch out!”
“BERLIN ART WEEK” kicked off last Tuesday as Germany’s election season was entering its final throes. The streets were plastered with billboards promoting more or less convincing slogans and faces. But there were other endgames at stake as well. “We do not talk about the death of painting,” Nationalgalerie director Udo Kittelmann told journalists at that day’s press conference for “Painting Forever!” the joint venture of four powerful art institutions: Berlinische Galerie, Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, and Neue Nationalgalerie. It was meant to be the highlight of the fall season, supported by the city with 500,000 Euros. “Painting is alive and will be alive in the future.” Oh, well. But then why does his exhibition, an all-male quartet at Neue Nationalgalerie, look so outdated?
At the Kunst-Werke, curator Ellen Blumenstein squeezed works by around seventy artists onto a single wall, salon style; they face another wall covered with statements by artists and intellectuals. Nobody I spoke with much liked it. But Berlin’s painters seem amazingly indulgent, even if they sulk a little bit, like artist and blogger Despina Stokou, who is even cited on the wall: “This is the third ‘painting show’ I am invited to this fall. After ‘Painting Forever!’ comes ‘Why Painting Now?’ and then ‘Painters Paradise.’ I should have drawn the line at ‘Painters Paradise,’ but I did not.”
That afternoon I met up with Austrian artist Elke Krystufek and critic Thibaut de Ruyter at Joseph-Roth-Diele, a famous artist hangout on Potsdamer Straße. By then, “Painting Forever!” was almost forgotten. Why bother? In Berlin, the galleries are still where it’s at, and there was much around to admire: shows like Betty Woodman’s wonderful and touching ceramics installations at Isabella Bortolozzi, or the David Shrigley exhibition at BQ, whose owners, Jörn Bötnagel and Yvonne Quirmbach, co-organized a whole Glasgow Festival–esque event at nearby Volksbühne, including a concert by art-school-rockers Franz Ferdinand, on Friday night.
It took a while, but we eventually made our way to Auguststraße for a small reception at Pauly Saal, organized by Javier Peres, for Dorothy Iannone, grand dame of the expat scene. From the windows, we had a good view onto the courtyard of the building, a former Jewish girls’ school, where Art Week’s VIP reception had already begun. I snuck over there just in time to catch Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit’s informal speech. “During Art Week, all of Berlin is an art fair too,” Wowereit said to the assembled. What does that mean? The mayor was smiling, which somehow made the phrasing all the more sinister.
Left: Dealer Barbara Weiss with artist Maria Eichhorn. Right: Dealer Johann König with artist Justin Matherly.
On Wednesday afternoon, I dropped by the Schinkel Pavillon, where the artist collective Gelitin was holding a weeklong, open workshop-performance. Schinkel Pavillon curator Nina Pohl had told me that the only thing she had asked of the artists was that they refrain from “pippi und kacka” onstage. When I visited, the space’s circular architecture had been repurposed into a mini-arena: Members of the group were making drip-castle sculptures, accompanied by a minimalist sound track, a somnolent moment in which one could easily doze off. But not for long: Suddenly, someone drove a motorcycle in from the terrace through the open window. Terror grew as members of the group fixed a balloon to the bike’s exhaust pipe, which expanded at a threatening pace.
I don’t know what happened next, since I had to leave for Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, where, among others, Nagel Draxler was opening an exhibition of hand-knit rugs and furniture-sculptures by Michael Beutler. The afterparty was held at the canteen of the Volksbühne (Brecht! Müller! Schlingensief!), and everyone had to fight with the theater people for seats. The Volksbühne folks made good use of their home-field advantage. It was a competitive affair, quite fitting for the pre-election political situation.
The jostle was good practice for Thursday’s outing, when everyone attended the eagerly awaited sixth edition of abc (Art Berlin Contemporary) at Station Berlin. The employment of former Art Basel spokesperson Maike Cruse as artistic director proved a smart move. Cruse changed much, but she also kept some traditions, one of them being the old protocol that, though everyone else is calling abc a “fair,” its organizers continue to refer to it as a “platform.”
Left: Dealer Gisela Capitain. Right: Kunsthalle Düsseldorf curator Elodie Evers, critic Antje Stahl, and dealer Thomas Fischer.
This year’s emphasis on performance was impossible to ignore. The sight of Hermann Nitsch wandering around with his big bushy beard and a dog-headed walking stick gave me a chill. (Nitsch participated in the event-rich program, squeezing fruits with his bare hands.) After a long day of strolling the fair, I joined dealer Barbara Weiss for a small dinner at one of her favorite tarte flambée restaurants in Schöneberg, named after the Neue Sachlichkeit photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch. There I was seated next to legendary curator and dealer René Block and his wife Ursula, who runs Gelbe Musik—Berlin’s only true avant-garde record shop, where people like Björk go shopping when they are in town. We all enjoyed a lively conversation about Fondazione Prada’s remake of Harald Szeemann’s landmark exhibition “When Attitudes Become Form” in Venice, which was seen as, at the very least, a clever marketing move. However he feels about the show, it seems that Herr Block will continue to buy his shoes from Prada.
By Saturday, everyone was thoroughly exhausted, though I was still in the mood for more critical wrangling. I found it at a reception at Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, where the artist Dan Keller had organized “Liquid Autist,” a group show featuring the likes of, among others, Simon Denny, Tue Greenfort, Jonathan Horowitz, Don Pettit, and Michael Wang. This might be the most hotly debated show of the season; indeed, the all-male list triggered an enlightening discussion on the gallery’s Facebook wall (“Sorry, but you can’t make a show with only male artists and say the show isn’t about gender,” wrote Lindsay Lawson), which seems to still have traction. After, Philipp Ekardt, the smart and genial new editor of Texte zur Kunst, suggested I follow the crowd to Urbanstrasse, where the artists Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff had opened New Theater, the latest Berlin it-spot. There I met everyone again and then some, including Ariane Müller, the artist and writer whose new book Handbuch für die Reise durch Afrika (Manual for the Journey through Africa) will be, I’m sure, the talk of Berlin over the coming weeks and months. And indeed, what is Berlin without that most essential element: something to argue about?
HOW MUCH FUN is the New York art world? Lots and lots. You can thrill to spending oodles of cash money on art that will be forgotten by the time your children start wondering why you didn’t spend it on them—or you can partake of the real thing at any given moment and have a ball doing it with your friends.
Take last week, when the new season didn’t just bring more of the same old. It had new faces, new places, and a new sense of brio that gave this shiny, densely populated town of wealth and ambition a fresh spark of wit and taste, both vulgar and refined, sometimes both at once.
“Sheep Station” entered the annals of Really Dumb Art on Monday, September 16, when Paul Kasmin Gallery let in the non-shearling-clad, Instagramming minions who came to bound over the hillocks of sod laid down at the former Lukoil station on Tenth Avenue, now enclosed by a white picket fence. On land that collector and developer Michael Shvo has reserved for yet another domicile for the rich that will further box in the already compromised views from the High Line, a herd of bronze sheep by Les Lalanne (François-Xavier and Claude) that were never meant to graze outside the anomalous space of a living room were stranded between the old gas pumps. To say they looked ridiculous, especially when Shvo mounted one with the leather-clad architect Peter Marino, is to underestimate their plight. Of course, collectors can do whatever they want with their holdings, but perhaps there should be limits.
Left: Dealer Dominique Lévy. Right: “Sheep Station.”
On Tuesday, a deeper understanding of new and historical art illuminated the third and sixth floors of the Museum of Modern Art. A flashbulb-like pop lit up curator Roxana Marcoci’s “New Photography 2013,” while Anne Umland’s “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938” attracted a hefty complement of trustees, lenders, and collectors young and not so young who prize images of cloaked kissers, choo-choo trains steaming out of fireplaces, and pipes that aren’t pipes but extremely tenacious pictures. “There’s no truth,” observed MoMA’s associate director, Kathy Halbreich. “There’s only power.”
Farther uptown, the suffering animal world returned, this time to Madison Avenue, where the French dealer Emmanuel Perrotin presided over the hip and hop of power couples like Pharrell Williams and Swizz Beatz at the opening of his new Manhattan outpost. It has the basement and ground floor of a former bank building dominated by Dominique Lévy, who now commands the three upper stories with her own, eponymous new gallery. Its entrance is on East 73rd Street, but the one-percenters and art-world insiders on hand all went through Perrotin’s on Madison. So to reach “Audible Presence: Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, Cy Twombly,” Lévy’s cool, calm, and collected inaugural show, the hoard passed through its (literally) polar opposite.
Installed on Perrotin’s ground floor was a posse of preening polar bear sculptures by Paola Pivi. All were clad in brightly hued feathers and set in positions that, by turn, suggested aggression, courtship, submission, somnolence, playfulness, and puzzlement. A blue one hanging from the ceiling caused one guest descending from the Lévy show to wonder if it could be a reference to Klein’s Leap into the Void. In the basement, a money machine by Pivi that spit out dollar bills suggested another reference—to the silver dollar–flinging toaster that Robert Rauschenberg contributed to Jean Tinguely’s “Homage to New York” in 1960. Well, gotta hand it to her: The exhibition’s title is, “Ok, You Are Better Than Me, So What?”
Back on the packed street floor, the relatively modest space forced auction house rivals Tobias Meyer and Amy Cappellazzo to rub elbows between the bears, as did the formerly married collectors Peter Brant and Sandy Brant. Fashion designer Cynthia Rowley, on the other hand, was celebrating a wedding anniversary with dealer/writer Bill Powers, and artist Marilyn Minter, whose lipstick matched one of Pivi’s bears, just looked happy to be with Bill Miller. Also making a smiling appearance was Jeffrey Deitch, recently returned from the MoCA wars in Los Angeles—to do what, he wasn’t saying.
Dealer extraordinaire Paula Cooper was more forthcoming. “I remember Emmanuel with his pushpins, selling art out of a suitcase and pinning it up at the fairs,” she said. “And now… look what’s come of it,” she added, as the crowd swelled around her. Indeed, anyone curious to know where bodies of art will be buried in the future only had to follow the financial wizards, auction house chiefs, foundation heads, and other players in the secondary market to Lévy’s exclusive dinner at the four-story Academy Mansion, to which the Swiss-born, soul-of-discretion dealer did not invite the press.
Perrotin, on the other hand, wanted to make a splash. So, as the seas parted and one camp headed to East Sixty-Third Street, your trusty reporter followed the fashionable to the four-story Russian Tea Room, which the dealer had taken over for an evening that went all out to level the field. Even the keenest of observers had a hard time distinguishing the porkers from the pikers at this bash, which was all about self-service.
In the dining room, guests could help themselves to caviar, borscht, stroganoff, and other Russian tasties from buffet tables, and then find their own seats on the red leather booths. Many stood and mingled with their drinks until it was time for the main event of the evening. The upstairs Bear Ballroom—yes, it’s really called that—was set up as a carnival runway, an apt metaphor for some parts of the art world. Particularly this part.
Gallery artists each manned—all were men—booths at which the now well-oiled patrons could win an art multiple. Daniel Arsham devised a ring toss, where successful players could bag white plaster casts of three different kinds of cameras, a BlackBerry, and an old-time wired phone. “I make these as molds for sculpture that I usually throw away afterward,” he said. “But for this I reproduced them instead.” Winners loved it. “I hate this party,” one prominent collector whispered, “but I have to say I’m thrilled that I won a sculpture.”
Was big-ticket dealer Philippe Ségalot ever more triumphant than when he walked away from the KAWS booth with the plastic doll he won by throwing a ball in a hole? (Williams, meanwhile, had to put on a good face when stuck with a booby prize.) New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni made a concentrated effort to manipulate the tongs that would win him a plush Takashi Murakami flower. “It’s really hard,” he said, though after a year spent organizing the last Venice Biennale, one had to wonder at his definition of “hard.” Most dismaying of all was to see adults who lead sober lives as hedge-funders, or whatever, fling themselves into making Damien Hirst spin paintings, as if the results could be worth the same as his. (Maybe true.)
The following night, the High Line Art program attracted a dizzying array of heavyweight artists, collectors, and dealers, along with MoMA, Whitney, and New Museum trustees and curators and at least one Hollywood actor (Ed Norton) to its first-ever benefit dinner. Here was the art world of civic responsibility—and a welcome sight it was, too.
After cocktails on the Diller–von Furstenberg Sundeck, guests lined either side of the walkway for Intermezzo: Two Girls Wear Fashion Garments on a Palm Tree, a performance choreographed by the Argentine-born English artist Pablo Bronstein. As the sun set over the Hudson, two dancers dressed in couture on loan from Barney’s made unhurried, stylized moves down the middle of the deck toward a palm tree at the south end of the deck, beyond the view of half the audience still standing around the bar. “This would be beautiful in a quiet space,” observed Donna De Salvo. “How long is this supposed to take?” wondered MoMA president emeritus Donald Marron, speaking for most of the crowd.
At last, the dancers climbed to the platform of a scissor lift and turned on the energy for a dance atop the tree. Then it was time for dinner. But it was also time to get back uptown, to the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, where Lévy flip-sided Perrotin by realizing what she said was a long-held dream: bringing Yves Klein’s Monotone-Silence Symphony to New York. This is a self-descriptive title for a 1959 composition that requires an orchestra and singers—here, seventy performers all told—to play a single D-major chord for twenty minutes, then lapse into twenty minutes of silence. “The silence is the real symphony,” she said. Or was that John Cage?
In the absence of sound goes feeling, or so the theory goes. In practice, the performers, led by the imported French conductor Roland Dahinden, carried off the task in cascading and receding waves of sound before abruptly shutting it off. Encouraged by Lévy, in her introduction, to “enjoy” an experience that she confessed first struck her as laughable, then discomfiting, and ultimately moving, the full house endured as if in a trance, though some restless audience members consulted forbidden cell phones or snapped pictures with them. “I felt very claustrophobic,” one listener said when it was over, adding that he also found it exciting, “in a weird way.”
Thursday night, Bronstein presented a rejiggered public performance on the High Line that went off without a hitch, while T. J. Wilcox raised the Madison Avenue bar for herculean art with the premiere of “In the Air,” his first solo exhibition at the Whitney. On entering the second floor, it was instantly apparent that Wilcox had made a huge leap forward in every way—conceptually, filmicly, technologically, and emotionally. Viewers stood within a zoetrope-like, circular screen suspended above the floor, enraptured by what they saw: a day in the life of New York, as seen from the roof Wilcox’s studio building on Union Square, compressed into thirty minutes. As day passed into night and back again, six three-minute films—portraits of New Yorkers—were projected on the hundreds of stills lighting up the panoramic screen. “We couldn’t have done it a year ago,” said curator Chrissie Iles. “The technology wasn’t available.”
Dinner was in a private dining room at the Carlyle Hotel, hosted by Sadie Coles and Metro Pictures. Which was very nice. Other dealers—Barbara Gladstone, Gavin Brown—came, and so did Art Production Fund cofounder Yvonne Force Villareal, MoMA’s new media and performance art curator Stuart Comer, Artists Space director Stefan Kalmár, and collectors Jane Holzer, Melva Bucksbaum, Daniel DeVos, Brooke Garber Neidich, and the show’s primary sponsor, designer Pamella Roland.
Left: MoMA curator Roxana Marcoci. Right: Artist Cindy Sherman with dealer Janelle Reiring.
But most impressive was the show of solidarity and support for Wilcox by the artist majority in the room. “This is a lot of art-world love for T. J.,” said Glenn Ligon, looking down the two long tables where Jorge Pardo, Elizabeth Peyton, Matthew Barney, Nick Mauss, Ken Okiishi, Rob Pruitt, Jonathan Horowitz, Jack Pierson, Anne Collier, Lisa Yuskavage, Matvey Levenstein, Kai Althoff, Tony Oursler, Jacqueline Humphries, Barbara Bloom, and Wade Guyton—among others—were seated. “I feel very privileged to be working at this museum at this moment,” curator Scott Rothkopf said. “It feels like a great community.”
Midway through dinner, Whitney director Adam Weinberg stood to read the start of Roberta Smith’s rave review of Wilcox’s show, which had just appeared in the New York Times online. “This is what it must have been like to be at Sardi’s in the old days, when the theater reviews came in,” Rothkopf quipped.
But Mauss captured the evening best. “Feels like a real opening,” he said.
THE FRENCH PRIZE DISCRETION so much that they keep excitement to a minimum. The opening week of the Twelfth Biennale de Lyon, at least, was exceedingly decorous, despite the presence of some seventy artists whose work leans more toward the edgy. A telltale sign was a 2002 photograph by Roe Ethridge that gave the whole enterprise a big black eye.
This image of the artist, who is sporting a bloody shiner, is the most ubiquitous of two by Ethridge that curator Gunnar B. Kvaran chose to brand his international exhibition, “Meanwhile… Suddenly, and Then.” (The biennial also has two regional platforms.) That battered face appears on kiosks, bus shelters, banners, and posters all over Lyon, as well as on biennial shopping bags and the cover of its artist-penned catalogue.
“You’re everywhere, man,” Nate Lowman said at an impromptu gathering of New Yorkers on Monday, September 9, the eve before the show’s opening. “I know!” Ethridge howled, as Dan Colen and Tom Sachs came into the Villa Florentine bar with their main squeezes Noot Seear and Sarah Hoover, where dealers Stefan Ratibor, Sam Orlofsky, and Thalassa Balanis were also hanging out. “Every artist here must hate me,” Ethridge said. “I don’t know who half the artists in this biennial are,” Lowman confessed. “Me either,” Colen replied. “That’s cool,” Lowman said. “We’re going to learn a lot.”
The first lesson was in gate-crashing. With invitations only for three, the group piled into taxis and headed to the exclusive sponsor dinner at La Sucričre, the three-story, 75,000-square-foot former sugar warehouse on the Saône River that is the biennial’s primary location. Artistic director Thierry Raspail and president Bernard Faivre d’Arcier were there with Kvaran to welcome the many French people in evening clothes who were attending a reception outside the building. Flower-bedecked tables were set for dinner inside, where a VIP preview of Kvaran’s elliptically titled, loose-jointed, and bewildering exhibition was in progress. “It’s all about new visual narratives,” he said, leading the way into Colen’s installation, one of nearly fifty new works that Kvaran commissioned.
Splayed out on the floor were life-size sculptures of Roger Rabbit, Wile E. Coyote, and the Kool-Aid Man, all exhausted from chasing each other through walls with gaping holes outlined by their silhouettes. This represented a new chapter in the Colen career narrative, one that risked—or invited—ridicule. A hyperreal, silicone realization of the artist in his well-endowed birthday suit lay between the figures, looking just as dazed, though from a more Sadean exercise. “She cast the penis,” Colen said of Seear, who smiled as giggling guests tried to take it seriously.
Phallic forms kept popping up, as it were, making the show feel freighted with testosterone, though Tavares Strachan paid homage to astronaut Sally Ride and Yoko Ono sent buttons printed with images of a breast nipple. “There are only ten more men than women artists,” Kvaran protested. Whoever made them, there were so many disparate parts and materials to so many works that one could imagine Jason Rhoades turning over in his grave. This is a biennial of stories with no beginning or end, only a spreading middle—a fitting metaphor for Lyon’s principal activity, which is eating.
Left: Artists Tavares Strachan and Titus Kaphar. Right: Artist Zhang Ding.
Vegans beware! This is a city of pig products—pork chops, pork steak, pork belly and pork cheeks, pork sausage, bacon, tripe, and other organ meats. Spend a day here and you know why nouvelle cuisine had to happen.
Back at the Sucričre next morning, at the official preview for collectors and press, Even Pricks (that again!) by Ed Atkins drew the most attention of the many works involving digital animations or videos. A welcome exception to the garish or cartoony nature of the few paintings on view was Lowman’s suite of modest canvases depicting the unintentionally erotic positions of figures illustrating airline emergency instruction procedures. “I’ve been collecting safety cards forever,” he said. Karl Haendel also made an impressive showing with large-scale, grisaille drawings that spoke to the issue of gun violence, though here, too, was a portrait of a dildo, albeit one dressed as a Marfa cowgirl.
Sachs, who also fetishizes guns, was one of the three artists—Zhang Ding and Ethridge were the others—to have an exhibition space to himself, the medieval Eglise Saint-Just in the historic part of Lyon, which was established by the ancient Romans. Sachs had a press conference there to present his Barbie Slave Ship, a cardboard and resin three-rigger with pink sails, 324 unclothed Barbies, and one hundred fully functional small canons. “Since this is a church,” he said, “we won’t fire them.” Instead, he served drinks from the ship’s bar. On either side of the altar were two text paintings –manifests for slaves to fashion and consumer advertising, except that they listed women Sachs admires—Beyoncé, Cleopatra, Lisa Simpson, and the like.
For that evening’s social distraction, collector Nathalie Fournier hosted an open house that served up young gray, black, or white artworks with champagne, oysters, and the fattest bacon burgers in the Western world. Chowing down were members of the Parisian art scene who often identify new talent, dealer Daniele Balice, collector Frederic de Goldschmidt, and Palais de Tokyo curator Katell Jaffrčs among them. Meanwhile, outside the Sucričre, the biennial was holding what in Miami might be called an “intimate” dinner for 1,500, where artists like Jason Dodge, Jonathas de Andrade, and Margaret Lee were virtually swallowed by the enormous crowd. I arrived just as curator Simon Castets—rumored to be a favorite for next Swiss Institute director—alighted from a taxi. “The story is that Nathalie’s party always turns into an orgy,” he said. “So I’m going later.”
Next day, at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Le Mac LYON), which is secreted within a hideous and massive commercial complex designed by Renzo Piano, only an intriguing digital animation by Takao Minami stood out as truly new narrative amid the otherwise opaque commissions and previously exhibited works by, among others, Bjarne Melgaard, Matthew Barney, Ryan Trecartin, and Robert Gober, who contributed the dollhouses that comprise his first-ever artworks. “Because France is so peripheral to the art world,” Raspail would tell me later, “it’s important for these artists to be seen in the city today.”
From there, with dealer Franco Noero behind the wheel, I rode off to Geneva, where we spotted a number of UAE sultans visiting their money in the many private banks on the lake. We were there for the September 11, VIP opening of “A is Building B is Architecture,” an elegant and most satisfying miniretrospective of drawing, painting, and architecture by Pablo Bronstein at the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genčve. Organized by the center’s director, Andrea Bellini, it attracted local artists John Armleder and Mai-Thu Perret and several Swiss curators—the Chalet Society’s Marc-Olivier Wahler and the Syz Collection’s Nicolas Trembley—as well as the Tate’s Catherine Wood, writer Kirsty Bell, and Bronstein dealers Nicky Verber, Ash L’Ange, and Noero.
Dinner was at the Beau Rivage, contributed by the fabulously grand hotel’s owner, Ivan Rivier, who also provided the artist, his journalist boyfriend Leo Boix, and his psychoanalyst mother with rooms upstairs. To begin, art center chairman Jean Altounian made a congratulatory toast to Bellini on his “splendid exhibition,” oddly neglecting to mention the artist. Bellini quickly stepped into the breach, after which foie gras and roast duck were served by white-gloved waiters.
Next day, after touring the artworks on view at the Syz’s labyrinthine private bank with Trembley, we trooped back to the center for the public opening of Bronstein’s show. It coincided with the annual “Nuit des Bains,” an evening of openings at the dozen, mainly storefront galleries in the Quartier des Bains, home to the art center and neighboring MAMCO (the Musée d’art Moderne et Contemporain). Young people swarmed the narrow streets; loud dance music emanated from MAMCO. Who could have expected hush-hush Geneva to be livelier than Lyon? Maybe having all the money in the world does make a difference.
After hitting the shows at Art & Public, Ribordy Contemporary, Blondeau, Hard Hat, and Graff Mourgue d’Algue, where Armleder was showing brightly painted Christmas trees, our group (Bronstein, Boix, Bellini, Verber, Noero, Trembley) ascended to a delicious chicken-in-aspic buffet at the family estate of Paul Aymar Mourgue D’Algue, who operates Graff Mourgue d’Algue with dealer/curator Jeanne Graff (also rumored to be a candidate for Swiss Institute director). The view from here was heady: the lake and all of Geneva. Most attention-getting was the UN building, which was bathed in hot pink light, as if there were a party going on, instead of negotiations between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov over chemical weapons in Syria.
Back in Lyon the following afternoon, Raspail explained a little of the biennial’s “Veduta” and “Résonance” platforms, which are aimed at locals. Veduta, he said, was for “amateurs,” people in the beginning stages of connoisseurship from six towns around Lyon. The most innovative aspect of this program—of the whole biennial, in my opinion—is “Chez Moi,” where older works by the biennial artists (including Jeff Koons, Ann Lislegaard, and Anicka Yi) are placed in private homes for the run of the show, which closes in early January. The idea, I gathered, was that if people live with contemporary art long enough, they might come back for more. “I like a complete experience of art,” Raspail said. “The public and the private.”
Two hundred more, laboratory-like exhibitions constitute “Résonance,” the third platform, organized for the biennial by artist collectives and other nonprofits. One of them, Interior and the Collectors, founded by Conceptualist designers Fabien Villon and Christel Montury, had a show of small audio-tape-on-canvas paintings by Berlin-based artist Gregor Hildebrandt, who unpacked them from a suitcase also on view in the old-quarter apartment, where he had been in residence. (Slavs and Tatars will be there next.) With Balice Hertling, the ambitious Villon and Montury are also organizing an eight-gallery art fair for Lyon in an unused 100,000-square-foot building. “It’s not a commercial idea,” Villon said. “We want to play with the form to see what can come of it.”
A few minutes later, still invigorated by that visit, I passed the newest addition to the conservative city’s public art program on the Saône, Elmgreen & Dragset’s The Weight of One Self. This permanently sited, white marble monument to gay self-determination is the nude figure of a man carrying his own drowned body toward Lyon’s Palace of Justice.
IT WAS A BRIGHT, scorching day in Porto Alegre. The sun was high in the cloudless sky, no wind. You could have fried an egg on the pavement—nothing like the wintry feel the southernmost capital city in Brazil usually boasts this time of year. It was last Wednesday, and Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy, the Mexican curator in charge of the ninth installment of the Bienal do Mercosul, was piling into a helicopter with a photographer and curator Raimundas Malasauskas. She wanted to get a bird’s-eye view of Aleksandra Mir’s “secret” work: a pile of garbage made to look like a satellite fallen from the sky, which had just been completed that morning along the bay of the Guaíba lake.
I stayed on the ground, waiting my turn, chatting with artist Guillermo Faivovich and curator Sarah Demeuse. We stood in a shabby amusement park, amid a Ferris wheel and other sundry contraptions; my new friends here called it the “Coney Island of Porto Alegre.” Once we were in the air, we flew over museums and the show’s main venue, the Usina do Gasômetro, a defunct power plant–cum–cultural center that one curator tagged a “poor version of the Turbine Hall.” We also sped over the much, much bigger old warehouses that used to host the biennial, until they were appropriated by speculators who plan to refurbish them as venues for next year’s World Cup.
Keeping in mind the change in sites, it was easy to understand why the scale of this edition is so reduced—a little more than sixty artists, as opposed to 105 last round—and why so many of us left thinking that there should have been a little more to see in this airy show. Chong Cuy concentrated her artists in the spare settings, and there is ample space between one work and another, as though each were a natural accident sprouting from a landscape built to illustrate this year’s theme.
The biennial’s title, “Weather Permitting,” refers to the perennial clash between man-made and purportedly “wild” environments, as well as to the conditions of possibility that lend certain works visibility while eliding others. It’s a telluric ride, one that tracks thunderous storms, erupting volcanoes, molten lava, hurricanes, and so on. Works like Robert Rauschenberg’s 1971 installation Mud Muse, a pool of bubbling mud, and Allan McCollum’s endless series of fulgurites, the twisty glass-like objects that result from the absorption of a heavy electrical discharge by a pile of earth, are jarringly juxtaposed, an index that the weather could change with more violence than one could suspect.
But it didn’t. Temperatures continued to rise. There remained not a single cloud in the sky, as though Chong Cuy’s umbrella theme were a thaumaturgical device goading global warming. The next day, a group of VIPs including the Guggenheim’s Pablo León de la Barra, Instituto Inhotim’s Júlia Rebouças, and artists Alex García and José León Cerrillo headed to the lake for a boat ride to the little island where a prison once stood. It was there that so-called dangerous political figures, like Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff’s ex-husband, were incarcerated during the military dictatorship. Now it is just a pile of rocks on a barren piece of land smack in the middle of the bay. Legend has it, according to Júlia Rebouças, one of the show’s curators, that back in the 1970s, Rousseff used to spy on the prison with binoculars from her apartment window.
“Doesn’t it make you want to swim or have some ice cream?” asked Instituto Inhotim director Eungie Joo, emerging from where the prison cells used to be and looking out at the water. Maybe. I know some artists skipped the “Island Session,” as the biennial called the trek, and spent the day lounging by the pool at the hotel Plaza Săo Rafael. Later that evening, a group of girls, desperate to escape the stifling heat, plunged into the pool at biennial president Patrícia Fossati Druck’s house, gala attire and all. Something in the hot air seemed to tinker with people’s minds.
Perhaps to keep himself focused, veteran Filipino artist David Medalla lugged a bunch of Brazilian and Portuguese classics around town, trying to learn the language as he searched for a dancer to include in his performance on opening day. He settled on a blonde break-dancer, a native to the streets of Porto Alegre, and he attracted a huge crowd to the lounge built on the terrace of the Usina do Gasômetro. Up there, Medalla read a fictitious correspondence between a nun in the Philippines and Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, pausing occasionally for the dance. He later asked Chong Cuy and Fossati Druck to help transform a white veil wrapped around a bunch of balloons into a “cloud.” It was right then and there that a cold gust of wind swept across the terrace and real clouds appeared on the horizon.
Temperatures dropped about ten degrees the day after and biennial-goers left with the spectacle of white balloons drifting into a smoldering sky, a symbol of a show built around the weather and its surprises. The last of the opening parties, a karaoke session at Ocidente bar, a regular dive among the Porto Alegre art crowd, that featured Chong Cuy as well as artists Letícia Ramos and Mario Torres García, was a phenomenon in itself. Prem Krishnamurthy, designer at New York’s Project Projects and the maker of a new font for the show’s visual identity and catalogue, sealed the evening with an ecstatic cover of Madonna’s “Material Girl”—a sign that everything was getting back to normal.
Left: Bienal do Mercosul producer Mônica Bogarin and dancer Cauan Feversani on the rooftop lounge at the Usina do Gasômetro. Right: Island of the White Rocks.
ONE OF THE MOST breathtaking works in the Thirteenth Istanbul Biennial, which opened to the public on Saturday, is a black-and-white film that was made more than sixty years ago. The sole mention of it is buried in the back of the biennial guidebook, and it is scheduled to screen only once, on an undisclosed day in October, at 5533, the most remote of the exhibition’s five venues. The only film ever made by Jean Genet, Un Chant d’amour (1950) is a talismanic study of autoerotic longing among a prison population hounded by curious and resentful guards. French censors banned the film as soon as it came to light. The United States Supreme Court deemed it obscene. Jonas Mekas smuggled a print through customs and was promptly arrested when it screened in New York.
Given the biennial’s minimal acknowledgement of the film’s existence, you might think it was still volatile, and rarely seen. But if anything, Un Chant d’amour is simply hiding in plain sight, in Istanbul as elsewhere. Anyone with a decent Internet connection can watch the silent film in its twenty-six-minute entirety, anywhere, anytime, on multiple platforms ranging from YouTube to Vimeo to Ubu. Certainly, Genet’s mesmerizing treatment of dreams, prisons, poetry, sex, violence, desire, repression, and the charged promise of an imminent revolt makes the film a terrific linchpin for the biennial as a whole. More problematically, so too does the impulse to pull back and retreat with the art into smaller and ever more private audiences.
Jean Genet, Un chant d'amour, 1950.
Perhaps more so than any iteration of the biennial to date, this edition—organized by the Turkish curator Fulya Erdemci and titled “Mom, Am I Barbarian?” after a book by the radical poet and Istanbullu eccentric Lale Müldür—is shot through with tensions and contradictions. As Erdemci was assembling her exhibition, an enormous shift in Turkey’s political landscape cracked open the ground on which the biennial had been built, creating wild disparities of ambition and intent. As a result, this edition lurches dramatically between going for broke and playing it safe, between grabbing hold of a pivotal historical moment and standing to the side out of respect, discomfort, or both.
Consider the social confusion of the opening days. On the eve of the press preview, September 10, news broke that a young antigovernment protester named Ahmet Atakan had died in the hospital after being struck by a tear gas canister, which soldiers in the southern city of Antakya had lobbed at his head. Atakan, twenty-two, had been demonstrating against plans to plow a highway through the campus of a school. He was the sixth person killed in protests than have swept across Turkey since May.
The biennial and a slew of other initiatives organizing parallel events swiftly canceled their opening parties. To continue the revelry would have been in poor taste, and anyway, it was a time for returning to the streets. Friends and colleagues talked to me about gas masks and the imperatives of reportage. And yet, on the morning of September 11, day one of the putative preview, I shared a ride from the airport with the curator of a major New York museum. We compared notes. Her schedule was totally unchanged. On that level of elite privilege and institutional obligation, the social itinerary was very much intact, and totally at odds with the realities on the ground.
So began a week of conflicting agendas. There were intimate dinners and exclusive engagements at the opulent homes of Ömer Koç and Füsun Eczacibaşi, representing two of Turkey’s most powerful republican families, without whom the existing infrastructure of Istanbul’s cultural life would likely wither and die. There were lush, epic boat rides up the Bosphorus, a biennial tradition upheld by blue-chip Istanbul galleries such as Rampa and Galeri Mânâ. Another tradition, albeit a young one, was the three-year-old Non-Stage performance program, directed by Derya Demir and Filiz Avunduk. At root and throughout was the humbled and humbling task of trying to make sense of a very complicated biennial, which seems equally bound to and detached from its very complicated context.
Ever since she was appointed to her post in early 2012, Erdemci has made clear that the interests driving her biennial would be the city and the public, and redefining each in relation to the other. In stark contrast to her predecessors, Jens Hoffmann and Adriano Pedrosa, who made of their biennial a hermetic museological display, Erdemci wanted the tussle of an open forum, and the challenge of stitching her biennial into the unruly urban fabric of Istanbul.
Within a year, she was in the thick of it, battling for permissions from municipal authorities on one side, trying to convince hardcore political activists that she was for real on the other. A coalition of protesters broke up numerous events for the biennial’s six-month public program, titled “Public Alchemy” and organized with Andrea Phillips, on the grounds that the biennial’s corporate sponsor, Koç Holding, was responsible for gentrifying the same neighborhoods about which the biennial was supposedly concerned.
In a petition that began circulating in May, representatives of the Common Resistance Platform described the biennial as authoritarian, judgmental, and uncommunicative, and called for its umbrella organization, the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV), to rethink its structure. Several well-known artists signed, including Banu Cennetoğlu, Nilbar Güreş, and Ahmet Öğüt.
Then, something incredible happened. Demonstrations against the policies of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) erupted all over the country, and remained nonviolent in the face of a severe police crackdown. What set those events in motion was the protection of Gezi Park, one of the seven public sites Erdemci had lined up for the biennial (the others were Taksim Square, the Galata Bridge, the main streets running through the neighborhoods of Tarlabaşi and Karaköy, the post office, and the dockyards). But clearly, what has come to be shorthanded since as “Gezi,” much like “Tahrir” in Cairo, has wholly surpassed the biennial, and Istanbul’s art scene with it.
To ask what the role of contemporary art can or could be at such a time or in such a movement is a question that goes far beyond the biennial’s reach. And so, in the months that followed the uprisings in May, the biennial began to withdraw. Projects slated for public space—fourteen in all—were canceled or reconfigured for five indoor venues: Antrepo No. 3, Arter, SALT Beyoğlu, a Greek school in Karaköy, and 5533. In August, Erdemci and Phillips scrapped the rest of the “Public Alchemy” program.
Left: Artist Rossella Biscotti with Mari Spirito of Protocinema. Right: Delfina Foundation founder Delfina Entrecanales with artist Aslı Çavuşoğlu and Witte de With director Defne Ayas
On Wednesday evening, I dropped in to see Vasif Kortun, the director of research and programs at SALT. He had opened a major retrospective for Gülsün Karamustafa the night before, but he had canned the party and gone to Taksim Square instead. Having organized two previous editions of the biennial, he seemed well placed to consider the Gezi effect on the art scene.
“This is the first nontraumatized generation in our history,” Kortun said of the young protesters who led the Gezi movement. They weren’t defeated by the coups that shook Turkey’s political establishment in the 1970s. They didn’t have their hopes dashed by the economic privatization that followed. They haven’t been demoralized by what amounts to a civil war in the east of the country. “They didn’t need to learn anything from that,” he said. “We are their baggage. We hold them back.” Throughout Gezi and after, “they created something new.” Or, as he posted on Facebook in early June: “We saw heaven and it was in the present. Self-organized in near-perfect harmony an unscripted future lies ahead of us. We used to feel so alone, disenchanted by our acquiescent attendance to a world that looked so unavoidable. Look who is lonely now?”
“Something unimaginable happened in Turkey, and that’s why we can’t talk about anything else,” explained the writer and curator Övül Durmuşoğlu, who I ran into Thursday night, at a slightly paradoxical roof party for Non-Stage. Gezi pieced together a patchwork of “impossible identities,” she said. “The LGBT community, football supporters, women, students, ultra-nationalists, religious fundamentalists who don’t believe in capitalism. They were all together and this is what scared the government so much.” Erdoğan called the protesters çapulcu, meaning “looters” or “bandits.” The art scene stepped up and owned the term immediately, imagining itself an awkward band of fragile, tender bandits, but bandits nonetheless.
Left: Aaron Cesar of the Delfina Foundation with curator Ozge Ersoy of collectorspace. Right: Curator Juana Berrio with Liverpool Biennial cocurators Anthony Huberman and Mai Abu ElDahab.
Erdemci doesn’t want to bandwagon the term, she told me when I sat down with her Friday afternoon, in the café of Istanbul Modern, and so she doesn’t use the word çapulcu, not in conversation and not in the emotive text she wrote for the biennial. But it might be the key. And it might be through the guise of that fragile bandit figure that many of the contradictions of the exhibition begin to make sense and bear fruit.
For example, a certain renegade spirit runs through the gorgeous simplicity of Annika Eriksson’s video I Am the Dog That Was Always Here (2013), a story of urban upheaval in Istanbul as seen through the eyes of stray dogs, and extends to Hito Steyerl’s heroic lecture-performance Is a Museum a Battlefield? (2013), which finds the artist playing the part of an amateur weapons inspector, untangling the knotted complicities that exist among museums, biennials, corporate sponsors, and the arms industry. Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s The Incidental Insurgents (2012–13), adapting Roberto Bolańo’s novel The Savage Detectives to what looks like an exploded film treatment, likewise celebrates “the lean young wolves” who have historically energized the avant-garde through art, poetry, and film. Like Genet’s prisoners and petty thieves, these characters share obvious affinities with “the outcasts, misfits, bandits, anarchists, revolutionaries, and artists” who Erdemci describes as her raison d’ętre, “the barbarians” of her title, “who open the seams of the system and show the outer limits of language.”
“I don’t want to legitimize the authorities who have silenced citizens’ voices, violently so, to realize a series of artworks,” Erdemci said, finally, of her decision to withdraw from public space. “My gesture of withdrawal shows this conflict clearly. By their absence I want people to hear the voices of the street.”
Left: Curator Lara Khaldi with Art Dubai director Antonia Carver. Right: Artist Trevor Paglen with writer and curator Adam Kleinman.
And yet, that might not be good enough. As the preview days ended, I caught up with Ahmet Öğüt, who was still working through his own response to the biennial’s retreat. To do so, he recounted three anecdotes for me: In Tunis, Michel Foucault hides a printer in his garden for students to produce antigovernment leaflets in 1968; two years ago in Cairo, the Townhouse Gallery bags its exhibition program and opens every room for protesters who need a place to meet and plan; in Istanbul last spring, a hotel on Taksim Square turns its lobby into a makeshift hospital and a base of political action.
“It is important to imagine,” said Öğüt. “If we lose public and semipublic space, we lose everything. Artists give up their authorship when necesary, and it is the same for institutions. We need to find ways to get out of the art context, especially during historical moments like this. I don’t just mean anonymous, guerrilla-style projects. Artists often take those risks, step out of safe zones, and play around with permissions, regulations, and legal limitations. It’s time for the institutions to do the same, and to get more creative.”
Left: A diarist in Elmgreen & Dragset's Istanbul Diaries. Right: Artist Ahmet Öğüt.
A FOUR-HOUR FERRY RIDE up past the Arctic Circle, Norway’s Lofoten Islands are a true anomaly, a polar archipelago with a California climate, an effect of the warm Gulf Stream waters. At 68ş North, the landscape is Sublime, from the craggy, cloud-shrouded cliffs of the fjords to the white sandy beaches edging aquamarine bays. Home to Norwegian painter Gunnar Berg and muse to Edgar Allan Poe and William Carlos Williams alike, Lofoten eludes description. Almost. “It’s like my Windows 95 backdrop,” one artist marveled. “Cold Hawaii,” suggested another.
Previously a mostly local affair, the eighth edition of the Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF) is its most ambitious yet, recruiting curators Anne Szefer Karlsen, Bassam El Baroni, and Eva González-Sancho to the neighboring towns of Svolvćr and Kabelvĺg. Their collaborative exhibition, “Just what is it that makes today so familiar, so uneasy?,” offers a contemporary update of Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage, Just what is it that makes today’s home so different, so appealing? Hamilton’s work sang the sweet song of capitalism, while remaining skeptical of middle-class desires (e.g., canned ham for the masses). Szefer Karlsen, Baroni, and González-Sancho’s fresh take tracks a moment when crisis has become our permanent condition, and the only certainty is uncertainty. Et in Arcadia…
The day before the official opening, thick slices of cake were served up on the tiny island of Skrova, a former whaling boomtown (the bench in the square is designated for “Millionaires” only) that transitioned to salmon farming as the worldwide demand for whale plummeted. Following the short ferry ride, artists and onlookers gathered in the island’s recreation center, which is impressively outfitted considering that Skrova’s current population hovers around 190 total inhabitants. All 190 must have been in attendance for the extravagant all-you-can-eat, fifty-kronen cake buffet. “This is the most delicious cake I have ever had in my whole life,” artist Pedro Gómez-Egańa moaned, after sampling a pecan-crusted variant. “Seriously, if this whole trip had just been for this mouthful, it would have all been worth it.”
Left: Writer Adam Kleinman in Svolvaer. Right: Artist Pedro Gómez-Egańa.
We tore ourselves away from the feast and took our sugar highs to the theater room for a screening of a trailer for Nana Oforiatta-Ayim’s ebullient Jubilee, which explores the budding friendship between Ghana and Norway after the former’s discovery of vast oil reserves off its coast. Oforiatta-Ayim decided to film in Skrova after a chance meeting with a local fisherman who had recently visited the African country. “It’s such a pleasure to be able to screen it here first,” she beamed. “Though please remember, it’s a work in process.” Unfazed, the audience warmly applauded as a slim Ghanaian fishing boat slid superimposed into the waters of the Norwegian sea.
On Friday, the sun peeked out early in the morning, just in time for our tour of the sites. We started on the island of Svinřya, where Gómez-Egańa had transformed a wooden fishing shed into The Maelstrom Observatory, a kind of object theater based on Poe’s Lofoten-themed short story. Up the road, we passed the open garage of local artist Anne Grethe, whose abundant craft supplies (among them several Tupperware bins of yellow Legos, leftovers from Kjersti G. Andvig’s eighteen-foot self-portrait fashioned for a past LIAF) were joined by a hyperrealistic sculpture of artist István Csákány, caught in the instant when his chair collapses beneath him.
Left: Writer Filipa Ramos. Right: Artist HC Gilje. (Photo: Mahmoud Khaled)
Continuing down the pathways strewn with bits of cod, we made our way to the tip of the island, home to a defunct fish factory and the adjoining American Car Club of Norway, a former hangout for US car enthusiasts. In the dark, damp space, HC Gilje had strung a simple lattice of LED tubes, which sent light zipping around the room at uneven intervals. “It looks like Blade Runner in there,” one writer whistled. We stepped back onto a dock, where I had a clear vantage on Lawrence Weiner’s 1998 work WATER MADE IT WET. Or rather, his former work: “His works cease to exist when the show’s over,” a curator informed us. Not so with Elmgreen & Dragset’s contribution to the 2004 LIAF, a bronze replica of a plastic lunch cooler, perched on the dock in Svolvćr. The sculpture was bolted to the planks after locals persisted in tossing it into the sea below. “How did they move it?” I asked Ingar Dragset later. He shrugged. “It’s not so hard when you’re determined.”
This year’s LIAF mobilized several of Svolvćr’s public spaces, including the library, a discount shopping center, and one of the two new sleek hotels flanking the docks. “I wanted an absolute nowhere, as nondescript and unremarkable as possible,” explained artist Lisa Tan about her choice to show her new film Notes from Underground in a black box parked in the garage of the Thon Hotel. Ann Böttcher opted to grapple directly with the town and its demons—more specifically, the ghosts of its Gestapo past, as preserved in Svolvćr’s Lofoten War Museum. The institution is a labor of love by local legend William Hakvaag, who made a name for himself performing in early-1970s bands like the Beat Cods before he turned to collecting. He has since amassed an astounding assortment of Nazi-related propaganda, including what are rumored to be some of Adolf Hitler’s last drawings (faithfully rendered portraits of Disney’s Seven Dwarves, with a Pinocchio thrown in for good measure). Hakvaag approached me as I was taking in the display of Gestapo marionettes. “It’s so important to remember these were people, too. If we just say they were monsters, then we cannot learn from our history.” He paused. “Did you see Eva Braun’s clutch?”
From there it was on to Kabelvĺg, where several of the artists had taken over the private house of Per Pedersen, a town favorite and an ardent supporter of the arts. (During the installation, one of the artists had discovered an old photo depicting the patron au naturel, one hand clasped around the spine of a human skeleton. Apparently the image had been exhibited as an artwork.) Due to space constraints, the opening festivities were planned for the town square, where David Horvitz would be serving up Stone Soup. The performance riffed on the folk tale of two tricksters who con their way into a meal by promising to make the world’s most delicious soup from a stone. As we would find out, the Norwegian version of the tale uses a nail, which resulted in some delightful confusion from Kabelvĺg-ers, who wondered how eating stones could be advisable. It turns out the stones weren’t all they had to worry about: “You do realize there’s an entire garlic bulb in here?” curator Filipa Ramos laughed, scooping the offending flavoring out of the pot.
A sudden storm pushed everyone inside, jump-starting the evening’s program of what one organizer sweetly referred to as “melancholy jazz and rock ’n’ roll.” A supremely talented pianist (the son of a Norwegian jazz legend, I was told) entertained the crowd for an hour or so before ceding the stage to a noise band, a howling, clanging, wailing mess fronted by a nymph someone recognized from Vilnius and an art student most of us recognized as the guy who had been walking around Kabelvĺg with a giant hunting knife strapped to his belt. At the conclusion of the set, the latter used his best Gwar voice to introduce the band as “the cocoon of nihilism”: “God is not dead, he never existed. We are not dead, we never existed. We did not play for the audience, we played for the universe.” They paused for applause. “Does it smell like waffles?” someone at the next table asked. It did.
By Saturday, the rain had passed, and the skies were a startling blue, the perfect day for surfing, feeding sea eagles, or tracking down the elusive Dan Graham rumored to be refracting in the hills somewhere. And yet, there we were, a feisty crowd filing into the conference room of the Thon Hotel for LIAF’s one-day symposium covering four key themes: Estrangement, Sleep, Stagnation, and Transition. As Aaron Levy embarked on “the long history of people feeling strange,” I flipped absentmindedly through the catalogue. It was decorated with a collection of statements generated by feeding the biennial’s title through Amazon’s crowd-sourced word-substitution program, Mechanical Turk. The last read: “Today will be sunny, even with clouds.” That sounded about right.
Left: David Horvitz's Stone Soup. Right: Artists Nana Oforiatta Ayim and Gert-Jan Zeestraten.
LIGHT AND EASY, the sixth annual Brussels Art Days—three days of openings, dinners, performances, and parties kicking off the Belgian art season—provided a smooth transition from les grandes vacances as collectors, artists, and dealers alike exchanged espadrilles for leather, python, and crocodile footwear. The first day’s temperatures reached upward of eighty-six degrees as galleries opened up their spaces (and champagne) to welcome and work that miraculous creature known, as one local artist put it, as “the legendary Belgian collector.”
Our journey began at the preview of Petrit Halilaj’s show at the Wiels Centre for Contemporary Art, a surreal menagerie of taxidermic specimens from the Natural Museum of Kosovo, reconstructed out of dirt, hay, and excrement. Everyone was in high spirits, though one dealer admitted he’d just had to call off his dinner. “Someone stole all of our guests!” he blurted out, as a manurial calf, precariously balanced on four rods, stared down at us with a quizzical expression.
Thankfully, everyone seemed to have a place to go, and soon I met up with the golden caged captives at Xavier Hufkens Gallery’s much anticipated dinner for Danh Vō and Tim Rollins & K.O.S. Hosted at Le Châlet de la Foręt, one of Brussels’s two-star Michelin restaurants, the lush setting provided irresistible refuge from the sweltering heat that had enveloped the day’s previews. One collector donned a bright blue Australian necktie cooler, while Xavier and the more conventionally suited Hufkens team abandoned jackets and formality for a breezier feel. Champagne and aperitifs were served on the terrace, as guests arrived in pairs. French-American collector Charles Riva, one of the more flamboyant invités, made his entrance in a gray matte SLS with Russian model Olga Elnikova, while on the more filial spectrum, Vō entered accompanied by his father, Phung.
Left: Dealer Xavier Hufkens and artist Tim Rollins. Right: Curator Elena Filipovic and Kunsthalle Basel chairman Martin Hatebur.
“My father and I have more of a working relationship,” Danh told me after dinner, donning a cool white T-shirt and smoking a cigarette. For the show, Phung Vō had engraved THE RECTUM IS A MOLD onto a traditional wooden Nigerian chair purchased at a flea market in town. “Xavier’s been a sort of adoptive father these past three weeks,” said Danh, at that moment flanked by a group of the gallery’s employees. Blood ties or not, a certain familial openness suffused the air as collectors, artists, and Hufkens’s dealers chummed over coffee, dessert, and cigarettes.
“Peter was kind enough to sponsor one of my first works,” Danh informed a crowd, softly laying his hand on the shoulder of Swiss collector Peter Handschin. “Although it’s a shame he was so cheap.”
“I would have been even cheaper if I had known how you really are,” Peter retorted, returning the gesture ever so delicately, to Danh’s and the surrounding group’s amusement.
Later on, I got schooled by Tim Rollins on life and music back in the day. “Hip-hop was originally about elevation,” he stressed, using both hands to lift up the imaginary ceiling over our heads and reminding us that we could all get a little higher. Soon, music—or rather its absence—was on all of our minds. “I’m obsessed with Frank Ocean,” Maureen Paley confessed to Angel Abreu and Rick Savinon of K.O.S. While others solicited for an afterparty at a more boisterous location, most called it a night and began to cluster together for a free ride home.
Left: Dealer Isabella Bortolozzi and collector Mimi Dusselier. Right: Dealers Maureen Paley, Brian Marks, and Markus Rischgasser.
The next evening, a smaller group of guests gathered at Gladstone Gallery for champagne and a private dinner to celebrate a new series of sculptures and paintings by Swiss artist Claudia Comte. Named the “Cocktail Paintings”—each work titled after different concoctions from her favorite mixology bar in Berlin—their bright, intoxicating colors had some wondering where the stronger liquor was hiding. “I wanted cocktails! I should have asked for them,” said Comte, wearing a bright, multicolored minidress and holding an empty wineglass.
The Gladstone dinner was scheduled on the same night as the official ceremony for all the galleries participating in the Art Days, providing respite for guests who preferred a quieter, more discreet evening. “The official dinner is for people who didn’t get invited to a private dinner,” explained one collector. Those who’d made it to Gladstone were certainly on the chicer side of the Belgium art scene: Collectors Mimi Dusselier and Isolde Pringiers chatted agreeably, and there was Sylvie Winckler with Herman Daled, who sold his collection of Conceptual artworks on paper to MoMA last year.
“Barbara texted saying how much she wished she could be here,” Gladstone director Gael Diercxsens informed the group—BlackBerry in one hand, the gallery’s landline in another—as we all admired the splendid arrangement of the table. “This space was really a dream of hers. It’s so easy in Brussels. You can have a cab in five minutes; you can go where you want; delivery is easy. It’s not like in Paris when someone calls the police because a truck is parked out front to unload artworks.”
In spite of the dreamlike setting, we left after the first course to check out what was happening at the more inclusive event of the evening. “One has to give it to Barbara for hosting two dinners on the same night in absentia,” my friend said as we slipped into Gladstone’s other table at the official Art Days banquet, held at Le Cirque Royal, Brussel’s only permanent circus. (Think a medium-size concert hall.) Guests were clad in everything from denim to linen. Candles illuminated the entire foyer, while Billie Holiday’s voice filled the auditorium with a soft and intoxicating ease; but what the setting lacked in intimacy it made up for in conviviality.
“This is the first time in history that the older generations must learn from the younger,” preached my seasoned neighbor as we chatted about art and technology. Shortly after, guests young and old clamored onstage to snap photographs of dealer Albert Baronian and his wife, Françoise, who will later this year celebrate four decades since the opening of their gallery. “Theirs is one of the oldest, most important institutions in Brussels,” dealer Sébastien Ricou told me. As a present, he had given the couple replicas of the T-shirts that they wore at the gallery’s opening in 1973.
The night was replete with flashbacks as more ambitious partygoers met up again at local artists’ bar Midpoint, where an enthusiastic crowd could be seen drinking and smoking with gusto. A vivacious drag queen played electro and house, while the watering hole, overflowing with Brussels art-world personalities, spilled out into the streets. Music and dancing continued well past 3 AM, weary patrons leaned outside on parked cars, and for a moment it felt like summer was only just beginning.
The next evening, an hour’s drive from the city brought me to the Museum Dhondt-Dhaenen’s annual Tuinfeest (“garden party”) and auction hosted by Christie’s, where the fresh, bucolic air and bar tops covered with cocktails were a tonic for the vagaries of urban life. “We are really in Flanders now,” a Francophone collector told me as the sound of Flemish slowly filled the large white tent housing the works.
There was a light dinner, followed by a general hush while the auction took place. “We are at the playground of Belgium’s richest collectors,” one dealer whispered as works were snatched up like hors d’oeuvres. Sold without reserve, the prices were a steal. Collector Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, sitting at an adjacent table with his wife, Almine Rech, bought an acrylic and mixed-media work on canvas by Art & Language for 7,500 euros, while a glazed ceramic frog, covered in handmade pink lace by Joana Vasconcelos—the most expensive piece of the evening—went for 14,000 euros.
After the evening’s salutary sales, those whose appetites for excitement weren’t fulfilled drove back into the city to celebrate art adviser Vincent Matthu’s birthday at a costume party. Shrouded in a haze of smoke, the dancing continued well into the night, and the elaborate get-ups had some of us wishing that we’d made more of an effort. “There’s such a healthy attitude toward art here,” said artist Peter Scott outside as he rolled a cigarette. “Who needs New York when there’s this kind of energy?” As a cold drizzle of rain began, the more finely plumaged guests retreated to the dance floor for shelter. The rest of us remained outside, enlivened and intrigued by the first signs of fall.
THE POLYFORUM SIQUEIROS is an absurd, angular structure standing in the shadow of Mexico City’s World Trade Center, in the borough of Benito Juárez. Perched like an eccentric papal hat over a handful of cheap cafes and restaurants, the building breaks up the otherwise endless Avenida de los Insurgentes, said to be the longest street in all of the Americas, which cuts a line like a scar, north to south, through this heaving, hurling megacity of more than twenty million people.
The Polyforum was the last, most ludicrous project by the late Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, who set out to make the largest mural in the world—La marcha de la humanidad (The March of Humanity)—a history of his country’s struggles in bombastic bas-relief. A few weeks ago, I found myself turning my back on one of the world’s most captivating and chaotic cities to spend three days inside the Polyforum. It was like crawling into a corner of Siqueiros’s brain and hiding out in his ego.
It also seemed ridiculous. Outside this garish and ungainly artwork, there was a world to change. The city was rumbling toward September with a series of political showdowns in mind. A band of anarchic teachers from the south of the country were on strike in Mexico City: blocking roads, shutting down the airport, barricading the end-all, be-all of public squares (the Zócalo), and forcing the president (Enrique Peńa Nieto) to retreat from a high-profile speech. But slugging it out in a place apart—in the space of an overblown painting the size of a building—was exactly what several hundred enthusiasts of contemporary art theory chose to do in their last days of summer. Welcome to SITAC, numero once, themed along the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of “being-with-one-another,” or, more poetically in this context, “estar los unos con los otros.”
Left: Fundación Colección Jumex director Patrick Charpenel with curators Marco Granados and Lucia Sanroman. Right: Artist and filmmaker Rafael Ortega.
Mexico City’s Simposio Internacional de Teoría sobre Arte Contemporáneo is one of those famed public forums whose reputation for urgent, timely discourse on topics of art, politics, and history reverberates all over the world. Supported since 2000 by a local organization of professionals and philanthropists known as PAC (Patronato de Arte Contemporáneo), and building on a curious prehistory as the prototypical talks program for an art fair in Guadalajara, the annual event has drawn together an impressive international lineup of tough-minded artists, writers, and curators over the past decade.
Their purpose? To debate, expand, and explode such fields and concepts as resistance (Issa Benitez’s SITAC III, in 2004), catastrophe (Eduardo Aboroa’s SITAC IX in 2011), feminism (Gabriela Rangel’s SITAC VIII, in 2010), the south (Cuauhtémoc Medina’s SITAC VII, in 2009), performance in relation to art history and its institutions (Pablo Helguera’s SITAC IV, in 2005), and the future itself (from the Raqs Media Collective, Shuddhabrata Sengupta’s SITAC X, last year). Woven around and between each edition are the rumored and probably apocryphal stories of artists electrifying audiences, of crowds booing speakers offstage, of rude exchanges, angry outbursts, a scandalous striptease, and withering insults slung like mud among colleagues.
“In Mexico there’s an enormous hunger for this kind of theoretical artistic exchange,” said Helguera, who sits on SITAC’s advisory board. “There are more avenues for it now, but they didn’t exist before.” Given the rough-and-tumble lineage, this year’s proceedings were exceeding, almost disturbingly polite (the audience numbers were also way down, due to an exceptional calendar shuffle, which dislodged the symposium from its usual home in January). It started, however, with a deep sense of unease. After packing into the Polyforum, I thought I had been stricken by illness (immaculate hangover? disorienting hunger? phantom heartbreak?) until I realized that slowly, inexorably, the room really had begun to spin. Such is the Siqueiros shtick. The room rotates, a light show kicks in, and the artist’s voice grumbles onto the PA system to explain the paintings, in case you missed their point. In this case, it was a carnival ride for the Conceptual art set.
Left: Artist Emanuela Ascari with SITAC advisors Pablo Helguera and Sofía Olascoaga. Right: Dealers Monica Manzutto and Jose Kuri of kurimanzutto.
After that prelude, Paola Santoscoy, from Mexico City, and Marcio Harum, from Săo Paulo, directed the symposium with amiable, low-key aplomb. Extracting a constellation of ideas about individuality, collectivity, and conviviality from Nancy’s The Inoperative Community and Being Singular Plural, they enriched them further by adding lodestars such as Occupy, the Arab Spring, Istanbul’s Gezi Park protests, and the “Yo Soy 132” student movement in Mexico, which came into being sixteen months ago as demonstrations against Peńa Nieto’s presidency.
Nancy himself does not travel, so his presence was smuggled in through excerpts in a four-volume reader, and interview footage shot at his home in Alsace. “Being in Mexico, we have to talk about the news,” Nancy said, wondering out loud about where to find the essence, effervescence, and friction that were rumored to exist in the streets of the city so often deemed delirious, addicted to risk, obsessed with death, and described, rambunctiously, by William S. Burroughs as “sinister and gloomy and chaotic, with the special chaos of a dream.”
Past editions of SITAC have struck a better balance among the art world’s various actors—with artists such as Doris Salcedo, Antoni Muntadas, Thomas Hirschhorn, Tania Bruguera, Marina Abramović, Shirin Neshat, Hans Haacke, Martha Rosler, Trevor Paglen, Abraham Cruzvillegas, and Tino Sehgal holding their own against the likes of Hal Foster, Manuel De Landa, Sarat Maharaj, and Irit Rogoff. This time, the symposium was completely overrun with the twenty-first century’s young, upwardly mobile curator class. At worst, this meant the graduates of curatorial studies programs running through notes for the exhibitions they’d made, peppering their talk with a million tiny mentions of the “potentiality” of a thing.
Left: Curator and editor of the SITAC XI reader Monica Amieva with curator David Miranda of the SITAC XI education program. Right: Critic, curator, and psychoanalyst Suely Rolnik.
“I blame Bard,” said an exasperated artist, grousing in the break between sessions. To be fair, the most boring and the most brilliant of all the talks were by alumnae of Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies, an easy target for anyone’s ire against excessive discursivity (this was a crowd that used “you’re an epistemological impossibility” as the gentlest of insults). But overall, the rigor of historical research and the punch of real storytelling were beyond the capabilities of at least half the speakers, a fact further complicated by a total lack of timekeeping and moderating.
This made the highlights all the more bright and shining, beyond the incidental pleasures of listening to the psychoanalyst Suey Rolnik, a phenomenon unto herself, singing Brazilian love songs, lullaby style, in a van rolling slowly through Mexico City’s legendary traffic; or hearing the ever affable Helguera, an artist who also runs MoMA’s public education programs, talk about the literary history of Latin America, the role of novelists and poets in the development of the region’s art criticism, and the peculiar inability of the always looming Octavio Paz to take any interest whatsoever in Conceptual art; or digging for information from Coleccíon Jumex director Patrick Charpenel on the opening of the new Museo Jumex in November, with a slate of exhibitions ranging in subject from James Lee Byars to Damien Ortega; or following the inimitable logic of the curator Cuauhtémoc Medina, another force of wonder, as he divided the world, with absolute certainty, into Trotskyites and Stalinist agents, and then, for fun, rubbed salt in the wound of the local art scene’s by-now-almost-comical split between the camps of Francis Al˙s and Gabriel Orozco.
If the symposium was missing an element of equilibrium, and fundamentally suffered the participation of too few artists (the most tender and performative was Fernando Palma), then the so-called social agenda was almost ruthlessly strategic in its distribution of events: a gallery dinner (kurimanzutto) at the end of day one, a gathering at the home of a collector (Boris Hirmas) at the end of day two, and lunch at a museum (MUAC, the Museo Unversitario Arte Contemporaneo) followed by browsing time (best spent in Miguel Lopez’s marvelous incision into the permanent collection, called “Altered Pulse”) at the end of day three.
Left: Artist and PAC board member Ery Camara. Right: Curators Candice Hopkins and Janet Dees of SITE Santa Fe.
In a panel on collectivity, Alhena Katsof of Public Movement offered dazzling insights into the workings of the shape-shifting Israeli artists group. “Politics exist within our bodies,” she said, “often as dormant knowledge. We’re looking for a way to seal the politics within the action,” a process she likened to “the physical education of becoming a citizen.”
In another panel on language and identity, the curator Candice Hopkins, part of SITE Santa Fe’s new team, zigzagged through an incredible episode in the history of the Klondike gold rush, in which a forgotten festival, the Golden Potlach, created a gender-bending, border-crossing fusion of Native American and European cultures from the desires, obsessions, and illnesses of ramped-up early capitalism.
Mario Bellatín, a Mexican-Peruvian novelist with a cult following who often disorients his audience by cracking jokes about his missing arm (at SITAC, he showed off a tool he uses to manipulate his iPhone, a necessary diversion in the darkness of the Polyforum), gave the most confounding talk of the symposium, totally in character, shrouded in a literary jest, about a “ghost book” no one would publish. “He is a true avant-gardist,” a curator told me. “He might not be the next Roberto Bolańo, but he might be close, and a few years from now, you might find yourself saying, ‘I heard him speak once in Mexico City.’ ”
Left: PAC board members Aimee de Servitje and Patricia Sloane. Right: Artist and architect Tony Chakar.
Speaking of Bolańo, the Turkish curator Övül Durmuşoğlu plucked a choice quote about “super lucidity” from the late Chilean writer’s masterful novel The Savage Detectives as a means of working through the fragility, romance, euphoria, and fear that had been unleashed by the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul. Would the sharpness and clarity of those emotions be enough to form and sustain a political movement capable of reinventing democracy in our time? To her great credit, Durmuşoğlu expressed high hopes and a modest will.
In two similar veins, the Beirut-based artist and architect Tony Chakar gave an abbreviated version of his lecture-performance “The Space of Nün,” which uses the story of a grandmother distributing mangoes to soldiers in Cairo’s Tahrir Square as a pretext to explore the potential for radical politics in conveying the many different meanings of love through ritual. Helena Chávez MacGregor, meanwhile, presented a powerful text on apparitions, and the relationship between artistic practice and the space of political action, using the Mexico City protests of 2012 as the spine of her essay. “In the summer of 2012, I appeared with others,” she said. “It was an instant, a community of desire, of dancing in spite of everything. What is at stake is not the invention of a new political model but a change in our understanding of what politics means.”
It wasn’t always clear whether the organizers of SITAC XI were serious in their stated intention to build a living, breathing community in the space of the Polyforum. What emerged without question, however, was a kind of twinned, tensile dream. On one hand was the desire, born of political despair, to appear as a subject, to become visible in a space of protest, to claim a voice, agency. On the other hand was a more delicate, less articulate desire to hold onto and protect some kind of inscrutability for art, to leave it half-hidden, only partially seen, and to allow it the space of silence. That last part came through the final talk, a left-field lecture by the philosopher Vladimir Safatle on the late style of Beethoven, as filtered through the writings of Adorno and Edward Said. An exercise in close listening, it was tonic for the room, and a solace inside the Siqueiros.
Left: Artist Melanie Smith. Right: Critic, curator, and PAC board member Osvaldo Sanchez with artist and writer Yishai Jusidman.
Left: Urs Fischer’s Yurt at the NYC section of Station to Station. (Photo: Alayna Van Dervort, courtesy of LUMA Foundation) Right: Artist Doug Aitken (center). (Photo: Station to Station)
“WHAT’S HAPPENING HERE?” asked the cabbie as he dropped me off at a usually desolate Williamsburg street corner on a recent Friday evening that was now bustling with Fashion Week escapees. A reasonable question, but one without a straightforward answer. “Uh, an art-and-music thing?” I replied, hopefully, to his understandable bemusement. The official description of “Station to Station,” which had set up temporary shop at Kent Avenue’s Riverfront Studios, felt somehow too high-flown to convey in a nutshell: “A nomadic ‘Happening’ on a train that visits cities, towns and remote locations. A moving platform for artistic experimentation, Station to Station is an artist-created project that embraces constantly changing stories, unexpected encounters and creative collisions between artists, musicians and creative pioneers.” Exactly.
Organized by Doug Aitken, Station to Station’s coast-to-coast tour is scheduled to stop at nine different locations over the course of the month. A fund-raiser for “non-traditional programming” at various partner institutions, it’s also a marketing opportunity for a certain well-known brand of jeans. “Are you from Levi’s Europe?” a Marnie-from-Girls lookalike asked me at the press desk. Being from the continent, but not from the manufacturer, I was redirected. Once in, someone pressed a slip of paper into my hand that I assumed was a drink ticket but which turned out, disappointingly, to be a suggested Twitter hashtag. Already performing in the parking lot were the Kansas City Marching Cobras, a marching band that did their synchronized thing with irrepressible gusto. A general atmosphere of hype suffused the place; there were more cameras per square foot here than at any event I’ve attended recently, all snapping away at anything novel or proximate.
Left: Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti performs at Station to Station. (Photo: Brian Doyle, courtesy of 303 Gallery) Right: Kansas City Marching Cobras at Station to Station. (Photo: Ye Rin Mok, courtesy of Station to Station)
Scanning the crowd for familiar faces, I clocked MoMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey striding somewhere purposefully; ditto, in another direction, 303 Gallery director Cristian Alexa. “Social practice” wallah Claire Bishop and Parkett US senior editor Nikki Columbus rolled up carrying yellow plastic discs, components of Carsten Höller’s Ball and Frisbee House. Informed that bands including Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti would be playing later on, Bishop grumbled, “Who are they? I hate live music.” Columbus was at least prepared to stick it out, alongside the dozens of mostly youngish art-music-fashion partisans.
“Oh come on, it’s Ernesto Neto, it’ll be worth it!” urged a nearby enthusiast to her friend as she entered one of the cluster of small tents filling the grassy area around which we were milling. These five “Nomadic Sculptures” housed work by Kenneth Anger, Urs Fischer, and Liz Glynn, as well as by the aforementioned Höller and Neto. Most had the air of nonrelaxing chill-out rooms and required one to line up, remove one’s shoes, or cram oneself into a confined space in anticipation of some unspecified reward. In Anger’s enclosure, the filmmaker’s Invocation of My Demon Brother, 1969, Lucifer Rising, 1970–81, and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, 1954, were screened on monitors that surrounded a pentagram-shaped seating arrangement. Nice, though hardly, as the event brochure trumpeted, a “groundbreaking installation” representing “the culmination of the 86-year-old artist’s work.” At least, I hope not.
Left: Artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. (Photo: Alayna Van Dervort, courtesy of LUMA Foundation) Right: The NYC section of Station to Station. (Photo: Brian Doyle, courtesy of 303 Gallery)
Lured inside by the promise of “food curation” by Alice Waters and Leif Hedendal, I found Sub Pop rockers No Age thrashing away on stage and a sort of miniature sweatshop in operation at the back of the hall. This featured individuals producing “new products in real time.” The experience was intimate in the way that Printed Matter’s annual NY Art Book Fair is intimate, which is to say it shoehorned the viewer into such uncomfortable closeness to the artists that any less-than-diplomatic response became completely untenable. (Printed Matter was also part of the event, having contributed a set of artists’ posters that was pasted up in some of the site’s corners.)
A kind of greatest hits of video art program—which included evergreen crowd-pleasers like Fischli/Weiss’s The Way Things Go, 1987, alongside more recent efforts like Nicolas Provost’s Gravity, 2007—filled the gaps between bands until finally, headliners Suicide, whose buzz-saw synth noise was in sharp contrast to the aforementioned Ariel Pink’s gauzy, “hypnagogic” soft rock, brought the loose-knit night to a conclusion. Tottering around the stage cane in hand, vocalist Alan Vega retains an unnerving presence in his seventy-fifth year; I hope he took the rapid thinning of the crowd as a compliment. Kids today…
Left: Kenneth Anger’s installation at Station to Station. (Photo: Mara McKevitt) Right: Suicide performs at Station to Station. (Photo: Alayna Van Dervort, courtesy of LUMA Foundation)
“TO BIENNIAL, OR NOT TO BIENNIAL?” That was the question back at the 2009 Bergen Assembly Conference. That gathering had been convened as a think tank for a city angling to become, as more than one public official assured me, the “most open, daring, creative, and innovative within the Nordic countries by the year 2017.” But as plans came together for a Bergen biennial, doubts starting to rise as to whether a grand-scale exhibition was really the kind of “open, daring, creative and innovative” maneuver the city needed. After all, three decades into a so-called biennial explosion, the term itself has become less a forum for new ideas and more a jet-set shuffle of what curator Inti Guerrero calls “NATO art.” (“You know, actors talking about war.”)
Rather than wade too deeply into critiques of wasted opportunities, the 2009 conference concentrated on what benefits the biennial format still can bring. The resulting Bergen Assembly—“An Initiative for Art and Research,” which debuted the week before last in venues across the city—is a curatorial coup, a triennial that allows ample time for research, writing, and the production of new commissions.
For the Assembly’s inaugural edition, invited curators (they prefer the term “conveners”) Katya Degot and David Riff created “a novel about a novel, written in space.” “Monday Begins on Saturday” is an ode to artistic research that borrows its title and structure from a slim satire written by the Strugatsky Brothers, the Soviet sci-fi masters who also penned Roadside Picnic, the inspiration for Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker. Published in 1964, at the height of the Cold War–fueled science boom, the tale follows its wayward protagonist through the cabalistic National Institute for the Technology of Witchcraft and Thaumaturgy (NITWITT). The institute’s researchers—physicists and lyricists alike—are united in the otherwise isolating pursuit of intellectual passions. They are so completely immersed in their quest for knowledge that they willingly forgo their weekends to get in precious additional hours at their desks.
Left: Curator Inti Guerrero. Right: Artist Stephan Dillemuth and Witte de With director Defne Ayas.
It was easy to extend this metaphor to the airport-weary art-worlders pouring into the Assembly press conference on the last Thursday of August. Assorted board members Marieke van Hal, Ute Meta Bauer, Ina Blom, and Ingar Dragset sipped apple juice from champagne flutes amid the crowd of participating artists—“researchers,” here—and curators Joseph Backstein, Anne Szefer Karlsen, and Kaspar König, who was accompanied by Manifesta director Hedwig Fijen. Conversations drifted in and out of Norwegian, Swedish, and German, but the native tongue of the triennial was English with a Russian accent. The Slav-heavy rosterfrom Aleksandr Rodchenko to Dimitri Venkov, a young filmmaker who took home last year’s Kandinsky Prizedidn’t seem to bother the local audience, who greeted the new festival with an enthusiasm reinforced by the unseasonably sunny weather. “I woke up with goosebumps,” bubbled Trude Devland, Bergen’s vivacious mayor, minutes before delivering her welcome speech. The excitement did not wane, even with the arrival of the rain, and a hearty crowd could be found storming the stage at the opening party, where Russian rock icon Psoy Korolenko put on a lively show with the Israeli klezmer band Oy Division. Dmitry Gutov grabbed Degot and spun her into the crowd, while the band pulled Chto Delat?’s Dmitry Vilensky onstage to sing along. It was a Russian invasion, at its very best.
As for other invasions, “Monday Begins on Saturday” mobilized several of the city’s existing art venues (including a number of the KODE museum buildings and gallery spaces like Rom8, Entrée and ∅stre) into a loose network of whimsically named Institutes dedicated to topics like “Political Hallucinations,” “Tropical Fascism,” “Defensive Magic,” and the lyrical “Pines and Prison Bread.” In the same spirit, the “research” conducted within the projects need not be utilitarian, nor, for that matter, factual. Venkov’s film Like the Sun finds the secret ingredient to perfect human existence in a magical yogurt starter, while Kiluanji Kia Henda’s photo series Icarus 13–Journey to the Sun spins the fictional tale of the Angola Space program, and Clemens von Wedemeyer’s Against Death (2009) explores an instance of accidental immortality. In other places, fact starts to resemble fiction, as in Jan Peter Hammer’s potent Tilikum, 2013, a feature-length film that begins with a 2010 incident at Sea World when a trainer was drowned and dismembered by a killer whale (“The whale that…they’re not supposed to be in the water with,” as one employee hestitantly describes it to the 911 dispatch.) From there, Hammer moves on through experiments in behavioral science, sensory deprivation, LSD usage, attempts at interspecies communication, and scientifically sanctioned hand jobs for dolphins. “We do not have to respect his privacy, but we cannot help but respect his happiness!”
Thursday featured a full tour of the institutes, followed by a welcoming dinner at the historic Legens Hus. Over herb-buttered bread and mushroom risotto, two Oslo-based artists, Lars Cuzner and Fadlabi, were discussing the conundrum of putting research on display in an age when laptops are increasingly replacing laboratories. “We kept calling around to secure certain types of equipment, and the suppliers would tell us, ‘You know, it’s much easier to do all this on your computer,’ ” Cuzner grinned. We paused to consider what this kind of exhibition might look like in the future. “Just a room full of laptops,” Blom glumly concluded.
Is the future so grim? In its origins, the Bergen Assembly was specifically assigned to address “The Future,” but this could only be glimpsed here and there, in cynical catalogue contributions from Pavel Pepperstein and Ben Seymour, or the staged interviews of Anton Vidokle and Pelin Tam’s 2084. This left a disproportionate amount of the research oriented toward the recent past. If the Strugatskys had penned their novel during the Soviet science boom, then Degot and Riff are writing theirs in a time when the endless accumulation of knowledge has led us to, as Renata Salecl would claim, “a passion for ignorance.” She illustrated this by recalling an episode of The Simpsons where little Lisa, staggered by the impending doom of climate change, is remedially doped up on a drug called Ignorital.
Salecl gave one of the three keynote addresses in the Bergen Assembly’s accompanying symposium, which was held deep within the hull of the old United Sardine Factory. (“You should have seen them before they unionized,” writer Adam Kleinman joked. “Such crowded conditions.”) In keeping with the title, the symposium kicked off Saturday morning, bringing with it all the ups and downs expected when making one’s intellectual passions public (“But this is all irrelevant, abstract noodling!” a frustrated artist erupted after a panel called “Dialectical Materialism Today?” Riff shrugged in reply: “It’s philosophy.”) The discussion on gentrification got tripped up in its terminology (“You wouldn’t very well say the Wild West was gentrified, would you?” Seymour quipped.) Chto Delat contributer Oxana Timofeeva warned the crowd to drop any Orwellian visions about her talk, “Communism with a Non-human Face.” “I know you are prepared to laugh, but I would ask you to take this quite seriously,” she said, before launching into Hegel’s aversion to amphibians as creatures who do not respect the boundaries of his air/land/sea classification system. “What about rats?” A woman in the front row asked. Momentarily taken aback, Timofeeva asked her to elaborate: “What do you think about rats?” “Oh, I hate rats! I think they’re gross.”
There was a poignant moment in the panel “How Much Socialism?” when Oslo-based artist Ane Hjort Gettu was handed the mike: “Speaking as someone subsidized from cradle to the grave”—“at least I hope,” she added with a smile“perhaps it is no longer the time to attack the welfare state, but rather the time to mourn its passing.” Where else, after all, could these kind of magical institutes come to exist but in a country that prized the pursuit of knowledge enough to fund even its most eccentric expressions?
Each evening, there was always one last bit of magic to be found at the Bergen Kunsthall’s Landmark, a casual bar where the drink tickets—inexplicably labeled “BONG”—were Strugatsky’s unspendable coin made real: No matter how many whiskeys you ordered, somehow a coupon found its way back into your pocket. As the drinks poured forth, so too did the conversations, most of which continued on the threads of the day’s discussions. I couldn’t help but think of the scene in the novel where the workers refuse to go home on New Year’s Eve: “These people had come here because they preferred being together to being apart and because they couldn’t stand Sundays of any sort because on Sunday they felt bored. These were Magicians, People with a capital ‘P,’ and their motto was ‘Monday Begins on Saturday.’ ”
Left: Bergen Assembly director Evelyn Holm and Mayor Trude Devland. Right: Artist Ane Hjort Guttu and Bergen Academy of Art and Design's Cecilia Gelin.
ART NEVER TAKES A VACATION. It just goes to summer camp. For the past three years, the London-based Fiorucci Art Trust has retreated to Stromboli, the Aeolian island off the coast of Sicily—the one with the active volcano. Every quarter-hour or so, it sends up plumes of fire and smoke. “You can almost set your watch by it,” Trust director Milovan Farronato told me the night I arrived for the closing ceremonies of Volcano Extravaganza 2013, a series of presentations he organized with the Glaswegian, Brussels-based artist Lucy McKenzie.
Each weekend, from July 29 to August 24, rotating groups of invited artists and designers took up residence in a communal house on the Tyrrhenian Sea with the poetic name of La Lunatica. When the chosen ones weren’t sunbathing on fashionably black beaches, swimming in jellyfish-infested waters, taking five-hour hikes up the volcano, or letting down their hair at one of two seaside discos, each dog-and-ponied up for evening show-and-tells involving art, fashion, film, music, and design—twenty projects, all told.
The volcano was steaming at dusk on August 21, when I stepped off the same hydrofoil from Naples that brought the English installation artist Haroon Mirza, his wife Gaia Fugazza, and their nine-month-old son Xiaano. Giulia Brivio, the Trust’s resourceful project manager, got us into golf-cart taxis—there are no cars on Stromboli—and off we sped to a hypnotic land where time stops long enough to make the present seem eternal.
All I knew about the island up to this point was Stromboli, the bleak 1950 movie that director Roberto Rossellini shot there with his then concubine, the young Ingrid Bergman. But this year’s Extravaganza, as advertised on posters plastered all over town, was “Evil Under the Sun,” a title that McKenzie borrowed from the 1982 movie of the Agatha Christie who-done-it about a bunch of spoiled eccentrics on holiday at an island resort. “I wanted to instigate another movie for the island,” the plucky artist told me over a grilled fish dinner with Farronato at L’Osservatorio, an outdoor trattoria that gives diners a clear view of the fireworks that the volcano expels.
There was no evil under this sun, as far as I could tell, though if going to art camp on someone else’s dime is a crime, there was plenty of guilt to go around. For her part, McKenzie joined forces with artist Alan Michael to write Unlawful Assembly, a credible mystery novella set on the island, which she had visited three times before. (This month, she’ll be in New York to start night classes in detective-story writing.)
The book, a hot-pink parasol (part of a group by Peter Saville and Anna Blessmann), and “Evil Under the Moon,” a perfume created by the Italian-born sausage heiress and art patron Nicoletta Fiorucci, were just three of the limited-edition items given to me in an Extravaganza tote bag designed by Atelier EB, the Scottish company founded by printmaker Beca Lipscombe and illustrator Bernie Reid. With McKenzie, a frequent collaborator, they had also produced a line of resort wear offered for sale at the House of Extravaganza, the former summer residence of Marina Abramović that is the Trust’s base of operations on Stromboli.
Next afternoon, Farronato and McKenzie took the artists on hand—choreographer Maria Hassabi and her dance partner, Hristoula Harakas, performance artist Zhana Ivanova and the Mirzas—to lunch at Casa Falk, a minimalist, white compound fashioned from four 150-year-old fishermen’s houses and named for its previous resident, the late Swiss artist Hans Falk. Its current owners turned out to be—surprise!—Kunsthalle Basel president Martin Hatebur and collector Peter Handschin, a pair well known for their dinner parties during Art Basel. They had other guests: Leonardo Bigazzi, producer of the Lo Schermo dell’Arte film festival in Florence, and collector Angelika Taschen, the independent German book publisher and author of a new design book from Abrams, The Berlin Style. (“I’m the first wife,” she said, when asked if she was related to publisher Benedikt Taschen.)
On the patio, in view of Strombolicchio—the ancient plug of the volcano’s original, pre–Bronze Age explosion—we were served a resplendent, family-style lunch prepared by Artur Silva Nascimento, the Hatebur/Handschin household’s excellent cook from Paris. Before we were halfway through, Ivanova had persuaded Hatebur, Bigazzi, and Taschen to appear in the performance she would give the following night. “Don’t worry,” she said to the novice actors. “I’ll do all the talking.”
That evening, Michael Bracewell was to deliver a lecture on James Bond, only he never made it to the island. Instead, the Irish artist Bea McMahon, currently a Trust-supported fellow at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, took the House of Extravaganza floor. “I’m going to give a lecture on rocks,” she began, and proceeded to give a deadpan, well-researched,and hilarious analysis of the lust-inducing properties of Celtic stones. Lie under a big rock long enough, it seems, and you too could become “inexplicably loved by other human beings.” At least one study has shown that geologists have the most active sex lives of all academics. Who knew?
Next up was a new arrival, Em’kal Eyongakpa, an artist from Cameroon and another Rijksakademie resident, though he seems to travel to a different country every week, recording sounds. He played some of them, accompanied by a video of images so abstract they looked like volcano smoke. “I’m doing a video poem,” he said, afterward, “based on what I feel around me.” At that moment, he was surrounded by pizzas; the ricotta and eggplant pie was most delicious. The moon was a bright orange disc rising over the harbor below. The headlamps of hikers coming down from the volcano looked like fluorescent snakes in the dark. “I want to be the first to go to Mars,” said Farronato, who favors red lipstick—perhaps in preparation for the trip.
After just one day in this soporific, one-percent environment, Stromboli felt as unreal as a boiled cloud. Next morning brought more of the same—coffee on the La Lunatica terrace, where Reid had painted colorful carpets, a slow amble around town in the morning heat, and a swim. That set us up for a lunch of fresh shrimp, mussels, and Sicilian fish ravioli at the hillside home of Gioacchino Letizia, a boutique owner whom Farronato dubbed “the boss of the island,” for his deep knowledge of its history. “Gioacchino knows everything and everyone,” Farronato said, but he didn’t know English, so we ate well but didn’t learn much.
The evening brought Hassabi’s performance with Harakas. The two started, unannounced, at sundown, slipping through an audience that included Silvia Davanza, the village gyrotonics expert, and leading everyone into the House of Extravaganza garden, which is unusual for its several varieties of trees—there aren’t many on this island. In silence, the two women danced, mostly on a ground carpeted in dry leaves, holding difficult poses and casting a spell over the crowd until it grew too dark to make them out.
Left: Novara Jazz Festival founder and collector Corrado Beldi with journalist Ann Marlowe. Right: Volcano Extravaganza facilitator Francesco Lecci.
After a pause for drinks, the moment arrived for Borrowed Splendor, Ivanova’s comic drama of power relations. With the artist giving spoken directions from a chair, the unrehearsed Hatebur, Taschen, and Bigazzi dutifully followed her commands, admirably playing out the tensions that accumulate in a love triangle. Grimacing, smiling, and sipping rum as if born to the task, they became flummoxed only when told to “think violent thoughts.” When it was over, Handschin jumped up to say, “I enjoyed it!” So did everyone else. “It was funny,” said Hatebur, clearly proud of his turn on the stage. “The first sip of rum I had was way too much!” exclaimed Bigazzi, who exited with his friends while the rest of us tumbled into taxis headed for the port, and the evening of calamari fishing that awaited us next.
Forgetting my duties as an observer, I jumped from our speedboat onto a small fishing vessel with Mirza and the diminutive Ivanova, who reeled in a dozen squid, each of which splattered us with a truly icky slime that spurted from their guts the moment they hit the air. “Ew!” cried Mirza. “This is disgusting.” It was horrible, but it was also exhilarating, in a Ghostbusters-ish kind of way. After the boat captain fried up the (now tasty) squid for our dinner, we circumnavigated the massive volcano and stopped below the crater to wait for the next eruption. The moon was just past full, still too bright to let us see the explosion, but when the lava hit the water it sounded like machine-gun fire. Awesome.
Dancing with the drag queens at La Tartana disco followed. The music was awful but that didn’t stop anyone. This was a holiday—wasn’t it? A farewell lunch the next day was on the terrace at La Lunatica, though McKenzie spent the afternoon painting an exterior wall of the House of Extravaganza for Enrico David, another no-show. He had completed a painting of hers at the 2003 Venice Biennale. Now she was returning the favor, dressed in Atelier EB sportswear.
To bring the 2013 Extravaganza to a close, another Rijksakademie resident artist, Jason Gomez of Los Angeles, arranged a kind of morose chorale that he wrote and sang a cappella, in candlelight, with Eyongakpa and two Milanese interns. “Exit from your body,” they chanted. “Leave it behind. You are dying. You are dying. You are not really dying. You are dying.”
Cheerful stuff! “I wanted to tap into darkness,” Gomez told me later. “There was such an abundance of hope here.”
It returned soon afterward, when Farronato, social director-in-chief, led the group back to the speedboat for a sail to the home of collector Corrado Beldi, founder of the Novara Jazz Festival. We took the Day-Glo parasols to shield us from the sun. They made quite an arresting sight as the group climbed a goat path to his house in Ginostra, a remote village under the volcano. From his rooftop, with the seven other Aeolian islands visible before us, conversation slowed as we watched the roiling sun fall slowly from the sky to the sea.
Fiorucci is a collector intent on creating unusual opportunities for artists—and, as a Trust press release put it—expanding her reach into the hunting and gathering of “emotional and intellectual experiences.” Looking back, I’d say that bringing artists from all over to a surprisingly fertile, very hot Italian rock where capers run as wild as imaginations, was an extravagance that more than delivered on its promise. On our reluctant return to La Lunatica late that Sunday night, we spotted a glowing red balloon dancing over Strombolicchio. “It’s Mars!” whooped Farronato. “I guess I’m really going.” It can’t be as far from home as Camp Stromboli. What can I say? It was a blast.
OFTEN REFERRED to as the fair before la rentrée (France’s official “back to work” date), Art-O-Rama provides a perfect excuse to spend the last weekend of August in sunny Marseille. This year, in addition to being well situated to attract the art crowd returning from fabulous vacation destinations in Provence and the Côte d’Azur, Art-O-Rama benefitted from Marseille’s status as 2013’s European Capital of Culture. The city has enjoyed a fast and furious urban renewal, boasting brand new museums and public monuments, an impressive program of concerts and performances, and pop-up art projects galore.
Nowhere is Marseille 2.0 more apparent than at the Vieux Port—the city’s heart and soul. En route to our hotel last Friday, I was surprised to find the gritty docks immortalized in Marcel Pagnol’s novels transformed into a modern pedestrian-friendly esplanade, with Norman Foster’s gleaming, stainless steel Ombričre providing welcome shade (and a great photo op) for tourists.
Art-O-Rama, now in its seventh year, has always had a pleasantly unfair-like open layout and relaxed atmosphere. This year, the booths (all curatorial projects selected by the fair committee) and the crowd alike did their best to bring summer fun indoors. Boat shoes and brightly checked shirts were de rigueur at Friday’s opening, and dealers, artists, and collectors showed off tans and traded holiday recaps. Artworks on view, like the large-scale beach landscape by Nicolas Milhé shown by Galerie Samy Abraham (Paris)—underscored the pervasive (and persuasive) Mediterranean vibe.
Left: Amelia Hinojosa and Daniela Zarate of Kurimanzutto gallery. Right: Collector Frédéric de Goldschmidt on the rooftop of Le Courbusier’s Cité Radieuse.
When I caught up with Art-O-Rama’s director, Jérôme Pantalacci, he reiterated the general enthusiasm around Marseille’s ramped-up art emphasis but asserted that “the fair itself has not changed much.” It’s hard to complain about that. With its intimate size (seventeen galleries this year, plus a handful of “guest projects”) and off-the-beaten-path location (an old tobacco factory along the train tracks), Art-O-Rama is a hip mélange of local pride and cosmopolitan flair. In addition to French galleries, this year’s exhibitors hailed from Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Mexico. Stopping to admire a solo presentation of Jimmie Durham by Mexico City’s Kurimanzutto gallery, I asked director Daniela Zarate what makes Art-O-Rama appealing. Smiling, she simply pointed to the long stretch of wall and open floor space that made up her “booth.” Meanwhile, local artists also received due attention. Shanaynay, a nonprofit art space in Paris, collaborated with four Marseille-based artists to offer specialized tours based on each artist’s expertise and personal relationship to the city.
Opening-night festivities kicked off with an artist-led tour of Joep van Lieshout’s solo show “The Butcher” at the Tour Panorama, a vast newly opened art space located in the same industrial complex as the fair. Hearing van Lieshout describe an upcoming performance/meal for five hundred people (for which he raised and prepared an entire cow) quelled my appetite, but by then it was time to head down to the dinner reception. There was an animated performance by electro techno-punk band Sugarcraft, and the crowd began to migrate from the dance floor to the outdoor picnic tables. Opting for a change of scenery, I scored a ride with Parisian dealer Guillaume Sultana and artist Olivier Millagou to an afterparty at the house of local collector Sébastien Peyret. Clear across town at a Bauhaus-style residence in the hills of the tony twelfth arrondissement, the DJ played pop hits—including Daft Punk’s ubiquitous summer anthem “Get Lucky”—well into the night.
The next morning, too early for some, we headed off to Château la Coste—a vineyard near Aix-en-Provence distinguished by the modern architecture of Jean Nouvel and Tadao Ando. We passed Zaha Hadid’s graceful skyscraper known affectionately as le phare (the lighthouse), and soon we were winding along country roads through fragrant fields of lavender. During a tour of the La Coste property we discovered a treasure trove of site-specific artworks nestled among the cabernet sauvignons and grenache noirs. After debating whether a series of bronze foxes by Michael Stipe (of REM fame) passed muster in the company of Tracey Emin, Sean Scully, Richard Serra, and Hiroshi Sugimoto, we piled back in the car to return to the city.
Having rested up in preparation for another late and boozy night, we made our way past the Vieux Port’s packed cafés en route to La Vieille Charité—a former almshouse that dates to the seventeenth century. Illuminated with purple, green, and orange floodlighting, the Baroque chapel and surrounding arcades provided a fairy tale–like setting for the gala hosted by artist-residency nonprofit Triangle. We sipped local quaff pastis and checked out the silent auction, which included works by François Morellet and Raphaël Zarka, while a solo pianist crooned sappy “slow dance” songs. Though the program credited the “overly familiar pop-musical hits with strange lyrics” to London-based artist Cally Spooner, yawns in the crowd suggested folks were in the mood for livelier entertainment. Luckily, the tempo picked up when Memphis rocker Harlan T. Bobo took the stage.
Topping off the weekend was a brunch at Le Corbusier’s famous housing development, La Cité Radieuse, whose rooftop has been reimagined as an exhibition space. Here, against a mise-en-scčne of Xavier Veilhan’s “Architectones” sculptures and sweeping views over the city, I debated the merits and shortcomings of Le Corbusier’s utopian vision with artist Adam Vackar. However, when a frisky dog stole the show by jumping into the turquoise wading pool, it suddenly occurred to me that with all the excitement and activity of the weekend, I hadn’t managed to so much as dip my toes in the water. I followed the mischievous pup’s lead, beelining for the beach before boarding the TGV back to Paris, feeling refreshed and ready for la rentrée.
Left: Artist Joep van Lieshout and curator Natalie Kovacs. Right: Dog in pool on the rooftop of Le Courbusier’s Cité Radieuse.