IN HIS BLISTERING critique of colonialism in Africa, the revolutionary Martinican writer Frantz Fanon made a curious if counterintuitive observation about the Arab world: For all the appeal of Arab nationalism and the renaissance in arts and letters that were accruing political currency in Fanon’s time, the region was, and remains, deeply divided by its experience of occupation, independence, state formation, and trade.
“The political regimes of certain Arab states are so different,” wrote Fanon, two-thirds of the way through The Wretched of the Earth, “and so far away from each other in their conceptions, that even a cultural meeting between these states is meaningless.”
In many ways, the peripatetic festival of multidisciplinary art in the Arab world known as Meeting Points was both named for and founded on the need to redress that notion of a region being riven by disunity and disjuncture. It is both strange and beautifully apt, then, that the four women behind the Croatian curatorial collective WHW (What, How & For Whom) are taking the festival quite far from its original territory while at the same time returning it to Fanon.
Left: Artist Mounira al-Solh. Right: Artists Nesrine Khodr and Lawrence Abu Hamdan.
Meeting Points 7—which is titled “Ten Thousand Wiles and a Hundred Thousand Tricks,” after a passage in The Wretched of the Earth on the dangers of artists, poets, and intellectuals being seduced by the culture of their colonizers—opened in Beirut on April Fools’ Day, setting off a surprisingly compact season that is, by some highly messed-up logic, as artistically hyperactive as the situation in Lebanon is economically desperate and politically dire. In both the style and the substance of their projects, WHW are no strangers here, taking every exhibition as an opportunity to explore a constellation of relevant ideas. Still, in the context of division and rupture in the Arab world, it is a daring move to take onall at once and as foreigners (no matter how familiar)ideas as sensitive as revolution, counterrevolution, capitalism, feminism, and the complicity of the middle class.
WHW’s exhibition at the Beirut Art Center does that, and as such, it set the tone for a few solid weeks of looking and thinking and listening—all the more meaningful in such close proximity to the violence next door. For the fact is that after three years of unconscionable strife, much of Syria is destroyed, some 150,000 people have been killed, more than a million refugees from the elite to the destitute have fled into Lebanon, and still the regime of Bashar al-Assad hangs on. In recent days, it even appears to be winning, and, like Algeria several weeks back, plans to sham a presidential election in June.
The curator Tarek Abou El-Fetouh started Meeting Points a decade ago. The first few editions were tiny, taking place in Amman, Cairo, Alexandria, and Tunis. The fourth edition rolled through seven cities in the Arab world. The fifth was the first to be organized by an outside curator, a fine job for Frie Leyson. It was also the most ambitious—hitting nine cities in the region, from Rabat to Ramallah, before moving on to Brussels and Berlin.
Left: Artist Simone Fattal. Right: Curator Natasa Ilic of WHW with artists Jumana Manna, Maha Maamoun, and Roy Dib.
That was back in 2007. By the time Meeting Points 6 came around, in April 2011, even a curator of Okwui Enwezor’s stature had been baffled and organizationally bedeviled by the uprisings and upheavals of the so-called Arab Spring. Tunis, Cairo, and Damascus were cancelled. The Beirut iteration was subtle and self-contained. Given the conflagration of political and financial crises, Athens was an inspired choice to bring the festival to a close.
A cynic might say that it was the lure and demand of European funders that pulled Meeting Points out of the Arab world. But that argument seems somewhat unsubstantiated now. “It’s important to reflect on current artistic and political changes in the region through the experience of Eastern Europe,” Fetouh said in an interview with Medrar TV in February, when Meeting Points 7 took up residence in Cairo, after opening in Zagreb last fall and spending four months in Antwerp. “We’re rethinking the ongoing changes in ways not limited to the past three years. We need to think about it in relation to events of the past fifty years.”
“Ten Thousand Wiles and a Hundred Thousand Tricks” has since traveled to Hong Kong. After Beirut, it travels to Vienna and Moscow, where it will end, at the Institute for African Studies, amid dramatically different circumstances from those in which it was conceived (to its reconsideration of colonialism add the current troubles in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine).
“We’ve always worked with a classical exhibition format,” WHW’s Sabina Sabolovic told me in Beirut. “This gave us a chance to think about an exhibition in time. Of course, it’s not at all linear, but the chapters are communicating with each other.”
And one thing that does still unify artists across the region is the simultaneous compulsion and reluctance to make new work in direct response to conflicts that are open and in your face. With the exception of The Pixelated Revolution, a 2012 performance by Rabih Mroué that already seems almost dated, artists in and around Lebanon have been slow to react to the Syrian civil war. Apparently, that’s now changed.
On the opening night of Meeting Points 7, Lawrence Abu Hamdan presented a riveting new piece in the Beirut Art Center’s auditorium, a lecture-performance about lying that moved deftly through police procedurals, courtroom testimonies, Shiite jurisprudence, and the concept of taqqiya, for which a religious adherent either denies or blasphemes his faith to save his own life. Abu Hamdan pushed the phenomenon further to consider “more complex forms of self-representation that have a political potency beyond self-preservation.” Exploring taqqiya in relation to stories that began circulating in December, about eighteen Druze villages in northern Syria where a renegade sheikh was said to have forced inhabitants to convert to Sunni Islam, he blurred the boundaries between “submissive and subversive,” between “traitor and translator,” and between “free speech and speaking truly.”
Two nights later, the artist Mounira al-Solh opened “All Mother Tongues Are Difficult,” her second solo exhibition at the Sfeir-Semler Gallery, which threads her own experience of forever trying to leave Lebanon, learn Dutch, and emigrate to the Netherlands, into the stories of refugees flooding into Lebanon, as filtered through her family, who live on both sides of the border. There’s a hilarious painting of Hassan Nasrallah and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad discussing Francis Bacon at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran. There’s a roomful of Damascene clogs. There’s a suite of nearly fifty drawings, all portraits of Syrian refugees, titled “I Strongly Believe in Our Right to Be Frivolous.” And there’s an absorbing new video, called Now Eat My Script, about a sacrificial lamb that journeys from Syria to Lebanon in the trunk of a relative’s car as the artist speaks, in voice-over, of the difficulties faced by a “distracted writer” who is “pregnant, penetrated, feminist, postfeminist, and horny,” all at the same time.
Left: Artist and filmmaker Ahmad Ghossein with writer and critic Ghalya Saadawi. Right: Artist and filmmaker Elie Alexandre Habib aka Siska.
On Sunday, April 6, the fourth edition of Video Works, Ashkal Alwan’s biennial production fund and screening program, began a three-night run at the art-house cinema Metropolis. Introducing the program, Ashkal Alwan’s fiery director Christine Tohme spoke of a return to individualism, relationships, and love amid an ever stranger political, religious, and security environment. “Regardless of the bullshit you see on the news,” she said, translated roughly, “you’ll see something different here.”
“This country is full of assholes,” said a character in Jad Youssef’s otherwise interminable film about a miserable thirty-five-year-old man. “Tell your friends we’re gay and we hate football,” said another, in Roy Dib’s far more joyful Mondiale, about a couple taking a road trip to Ramallah during the World Cup. In a striking adaptation of the 1959 drama The Savage Eye, Romain Hamard transposed midcentury Los Angeles to a luxury hotel room in downtown Beirut, where a famous Lebanese actress, as listless divorcée, spoke of her children being killed “in the usual way, by robbers, miscarriage, and misconception.”
Throughout the month, Irtijal staged the fourteenth edition of its experimental music festival. Bipod, the Beirut International Platform of Dance, took place for the tenth time. 98weeks launched the first issue of a new magazine, called Makhzin. Hito Steyerl opened a new exhibition and the latest chapter in Ashkal Alwan’s experimental art school. And on Friday, April 11, the high point of the season so far: The filmmaker Charif Kiwan, who speaks on behalf of the anonymous Syrian collective of known as Abounaddara, gave a talk at the American University of Beirut, moderated by the artist Akram Zaatari.
Left: Artist Joe Namy with 98weeks cofounder Mirene Arsanios. Right: Artist Haig Aivazian with patron Nayla Audi.
For three years, Abounaddara has posted a new video, every Friday, on Facebook and Vimeo. Each piece—Kiwan calls them “bullet films”—is extremely short and incredibly powerful. A child narrates his family’s exodus to Alexandria. Another describes the bombing of a bread line, known as the “bakery massacre.” A young man tells a director to wait patiently as a plane circles around the house where they are sitting for another raid. A filmmaker standing somewhere offscreen bursts out laughing when a young religious functionary in military fatigues talks of creating an Islamic state. Tomorrow I Will Cross delves into the assassination of Basel Shehadeh, an up-and-coming director who was killed by a sniper. To make a painfully moving pair, Tomorrow I Will Dance shows a raucous roomful of people making music.
“We have no god, no master,” said Kiwan when Zaatari asked him about poetry, Mahmoud Darwish, and Karl Marx. “We are filmmakers. We are criticizing the army, the regime, the Free Syrian Army, religion, and religious authorities. We have a big problem, which is credibility. Because the regime made it impossible for journalists to work in Syria, viewers don’t know if the images they see are true. But all images are constructed. All images are a lie. Ma fee haqiqa bi soura. There is no truth in an image.”
“If you want to resist death, tragedy, you have to show the details of everyday life,” he continued. “These small moments are the only way to keep faith in the future. If you depict life without hope, then you prepare viewers to accept that there’s no way for people to change the situation. It’s our political duty as filmmakers to make space for love, laughter, and imagination. This is our commitment as citizens. We have to keep a place for subversion. Abounaddara wants to trouble its audience. We don’t want to give you a version of the truth.”
THE JOULE HOTEL was the nexus of activity during the sixth edition of the Dallas Art Fair. Everyone from Heidi Klum to artists like Richard Phillips and Will Boone and dealers including James Fuentes and Max Levai spent the week in its sleek rooms. Across the street, a leviathan, thirty-foot-tall eyeball gazed directly at the building. Richard Phillips’s new girlfriend—Liza Thorn, Saint Laurent muse and lead singer of STARRED—told me she couldn’t sleep at night: “It’s there watching me, all the time.” The sculpture’s maker, Chicago-based artist Tony Tasset, said he conceived it as a kind of conscience, or even God. “Texans like things big,” he shrugged before the fair’s final party on Saturday night. That circus-like fete, billed the Eye Ball, took place on a grassy knoll around the orb and featured waiters and bartenders with multiple eyes painted so deftly over their faces that it was difficult to tell which eye was real and which was false.
Dallas is a city of collectors, and many say its private collections are among the best you’ll ever see. A number of these are in Highland Park, a private neighborhood designed by the same people responsible for Beverly Hills; many of the city’s patrons live there, including the Roses, who are among a trinity of families that have bequeathed their collections to the Dallas Museum of Art, promising to make it one of the best museums in the nation.
Deedie Rose hosted an open house on the first day of the fair. (The two other families, the Rachofskys and the Hoffmans, were out of town, but happily the former’s collection is public and the latter’s groundskeeper was kind enough to show people around.) “You have to think of contemporary art like Shakespeare,” Rose said as she led us through her impressive holding of Brazilian art. “When you know the language, it can change the way you see the world.” The house—like most I saw in Dallas—seemed to have fewer walls than windows, some of which soared several stories high.
Left: Model Heidi Klum and Vito Schnabel. (Photo: Jenifer McNeil Baker) Right: Collector Deedie Rose.
A gala for the Dallas Art Fair was held that night and was attended by women in sweeping, jewel-toned gowns and men in crisp shirts. Many of the dealers in town for the fair—Jonathan Viner, OHWOW’s Mills and Al Moran, Jose Martos, Michael Nevin of the Journal—mentioned that they were here to place work with Dallas collectors. Paris dealer Frank Elbaz declared that because it was Dallas, he had only brought art by Americans. Among some of the most elegant booths were those by Churner and Churner, CANADA, James Fuentes, Clearing, M+B, and the Green Gallery, the last of whom brought an enormous mobile-like sculpture by Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam.
The night before, the Power Station—a nonprofit space that has previously held shows by Matias Faldbakken, Oscar Tuazon, Jacob Kassay, and Virginia Overton—opened an exhibition of work by Fredrik Vaerslev. His cool abstractions were based on the colors of the Dallas Cowboys and aimed to be an affront to the viewer. “He creates antagonistic paintings,” said the space’s artistic director Rob Teeters as he stood before the fifteen-foot-tall, two-foot-wide banner-like paintings, the lower half of which were left entirely blank, so that you had to crane your neck to see the stripes of paint. “He denies the gesture and forces you to look. Fredrik is a painter with a capital P.” Originally, Vaerslev had installed the paintings over the windows, but everything got too dark. We headed to the afterparty at an apartment rooftop, which functions as both offices and a place for artists to stay when visiting. There, in a conversation about George W. Bush’s debut as a painter, Power Station founder Alden Pinnell laughed: “Those have to be hardest paintings to get in the world.” He paused. “Dallas is a unique place. After Bush came back, there were billboards everywhere reading THANKS FOR KEEPING US SAFE GEORGE AND LAURA.”
Left: Phillips’s Benjamin Godsill and Power Station Founder Aldin Pinnell. Right: The Journal’s Michael Nevin and Sarah Hantman.
Across town at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, the ex-POTUS was represented by “The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy,” featuring portraits of world leaders he worked with during his eight years in office. Among them were Vladimir Putin and Tony Blair; he had painted most of these from pictures found on Google Image searches, and each painting was winged by photographs and vitrines filled with totemistic gifts bestowed by that leader to the president.
“They’re like Mexican ex-voto paintings,” Julian Schnabel told curator Piper Marshall on OHWOW’s radio channel Know Wave, which broadcast through the length of the fair from an outpost at the Joule Hotel. “People in Mexico that get hit by a car or survive a bus accident make paintings and put them in the church and give them to God to thank him for keeping them alive.”
Earlier that day I had met Schnabel to talk about his show due to open that night. It was just past noon and he was standing in the middle of the cavernous space looking at his enormous paintings and wearing a shirt that read MISSING. “I called it the Disappointing Present,” he said of a work featuring a blown-up photograph of a beaming fisherman on a wharf. Other works included relics or images of a former time—a book of Milton, an antique mirror he gave his first wife, wallpaper from the eighteenth century. “The people in it seem so enthusiastic and proud of whatever is going on there.”
“Then why is it disappointing?”
“Because I am talking about this present.”
In the next gallery, portraits of Lindsay Lohan, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, and Justin Timberlake hung along the warehouse walls. It was Richard Phillips’s debut museum show. Titled “Negation of the Universe,” the exhibition opened with a painting of a woman’s vagina squirting out clear liquid. Pornography is Phillips’s operative device: His paintings’ hyperbolic realism evoke the world as seen through the lens of an HD camera.
“I had to go outside and find a patch of sun after walking through half of one room,” said one artist. Next to Phillips, Schnabel felt almost holy.
“You want children’s paintings? Then go to a children’s museum. My show is audacious, it’s uncompromising, it’s intrepid, it’s resistant, it’s completely courageous,” Phillips said at a dinner to honor Schnabel on the rooftop of the Joule Hotel.
“It’s a curator’s dream to have Julian Schnabel and Richard Phillips in the same museum,” said Dallas Contemporary director Peter Doroshenko. I sat next to advisor John Runyon, whom many consider responsible for the growing collector scene in Dallas. He gave Phillips his first solo show outside New York at his former gallery, which he shuttered in the early 2000s to build an advisory practice. “It’s not a city for galleries,” he told me. Artists, he suggested, feel like they can’t stay here. “I suppose it’s the missing link.”
Of course, he’s not the only one in the city forging connections between artists and institutions. “She’s the queen of Dallas, but don’t worry, she’s a good queen,” said artist Sam Roeck of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Anna-Sophia van Zweden. Friday morning, she hosted a press conference at the I. M. Pei–designed Meyerson Symphony Center to announce the first annual SOLUNA, an international music and arts festival that will feature collaborations between the DSO and artists like Pipilotti Rist and Yael Bartana.
In this contemporary cathedral of a space—home to the largest Ellsworth Kelly in the world—a violin interrupted her speech. Then, from behind the curve of an expansive stairway, came a stream of musicians on dollies pushed by performers in coveralls colored to match the Kelly. Each musician sat on a chair with a music stand, their bodies bent into their instruments. The orchestra circled the press conference, herding the crowd into a tight clump: Ryan McNamara’s choreography, part of the DSO’s project, brought a physical dimension to the music, implicating the audience within the dance of the sound, merging all present into a coherent piece.
On Sunday, I found myself in another place of worship, also with an art collection—the Dallas Cowboy Stadium. It was raining that day, and there was a children’s cheerleading convention taking place, and so we made our wet way through gaggles of pint-size girls to stand before works by Jacqueline Humphries, Cory Arcangel, and Walead Beshty. Our tour guide was stadium and art ambassador Phil Whitfield—a big man with a big voice who believed art could and should be appreciated by everyone. (His critical insight into the practice of artists in the collection was stunning.) We wandered through the owners’ box, with floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out onto a sea of eighty thousand seats. “It’s about how to see,” he said. In the background, the cheerleaders leapt about to the National Anthem. “People come here from all walks of the world—it’s not just about museums anymore. I’ve dedicated my life to this, to helping people see.”
“YOU SEE WHY Cologne is so pleasant?” the critic Boris Pofalla asked me, pointing to the dancers bouncing on the floor at the Köln-Ehrenfeld studio of the Meiré Brothers. “No bearded hipsters looking for free booze. In Berlin, every opening is a party. In Cologne it’s different: A party is a party and an opening is an opening.”
It was Wednesday night, and we were in the midst of an unofficial, well-attended afterparty for Art Cologne. I agreed: For an art event—in all its cheerful, self-aware, posthipster decency—this was a pretty good one. Everything seemed just right: the minimalist setting (silver foil flying over the heads of the dancers serving as a disco ball surrogate), bass-saturated tunes selected by Gigiotto del Veccio (of Supportico Lopez gallery) followed by a heartwarming performance of techno singer-songwriter Justus Köhncke. Hello Cologne!
In newspaper columns, post-’89 Berlin is often referred to as the “laboratory of the German unification”—insecure, like a teenager during adolescence. With the Rhineland it’s a very different affair: The overall feeling is less restless, and the area’s institutions developed not over years but decades. (Art Cologne, for instance, is the world’s oldest art fair, founded in 1967.) Maybe this is exactly the reason why we love going to Cologne; it’s a living museum. “Cologne is a city where you can study the old West Germany,” said the Berlin-based writer Katja Kullmann. “On its most modern corners, it looks like 1994.” (She meant that as a compliment.) And when it comes to the fair, Art Cologne, now in its forty-eighth edition, is by far the best German one around. Yes, it’s true: There is no better way to start the spring season than a visit to the Rhineland.
The quality of the fair has steadily improved since Daniel Hug took over as director of the historically charged but declining Art Cologne in 2008. Important dealers keep coming back—among them this year were Contemporary Fine Arts (CFA), Esther Schipper, Susanne Vielmetter, Daniel Buchholz, Gisela Capitain, Hauser & Wirth, and David Zwirner. “Hug is like a marathon man who will not give up bringing certain dealers back to the fair,” said one Cologne-based dealer. And everyone seems to praise the density of collectors. “Those that frequent the Cologne fair are absolutely reliable,” said Alexander Schroeder of Galerie Neu. Of course, this also means that acquisitions are steady in pace. A heated buying frenzy might be the norm in Basel, Miami, and London, but it’s just not the way of the wealthy German Mittelstand.
The rivalry between Cologne and Berlin that defined their relationship for almost a decade is finally over. After the closure of the competing Art Forum Berlin fair in 2011, a kind of silent agreement has set: Berlin got the bulk of the galleries, the artists, and the creativity, whereas Cologne is all about the fair, the institutions, collectors, and the money. “I would be happy if Cologne, my hometown, would seize the fourth place in Europe, after Basel, London, and Paris,” David Zwirner told the local Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger. “There are still fairs who are fierce competitors. But the position in the center of Europe is perfect. Concerning Cologne in general: After the wall came down, artists and dealers left for Berlin. But meanwhile one can say that Berlin has not kept its promise.” But maybe the situation proves a little more complex than this. It is precisely the rise of Berlin that helped to shake up the old Cologne establishment and its invisible hierarchies, catapulting the German art scene to a new level. And it’s obvious that Art Cologne, with its strong presence of Berlin-based galleries, is profiting from this evolution.
Left: Dealer Peter Currie and artist Lutz Bacher. Right: Collector Michael Ballack, dealer Monika Sprüth, and entrepreneur Nicola Miracapillo.
Whatever the speed, any fair tends to be a superficial experience: too much art to see, too many people to meet. I need more direction than that. In Cologne I spent time investigating a sculptural subgenre that has appeared for some years now, inextricably linked with fair culture: functional art. One of the most prominent examples was a comfy mustard-yellow sofa-sculpture by Bjarne Melgaard at Guido Baudach’s booth. At CFA’s double-size booth, two kinds of these works were featured: Sarah Lucas’s hard-edged concrete-and-MDF furniture, as well as two sofa-objects (titled Opium and Low Confession) by Tal R. (The latter objects’ upholstery resembles an IKEA dorm-room rug, and is even removable for eventual cleaning, a gallery assistant informed me.) KM, a smart gallery run by Nina Köller and Jens Mentrup, featured a whole mobile office structure in striking colors, produced by the Hamburg-based artist Tillmann Terbuyken.
The only sofa that didn’t seem for sale was the one in the back room of Gisela Capitain’s gallery on St.-Apern-Straße. Brown, bulky, with a cover made of thick pig leather, it sat quite prominently in the installed but yet-to-be-open Wade Guyton show. Was it art? Hard to tell. Someone informed me that the sofa had been purchased by the artist in Hamburg and was waiting in the gallery until the end of the show to be shipped to his studio in New York. And indeed, I can attest that it’s a fine piece of furniture, having sat on it the Thursday of fair week to contemplate the magic of improv legend Joe McPhee, during an event jointly organized by Capitain, Corbett vs. Dempsey, and David Nolan Gallery. With his saxophone, McPhee created an acoustic space within the white cube that was all about sound, the human body, musical breathing, and the pleasure of listening.
Before the McPhee performance I’d gone to the Museum Ludwig for the opening of Pierre Huyghe’s traveling midcareer survey exhibition, which originated last winter at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The exhibition space was overcrowded, but it was clear that this is an extremely exceptional show that will bring visitors from all over Germany. Of course, the Ludwig is drawing attention not only for art these days. Cologne’s gossip factory is working overtime after the unexpected resignation last December of Philipp Kaiser after only one year as director. (Currently Katia Baudin, curator of the Huyghe retrospective, is acting as interim director.) According to Susanne Laugwitz-Aulbach, Cologne’s councilor in charge of cultural affairs, a new director will be appointed before the summer break. Several names are circulating, but according to some, a “local solution” is most likely. At the dinner after the ceremony of the Wolfgang Hahn Prize (awarded this year to the painter Kerry James Marshall), former Ludwig director Kasper König took the microphone for an informal address to the members of the Gesellschaft für Moderne Kunst, influential Ludwig supporters. It sounded like König, who retired from his job in October 2012 and who is currently curating the next Manifesta in Saint Petersburg, might still have some say in the fate of the Ludwig.
It was Sunday morning as my train left Cologne’s main station, heading back to Berlin. Before entering the Hohenzollernbridge, an impressive arched steel structure over the Rhine, the train stopped for a minute right next to the Museum Ludwig. It was just long enough to whisper farewell to this city and its people and, of course, Human, the white dog with the pink feet that strolls endlessly through the Huyghe show just a few feet away.
Left: Collector Stefan Simchowitz and dealer Joel Mesler. Right: San Jose ICA director Cathy Kimball and Silicon Valley Contemporary founder Rick Friedman. (All photos: Brian Droitcour)
LAST THURSDAY, while at the opening night preview of Silicon Valley Contemporary, a new art fair in San Jose, I shared six posts on Instagram. Here they are, ranked by likes:
1. The Marina Abramović Institute presented The Mutual Wave Machine, an installation by empathy researchers Suzanne Dikker and Matthias Oostrik. It’s a tented pod, with room inside for a pair of volunteers to sit facing each other as their brain activity is measured and visualized on the screens that surround them. White spots cluster when their thoughts are in sync, and dissipate in blackness when they aren’t. While waiting for it to start, I took a selfie that showed my head in profile and the headpiece that gripped my temples and scalp with its padded fingers. My neurofeedback was projected on the wall behind me—a cluster of colorful zigzags. The headpiece wasn’t uncomfortable, but it had taken Dikker a long time to adjust it so that the sensors could find my brain. My thick hair was to blame. Exasperated, Dikker asked: “Can we shave your head?” My post got thirty likes, more than anything else I posted that day. People love selfies, and the caption was good: “I donated my brainwaves to Marina Abramovic.”
2. When seen through an acrylic sphere, a grid of suspended spools of thread yields an image of the Mona Lisa that’s choppy, as if 8-bit. Devorah Sperber’s After the Mona Lisa B, presented by Bentley Gallery of Phoenix, is an elementary lesson in optics with a price tag of $42,000.
Instagram of Devorah Sperber’s After the Mona Lisa B.
2. Second place was a three-way tie. The spool trick got twenty-six likes, and so did my ad hoc still of a video documenting the making of the paintings in the Hole’s booth. Katsu, the artist, and an assistant wore full-body garments that looked like hazmat suits as a hobby drone sprayed paint on canvas. Palettes favored bold graffiti colors—orange, pink, black—but there was nothing like a tag to indicate authorship, just a thinness to the paint’s application that conveyed the drone’s distance from the canvas and its busy flight, though a couple of splotches marked points of crash contact. The spattery hail on the paintings also covered the chair, rug, and media stand that decorated the booth—an allover interior concept. Krysta Eder, the booth’s steward, wore a matching sweater. “I have a different one for each day of the fair,” she said. She didn’t seem thrilled about it.
Piloting a drone is hard. It takes a mastery of simultaneous movement on x, y, and z axes. Katsu compared making a successful painting to “fiero”—the term game designers use to describe the feeling of winning after intense engagement. Then, with a searching look on his face, he asked me what I thought of the work. I said I don’t like spray paint.
2. Bitcoin’s trademark font is surprisingly cheery, given the digital currency’s antiestablishment bent, and there it was on a desk at the booth of KM Fine Arts: “Bitcoin Accepted Here.” Twenty-six likes. (My favorite part of the image wasn’t the sign itself but the can of Rockstar energy drink behind it.) Bitcoin-rich buyers might have purchased a Julie Mehretu light box or one of Domingo Zapata’s graffiti-inflected paintings, but the gallery directed their attention to the themes of alternative finance in Off Limits but Blessed by the Fed, a painting on unstretched canvas by Dana Louise Kirkpatrick. A mashup portrait of Mona Lisa and Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington smirked below a crude Confederate flag, and in the lower right corner the artist scrawled a bitcoin with a made-up motto: LIBERTAS AEQUITAS VERITAS IT HUSTLE. It’s a tribute to “a modern-day punk/anarchy movement,” said Kirkpatrick with Hollywood vocal fry. It sold on opening night for forty-three bitcoins ($22,000).
5. Tiffany Trenda, a performance artist from Los Angeles, paced a wide aisle in a red pleather jumpsuit tiled with little touch screens and seamed with fluted ribs that held the wiring. She approached passersby, took their hands in hers, and invited their fingers to explore the touch screens, which flashed brief messages: “Go ahead” and “It’s OK.” I tried to make an Instagram video showing my finger’s contact with the screens but Trenda kept stopping me, taking my hands and moving them over her body. Other people interrupted us, asking me to take their picture with Trenda. My post only got fourteen likes because of the clumsy breaks, and because no one wants to watch videos on Instagram. Doing an interactive performance in a costume as extravagant as Trenda’s is troublesome, I realized, because most viewers (including me) will just want to gawk and photograph rather than participate. I asked her about it when I saw her the next night at a reception at the San Jose Institute for Contemporary Art, where donors’ names are chalked on a blackboard like the soup of the day. “I want people to engage in the experience, but the urge to document it is strong,” Trenda said. “I understand that, and that’s why the screens say ‘It’s OK.’ ”
6. The first thing I saw at the fair that stopped me in my tracks was a video by Noah Kalina, who since 2000 has taken selfies every day and compiled them in video flip-books. Changing environs and hairdos dramatize the jerky hurtling of a body toward death as the unchanging expression of somber cow eyes hovers timelessly and wobbly in the middle of the frame. The video he posted to YouTube in July 2006, with his first 2,356 daily selfies, has been viewed more than twenty-five million times. People love selfies! And yet the video I posted to Instagram with an excerpt from his latest compilation, which hung at the booth of Long Island’s Salamatina Gallery, got a meager twelve likes. No one wants to watch videos on Instagram. I asked Oksana Salamatina, the gallery’s owner, what brought her to San Jose. “I was just fascinated,” she said, and spread her hands expressively: “Silicon Valley!” She brought Kalina’s video because she knew tech entrepreneurs had commissioned portraits from him—he even took wedding photos for Mark Zuckerberg.
AN EPILOGUE ON THE UNGRAMMABLE: The iPhone’s current operating system calls images taken with its camera “moments.” I shared six moments of the five hours I spent at the fair, between the press conference and dinnertime. (It was one of those press junkets with regimented days.) I wouldn’t say these moments were representative of what the fair was. I only shared things that I thought were funny—that I thought my followers would think were funny—to see at a fair called Silicon Valley Contemporary. I did it for the likes, and the exhibitors did it for the likes, too. They call them “sales,” of course, but the booths, like my posts, had a thirsty feeling of playing to an audience based on some vague expectation of what the confluence of “Silicon Valley” and “contemporary art” could mean. What does a tech millionaire put on his walls? Anything he wants, and possibilities offered by Silicon Valley Contemporary’s fifty-two exhibitors—from de Kooning to generative digital painting—were a motley variety unlike anything I’d ever seen at an art fair. Novelty suits San Jose, where more patents are filed per capita than in any other city, where the museum of art titles a show of new acquisitions “Initial Public Offering.” I can’t predict whether future editions of Silicon Valley Contemporary will homogenize and blend into the international art fair circuit or whether its quirks will calcify in another kind of institution; as an early adopter, I just enjoyed the innovation.
MY IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE of the opening days for the sixth Glasgow International biennial began the morning after my arrival, when I had an appointment at a nail salon, part of Alistair Frost’s AZQ<>$@•^. I am usually pretty suspicious of feel-good art, especially when it’s participatory, but this was like a less demanding version of being pampered at the hairdresser, and I left with appliqued pinkies and thumbs. Was I shortchanged any subtexts of gender trouble, gentrification, artistic or social critique? I am not sure. Someone later told me I should have left a tip. Next time.
A morning of gallery viewing in the environs took in a small-but-great show of Chicago imagist Christina Ramberg at 42 Carlton Place and a group show at Modern Institute, where Tobias Madison, Emmanuel Rossetti, and Stefan Tcherepnin had divided the space in two using flesh-colored office carpeting. Madison talked about a month he’d spent going to experimental noise shows in Japan. Tcherepnin told me he had seen zombies in the street after a particularly late install night. It boded well for the artists’ own performance, with several more collaborators, as the band Solar Lice a few days later. “It’s interesting, but not worth ruining my ears for,” one friend said.
Still, it was a counterpoint to the kinds of work that curator Sarah McCrory had chosen for the “Director’s Programme,” the official focus of the Glasgow International. She described her choice to me as an “anti-theme” approach, which left lots of room for a range of work. At one extreme was Anthea Hamilton and Nicholas Byrne’s Love, set in a beautiful disused swimming pool filled with inflatables, including a bouncy cube version of Robert Indiana’s LOVE. I may have once jumped around on Jeremy Deller’s blow-up Stonehenge with my nephew, but I apologetically declined to take off my shoes to get into what Hamilton described as “the love box.” McCrory told the local newspaper that this exhibition might suit people who aren’t sure “if modern art is for them,” describing the inflatables as “lovely objects to look at, and fun.”
More nourishing fare, and no need to remove shoes, was at the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA). During the opening evening, Aleksandra Domanović pointed out the Snow White references in her large celluloid prints of images from sci-fi films, anchored in a 1938 rejection letter from Disney explaining that “women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen.” Upstairs, a gorgeous, lo-fi gallery of Sue Tompkins’s typed words and typographic symbols on sun-marked paper was complemented by an opening-night performance, to a packed room, of the Glaswegian artist’s sound-poems, which seemed half-remembered, half-improvised, and half-read. Urgent, playful, and by turns melancholic and beautiful, they were like Dada-ized E. E. Cummings lyrics, with more beatbox FX.
The McLellan Galleries made for the core venue of McCrory’s curated program. These long-disused spaces without running water (or heating) were also the setting of the opening-night speeches. There was foot stomping and throaty whooping, from what seemed like the entire Glasgow art scene plus friends, as Sarah McCrory started hers: “I’m going to do an HUO, I’ve got my notes on my phone, just so you know I’m not texting my mum,” she said, only then to be repeatedly interrupted by text messages from the audience, one suggesting (it later emerged) she “tell the one about the priest.”
Left: Hepworth Wakefield curator Andrew Bonancina, dealer Toby Webster, and curator Tobi Maier. Right: Artist Tobias Madison.
Guests then had some time to look at the works by four artists in this venue: Avery Singer’s large computer-generated paintings responding to modernist forms; Xerox copies of body parts and collage-diaries mixing classical statuary and homoerotic porn by the late Brazilian artist Hudinilson Jr. (a recent discovery of McCrory’s, on a research trip to Brazil); and an ensemble by Charlotte Prodger, who had (inter alia) set Perspex disks next to the holes for electric sockets in the floor, creating an opportunity, at the opening, for accidental shuffleboard. The lower floor of this building was devoted to a miniretrospective of film and video by Jordan Wolfson, who in his work (no less than in person) disorients me with the consistency of his on-brand sound bites. In Glasgow he told me, “I am the happiest I have been in my life so far” and “every work is like digging up a corpse, like excavating it.” One early film in particular, 2004’s The Crisis, made me rethink the sincerity of Wolfson’s artistic ambition, which now, confusingly, seems incredibly sophisticated and incredibly naive at once.
Bedwyr Williams and Michael Smith shared the other main GI space, at Tramway, whose opening festivities were the day after. Williams built a dramatic installation with a dystopian film about a neo-feudalist future ruled by those with the most “stuff.” This space was just as busy as the bar area during the opening; and people leaving the installation of Smith’s films (four works on view in a cinema space, with a disco-ball backdrop and timeline) also left smiling, perhaps humming the catchy melody from Go for It, Mike. Smith’s work leaves no doubt that seriousness is a bad criterion for art. Insight needs humor. But what if our postapocalyptic future is mainly, also, or simply the setup to a funny story? Fair enough, I guess.
The news in Glasgow after the opening was about the city’s (since canceled) plan to demolish the Red Road Flats, a notorious housing estate, as part of the celebrations of the Commonwealth Games later this year. The failure of modernist aspiration turned into spectacle, for voyeuristic enjoyment on TV. There are also wrong ways to make the feel-good feel good. Heading out to one of many afterparties, however, I found myself more in tune with a line of Tompkins’s: “It’s Totally allright to feel upside down and listen.”
YOU KNOW IT’S SPRING in New York when the sea of black that describes the art world’s rigorous dress code changes to color. “Red and racy” was the mode d’access last Tuesday night for the New Museum’s annual benefit gala, which appeared to put the institution in the black. All the same, guests approaching Cipriani Wall Street were instantly outclassed by two gleaming red Ferraris sitting nose-to-nose on the sidewalk. (Ferrari was the evening’s corporate sponsor.)
Loiterers Instagrammed the cars like mad. All of them were men. “Figures,” said Massimiliano Gioni, the museum’s associate director, joining the human red carpet going through the door. Inside the Greek Revival temple of lucre—the banquet hall was once the New York Stock Exchange—everyone admired everyone else’s way with red: Yvonne Force Villareal in bright red lipstick and red dress; Judy Hudson in a luminous red wig; Donald Baechler in the red jacket he’d picked up for $70 at a Banana Republic sale minutes before cocktail hour. “It’s so much fun just standing here and looking at the people,” Mary Heilmann said. “We don’t even have to go in.”
But we did go in, and all was glitter, glamour, and glory for the evening’s honorees, Annabelle Selldorf and Lynda Benglis. Toasting, or rather roasting, Selldorf, Robert Gober and Donald Moffett performed a deadpan comedy act accompanied by slides. Speaking of a Selldorf-designed cabin in Nova Scotia accessible only by boat, Moffett said, “Picture two middle-aged gay guys from New York wilderness camping.” Gober had the punch line. “It has all the conveniences of living on your own island,” he said, “and none of the prestige.” Not a dot of red on her, Selldorf confessed, “I felt so moved, but then I realized it was April Fools’ Day.”
Nobody’s fool was also in the room, namely Benglis. Gioni introduced her by bringing up the one thing that the seventy-two-year-old artist will never, ever live down: her naked, suck-my-you-know-what, double-dildo ad for herself in the November 1974 issue of Artforum. Weren’t those the days! “It was huge,” said Gioni. “Not the dildo—the ad.” Directing his remarks to his museum’s trustees, he added, “The lesson we all have to learn is that she did it, and we didn’t. And she did it before anyone else. She took painting off the wall and put it on the floor. If only she had been a guy. It would have been much less intimidating.”
At that, Benglis strode to the stage and proceeded to thank everyone—everyone at her table, that is—by promoting their friendship and services. In a dizzying, free-associated acceptance speech that rivaled Jodie Foster’s 2013 Golden Globes address for its baffling opacity, Benglis went on a verbal tour of her life that began in the quarry lands of New Jersey—via Greece—with stops in Santa Fe, Long Island, and back again to her friend from New Jersey, a budding Tony Soprano who loves art. “Visit the quarry,” Benglis commanded. “He’ll give you contracts. But don’t forget to bring your lawyers.”
“Lynda Benglis!” bellowed former Phillips auction house chief Simon de Pury. “I loved your acceptance speech! It was the best ever—ever!” (Applause.) Departing from his occasional duties as a DJ, de Pury urged bids from the likes of Aby Rosen, Alberto Mugrabi, and Charlotte Ford for the live auction of two commissioned portraits, each to be painted from life by two artists who never paint from life—Alex Katz and Takashi Murakami—the latter of whom doesn’t paint. Murakami pulled in the bigger bucks—$350,000—from David Heller, vice president of the New Museum board. And then, as if none of this had been amusing enough, the gala’s hosts—W magazine’s editorial chief Stefano Tonchi and actress Greta Gerwig—brought on the entertainment. She was Lykke Li, a young Swedish pop star with a Bergmanesque demeanor, who rocked out for a crowd learning her name for the first time.
The following night, star curators substituted for the merely rich at Capitale, where Van Abbemuseum director Charles Esche received this year’s Audrey Irmas Award from the Bard College Center for Curatorial Studies. “This is like last night’s afterparty,” Selldorf chortled, approaching the reception table with collector Catherine Orentreich, a gala veteran. Maja Hoffmann also bore the afterglow of happiness, having met Pharrell Williams at the MoCA gala in Los Angeles a few days earlier. “He was so nice!” she said.
Everyone is so nice these days. Isn’t it grand? Lauren Cornell was so nice to Bard CCS director Tom Eccles that it made her nervous: Before presenting the Irmas award to Esche, a slip of the tongue caused her to describe Eccles as “sexsucksful,” underscoring Bard’s reputation as “the Wild West of the humanities,” as Eccles put it. Eccles then commanded the bully pulpit to call for women museum directors and curators to be paid equally to men.
Esche had to follow this. He began in a humble enough fashion, expressing surprise that anyone would come to a dinner honoring someone who has never worked in New York. After that he took off the gloves, lambasting his colleagues for creating their own fiefdoms instead of community, and not building on each other’s work. “What we do isn’t about art but its relationship to the world,” he said, venting his frustration over curatorial hegemonies that neglect the social function of art or cave to the popular.
Talk about never eating lunch in this town again. Heated conversation followed at tables around the room. “He’s being unnecessarily adversarial,” said Fionn Meade. “It’s not about art versus commerce, or us and them.” Another wag (an artist) dismissed the whole thing as “institutional narcissism.” It was left to Bard president Leon Botstein to right the ship. “Can art ever really change the way we live?” he asked. “Art is a space where we can reimagine society. But nothing we do is so important that if we stopped doing it, anything would be different.”
The following night it was back to the business of art. Adam Lindemann’s Venus Over Manhattan gallery showed the whole sweep of Raymond Pettibon’s “surfer” paintings, and Larry Gagosian opened pop-up shows for Urs Fischer in opposite ends of town. Adam Pendleton took up the art-as-social-revolution mantle in his bang-up show of silk-screened black mirrors at Pace, LA’s favorite son Roy Dowell animated Lennon Weinberg with collaged paintings and sculptures that brightened every eye in the place, and Nate Lowman parted the social seas at Maccarone with expert, new cutaway paintings in sweet, springtime pastels. Nice!
Before heading to Maccarone’s boisterous dinner for him at her Chinatown walkup, there was just enough time to check out the Fischer exhibition on Delancey Street, where bronze casts of the clay sculptures from his retrospective last year at LA MoCA were on show amid the counters and offices of a recently abandoned branch of Chase Bank. Dan Colen skateboarded to dinner; Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn took a chauffeured car. Artists Jack Pierson and Rob Pruitt broke bread together, Stella Schnabel paired off with Mirabelle Marden, Arden Wohl climbed into Hanna Liden’s lap, and the party went late.
The 1980s came a-calling on Friday, when the return of Colab’s seminal “Real Estate Show” brought a Lower East Side that no longer exists to James Fuentes. The decade showed its face once more on Saturday—along with the ’70s, ’90s, and ’00s—for a bracing sale at Metro Pictures and Paula Cooper to raise money for endowed scholarships and the new John Baldessari Studio at the California Institute of the Arts. (The sale, a first for the school, began in February at LA’s Regen Projects and will continue next month with an auction at Christie’s.)
Have any other art schools turned out as many Conceptual artists? Wrangled by Tony Oursler to make donations that former REDCAT director Clara Kim curated for the sale, many (including Allen Ruppersberg, Liz Glynn, and B. Wurtz) showed up for the opening reception, following New Barbarian from one gallery to the other as the four-person collective sang a chorale in silver robes and wigs.
Mostly, though, the evening was full of reminiscence. Oursler fondly recalled a 1976 visit from Philip Glass while John Cage was in residence. Josephine Meckseper remembered Michael Asher’s “weird laugh.” In the ’80s, said Adam McEwen, “I heard that someone had taught a class in joint-rolling,” and surely many moods have been altered under the fluorescent tubes of the storied institution’s classrooms. But teaching at CalArts changed not just Pat Steir’s mood but her life. While a guest of Bruce Nauman’s in the early ’70s, she said, she met Sol LeWitt—and the two lived together for the next ten years. “Funny how things have changed,” said Thomas Lawson, CalArt’s dean for the past twenty-three years. “Now we’re going to have a studio building named for the school’s first post-studio artist.”
But he was just being nice.
“THIS CITY IS A MONUMENT,” remarked Berta Sichel, artistic director for the first Cartagena Biennial, at a recent talk launching a weekend of performances, parties, and discussions organized as a kind of “second opening” for the show. She wasn’t speaking in tropes. Walking around the still walled-in Old City of Cartagena is like being inside a huge diorama. The place wears its colonial history like no other (unwilling) seat of the Caribbean slave trade, all whitewashed walls, carriages, and tchotchkes. The touristy environment provided a fertile and sometimes surreal backdrop to Sichel and her team’s curatorial ideas, and led to several surprise juxtapositions. For instance: an elegant sound piece by Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh positioned in a well in the same courtyard as, and just adjacent to, objects and models of torture at the Museum of the Inquisition. Or the lugubrious room of an old church housing an installation by Anna Boghiguan, itself filled with dried-out beehives and bird carcasses. It smells like sugar and death.
Taking the thematic route to biennial curation, the show is divided into four primary ideas—craft, loss and trauma, ecology and culture, and colonialism—divided among four primary spaces. As serious as that sounds, it all plays out in a breezy, loose way. The exhibitions include a sizable percentage of trademark works from American and European names (Charles Atlas, Lothar Baumgarten, Julie Mehretu), probably obligatory in the context of a small city’s first-ever major international art showcase. An open call to Colombian artists helped shift the balance, resulting in the selection of a few dozen artists whose work was installed at Cartagena’s Museum of Modern Art and a ground floor space at Plazoleta Joe Arroyo.
Presented in a more traditional, roomier layout than that of the four primary spaces, the works represent an impressive swath of Colombia’s contemporary scene. And though the biennial doesn’t stretch beyond the walled city, a few pieces were placed in its least polished neighborhood, the Getsemani, where Satch Hoyt’s Say it Loud!, a small tower of books tricked out with a microphone and speakers, sits in the middle of a foot-traffic intersection. “Apparently it’s mainly used by one woman from the neighborhood, to complain about the biennial,” artist Eduardo Sarabia told me.
But aside from that modest protest, boosterism and excitement prevailed among the artists, professionals, and passersby with whom I spoke, and there was much speculation about what impact this event could have on visual culture in the city. At a party at the Tcherassi Hotel attended by a significant roster of local society, Bogotá-based curator José Roca argued that the biennial was gravely overdue: The city has long-standing international music and film festivals, but the contemporary art scene is nowhere to be found. But whether a biennial can be a force of cultural change in a place with scant galleries or alternative spaces, and no visible framework for artistic support, is hard to predict.
On the other hand, there was clearly an audience beyond the small group of invited guests and Colombian patrons. An outdoor solo dance, in which Bulgarian performance artist Svetlin Velchev wove himself through a box of tightly pulled strings, was packed with people, many of whom seemed surprised that anyone else had heard about it. At the Naval Museum of the Caribbean, one of the four main sites, I watched a group of plaid-skirted schoolgirls carefully scrutinize Nick Cave’s colorful, dancey soundsuit video Drive-By. And on one of the hottest days, our group joined weekending families to climb down into the moist, underground depths of the fortress at the pinnacle of the city wall, to watch Jesper Just’s Llano—a video about the California socialist colony that collapsed when it lost its water supply—inside the cavernous vessel that once held the city’s water reserves. On the last stop on that tour, at the intersection of the “fantasy city” (as our guide put it) and the real one, we came across Yoko Ono’s Wishing Tree for Cartagena. While the seasoned art travelers in the group rolled their eyes at the sight of another Wishing Tree, a fully uniformed and heavily armed security guard hung up his wish.
Left: SP-Arte director Fernanda Feitosa with artist Regina Silveira. (Photo: Rafael Neddermeyer/Getty Images) Right: Mary J. Blige at the amfAR gala. (Photo: David Velasco)
“WE’RE SPECIALISTS in special moments,” said Ana Maria Maia, a young São Paulo–based curator, of her home country last week at the Casa do Povo in the Bolivian-Korean-Jewish neighborhood of Bom Retiro. This could refer to such art-historical moments as when Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, Hélio Oiticica, and their contemporaries produced the rupture that would become known as “Neo-concrete.” Or it could point to impending sporting events like the World Cup and Summer Olympics in Rio, both of which have catalyzed seismic domestic development and foreign attention. Or perhaps she meant the decentralized “moments” now occurring all around the nation, of individual groups—both artistic and otherwise—recognizing themselves as political entities and asserting their agency as such.
A factious and complicated work-in-progress, Brazil has come into its own over the past decade as a lodestar of the international contemporary art community. Last week its flagship art fair, SP-Arte, held its tenth edition, and though it’s SP-Arte that galvanized a week of openings and festivities all around town, it’s perhaps these dispersed, autonomous moments to which Maia referred that give the most meaningful impression of today’s São Paulo art world.
The aforementioned Casa do Povo is one of several alternative spaces to appear in São Paulo in recent years. Most of these are not in the tony gallery districts of Jardins or Vila Madalena, but are rather spread around downtown, an area still blighted by crime but architecturally blessed. Unlike industrial buildings that have been reclaimed for the arts, Casa do Povo was originally built as “a palace of culture” or “a people’s house,” though it had seen better days before recent efforts began to restore it to its glory. These terms are given by Benjamin Seroussi, an associate curator for the upcoming São Paulo Bienal and one of the key proponents of the initiative, who led a tour of the sprawling, open-concept facilities: a basketball court–size indoor performance studio encased in windows, a musty subterranean cinema which decades ago was one of the city’s most important venues for film, and a library that has again found proper care.
Nearby in Sé, São Paulo’s Times Square–like epicenter (trading lights for crumbling colonial grandeur), Maria Montero talked us through her evolving art complex on Rua Roberto Simonsen. She moved into the building in 2011 and set up two establishments with her collaborators: the nonprofit contemporary art center Phosphorus, currently featuring a show by Gustavo Ferro, and a clothing archive called Casa Juisi that sells vintage designs to visitors. On Saturday, Montero inaugurated Galeria Sé, a for-profit venture above Phosphorus she hopes will make the building’s overarching operations more sustainable, with an exhibition by photographer Dalton Paula. “I keep saying that I live under a fantastic past and hope for a better future,” said Montero of her space’s location. “For me this is a place of suspension; there’s lots of symbolic layers.”
But the primary anchor of the downtown scene is Pivô. What began two years ago as a squat in a long-abandoned dentist office occupying a generous share of the Niemeyer landmark Edificio Copan is now an established art center. Fernanda Brenner, one of Pivô’s founders, led a group through a preview of an exhibition by Lenora De Barros, a São Paulo artist who recently relocated to New York. Famous in Brazil for her text and image works, here she showed a collection of newspaper columns she published between 1993 and 1996 in the not-particularly-progressive but artistically adventurous Jornal da Tarde. The assemblages conflate Pop art and concrete poetry, edifying the general public about contemporary art and critiquing current events in a snappy, subversive mode. Walking us through the upper floor of Pivô, which Casa Triângulo had rented out for a twenty-fifth anniversary exhibition celebrating the gallery’s artists, Brenner revealed the center’s next steps toward cultivating a vibrant culture of pro-artist activities in São Paulo, noting plans to make the space into a research center for artists and curators.
As for SP-Arte, which takes over two levels of the gorgeous Niemeyer-designed Bienal pavilion, its claim as the most important art fair in the southern hemisphere can go pretty much unchallenged. Parsing the contents of an art fair curatorially, so to speak, is a fool’s errand, but compare SP-Arte’s roster of 136 galleries with its regional competitors and it comes out on top. Not only are Gagosian, Zwirner, and White Cube springing for stands, but other less franchise-happy international dealers were there too, including first-timers Marian Goodman, Kurimanzutto, and Michael Werner. And of course all the great local powerhouses participate—from Luisa Strina to Luciana Brito to Galeria Vermelho. Hauser & Wirth, however, dropped out this year, reportedly frustrated by Brazilian tax policy (more than 50 percent of the asking price, if sold to collectors outside São Paulo) according to Folha de São Paulo journalist Silas Martí in the Art Newspaper’s SP-Arte edition.
Amid the flurry of air kisses (one in São Paulo, two in Rio, three elsewhere) during Wednesday’s VIP preview day, I also met with two of the Bienal’s curators, Galit Eilat and Nuria Enguita Mayo, who explained the unique structure for their collaboration. There are five cocurators in total, the others being Charles Esche, Pablo Lafuente, and architect Oren Sagiv, and, like a team of superheroes or trained assassins, each is tackling the overall project through the lens of a self-proclaimed special talent. “Mine would primarily be publications,” said Mayo. For Eilat, “conflict zones”—not quite knife-throwing, but close.
SP-Arte wasn’t the only draw for international guests last week. Walking through Jardins one was frequently reminded that it was also #SPFW—São Paulo Fashion Week. The packed art schedule didn’t leave time for runway shows, but the celestial alignment of art people and fashion people produced a cosmic moment in the charity galaxy: an amfAR Inspiration Gala. On Friday, about a thousand people (and at least one monkey) in black tie flocked to the Jardins home of supermarket scion Dinho Diniz for an evening of outrageous proportions benefiting AIDS research. Several dealers were in attendance, including White Cube’s Jay Jopling and Alexandre Gabriel from Fortes Vilaça, each of whom had donated pieces to the live auction, but the paparazzi were concentrated on Brazilian celebs like TV personalities Regina Casé and Ana Maria Braga, up-and-coming actress Luisa Moraes, Amazonian songstress Gaby Amarantos, mixed martial artist Anderson Silva, and Big Brother cast member turned Kardashian-ian megastar Sabrina Sato.
Left: Black-tie guests at the amfAR gala. (Photo: Kevin McGarry) Right: Mallu Barretto and artist Vik Muniz at the amfAR gala.
The guest of honor was Janet Jackson, who was an apparent no-show and hence deemed she-who-must-not-be-named. Sharon Stone picked up the slack as a jaw-dropping auctioneer—“She’s better than Simon de Pury!” exclaimed my seatmate at the Iguatemi table—motoring through hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of merch, pointing her gavel with wild abandon, silencing her famous copresenters, and creepily vamping on the subject of “underpants,” both Kate Moss’s—a peek at which she tacked on to a Moët & Chandon–packaged trip to the French Open—and her own: “As you all know…I don’t wear underpants…Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!”
After a performance by Mary J. Blige, the crowd migrated to the host’s Paris Hilton–esque private underground club and raged until well past six in the morning. Partying into the next day is the Paulistano’s modus operandi, and the most convivial dealers in town might be the indefatigable guys behind Mendes Wood, who closed out the week at the Jardins home of Pedro Mendes and Matthew Wood on Saturday. Following the gallery’s all-day opening of three solo shows (by Lucas Arruda, Adriano Costa, and Paloma Bosquê), those still in town rushed the gates, which guarded plentiful champagne, caipirinhas, and fruit—an entire banquet table heaped with bananas, cajus, jaboticabas, and other edible jewels. Just as it was time for me to make my way home for an early flight, the most famous artist in town, “Fancy Violence”—the menacingly feminine alter ego of Rodolpho Parigi—strode up the stairs, signaling that the party was just getting started. The same could be wagered for São Paulo as a whole.
Left: Dealer Monica Manzutto. Right: Dealers Pedro Mendes and Matthias von Stenglin. (Photos: David Velasco)
IT’S NOT EASY TO GET TO CUENCA, and if you were going a few weeks ago it may have been under the guise of the Bienal—one of the more extrasolar on the circuit. But it’s also likely that you went for the Andes, the Inca ruins, the hot springs, the shamans, etc. The participating artists, curators, collectors, dealers, visiting journalists, and others in town for the opening of the show’s twelfth edition didn’t distinguish so much between spending time with art or with nature. And many—whether incoming from New York, Sydney, Paris, Mexico City, or São Paulo—logged at least three flights to arrive at a tiny airport that was a $3 cab ride to their quaint, city-center hotel. “Bring sunglasses, sunscreen, and aspirin if the altitude gives you a headache!” we were told (in place of an agenda). Accordingly, perhaps, there were no banners advertising the show in the city’s narrow cobblestone streets, no VIP previews or extravagant dinners, and mostly the staff simply seemed pleased that the work arrived on time. Imagine if all the biennial countries had mascots, which passed a baton in some grand ceremony: an ominous Great White in Sydney handing it over to a mellow llama (or maybe a guinea pig, a delicacy!) in Cuenca. And that’s your visual for this local, low-key show.
Cuenca’s distance is also distancing. Curated by Manuela Moscoso and Jacopo Crivelli Visconti, the show gathers works by forty-two artists, with 35 percent born in Ecuador, Peru, or Colombia. “We wanted to emphasize historic and economic connections,” the curators noted over breakfast on a sunny Friday morning. “We wanted to move away from polished discourses.” And if the spirit moved you, there was a series of “dialogues” offered on Saturday and Sunday, March 29 and 30—under headings such as “History, Body, and Aesthetic Condition,” “Appropriation,” and “Material Movement: Forests.” The shows themselves offered plenty to think about, particularly during your short walks (or long ones, if you wandered) amid the city’s eighteenth-century buildings and countless churches to the exhibition’s unusual venues—the Museo de Arte Moderno, the Colegio Benigno Malo (benign evil?), the Salón del Pueblo, and the Capilla del Museo de la Medicina, to name a few. You might, for example, contemplate the tame title of the show, “Ir Para Volver,” or Leaving to Return—a phrase that suggests “a physical and temporary absence (frequently without a definite duration)”—which is maybe just more contemporary art “nomadism” or an (admittedly oblique) reference to Julian Assange caged up in Ecuador’s London’s embassy. You might also ponder issues apposite to Ecuador, from the nation’s 2008 incorporation of the Rights of Nature in its constitution to its ongoing, disastrous oil drilling in the Amazon.
Left: Museo de Arte Moderno, Cuenca. Right: Artist Saskia Calderón.
“Well, it’s not every Friday morning that you find yourself looking at art in a middle school with a Che Guevara mural,” said a friend as we toured Benigno Malo alongside students playing basketball and heading to band practice. Were they part of the show? Sometimes. Marinella Senatore choreographed several teenagers for her The School of Narrative Dance—a series of performances in the school and on Cuenca’s streets. It was one of many works that belong to a category of biennial-prompted art. Sara VanDerBeek had shot photos of Chorrera artifacts in the Casa del Alabado museum in the nation’s capital, Quito, while on an “eye-opening” short residency. Jorge Satorre had encouraged Cuencan artisans to make expressive and nonutilitarian craft objects with their routine materials for his project, Lo Otro, also made on a residency. Felipe Mujica had worked in collaboration with the employees of a Cuenca sewing shop to produce his colorful fabric flag-curtain-painting-sculptures. Meriç Algün Ringborg had engaged a local library to produce The Library of Unborrowed Books – Section IV: Centro de Documentación Regional “Juan Bautista Vázquez,” an episode in her ongoing series.
One big plus for small biennials, such as Cuenca’s, is that bonds are formed fast and thick between visitors and participants. Have we ever laughed harder or longer over languid dinners? Or was it just the altitude getting to our heads? Even the show’s speech-driven award ceremony was slightly more tolerable. Quito-based artist-singer Saskia Calderón won first place that Friday night, with a prize of $30,000 for her work in the show, including Opera Onowaka—a score that invokes the names of spirits, which she learned while practicing rituals with the Huaorani people of the Amazons. It was also a win for Ecuador, as some headlines trumpeted the next day. Hope she stays put.
LAST FRIDAY NIGHT at 9:09 PM, a 5.1 magnitude earthquake shivered through Los Angeles. At the Museum of Contemporary Art, the crowd watched videos sway, stuffed animals tremble, and Kandors clink. A small opening for friends and supporters was inaugurating the final stop of the late Mike Kelley’s retrospective, the day before the museum’s slightly less intimate annual gala. Besides a few deep breaths and nudges, everyone loved the show, a homecoming for the lost artist at the almost-lost museum, nearly sunk by financial profligacy. Art historian and Kelley catalogue contributor George Baker posted to Facebook afterward: “Mike Kelley and earthquake. I thought of jumping underneath the Educational Complex.”
Though an aftershock roiled us the following afternoon, none of the starlets perched precariously on high heels tumbled on the red carpet on their way into the MoCA gala. On the other side of a thicket of photographers stood artists Lari Pittman and Roy Dowell, drinking champagne. “We’ve not really been here in years,” said Dowell. Pittman asked who the next chief curator would be, hoping in the same breath for Helen Molesworth; collector John Morace suggested Peter Eleey or Juan Gaitán. Somebody told a story of introducing Orlando Bloom to MoCA’s weeks-old new director Philippe Vergne. “I feel like we’ve met before. What’s your last name?” asked Vergne.
“No…I guess we haven’t met before.”
Welcome to Los Angeles.
A cluster of artists peered with amusement at clusters of celebrities; gazelle-like fashion icons grazed on toad-in-the-holes amid snowdrifts of white hair and tuxedos. Dita von Teese, in something lavender, slithered past a zebra-striped Joy Venturini Bianchi; they made the heiresses feel plain in their funereal gowns. “Isn’t that a celebrity?” asked artist Nicole Miller. No one remembers his name, though somebody offers “Chris Sea-something,” which was enough to jog Miller’s memory: Ryan Seacrest.
An official-sounding voice called us in for dinner. One can never really be astonished enough at the LA legerdemain of a parking lot transformed into a banquet hall. Waiters whirled though with palettes of vegetables: a purple carrot sliced long-ways in the vicinity of a chop of butter lettuce, all composed just so by a minion of Wolfgang Puck. David LaChapelle talked federal drug policy while his date Daphne Guinness took notes in a ghostly script with her fountain pen. The chatter mostly hushed as new board cochair Lilly Tartikoff Karatz rose to the stage. “Eli, we love you forever,” she announced at some point in her speech, which made a few people in the crowd flinch and look around nervously for the billionaire. The other cochair followed, Guess founder Maurice Marciano, his voice billowing with joy through the tent as if he were telling you the best joke you’ve never heard in your life. He emitted a Zorba-like energy; if it weren’t for the tux, you’d imagine him as a carefree beach-drifter. He was already likable, but the crowd liked him even more when he dropped another $1.2 million onto the museum. Vergne leapt on the stage: “Maurice, I’ve been waiting for you my whole life.”
Left: Katy Perry. (Photo: Billy Farrell/BFAnyc.com) Right: Artists Nancy Rubins and Chris Burden. (Photo: Neil Rasmus/BFAnyc.com)
After all the speechifying, the white curtain crept back and there she was, radiant black hair and shimmering in red, Diana Ross. The legendary songstress medleyed through some of her greatest hits, from “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” to “Baby Love” with a trio of back-up singers and piped-in music. Tables emptied to the makeshift dance floor as Miss Ross’s voice reached its beautiful high pitch during a cover of “I Will Survive.”
After her final bow, I went outside to join the smokers. MoCA curator Bennett Simpson snapped a shot of Jim Shaw and Marnie Weber with John Welchman and Anita Pace. Pace began to talk about her performance the following day at the museum. “It’s a piece we, Mike and me, did together…” she paused. “I keep saying we and he’s gone.” A few steps away I ran into artists John Seal and Samara Golden; it’s their first gala. The crowd around was breaking up, some to an afterparty at Eugenio Lopez’s, others to parts unknown. “I was so moved by Diana,” said Golden looking up from beneath her wide-brimmed hat. “I just stood by the stage and I cried.”
NO LONGER just a place for sensible flats and fluorescent sneakers, the nineteenth edition of the MiArt fair was more sophisticated, more fashionable, more international. That’s the good news. The bad news is, serious fashion comes at a cost. So when I heard that a dealer had broken her toe walking in high heels during the install day, my most optimistic thought was, MiArt has reached a whole new level.
Last year was Vincenzo de Bellis’s first as director, and already he’s upped the ante, bringing the fair that much closer to a mandatory stop on the competitive art-world circuit. On top of the impressive list of 148 galleries was a series of talks featuring artists like Joan Jonas and Jürgen Teller; curators Jean-Hubert Martin and Juan A. Gaitán; and collectors like Andy Stillpass, Thea Westreich, and Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. Meanwhile, the whole city vibed to the fair’s “Spring Awakening” program, during which museums, foundations, private galleries, and independent project spaces put on their best faces for the demanding, well-shod crowd.
Festivities had already begun by the time I arrived, a few days after the spring equinox. In the up-and-coming art district of via Stilicone, Peep Hole had feted Uri Aran’s site-specific installation; local publication Mousse temporarily took over Fonderia Artistica Battaglia’s main floor for a show of Cathy Wilkes; and David Lamelas had made the run of Lia Rumma’s three-floor space. My own art awakening (spring, unlike the rain, wasn’t really au rendez-vous) began last Wednesday at HangarBicocca’s opening for Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles. An electric, eclectic crowd filled the giant industrial space, slaloming amid the installations in an effort to reach the open beer bar. “Don’t museums feed people anymore?” moaned a friend. “I haven’t seen free food at an opening for ages.”
Little did she know that, after a quick stop at Dena Yago’s opening at Gasconade, we’d find ourselves in what became known as the “House of Carbs”: Lapo Elkann’s private dinner at his topsy-turvy home for YOUTH, an editorial project featuring young photographers he was supporting in collaboration with le Dictateur. The food was grand and socialites were legion, rubbing elbows with an overwhelmed art crowd. An impromptu VIP room formed in the kitchen, where star caterer Serena Barbieri was making magic happen. Television presenter Victoria Cabello had dressed to match the curtains and wallpaper. Dean and Dan Caten prodded photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari to pose for them, while dealer Federico Vavassori expressed disappointment at not seeing his favorite singer at the party—God knows why he expected Luciano Ligabue to be there! “Let’s go congratulate the curators of the show,” I suggested. “What show?” someone answered, evincing a problem with these stylish dinners: Sometimes they encourage amnesia about why you’re there in the first place.
But you couldn’t miss the art at the fair’s opening the next day. It was plentiful, it was good, and everything felt fresh. A whole new group of young international galleries had joined the roster, adding to the dynamic, globetrotting atmosphere de Bellis’s hell-bent on establishing. Brooklyn- and Brussels-based CLEARING was featuring work by Sebastian Black, who had also designed their booth, while Los Angeles’s François Ghebaly dedicated his space to a shimmering solo show by Joel Kyack. Further cementing the LA-Milan connection, Freedman Fitzpatrick presented a disquieting landscape of ceramics made by Matthew Lutz-Kinoy, Natsuko Uchino, and Hannah Weinberger, eventually winning the prize for the Emergent section.
The THENow section, which juxtaposes artists of different generations, got a face-lift from curators Giovanni Carmine, director of Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, and CAPC curator Alexis Vaillant. Jonathan Binet and Paolo Icaro hit the mark at P420 and Gaudel de Stampa’s booths, respectively, while Oscar Tuazon was measuring up to John Divola at Eva Presenhuber and Laura Bartlett. Massimo De Carlo teamed up with Thaddaeus Ropac’s for an impressive tête-à-tête between Elad Lassry and Imi Knoebel. “It feels like I’m in Chelsea” someone mentioned in the alleys, “and that’s a compliment for Milan.” Evening plans seemed pretty clear: an aperitivo at Bar Basso before the official MiArt dinner at Palazzo delle Stelline. “I really love this fair,” said CLEARING’s Olivier Babin. “There’s no Venice Biennale syndrome. You know, that awkward day spent on the phone trying to figure out plans for the night, and ending up at the wrong place at the wrong time after spending €200 on a water taxi? Here everything is simple: Nice people naturally coming together in amazing locations around outstanding food.”
Which is exactly what happened the following nights, starting with gallery openings on Friday. That evening, rumor spread that an influential art writer was dating a Milanese taxi driver, which made gossiping in cab rides feel like social Russian roulette. Thus we traveled in silence to Galleria Zero’s temporary location, before heading toward Lambrate to catch Josh Smith’s solo show at the neighborhood’s lodestar, Massimo De Carlo. We then dropped by Patrick Tuttofuoco’s installation at Studio Guenzani before winding our way to the Porta Venezia district for Alejandro Cesarco at Raffaella Cortese and Amelie von Wulffen at Gió Marconi. The evening culminated at Sala Venezia—known by insiders as the site of Toiletpaper magazine’s legendary dinners. This timeless gem resembles a 1930s film set, where people probably born that same decade still gather to enjoy ballroom dances. That night swaying art fellows joined the club’s habitués for homemade pasta before setting off for the Fondazione Trussardi’s highly anticipated Stan VanDerBeek installation at Milan’s planetarium, where a bunch of intrepid aficionados were spending the (short, remaining) night in sleeping bags.
Saturday’s sun seemed an endorsement of our collective spring awakening. We indulged a few more side dishes from the buoyant MiArt program before dancing everything away at the city’s civic aquarium, where Mousse and hip collective Brutto Posse organized the week’s final bash. Heels flew off and fishes looked dumbstruck at the happy crowd: The water was more than fine—it was wonderful.