Trisha Brown's Drift, 1974/2014. (All photos: Meyer & Kangangi.)
THE WHIRLWIND began as soon as I arrived in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland. Off the train, down the stairs, I exited the station and entered “Le Mouvement,” the twelfth edition of the Swiss Sculpture Exhibition, curated this year by Gianni Jetzer and Chris Sharp. What had traditionally been a celebration of public sculpture was smartly reimagined this year by Jetzer and Sharp as a three-part, summer-long investigation of the human body in active relation to the concept and experience of public space. In short: performance was the point on which all of the exhibition’s plots turned.
I’d come for part two of the series, “Performing the City,” a six-day festival featuring twenty-two artists, choreographers and their countless troops all installed around this small city (population 55,000). “She considers the body ‘intelligent material,’” Sharp told me as we stood in front of Alexandra Pirici’s unexpectedly moving Tilted Arc, a performance in which thirty people stood side by side everyday for two hours in the city’s Zentralplatz to recreate the line of Serra’s iconic sculpture. I remembered his comment later as I watched Nina Beier’s The Complete Works (2009), for which the artist invited a retired dancer to perform every dance of her career from memory and in chronological order. As the dancer began, I thought I recognized her face, but soon lost myself in the odd anti-choreography of the show: dance, pause, pace, repeat. At one point, she stood with her hand on her hip and mimed smoking cigarette. She then turned her fingers into peace sign, and then flipped them around into a hearty “fuck off” – moves I suddenly recognized as Michael Clark’s club dance from Charles Atlas’s documentary, Hail the New Puritan, and the dancer as Ellen Van Schuylenburch.
“People think I’m dancing, but I’m not dancing,” she told me later about performing Beier’s piece, “I’m remembering.” (“Memory: a performance and its production,” I wrote in my notebook).
Memory is of course an inescapable subject when watching or thinking or writing about performance. Against visual art’s object economy and investment virtues such as posterity and permanence, a performance declares This Very Moment (fugitive, even when documented) as the only true work of art. On Thursday afternoon, Jetzer and Sharp took me and Louise O’Kelly on a tour of “The City Performed,” an exhibition of artists working across performance, politics, and public space that was to open Saturday at CentrePasquArt. Looking at artists both familiar (Valie Export, Anna Halprin, Vito Acconci) and new to me (Felipe Ehrenberg, Ocaña, and Ewa Partum), I came down with that embarrassing nostalgia for art I’ve never seen and never will. (Or maybe a case of memory-envy?) The photographs, films, drawings, and other ephemera (of the older artists in particular) were possessed of such potent auras, perhaps because these performances were bolder, more defiant than much of what I’d seen all week, and I left the museum wondering why the reserve—the tidiness—that marks too much of contemporary performance?
That said, the festival’s offerings were each electric in their very own way (and too many will go sadly unmentioned here, for lack of column space and not for enthusiasm). Some highlights were Pablo Bronstein’s Girl on a Late-19th Century Swiss Balcony (2014), which featured dancer Rebecca Bruno overlooking the Zentralplatz, gesturing with near-liquid arms as if in silent address to her subjects below; another involved walking behind Chinese artist Lin Yilin for an hour as he rolled along the streets of Biel/Bienne from the Zentralplatz to the Mayor’s office in a grueling performance titled The Departure from Her Feet (2014). There was also New York–based choreographer Maria Hassabi’s duet with Hristoula Harakas, Show (2011), in which they slowly struck elegant, almost feline poses in the middle of a street, as well as a sundown performance of the fantastically feverish SSSSSSSSSSSS (2014) by Lithuanian-born, New York–based Ieva Misevičiūtė.
Left: Dancer Douglas Dunn and artist Shirana Shahbazi. Right: Artists Liz Magic Laser, Alicia Frankovich, and Willi Dorner.
At breakfast on Saturday morning, artist Liz Magic Laser asked Jiří Kovanda how his performance went the day before. For Kissing Through Glass, first performed in 2007, the Czech artist stood in an entryway of the Volkshaus, kissing visitors through a set of glass doors. The piece was at once awkward and mesmerizing, watching the near-intimacy of each encounter, and noting how a tender exchange can be so easily estranged. The artist himself wasn’t as impressed.
“It wasn’t the best,” he told Laser, shrugging.
“What makes the best performance?” I asked him, thinking that perhaps something had gone wrong.
“The first one,” he answered matter-of-factly, “that is always the best one.”
It made sense to me that for artists, a first performance can possess an energy or an interest that subsequent performances don’t, but for an audience, it’s the only cure for memory-envy. One of the standouts of the festival was Trisha Brown’s masterpiece, Drift (1974). Majestically restrained, deceptively simple, and often elusive with a running time of around five minutes, the piece began when the dancers quietly lined up at a spot on the Nidaugasse, a busy shopping street in the center of town, then began to walk together, lightly drifting to the right until they hit the sidewalk, stopped, and then dispersed.
On Saturday evening, I ducked out of the opening remarks for the museum exhibition at the CentrePasquArt to chase after Lithuanian artist Eglė Budvytytė’s funny yet searing Choreography for the Running Male. Down the hill and around the corner from the museum, a crowd gathered behind nine strapping men, all dressed in metrosexual best (an international visual language, as it turns out): summer weight gray sweaters over white T-shirts, shorts, black ankle socks, and shoes. The men jogged across the city in three rows of three, periodically performing some kind of awkward gesture: crawling, popping their hips, holding hands. All was silent save the pounding of their footsteps, until they reached a narrow street, sat down, and a woman’s voice boomed over a speaker. “Michael, you have to keep running,” she said, addressing his (and our) options for survival in this world. Eventually “Michael” did keep running, all the way to the Palais des Congrés, where the “troops” finally dispersed, running their separate ways down the quiet streets and disappearing into the twilight.
When I got back to the museum, the opening night reception was in full swing. Artists Valie Export and Beat Streuli circulated among the partygoers, as Shirana Shabazi and curator Giovanni Carmine chatted together. As the night wore on, trays of vodka shots began to appear on pedestals in the museum’s reception area. The lights went down and the music picked up. Artist Alexandra Bachzetsis and her assistants began handing the drinks out to people, and soon enough people began to help themselves. A group of cute young things standing nearby began to strip off their shirts and pants and swap clothes with one another. So began Bachzetsis’s Undressed (2005), the final performance of the day, a one-night-only engagement at Le Mouvement, wisely curated to get the party started.
Under sparkling disco balls, the crowd untethered and the room heated up as people in various states of dress and undress transformed the lobby into a temporary club. Jetzer and Bachzetsis hit the dance floor together, beaming and seeming to enjoy the scene as much if not more than everyone around them. A raging party is surely an art form all its own, for its dopey pleasures as well as for the vital reminder of the joys of getting down in one’s own skin. Here at CentrePasquArt was a room filled with bodies, ecstatic, moving to the beat, sweating, swaying, taking it all in and letting it all go, looking—all of them in this very moment—fiercely, beautifully alive.
Left: Artist Maria Hassabi. Right: Artist Sanya Kantarovsky and dealer Peter Kilchmann.
Left: Gwangju Biennale chief curator Jessica Morgan (second from right) with the curatorial team Emiliano Valdéz, Fatos Ustek, Enna Bae, and Teresa Kittler. (Photo: Cecilia Bengolea.) Right: Gwangju Biennale president Yong-woo Lee with Venice Biennale artistic director Okwui Enwezor. (Except where noted, all photos: Kate Sutton)
“WATCH OUT. You might get what you’re after.”
In 2010, David Byrne may have visited the Gwangju Biennale (as Cindy Sherman’s plus one), but in 2014, he reigned over it, albeit in absentia, after chief curator Jessica Morgan used the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” as the theme for the biennial’s tenth edition, a paean to the creative potential of destructive acts.
Gwangju needs little reminding of the cleansing power of renewal. The city is busy bracing for the thirty-fifth anniversary of the May 18, 1980 uprising, a seminal moment when students took to the streets to demand democracy and met with bullets instead. Founded to commemorate this national trauma, the Gwangju Biennale has over time earned a reputation as a curator’s Eden, replete with state funding and an eager, adventurous audience. “One of the Top Five Biennales in the World!” Gwangju mayor Yoon Jang-hyun trumpeted at the opening ceremony. “He got that from a fluff piece,” my neighbor whispered.
But even on a triumphant occasion, the biennial finds itself once more mired in politics. Last week’s festivities were haunted by President Park Geun-Hye, who used the 2012 biennial opening as a campaign stop but opted to skip this edition. With the ascension of President Park—the daughter of Park Chung-Hee, the authoritarian ruler whose ruthless eighteen-year reign laid the foundations of Gwangju’s uprising—and her conservative Saenuri party, the biennial was faced with a 40 percent budget cut. Yes, South Korea is in a recession, so it would be speculative to draw a direct correlation, but it’s worth mentioning that roughly 92 percent of Gwangju’s population voted against Park, reinforcing the East/West divides her father helped instigate.
In mid-August, the biennial hit another bump when charismatic Gwangju Biennale Foundation president Yong-woo Lee (“Dr. Lee” to his many admirers) resigned over a censorship row involving an image that portrayed Park as a scarecrow controlled by her father, locked in a heated confrontation with grieving relatives of children who died in the April sinking of the MV Sewol ferry. While Lee’s supposed demise made a splash in international news, those who knew him cheered his cool assessment of the situation; a head had to roll, so he offered his own. “His term would end next year anyway,” curator Okwui Enwezor assured me.
If the biennial’s state support appears to be wavering, local devotion remains fervent. Morgan, recently appointed director of the Dia Art Foundation, joked about sending “Burning Down the House” to the charts, but it was “J. Mo” whose face was everywhere. “People come up to you on the street,” the curator marveled, blushing. The mood was buoyed by the thrilling title track, which had been reenvisioned by French electronic musician Joakim and blasted simultaneously from pressure points around the exhibition. “Koreans didn’t have the same experience with the song,” Morgan conceded.
Whatever the qualms, Morgan and her team of assistant curators delivered an exhibition that was dynamic and daring. Calls to insurrection were pounded out in the hoofbeats of The Uprising, Jonathas de Andrade’s film featuring a horse-cart race through Recife, Brazil, or by the drum-circle revolutionaries in Anand Patwardhan’s chilling We Are Not Your Monkeys. But the potential for renewal was not limited to the political. Throughout the gallery, the body—both individual and social—appears broken (Young Soo Kim, Lee Bul, David Wojnarowicz, James Richards), hybridized (Tetsuya Ishida, Birgit Jürgenssen, Robert Heinecken), or transformed (Nil Yalter’s documentation of her partner undergoing a sex change or Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s holographic turn as Fitzcarraldo). Viewers swooned before Lionel Wendt’s dreamy nudes, while Carlos Motta expanded his ongoing collection of interviews questioning heteronormative agendae—We Who Feel Differently—to include South Korean perspectives. As an annex to the main exhibition, AA Bronson’s “Spiral Pavilion” supplemented an exhibition of queer zines with work by TM Davy, K8 Hardy, and Yeonjune Jung, all under the banner “House of Shame.”
Left: Artist Basel Abbas with Sharjah Biennial curator Eungie Joo. Right: A scene from Minouk Lim’s opening day performance, Navigation ID.
For all intents and purposes, the beating heart of the biennial was Minouk Lim’s Navigation ID. The expansive, multipart commission used Gwangju’s nationally enshrined grief as a way to draw attention to less-publicized massacres. The state has containers full of unmarked corpses, alleged Communists slaughtered in the late 1940s and early ’50s in what is known as the National Guidance League incident; relatives of the victim continue to be stigmatized. For the opening performance, the artist connected these ostracized families with the May 18 Mothers parents of those who died in the Gwangju uprising, in a complex ritual that had Mothers escorting blindfolded mourners as they carried tubs of human remains across the square and into one of two shipping containers, installed on the plaza for the duration of the exhibition.
“This is a bit like watching Maury,” writer Kevin McGarry observed. “In the sense that here are people undergoing a horrifying, emotional experience, and then there are all these onlookers and cameras everywhere.”
“But isn’t that the point?” curator Stuart Comer countered. “Isn’t it precisely about bringing visibility to these things?”
As the week unfolded, all manner of revelry took place around these containers, whose windows provided a grim view of the contents; what was most alarming, however, was how invisible the skeletons remained, even under the strobe lights of the opening ceremony.
Left: Artist Ei Arakawa. Right: Biennale associate curator Emiliano Valdéz with artist Domique Gonzalez-Foerster.
The biennial countered these gut-punching points with moments of release. For her latest Library of Spirits, Banu Cennetoğlu hosted a tasting of homemade soju brews. “Where’s Urs’s house?” one friend wondered after a couple shots, to disbelief from the crowd. The replica of Urs Fischer’s New York apartment—rendered via wallpaper fixed to a full-scale model—swallowed the better part of an exhibition hall. “Not in the show!” she clarified. “I meant in New York. Where does one find that kind of real estate?” Fischer’s “house” was home to a number of other pieces, including a Pierre Huyghe performance, in which each visitor had his or her name barked out at the entrance, à la Applebee’s on date night.
Outside the structure, choreographers Cecila Bengolea and François Chaignaud were tucking dancers into inflated, vacuum-sealed bags in a performance that would win them the biennial’s prize for emerging artists. Bengolea would have another chance to wow us that night at Bear, a gay-friendly karaoke bar “just walking distance from your hotel,”—i.e., not close to anyone’s hotel.
“There’s a whole page of ‘Love’ here,” Comer noted as we flipped through the selections. The observation applied to more than the song catalogue. Ei Arakawa led the charge with an enthusiastic onslaught of multilingual pop ballads before trading in the mike for a tambourine to accompany Motta and Sharon Hayes’s touching duet to “Time After Time.” But the uncontestable highlight of the evening was Bengolea’s fierce rendition of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights.” Not only could the dancer hit the high notes with aplomb, she threw in some splits for good measure.
Early the next morning, I crept up to breakfast in pajamas, only to have the elevator doors open on a buffet of institutional bigwigs: Sir Nicholas Serota, Bartomeu Marí, Maja Hoffmann, Documenta’s Annette Kulenkampff, Palais de Tokyo’s Jean de Loisy, Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi, and Füsun Eczacibasi, just to name a few. They had gathered as part of a two-day forum held in collaboration with the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul. I doubled down on machine coffee and hit the first panel, chaired by Germano Celant, an advocate of burning down houses. “Right now, the only change we can imagine is the number of visitors. This is a model for McDonald’s or Starbucks, not a biennial. To enlarge is not to change.” Celant then railed against the practice of importing international curators, as only one safely ensconced as the world’s most well-paid curator could. “We have to wonder, why do all these Asian biennials have international curators?” He asked, making a good point, before squandering it: “I mean, why does everyone want to pay to fly Okwui all over the globe?” He then proceeded to speak so patronizingly to Seoul-based curator Sunjung Kim that it wasn’t Enwezor’s ticket the audience was left questioning.
That night, Gwangju really did appear to be burning, with a public opening replete with fireworks, break-dancers, and even an aerial dancer. The real crowd-pleaser, however, was actor and model Jung Woo-sung, the biennial’s official cultural ambassador. Any mention of his name elicited squeals from the (not entirely) teenage horde jostling around us, using their “selfie poles” (yes, a thing) to try to get a better shot of the actor. “It’s incredible,” my PR handler moaned to Annette Schönholzer. “Can you imagine if institutions in the States used celebrities like that?” I held my tongue.
Another opening night tradition in Gwangju is Freedom Nightclub, the extravagant club known for outlandish acts, like “snow” showers or the UFO that shuttles singers to the stage. (“Chuck E. Cheese for adults,” I heard someone say.) The entertainment was provided by a series of boy bands and a coterie of DJs, which one astute observer identified as just the same performers rotating wigs. For a moment, Joakim stormed the stage, bumping K-Pop for “Bootylicious” and “O.P.P.” The delighted biennial crew broke out all their moves simultaneously, while the throng of regulars slumped at their tables, staring despondently at their respective devices. When the first beats of “Bizarre Love Triangle” hit the speakers, we dancers cheered, but it was clearly too much for the local DJ. He forcibly slowed the track, a sign that our dance party had come to an end. The K-Pop crowd roared back to the floor. The people had spoken.
Upstairs, I was treating myself to a swig of warm, flat beer with Camille Henrot, Fischer, and Morgan, when Jewish Museum deputy director Jens Hoffmann strolled in. “I just got off a plane from São Paolo,” he said. “What did I miss?”
Left: M+ curator Doryun Chong with dealer Rachel Lehmann. Right: Artist Banu Cennetoğlu with Biennale associate curator Fatos Ustek and SAHA Association's Merve Çağlar.
EVERY YEAR, for the two weeks following Labor Day, the art and fashion worlds own New York. Runway shows overlap with gallery openings and gallerinas keep pace with modelistas. Last Wednesday, September 3, Rachel Feinstein colluded with the Marianne Boesky and Gagosian galleries, Marc Jacobs, Art Production Fund, and Performa to merge the two worlds with a single, season-starting event that painlessly outclassed the art parades of yore.
Dubbed “The Last Days of Folly,” Feinstein put it together for the closing of Folly, her summer-long exhibition of public sculpture in Madison Square Park. (Inspired, she said, by Ballet Russes and Fellini backdrops, her white aluminum, storybook houses and ships credibly simulate folded paper.) With the fashion crowd distracted by spring/summer ready-to-wear shows, her urban county fair attracted a heavy complement of art people, who would have felt more back-to-school if the mercury hadn’t climbed higher than it had all summer. Feinstein, for one, was sweltering in a latex print dress by Giles Deacon, attended by a young guy and gal in-waiting wearing Duro Olowu, two of several designers involved in the festivities, which included a number of musical interludes and pantomimed actions. Cynthia Rowley outdid herself by creating a human fountain the model Esmerelda Seay-Reynolds, decked out in a Rowley dress and twisting in a pool while water spouted from spigots tied to her wrists.
At twilight, the mainstage backdrop (Feinstein’s full-rigger) lit up with a Tony Oursler/Constance DeJong projection and whispers of “Who is that!” ricocheted through a crowd captivated by Angela McCluskey, one of two singers (Kalup Linzy was the other) who stopped pedestrian traffic in the park. (Linzy sang “Tight Pussy.”) There was more, a lot more—and a bang-up afterparty at Neue House, where summer tans deepened in the artificial light and the bar served minicans of Sofia, the blanc-de-blancs donated by Sofia Coppola and produced by her father’s winery.
The season began in earnest on Thursday with, by my count, sixteen galleries opening in Chelsea alone. Uptown, Dominique Lévy relieved the pressure with a lunchtime press preview of her quiet, maybe somnolent, Roman Opalka show including white-on-gray numbers paintings. Before his death in 2011, Opalka painted five million numerals on 233 canvases. That’s devotion! “Opalka’s paintings give you the chance to experience the passage of time like no one else,” Lévy said. Except maybe On Kawara or Alfred Jensen?
Downstairs, Emmanuel Perrotin was passing the time till his dinner at the Monkey Bar with “Float,” beaded Pop cartoons by the Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri, who added a couple of canvases with surfaces like the icing of a birthday cake stuck with a collection of threatening knives. Meanwhile, down in Chelsea, the industrious Nick Cave was withstanding an all-day preview of his double show at both of Jack Shainman’s Manhattan galleries, no Sound Suits in either one. But there were plenty of reclaimed ceramic tchotchkes fixed within treelike assemblages, contemptible racial caricatures reframed as objects deserving sympathy, and gumshoe getups freighted with bling.
The preview went late and by the time night fell, the streets of Chelsea were clogged with so many people that either art now really is a public entertainment or every art school in the world sent its graduates to New York at once. “It doesn’t feel like an opening,” said Bard CCS director Tom Eccles, elbowing through the crush at Boesky’s reception for Roxy Paine. “This is like being on the High Line.” Or perhaps, considering the show’s centerpiece—a life-size diorama of a TSA security checkpoint, carved out of wood—at an airport under siege.
It was equally jammed at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, where Justine Kurland was showing modest new photographs taken in and around auto-body shops she has visited while driving a car old enough to need frequent servicing. “Have you been across the street to Loretta Howard?” the Miami collector Marty Margulies asked. The line to get in for a group show of artists championed by Irving Sandler in the 1960s stretched down the sidewalk, but Helene Appel’s shy watercolor, encaustic, and oil paintings of common materials (textiles, puddles, plastic bags, raw meat) in the Berlin-based artist’s American debut at James Cohan offered a bit of respite. It quickly dissipated at Pace, where the galleries were so dense with hobnobbing chatterboxes that it was impossible to see David Hockney’s iPad drawings or Paul Graham’s new photographs.
Even more oppressive than the crowds was the new Chelsea taking shape before our eyes. Over the summer, Tenth Avenue, formerly a truck route where the sun used to shine over low-rise warehouse and residential buildings, has been plunged into darkness by the construction of new “luxury” high-rises on nearly every block. These scary glass monsters obscure the High Line and the galleries that attracted rapacious developers to the neighborhood in the first place. Construction walls and trailers, plastic orange barriers, and temporary, sometimes flooded walkways that force detours from the sidewalks make those galleries difficult to access and sometimes hard to find. Pretty soon, after the remaining nineteenth-century buildings are gone, the neighborhood will have lost its character altogether.
So that was annoying. However, when people are possessed, particularly by art, nothing will stop them from massing at the source of their pleasure, where contempt and consent happily cross swords. The troops kept trooping from one art emporium to another like well-behaved soldiers, even a man sporting a mechanical tie that flew from his throat like a startled bird.
Allan McCollum startles in a different way, as he continues to create a puzzle-like, unique shape for every person in the world, in a variety of bright colors—all made for him by a pastor who is expert with a scroll saw he uses to produce Christmas ornaments. At Petzel, McCollum did some matchmaking by showing the shapes as couples. It’s weird, but they really did evoke recognizable moments in a relationship. Walead Beshty, who was showing copper panels distressed by their use in previous months as gallery desks, announced another relationship by wearing a T-shirt printed with a cell phone number—Petzel’s, he said. Another kind of signage—possibly more meaningful for mature women—was Lily van der Stokker’s super-girly, obdurately feminist, toilet paper–stocked, pink-on-pink installation at Koenig & Clinton—just the right dose of wickedness, all told.
With the sticky heat of the day turning suddenly into a pleasant evening, I arrived at Anton Kern’s gallery just before his dinner for Brian Calvin and Lothar Hempel in the garden at Bottino. Among the brain trust of guests were gallery artists Dan McCarthy and Ellen Berkenblit, SculptureCenter curator Ruba Katrib, White Columns director Matthew Higgs, and Kitchen director Tim Griffin. Over the weekend, Griffin would present Mäusebunker, a new film by Hempel, who gave up this food for thought: “Google Translate is great if you want to be a poet.”
Friday night was almost restful. The personable galleries in the Tunnel building on far West Twenty-Seventh Street held sweet openings for Gordon Hall (at Foxy Production), John Divola (Wallspace), and Despina Stokou (Derek Eller), each with something to recommend it. “Gordon never uses gender-specific pronouns,” dealer Michael Gillespie said of the gender-nonspecific Hall. “No him or her. Only they.” Divola was showing gorgeous black-and-white (mostly black) photographs from the 1990s for his second exhibition in New York. “It’s always nice to dig out work you haven’t seen in twenty years and take another look,” Divola said. “My hero,” said a smitten Wyatt Kahn.
Double takes were in order at Mary Boone’s Chelsea space on Saturday, the quietest day of the week. “People always seem to whisper in your gallery,” artist Jacob Hashimoto told the Chanel-clad dealer. “Because it’s like church,” she replied. Indeed, Hashimoto’s suspended installation of 30,000 kite-string-and-cut-paper collages was awesome—and tranquil. Hempel’s film had harder edges, due partly to crisp, noir-lighted cinematography and to a dazzling montage of one thousand downloaded examples of Brutalist architecture all over the world. He expects to keep producing new editions of the film “for the rest of my life,” he said.
Sunday night on the Lower East Side felt like a lifetime, so allover and numerous were the openings. But that afternoon, to give Fashion Week a nod, several art-world personalities (Kim Gordon, K8 Hardy, Felix Burrichter, Casey Spooner) showed up at the west side Standard Hotel to watch models-for-a-day (artists) walk the Alex Da Corte–designed runway with willowy professionals to present springy numbers by the design team Eckhaus Latta. The music was live, the clothing clever, and the choreography tribal.
After that, the solo reperformance of James Lee Byars’s 1965 The Mile-Long Paper Walk at the Museum of Modern Art (where else to find pale imitations of onetime events?) felt isolating. Its antipode was in the madhouse of Team Gallery’s receptions for Cory Arcangel (on Wooster Street) and Ryan McGinley on Grand Street, where the walls and ceilings were totally plastered with 750 appealing young, naked, and not necessarily nubile persons posing against color, Holbein-like seamless backdrops.
Left: Artists John Divola and James Welling. Right: Artist David Benjamin Sherry.
By dinnertime my feet were blistered and bloody just from keeping pace around the LES. On Eldridge Street, Miguel Abreu proudly hosted a reception for Jean-Luc Moulène at the block-through space he has developed above a parking garage (David Lewis Gallery is another tenant), and the cantankerously droll Peter Fend fended off admirers of his signage at the unmarked Essex Street Gallery. “My mother always told me, ‘Be useful as well as ornamental,’ ” he said.
Simon Preston, Nicelle Beauchene, and Jack Hanley were all seeing heavy action on Broome Street, as were Joe Sheftel, Joel Mesler’s Untitled, Mark Miller, and DCKT Contemporary on Orchard, Lisa Cooley and Laurel Gitlin on Norfolk, while on Clinton, Marianne Boesky launched a third Manhattan space with a show of drawings by Adam Helms. On Houston, Participant was holding down the alternative fort with “Negrogothic, A Manifesto, The Aesthetics of M. Lamar,” and on Rivington, Betty Cunningham and On Stellar Rays both opened their doors while dealer Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn fostered a double-header, “Satan Ceramics” on Freeman’s Alley and hot, hot photographs by David Benjamin Sherry on the Bowery, where Simone Subal got on the good foot with short-circuiter Frank Heath.
Unable to go another step, I taxied to Frankies Spuntino in the West Village, where Rohatyn was holding a small-plate, pass-around dinner for Sherry and the ceramics crew (Tom Sachs, Mary Frey, Pat McCarthy, and JJ Peet) all sporting Sachs’s SATAN’S CERAMICS T-shirt—hands-down, the best of the week.
“It’s perfect under a tuxedo jacket,” Rohatyn advised. Got it. Ornamental and useful! So goes Fashion Week in art.
IF THE HUSTLE AT PARTIES and the hypnotic glut of Instagram are trustworthy barometers, then the opening week of the Thirty-First Bienal de São Paulo was noticeably slower, less lavish, and less aggressive in its social engagements than any in recent memory.
Indeed, things seemed a little too quiet in the days leading up to the inauguration. But then on August 28, artists in the show, titled “How to (…) things that don’t exist” and organized by Van Abbemuseum director Charles Esche, launched an open letter protesting Israeli financial support of the biennial, which some participants, like Tony Shakar and the duo Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, claimed to have only discovered when they saw logos for the Israeli consulate on sponsor panels while installing their works in the Oscar Niemeyer–designed Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion in Ibirapuera park.
Their gesture dominated last Monday’s press conference and was the most tweeted and gossiped-about topic in the Brazilian art world this past week. (The artists announced in another letter that the Bienal had decided to “clearly dissociate” itself from Israeli funding, though the Bienal foundation has recently sent out a counterstatement stating that “nothing has changed in the Institution’s policy toward sponsorship.”) Esche and his curatorial team—Galit Eilat and Oren Sagiv, both from Israel, and Nuria Enguita Mayo and Pablo Lafuente, from Spain—stressed from the outset that this was a show very much engaged with the contradictions and injustices of the contemporary world, though they avoided talking about this at length and issued a brief statement only saying that they supported the artists’ right to protest. Some of these very artists, however, claimed the curators had known of the Israeli sponsorship all along and had been warned about the political implications at a time when the war on the Gaza Strip only seemed to worsen.
Left: Artist Yael Bartana and performer Márcio Pantera at the opening of the Bienal de São Paulo. Right: Artists Ana Mazzei, Rose Klabin, and Jonathas de Andrade at an opening at Fortes Vilaça.
The question dominating cocktail parties before the official inauguration was how they could not have seen this coming. Maybe they did, and an article in the daily O Estado de S. Paulo went so far as to suggest, rather conspiratorially, that this was all a publicity stunt to heat up the biennial’s lukewarm reception. All that aside, I have to say it’s a good show, thanks to its bold championing of young talent—including artists like Éder Oliveira, Arthur Scovino, Gabriel Mascaro, and Clara Ianni—and its attempts to give Niemeyer’s pavilion a postmodern overhaul (a glass installation by Mark Lewis serving as a counterpoint to the purity of the Bienal building). Of course, it’s also an irritating one. Irritating, and at times frustrating, because the idea that this is a Bienal anchored in the current political moment, attendant to social upheavals here and almost everywhere else, and opening at a pivotal moment of the Brazilian presidential campaign (with elections pending on October 5), makes some of the pieces seem more like silly provocations than works in and of themselves. (I count among these Bik Van der Pol’s Turning a Blind Eye and Dan Perjovschi’s Wall, Work, Worship). Others are plainly naive, like collective Mujeres Creando’s awkward Space to Abort—an arena made of red cylinders, symbolizing a uterus, where women are encouraged to tell their own abortion tales.
What is cool about the show is its apparent detachment from the market forces now at work in São Paulo. There are no celebrities from the local scene—Tunga, the only originally included artist who might fit this description, dropped out months before, saying his project could not be financed—and the luminaries from abroad are hardly market darlings: Walid Raad, Anna Boghiguian, Yael Bartana, and a score of others are known to wrestle with thorny issues rather than prance around art fairs. Of course, fixating on the bogeyman of “the market” doesn’t get you far either. This is largely the same “market” that has allowed the Bienal to get back on its feet with exuberant strength after its near-death experience six years ago. And even if most of the artists in the show are marginal figures in terms of gallery presence, “discoveries” like Ana Lira, Scovino, and Mascaro represent an up-and-coming wave of talent that will surely be available soon at a dealer near you.
The absence of big names, however, might explain why galleries weren’t keen on throwing big receptions this time around. The Bienal’s kickoff week featured a torrent of openings, including Song Dong’s massive solo show curated by Sarina Tang at Baró; Bienal artist Johanna Calle at Marilia Razuk; Yuri Firmeza, another Bienal name, at Casa Triângulo; Tunga, Paulo Nazareth, and Lawrence Weiner at Mendes Wood DM; Thiago Rocha Pitta at Millan; Armando Andrade-Tudela at Fortes Vilaça; Julian Schnabel at Raquel Arnaud; and Julie Mehretu at White Cube. (To name just a few.) But the mood at these gatherings was often a little sour. One collector argued it was all the fault of this “overly politicized” Bienal. Some of the galleries were even empty when I stopped by, contributing to the awkward sense that this is a quiet season, despite Brazil’s recent displays of market prowess. One notable exception was the buzz around Adriano Pedrosa and Lilia Moritz Schwarcz’s beautiful show at Instituto Tomie Ohtake, a kaleidoscopic narrative with works by artists from Albert Eckhout to Adriana Varejão, delving deep into the nature of race relations in Brazil, and Rivane Neuenschwander’s solo survey at the Museu de Arte Moderna, another Pedrosa gig.
Another counterpoint to the otherwise humdrum sequence of openings was Friday’s splashy inauguration of Cidade Matarazzo, an “improvised” artistic occupation of an old hospital in downtown São Paulo. If the celebrities were chased from the Bienal, this is where they ended up. Installations by Vik Muniz, Tunga, Joana Vasconcelos, Tony Oursler, Kenny Scharf, and nearly a hundred other artists filled the old wards of the hospital, from the maternity to the morgue. All this was to promote the construction of a six-star hotel and Jean Nouvel residential tower to be designed by Philippe Starck.
The investor behind it all, Alexandre Allard, paraded the grounds with Gilberto Gil and soap opera stars, taking guests on tours he promised would be “the journey of a lifetime.” I got lost in the crowd and never made it to the morgue, where something was supposed to happen. I also missed the Indians dancing in an installation that resembled a cage, a controversial spectacle one visitor said resembled those “seventeenth-century displays in Europe, when they would put black people on view for the whites to gawk at.” But the screaming crowds locked outside the gates at Cidade Matarazzo, trying to get into the party, were a sharp contrast with the tranquil flow of visitors into the Bienal pavilion on its first public day, a sign that money, more than politics and wars, seems to be the force shaping the art world here more than ever.
Left: MALBA artistic director Agustín Pérez-Rubio and Videobrasil director Solange Farkas at the opening of “Unerasable Memories” at Sesc Pompeia. Right: Artist Nilba Gures at the opening of the Bienal de São Paulo.
REMEMBER SUMMER? I ended mine with one foot already in the fall season, nabbing a four-hour train to Zurich for last weekend’s early-bird, back-to-school opening rush, where many an art acolyte sought to show off her tan before the great fall fade.
Thankfully, it was an inspiring congregation of shows, and a solid reminder that sometimes it’s worth sacrificing one’s tan (and sleep schedule) for some great art. I wasted no time when I arrived on Friday, running straight to the intimate lunch at la Terrasse in honor of Dorothy Iannone’s show at the Migros Museum. There, her longtime collector Franz Wassmer rubbed elbows with dealers Javier Peres and Florence Bonnefous, Berlinsche Galerie director Thomas Kohler, and Migros director Heike Munder. Peres exposed us all to MeituPic, a new Chinese photography app that makes you look younger and thinner. But Iannone didn’t need an app to look fab: The eighty-one-year-young artist looked marvelous as ever, albeit slightly flustered as she hadn’t seen the show installed yet.
As some guests jumped into a collector’s Rolls Royce (hello Zurich!) for an impromptu preview, I followed Migros curator Judith Welter onto the tram. The show was stunning. Taking her 1982 artist book Censorship and the Irrepressible Drive toward Love and Divinity as a point of departure, the exhibition features more than fifty years of love and sexual liberation, and includes some of her greatest historical responses to suppression, like her 1970 book The Story of Bern, or Showing Colors, which logs the controversy over her images that erupted during a 1969 show at the Kunsthalle Bern.
From there I explored the newly expanded Löwenbräu building, an epitome of Swiss efficiency. “It’s like being at a fair 24/7,” said graphic designer Maria Lusa as I entered Vittorio Brodmann’s show at Galerie Gregor Staiger. “Except that people are relaxed here.” (I think that was a compliment.) Next was Parkett’s space, where cofounders Bice Curiger and Jacqueline Burckhardt were giving collector Ursula Hauser a tour of the exhibition they organized for the august publication’s thirty-year anniversary. (Their current issue features a cover by Shirana Shahbazi and a special section on performance.) Each of the works on view evoked a personal anecdote from Curiger. I would have liked to hear more about the time she introduced Jeff Koons to Martin Kippenberger over lunch.
As the crowds began to amass in the Löwenbräu, I realized the party was almost upon us. I worked my way into the former brewery’s lodestar—and that day’s elephant in the room: Kunsthalle Zürich. There was plenty of chatter among insiders about who would succeed the black-clad, sharp-minded art priestess Beatrix Ruf, who’s moving on to direct the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam full-time on November 1. Three names were on everyone’s lips, but in the end, as we now all know, it came down to that incorrigible wit Daniel Baumann.
Good luck to him! Ruf is hell-bent on setting high standards until the end: Slavs & Tatars precise and elegant proposition “Mirrors for Princes,” in the Kunsthalle’s first space, was one of the weekend’s standouts, combining an incisive approach to religion and politics with bold irony and unexpected sensuality. To be sure, the guided tour by Payam Sharifi, one-half of the beguiling collective, was very persuasive. “Art is to this decade what fashion was to the ’90s and movies to the ’70s: a zeitgeist catalyst,” Sharifi argued. “Which gives us artists a huge responsibility.”
Joined by S&T partner-in-crime Kasia Korcsak and dealer Amadeo Kraupa-Tuskany, we moved on to Eva Presenhuber to take on Wyatt Kahn’s impeccable Swiss debut and a remarkable comeback by painter Steven Shearer. I then jostled through the crowds to get a view of, well, everything: solo shows by Matthew Day Jackson at Hauser & Wirth, Nedko Solakov at Bob Van Orsouw, Jutta Koether at Francesca Pia, and a group exhibition curated by Arthur Fink at LUMA’s Westbau.
“It used to be inconvenient to open before everyone else at this period of the year,” said dealer Jean-Claude Freymond-Guth, who launched stellar shows by Loredana Sperini and Martin Disler at his space. “No one came to Zurich, but somehow it changed.” You bet it did: What used to be a mostly local affair, a once-a-year stopover B.B. (Before Basel), has become a mandatory destination on the competitive art circuit. Freymond-Guth kindly offered vouchers for drinks at the Löwenbräu afterparty that featured a “Macedonian wedding band,” three words that made my heart sink. “Don’t go,” said a fellow Parisian reveler I ran into in the stairs. “It will rain, the sound system is really bad, and even the bratwurst aren’t that good.” Trusting in the perspicacity of French snobbery, I took the advice.
I retreated to Presenhuber’s dinner at Times in honor of Kahn, Shearer, and Sam Falls. “Anyone going to São Paulo…?” began someone seated on my left, while the debate to my right centered on “unacceptable” tax increases in Zurich. How much I had missed these quirky talks over summer. The food was delightful, and so was the company, among them Peter Fischli, dealers Franco Noero, Kurimanzutto’s José Kuri, and T293’s Marco Altavilla; Swiss Institute director Simon Castets; and Kahn’s charming family. While everyone was planning postprandial drinks at Gonzo, I had a sudden rush of conscientiousness (or was it just FOMO?) and repaired to the party at Limmatstrasse. I came, I saw, and I turned in early(ish): Sometimes, when you’ve been gone from the party too long, no amount of beer will get you on the same page as the swirling crowd.
I enjoyed my last few hours in sunny Zurich as well as I could on Saturday. Brunch at Markthalle seemed to be the ultimate rendezvous for the hungover art crowd. After eggs and Bircher muesli, I ran to Karma International to check out Judith Bernstein’s impressive solo show, and then to the Kunsthaus to glimpse Cindy Sherman’s bewildering survey. With Iannone as head of household, it seemed that the new season was all about girls for a change. Just another example of how Zurich is ahead of the curve.
SEND A FISTFUL of youngish art-world denizens off to fete an exhibition on a Greek isle in August and the term “opening” no longer seems appropriate. But what to call it, this sunny brew of beach beds and sweet wine, artists and curators and writers? Junket, retreat, vacation—bliss?
Lest I seduce you, disloyally, with tales of boat trips and tanned biennial directors, first a quick clarification of the context. Although it’s now the site, thanks to Art Space Pythagorion, of a laudable annual exhibition series—Harun Farocki in 2012, Slavs and Tatars in 2013, Nevin Aladağ in 2014—Samos is not how contemporary art typically reacts to saltwater. Samos is not Jeffrey Deitch admiring Matthew Barney smear petroleum jelly in Dakis Joannou’s slaughterhouse. Not VIP rooms by Audi and hors d’oeuvres by Rolex. Not glittering yachts and infinity edges. Samos, my Greek friends report, is not Mykonos, not Santorini, not Rhodes. In other words, Samos is so not where you’d expect a Munich entrepreneur, Kurt Schwarz, and his Greek-born wife, Chiona Xanthopoulou-Schwarz, to plant a new art institution.
Off the beach and into Pythagorion, via silver chartered bus, we went Monday night for the opening of Aladağ’s “Borderline,” a rumination on migration, the murkiness of cultural identity, the malleability of boundaries, and, of course, borders of any and all kinds. Such themes have been on the mind and in the work of the Turkish-born, Germany-raised artist for some time now, so there was less surprise upon encountering the display than a certain incitement to reconsider. To reconsider the water in which I had just swum, the backdrop to my hotel room’s picture-perfect view, the imperceptible geopolitical theater that beach chairs are front-row seats for on this part of the island, on this part of the earth.
Left: Poet Quinn Latimer reading. Right: ARTER assistant exhibitions director Başak Doğa Temür.
At their nearest points, Samos and Turkey are barely 4,500 feet apart. “So close you can discern the cars going up and down the hills,” as ASP curator Marina Fokidis described the distance to the Turkish mainland. It’s tempting to call them close, but they are only close if by close we also mean nonproximity, disjunction, fissure. This rift—one that facilitates weighty distinctions like “Turkey” and “Greece,” “Asia” and “Europe,” “East” and “West”—is the space from which Aladağ’s newly commissioned work issues. Only because there is not quite here could fifteen wooden coils be wrapped with black fishing rope the length of that gap and then permit, as sculptural installation (Beeline), political and cartographic questions to pass through an aesthetic prism. For Borderline, a video work that gives the show its title, Aladağ navigates—by boat, aided by GPS—along the seam dividing the two countries. There is no story, only the record of an appearance and disappearance of a line, of the “real” border rendered, momentarily, by the boat’s quickly dispersing backwash.
It was summer, it was Greece, so naturally most fled the darkened galleries for the breezy, playground-adjacent patio. It was there that organizers had promised something that might once have been called a poetry reading—had one or another recent “turn” not mandated every art-funded utterance don a Pedagogy badge—but was now being billed as a “poetic lecture.” Lecture, thankfully, is not what poet Quinn Latimer did. She drew in rather than thinned out the crowd, crooned over rambunctious children’s shrieks and their parents’ shhs, and concluded with an ecstatically recursive accounting of oh so many bounded categories that were being scuttled by all of us, by the hour. “Border of cult / Border of leisure / Border of culture / Border of labor.” And on and on and on.
The next day’s gap in the art itinerary left abundant opportunity to test just how soft the wall dividing work and play was. While many had come to Samos with specific duties—n.b.k.’s Sophie Goltz, Tate Modern’s Andrea Lissoni, ARTER’s Başak Doğa Temür, and art-agenda’s Filipa Ramos were running workshops for ASP’s curatorial fellows; Künstlerhaus Stuttgart’s Adnan Yildiz, curator Chus Martínez, and writer Ingo Niermann were participating in Wednesday evening’s roundtable—in this maritime barter economy, a couple of hours of speaking was trading for a few seaside days, and no one was feeling guilty about the exchange rate. By Tuesday afternoon, most everyone had fled south, by boat, to the barbell-shaped Samiopoula to commune with wild goats, the tiny island’s only permanent residents, and to down what felt like the thirtieth and thirty-first grilled fish in two days.
By night, all were back at Glicorisa Beach communing, cash-bar assisted, on a hotel terrace perfect for—well, you know. Choreographer Alexandra Bachzetsis was the first to show her stuff. Then Alkis, the resort’s star cabana boy (does a ripped, barrel-chested thirty-year-old still count as a “boy”?), showed his, and anyone still seated now appeared more prude than prudent. Once the sound system was ours, right before midnight, Documenta king-in-waiting Adam Szymczyk offered a four-song set—New Order, Joy Division, the Smiths, A Certain Ratio—that ignited all kinds of wild speculation across the dance floor. What does this mean for the next Documenta? was the question posed, with varying urgency, to me by not one, not two, but three artists—each trying, clairvoyantly, to read the back-to-back British postpunk as if curatorial tea leaves.
Wednesday’s archaeological tour had seemed like the ideal preface to that evening’s talks, centered as they were on the symbolism of East and West in Europe. Yet the guide’s violent chatter about wars, piracy, pillaging, and plundering was discordant with the mood that had settled in by day three. To each impassioned nonquestion that consumed the postroundtable Q&A and sent more than a few eyes rolling, Martínez, admirable show stealer, responded with a brainy graciousness. “Nice is the new cool,” Temür announced to me on our walk to dinner, pushing back against the idea that only the toughest curators survive. Composure, too, was the vibe down at my end of the table. To one side of me sat the perpetually understated Niermann, and to the other the always-on Yildiz, who was not only more serene that eve but was also, I had noticed, abstaining from the beef. “Meat makes me aggressive,” he confessed.
What had made everyone so tranquil, so soft? The sun? The art? The air? Who cares. Here’s to hoping that a bit of Samos calm survives September’s hectic openings.