IN JAPAN, Yokohama’s a city that’s stayed ahead of the curve. We were told in our tour bus that Japan’s first-ever train line connected Yokohama and Tokyo. The newfangled transportation was so baffling that (absent any other protocol) the train’s first passengers politely left their shoes in neat rows on the Yokohama station platform—only to find themselves in Tokyo, twenty miles away, parted from their footwear.
Apparently, Yokohama’s progressive leanings extend to the realm of the art festival. While it seems that other major biennials and triennials will stick with the imported star-curator model until kingdom come, the Yokohama Triennale’s organizers took a bold step this time around, making artist Yasumasa Morimura this edition’s artistic director. Famous for his self-portraits dressed up as everyone from Marilyn to Van Gogh, Morimura has a relatively short curatorial resume. Which, in the context, was a point in his favor: As the organizing committee put it, the 2011 earthquake and ensuing disasters marked “a great change in the Japanese consciousness,” which had people seeking out “the flexible concepts and views of artists.”
Flexible indeed. Morimura gave the triennial a theme (“oblivion”) inspired by a book (Ray Bradbury’s Farhenheit 451), and divided work by sixty-five artists into eleven chapters, each with a header and poetic explanation. Chapter Eight, for example, read: “We are helpless wanderers drifting between the waves of life and death, and the flashing light of the actual slide show.”
Left: Artist Residency Tokyo's Johnnie Walker and Kafka. Right: Blum & Poe Tokyo director Ashley Rawlings.
On opening day, we were all handed special-edition bottles of triennial water. Good thing, too: In between rainy season and typhoon season, this was the hottest time of the year. At the Yokohama Museum of Art—the triennial’s main venue—the central AC was on full blast, the edifice’s granite network of terraces and steps cool to the touch. A crowd both international and Japanese wandered through a labyrinthine route that doubled back and forth, winding past rickety, mechanized musical instruments by Yuko Mohri and then snaking around a lectern, where a queue of people waited to flip through the pages of a Taschen-sized book by the group Moe Nai Ko To Ba that contained historical texts whose authors dealt with censorship and, of course, oblivion.
We navigated past giant red chairs and a monstrous clacking gavel—where a collective called the Temporary Foundation will stage a mock trial of sorts—and followed an elevator down to one of Gregor Schneider’s unsettling environments: German Angst, a dim, windowless concrete basement where bolder visitors could don a pair of galoshes and stomp about in a shallow pit of mud. (More unsettling, to some, was the prospect of plunging their feet into rubber boots that had borne the sweaty hooves of so many before them.)
Everyone regrouped at a midday press conference, where one critic in the audience tried linking the fact that Morimura was an artist to the triennial’s theme of oblivion. “You’re an artist; your work might be forgotten. So there’s a sense of crisis there. I wonder if that’s your starting point?”
But Morimura, it became clear, saw oblivion as something to be embraced as much as feared. “Some people speak in a loud voice, so we tend to focus on those people. But there’s also the world of silence and whispers,” he said.
And added: “There’s a huge amount of failure. We want to say it’s not meaningless to look at these things.”
No doubt that philosophy fueled his fondness for Michael Landy’s gargantuan Art Bin, given pride of place at the center of the museum’s atrium, dwarfing all around it. Landy’s piece (first shown in the South London Gallery) is a receptacle for other artists to dump their unwanted creations, and, one by one, as a crowd took photos, local artists processed up a narrow two-flight staircase to toss out their canvases, photos, and sculptural appendages. Morimura himself led the way by discarding a giant photograph of himself dressed as Frida Kahlo.
Why’d he choose to dump that piece? “It’s so big,” he explained to me lugubriously, “When I ask places to contain it, they refuse—which is why it’s a very sad piece of work.”
A couple hours later, mourning gave way to celebration a fifteen-minute walk away at the triennial’s other main venue, Shinko Pier. There, as faint gusts of river breeze seeped into the exhibition hall, a spectacle-seeking crowd had gathered around artist Miwa Yanagi’s latest project. At first glance, it was a hot-pink RV of some kind. But as a bass beat blared over loudspeakers, the trailer began to morph. Powered by hydraulics, its innards unfolded into multiple panels decorated with lotus petals and fluorescent tendrils.
Yanagi will eventually use the mobile stage as a backdrop for her theatrical adaptation of Wings of the Sun, a novel by Nakagami Kenji about three old pilgrims. For now, no elderly travelers appeared on stage. Instead, there was one very young, very limber pole dancer, who strutted forth and performed for the crowd.
Later that day, familiar faces from all corners of the art world gathered beneath the chandeliers of the Yokohama Royal Park Hotel hotel, competing for space with an elaborate buffet-style cornucopia that would shame a Carnival cruise. Among those in attendance were M+ director Lars Nittve and Johnnie Walker, who runs Artist Residency Tokyo. Ashley Rawlings, director of the new Blum & Poe space opening next month in Harajuku, was impressed by the triennial. “Large group shows in Japan often tend toward being painfully didactic or utterly vague,” he said. “But this show has a clear, coherent vision.”
In the hotel lobby, I chatted briefly with artist Wim Delvoye, who revealed that it was his first time showing in Japan. (He’d gone in 2000 to propose Cloaca, his infamous shit machine, but couldn’t rouse much interest in it.) “I remember people were depressed in 2000,” he said. “Not so today.”
Not so, at least, this night: The festivities gathered steam, artists like Zhang Enli and Gregor Schneider joined in, and everyone moved from the hotel venue on to the blue-lit Seamen’s Club, where the party grew wild—or so I was told. What do I know? All the journalists, lured away by the promise of okonomiyaki, or Japanese pizza, had found themselves corralled back onto a bus promptly at eight.
If you close your eyes and squint, it would almost seem like the professional curator’s grown démodé in Japan. First there was Morimura, an artist, directing the triennial. And then, over an hour north, Ryuichi Sakamoto had guest-directed the art festival that kicked off this month in the bucolic city of Sapporo. A full-time curator Sakamoto is not. Many know his name from his electronic music group Yellow Magic Orchestra, as well as his scores for The Sheltering Sky and The Last Emperor.
Unfortunately, because of his ongoing battle with throat cancer, Sakamoto had mostly weighed in from afar. Still, his sensibility was everywhere. “He’s very serious,” said someone on the curatorial team. “He likes people like Beuys and Kiefer and serious ’80s art. He doesn’t, for example, like toy-like things.” Indeed, as part of the festival, the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art featured—count ’em—three works by Kiefer. (“Shit happens,” one grump said.) But there was lighter fare, too. At the cacophonous “Internet Black Market” (which had the feel of a school science fair) young artists sold various objects and in-person services related to the Internet. One performer in costume promised to be a “physicalized” version of a Twitter follower: For a handful of yen, he followed you—literally. Around the room. Repeating things you said.
In his proposal surrounding the festival’s bipartite theme, “City and Nature,” Sakamoto wrote, “Issues such as energy and art, and urban agriculture and art defy easy solutions.” He’d wanted to “keep the remains of coalmines as works of art,” and hoped, specifically, to get Kiefer to preserve the coal-mining facilities in the neighboring town of Yubari. For years, Yubari’s economy had depended on coalmining. But the industry collapsed. (More recently, residents pinned the economic hopes for their city on a fruit: The Yubari melon can fetch top dollar at auction.)
All of this probably has something to do with why the most poignant moment in the festival was an exhibition featuring the scores of composer Akira Ifukube. Ifukube, a Sapporo native, famously wrote the soundtrack to the very first Godzilla movie. As we examined his original scores through dimly lit vitrines installed in a musty neo-baroque building, you could almost hear the sound of the original Gojira’s cri de coeur. I’ve always loved Godzilla, who reminds me of my cat. They’re entirely innocent. If anyone’s ever, ever at fault, it’s never them. It’s us.
We were told that Sapporo, meanwhile, was once mountains. It was humans who leveled the terrain into the flat city it is now.
“ALL OF THESE BIENNALES boast of being a forum for the exchange of ideas,” curator Adrian Bojenoiu, cofounder of the Mobile Biennale, reasoned over a Bellini and a tomato-mozzarella skewer on the steps of the Museum of Fine Arts in Craiova, Romania. “We thought to ourselves, if that’s the case, why not just put the emphasis on the ideas? Why even bother with the exhibition part?”
We had gathered to toast the launch of the Mobile Biennale, whose “emphasis on ideas” translated to packing a bus with around thirty potential idea-havers, -sharers, and -negaters for a seven-day tour across what some may see as the armpit—albeit a well-formed, beautifully groomed, entirely desirable armpit—of Romania. The biennial’s founders, Bojenoiu and artist Alexandru Niculescu, had earned street cred as the minds behind Club Electroputere, an artist-run space based in the old cultural center of a factory that once produced locomotive engines. While many artists may have decamped to Bucharest or Cluj, Bojenoiu and Niculescu chose to double down in Craiova, a town whose substantial artistic legacy (it is home to some of the only early Constantin Brâncuşi works to remain in the country) is being mined for a revival of sorts, thanks to the race for the 2021 European Cultural Capital. According to Vlad Drăgulescu, director of Craiova’s campaign, “Everyone writes off Craiova as the underdog in the competition”—which includes frontrunner Cluj, Home of Painters—“but if you look at the criteria, category by category, Craiova comes out on top. Especially when you add the surrounding area of Oltenia!”
The Mobile Biennale would take a closer look (and a gazillion Instagrams) at what Drăgulescu was talking about during its weeklong exploration of Oltenia. Club Electroputere had tried a beta version of the trip two years ago that attempted to cover all of Romania. “That was way too intense,” Niculescu confessed. “Romania is a big country.” Oltenia was a much more accommodating size, with a stunning mix of topographies—from the lush, boat-lined bays of the Danube, to the watermelon-bearing flatlands, to the pristine Transalpina, running along the ridges of the Carpathian mountains—all within a two- or three-hour drive.
The biennial’s championing of “Mobility” may have deemphasized place conceptually, but that didn’t mean the participants—all either invited or selected through an open call—didn’t have every opportunity to play the tourist. The itinerary included a photo op at the Iron Gate II (which sounds straight out of Westeros but is in fact a hydroelectric dam); a pilgrimage to Brâncuşi’s Endless Column at Târgu Jiu; and a brief respite at a chalet in Turcinești, where Niculescu and Dan Vezentan’s Cannibal Disco party featured a human-shaped mirror-ball roasting on a spit over red neon “flames.” Along the way, there were monasteries, mammoth caves, and hot springs galore, not to mention—crucially—outposts to replenish supplies of alcohol and cigarettes. And yes, there were the nightly presentations, more or less formal, though the real conversations raged over bottles of red wine and roadside tuică. Topics skittered from what it might mean for an artist to take responsibility for his or her work to whether an artist could ever effectively comment on another culture to who was left behind on a mountaintop (a conversation I missed, being one of the ones left behind on a mountaintop).
The first major stop was Port Cultural Cetate, a former agricultural port on the Danube, recently transformed into a lovely holiday haven and artist residency by its new owner, celebrity dissident, poet, writer, and sometime vintner Mircea Dinescu. “The whole country has seen this house,” curator Raluca Velisar explained. “Dinescu hosts a talk show where he invites guests here and cooks a meal for them.” “Like Martha Stewart?” ventured Vilnius-based curator Juste Jonutyte. Velisar responded with a wry smile: “Not exactly.”
That evening would culminate in a midnight buffet served dockside to the sounds of Impex, a trio fronted by Dinescu’s violin-wielding son, Andrei Dinescu, who himself is best known as a member of Steaua de Mare (“Starfish”), popular for their electronica spin on Romanian folk music. First, however, we paid a call to Cetate Arts Danube, the neighboring artist residency program launched by Joana Grevers, collector, patron, and founder of Bucharest’s 418 Gallery. The sprawling estate had belonged to her family before communism. By the time Grevers was able to buy it back, many of the buildings had fallen into disrepair, including the magnificent stables, whose collapsed roof had allowed plants to colonize the building. Still, Grevers had managed to retool a hulking barn as the “Cetate Atelier la Dunăre,” a studio space for residents, and the property’s small chapel had been completely redesigned by architect Alexandra Afrăsinei. “I think it’s always best to start with a chapel,” Grevers mused, as we sipped a local rosé wine beside the lavender fields. (She could have said anything at that moment and I would have agreed.)
The following evening we settled into a cabana outside Eșelnița, where, with a little ingenuity and a lot of extension cords, we were able to set up a riverside screening of The Ister, a 2004 film by David Barison and Daniel Ross that travels up the Danube while revisiting Martin Heidegger’s interpretation of Hölderlin’s hymn to the river. As Bernard Stiegler voiced his thoughts on Prometheus on-screen, across the river, Zeus himself decided to weigh in, unleashing one of the most stunning thunderstorms any of us had ever witnessed. The lightning began over the Serbian highlands, but it soon swept to the Romanian side of the river, eventually drenching the hotel with a downpour as mighty as the light show.
In the morning we would learn that the storm had flooded a large part of the region, leaving some of our route blocked. No matter. While participants were dutifully awed by official stops like the Tismana Monastery or the Rovinari open pit mines, we were just as content with spontaneous stops for cigarettes and alcohol. Smoke breaks were held in the strangest of places—on a speedboat in the Danube, in a cave outside the spa town of Herculane. “You know what they say,” chided architect Thomas Tsang. “When in Romania…”
Left: Steaua de Mare (“Starfish”) practices at Port Cultural Cetate. Right: Cannibal Disco party in Turcineşti.
Rumored to have been founded in 102 AD by Emperor Traian—responsible for the “Roman” in Romania—over the centuries, Herculane has hosted the elites of myriad empires, from Marcus Aurelius to Franz Joseph I and his wife Elizabeth (immortalized on film as Princess Sisi). During the land grabs of privatization, many of the town’s more jaw-dropping Austrian Baroque mansions were snapped up on the cheap, and they now belong to people who can’t afford to maintain them but refuse to let them go. “I mean, you could sink a million dollars into fixing up one of these buildings, but then you would never see that money again, so long as the rest of the infrastructure isn’t here,” illustrator Alex Neagu lamented. Perhaps the most impressive building of all, the Imperial Austrian Baths, sits boarded up, its badly patched windows offering glimpses of the grandeur (marble tiles, gilded chandeliers, indoor fountains, etc) within. Upon discovering a door with its bottom panel kicked in, we couldn’t resist a little bathhouse B&E. Inside, the long corridors were lined with stall after stall of private baths where emperors could come to soak their troubles away. “Talk about a spot for a biennial,” Bojenoiu cooed, with an appreciative whistle.
On the last day, we fudged the rules slightly, slipping out of Oltenia and into the neighboring region of Transylvania to visit the home of artists Lia and Dan Perjovschi in Sibiu. Lia greeted us with platters of local delicacies and her home-brewed wonder tea, before indulging us with a tour of her archives, which she has organized by shelves: “The Earth, The Body, Science, Culture, The Universe…” The stacks of books were propped up by jars full of such museum store finds as a magnetic Obama finger puppet and a breath spray promising to help users “Understand Modern Art.” (“I don’t really care for that kind of irony,” she admitted, “but I thought it was important to acknowledge that it’s out there.”) The artist maintained that she is more strategic in her acquisitions than her “collector” husband. “Dan just wants to buy any and everything. I have to be more selective. I never buy anything above the budget of fifty euros,” Lia glanced affectionately at her spouse. “Dan’s more successful; he doesn’t have to think about budgets.”
Left: Artist Mihai Barabancea at a stop along the Transalpina. Right: Artist Jonas Lozoraitis at a stop along the Transalpina.
Lia envisions her archive functioning as a Knowledge Museum. “Knowledge is expensive, but knowledge is also survival,”she continued. “Someone asked me if I thought we had landed on the moon. Did we actually land? I believe we did. But if we didn’t…? What does it matter, whether or not we actually went there?”
One place the Perjovschis won’t be going is the MNAC, Bucharest’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which in 2004 relocated to the gargantuan Palace of the Parliament, the world’s second-largest administrative building (after the Pentagon), as well as its heaviest. “It’s like we’re in a village, where there’s one big house, and you make your parties, your funerals, and your politics all under the same roof,” Lia snapped. “Why the provincialism? We can afford to build these things their own buildings!”
Half the group had to catch the train to Bucharest, but Dan led the stragglers on a walking tour of shamelessly charming Sibiu, which already had its turn as Cultural Capital in 2007. Over a stop for—what else?—cigarettes and alcohol, talk turned to the next Mobile Biennale, which is considering a tour of Hong Kong. Even more pressingly, the MNAC had offered the Biennale an exhibition of its own this coming November. What would a biennial dedicated to ideas have to show for itself? “We’ll have to think about it,” Niculescu shrugged. And just like that, we were planning the afterparty.
WHILE SQUEEZING into a diminutive plane in Denver the Wednesday before last, the group of art-worlders en route to the Aspen Art Museum’s tenth annual three-day ArtCrush benefit auction and bacchanal were barraged with a squawk: “But I ran that gallery! That really pisses me off!” A dealer, oblivious to the range of his broadcast, lambasted an unnamed colleague on the phone. “Ohhh my gahhhhdd, she’s unmerciful!” he proceeded. “You’ve got to do something like this ultra, ultra quietly!” As giggles matured into cautionary laughter, a journalist sitting across the aisle finally alerted the yapper to his self-sabotage—the first shushing of the weekend.
From the moment I arrived in Aspen, the topic of conversation was paper—that is, the Prodema (a wood veneer–encased composite of paper and resin) latticework facade of the new Shigeru Ban–designed museum. “What will happens when it rains?” clucked locals, though presumably the Pritzker Prize–winning architect had already accounted for inclement weather. Sited with an unparalleled view of the Continental Divide, Ban’s first museum in the US achieves an effect both modest and transcendent, with an exposed truss ceiling, walkable skylights, and a glass curtain wall meant to emphasize the transparency and hospitality of the institution. The museum is funded entirely by private donors whose endowment will guarantee free entry—a lark in a city where coffee shops advertise specifically to the Prada-clad.
Left: Sarah Hoover, Nancy Magoon, and artist Tom Sachs. Right: Dealer Jeanne Greenberg-Rohatyn. (Photos: Billy Farrell/BFAnyc.com)
Expensive duds were on parade later that evening at Amy and John Phelan’s palatial mountain lodge for WineCrush, the benefit’s kickoff event. Aspen-based collectors Nancy and Robert Magoon and Soledad and Bob Hurst rubbed shoulders with museum kin (Adam Weinberg, Peter Eleey) and artists (Fred Tomaselli, Marilyn Minter, Lorna Simpson, Tomma Abts) on immaculate white carpets. As the room flooded with blondes in beige, Frieze’s Dan Fox pointed to an Ed Ruscha text painting—its familiar alpine view improbably trumped by the Phelan’s vista to Independence Pass—noting the increasing appositeness of its slogan: IT’S RIDICULOUS.
Dealer Tanya Bonakdar flitted to our perch near a baroque pool table and we gabbed about Ernesto Neto, the recipient of this year’s Aspen Art Award, whose immersive exhibition “Gratitude” is the swan song of the “old” AAM. His installations, evoking candy-colored versions of Alain Renais’s time machine in Je t’aime Je t’aime, require viewers to lie in Savasana on a Marimekko-like platform. As we extolled the democratic persuasions of the piece (imagine the Magoons doing yoga alongside Aspen’s rucksackers), Bonakdar countered that it was in fact the gummy bears that had become Aspen’s common denominator. Indeed, the herbaceous sweets, a local favorite since Colorado’s first legal marijuana stores opened in January, surfaced several times over the weekend. Gabriel Kuri quipped that fellow attendee Lance Armstrong could host next year’s benefit, “PotCrush,” and even Governor John W. Hickenlooper felt the buzz when he later exclaimed, “I’m going to get you all some legal marijuana!” quickly recanting, “Don’t tweet that!”
Conversation turned to sport over dinner. Richard Phillips flipped through images of his race car on his iPhone and the dapper Simon Beriro recalled hiking the Camino de Santiago. As the outfit of ten sommeliers served a 1998 Chateau D’Yquem dessert wine, the crowd took to the dance floor; Queen Phelan was unstoppable. We passed a poolside Koons Gazing Ball on the way out to the fleet of waiting Escalades.
Left: Artist Mickalene Thomas. Right: Artists Dzine and Jim Hodges. (Photos: Billy Farrell/BFAnyc.com)
Back at the Sky Hotel, Kuri ordered a Calvinistic Hedonistic—an almond shake cut with Dutch gin—his contribution to Ryan Gander’s 2013 compilation of cocktail recipes. The waitress wasn’t familiar, so we settled on negronis. Gander commented on the devastating effects of smoking in the thin air, though as we soon found, alcohol tolerance also adjusts for altitude.
By Thursday’s PreviewCrush, hosted at Baldwin Gallery and Casterline Goodman Gallery, it was clear that the rest of the art world had descended on Aspen. I spotted Hammer chief curator Connie Butler and Dallas Museum of Art senior curator Gavin Delahunty among the swarms that gathered to peek at what the live auction would offer—including works by Anne Collier, Sanford Biggers, Margaret Lee, Rob Pruitt, and Michelle Grabner.
Partygoers skirted a downpour on Friday evening as they ventured to tents for the weekend’s main event. To get to ArtCrush, one had to pass over a nuclear-magenta bridge lined with Queen of Hearts roses, and through an orange hallway where gloved hands reached through glory holes to offer sips of limoncello. Once the audience found their seats, Amy Phelan quoted the Dalai Lama before galvanizing the crowd: “I look forward to an evening of just the right amount of wrong behavior!”
Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson (HZJ) looks fierce in her many hats—she is the AAM’s Nancy and Bob Magoon CEO, director, and curator of five of the six inimitable inaugural shows, including a boldly unorthodox exhibition of David Hammons and Yves Klein. She took to the stage to offer a magnanimous thanks and a refrain of the crowd-quelling shushes for which she is notorious. HZJ has a keen measure of patience and persuasiveness, as evidenced by the unprecedented collection of Kleins she managed to borrow for her show, and the Phillip Vergne–penned essay on Hammons—originally intended for posthumous publication—she usurped for the show’s catalogue. She likes to think that the AAM, a noncollecting kunsthalle, collects artists instead, a claim that was corroborated by the number in attendance. In the face of conversations that often drifted to the malignant ethics of art flippers, HZJ seemed a beacon for good faith.
The lulling effects of Neto’s acceptance chant—“thank you, thank you, gratitude”—were in stark contrast to Sotheby’s Oliver Barker, who burst into the spotlight in full force. As is ArtCrush tradition, the sale of each artwork was followed by a heartbeat of dance music—after Sarah Lucas’s Tit Teddy Make Love, Modern English’s “I Melt With You” exalted, and a Rosemarie Trockel was ushered from the stage to Pharrell’s banal earworm of the moment. At $190,000, Ryan Gander’s Tell My Mother Not to Worry (viii) barely beat out Mickalene Thomas’s Clarivel #2 for the evening’s big ticket.
At AfterPartyCrush, DJ and violinist duo the Dolls stomped around, but the crowd raged for ABBA. A group of us absconded from the party’s belly to find Neto shaking a maraca in the otherwise quiet night. As we passed a row of window displays boasting gaudy furs, Neto called us back. “Hey!” He pointed to an understated white wallet as he continued to shake his instrument. “How much do you think this is?” Feeling hyperbolic (or not), Kuri guessed $12,000—Neto laughed and said he thought it would be $50; he had asked for a friend earlier that day. “It’s $4,000,” he said, “but the salesperson told us they’d give it to us for half off.”
Left: Miss Behave and the team from the Miss Behave Gameshow at the List Party at Summerhall. Right: Artist Bobby Niven. (Except where noted, all photos: Gemma Tipton)
IT STARTED GENTLY ENOUGH. Pale sun danced over the green lawns of Modern One and fell across the corrugated polycarbonate sides of the Pig Rock Bothy. Bobby Niven’s elaborate shed will become home to a program of performances and residencies before traveling north to be re-sited in remote Assynt; but for now it housed a clutch of artists drinking wine and appreciating the lull before the coming art storm.
Held at the same time as the almighty Edinburgh Fringe (49,497 performances of 3,193 shows in just over three weeks), the Edinburgh Arts Festival has always been in a lower key, sometimes little more than what was going on anyway. This year things were bigger. In addition to “Generation,” the major survey show already open at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Dalziel + Scullion were opening at Dovecot, “Counterpoint” (another survey) at Talbot Rice, and “Where do I end and you begin” (yet another survey) at City Art Centre.
So why all the surveys? One reason is the Scottish independence referendum, a political specter hanging over every feast. As Scots vote in a month’s time on whether to leave the United Kingdom, opinionated temperatures run high. Another is the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow—a source of opportunistic arts funding. At “Where do I…,” five curators from Commonwealth countries had invited a total of twenty artists to ponder ideas of colonialism, globalism, and contested political ideologies.
Left: Faile's Patrick McNeil and Patrick Miller with artist Bäst at the List Party at Summerhall. Right: Curator Vidya Shivadas and artist Mary Sibande at City Art Centre.
“I’ve been working on it for a year,” said Indian curator Vidya Shivadas, “thinking about the colonial legacy from a contemporary international platform. It’s important not to be obsessed, but not to have amnesia either.” French-American-Scottish artist Yann Seznec was there too, with his band the Yann Seznec fan club. With such a polymorphous background, perhaps it’s no wonder he was commissioned to create a performance for the night.
Everywhere the Commonwealth loomed large, though after a while it started to feel like art homework. How many ways can you do postcolonial? Outside, different festival crowds merged. Fringe performers, comedians, and jugglers mobbed tourists heading up the hill to the Edinburgh Tattoo; orbiting satellites, energetic and exciting, mingling, not quite meeting.
Anything could happen. We had just been at a preview of Olwen Fouéré’s mind-altering riverrun, better than the best performance art. “It comes from the audience too,” said Fouéré. “Never the same twice.” I had a strong suspicion that over the coming days, if you were wise enough to forget about art boundaries, the adventure of a lifetime awaited. Caught up in that feeling, we gathered our strength to cross town and flung ourselves into the brilliant chaos of the unofficial Festival opening, the List party at Summerhall.
One of Edinburgh’s newest venues, Summerhall (the largest private art museum in Europe) is a crazy mashup of art, performance, studios, and surprises in a former veterinary college. We danced to a succession of DJs in the Dissection Room and caught cabaret in the Anatomy Theatre. Curator Paul Robertson appeared, with a hard-core knowledge of Summerhall’s secret passageways, back stairs and vaults.
Left: Artist Yann Seznec. (Photo: Stuart Armitt) Right: Curator, Artist, critic, and collector Paul Robertson.
Robertson is also an artist, collector, and onetime art dealer, with a background in neurophysiology, psychology, politics, and art history for good measure. His mini “Exhibition in a Pocket” runs during the Festival, as he roams the cafés and corridors, showing the unsuspecting what he’s got in his pants. His collection, currently partially housed in a set of lab specimen cabinets, includes first editions by Marcel Duchamp, Laurence Weiner, Joseph Beuys, and Tracey Emin. It’s bound to be a treat.
We lurched into a neon-lit basement, where FAILE’s Patrick Miller and Patrick McNeil teamed up with Brooklyn street artist Bäst, who was having too much fun to remain anonymous at their groovy games arcade. “People don’t know they’re walking into an art show,” said McNeill. The same could be said of the entire Festival, where the best bits merge between art and theater and you can’t be sure of anything.
Back upstairs, the decadent mayhem continued. Genesis Breyer P-Orridge was there, but elusive; h/er gender- and identity-bending exhibition “Life as a Cheap Suitcase” stopped us in our tracks, but another turn brought us into a hall where acrobats from Sonics turned their perfect bodies in athletic contortions. I lounged, resting against a pile of angel’s wings until I was gently moved on; those angels needed to fly.
Fringe regular Miss Behave was up from London. Glittering in sequins, she’d spent the past week in sweatpants, engaged in the unglamorous task of ripping up floorboards at the venue for her Cabaret. That’s what makes the Festival brilliant—not the clean, official stuff, but the raw, the edgy, the riskily cooked.
Cocktails arrived on trays to tempt anyone who had flirted with the idea of sobriety. “It’s on a knife edge of Drambuie,” someone said. “Not a place anyone needs to be…”
We wandered into Gary Baseman’s Mythical Homeland forest. “How did you end up here?” I asked Robertson. “I went to Ricky DeMarco’s birthday party. Robert McDowell was there. I went up to him and said, ‘You should know me.’ Though I had to say it a few more times over the coming weeks,” he confessed. “You know, if you say you are it, you become it.”
THE HAMMER MUSEUM, even though admission is now and forever free, is still way out there on the not-so-proletarian west side of Los Angeles, so I was still crawling down Wilshire at 12:30, the beginning of the KCHUNG TV broadcast day, but never fear—not to miss a live minute, I jacked my iPhone into the car stereo and called up kchung.tv.
It was a bit like the old KCHUNG Radio that way. Just voices. Just the sonorous questions of artist, animal rights activist, and KCHUNG host Johnny JungleGuts; just the cadenced, rounded answers of his guest, film critic Dave White. But now everyone’s favorite unregistered AM transmission has been curated into the “Made in LA” 2014 biennial; and now, they’re streaming video.
I listened until I lost signal in the parking deck. By the time I reached the KCHUNG TV stage, poised in a prominent corner of the Hammer’s main lobby, they were on to the next program: a prerecorded cooking show featuring artist Akina Cox laconically making pasta carbonara. “The recipe says finely chopped, which makes sense,” she said, “but I usually don’t do that.” People watched a monitor showing an artist coarsely chop an onion in real time.
Projected at the top of the Hammer’s grand staircase is a video from Emily Mast’s project for the biennial, ENDE—an endless translation of episodes from the artist’s biography into live and prerecorded troupe-based improv. The performers wear yellow and brown tones. There are baguettes. As the video cycles through, the piercing cries of gulls bleed into the KCHUNG TV sound mix.
KCHUNG TV station manager Gabie Strong met me at the top of the ramp. Strong is one of a handful of volunteers who liaise with Hammer admin, the VJs, the curators, the press, and everyone in between. She tells me everything has gone smoothly so far. The museum staff’s main concerns have been keeping the entrance ramp clear, and a prohibition on live animals or other organic matter. There’s been some friction with their lobby neighbors, a more demure rotating installation by Public Fiction, over shared psychic space. But that’s showbiz. Meanwhile the first episode of Mary Hill and Ben Tong’s “The Monthly” lurched on air, with college-radio aplomb. Hill introduced her guests, Aska Matsumiya, Kassia Meador, and Luke Fischbeck, who would “give us, like, a sound bath today,” using mic’d and looped crystal bowls. Meador’s green eye shadow clipped occasionally into the green-screened background, a paused video of a waterfall.
This was searing calm, supposedly—compared with opening night a month previous, which by most accounts was a shitshow. KCHUNGers did their best to be formal and professional, but also push through into a send-up of red-carpet reportage. Mostly they looked nervous, killing time, live.
Then there was the censorship that wasn’t. The footage from the first broadcast day was pulled from the online archive, temporarily, for technical reasons. Sure, for a few frames of a rave scene you can catch the name of the Colombian U’wa people drawn on a cardboard sign, and sure, Occidental Petroleum, the company once run by Dr. Armand Hammer, tried to drill said people’s tribal lands in the late 1990s. Said Evan Walsh, another KCHUNG TV station manager that day, “No comment.” Despite the feisty finger-pointing of some VJs, this microprotest wasn’t censored; it’s archived online, beginning around 2:56:51. “There is no policy of controlling content around Oxy,” said cocurator Connie Butler. “We have, on occasion, asked artists to be sensitive to the unusual circumstance that we share a building with a large oil corporation.”
“Give yourselves a hand for being in California,” boomed Brock Fansler of the Experimental Half Hour, bantering before his segment—a special KCHUNG TV episode of his and Eva Aguila’s long-running Web series. The pair had been contracted to provide AV support and run the mixer. They don’t usually do all this on the fly, though. That day, Fansler hosted two guests in his green-screened talk studio: God, followed by Mitch Brown and his Exotic Animals. (Blues Traveler’s John Popper got caught in traffic.) Aguila voiced God from off camera, using a gray-green piece of 35-mm film-editing machinery hooked up to a BOSS Metal Zone pedal. “Stand by for God’s clip,” said the announcer. On the monitor flashed the nuclear apocalypse dream sequence from Terminator II, crackling with digital artifacting, but the sound didn’t seem to work. Next, a pack of druggy humanoid cats swarmed the set.
KCHUNG TV is a “splinter group,” said Luke Fischbeck, one of KCHUNG’s founding few. It’s a spin-off—and that, far from being a sign of decline, is the mark of success. The station has managed to translate its charming brand of controlled chaos into an aesthetic defined by jarring transitions, cheesy wipes, fades to red, and bad chroma-keying. The man hired to control said chaos is Brandt Wrightsman, a video producer previously unaffiliated with KCHUNG who, armed with clipboard and schedule, keeps things at least moving. “Kat is AWOL,” he told me. “I’m not sure if that’s my fault or her fault at the moment.” But it was the first time anything of the sort had happened. Everyone had been real pro—showing up on time, running errands, manning the cameras, each according to her ability/need. KCHUNG TV is every bit as collaborative, as anarchic, as internally pressurized as its single-channel counterpart. Maybe more so. Because now, people are watching, paying attention—or at least, one would assume—and this raises some questions: Who is taking credit? control? responsibility? Who is KCHUNG? Will KCHUNG survive being marketed as art? Will KCHUNG TV have a long-term effect on KCHUNG?
Said Fischbeck, “Does MTV2 have an effect on MTV?”
“I don’t think KCHUNG thinks about the future,” said Walsh.
“That’s our secret weapon,” said JungleGuts.
While Wrightsman improvised, killing time by airing some music videos, I collected my thoughts at the museum’s café, AMMO HAMMER. Above the marble courtyard, on the mezzanine, I saw a quartet of yellow-clad Emily Mast performers coming back, or heading to, a performance. Or were they performing? They passed the artist-designed couches, the children’s-block set—blending into the Hammer’s generally family-friendly atmosphere—like the biennial itself, all pretty low-key and uncontroversial. And maybe that’s the irony of KCHUNG’s inclusion. Not that it’s a radio station and not an art project, or even an art collective—but that KCHUNG, no matter what crazy shit it pulls, is exactly what the curators want. And perhaps what the rest of the exhibition wishes it was: a glimpse of raw, fleeting creativity; a strange discursive creature from beyond the museum’s walls. But that’s a little bit too much. Let’s just say the other thirty-four artists and collectives come across, as a group, as a little camera shy.
At the same time, how many dozens of VJs passing through the KCHUNG TV studio these months will add “Made in LA 2014” to their CVs? Seated at the next table was a well-dressed woman in an emerald green suit, with a leather bag to match. I flipped back and forth on my iPhone between e-mails and the KCHUNG TV live stream, which now showed Luke Fischbeck’s “Neighbors,” the day’s last show. I watched him seated in front of a monitor, watching his own footage of museum visitors watching biennial videos, work by Danielle Dean and Sarah Rara. If only that woman in green would step in front of the KCHUNG cameras, I thought. Then we’d see how well they all blend in.
IF YOU ENTER “KORAKRIT” into Google, the first, second, third, fourth, fortieth results to show up are for Korakrit Arunanondchai. In just a year’s time, the Thai-born artist has come to epitomize a very contemporary stripe of art-world ubiquity, appearing not only in a spate of exhibitions and performances in galleries and museums (including a solo project at MoMA PS1), but in a grandiose, self-directed pool Happening during Art Basel in Miami Beach, on Klaus Biesenbach’s Instagram feed (even more frequently than Lana Del Rey), and, as of this writing, at the top of ArtRank.com’s “BUY NOW < $100,000” column.
Hype is indubitably a double-edged sword. It places an X on one’s back, but precritical popularity (and market speculation) can also translate to resources, and, more ineffably, spectacle capable of pushing beyond the membranes of the art world. People are clearly finding something new in Arunanondchai’s work; maybe it simply begins with how in-sync his exuberant interdisciplinarity is with how contemporary art is cross-pollinating other fields.
Last week, Arunanondchai’s most ambitious project to date opened at the Mistake Room on the industrial outskirts of downtown Los Angeles. The nascence factor was off the charts: This was not only the young artist’s first show in town but also the grand, post-renovation reopening of the new space that bills itself as “LA’s only independent nonprofit cultural institution devoted to an international program,” but which to date is better known as LA’s only nonprofit to open (a couple months back) with a big Oscar Murillo show.
Left: Fahrenheit's Martha Kirszenbaum and artist Caroline Mesquita. Right: Artists Jesse Stecklow and Sean Raspet.
At the preview last Thursday, small groups filed into a narrow antechamber and sat to watch a short video that began, “My name is Korakrit. I was an artist, now I’m an orb.” The sound of rushing water around the corner led everyone, pupils dilated, into a cavernous space stocked with the artist’s take on Emperor Qin’s terra-cotta army: a grid of mannequins of varying heights and facial inflections, uniformed in Spartan, flowy white shirts and pants. At the room’s center is a disembodied hand hovering over a futuristic fountain and holding a bar of soap, the central motif of the artist’s new miniepic, which is projected huge on the gallery’s back wall. The part of Korakrit, the denim painter, is played by the performance artist Boychild, who experiences a fall from and return to innocence, after being cleansed of the paint in which she revels.
On the other side of Skid Row, a dinner was held in the underground party quarters of the corporate Mexican restaurant Mas Malo. A rumor had circulated via text that Brangelina would be in attendance. In truth, there were more exciting guests, visiting from afar, like newly appointed Whitney curator Christopher Lew, MCA Chicago’s Naomi Beckwith, and the Stedelijk’s Hendrik Folkerts. When the artist took to the floor for an impromptu toast, he quickly fell into an earnest, Oscars-style litany of thank-yous—to director of photography Alex Gvojic, actor Cherisse Gray, his assistant Zanzie Addington-White, and a dozen or so others. Instead of being played off by the orchestra, he closed with a forebodingly optimistic summation of our present state of affairs: “There’s no boundaries anymore, and we can change the world together, for better or worse.”
The Mistake Room indeed blurs the boundaries of a conventional nonprofit. Its fund-raising enterprise is both opaque and curiously central to the face it puts forward. Who are some of the members of the “Mistake Patron Membership” and “Big Mistake Patron Membership” groups that paid for such an outsize show at a fledgling space? (Neither of which has anything to do with Patrón tequila, I only realized the next morning; the mood had set my mind in the mode of thinking in sponsorships.) Assuming the dinner was mostly attended by these backers and guests of the artist, why was everyone lobbied to cough up $20,000 for artist editions in the literature occluding the menus at each place setting?
Rather than embodying a tangle of unresolved commercial and charitable impulses, on Saturday another recent addition to the neighborhood, a complex adjacent to Night Gallery, hosted openings for its diverse tenants, each of which operates squarely within existing art-world domains: François Ghebaly gallery, which holds the lease on the space; the French-friendly artist residency and project space Fahrenheit; the media archive LACA (Los Angeles Contemporary Archive); and two book presses, 2nd Cannons and DoPe Press.
For her first outing at Ghebaly, Gina Osterloh filled the hangar-size plot of the building with photographs, a film, and a theatrical flat stretched with several layers of vibrant paper, all of which were subject to the sequence of instructive actions that made up the title of the show: “PRESS, ERASE, OUTLINE, SLICE, STRICK, MAKE AN X, PRICK!” Fahrenheit’s group show down the hall, “The Space Between Us,” almost serves as a tangent to Osterloh’s show, as another kind of meditation on performance and lines. Inspired by ongoing conversations like the programming around MoMA’s “On Line” exhibition yoking drawing and dance, Fahrenheit curator Martha Kirszenbaum invited French artist Caroline Mesquita to make an in situ network of sculptures rendering steel rods into anthropomorphic forms to anchor works by Piotr Lakomy and Aaron Garber-Maikovska. While there was ample space among the hordes of gallerygoers inside 2245 East Washington Boulevard, like a kitchen magnetizing guests of a house party, somehow just about everyone in LA wound up in the parking lot.