WHEN THE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY Lancashire patron Henry Blundell found himself flummoxed by a newly acquired sculpture of a sleeping hermaphrodite, he simply indulged in a little sculptural reassignment surgery to produce the sleeping Venus he desired. For a collector of antiquities, he was, peculiarly, not precious about the past.
While Blundell’s tastes may smack of small-mindedness, Lancashire’s neighboring city of Liverpool—now home to his collection—prides itself on its own flexible appropriation of global history. In an age of rapidly spiking nationalism, the city is emphatically multicultural. Its strong Neoclassical affiliations coincide with the oldest Chinatown district in Europe, while Liverpool-based shipping companies helped facilitate the international flows of human traffic—voluntary and otherwise—that fuel the annual, Caribbean-accented carnival of cultural diversity, Brouhaha Festival. While always spirited, this year’s festivities burned all the brighter in the shadow of Brexit.
“Liverpool is a city built on migration,” Liverpool Biennial director Sally Tallant told the crowd at the press preview for the Ninth Liverpool Biennial, which opened on July 9, a day before Brouhaha. “We’re reliant on the opportunities to work with international artists from all over the world and the possibilities migration opens up. We need to find ways to make sure that ground is not lost, and the world doesn’t become a smaller place.”
This edition of the biennial was built around “episodes” rather than a central theme, but, in a nod to Liverpool’s proud blend of lineages, the branded green tote bags all posed the same question: WHERE ARE YOU FROM? This diversity of experience was also reflected in the exhibition’s “Curatorial Faculty,” eleven curators strong (not counting the cameo from Istanbul Biennial’s Özkan Cangüven, there to test-run a curatorial exchange program). Making the most of a pedestrian-friendly city (jaywalking is the preferred mode of transport), the biennial scattered across greater Liverpool, even commandeering mobile venues like custom-designed Arriva buses, a passing ferry, and an ice cream truck. The last had been reprogrammed by artists Elena Narbutaitė, Kevin Rice, and DES to replace its usual jingle with an eerie thrumming sound. After watching the truck cruise by several venues, I finally spotted it parked outside the Oratory and made my move. Introducing myself to the driver as an accredited member of the press, I asked him how people were responding to the sound and whether it had begun messing with his head. “Well, I wouldn’t say that, love…” he started, clearly nervous. Wrong truck.
Seizing on the potential of the episodic structure, each venue had its own narrative arcs, though often played out with a recurring cast of artists. One of the biennial’s most cohesive presentations was “Ancient Greece,” masterminded by artist Koenraad Dedobbeleer, who paired selections from Blundell’s collection of classical (if occasionally tweaked) sculptures with a series of fresh commissions by Jumana Manna, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Andreas Angelidakis, and Betty Woodman (who also contributed a knockout public fountain in front of the city’s Liver Building). At ABC Cinema, a choreographed viewing experience cloaked the entire space in darkness for the length of Fabien Girard and Raphaël Siboni’s all-female film 1922–The Uncomputable, the latest installment in the ongoing series “The Unmanned,” which tracks the inherent failures of technology from the vantage point of a future where the earth is already lost. (They set this at 7242, which, judging by current headlines, frankly seems generous.) Over at the Cains Brewery, works sprouted throughout Angelidakis’s Collider, a spiraling vortex-like structure in the center of the warehouse space. Another corner of the room was colonized by contraptions by brothers Ramin and Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian. Their whimsical assemblages doubled as secret vessels for far more valuable works by other artists, which had been smuggled into the country sans papiers. How will they get them back to Dubai? The men traded glances. “I guess the same way?” Rahmanian ventured.
In those halcyon days just prior to Pokemon Go, visitors could be spotted dashing tablet-first through the former brewery, chasing after some virtual beast, courtesy of Ian Cheng’s Emissary Forks for You. The augmented-reality program prompted users to play master and servant with a digital hound named Shiba Emissary, who, as it turns out, catches you, the user, rather than the other way around. Cheng had a second installation in Chinatown, where his 2015 digital simulation Someone’s Thinking of You was broadcast from a flat-screen mounted along the CCTV monitors at the Hondo Chinese supermarket. Mr. Hondo was apparently something of a Godfather figure in Chinatown, Cheng confided. “He told me people don’t just come to him for groceries; they come when they have a problem that needs solving.” I tried to imagine how someone with a nebulous “problem” might find consolation in Cheng’s nebulously sinister gospel of entropy instead.
Resolution (or lack thereof) underlined the biennial commissions at FACT. Lucy Beech’s quiet stunner of a film, Pharmakon, tracks the dubious treatments of a woman suffering from a mysterious malady, under the care of a steely-serene vlogger, who “manages pain into product.” “Let’s be alone together,” this would-be healer purrs, hooking her disciples on her personally branded water. The sense of isolation resonated in the accompanying survey of works by Krzysztof Wodiczko, including headgear that simulates the symptoms of PTSD, and heartbreaking testimonials on the emotional toll of war.
Liverpool has been developing in leaps and bounds over the past fifteen years, but the city still bears the scars of recent traumas. This is particularly evident in the area of Liverpool 8—also known as Toxteth—home to the Turner Prize–winning architectural collective Assemble’s Granby Workshop. In the 1980s, the neighborhood had been the site of widely covered riots, as residents took a stand against the systemic racism in Merseyside police’s treatment of young black men, an abundantly abused “stop-and-frisk” policy being the final straw. Thatcher’s disastrous attempts to “revitalize” the area included the compulsory buyouts—“It’s a British thing,” artist Alisa Baremboym shrugged—of entire blocks. Brave holdouts may have eventually prevented these plans from going forward, but Thatcher bit back with a policy of “managed decline.” Now stunning Victorian houses sit vacant, their windows shuttered with steel screens. “It’s like, you can see in, but you can’t live there,” Baremboym observed. Intrigued, she obtained one of these screens to veil the sculpture she created for an empty lot a few blocks down from the Granby Workshop. If you pressed your nose to the screen, you could make out a softly shimmering biomorphic form inside.
Political action took another shape at Open Eye Gallery, where artist Koki Tanaka restaged the city’s historic 1985 protest, when upward of thirty thousand students took to the streets to protest the exploitative Youth Training Scheme. (Imagine mandatory internships…) Tanaka interviewed protest veterans together with the new generation of their children, many of whom joined in the reenactment. “There were at least ten thousand in the city center,” I was told by photographer Dave Sinclair, who chronicled the event in his book Liverpool in the 1980s, and whose negatives Tanaka had included in his display. “I was a Liverpool fan at the time, and the stadium holds ten thousand, so I know what I’m talking about.”
Throughout the opening weekend, temporary communities formed around performances by Dennis McNulty and Michael Portnoy, as well as a secret project involving colored pencils and a nondisclosure agreement. Originally plotted as a kind of progressive theater at Rotterdam’s Witte de With, Portnoy’s Relational Stalinism: The Musical reveled in an elasticity both physical and semantic, his performers spinning mesmerizing half-truths out of seemingly incomprehensible combinations of words, gestures, slogans, synchronized blinking, and Skype calls to Citibank. The speed-of-light scripts were sprinkled with satirical digs at overly ambitious press releases while openly checking the art world’s reluctance to embrace theater the way it has choreography. “If your disgust for being in a theater becomes too unbearable, in the blackouts you can imagine you are walking from one cool gray room to the next in a contemporary arts institution,” Portnoy teased the audience. Those who appeared too engaged in their own thoughts were singled out of their seats and treated to private performances (presumably corrective in nature).
Left: Tate Liverpool director and Biennial curator Francesco Manacorda. Right: Curators Kathleen Soriano, Sarah Fisher, and Lewis Biggs.
Friday night found me synthesizing it all over a dinner Edouard Malingue Gallery hosted for the charming Indonesian collective Tromarama, who had settled their solo show directly in the apartment of a good-natured Liverpudlian. Videos peeked out from kitchen counters or shoe cupboards, while a lenticular print projected the pixelated image of a couch through the living-room window, creating the impression that viewers were looking out at the world from inside the television. For lack of space in the flat, cocktails were held at the Carpathia, the rooftop bar in the building owned by the White Star Line—the proprietors of the Titanic, but also one of the main engines (literally) of emigration in the late nineteenth century, when they introduced the affordable “passenger class.” Named after the steamship that rescued Titanic’s survivors, the Carpathia features comparable decor to the doomed ship, but its drawing rooms are now filled with bachelorette parties balancing strawberry daiquiris on toothpick heels.
It was from the balconies of this building that the flustered White Star administrators once read off the names of the drowned. Fitting then, that—two or three drinks in—we used it to discuss the crash of other titans, as America, Britain, and Europe all continued to compete for the title of biggest shit show. “I went from an area that was majority Remain to an area where more than 70 percent of the population voted Leave,” sighed Lewis Biggs, former director of the Liverpool Biennial, now of the Folkestone Triennale. “Creating a public for politics is the same as creating a public for art. Liverpool has one, but Folkestone needs one.” Blame it on my cynicism (maybe I should have ordered a strawberry daiquiri for myself), but something about his optimism reminded me of the line about managing pain into product. Do we know another way to heal these days?
Afterparty for the 5th Moscow International Biennale for Young Art. (All photos: Arielle Bier)
LEAVE/REMAIN. TERROR/PEACE. As I boarded my plane to Moscow from Berlin a fortnight ago, these and other divisions echoed from flat-screens in the departure halls as post-Brexit fallout and ISIS bombings in Istanbul hit the news circuits. I checked my phone: Social media was aflame. Six degrees of separation become more like one, and the intimacy of personal experience more fragile.
Conjuring Gogol’s animate nose as a protective angel, I decided to embrace the melodrama, keep calm, and carry on. Fresh perspective was on the horizon as I stepped offline and into a new city to visit the Fifth Moscow International Biennale for Young Art and the future site of the new V-A-C museum for contemporary art.
Dinner that first, balmy night was on the classy rooftop terrace of Bar Strelka, hosted by the director of the V-A-C Foundation, Teresa Iarocci Mavica. The site is part of a creative cluster in the converted “Red October” chocolate factories, and the spectacular view over the Moskva River offered a full frontal view of the golden-domed Cathedral of Christ the Savior (aka the Pussy Riot church).
“You know it’s new, right?” said Viktoria Mikhelson, V-A-C Live project manager and the institution’s namesake. “Stalin destroyed the original Orthodox Church and the Soviets turned it into a public pool for forty years. That’s just a replica of the nineteenth-century church, built in the ’90s, and now they have all these rentable event spaces in the basement for massive corporate events.”
Left: Artist David Quayola with Biennale commissioner Ekaterina Kibovskaya. Right: V-A-C LIVE project managers Viktoria Mikhelson and Greta Mavica with artist Anastasia Potemkina.
The sacred continued to mix with the profane the next morning, as we began tours of the biennial and its satellites. Portuguese curator João Laia had organized the group show “HYPERCONNECTED” at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA), divided into thematic floors. Adrien Missika’s video of Darvaza, the burning natural gas crater in Turkmenistan; embracing mythical figures on silver-painted wall plates by Rodrigo Hernandez; and the network of natural raw materials like ocher, rubber, and hemp fiber by Iza Tarasewicz added supernatural dimensions to an otherwise tech-heavy exhibition.
At the National Centre for Contemporary Arts (NCCA), Italian curators Silvia Franceschini and Valeria Mancinelli had organized “Time of Reasonable Doubts,” full of archival material and references to academic research tackling topics of race and colonial history in America by Louis Henderson; visualization of war in Baghdad by Urok Shirhan, comparing footage shot by Paul Chan to that of the artist’s father; and a fascinating, albeit dogmatic, film by Emanuel Almborg about Soviet/Marxist pedagogical experiments with deaf and blind children learning to communicate. Time was clearly located in each instance in this anachronistic but smart exhibition—a gathering of young artists with old souls.
The main exhibition, “Deep Inside,” was held in an abandoned textile factory complex called Trekhgornaya Manufaktura further upriver. Chic restaurants, bars, and clubs nestled amid the crumbling red brick buildings, filled day and night with glamorous patrons and bodyguards. “The area reminds me of the 798 arts district in Beijing,” remarked critic Hettie Judah. Empty Soviet-era factories stood ripe for development. As biennial artists milled about, we lunched at the aptly named restaurant Touché and ordered extra espressos, doubling down for the long night ahead.
Left: Artist Alvaro Urbano. Right: Artists Pakui Hardware (Neringa Cerniauskaite and Ugnius Gelguda) with curator Joao Laia.
The opening was set for 7 PM, and construction workers and artists were submerged in the install until the last possible moment. “These are artists who put their creative juices on the line,” said the show’s curator, Nadim Samman. Surprising how a little lubrication goes a long way. I took this as my cue to begin the journey, deep inside.
Visitors were greeted with Departure for All by British artist Martin John Callanan—a real-time flight-information screen of every departure around the world. Further on, a floating prototype of a sound wave hosted a swarm of live, genetically modified silkworms by Ecuadoran artist Paul Rosero Contreras. I came across Verena Friedrich, inundated by the crowds, trying to reset her mechanical contraption designed to prolong the lifespan of a soap bubble. “I wanted to make this exhibition about circuit boards and organs, the deep space between molecules, and see what happens when you stick binary code in dirt,” Samman explained. “The figure of the engineer looms large in Russian cultural history. Constructivists such as Alexsandr Rodchenko claimed to be artist-engineers. There was something liberating about this idea in the early twentieth century. Stalin himself decreed that artists are the engineers of human souls.”
Between Ethernet cables and digital screens, I bumped into Spanish artist Alvaro Urbano, whose piece was a hole bashed in the fresh drywall with a wooded landscape built behind using local plant matter. Worker ants and beetles that had come along for the ride hurriedly rebuilt their nests. “I brought it all from the woods near Putin’s house,” he divulged.
In the main hall, I met Brazilian artist Juliana Cerquerira Leite, cowinner with Marguerite Humeau of the Furla Prize for best work—Humeau for her blow-up fighter jet and Leite for her freeze-frame body casts. Humeau was in Paris for the opening of her show at the Palais du Tokyo, while Leite spent two weeks on site making standing, connected casts of her nude form in detail by dripping tinted plaster in yellow, orange, and pink on her Vaselined body. A special room was built for privacy. “It felt vulnerable,” she admitted, “but this is very much a feminist piece.”
Rave culture is still alive and well in Russia, and the afterparty at a nearby factory full of laser lights and droning music seemed like a polite version of seedier tales from the Muscovite underground. But as soon as the open bar of Jameson whiskey dried up, the crowds died out. The core crew of artists and organizers carried on to Heineken Bar in the center of town, dancing for hours past the 3 AM sunrise to a DJ set by Evian Christ and Hardrive’s house music hit “Deep Inside” on repeat.
The next day we were slated for a tour of the site of the new V-A-C museum, dedicated to promoting young Russian art and due to open in 2019. Director Mavica moved to Moscow from Naples in 1989 and saw the dearth of institutions dedicated to contemporary art. “This is the land of the avant-garde, but there were no exhibitions, people didn’t have access to the work.” For Mavica, who helped bring the first exhibition of Pop art with Warhol, Basquiat, and Wesselmann to the city in 2003, the new institution is no small charge. “Art history is infinitely big, but you have to start somewhere.”
Lead architect Antonio Belvedere, partner of the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, gracefully guided the way, describing the design process in poetic language. “It’s the assembling of the sacred and the profane that gives you the civic. That’s the contamination of ideas that makes the space function.”
We retreated to DOM12 for a family-style dinner. The garden became the gossip zone as artists smoked and compared notes on tourist sites. Julius von Bismark and Helga Wretman gushed about the Russian space-program exhibition and seeing Laika the dog’s spacecraft, while dealer Alexander Levy and artist Fabian Knecht debated visiting Lenin’s preserved body in the Mausoleum at the Red Square. “It’s the best artwork you’ll see in town!” exclaimed one of the locals. A few vodka shots later, everyone was back on the dance floor, but this time it felt more like a wholesome wedding party. I dipped out in the middle of the Scorpions’ “Wind of Change” as the room burst into a sing-along.
AFTER ART BASEL, but before Brexit, there was Greece.
In this ancient and modern land, root of a glorious past and home to a beleaguered present, collector Dakis Joannou ushered in summer with his annual Deste Foundation weekend (June 19-20) in Athens and on the island of Hydra.
It was hot.
On the 18th, temperatures in the capital stuck to a hundred, but it was a dry heat. Tolerable. Thanks to a national holiday that sent residents to island beaches, the city of the Acropolis was a ghost town.
Radio Athènes founder Helena Papadopoulos easily snared tables for sixteen of us—Greek, American, and French artists, dealers, writers and curators—for an ad hoc welcome dinner at Yperokeanio, a seafood place in the port of Piraeus.
Papadopoulos necessarily runs Radio Athènes as a nonprofit exhibition and gallery space in a tiny, downtown storefront. It’s one of many artist- or curator-initiated project spaces that have cropped up here during years of political and social turmoil. Asked how she kept going, Papadopoulos winced, then broke into a smile. “It’s been hard,” she said. “But we’ve had a fantastic response.”
Creative undergrounds can encourage artists in impoverished places to vent their collective anger and let their imaginations fly. That’s what I found in Athens, and is one reason why Adam Szymczyk is staging half of next year’s Documenta 14 here.
Szymczyk was in Kassel, but Andreas Angelidakis and Angelo Plessas, two of the few Greek artists participating in Documenta, were at the table, wilting in the heat with dealer Rebecca Camhi, independent curator Nadia Argyropoulou, and guests of Deste, such as editor Karen Marta and artist Cyril Duval—all ready for anything, particularly foodwise. “This is delicious,” said dealer Paul Judelson, passing a plate of grilled calamari to Contemporary Austin director Louis Grachos. “Try the salad,” offered Miami ICA chief curator Alex Gartenfeld, briefly in town for studio visits with his co-curator of the 2018 New Museum triennial, Gary Carrion-Murayari.
Over the next twenty-four hours, Carrion-Murayari and other representatives of his institution would enjoy an unusually large presence in Athens. Credit Joannou—a New Museum trustee—who was celebrating his foundation’s thirty-third anniversary at the Benaki Museum’s contemporary branch with “The Equilibrists,” a group exhibition of work by thirty-three young, Greek-born artists yet to cross the paths of nearly everyone here, including Joannou.
Working with New Museum assistant curator Helga Cristofferson and artistic director Massimiliano Gioni, the sophisticated show that Carrion-Murayari put together proved a sustained journey of discovery. “They really did good research!” exclaimed Argyropoulou. “There are a lot of good artists around here,” Carrion-Murayari said. “It’s nice to see so much fresh work,” agreed collector J.K. Brown, president of the New Museum board. Stephanie French, another board member, was also pleased, but she arrived with collector Armand Bartos in already high spirits induced by a stopover on Italy’s Lake Iseo, where Christo had just installed his latest miracle, The Floating Piers. “Go!” they said. “It’s spectacular.”
Other guests, like the Los Angeles–based collector Grazka Taylor, would soon be on their way to the Aïshti Foundation in Beirut for the June 22nd opening of “Good Dreams, Bad Dreams,” an exhibition curated by Gioni.
Yes, the globalized art world still can be this small.
But you wouldn’t guess that from “The Equilibrists,” where Maria Anastassiou, Dmitris Ameladiotis, Eleni Bagaki, Zoi Gaitanidou, Irini Miga, and Malvina Panagiotidi were among the several standouts. (Remember these names.) “Finally, Greece is making a good impression,” commented Maurizio Cattelan, who was especially taken with Bagaki’s deliciously rude, printed T-shirts and videos. “These artists have something to say about the depression,” he added, “and they should be heard.”
Eva Giannakopoulou and Persefoni Myrtsov, Greek artists living in Berlin, each had fallen in love with a Turkish man. Their film, the first of a trilogy, personalized creeping (and creepy) nationalism by documenting the thinly veiled bigotry each partner faced from family members. “It was interesting,” Giannakopoulou told New York dealer Photi Giovanis, “because everything changed when they were in front of the camera.”
The world was getting smaller all the time.
Deste’s holdings, on the other hand, are sweeping and international, but Joannou’s insistently personal relationships with the artists involved make his foundation’s activities feel more like family picnics than formal propositions. Such was the case that evening, when he and his wife Lieta hosted a buffet dinner and dance party at their home overlooking the city.
The dinner is also an annual event, as is the hang of recent acquisitions in the recessed, white marble gallery at the center of the house. Sculpture by Andra Ursuta led into a mini-retrospective for Kaari Upson, who was surprised to see early works that Joannou had purchased without her knowledge. “He’s amazing!” she said, looking a little shell-shocked by an installation that included figural sculpture and spay-painted soda cans as well as her newer “exploded sofas,” one scarlet, one silver.
A side room had another solo presentation—of perversely oedipal, 1980s paintings by Apostolos Georgiou that were among Joannou’s earliest acquisitions. One pictured a mother lying dead or passed out on the floor of her kitchen while her husband gave a bottle to their baby. Was it autobiographical? “It’s all fiction,” the artist said in halting English, “but it has universal truth.”
Also universal is the will to be social. While artist Dan Finsel, a recent addition to Joannou’s collection, skulked through the crowd with dealer Mike Egan, guests seated themselves on the terrace, in the living room, and on the patio by the bar. The party went late, but by ten the next morning, the entire crowd was boarding hydrofoils and yachts to Hydra.
Joannou’s Jeff Koons–painted yacht, Guilty, sliced through water too blue to be true. “It’s confusing,” the collector explained to one passenger, Jean-Pierre Lehmann. “From another boat, you can’t tell the front from the back, or whether we’re coming at you or moving away.”
What’s more, judging from the distance that the captain maintained from the wheel, the ship seemed to steer itself. That didn’t matter to Paweł Althamer, who sat outside the wheelhouse with Jakub Julian Ziolkowski, their faces to the wind, while Palais de Tokyo’s public programs curator Myriam Ben Salah slept off the previous night on a rear deck. No one cared how much time went by, as long as we docked before Roberto Cuoghi’s exhibition and performance that evening at the Slaughterhouse, Deste’s project space on Hydra. “I hear there will be fire and explosions,” warned Rachel Lehmann, Cuoghi’s dealer in New York. “And crabs.”
Indeed, smoke was billowing from the Slaughterhouse as we sailed past, planning an afternoon at one of Hydra’s beaches. Cuoghi’s Parisian dealer Chantal Crousel wondered where to go. I suggested The Four Seasons. “You’re joking,” she said. I wasn’t. Even though this waterfront café is not that Four Seasons, it’s where I found LACMA curator Jarrett Gregory lunching and sunning with Cooking for Artists author Mina Stone, her husband Alex Eagleton, and the actor Thomas McDonell, who just happened to be vacationing in Hydra.
But really, there was no way to prepare for Putifero, the show that Cuoghi put on that night, as the full, strawberry moon rose to signal the summer solstice.
A table at least a quarter of a mile long groaned with food for the 150 or so people during cocktails on the road above the old stone Slaughterhouse by the sea. Some, like Geneva’s Contemporary Art Center director, Andrea Bellini, and New York dealer Nathalie Karg, were foreigners, but an impressive number were Greeks who came on their own from Athens, attracted by a history of precedent-setting exhibitions on the island that began in 2009 with Matthew Barney’s elaborate collaboration with Elizabeth Peyton.
When the sun set over the Aegean, a drone buzzed overhead, filming the action as Cuoghi lit stacks of wood in two tall papier-mâché teepees, one on the path to the Slaughterhouse and one on its roof.
With fire slowly consumed the teepees, two assistants—Cuoghi’s housemates in Milan, Crousel said—opened the mouths of one of five, beehive-shaped, wood-burning kilns. Inside these primitive shells, 3D-printed clay forms were baking. In the light of the fires, Cuoghi’s floppy hat, welder’s mask, flame-retardant sliver gloves, and deconstructed coat made him look like a medieval madman.
Over the next three, bewitching hours, spectators drifted back and forth between the buffet and a stone wall where I sat, opposite the kilns, with dealer Sylvia Kouvali, Crousel, and Karg. As we watched, caught up in his ritualized movements, the artist raised and lowered a pair of long, iron tongs and methodically removed forty red-hot ceramic crabs from the kilns before plunging each in one of four mineral baths. He disappeared in clouds of steam, then reappeared to lay each sculpture on the ground for cooling. After inspecting his work under a headlamp, he started the process again.
Cuoghi had been experimenting with glazes for a year, Joannou told us. “Roberto is like an alchemist,” he said, “mixing metals with coffee and tea and transforming them. It’s fantastic.”
Art historian Tommaso Speretta explained that the title of Cuoghi’s show, Putifero, is an Italian word for “mess”—specifically the smell of the mess created by fire. “He’s so hands-on, it’s supercool,” said Karg, staring into the fire of an open kiln. “I want a claw! Just a claw. They’re so beautiful.”
During short breaks from the heat of the fires, Cuoghi allowed small groups to enter the Slaughterhouse—it’s only the size of a tenement bedroom—where an exhibition of previously fired ceramic crabs was waiting. A few were mechanized and made startling sounds. That led some people to think live crabs were buried within clusters of the ceramic ones set on the cement floor. A big one, which looked more like a cactus, sat on a platform surrounded by fake cold coins—presumably the toll paid to cross the River Styx. A claw, or a beak, hung like butchered meat from a rope. Other crabs were stuck to a wall, where they looked like African masks.
In fact, Cuoghi had created a new slaughterhouse, or an approximation of Hitchcock’s The Birds, only with dozens of crabs, crab fragments, and other monstrous creatures of an unidentifiable past civilization, some skewered to an iron pole that ran horizontally across the room. “It’s like an archeological find,” Kouvali marveled.
But why crabs? While researching his project, Crousel told us, Cuoghi had come across an image of Hercules attempting to slay the nine-headed serpent Hydra, while a giant crab—Hydra’s protector—bit into Hercules’s foot. She showed us a photo that she’d taken of a tablet on the Parthenon frieze. On it was a giant crab.
This crustacean, let’s not forget, is also a sign of the Zodiac. And this was the solstice when the sun entered Cancer. Many, if not most of the crabs, also looked diseased and spongelike, like fossils of red or green or brown malignancies.
At midnight, the crowd drifted to the Pirate Bar for nightcaps. As if one could ever sleep! What an extraordinary place this art world can be, I thought.
The moon was now high over the port, too bright to make out any single constellation, but I knew what was there.
MORE THAN ONE HUNDRED artists, designers, academics, and scientists migrated north to Spitsbergen Island the second weekend of June for “Thinking at the Edge of the World,” a three-day cross-disciplinary conference organized by the Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA) and the Northern Norway Art Museum that considered changes in the Arctic as a flashpoint for things to come farther south. Touching down at the northern outpost of civilization, the view out of the plane engulfed by the Norwegian territory’s austere black mountains veined with snow and topped by a misty halo, we were greeted at Longyearbyen airport by a stuffed polar bear at the center of the baggage carousel. Thus began a weekend that would bring home the importance of firsthand experience of the end of the world to saving our “brave new world.”
Our first stop was the Kunsthall Svalbard for Olav Christopher Jenssen’s exhibition “Expedition,” featuring specimens of fauna the artist discovered in the adjacent Svalbard Museum’s stores during his five-week stay, inaugurating a new artist residency program. A rare snowy owl, an arctic fox, a seagull, a puffin, and a polar bear accompanied ephemeral watercolors of atmospheric conditions on aluminum plates, as if specimens gathered by a scientist. “These are expressions or impulses of experiences,” Jenssen explained. “It is like the animals took part in the work.”
Dinner that evening was at Kroa, a stone’s throw from the statue of a coal miner and the general store in a rustic log cabin adorned with skins, where tattooed waiters served us a typically Norwegian dish of salted codfish with crispy bacon bits. “The cuisine is surprisingly good here—better than you find in most cities in southern Norway,” noted Kunstforum editor Nicolai Strøm-Olsen. His suit-and-tie ensemble contrasted the northern dress code of big sweaters, plaid shirts, and skintight leather pants. Curator Milovan Farronato outdid everyone in a black ruffled number with Doc Martens and tights topped by an elegant aunt’s vintage coat of curly black lamb fur. The walk back to the Radisson Blu hotel was equally surreal, with people clustered outside the Karlsberger Pub drinking beer and blinking in the midnight sun, as if affronted by a giant spotlight shining down from the heavens by mistake.
Left: Charis Gullickson, curator of Northern Norway Art Museum, and Leif Magne Tangen, director of Tromsø Kunstforening. Right: Candice Hopkins, chief curator at IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, and Julie Decker, director of Anchorage Museum.
The conference “Lands, Settlements, Peaks, Bones, and Appropriation” began the next morning at the University of Svalbard (UNIS) lecture hall, once everyone had shed their outer layers and shoes at the locker-lined entrance. Candice Hopkins, chief curator of the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, and Sami-rights activist Niillas Somby discussed the striking commonalities in the histories of northern indigenous populations. Somby recounted his adoption by British Columbia’s Nuxalk nation as a fugitive after blowing up a bridge in protest against the Alta River dam in 1982, losing a hand and nearly an eye: “We had tried to communicate with songs, poems, and books, but the government did not hear us,” he said. “So we decided to speak in their language with explosives; it was meant as theater, but it went out of control.”
Next, professor Elena Isayev talked about the ancient connections between global populations, pointing out that mobility was the norm until the Middle Ages and there was no word for “immigrant” in the Roman Empire. Architect Alberto Altés defined inhabitation in terms of “settling.” The threat of the other arrived in modern times, along with the advent of the national passport. Curator Lutz Henke proposed the Berlin Wall as the paradigm barrier to human rights, quoting Rem Koolhaas’s description of it as the “transgression to end all transgressions.” Discussing the current unprecedented decimation and displacement of people, professor Robert Templer, director of Budapest’s Center for Conflict, Negotiation and Recovery, concluded with the question at the heart of our contemporary condition: “Where does our nearly complete lack of empathy come from?”
“There is no edge of the world—as you move closer it dissolves,” Katya García-Antón had told us at the beginning of the conference. To wit, that evening we sailed off in search of the Bore Glacier onboard the MS Polargirl, with the director of Norwegian Polar Institute, Kim Holmén, at the helm. In a lecture on climate change, he cited an 1896 article that already warned of the effects of human production on ground temperatures, and gestured out the window to the fjord, which opens up to springtime navigation three months earlier now than before. (2014 was the hottest year on record with average temperature in February nearly 15 degrees above normal.) There were surprisingly few icebergs floating by. After a lunch of grilled arctic salmon on deck, the cold wind ushered the jolly crew into the cabin for some whiskey to warm the spirits until the captain came in to sound the alarm: a blue whale had been sighted. Everyone hustled outside and watched as the colossal creature surfaced to breathe and exhale in spurts that rose high into air. Holmén, in a big floppy cap with a pink pompom, exclaimed through a megaphone from the upper deck: “This is the biggest creature on the planet ever!” Just as a giant flipper emerged out of the water, writer Anny Shaw screamed, “It’s waving at us!”—and everyone went into hysterics.
The forum continued the following day at the defunct Gruve 3 coalmine, and I stopped along the way to check out the Global Seed Vault, which recently had its first withdrawal, by Syria, much earlier than expected. The region has become a repository of global geopolitical forces as the center migrates to the outer extremes. “We were supposed to talk about sea monsters, and unfortunately I think the monsters are us,” Ute Meta Bauer, director of Singapore’s NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, began her talk. With the Arctic landscape a barometer of things to come everywhere—altering forty times faster than many predicted—it is clear that “what goes around comes around, there is no final edge, the horizon is infinite, and we are all connected.”
After a lunch of reindeer stew we watched Somby’s documentary Gáddegánddat: Who's Left on the Shore? about how the Sami’s fishing and reindeer-herding rights—their means to survival—have been taken away with the establishment of national borders and private land. We took a tour of the mine outfitted in hardhats and headlamps, and I asked Somby about a story I heard in town about his hideout in Canada, where a Norwegian journalist had discovered dynamite stored in the latrines. “He thought we were planning another terrorist attack, but we were using it to destroy beaver dams so the rivers wouldn’t flood,” Somby explained. Since last December the local Norwegian coalmines have all but stopped after years of losses due to price declines, and only the Russians continue the local industry. The Norwegian government is retooling the economy for tourism. “Even though they have no real reason to stay now,” a Norwegian art critic explained, “the Norwegians want to hold it against possibility of Russian takeover.” Yet even continents migrate: In fifty million years Svalbard will be part of Russia. Likewise, after centuries of failure by humankind to open the Northwest Passage, nature has stepped in.
Left: OCA's Antonio Cataldo, Sami activist and journalist Niillas Somby, and writer Stephanie Bailey. Right: The blue whale.
On the final day I visited Jan Martin Berg, director of the Galleri Svalbard, for coffee and stories. “Svalbard is thought of as a place of extremes, but you only face two dangers here: going out into the field without being aware of the weather conditions and meeting a polar bear,” he said. Longyearbyen’s homely wooden buildings seem perched tentatively at the brink of another dimension, and a strange energy pervades the air. Snow-white reindeer graze around town among the snowmobiles, parked randomly here and there for the summer as if stopped in their tracks just as the snow melted, the landscape largely brown and barren in early summer. Svalbard is populated by more polar bears than humans, and it is illegal to be unemployed—and even to die. Recalling a set for the TV series Northern Exposure, the frontier town is the locale for the upcoming BBC docu-soap Ice People: Living on the Edge. The solitary souls who populate the archipelago are said to be happier in the darkness of winter, and neighbors often have to rescue those who refuse to open their curtains to the sun come springtime. You feel a sort of instant intimacy with the rare person you meet, like alien beings encountering each other on another planet.
I ran into artists Jason Rosenberg and Marie Kaada Hovden, and we agreed to take a long hike with artists Elin Már Øyen Vister and Victor Costales. They had found a bear guard to lead us into Bolter Valley, so we were dropped off at a dog-sledding camp where dead seals rotted from ropes—last year’s bear decoys—and the dogs were chained to their houses and sick for affection. We scaled a slope between rivulets of glacier melt, jumping between spongy clumps, and coming upon the corpse of a dead reindeer. As we limped home in the broad daylight around midnight, while muscles I did not know existed were screaming for attention, we ran into New Museum director Lisa Phillips and landscape designer Edwina Van Dal, who characterizes proximity to nature as the new luxury. The edge has certainly moved to the center of politics and debate. US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived the next day to check out the climate situation (a side trip after security policy meetings down south, truth be told). Everyone should visit Svalbard—maybe just not all at once. I saw Phillips again two days later in Athens, where there was an extraordinary heat wave: “It seems so strange that it gets dark here,” she said longingly.
Left: Landscape designer Edwina von Gal and Lisa Philips, director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art. Right: Kim Holmén, director of Norwegian Polar Institute.
LIKE THE MOMENT before any big storm, Sunday the 12th of June in Basel was quiet. Of course, this is Switzerland, where the atmosphere is so placid that feathers ruffle only at their own risk.
Yet risk is the name of the game in the art business, or it used to be, before big money sent it in the direction of safe bets. Take the work that the New York Times anointed as the most talked-about in all of Art Basel—Hans Op de Beeck’s fictional collector’s home at Art Unlimited. Funny thing about that. Of the several hundred people I spoke with during a rain-soaked week at the forty-seventh edition of the fair, not a single person mentioned it.
That might be because Elmgreen & Dragset made similar hay of collecting mania—twice, at the 2009 Venice Biennale and in 2013 at the V&A in London—though they didn’t make every object in it. Or because Unlimited also had m.A.A.d., a mesmerizing, 2014 film about Compton, CA by Kahlil Joseph; Louise Lawler’s ninety-four, still relevant, piss-cup photos, Helms Amendment, 1989; and AA Bronson’s Folly, a sanctuary of the spirit to allay the considerable chaos of Unlimited’s opening on Monday.
“It’s a little dense,” Art 21 director Tina Kukielski said, opting for understatement while resigning herself to the number of “smelly black boxes” that curator Gianni Jetzer had installed for viewing videos. “Nice to see Tàpies coming back.” dealer Gió Marconi countered as I passed him in another room. “There seems to be an emphasis on undervalued artists who are dead or neglected,” observed dealer Douglas Baxter, nodding toward an Alan Shields maze of paintings. Collector Bill Ehrlich, on the other hand, was still dazzled by an afternoon spent at museums. “Go see the Beyeler,” he said. “I wouldn’t have thought of putting Calder together with Fischli & Weiss, but that was really something.”
Something else was the convergence of openings for Design Miami/Basel, Parcours (public art), and the Liste satellite fair at the same time as Unlimited. Art Basel people hoped this ploy would catch more eyes before people left town, midweek, for places like London, where the newly doubled Tate Modern would open on Thursday.
Frankly, no matter how one tried, it was impossible to see all that fair week offered, including the shows at the Beyeler, the Kunsthalle, and the expanded Kunstmuseum. Add to that the biggest Unlimited ever, with eighty-eight different presentations of the ginormous and the extensive selected from gallery submissions, and you’ve got an embarrassment of riches—some more embarrassing than others.
But let’s take up the motto that Cory Arcangel would establish at the Team Gallery stand in the main fair and, “Fuck Negativity.” It was pretty wild to see how many works from the 1960s and ’70s punctuated Unlimited: Joseph Kosuth’s entire debut show of dictionary definition paintings from 1968, somehow for sale once again; Christo’s four sheathed storefronts from 1964/65; a spectacular yellow, room-bisecting and cantilevered beam by Robert Grosvenor that has been unseen since the mid-’60s, remade just for us.
It was also great to see Gretchen Bender’s twenty-four monitor “electronic theater” of war in our own deranged time, post-Orlando. Still, one started to wonder if “the market” was spotlighting underserved artists or propping up overscaled objects.
Left: Artist William Pope.L in performance at Art Unlimited. Right: Art Unlimited and Hirshhorn Museum curator Gianni Jetzer.
Those who had not yet tired of art made with piles of old suitcases must have been pleased by Chiharu Shiota’s suspended umbrella of battered luggage. Those who enjoy queuing were also in luck, as long as they considered a long wait for brief immersion in the soothing ether of a work by James Turrell to be the paydirt of the sublime.
“You have to see Pope.L’s performance,” Art Basel director Marc Spiegler told me. It was scheduled for 6 PM. That was now. I ran for the Mitchell-Innes & Nash–sponsored room—and fell in behind a man dressed in a white gorilla suit (the artist).
Followed by an annoying film crew, and watched by expectant iPhone- and iPad-wielding curators, critics, collectors, advisors, and dealers, the silent Pope.L opened and closed a clear plastic umbrella, climbed and descended from a white kitchen stepladder, picked up a white satchel and walked around the space, inspecting the paintings (his) on the walls. When he pulled at one canvas, a thick wad of cash fell into his hand. He put it in the satchel. He repeated this action twice, then took a small white sculpture of a Paul McCarthy–like gnome out of his bag, placed it on the floor, and left the room.
Spectators, including Art Institute of Chicago curator Suzanne Ghez, Public Art Fund director Nicholas Baume, dealer Paul Schimmel, and Swedish collector Pontus Bonnier, stayed put. Did they think there might be more money hidden behind the paintings? There was, of course, metaphorically speaking, behind each of the artworks around the hall.
Among them were an unusual number of super-large paintings. A giant James Rosenquist from 1982 was forty-five feet long. Edge to edge, a new Adam Pendleton mural measured nearly seventy feet. A fifty-foot wide, fourteen-million-dollar “protractor” painting by Frank Stella, Damascus Gate, was quickly put on reserve (and later bought) by an unnamed Chinese collector.
By comparison, Chris Martin’s thirty-foot-long cosmological abstraction, suspended from the ceiling, looked almost puny. “It’s the space where the psychedelic and notions of mortality intersect,” explained dealer David Kordansky. “I never actually saw it up before,” said the artist, who made the painting on the floor. He cried.
Another impressive sight was the congestion in Wolfgang Tillmans’s reinstallation of his show from last September in David Zwirner’s New York gallery, in a room of the exact same dimensions, for sale as one piece. At Art Basel, a buyer could actually turn up. People here are serious. They come to put money on art, not to browse or go to parties (though they do), and certainly not for the food. The evening’s repasts, however, were a central topic of the Art Unlimited opening.
“I just now decided where to go for dinner,” said collector Nicoletta Fiorucci, who had to choose from twenty invitations. Pompidou Foundation curator Florence Derieux opted for her first Gagosian dinner in twenty years at Art Basel. In addition to a dinner at the Beyeler honoring Roni Horn, there must have been a hundred gallery dinners that night, from the Donati (Zwirner) and Restaurant Schlüsselzunft (Lisson) to the McDonald’s where Gavin Brown hosted a celebration of Milanese dealer Massimo Minini’s fortieth year at the fair.
Left: Nane Lagergren Annan with His Excellency Kofi Annan and collector Robbie Antonio. Right: Documenta 14 director Adam Szymczyk.
Selling art must really work up an appetite! Never have I seen ostensibly mature adults tear into Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets with the savagery of this crew. (That would be Stedelijk Museum director Beatrix Ruf; Art Basel Miami Beach director Noah Horowitz; dealers Andrew Hamilton, Taylor Trabulus, and Lucy Chadwick; and Jetzer, who swore off the fries to build a tower of mini-M&M candy boxes.)
Perversely amusing as this was, I departed for the most upscale (and sobering) event of the night: the first UNAIDS gala, “Where History Is Made,” to be held in Basel. Six hundred people bought tickets. Here’s why:
1. UNAIDS, the name for eleven UN organizations jointly dedicated to eradicating the disease by 2030, deserves continuing support.
2. The gala’s honoree was a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.
3. The hosts were Princess Eugenie of York (youngest daughter of the Duke and Duchess of York, Andrew and Sarah), Kweku Mandela and Ndaba Mandela (grandsons of the late Nelson Mandela), and Caroline Rupert, the activist wife of Johan Rupert, owner of Cartier, the gala’s sponsor.
5. The entertainment was Duran Duran.
At first, I didn’t see many art people among the overflow of dignitaries and CEOs, until Pioneer Works founder, artist Dustin Yellin, arrived with his BFF, Kweku Mandela. “We met at a TED talk,” Yellin said. “And then we fell in love.”
Together they would present Annan with a special leadership award. They also introduced me to Annan, a magisterial and gracious person who was instrumental in persuading greedily intractable pharmaceutical companies—the most profitable business in Basel—to make AIDS medications affordable for millions of sick people in developing nations unable to pay for their care.
Thus began an evening that could make any bejeweled bigwig feel small. It had a thoughtful warmup speech by the engaging Princess Eugenie, dressed in scarlet Alexander McQueen, and a rousing address from UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibé, who asked for a moment of silence for the dead in Orlando the instant he came to the podium. UNAIDS, he said, is about “restoring dignity and establishing social justice.” He was eloquent in the organization’s resolve to “break the bonds of prejudice and exclusion, and to stop the transmission of AIDS from mother to child. Ending AIDS is not just a dream,” he concluded. “It’s possible.”
I believed. “Whatever I’ve achieved I did not do alone,” Annan said in his speech, naming governments, NGOs, non-NGOs, and the drug companies as his partners in reducing the tremendous loss of life that “challenges you to do something.” I was not the only one in the room—an entire floor of the black-on-black Design Miami hall—angrily thinking of what a contrast these speakers made with Donald Trump.
“I feel so guilty here,” said collector Neda Young. “We’re not doing anything! We have to act. Trump has to go!” In fact, said her friend Glori Cohen, brandishing a photo on her phone, someone had put an approximation of Maurizio Cattelan’s kneeling Hitler doll, with Trump’s face and hair, in the lobby of the five-star Les Trois Rois.
That was funny, in a lame sort of way, but whoever thought that asking Keanu Reeves and Alexandra Grant to read a poem they wrote for the occasion should be spanked. After truly inspiring speeches, this was excruciating.
Left: Collector Shelley Fox Aarons and artist Sylvie Fleury. Right: Art book publisher Dorothee Perret and dealer Eva Presenhuber.
Thank God for Julie Lewis, an activist mother of two living in Seattle—and a person infected with HIV by a blood transfusion thirty-two years ago, before effective treatment was available. “The only thing worse than being diagnosed with AIDS is learning you’ve infected your own children,” she said. She was lucky, and didn’t. (One of her kids is the Grammy Award–winning Macklemore producer Ryan Lewis.) Her 30/30 Project is giving women and children with AIDS in remote African villages access to free healthcare she pegged as their right. Summing up, she said, “All HIV-positive women deserve to live this life.”
That put a lump in my throat that didn’t go away, even when the upbeat Simon de Pury banged the gavel to conduct a live auction that went on for an hour. “We’re going to be here till Thursday,” cracked a nearby guest. Still, the auction brought the gala’s take to over a million dollars, with winning bids from the likes of Mick Flick, Michael Chow, and Francesca Thyssen. De Pury kept addressing Thyssen as Her Highness Francesca von Hapsburg, but she didn’t seem to mind. By the time Simon Le Bon hit the stage with Duran Duran, I felt spent. And it was only Monday. Art Basel had yet to begin.
This is the fair where you can meet the wealthiest woman in Poland, the richest woman in Monaco, and the Swiss woman in possession of the biggest and most jaw-dropping art collection in Basel within just a few feet. (Interesting that in Europe so many important collectors are women.) I don’t think I have ever heard more people describe the private museums they’re building in so short a time.
To this observer, both art and conversation upstairs was more compelling than down, where the most safely bankable works resided. As collectors Frédéric de Goldschmidt and Will Kerr put it, “Down here we can relax. We don’t need to have anything explained. Upstairs, you do.”
Left: Art Basel director Marc Spiegler. Right: Artist Sarah Morris.
Give me dialogue! Give me complexity! Darren Bader’s rocks-and-mirrors installation at Franco Noero’s booth was ultracool, and Esther Schipper’s was the closest I have ever seen a gallery stand at an art fair stand come to a curated exhibition. With a black plush carpet on the floor, Gavin Brown turned it out for Kersten Brätsch, Alex Katz, and Brian Belott, and Neugerriemschneider’s plywood warren offered up some eye-catching mirrored cubes with paper bonsai plantings by Rirkrit Tiravanija. Madrid dealer Juana de Aizpuru, meanwhile, sported the best hairdo anywhere.
In the Statements section, artist Sol Calero created an authentic (and tropically themed) currency exchange, where she printed stacks of paper money (delicate drawings) and sold them at prices that fluctuated with actual daily rates. Mine cost five Swiss francs. A day later, it was worth more.
“I’m a happy, proud gallerist,” said Micky Schubert of her solo show of photos and sheer curtains by Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili. “Ketuta’s done so well!”
In the Features section, Mendes Wood Gallery sold out its entire stock of terra cotta sculptures by Solange Pessoa, and Dorsey Waxter was ecstatic at the response to her Richard Diebenkorn booth. “Europeans are waking up to Diebenkorn for the first time,” she said. “Which is the reason to be here. It’s very nice.”
Downstairs, I took an informal survey of booth furniture, which illuminated the business style of each gallery. Barbara Gladstone had a table and chairs by Rudolf Steiner. Elvira Gonzalez had Donald Judd. Salon 94 commissioned a table and stools from the team of Kueng Caputo. Taka Ishii installed a gorgeous Japanese library. And when I stopped into the Three Star Books stand, it had another kind of handsome furnishing, Oscar-winner Adrien Brody.
By general consensus, this was turning out to be the best Art Basel in years. Or, as MoCA LA director Philippe Vergne said, “Any day aboveground is a good one.”
Tuesday night, Kurimanzutto, Regen Projects, and Chantal Crousel combined forces for dinner at Restaurant Schützenhaus, a classy gathering where Nasher Sculpture Center director Jeremy Strick, collectors Anita and Pujo Zabludowicz, Zona Maco founder Zelika Garcia, Whitney Museum chief curator Scott Rothkopf, Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs, and Whitechapel Gallery director Iwona Blazwick were all at one table (Regen’s), while Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin, Hammer curator Anne Ellegood, LACMA curator Jarrett Gregory, Lebanese artist Rayanne Tabet, and collector Nayla Audi populated Kurimanzutto’s, and Crousel surrounded herself with such personages as Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Jay Smith, and Vergne.
Several guests piled into scarce Ubers and made off in the rain-swept streets for Dayana Tamendarova’s birthday party on the tempestuous Rhine in the Salon du Cigare of the Trois Rois. When I arrived, after the Whitney Museum’s Donna De Salvo ushered me past bouncers with collector Charles Asprey and dealer George Newall, the Zabludowiczes were cutting a rug with abandon and Jay Jopling was dancing with Per Skarstedt around an extravagant birthday cake that could have been decorated by Mike Kelley.
Somehow, this was a great, cross-generational, multinational party. Few wanted to leave. Even at 2 AM, it was hard to go.
Eight hours later, I was in Oscar Tuazon’s Zome Alloy, his utopian project for the Messeplatz—a cluster of connected, igloo-like, plywood buildings based on a solar energy house designed in the late ’60s by architect Steve Baer. Inside, Tuazon had fashioned a conference center with sandbag seats and cleverly placed both skylights and angles to provide in/out views in every direction. As Tuazon said, “No one owns the sun.”
That was still scarce by the evening’s benefit dinner for Kunsthalle Basel, which was also unexpectedly inventive.
Left: Dealer Massimo De Carlo. Right: Dealer Jocelyn Wolff with Swiss Institute director Simon Castets.
Perhaps to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Dada, Kunsthalle director Elena Filipovic designed a menu that would send a traditional chef in Basel running for the hills: octopus carpaccio followed by a baked potato topped with a generous helping of caviar contributed by collector Peter Handschin. Dessert was vanilla ice cream floating in olive oil and salt. “It’s delicious,” Filipovic assured her guests, a nice mix of collectors, dealers, and artists who have exhibited at the Kunsthalle either in the past, or in the case of Anne Imhof and Yngve Holen, the present. “You just need very good olive oil,” Filipovic said, “and very good salt.” She claimed to have snagged a romantic partner this way.
Certainly, no one was harmed by the feast and when it was over, most of the crowd piled into the general clusterfuck of the Kunsthalle bar for dancing, drinking, and (in my case) pocket-picking that I didn’t discover till the next day. Such late-night fun!
By Thursday, I was slowing down, but not so I couldn’t make it over to Liste to commune with young, independent dealers who all seemed to have found clients for a wide variety of artists. I got lost in there, and enjoyed it so much that I only just made it to the Hotel Kraft for Maureen Paley and Esther Schipper’s seventieth birthday dinner for the delightfully bearded Bronson, an artist adept at communicating with dead souls. “There are people here from different parts of my lives,” he said, after the birthday cake arrived. “I’ve had three or four, and I’m planning to have three or four more.”
Outside, the rains came once again, but that didn’t halt the progress of some to an after-party for Imhof hosted by dealers Daniel Buchholz and Isabella Bortolozzi at Kult Club. The honoree was hesitant. “Oh, come on,” said collector Shelley Fox Aarons. “We can sleep in our next lives.”
Left: Artist Lynn Hershman Leeson and dealer Jessica Silverman. Right: Collector Liz Swig and dealer Pilar Corrias.
THIS WEEK THE PROFESSIONAL ART WORLD is a house divided—again. The decision is entirely social: whether to leave Art Basel midweek and be among the first to see the new Switch House at Tate Modern, or come to Basel afterward. For collectors and dealers, each choice has consequences.
I stopped in London before Basel and got more than I bargained for, beginning with a June 8 benefit dinner celebrating the Institute of Contemporary Art’s seventy years on the Mall.
Talk about a house divided. Having adopted an “East/West” theme, dinner was in two rooms, upscale and down, separated by a salon where a baroque dance performance conceived by honoree Pablo Bronstein entertained throughout the evening, one table at a time. “I’m more of a punk than people think,” Bronstein told me. “Because I try to do weird things.”
But even he hadn’t anticipated the shouting match generated by the (always) awkward two-room arrangement for an auction that raised modest amounts of money from lots offering dinners with fashion designers and studio visits with artists. However, nothing could tarnish the five years of Gregor Muir’s directorship. He enlivened a sagging institution that has been, as he put it, “the home of radical art in London since 1946.”
As if to punctuate that thought, fireworks exploded outside, over Hyde Park—though, sadly, not for the ICA. Royal firemen were rehearsing for the Queen’s upcoming ninetieth birthday.
Emcee Louisa Buck, bedecked in buttons from past exhibitions, did her level best to keep up the party mood. “You whipped the ICA into a state of gorgeousness,” the Art Newspaper critic told Muir, unaware that the next morning would bring news of his appointment to the position that Frances Morris vacated at Tate Modern earlier this year, when she took over as director.
Optimism was in the air. The following day, Wolfgang Tillmans continued his campaign against Brexit in his eighth solo outing at Maureen Paley, where he gave a haunting, tabletop display of blank paper from British and American workplaces the pointed, and poignant, title, “I refuse to be your enemy.” In Soho, Nairy Baghramian literally lifted up both spirit and body, tooth and neck, in her debut with Marian Goodman, while Whitechapel Gallery curator Lydia Yee did Mary Heilmann proud with a retrospective guaranteed to acquaint the British public with her work in the best, most enveloping way possible. “It’s pretty good, yeah!” the modest Heilmann agreed, as viewers relaxed in the chairs she always adds to her exhibitions.
Weirdly, a show of signal, neon works by Keith Sonnier—Heilmann’s neighbor in Bridgehampton—was opening in an adjacent gallery, and when the two got together it felt as if we’d never left home.
Rarely does a gallery dinner anywhere gather together the concentration of curatorial firepower invigorating Goodman’s dinner for Baghramian on the Boundary rooftop in Shoreditch. It was almost a referendum on the artist—totally sans collectors.
Here was S.M.A.K. senior curator Martin Germann and Walker Art Center senior curator Fionn Meade, who are collaborating on a traveling show of Baghramian’s work with Salzburg Modern Museum director Sabine Breitwieser. Pinault Foundation curator Caroline Bourgeois was also present, as was Art Institute of Chicago curator Suzanne Ghez (a longtime Baghramian supporter), Guggenheim Museum director Richard Armstrong, Chisenhale Gallery director Polly Staple, and Nicola Lees (the recently named director of 80 WSE Gallery at NYU).
Friday was a day of revelations. The first came with a hard-hat visit to the new Cabinet Gallery in the company of the building’s developer, collector Charles Asprey. Sited in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, it will be the first gallery in London to open in a public park. Though located within view of M16 headquarters, its closest neighbors are the rescued pigs, horses, ducks, and sheep living at the Vauxhall City Farm. Most unusual. But so is the building, a five-story Brutalist decahedron with exhibition space on three floors, two apartments, and a top floor salon for talks, screenings, performances, and conversation over dinner.
“The artists are thrilled not to have to work in a white cube,” Asprey said of the gallery’s ten-sided rooms. Artists have also provided architectural details. Marc Camille Chaimowicz, for example, has designed the window treatments. Lucy McKenzie contributed painted ceramic murals for the terraces. Asprey has reserved the fourth floor for himself, as “a place to show beautiful things,” he said. It’s all very personal and exciting—and when Cabinet moves there in September from Old Street, it will open with a show of new work by Jim Nutt—his first in the UK in decades.
As if that weren’t invigorating enough, my next stop was Tate Modern, where performance curator Catherine Wood let me into the new, Herzog and de Meuron–designed Switch House for a preview.
The opening night party this Thursday, which could attract nearly a quarter million people, may rival the Queen’s birthday for both numbers and glamour. But those who shrink from big events and just want to see art are in luck. The new depth provided by this museum’s recent acquisitions—they comprise 75 percent of the opening exhibition—and their astute display raises the bar for collecting institutions everywhere.
Two fourth-floor bridges connect the Switch House with the older building, now the Boiler House. Seen from one bridge, a giant Ai Weiwei tree installed on the Turbine Hall mezzanine looked puny. Also large is the resplendent orange, Rudolf Stingel carpet that will greet visitors on the wall of one bridge to the Switch House. The new addition has a sweeping staircase from the ground floor, a tenth-floor viewing platform where spectators can absorb all of the high-rise construction cranes in central London, a restaurant, a members’ room, and several social spaces.
The column-free galleries reminded me of the new Whitney. This is becoming standard. What was way above standard was the international scope and high level of the collection that Morris has fostered. She’s achieved a near perfect balance of object and artist. Half of the works on view are by men, half by women. “That shouldn’t be remarkable,” Wood commented. “But it is.”
Left: Dealers Nicky Verber and Ash L’ange. Right: Dealer Maureen Paley and collector Charles Asprey.
Most phenomenal, however, is the program of performances scheduled for the Tanks and Turbine Hall during opening weekend. I felt extremely lucky to be present while Tarek Atoui installed the ten invented instruments—sculptures, really—for which he’s created a new composition.
As I quickly discovered, Atoui is not just a compelling performer but an ethnomusicologist of the first order. Artisans in different parts of the world made each instrument using local materials—ceramic, wood, stone, glass, and metal—based only on sounds that Atoui recorded. “No visuals,” he said. Small flat stones from Mexico played with a cow-bone mallet produce the sounds of a xylophone, each stone a different key. “Try it,” he said, handing me the mallet.
It was so much fun, I could have stayed there all day, and nearly did, once rehearsals began for Public Collection, the work that Romanian artists Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmus are presenting over opening weekend. Six dancers acted out a hundred works residing in museum collections around the world, mostly from Tate. I loved their interpretation of a Félix González-Torres candy piece. “Take one,” said a dancer – the instruction that accompanies the artwork. Flummoxed, I grabbed her by the ponytail and up she rose. Also effective was the artists’ version of Tania Bruguera’s Tatlin’s Whisper #6, even without the mounted police.
By the time I got to the group exhibition opening that night at Kate McGarry, I felt spent—and happy for a fish-pie dinner on a canal in East London. That was my last stop before arriving in Zurich on Saturday for the public opening of Manifesta 11, “What People Do for Money: Some Joint Ventures.”
Left: Dealer David Kordansky and artist Torbjørn Rødland. Right: Hayward Gallery director Ralph Rugoff.
The idea conceived by artist Christian Janowski, the exhibition’s curator, was to pair thirty artists with people working in professions or trades ranging from dentistry, psychiatry, ophthalmology, construction, printing, kickboxing, and sanitation and see what happened.
Zurich Load, carried out by Mike Bouchet in collaboration with a sewage plant, smelled to high heaven but looked like a roomful of dense bricks laid out by Carl Andre. It’s just that these bricks are condensed sewage generated by the people of Zurich in a single day. For all that, it didn’t seem so much. “It’s eighty tons of shit,” Jankowski said. (Take that, Manzoni!) “What does it say about Zurich?” wondered dealer Nicholas Logsdail. Hayward Gallery director Ralph Rugoff had the answer. “That it’s very constipated?” he said.
Jankowski’s show includes loans of historical works, among the best of which is a sculpture of a construction crew on a lunch break by Duane Hanson that faced photographs of the same piece (including art installers) by Sharon Lockhart. But for the most part, the show, centered in the Löwenbräukunst complex and two satellite spaces, was something of a misfire—often a problem with theme shows—despite its conceptual brilliance.
It also had to compete with other shows in the building. Galerie Bob van Orsouw let out the stops by combining Old Masters with contemporary paintings, photographs, and sculpture. Eva Presenhuber hit home runs with shows by Walead Beshty and Torbjørn Rødland. And the LUMA foundation sponsored a night café/bar/cabaret designed by Heimo Zobernig, with a performance program organized by Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen that opened with a crowd-pleaser of a concert by Emily Sundblad and Matt Sweeney.
This was also Zurich’s annual contemporary art day—and its Gay Pride Day, which helped to stop traffic all around. It was hours ahead of the deadly attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, so the multi-gallery dinner proceeded as usual with five hundred, industrial-strength artsters filling the Restaurant La Salle, a former factory, for chow and chatter.
Orlando still seemed very far away on Sunday morning, especially when you have no wifi and are with collectors on a bus to St. Gallen, and a visit to Ursula Hauser’s collection. It had top-line examples of staples in the Hauser & Wirth empire—like Paul McCarthy, Pipilotti Rist, Jakub Julian Ziolkowski, Ida Applebroog, and Bharti Kher. whose bowl of seventy thousand grains of rice, each bearing a tiny inscription, caused comment, but not as much as the cool Pop work of Nicola L, a badly neglected artist who has lived in the Chelsea Hotel for all of her ninety-three years. That was a big surprise, and a welcome one.
Next stop was the Sitterwerk Foundation, the foundry that produces work by such artists as Urs Fischer, Isa Genzken, and Ugo Rondinone. It’s also a museum of sculpture by the late Hans Josephson—founder Felix Lehner represents the estate—a substantial art library with a unique cross-referencing system, and the home of the Josephson archive. The Hauser & Wirth-sponsored lunch there served the best grilled sausage anywhere, yet I taxied away with collectors Alain Servais and Eva Ruiz, Art 21 director Tina Kukielski, and curatorial advisor Molly Epstein to the Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen and “The Proposal,” a thunderclap of an exhibition by Jill Magid.
It’s complicated. Basically, the show revolves around the intricacies of conflicting copyright laws in different countries, in this case Switzerland and Mexico. Magid is determined to repatriate the professional archive of Pritzker Prize–winning architect Luis Barragán, whose current owner is Federica Zanco, wife of Vitra chairman Rolf Fehlbaum. (Barragán’s personal archives are in Mexico City.)
Left: Artist Mark Handforth with curator Abaseh Mirvali and artist Dara Friedman. Right: Kunsthalle Zurich director Daniel Baumann.
So far, Zanco, an architectural historian, has permitted very few people to see the archive and no one to reproduce any images related to it. (The irony is that Vitra became rich by reproducing furniture designed by the Eameses and the like.) After listening to Magid describe the stonewalling that met her two-year effort to research the professional archive, I understood why Barragán isn’t as well known to the world as Le Corbusier. He should be.
Meanwhile, Magid persuaded the Barragán family to dig up the architect’s ashes and let her have five hundred grams of it. That was enough to produce a diamond for a ring that is the exhibition’s pièce de résistance. If Zanco opens the archives, Magid will give her the ring. That’s her proposal.
It left us thinking about legacies and how to protect them while keeping them vital—and braced us for the social, commercial, and intellectual rigors of Art Basel, if not for the full force of the news from Orlando. Could the fair raise questions as knotty as Magid’s? Offer any frame for the unreason of mass murder? Heading for the train, I grabbed an umbrella—my only protection against the elements—just in case.