Keepers of the Frame

Los Angeles

Left: Artist Martin Kersels with curator Glenn Phillips. Right: Curator Rosanna Albertini and artist Paul McCarthy. (All photos: Annie Buckley)

More than a thousand people made their way to what one visitor termed “the Mount Olympus of the art world” on Thursday night to attend the opening of “California Video” at the Getty Museum. The crowd included nearly all of the fifty-eight artists in the exhibition, many of whom recalled making work in the 1970s at the Long Beach Museum of Art, a creative hub for video when the now-ubiquitous medium was still a burgeoning art form. Collector Pam Kramlich, curator Steven Seid, and curator and author Rosanna Albertini were among those gathered to celebrate the first museum exhibition to survey video art from California and many of the pioneers who created it, including Ant Farm, the Kipper Kids, Tony Labat, Jay McCafferty, and Tony Oursler. At a more intimate reception held earlier that evening for the artists in the Getty’s restaurant, artist Hildegard Duane surveyed the room with a smile and remarked, “This is the reunion to end all reunions.”

The familial vibe reverberated throughout the evening. Service included numerous buffets and several bars; surveying the spread, a curator from Dallas observed, “We reserve this kind of food for donors!” But it wouldn’t be Mount Olympus without platters of ambrosia. The Getty appeared more than happy to roll out the red carpet for artists, an enthusiasm echoed by staff in the evening’s few short speeches. Welcoming guests, Getty director Michael Brand noted the presence of many “living, breathing artists.” Later that night, staffer Chris Jacobs elaborated: “Usually you have to be dead to be on these walls.” Actress Jo Harvey Allen surveyed a crowd that included Skip Arnold, Bill Viola, Suzanne Lacy, Howard Fried, and Nancy Buchanan and marveled, “You see people you haven’t seen in years. It’s like, just the other day you had been wondering about someone, and now you turn around, and here they are!”

Left: Artist Terry Allen and actress Jo Harvey Allen. Right: Artists Danial Nord and Bill Viola.

Introduced to enthusiastic applause as “the hero of the evening” was curator Glenn Phillips, the man largely responsible for sorting through box after box of aging video tapes and crumbling documents in the Long Beach Museum of Art Video Archive, acquired by the Getty in 2006. The impressive contents of these sagging cartons included little-known works from the Women’s Building and early videos by Paul McCarthy, Bruce and Norman Yonemoto, Bruce Nauman, William Wegman, and Eleanor Antin, together with performance tapes and audio recordings, many of which have found their way into “California Video.” At the artist reception, Chip Lord, of Ant Farm, remarked that the various elements of that collective’s iconic video installation The Eternal Frame, 1975–76, “were likely in a Dumpster somewhere” before arriving at the Getty. With graciousness typical of the evening, Phillips thanked the artists, his staff, and colleagues from Long Beach, several of whom, including Carole Ann Klonarides, David Ross, and Kathy Huffman, were present.

Not all guests actually made it up the marble staircase to see the exhibition. The time-based nature of the work, not to mention crowds of artists reminiscing and guests queuing up for space at consoles, created a situation in which, as artist Terry Allen observed, “We saw other people seeing the show.” But the night was more about reconnecting with old friends and celebrating a medium that, although currently in vogue, was once relegated to second-class status.

Left: Artist Norman Yonemoto with curator Carole Ann Klonarides and artist Bruce Yonemoto. Right: Artist Nancy Buchanan.

With many revelers still gathered under the stars, the numerous, polite Getty staff began efficiently folding up the patio umbrellas right above our heads, prompting Los Angeles dealer Angela Jones to warn a still-chatting New York dealer, Ed Winkleman, “Be careful, they’ll snap you right up in that thing!” He wasn’t convinced, but this is Los Angeles, and the event was already running over its scheduled 10 PM end time. Sure enough, the umbrella snapped shut and guests headed back down the hill to the city below.

Annie Buckley

All in the Family

New York

Left: Slavoj Žižek. Right: A view of the stage at the NYPL. (Photos: David Velasco)

With all due respect to the cantankerous Dr. Ž, I was more attracted to last Wednesday’s event—“They Live! Hollywood as an Ideological Machine” at the New York Public Library—by its title than by its star. John Carpenter’s They Live is one of my favorite cult films, a tacky sci-fi gem that built on David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and made The Matrix’s point a decade before the Wachowskis hipped gamers to “the desert of the real.” A withering satire of Reaganite America, They Live boasts perhaps the longest fight scene in cinema history and is certainly the only leftist critique with a professional wrestler (“Rowdy” Roddy Piper) in its leading role. The movie is understandably beloved by film theorists of a certain stripe, Slavoj Žižek among them, so I was eager to hear his take. Admittedly, I was also curious to get a closer look at a man who resembles a Slavic plumber but somehow managed to marry an Argentine lingerie model half his age. Sure, her parents were Lacanians, but really.

NYPL Public Programs director Paul Holdengraber welcomed the full house and read aloud Žižek’s self-penned bio, which identified everyone’s favorite Slovenian as a “philosopher and psychoanalyst with three basic orientations: a Hegelian in philosophy, a Lacanian in psychoanalysis, a Christian materialist in religion, and a Communist in politics.” (That’s, um, four, but who’s counting?) I doubt this cleared anything up for NYPL season-ticket holders, and, as perhaps the world’s most famous public intellectual now that Baudrillard and Sontag have passed, Žižek required no introduction to his fans. On Holdengraber’s exit, the twin screens bookending the stage came alive with a clip from the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, in which Groucho has his belated Lacanian “mirror moment.” Žižek’s prerecorded voice boomed from the speakers, positing the brothers as incarnations of Freud’s holy trinity—superego (Groucho), ego (Chico), and id (Harpo). Filmed segments showing Žižek from a distance, standing in a white void (a nod to The Matrix) were intercut with the brothers’ antics.

Having flashed his virtual calling card, Dr. Ž appeared, characteristically schlumpy in brown pants and a black T-shirt bearing a tilted C (Cinergi Pictures? Communism?). Taking his seat in front of a lectern, Žižek cryptically dubbed the NYPL a “mix of spiritual obscenity” and began his talk in a sibilant, heavily accented voice, further impeded by audible sniffles. Now, Dr. Ž is an intellectual heavyweight. His breadth of reference, high to low, is admirable, if at times absurdly diffuse. But his thesis this evening—that disasters, attacks, and upheavals in Hollywood films serve to unite romantic couples and reinforce nuclear-family ties—was kid’s stuff. You don’t need critical theory, psychoanalysis, or even Leonard Maltin to recognize that in a Hollywood happy ending, the boy always gets the girl and the splintered family always reunites.

Nevertheless, aided by the relevant clips, the scales fell from our eyes as we learned that ET was really about a missing father figure, that Jurassic Park’s velociraptors transformed a remote patriarch into a loving dad, that Schindler rediscovered his sense of paternal duty with his list, as did Tom Cruise while tangling with illegal aliens in War of the Worlds. Accusing Spielberg films of promoting family ideology is like calling Hitchcock films suspenseful. I expect more complexity from a Lacanian Christian Communist, and you should, too. Things improved slightly when Žižek compared the iceberg that sunk the Titanic (and Leonardo DiCaprio) in James Cameron’s blockbuster to the Soviet tanks that crushed the 1968 Prague Spring. Both catastrophes preserved the idealistic illusion of what might have been—Cameron’s “fake Marxism” and Prague’s “liberal socialism” each obscuring the “vampiric exploitation” lurking around the corner.

After a pat riff on Warren Beatty’s Reds, which equated the October Revolution with a sex scene between Beatty and Diane Keaton, we were treated to the highlight of the evening, a clip from the rarely screened 1949 Soviet film The Fall of Berlin, in which a dopey Russian steelworker, right before the Nazi bombs begin to fall, solicits dating advice from Stalin, played by an actor so identical to the Georgian dictator that he could have been a security double. According to Žižek, Stalin cowrote his character’s lines, cried at the performance, and forbade the actor from ever playing another role. The film stock had the quality of watercolor, and the (roughly translated) dialogue featured such immortal lines as, “Can I give you a kiss, Comrade Stalin?” Then it was back to Planet Platitude, as Žižek informed us that disaster films create couples, though he displayed his flair for provocation by saying, just as Deep Impact’s tidal wave was about to engulf the Twin Towers, “Enough of fun, let’s move to the serious stuff.” This was Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which, alert the media, created a couple.

Tarkovsky’s Mirror and Jia Zhangke’s Still Life rolled in the background as Žižek rambled inconclusively, at one point saying that “all good Holocaust films are comedies.” Finally, Žižek addressed They Live. Running the scene where Piper first dons the sunglasses that reveal the modern world in its true form—a grayscale cultural wasteland, populated by yuppie aliens, in which billboards read OBEY, CONSUME, and MARRY AND REPRODUCE, magazines read NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT, and dollar bills read THIS IS YOUR GOD—Žižek quipped that the glasses allowed one to see Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown knowns.” Of the famous fight sequence, in which Piper is forcibly trying to get his friend to put on the shades, Žižek said, “the fight dramatizes the resistance to being liberated from ideology—liberation hurts.” I knew I should have taken the blue pill.

During the Q&A, Dr. Ž demonstrated why he is (in)famous in academia, engaging in rapid-fire rhetorical combat with his interlocutors. Chestnuts included: “The Book of Job is the first critique of ideology”; “The death of Christ was God’s way of saying, ‘I can no longer guarantee meaning for man’”; Zen master Suzuki was an imperialist war apologist; “The real Western cultural imperialism is believing that Eastern religion promotes balance and harmony”; Sontag was wrong about proto-fascist content in Leni Riefenstahl’s pre-Nazi films; and German industrial rock band Rammstein aren’t Nazis, but critics and parodists of Nazism.

Outside the library, I overheard some grad-student types speculating about whether Žižek was on crystal meth. I always thought speed was Virilio’s poison, but given Dr. Ž’s manic marathon of a performance, it’s possible. By the end, even his disciples were exhausted.

Left: Artist Ai Weiwei with dealer Mary Boone. Right: Artist Liu Xiaodong. (All photos: David Velasco)

Hours before Ai Weiwei’s opening last Saturday at Mary Boone, some wondered: Who exactly would be in attendance? I found myself hoping that Ai would jet in a bevy of Chinese compatriots, in a reprise of his 2007 Documenta piece. Perhaps he would stow them on cots behind the gallery’s reception desk or between catalogues raisonnés on Mary Boone’s shelves? In the end, this didn’t come to pass, though a large percentage of the well-wishers who turned up had ties to the Chinese and Chinese-expat art scene. Indeed, many were direct or indirect products of Ai’s influence, like Zhang Huan, who was smoking outside the gallery entrance, wearing something like a bad-boy do-rag. If Marina Abramovic has taken to calling herself the “grandmother of performance art,” Ai is more than entitled to claim a similar rank in the genealogy of Chinese contemporary art.

“Many of us are moving back to China,” said New York–based artist Cui Fei soon after my arrival, as she surveyed her fellow Chinese-expat artists mingling in the entrance room. Why? “It’s cheaper there. And more opportunities. Unless you’re Xu Bing or Cai Guo-Qiang, many of us get overlooked in New York.” As we rounded the corner into the main space, we encountered the warm red glow of Ai’s romantic pièce de resistance, parked smack in the center of the room: a red multitiered chandelier—a form he’s played with previously—this time laid on its side to resemble a squat cornucopia. The two-story-high sculpture is composed of lightbulbs mounted on a framework of brass hoops, lined with sections of vermilion beads.

“There were beads everywhere this morning,” bemoaned gallery director Ron Warren. “I spent all day picking up beads and vacuuming in corners. They even got into the bathroom—don’t ask me how they got there.” According to associate director James Salomon, at least twenty-five people each worked four sixteen-hour days, handling the installation and hand-stringing the beads that made up the chandelier. Add to that a minor mutiny over food—by the second day, the gallery’s usual Bottino take-out lunches met with a plea from the Beijing team: “Can we please get Chinese food instead?”—and the installation process surely didn’t go down as one of the easiest in Chelsea’s history.

Left: Artist Zhang Huan. Right: Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, and architect Steven Holl.

It does, however, make the record as Ai’s first major solo show of new works in New York—notable given both his wide-ranging influence in China and his extended sojourn in New York in the 1980s (which Ai agreed was “another world” compared with the New York of here and now). With the openings of this show and the one by Liu Xiaodong at Boone’s uptown site, one might say this week inaugurated Boone’s move toward contemporary Chinese art, though Boone herself by no means let on to having any of Chelsea’s recent colonialist impulses vis-à-vis the East: “I don’t care what country they come from, I just want to show great artists,” she said. Karen Smith, the curator for both shows, was initially asked to put together a group exhibition but concluded that “it wasn’t quite time yet. Many of the artists wouldn’t want to show with each other; they were all doing very different things. They wouldn’t see their work sharing space.”

Ai certainly isn’t one to avoid confrontation—at least with the government. After collaborating with Herzog & de Meuron on their Olympic stadium, he has recently made headlines for criticizing the one-party state’s “disgusting” political conditions and vowing to be absent from the Olympic’s opening ceremonies. According to Warren, when Ai was asked about his boycott after his talk at the China Institute the night before, he said, somewhat circumspectly: “It’s not a boycott. I have no interest in sports. I just design the building. Why would anyone who designed the toilets comment on the Olympics?”

Left: Curator Karen Smith. Right: doArt China's Mia Jin, Lu Qing, and Brooklyn Rail publisher Phong Bui.

Ai, it becomes clear, is occasionally given to epigrammatic, sometimes mysterious responses. When he withholds, it seems to come not from a desire to weave an inscrutable veil, but more from a playful sense that his words will never be quite adequate—an endearing quality in an eminent Chinese artist whose frame and demeanor recall Beijing Opera’s Guan Gong crossed with Danny DeVito. When Ai asked me to photograph him and Boone in front of his glowing red chandelier, his camera was set to black-and-white. Was he sure he wanted this setting? “Yes. I don’t like colors,” he claimed. “I don’t like music, and I don’t like color.” Even Ai’s given name is rather odd; it might best be translated as “Not Yet Not Yet”—unusual even in a nation of people with names that seem poetic by Western standards. How did he get his name? He didn’t know—or if he did, he didn’t quite let on. “I think it has something to do with my father’s hard times,” he said, alluding perhaps to poet Ai Qing’s days in a Communist labor camp.

“He certainly keeps a mystery about him,” said Warren, over dinner. Held at Bottino, the event was a cozy backroom affair attended by the likes of artist Terence Koh (in a fur coat the size of two small bears) and Sarina Tang, a Beijing- and New York–based curator and director of Currents, a nonprofit art and music space just outside the 798 district in Beijing. I asked Ai about his newer projects; word has it that Ai, with Herzog & de Meuron, is supervising one hundred architects who will design an entirely new residential district in Mongolia. Ai said that it’s a supermodern development for the “three hundred hundred-millionaires” now in that country and also that the unifying factor will be disparity. “If there are three different designs, that’s weird. But with a hundred different designs, it will be unified.”

As dinner wound down, and the usual postmeal patter of conversation replaced the clanking of silverware, Ai and Boone shared a silent exchange with each other from across the room, one that went largely unnoticed in the midst of the mingling. They locked eyes and raised their glasses to each other. It was a good long minute, as if they were drinking to the fact that Mr. Not Yet Not Yet’s moment in New York is finally coming to pass.

Dawn Chan

Left: Artist David Salle with Susan Kappa. Right: France Pepper, director of arts and culture at China Institute.

Plus One

New York

Left: Whitney Biennial cocurator Henriette Huldisch. Center: Biennial artists Louise Lawler and Olaf Breuning. Right: Biennial cocurator Shamim M. Momin. (All photos: David Velasco)

Given Carly Berwick’s branding in New York magazine of the 2008 Whitney Biennial as the exhibition’s Facebook installment (a characterization prompted in part by cocurator Shamim Momin’s legendary predilection for what she terms “the embrace of locality”), it was perhaps unsurprising that Tuesday night’s VIP opening was packed not only with boldface names but also, seemingly, with all their old classmates. Advance word directed me away from the museum’s main door and toward a lesser-known way in on Seventh-fourth Street (dubbed the “Jane Seymour Entrance” by a friend who’d once observed the actress being shepherded through it), and while even this was mobbed, it was at least mobbed by a slew of recognizable faces. An overheard comparison to a Grateful Dead parking lot was entirely accurate, given the reunionlike atmosphere. One glance around took in Yvonne Force Villareal (later spotted wearing, in a move fairly dripping with irony, a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan THE DAYS OF THIS SOCIETY IS NUMBERED), 1995 Whitney Biennial curator Klaus Kertess, dealers Elizabeth Dee, Sara Meltzer, and David Kordansky, Fruit and Flower Deli “keeper” Rodrigo Mallea Lira with painter Ylva Ogland, and artists Julie Mehretu and Bozidar Brazda. The list, like that of the eighty-one artists in the show, goes on.

Once inside, the choice was between an already hectic lobby, an already hectic bar, and the already hectic show (which, at this point, had been open for roughly half an hour). A pack of photographers in the lobby were having a blast capturing the ever-changing moods of enthusiastic posers like artists Marilyn Minter and Terence Koh, while the bar scene was similarly spotted with past, present—and undoubtedly future (Jen DeNike? Ellen Altfest?)—Biennial participants. Passing artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster on the stairs from the bar, comparing early notes with artist Nathan Carter and Biennial catalogue designer Miko McGinty back in the lobby, and clocking the show’s cocurator Henriette Huldisch across the room, I finally made a break for the galleries. Momin, networker extrordinaire, was, as yet, nowhere to be seen.

Left: Art Production Fund's Casey Fremont, Yvonne Force Villareal, and Doreen Remen. Right: Eunice Graham with Biennial artist Rodney McMillian.

Dominated by sculpture and lacking much in the way of color, the show looked at first glance formally cohesive but felt, well, a bit grim. A preponderance of quasi-architectural forms and raw-looking industrial materials made for an experience that was at times more like a site visit than a gallery tour. When it worked, the effect was elegant (if notably academic), but on this celebratory occasion at least, it was hard not to miss the trashy pizzazz of the 2006 show. The exhibition also lacked a memorable clincher along the lines of that year’s Rudolf Stingel/Urs Fischer face-off, though installations by Jason Rhoades and Mika Rottenberg were already enthusiastically being discussed. Among those doing the discussing were artists Rirkrit Tiravanija, Anna Gaskell, Banks Violette, Liam Gillick, and Sarah Morris, dealers Andrea Rosen and Andrew Kreps, and Whitney director Adam Weinberg.

Around 10 PM, I accompanied a small crew—including artist Jordan Wolfson and V magazine editor Christopher Bollen—from the museum to the Park Avenue Armory, the Biennial’s satellite venue. After the hot, jammed museum, the older building’s hangarlike main space (empty, save an installation of neon lights on the far wall by Gretchen Skogerson) and network of smaller—though still grand—side rooms, was refreshing. But as visitors gradually arrived, and Eduardo Sarabia’s artist-staffed tequila bar got busier, the only hint of respite came in the form of DJ Olive’s tented room upstairs, in which a row of beds provided the perfect environment for absorbing a drifting ambient sound track.

Left: Rebecca Robertson, president of the Park Avenue Armory, with Whitney director Adam Weinberg. Right: Fruit and Flower Deli's Rodrigo Mallea Lira with Biennial artist Fia Backström.

Rejecting the convenience of Stefania Bortolami and Kordansky’s party at nearby Serafina, I elected to join a posse headed downtown to Florent—in no small part because of the prospect of a decent meal, but also in partial tribute to the beloved late-night eatery’s imminent demise—and I hopped a cab to an otherwise-hushed meatpacking district. Seating myself between tables presided over by artists Walead Beshty and Heather Rowe, my companions and I came close to solving the Problem of Criticism (if only we could remember the answer . . . ), before a mass exodus prompted the evening’s final relocation. Arriving at subterranean Lower East Side lounge Bacaro around 2 AM, we braved an entrance guarded by a fearsome cadre of smokers in the charge of artist Hanna Liden. Inside, the scene appeared relatively laid-back, certainly a far cry from the expected debauchery. Among those holding court in the cozy cellar were a number of familiar faces, including artists Adam McEwen, Dan Colen, Rita Ackermann, Agathe Snow, Nate Lowman, Gardar Eide Einarsson, Eli Sudbrack, and dealers Kelly Taxter and Eivind Furnesvik. Then, at 3 AM, a loud “Hey!” It was Momin.

Michael Wilson

Left: Whitney curator David Kiehl with Whitney chief curator Donna De Salvo. Right: Biennial artist William E. Jones.

Left: Yves Saint Laurent designer Stefano Pilati and Kanye West. (Photo: Ami Sioux) Right: Singer Sean deLear and Gelitin's Ali Janka. (Photo: Nicolas Trembley)

Opening last Friday in the middle of Paris fashion week, Austrian collective Gelitin’s first museum exhibition (at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville) was not to be missed. Just when it seemed that the idea of fusing art and fashion was played out, the opening of their exhibition “La Louvre—Paris” effected a veritable return of the real. (A new trend for the coming season?) Sometimes the real can be too much: The poster for the exhibition, which features, among other things, Gelitin-ites Wolfgang Gantner, Ali Janka, Florian Reither, and Tobias Urban in the nude, did not make it past officials in charge of the city’s museum programs. But rather than change the image, the group simply had their galleries—Emmanuel Perrotin, Massimo de Carlo, and Meyer Kainer—do the promo work for the show.

The exhibition offered a chaotic, ghostlike version of the museum that housed it, complete with all the amenities necessary at today’s houses of culture, from washrooms to a bookstore and cash registers. (Note that in the exhibition’s title, “Le Louvre” is feminized to “La Louvre.”) In an act of recycling, everything was constructed with what remained of the preceding exhibition, by Mathieu Mercier, which the collective made their own by slathering it in caramel. But as is often the case with Gelitin, not everything brown smelled sweet: On one wall near the entrance was an enormous text by the artist Karl Holmqvist, rendered in excrement.

Left: Dealers Massimo De Carlo and Emanuel Perrotin with Fabrice Hergott. Right: Artist Sara Glaxia (on wheelchair). (Photos: Nicolas Trembley)

The artists, who spent eight weeks in Paris preparing for the exhibition, had plenty of time to make new friends and invite them to collaborate on the show, which contains over three thousand works. The pièce de résistance borne out of this frenzy of activity was a room of Mona Lisas, each version trashier and more hilarious than the last. Minimal hardcore and trumpet concerts? Check. Adults hugging baby dolls in the corner of one room? Yup. Guests stuffing Camembert down their trousers? That, too. Glancing about the galleries, it became difficult to tell what had been organized by the artists and what was being improvised by the army of freaks in attendance.

Novel odors were around every corner, from a giant foot made of cheese (reminiscent of classical statuary fragments) to a smoked shark, which several guests were bravely attempting to eat, to the bird droppings that dotted a cage whose base consisted of a model of Gelitin’s New York dealer Leo Koenig’s gallery. The one place from which smells didn’t emanate was the artists’ handmade lavatories, which no one dared use. (Had they, they might have discovered that, through a clever trick with mirrors, you could see your asshole from the seat.) None of this seemed to faze elegant T magazine editor Stefano Tonchi, who, along with the International Herald Tribune’s Suzy Menkes and Stephen Dunbar-Johnson, had opened the week’s festivities with an Oscar party at the Grand Palais.

Left: Performance group Danger Curt. (Photo: Christian Badger) Right: Collector Bob Cottle and photographer Ari Marcopoulos. (Photo: Nicolas Trembley)

The atmosphere at that party and at Gelitin’s opening could not have been more different. But the strength of this exhibition rests with how the anarchic group have imposed their way of functioning on the institution; the museum seemed obliterated by their madcap universe. Since no one was asked to show an invitation card at the door, and since there were free drinks and all-you-can-eat Camembert until 3 AM, the evening was impressive, to say the least. Most of the VIP attendees, including photographer Ari Marcopoulos and collectors Barbara and Bob Cottle, decamped early for an intimate party hosted by the Swiss fashion company Akris, where Swiss sausage (the famous bratwurst of St. Gallen) was served, and I met German TV stars I didn’t know existed.

Only an over-the-top fashion soiree could counterbalance Gelitin’s extreme production at the Musée Moderne, and at the end of the week, the magazine Self Service and the boutique Colette came through with a party at Lup, where a group of extraordinary Canadian performers led the way to the dance floor for sets mixed by actresses Chloë Sevigny and Ludivine Sagnier, fashion designer Stefano Pilati, and Dior jewelry designer Victoire de Castellane. But there were few artists among the sweaty bodies; instead, I saw the Olsen twins and Kanye West. I had to wonder what they would have made of “La Louvre.”

Nicolas Trembley

Left: Chloë Sevigny and designer Ben Cho. (Photo: Ami Sioux) Right: Ludivine Sagnier. (Photo: Christian Badger)

Gown Town


Left: Comedian Graham Norton. Right: Elle Macpherson. (Photos: Nick Harvey)

It’s difficult to work an evening gown in London unless you’re the queen. Without footmen, a scepter, and the odd lady-in-waiting, evening gowns look just plain wrong in this climate. It was therefore royally unfortunate that strapless, ankle-skimming frocks were de rigueur last Wednesday evening at “Figures of Speech,” the Institute of Contemporary Art’s annual fund-raising gala. Held at the drafty Royal Horticultural Society’s conference center in darkest Victoria, the multifaceted money-spinner involved an exhibition, dinner, and auction, punctuated by a series of five-minute presentations by special “celebrity” guests.

The first port of call was a champagne reception and stroll through “One Object, One Lifetime,” a design exhibition featuring products by Tom Dixon, Timorous Beasties, and several others commissioned by the ICA and sponsors Veuve Clicquot—the single proviso being that the bubbly brand’s signature color (yellow) had to be incorporated into each design. A dressed-up branding exercise no doubt, but an increasingly necessary symbiosis in the current jungle of public-funding cutbacks.

Corralled photographers were desultorily snapping away as VIP guests floated in, when suddenly a collective camera flash erupted so explosively, it looked as though a mass paparazzi electrocution were occurring. Nigella Lawson, the porcelain-skinned kitchen princess who gives welcome new meaning to the term zaftig, had arrived. Smiling beatifically for the cameras, she embraced fuzzy-faced ICA chairman Alan Yentob, who was clearly besotted. (According to a reliable journalistic source, Lawson later politely declined a photo op with the rather less round and fuzzy supermodel Elle Macpherson.) In stark contrast to über-feminine Lawson was female impersonator Jodie Harsh, the self-styled “Real Queen of England,” who, thankfully, unlike the other ladies, wasn’t wearing a floor-length prom-style confection.

Comedian Harry Enfield leaned on the bar chatting with Yentob and Lawson, while officious PR people hovered nervously and smooth playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah and Smack the Pony’s Sally Phillips mingled easily with patrons. Artist Gavin Turk was valiantly on hand, serving not only as representative of the visual-artist demographic, a group curiously missing from the event, but as one of the evening’s featured guests and generous donor of lot 4.

Left: Artist Gavin Turk. (Photo: Nick Harvey) Right: ICA chairman Alan Yentob and comedian Harry Enfield. (Photo: Lynne Gentle)

Comedian and TV personality Graham Norton, in rampant rare form as master of ceremonies, introduced the “Figures of Speech” speakers, who were invited to spend a maximum of five minutes talking about an object of great personal significance. While Kwei-Armah produced the voyage ticket that first brought his immigrating mother from the West Indies to the UK, Lawson spoke poignantly about the significance of a battered and bulbous Algerian couscoussiere, a family heirloom to which she likened her own famous figure, referring to both as “serviceable but beautiful . . .”

Sotheby’s auctioneer Adrian Biddell had no sooner begun ramping things up with a zealously spirited auction than Jerry Hall crashed in, playing the celebrity trump card of “Fashionably Late Arrival” wearing enormous dark glasses and looking every bit the drag queen she was always meant to be. Trailed closely by wild-eyed dealer Ivor Braka, the statuesque Texan took her (or someone else’s) seat to maximal dramatic effect.

The auction was a roaring and raucous success, raising over two hundred thousand dollars with which to feather the coffers of the ICA’s New Commissions Fund. Lot 12, “All Tomorrow’s Pictures,” a collection of eighty-five photographs by various artists (including Tracey Emin, Dinos Chapman, and Peter Blake), raked in the chips for the ICA when it sold for an impressive sixty thousand dollars.

There were, alas, notable absences. We may never find out, for instance, what “significant object” Jude Law “holds most sacred” as he bailed at the witching hour on account of being unavoidably out of reach and unattainable, or some such celebrity-specific malady. And speaking of stellar thespians, Kevin Spacey was also in absentia, as were almost all of the peripherally placed Table 1, which seemed to serve primarily as a halfway house for those sneaking out for a smoke. But all in all, the evening was well attended and a terrific success, thus ensuring the ICA’s commissioning muscle for the coming year along with the hopes and dreams of a handful of lucky artists—despite Texans, absentees, and evening gowns.

Left: Chef Nigella Lawson. (Photo: Lynne Gentle) Right: Immodesty Blaize and Jodie Harsh. (Photo: Nick Harvey)