The London art world would starve to death these days but for the culinary ministrations of Caprice Group’s Mark Hix, the chef of the moment and the man behind the menu at the Artangel Dinner, held on Saturday evening in the Great Hall at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. Hosted by an anonymous “pair of angels,” the event celebrated Artangel’s artistic labors of love and the people who “inspire and support” them. Guests included the father of Pop art, Richard Hamilton, who delivered the evening’s keynote speech, as well as artists Ruth Ewan, Alan Kane, Clio Barnard, and Roger Hiorns, the latest beneficiaries of angel benevolence: Each was selected from last year’s Jerwood/Artangel Open, a new two-million-dollar commissioning initiative conceived as a platform for hitherto “unrecognized artistic potential.”
The first of these commissions was realized in October, when Ruth Ewan’s Did You Kiss the Foot That Kicked You, a performance piece based on composer Ewan MacColl’s “Ballad of Accounting,” enlisted more than one hundred London buskers to incorporate the song into their repertoires. These random recitals slipped quietly into the subconscious of frazzled rush-hour travelers. Hiorns’s in-progress project will likely have the opposite effect and will take his work to a dizzying new scale: He plans to cover an entire house, inside and out, with homegrown crystals. Both Kane and Barnard will present artworks as programming on Channel Four.
As Saturday night unfolded, the tireless and benevolent Artangel patron Judith Greer hosted the proceedings with military precision while codirectors James Lingwood and Michael Morris were everywhere at once, meeting and greeting guests. Among the first to arrive were Hamilton and his wife, painter Rita Donagh. Age has barely withered Hamilton, an engaging octogenarian who gamely held forth, fortified by a bracing glass or three of the free-flowing Perrier-Jouet champagne. By 8 PM, the stately venue was crawling with artists, some whose projects had already been lifted by angel’s wings, others whose paint-stained fingers remained firmly crossed.
Left: Artangel patron Judith Greer with artist Zarina Bhimji. Right: Curator Aileen Corkery with artist Michael Craig-Martin.
The seated dinner for 165 was had by candlelight at three endless tables laden with huge antler-shaped candelabras. Though it is terribly fashionable to “cook British” these days, as an American who barely survived “prefood” Britain in the dark ages before celebrity chefs, my hungry heart sank a bit at the evening’s retro fare: black pudding with mushrooms on toast followed by Lancashire hot pot (with or without meat) with pickled raw cabbage, and apple and quince pie for dessert. Dilettante vegetarian and author Geoff Dyer, husband of Saatchi Online editor Rebecca Wilson, gave up waiting for his veggie option and made a desperate but aborted attempt on my plate. Later, a famished Dyer was delighted with the unexpected compensatory gift of an entire pie, boxed and ready to take home—or devour in the taxi.
In the interlude between courses, the debonair Hamilton held everyone’s attention with a talk that bore an undisputed authority, founded as it was on six decades in the belly of the beast. As he described the Pop-art movement as “transient and expendable,” artist Richard Wentworth, intent on drawing something of grave importance on the back of his menu, looked up from time to time to nod vigorously in agreement. Hamilton went on to proclaim Marcel Duchamp “the wittiest person I ever met.” (I’m fairly certain I heard him say “sexiest,” too, but an uncooperative microphone makes me loath to commit it to the record.) Suggesting that virtually all art is Pop art, he shrugged philosophically and noted, “At one end, you’ve got Elvis Presley. At the other, Picasso.”
Given that past Artangel endeavors have catapulted more than one artist onto the international radar—witness Jeremy Deller and his reenacted Battle of Orgreave, Michael Landy’s Breakdown, and Rachel Whiteread’s controversial House in East London—it will be fascinating to track the trajectory of Artangel’s latest wards. And, for that matter, the organization’s international presence as well: As I scanned the dark horizon for a taxi going my way, I overheard chatter about a major new project in the offing in, of all places, Detroit. Yet despite my best efforts—and the champagne—my discreet sources wouldn’t budge. Watch this space.
Left: Collectors Anita and Poju Zabludowicz. Right: Artist Jeremy Deller and John Hare.
Left: Performance view of Waiting for Godot. Estragon (J. Kyle Manzay) and Vladimir (Wendell Pierce). (Photo: Donn Young) Right: Photographer Amanda Weil and Creative Time director Anne Pasternak. (Photo: Frank Aymami)
Two images, bookends really, stand out from Creative Time’s presentation of the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s (CTH) production of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward last Saturday night. The first image was celebratory—at precisely 7:30 PM, Rebirth Brass Band kicked off a typically raucous secondline, and the steady flow of five hundred attendees through the front gates and into the bleachers marked the first occasion since Katrina that the crippled neighborhood has been a cultural focus for the rest of the city. The second image was considerably more somber. After taking their final bows, cast members turned their backs on the audience and walked briskly into the inky nighttime panorama from which most had made entrances: a nondescript backstreet leading ominously toward the same levee whose breach two years ago nearly transformed this neighborhood into a ghost town.
Today, life in the Lower Ninth Ward is infused by the grassroots politics of postcatastrophe housing, a local movement focused on the homes of thousands of families displaced by the floods that followed Katrina, who would like to come back to their old neighborhood but lack the means to rebuild or relocate. Stripped of some 80 percent of its prestorm habitation, and with experts warning locals that their homes are all but guaranteed to flood again, the Lower Ninth Ward is a neighborhood whose bereft residents, after waiting patiently for the government to help them, are now engaged in the remarkable (or, if you insist, foolhardy) struggle to take back their weed-choked empty lots on their own. A better locale for Godot could hardly be imagined, an assertion borne out in local housing activist Robert Lynn Green Sr.’s short but heartfelt preshow benediction. More eloquent still were the scattered gasps and applause when Vladimir (played by New Orleans native Wendell Pierce), having been asked by Estragon if he recognizes the place where they are standing, turns toward a field of weeds with outstretched arms and bellows with indignant sarcasm, “Recognize it? What is there left to be recognized?”
Left: The Rebirth Brass Band. (Photo: Frank Aymami) Right: Jenisa and Isaiah Washington with artist Mark Bradford. (Photo: Brendan Griffiths)
The masterstroke of Creative Time’s production was not simply staging Godot in the Lower Ninth but presenting it outdoors, at night, on a once-thriving street corner so pulverized by the 2005 floodwaters that barely a visible trace of a house remains. In the middle distance, a pair of FEMA trailers huddled forlornly, while the faraway hum of cars crossing the bridge and the nearby rustling of wind through dried weeds blended eerily with the visual accompaniment of boats gliding slowly and soundlessly up and down the river, which hovered invisibly in the background. Under Christopher McElroen’s brisk direction, Beckett’s famously verbose play, which is equally revered for its long and weighty silences, generated fevered monologues and existential retorts that would sometimes hang in the air for several moments, while ghosts whispered noisily in the adjacent fields.
The spellbinding two-and-a-half-hour production was largely the brainchild of artist Paul Chan, who visited New Orleans a year after Katrina and couldn’t shake the impression of so many people waiting for something or somebody who would probably never appear. After securing the collaboration of McElroen and the CTH, Chan began the slow process of befriending artists, educators, clergy, and neighborhood leaders throughout the city, eventually attaching himself to the art faculties of UNO and Xavier University, and otherwise weaving a diverse network of supporters that enabled him to bring together a remarkable cross-section of New Orleanians—along with a sizable contingent of out-of-towners—for an open-air, world-class production of an avant-garde play in a neighborhood where few have ventured since the floodwaters receded. As if to burnish the Lower Ninth’s growing significance as a festering symbol of Bush-era cronyism and ineptitude, hundreds of would-be spectators had to be turned away the first two nights due to lack of seating, resulting in a third night being added, and the production’s success will no doubt precede it when it moves to the nearby Gentilly neighborhood this weekend. With his stunning one-two act of creative jujitsu, Chan has succeeded in giving the people of New Orleans an unforgettable night of theater and has provided the art world with a tangible platform for connecting with New Orleans’s meaning in the coming post-Bush era: living witness to the failure by the US government to provide its citizens with even the most basic protection and recovery during and after the largest natural disaster in our country’s history.
Left: Walker Art Center curator Peter Eleey, artist Rodney McMillian, and Cara Starke. Right: Artist Willie Birch. (Photos: Frank Aymami)
Left: Artist Wang Qingsong, a friend, and Guy Ullens, cofounder of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. Right: UCCA cofounder Myriam Ullens. (All photos: Mathieu Borysevicz)
Late last Friday morning at At Café, the place to be in Beijing’s 798 art complex, someone murmured,“I hear that Tony Blair is supposed to come.” Certainly, the Chinese art buzz has spread far and wide, but this was a fascinating possibility indeed. At the next table, Hammer Museum curator James Elaine was struggling to make use of years of Chinese lessons in conversation with photographer Liu Zheng. He eventually leaned over and confessed that he’d received a grant from the Asian Cultural Council and will soon be moving to China for a year. But as one old China hand warned later in the weekend, it’s hard to get out of the abyss once you’re in. China’s an addiction.
Certainly, the opening of Belgian collectors Guy and Myriam Ullens’s nonprofit contemporary art center last weekend was a dose that might lead to harder stuff. “It looks like it’s New Year's at 798,” one perplexed visitor remarked. Indeed, as the International Center of Photography’s Christopher Phillips reminded me, this convergence had been anticipated for several years, and at that moment people were flying in from several continents. Phillips, a China regular, opted to hole up in Shanghai while the storm raged in Beijing.
A few hours later, basking in the diffuse light of Xu Bing’s classic installation Book from the Sky and the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art’s GPS-controlled window-blind system, Guy Ullens recounted his China story. Anxious members of the international press corps fidgeted in an attempt to stay warm; somehow, despite its rapid modernization, the country’s thermostat seemingly remains in the miserly hands of the old guard. Ullens’s encounter with China began with his father’s stint as an embassy employee at the turn of the century, was reinvigorated by business exploits in the 1980s, and soon thereafter reached its climax with his love for China’s art and artists. As one journalist observed, Ullens looked like the archetypal billionaire with his caramel tan and neck scarf, and as if on cue, the Belgian collector recited his I-want-to-give-back epiphany: Having amassed fifteen hundred contemporary Chinese artworks, the couple decided it was time to return something to the country they loved.
Left: Serpentine codirector of exhibitions Hans-Ulrich Obrist, artist Sarah Sze, and Victoria Miro director Glenn Scott Wright. Right: UCCA artistic director Fei Dawei.
What did Beijing get? The Ullenses assembled a team of experts—with curator Fei Dawei as artistic director—and proceeded to transform a dilapidated Bauhaus-era factory building into a glimmering cathedral for contemporary art. Occupying a whopping eighty-six thousand square feet at the center of the 798 art district, the UCCA contains a library, screening rooms, a store, a café, and, of course, plenty of space for exhibitions. Manned by an international staff, the venue aims to be the most comprehensive art institution in China—and just may deserve the title. “Finally! Beijing has something that can be called a museum,” commented artist Bai Yiluo as he emerged from the opening reception.
While UCCA’s inaugural exhibition, “’85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art,” wasn’t applauded by all, its backward glance helped to set the tone for the weekend. The show presents some early highlights from China’s still-young contemporary art scene and emphasizes the fervent idealism, resistance, and experimentation that formed its backbone. Simon Groom, director of modern and contemporary art for the National Galleries of Scotland, observed that UCCA couldn’t have mounted a more sobering counterpoint to the money and hype now driving Chinese contemporary art. A Sotheby’s representative from London, who himself couldn’t make sense of the astronomical prices that Zhang Xiaogang’s paintings have fetched recently, was pleasantly surprised to see the artist’s earlier, naive works. The opposite reaction came from a Western art critic, who said she couldn’t understand why the curator decided to include “so many horrible paintings.” Others thought that exhibiting something historical (read: dull) ultimately wasted a good opportunity. The Chinese art world’s reaction was generally supportive, but not without the inevitable squabbles about the accuracy of UCCA’s interpretation of this history.
At Friday night’s dinner for 700 invited guests (including around 250 VIPs flown in at the organizers’ expense), Rebecca Horn decided to make an impromptu performance as a gesture of thanks to Guy and Myriam. “It has to be political. Everything I do is political,” she said as I helped her gather a stack of white cloth napkins, some red wine, and many candles. I couldn’t help but think that her inspiration came from the scores of red-streaked canvases inside the nearby exhibition halls. But before she could begin, a stomach bug—which she attributed to dinner the previous evening at Le Lan, a Philippe Starck–designed Beijing hot spot—precluded her presentation. Horn is apparently one of several artists who have been commissioned to produce an installation for UCCA sometime in the near future. Glenn Scott Wright, director of Victoria Miro Gallery, introduced me to artist Sarah Sze, who has also begun discussions about a commissioned piece.
With Sze was curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist, who, in his typical ahead-of-the-crowd fashion, was trying to direct the mainland buzz toward Hong Kong, claiming that the scene is beginning to generate interesting performance work. (The next day, Obrist would launch a Chinese-language version of his Do It book, produced in conjunction with Vitamin Creative Space, at Timezone 8 Books.) Luc Tuymans, who is planning a new version of “Forbidden Empire,” a group exhibition he recently cocurated with Yu Hui (and which was, according to the artist, “messed up” by Chinese officials), claimed that this time he was “gonna fuck them.” As I pondered what precisely he meant, La Fura dels Baus, the Spanish performance-art group, began a dull recital about birth. Artist Caspar Stracke reminisced about seeing them perform at the Berlin Wall in the '80s, bringing their work in line with what was on view in the nearby galleries. That a new institution set itself in motion with such a backward glance was, if only for a weekend, a brief respite from a culture relentlessly pushing forward.
This year’s Editions/Artists’ Books Fair, the tenth, was staged at The Tunnel, formerly a legendary New York nightspot, now a smart multipurpose venue that adjoins Chelsea’s newish Twenty-seventh Street gallery strip. The runwaylike interior gave the event, which featured sixty exhibitors, a nice democratic feel, no one suffering from a disadvantageous position or enjoying pole position—with the possible exception of Brooklyn’s PictureBox Inc., which sat front and center, an unsurprising placement given the company’s 2005 Grammy Award for the packaging of Wilco’s album A Ghost Is Born. Arriving on the early side for last Thursday’s gala preview (a benefit for P.S. 1), I had ample time for a few laps before things got busy. A performance from Eric Singers’s League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots (LEMUR)—a group of musicians, robotics experts, artists, and designers—was promised but failed to materialize in time for me to catch it. Instead, I was party only to some muted beats courtesy of WPS1.org radio DJ Jeannie Hopper and a glimpse at LEMUR’s eccentric-looking mix of mechanical and organic gadgetry (no guitar/bass/drums/vocals for these guys).
An abundance of white gloves and supersize portfolios spoke to the seriousness of the dealers in attendance but soon left me hankering for something a little less precious. Pleasing though it was, then, to see On Kawara’s multivolume One Million Years at Brussels’s mfc-michèle didier and early editions of Ed Ruscha’s similarly classic photo books at New York’s Anartist, slightly scrappier-looking editions ultimately fared better. Raymond Pettibon was everywhere—he produced the cover image for the fair’s catalogue, and his work cropped up in a number of booths, but his most striking appearance was at Specific Object/David Platzker, in the form of a cluster of original fliers for early-1980s Black Flag shows, complete with incidental ink stains and pinholes. London dealer Paul Stolper also went the rock-’n’-roll route, showcasing—in timely fashion, given the current hoopla over Anton Corbijn’s Ian Curtis biopic Control—prints from Kevin Cummins’s moody late-’70s Joy Division shoots.
After exchanging hellos with British artist Graham Parker, who was en route to Stolper’s booth; noting painter Kathe Burkhart hovering by her work at Regency Art Press Ltd.; and passing dealer Matthew Marks, I quit the scene for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, arriving just in time to negotiate a polite throng of sensitive young men and women and to take an orchestra seat in the imposing Howard Gilman Opera House. The occasion was the world premiere of Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens’s “symphonic and cinematic exploration of New York City’s infamous Brooklyn-Queens Expressway,” The BQE, commissioned by Next Wave Festival producer Joseph Melillo. Expectations among the indie-kid community—bolstered by profiles of Stevens in New York, the New York Sun, and elsewhere—were running high. Trailed as a rare affectionate take on the geographically divisive, confusingly marked, endlessly potholed road, Stevens’s half-hour, seven-movement magnum opus turned out to be part Koyaanisqatsi-style audiovisual meditation on human folly (specifically that of the BQE’s notorious architect, Robert Moses), part self-indulgent venture into faux-classical composition, and part excuse for a hipster reclamation of the hula hoop.
As the house lights dimmed, a tripartite screen above the stage lit up with 16-mm and Super 8 footage (taken by Stevens with friend Ruben Kleiner) of the thoroughfare and its immediate environs, while an orchestra (with help from Stevens’s regular band and My Brightest Diamond singer Shara Worden) struck up an appropriately busy tune. Initially concealed behind a scrim, the players were revealed as Stevens, sporting a baseball cap and the tightest white jeans I’ve seen in some time, bounded onstage and took up his seat behind a concert grand. Five hula hoopers also made strategically timed appearances, their circular gyrations mirroring the endless cycle of traffic but contrasting nicely with its workaday purpose. “As a symbolic construction,” writes Stevens in “The Hula Hoop vs. the BQE,” an essay printed in BAMbill, “the hoop is an existential goldmine.” Perhaps recognizing that some might not share his enthusiasm for such relatively esoteric concerns, he devoted the post-intermission part of the show to “the hits.” This, coupled with an endearing anecdote about his attempted escape from bassoon camp, revealed a lingering discomfort with his new role as composer. But warm applause and a well-attended after-party at the theater’s upstairs space suggested that he had retained a firm hold on local affections—even if those forced to take his road of choice home may wonder at his latest muse.
Left: A view of Sufjan Stevens's The BQE. (Photo: Rahav Sagev) Right: WPS1 DJ Jeannie Hopper. (Photo: August Goulet)
The risks and the benefits of social engineering by a Conceptual artist went on furiously naked display last Saturday night, when upwards of eight hundred invited guests assembled outside the Guggenheim for Francesco Vezzoli’s staged reading of Luigi Pirandello’s 1917 play Right You Are (If You Think You Are). Suffice it to say that everyone thought exactly that, uniting in one big hissy fit to greet the opening of Performa 07, RoseLee Goldberg’s performance-art biennial, which clearly entered its terrible twos just as the evening began.
Veteran art-world scenemakers like Calvin Tomkins and Dodie Kazanjian, Cindy Sherman and David Byrne, Stephanie French, Donna De Salvo, and Lauren Taschen waited outside with the hoi polloi for an hour past the scheduled 10 PM start time, while personae grata like Brooke Shields, Uma Thurman, Thelma Golden, Isaac Julien, Marina Abramovic, and Klaus Biesenbach were ushered into the check-in area beyond the velvet ropes. Some people, denied a chair on the rotunda floor, skulked out just after the doors opened; others waited till intermission; and a few, like Salman Rushdie and Laurie Anderson, napped almost throughout.
“This is such a New York moment,” I heard Whitney curator Chrissie Iles say as Mary-Kate Olsen, wearing a long white robe with red embroidery, took a seat in front of Lou Reed and Anderson, across the aisle from Marion Cotillard, the movies’ most recent Edith Piaf, who was seated beside Hollywood superagent Beth Swofford, who rubbed elbows with New Museum director Lisa Phillips and arts patron Anne Bass. Dealer Marian Goodman had a front-row seat near Lauren Hutton, Helen Marden, and Shields, ahead of Maureen Dowd. I had to look up at all the regular people on the ramps to reassure myself, at least temporarily, that I was indeed at the wackiest art museum ever, and not back at Studio 54 circa 1977.
Left: Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky) Right: Dealer Marian Goodman and Vogue's Eve MacSweeney. (Photo: David Velasco)
Actually, I don’t have the stamina for dropping all the names relevant to this Pirandellian nightmare, whose fate was probably sealed when the museum gave Vezzoli and a video crew led by Doug Aitken’s right hand, Daniel Desure, a mere five hours to install a circular stage and a multiscreen live projection system. This while rehearsing the marquee cast of Ellen Burstyn, Natalie Portman, David Strathairn, Elaine Stritch, Dianne Wiest, Peter Sarsgaard, Little Miss Sunshine star Abigail Breslin, and Marcus Carl Franklin, currently appearing as a young Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There. That film also features Cate Blanchett, who was the big draw here as well, not that anyone present would admit it. (Her entrance came so late in the evening that those who decamped early never saw her anyway.)
Selected not for their acting skills, which were not much in evidence, but for their celebrity (the rickety construction of fame being the nominal subject of the play), the actors gamely took seats facing one another on a shiny black gazebo set dead center in the rotunda and began to read the script, cold. Seldom has an art audience’s tolerance for experiment been so severely tested. The sound was so bad, the actors so detached, and the reading so tedious, we could make out very little and eventually cared even less.
“It has been truly a great success,” Pirandello wrote to his wife following the play’s 1917 Italian premiere. “Not for the applause, but for the astonishment, the bafflement, the exasperation, and the dismay I caused the audience. You don’t know how much I enjoyed it.” Vezzoli, on the other hand, spent most of the performance “vomiting in the bathroom,” later pronouncing the event “a magnificent failure.” He had that just about right. Then again, perhaps he brought the play the audience it had always deserved.
Left: Brooke Shields. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Anita Ekberg, Cate Blanchett, and Dianne Wiest. (Photo: Paula Court)
All was certainly not lost. Unbeknownst to those of us seated under the bright lights near the stage, the disenchanted exiting the museum were directed to join the overflow crowd in the basement theater, where they caught every word and nuance of the show from live images of the actors projected on a grid of eight screens, while getting a good gander at Blanchett, her face swathed in tulle and the rest of her extravagantly attired in a drop-dead John Galliano trench coat and gown from Dior Couture, who sat onstage watching until it was time for her mother of an entrance.
“The whole thing was an inversion,” said architect Charles Renfro (of Diller Scofidio + Renfro), who had fled the rotunda. “The space of the museum, usually about visual art, became a backstage space, and the theater the real visual presentation venue. Small reward,” he added, “for a piece that wasn’t so great to begin with.”
But he didn’t see what I saw. Seated on a hot-pink, lip-shaped Dalí couch was no less platinum an eminence than Anita Ekberg, looking less like the sex goddess of La Dolce Vita than Divine of Pink Flamingos. I could hardly take my eyes off her, partly because she was more visible than the actors nattering onstage but also because there was more going on in her ravaged face than in the play. (It involves a group of provincials obsessed with a mysterious neighbor whose identity is up for grabs.) As the embodiment of the price of fame, the former Miss Sweden got through the performance by fanning herself, snoozing, sipping a drink, and talking out loud to a handler.
“I am not a theater director, and I was not trying to make a statement in that sense,” Vezzoli said later. “I was just trying to turn the whole rotunda into a stage.” That was only clear during the grand finale, when Blanchett, making an entrance with even more melodramatic flair than Gloria Swanson at the end of Sunset Blvd., descended to the stage from the top tier of the museum amid flashing strobes and the camera crew preceding her. “I am whoever you believe me to be,” she thundered to the dolts wanting a piece of her onstage. “Are you happy now?” And then she disappeared.
All the same, during Miuccia Prada’s after-party at Bemelman’s Bar in the Carlyle Hotel, Brooke Shields was more enamored of the separate applause that Stritch had earned with her lagging departure from the arena. “Anyone can make an entrance,” Shields squealed as Stritch passed by. “There’s a woman who knows how to make an exit!” That didn’t make me want to go home, not with Ekberg sitting at the bar alone. “I hate parties!” she confessed, and I found myself wishing for the first time in thirty years that my mother were still alive so I could tell her where I was. Just then, Danilo, the celebrity hairdresser, came by to say good-night and Ekberg’s hand flew to her long blond extensions. “Don’t worry,” Danilo told her. “You can keep the hair.”
Left: MoCA chief curator Paul Schimmel, artist Takashi Murakami, and MoCA director Jeremy Strick. Right: Alexis Phifer and Kanye West. (Photo: Patrick McMullan)
“You’re our first Murakami visitor,” noted dealer Rodney Hill when my Thursday-afternoon cannonball run through Los Angeles galleries paused at Marc Foxx. Nearly everyone I spoke with that day proffered an opinion or recounted a rumor about Museum of Contemporary Art chief curator Paul Schimmel’s Takashi Murakami survey and its copious bill of opening-weekend events. With promotional billboards dotting the LA streetscape, a feature on LA Weekly’s cover (aptly titled “Resistance Is Futile”), specially commissioned videos on the museum’s website, and the presence in the exhibition of a fully functional Louis Vuitton pop-up shop (itself the subject of a late-summer media brouhaha), the city is so saturated with “© Murakami” that the artist’s signature “Jellyfish Eyes” began to seem panoptic.
One Culver City dealer summed up the chatter succinctly, offering a lament for local heroes (“They just want to replicate the blockbuster success of the Warhol survey five years ago. But why haven’t they given this push to our best hometown artists—Kelley, Baldessari, McCarthy?”) before conceding to a wait-and-see policy. Out of respect for Schimmel’s long tenure in LA, which has included three previous outings with Murakami (“Superflat” and “Public Offerings” in 2001; “Ecstasy” in 2005–2006), even the most disapproving of those I spoke with eventually admitted they’d reserve final judgment for the show itself.
At Friday morning’s media preview, as we peered through the wall of television crews encircling museum director Jeremy Strick, MoCA deputy director Ari Wiseman cited the collaboration with Louis Vuitton for the unprecedented cross-disciplinary press interest. The shop is a publicity masterstroke: Not only did it catch the attention of media outlets only fitfully interested in contemporary art, it also generated the most preopening conversation among cognoscenti of any US museum show this season. Architecturally, the boutique is relatively innocuous, tucked away on the Geffen Contemporary’s small mezzanine level, its entrance and logo facing a rear wall. Yet it remained somewhat dispiriting to be made conscious of being priced out within the more or less democratic arena of the museum.
Left: MoCA deputy director Ari Wiseman with MoCA trustee Ruth Bloom and Rebecca Bloom. Right: Takashi Murakami with dealer Tim Blum.
That said, the overwhelming majority of the exhibition, which was blessed prior to its opening by a Shinto priest, naturally focuses on Murakami’s fine-art output: paintings, sculptures, installations, videos, and films. There are innumerable paths through the forest of signs that is Murakami’s practice, many of which Schimmel outlined in conversation. When prompted to locate this show in the context of the psychological undertow that characterizes the art of Charles Ray and Robert Gober, with whom he has organized exhibitions in the past, Schimmel replied, “I think that is the most underappreciated aspect of the work. We keep seeing it in terms of broader social implications of Japan and America, the contrast between high and low or Asian traditions and western-European traditions, but when Murakami talks about trying to create ‘my reality,’ that is, in fact, something autobiographical.”
The exhibition bears out something close to this claim. What surprises about the works on view is neither the East-West dichotomies Schimmel outlined nor the uniquely corporate production strategies that created them, both subjects addressed at length in discussions of Murakami’s art. Rather, it’s the rampant proliferation of bodies and bodily fluids. From the hypersexual, adolescent depictions of semen and breast milk in Hiropon, My Lonesome Cowboy, Cream, and Milk, to the mechanized female nudes in Second Mission Project ko², to the psychedelic vomit of Tan Tan Bo Puking—aka Gero Tan, to Inochi’s awkward sexual discoveries, to the centrality of shit in the recent animation kaikai & kiki, to the impotent protagonist in Dharma, Murakami’s first live-action film (a trailer for which is on view), tracing the appearance of bodies and what they discharge dramatizes a fascinating naïveté regarding sexuality that arcs from unreal fantasy to unflinching self-portraiture.
It was not only odd but also uncomfortably fitting, then, to hear attendees report that MoCA trustee Rosette Delug hired several Playboy Playmates to pose as so many nude, body-painted Miss Kokos at the dinner she hosted at her home on Friday night. The event was one of many surrounding the exhibition; with so many visitors from Japan, New York, and Europe, Angelenos pulled out all the stops, creating an environment redolent of an art-fair week. Tim Blum and Jeff Poe, who have represented Murakami for eleven years, hosted a dinner for the artist and his collaborators on Thursday at Kumo, Michael Ovitz’s new sushi restaurant. On Saturday morning, dealers Larry Gagosian and Philippe Ségalot, collector David Teiger, artist Chiho Aoshima, thirty-odd members of a museum trustee group from Miami, and roughly one hundred other guests admired the multiple Judds, Princes, Hirsts, and Rymans in the modernist Beverly Hills home of MoCA trustee Eugenio Lopez and ate brunch at tables set up in its backyard. Some then rushed back across town for an afternoon symposium on animation with Murakami, Dreamworks Animation SKG CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, Tokyo Pop’s Stu Levy, and the directors of Dreamworks’ new Bee Movie.
Left: Dealer Jeffrey Deitch, collector Susan Hancock, and Kulapat Yantrasast of wHY Architecture. (Photo: Yoshihiro Makino) Right: Naomi Campbell. (Photo: Patrick McMullan)
While seventy-five hundred guests mobbed the Geffen Contemporary on Saturday night, I found temporary relief from the onset of Murakami madness at a smattering of gallery openings. I arrived at Regen Projects right at 6 PM, giving me time to experience Glenn Ligon’s series of black-on-gold joke paintings relatively unimpeded, then hurried south for the opening of Nicole Eisenman’s new exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter. Eisenman’s imagination is as weirdly fecund as ever, as evidenced by grids of works on paper in Vielmetter’s side galleries and full-length portraits of Hamlet and of an astronaut in the main space. In Chinatown, newcomer Erica Redling, a onetime China Art Objects director whose gallery is housed in Walead Beshty’s former Hill Street studio, presented a tight installation of new abstract films and photograms by New Yorker Amy Granat; across the street, David Kordansky exhibited small works on paper by Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart).
It was, however, the preview in Culver City of collector Sue Hancock’s new retail store/art gallery/lounge, Royal/T, that offered the evening’s most unique impressions. Housed behind a bright green storefront facade a few blocks down Washington Boulevard from the gallery strip on La Cienega, the venue featured servers dressed up like naughty maids, a DJ, design-oriented salable goods, and—behind large sheets of Plexiglas—selections from Hancock’s collection, from Yoshitomo Nara to Tracey Emin to Franz West. My companions immediately pegged the environment as “very Japanese” in its immersive blend of retail concepts, a fact confirmed in conversation with Takaya Goto and Lesley Chi, the New York–based designers responsible for its realization, who cited venues catering to otaku—geeks, often obsessed with anime or manga—as Royal/T’s conceptual source.
Sunday evening’s MoCA benefit gala, featuring a performance by Kanye West followed by dinner for more than nine hundred guests, proved once and for all the unprecedented nature of this collaborative endeavor. West’s energetic half-hour medley managed to rouse even a few of the more phlegmatic VIPs seated in front of the stage, and included a brief freestyle rap that hilariously name-checked French Vogue editor in chief Carine Roitfeld. By the time West got to his current single, “Stronger,” the temporary pavilion’s floors were shaking; then, as quickly as the song ended, he disappeared into a cloud of smoke. “Follow the Miss Kokos to dinner,” came the PA announcement, and the dozen dolled-up women who had stood idly posing during cocktail hour shepherded the crowds through a ten-foot-tall portal shaped like a Louis Vuitton steamer trunk.
Left: Paul Schimmel at the press conference. Right: Collector Eileen Harris Norton with Kris Kiramitsu, independent curator and programs director for Creative Link for the Arts. (Photos: Brian Sholis)
On the other side of the mirror-lined L-shaped passageway was the cavernous gallery that last hosted the entirety of Andrea Zittel’s traveling survey, now ringed with a twenty-foot-tall, football-field-length animated video projection of an allover pattern of Murakami’s signature “Flowers of Joy,” some gently drifting down the wall like snowflakes. Ninety-two tables for ten surrounded an elevated central platform from which Strick announced that the evening had raised $1.6 million for the museum and ushered in an “age of Murakami.” What this portends for the ever-competitive art world remains to be seen; certainly it will be tough for MoCA—or any museum, for that matter—to operate at such a fever pitch on a sustained basis. Murakami, half giggling with excitement as he thanked his collaborators from the dais, related that the Louis Vuitton shop’s “sales last night were a very great amount.” Recounting the initiation of his collaboration with Jacobs, the artist said, “He asked me, and I said yes,” then continued, “All I did to the logo was change the color . . .”