Left: Fireworks by Cerith Wyn Evans and Ian Hamilton Finlay. Right: Tate Triennial artist Daria Martin. (All photos: Rolf Marriott)
Midway through last Tuesday’s opening of the third Tate Triennial, a substantial percentage of the assembled guests set aside their cocktails and their chicken tikka–filled mini-ciabattas, and trooped out to the Tate Britain’s front lawn to watch one of Cerith Wyn Evans’s characteristic firework texts go up in smoke. As the gunpowder parcels ignited on a pair of metal armatures, fleetingly spelling out in white a two-verse poem by Ian Hamilton Finlayin which permutations of the phrases “How blue / How sad / How small / How white / How far” are repeated, each ending once with an exclamation mark, then with a question mark (though I believe Wyn Evans reversed the original order)someone muttered ironically, “Ah, mortality, transience, melancholy.” Actually, it did tug at the heartstrings a little. But the spectator had a point. We had a good idea of what was coming, and we got it.
The same could be said of curator Beatrix Ruf’s choices for the show as a whole, which is presented as a snapshot of contemporary British art practice and had a faintly enervated feel similar to the last oneRuf’s superficial distinction being to leach out the previous show’s colorful palette and spread out the thirty-six artists’ works. Virtually none of the attendants I polled had a word, good or bad, to say about the show; few, though, thought it quite deserved the thorough pasting Guardian art critic Adrian Searle had given itand Ruf’s “abysmal rhetoric”in the morning’s pages. (Tate director Nick Serota was wearing a face like thunder when I glimpsed him, but possibly he’d just eaten one of the caterers’ egg-filled mini-bagels.) Barbican curator Mark Sladen was cautiously affirmative about Ruf’s work, but quickly changed the subject to his recent peregrinations around Scandinavia. My companion summed up, wailing: “Who’s it for?” Well, not anyone who’s seen the main London gallery shows during the last year, of which this was mostly an effective filleting. Assessing the crowd during my return visit a few days later suggested a different audience: students and adventurous pensioners.
Left: Triennial artist Marc Camille Chaimowicz with Tate curator Catherine Wood. Right: Triennial artist Lali Chetwynd.
The show’s thematic hinge is, broadly, neo-postmodernist: “repetition, reprocessing, and the appropriation of images and facts, on a spectrum between tribute and pastiche,” says the Tatewhich leaves the door open for virtually everyone and allows the pointed placement of current elder statespersons like John Stezaker and ex–Throbbing Gristle provocateur Cosey Fanni Tutti (whose roomful of vintage porn-magazine spreads featuring herself was predictably popular) alongside Mark Leckey’s earthy and fatigued comic-strip animation featuring two soporific drunken oafs, a gothic-flavored skull-and-mirrors sculpture by Douglas Gordon, performances directed by Tino Sehgal, and a fair whack of lachrymose figurative painting (with Peter Doig at the head of the class). The backward glance was all that truly unified the show, and the obvious risk in what was otherwise a totalizing of artistic autonomy is that everything becomes acceptable. Summing up something of the event, Art Review’s Lupe Núņez-Fernández told me she’d been waiting in Daria Martin’s film installation during a projector malfunction when one woman walked in, decided she’d “got it”—“Oh, a black film in a black box”and spun on her heel.
Still, it evidently looked different if you were a British artist overlooked by Ruf. After the show, in a nearby pub, neo-formalist sculptor Gary Webb toasted Liam Gillick for his contribution (a suspended text in black plastic) so effusively that the latter almost immediately beat an excusatory retreat, before the tired and emotional tyro proceeded to vent his apparent frustration at his outsider status by flinging ketchup at the hostelry’s walls. Oh dear. But it was gratifyingfinallyto see a bit of unchecked vim and a splash of bright color.
Left: Whitney director Adam Weinberg. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Biennial artist Christopher Williams with artist Jacqueline Humphries. (Photo: Patrick McMullan)
“Have you been around yet? Find me later. I need to dish,” urged artist Mathew Cerletty at the opening of “Day for Night,” the 2006 Whitney Biennial exhibition. I popped out of the elevator at the foot of Matthew Day Jackson’s looming Conestoga wagon and found myself on the show’s “downtown” floor. Predictably, it was impossible to get a real sense of the art, not because of the overwhelming crowds or the scope of the exhibition but rather the zigzagging circulation of the opening promenade is more about scoping fellow visitors than whatever was on display behind them. (One errant cruiser had already stumbled into Yury Masnyj’s installation, which Masnyj was hastily trying to reposition in anticipation of an even bigger crush the next night.) With the usual celebrity suspectsChloe Sevigny, John Waters, Kim Gordon, and Thurston Mooreon hand, the game was in the meta-moment: Clarissa Dalrymple attended her portrait by Billy Sullivan; graffiti-chic entrepreneur Aron, who is thinly disguised as the baseball bat-wielding “Arod” in the novel Reena Spaulings, hung out with Biennial-featured Bernadette Corporation members, and Jeff Koons appeared doubled in Adam McEwen’s fake obituary of the neo-Pop star.
Left: Artist Spencer Sweeney with Participant Inc director Lia Gangitano. Right: Hanna Liden. (Photos: Michael Wang)
At the basement bar, I overheard one woman ecstatically describing works that “looked like the back of Artforum” (referring to Galerie Bischofberger’s signature ads featuring Alpine folk scenes)perhaps thinking of Hanna Liden’s ambiguous staged photographs on themes culled from the Nordic folklore and pagan ritual. Indeed, a flavor of the occult mingled with the cult this year, with works by Steven Parrino, Jutta Koether, and Anthony Burdin channeling nihilistic shamanism. Rirkrit Tiravanija and Mark di Suvero’s restaged Peace Tower (which includes the work of many of the original artist-contributors) ambivalently filled the activist-art quota with its deadpanned blend of idealism and post-nostalgia. Of course, celebrity culture and the mainstream press also staked their artworld claim. A man in a business suit asked me where he could find Francesco Vezzoli’s star-studded Caligula remake. “It’s gotten so much press I have to find it tonight,” he explained. “Gawker?” I ventured. “No, the New York Times.” With the crowds filtering down toward the bar and the artists and gallerists disappearing into the VIP room to exchange toasts, I headed to downtown restaurant Lovely Day to partake in the festivities honoring Rivington Arms artists Dash Snow and Hanna Liden. The endless fried rice certainly beat the Whitney’s calculated artistic fare, and Iles and Vergne showed up in time for dessert. Guests, invited or otherwise, kept streaming into the rather intimate venue and the party was forced to move up to Gavin Brown’s Passerby. “The Whitney was b-o-o-o-ring,” complained writer David Rimanelli. “This is where all the glamorous people are.”
Left: Biennial curators Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne at the press preview. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Jeff Koons with obituary, care of Adam McEwen. (Photo: Patrick McMullan)
On Tuesday afternoon tumbleweeds drifted through the Artforum office as my colleagues and I—along with several hundred other members of the press—journeyed uptown for a sneak peek at this year’s Whitney Biennial. All the usual suspects (and, oddly, a scattering of collectors) were on hand, scribbling notes, snapping photos, and corralling curators Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne for impromptu Q & A sessions. “What are the most important works?” one earnest reporter demanded of Iles. Before the golden answer was forthcoming, I encountered museum director Adam Weinberg, who cheerily volunteered that he didn’t recognize the names of thirty of the artists in the show, “proof that the curators are out there doing their job.” With my own job calling, I completed a quick circuit and headed back downtown.
Wary of suffering a frigid recapitulation of 2004’s blocks-long opening-night line, my date and I were happy to breeze through the museum’s front door when we returned five hours later. The crowd inside was ample but by no means overwhelming, and somehow unconsciously mimicked the exhibition’s layout, ranging from genteel and hushed on the impeccably installed fourth floor to cheerfully garrulous on the second. Artists from Ryan McGinley to Terence Koh to Kembra Pfahler to Jeff Koons to Joan Jonas were on hand, as were innumerable dealers, a fistful of curators, a few students, and David Byrne. Team Gallery’s Jose Freire was out with new best friend Mary Boone, and informed me that he was hightailing it out of Chelsea as soon as his lease was up: “It’s been ten years, and that’s enough. I’m going to SohoGrand Street.” Austin-based Biennial artist and cult singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston received numerous well-wishers, many of them fellow exhibitors. 1993 Biennial curator Elisabeth Sussman, after hearing me out on my theory comparing the exhibition’s layout to Dante’s Inferno, allowed that her iteration of the exhibition was arranged similarly, and that perhaps this was a Whitney tradition.
Left: Biennial artist Jutta Koether. (Photo: Michael Wang) Right: Biennial artist Daniel Johnston with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. (Photo: Patrick McMullan)
As time wore on, gravityor the need for a glass of wineexerted its pressure, and everyone made their way to the lower level, where a DJ was spinning. Free to wander the galleries in relative peace, I scribbled a few observations. Film, video, and sculpture trump painting and drawing. The much-hyped emphasis on collective practice is nearly impossible to discern in the galleries. Sound bleeding seems like a problem, especially around the Jim O’Rourke video installation and on the second floor generally. A few initial favorites: Liz Larner’s red, white, and blue haystack of what look like bicycle handlebars; Pierre Huyghe’s film and Paul Chan’s video; Anne Collier’s smart photographs; Urs Fischer’s candle-bearing branches; Yuri Masnyj, Chris Williams, and the upside-down plywood board spray painted with the words “Holy Shit!” and stuck incongruously in the stairwell, which was made bywho else?Dan Colen.
Back downstairs, an unofficial poll revealed that most visitors considered this Biennial less populist than 2004’s, an observation reiterated by Michael Kimmelman in this morning’s New York Times. Pocketing my notebook for the evening, I grabbed a glass of wine for my date, only to have it immediately knocked out of my hand, dousing me and whoever was behind my right shoulder in Chardonnay. I spun around to face none other than Iles herself. The horror! Colen, LA gallerist Javier Peres, and others nearby doubled over with laughter. I was mortified, but thankfully the wine was white, Iles’s dress black, and she took it in stride. “Now it’s a party!” she offered gamely. I ventured some awkward chatIles remained mum on personal show favoritesthen, still red-faced, made for the drawbridge.
Left: Biennial artist Adam McEwen. (Photo: Michael Wang) Right: Kembra Pfahler and Rufus Wainwright. (Photo: Patrick McMullan)
How do you organize an academic conference on Martin Kippenberger, that most rock ’n’ roll of artists? Well, you don’t. Tate Modern anticipated this problem, and last Saturday presented three informal lectures on the late German rollercoaster. Sadly, all of them fell a little flat. The highlight came in the form of Kippenberger himself, when Daniel Baumann (Museum of Fine Arts, Bern) showed us Christoph Doering’s 3302 (1979) an artist’s film of a taxi ride around Kippenberger’s Berlin milieu: After repeatedly accelerating toward the Berlin Wall, the taxi careens through the city at night, carrying various passengers who get increasingly out of hand (wanking, vomiting, and tit-flashing). Baumann also made us endure an unlistenable song by Kippenberger’s band Luxus, and gave an exhaustive page-by-page rundown of the magazine Sehr Gut Very Good. (Thank God there was only ever one issue.) The already-small audience dwindled further during the break. The plenary discussion perked things up briefly, but the only complex argument to emerge concerned Kippenberger’s ambivalent relationship to the heroic role of the artist: both desiring this position and despising it, and thematizing this ambivalence in the work.
However unresolved, this discussion of artistic personae nicely framed Jonathan Meese’s performance, Noel Coward is Back: Dr. Humpty Dumpty vs. Fra No-Finger, presented the same night in conjunction with the Kippenberger show. The latter’s self-destructiveness certainly has parallels with Meese’s brand of Teutonic abjection. Arriving at 10 PM to a heaving throng on the Turbine Hall bridge, I found that Meese’s epic neo-expressionist self-abasement had begun ahead of schedule. The artist (made up like a geisha, but sporting his usual uniform of layered Adidas tops) was standing in a vast wrestling ring adorned with skeletons, photographs of himself, bells, plastic mannequins, and random piles of detritus. Massive painted screens flanked the wrestling ring, which stood before a video projection that relayed the live action, intercut with clips of Visconti’s The Damned, Meese in his studio, Noel Coward singing, and dozens of other films. Meese swigged a bottle of whiskey and stumbled around, apparently drunk and jetlagged from a trip to Tokyo. Wearing an impressive variety of headgearfrom a safari-style helmet to crusader chainmailhe wailed and crooned a stock of phrases repetitively into the microphone around his neck: “Ree-chard Vag-ner” and “A-dolf Heet-ler” (accompanied by salutes and wanking gestures); “If you want to be huuu-man . . . you must watch 120 Days of Sodom by Pa-so-li-ni . . .” He threw around the furniture and skeletons like a spoiled child and clung to the ropes of the wrestling ring, apparently in psychotic meltdown.
It was quite an onslaught. The girl next to me left in tears; my friends bolted to the bar. I stuck it out for an hour, submitting to the hypnotic effect of Meese’s psychotherapeutic self-humiliation and recurring musical loops (ominous chords, Irish jigs, Coward’s campy English ditties) and trying to make sense of the mélange. When the video and sound track stopped, Meese soldiered on unplugged until forcibly removed from atop his bronze cactus sculpture. The event polarized the audience: Some found it fabulously energizing (“London hasn’t seen anything like this before”), but, frankly, they were in the minority; most were bored and insulted (“I feel like I’ve been used like a nappy”).
It’s true that the viewer seems to perform an absorptive role for Meese’s metaphorical feces. On the one hand, his mise-en-scčne was visually compelling, belonging to a tradition of abject, chaotic performance-installations from Hermann Nitsch to Paul McCarthy to John Bock. On the other, the work does depend on a psychological performance of excruciating interiority: Meese’s adoption of an antiheroic persona is uncritically anchored in the Expressionist tradition. Against Kippenberger’s performative exploration of artistic personae (a performativity that leaves an empty center, ā la Warhol), Meese’s cathartic performance keeps all notions of subjective coherence intact. While purporting to be about Germany’s repressed history, Jonathan Meese’s work seems more about Jonathan Meese. At a dinner for the artist a week previously, he had half-joked that the Tate performance “will be my grave.” I wouldn’t go this far, but I do now know that unravelling his references is no guarantee of conceptual gratification. This is not to deny the potency of Meese’s all-consuming subjective blitzkrieg, just to acknowledge it simply as that.
Left: Gallerist Claes Nordenhake with participating artist Magnus Wallin. Right: Curatorial Assistant Mia Zeeck with Quadrennial co-curator Magdalena Malm.
“Not a punch in the stomach,” ventured the Goethe Institut's Dr. Berthold Franke last Friday. He was summarizing “The Moderna Exhibition 2006,” the Moderna Museet's first-ever quadrennial of contemporary Swedish art and the reason I found myself in the frigid Scandanavian capital last weekend. The show, which features fifty-nine artists and is impeccably installed across about a dozen spacious galleries, is indeed understated, almost to a fault. The private reception and dinner for 220 guests held on Thursday night was equally restrained, with chatter at the dinner table, where I sat with video artist Annika Larsson, artist and writer Amy Simon, K21 deputy director Julian Heynen, and artist Jockum Nordström, ranging along a narrow, familiar spectrum, from notable names not on the artist list to wagering on how long the welcome speeches would drone on for.
The pleasantries were interrupted by a burst of Swedish from artist Dorinel Marc, who grabbed the microphone to passionately (though somewhat incoherently) castigate all this English-language civility as a product of forces undermining the Swedish identity that the exhibition was supposed to project. My neighbors translated his screed on the fly; the assembled dignitaries, vivified at last, whooped and cheered.
The next day, on a tour of the city's commercial galleries, each dealer offered a variation on the same story: “I find young artists at the art schoolswhich are really very goodgive them their first exhibition, and then try to find international exhibitions for them.” The refrain pointed up the need for “The Moderna Exhibition,” which aims above all to foster greater local awareness of Swedish art production. But the artists themselves seem uncertain about what, if anything, this exhibition will mean to them. At Thursday's dinner, Larsson noted how odd it feels to be shown in a Swedish context, given that she has lived abroad for years. At Friday night's after-party, held at the opulent Berns restaurant on Berzelli Park (the setting for August Strindberg's novel The Red Room), a young painter dismissed the whole affair as “just another line on my résumé.”
Left: The magnanimous Karen Diamond. Right: Quadrennial co-curator Pia Kristoffersson and curator John Peter Nilsson.
“Berns was, until recently, one of Stockholm's hottest nightclubs,” reported magazine editor and critic Kim West, but on this night the one-thousand-plus visitors who trekked across the bridge from the museum (where three thousand had packed in) were greeted by a jazz combo playing standards in one of the restaurant's two wood-paneled, chandelier-lit grand halls. Nathalie Djurberg, a young Berlin-based artist included in the survey, tried in vain to find dance partners, while in a smaller lounge fashionable studentscandidates for “The Moderna Exhibition 2010,” perhapsmade their own fun, alternating lascivious and disaffected poses for a friend with a tricked-out digital camera.
I returned to the museum on Saturday for a panel discussion on art's boundaries, featuring Heynen, Christoph Tannert, director of the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, Elena Tsvetaeva, director of the National Center for Contemporary Art in Kaliningrad, and five others. The conversation ping-ponged between outlining formal and ethical frontiers for art; a closer look at the show upstairs revealed little work exploring either. There were, of course, underknown talents among all the large-scale projections (about one-third of the artists in the show make videos). Jenny Magnusson's intuitive, barely there sculptural assemblages stood out, albeit quietly, and Christian Andersson's tableau, ringed by floodlights, of a brick flying through the wall was an engaging visual trick. But most of the artworks seemed to be on their best behavior, and a visiting critic aptly summed things up: “Where are the bad boys?”
Left: MFA Director Malcolm Rogers and David Hockney in front of Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, 1970–71. Right: Boston Symphony Orchestra Director James Levine with David Hockney and brother Tom Levine.
“This is going to be one of those cozy Boston events,” said my friend as she steered us into the Museum of Fine Arts parking lot. We maneuvered past crowds of fragile, pink-cheeked men and ladies in mink moving towards the gala for “David Hockney Portraits,” a show co-organized by the MFA and London’s National Portrait Gallery in collaboration with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Caught incongruously in a group photo with other “sitters” flown in for the occasion (apparently at the artist’s expense) was Chloe McHugh, teenage daughter of California-based photographer Jim McHugh—otherwise the average age was sixty-something. While the show itself felt peculiarly alive (like all collections of portraits), those subjects who were actually in attendanceas easily distinguishable from the Boston crowd as peacocks from penguinsbecame hyperreal versions of themselves. As the real-life, laughing group portrait (in which the adorable artist of the moment sat between the wild-haired James Levine of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and his brother Tom) broke up, another friend in a gorgeous plaid shirt, cummerbund, cravat, and white sneakers told us that Hockney had painted him five times, “and none are in the show! Isn’t that total crap, to use the technical term?”
There’s not much to say about portraiture, possibly because portraits say so much. My companion and I most enjoyed the drawings that married virtuosity with plain old glamour, especially the delicious Celia in a Black Slip Reclining, Paris. Dec. 1973 (Elizabeth Peyton, eat your heart out!), while a photocollage of friends and Mum playing Scrabble tiled one homely moment on another, revealing something living in each individual. Of everyone, perhaps Henry Geldzahler’s presence/absence was felt most strongly, from his direct stare, glasses glinting, out of the painting in 1969’s Henry Geldzahler and Howard Scott to a 1994 pencil sketch showing him on his deathbed. Sarah Howgate, contemporary curator at the National Portrait Gallery and cocurator of the show with the MFA’s Barbara Shapiro, told us that Geldzahler had had no mirrors in his house but lived “surrounded by portraits of himself by the artists he loved.”
Left: David Hockney with exhibition curator Barbara Shapiro and Malcolm Rogers. Right: Arthur Lambert, Charlie Scheips, and David Hockney pose before their respective portraits.
While taking on a buffet that featuredin a nod to the artist’s homelandan upmarket version of Yorkshire pudding, we heard a somewhat incongruous performance by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Boston and had a conversation with Lawrence Weschler. “I could be walking around listening to my own thoughts,” he mused: He’s sat for (and written much on) Hockney but also happened to have recorded the MFA’s audio tour. I took the opportunity to tell him I love and habitually reread Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, his 1982 biography of Robert Irwin. “Funny you should say that, because every time I write something on David, Bob Irwin calls and says, ‘I read the whole thing, it’s really bothering me, I disagree profoundly with everything,’” replied Weschler. “And when I write on Bob, David calls and says exactly the same thing.”