Left: Melissa Hugger with artist Tom Sachs. Right: A view of the launch. (All photos: Julie Lequin)
Any conspiracy theorist will tell you that the 1969 Apollo 11 lunar landing was a cold-war hoax staged in a Hollywood studio, but thus far only Tom Sachs has had the wherewithal to show us how this might have been possible. Marking the closing of his five-week-long exhibition “Space Program” at Gagosian Gallery, on Saturday night Sachs proved, in a private performance activating the show’s sculptural elements, the plausibility of a simulated moon mission.
I arrived at the Beverly Hills gallery at 6:30 PM sharp. With clearance from a beefy doorman, a twiggy gallery assistant, and a spiffy attendant in lab coat and tie, I made my way toward Sachs’s towering Lunar Module, a life-size reproduction of the historical NASA capsule and the remarkable centerpiece of the show. Laurie Anderson may have been the first NASA artist in residence, but with this exhibition Sachs looks to be making his own gambit for the gig, though his craft’s homespun engineering speaks to his clever and cultivated “failure” to live up to such institutional standards. A subdued crowd meandered around the rough-and-ready structure while inspecting its down-to-earth craftsmanship and accoutrements (a tool cabinet, Marlboro reds, Jack Daniels, an “Incinolet” lavatory, a library).
In anticipation of the “launch,” I claimed my own space in the adjacent Mission Control—a room featuring a bank of live-feed video monitors, radios, light-up APPLAUSE and QUIET PLEASE signs, and LED displays flanked by a cache of Stolichnaya vodka and assorted LPs—where a restrained group of collectors, artists, and curators gazed at a digital countdown to “liftoff.” Thanks to the early call time, by T-minus-twenty-three minutes the crowd was already packed shoulder to shoulder. Behind me, a silver-haired gentleman exclaimed, “Look at all that video . . . This belongs in the Whitney!” while to my right, Miranda July wondered aloud, “Why was it so important to be here at 6:30?” Breaking the fourth wall and the otherwise placid atmosphere, a team of “engineers” (an all-male cast of preparators, welders, carpenters, and gallery associates in lab coats, comb-overs, pocket protectors, and thick-framed glasses) bustled about, exchanging commands over walkie-talkies.
Finally, a drum roll sounded, and two female astronauts wearing Sachs’s Tyvek plastic Space Suits were escorted into Scissor Lift and raised up to the Lunar Module entrance hatch. After a status check of reentry, splashdown, and rescue systems, the women were thrust into space to the sounds of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and a Neistat-brothers film heralding “Just remember who beat the Russians.” Fully immersed in the action, a French woman asked, “So the thing has landed on the moon now?” Indeed it had. The astronauts disembarked and planted a starched American flag in Gagosian’s cement floor. As they took out a drill and pretended to break more ground, an amused Chris Burden asked, “Are they going to plant another flag?” His wife, Nancy Rubins, replied, “No, they’re just taking soil samples.” With “moon rocks” in tow, the women reboarded their capsule and, after more playacting at procedural fuss, returned safely to Earth and to the prompted applause of the crowd.
The artist emerged from the control room and began shaking hands with the crew and with collectors. The Veuve Clicquot began to flow, as did liquid-nitrogen-chilled vodka served in Borosil glass beakers. I noticed Sachs cornered by a keen John McCain look-alike who was explaining that he once worked for NASA and was amazed by Sachs’s factual accuracy. Later, I asked the enthusiast whether he was a collector, and to my surprise, he did collect—space memorabilia! He had heard of the event on Collectspace.com, an online message board, and, as a local Beverly Hills resident, decided he had to stop by.
Left to my own stargazing, I spotted a conspicuously alone Adrian Grenier examining the ersatz Gatorboard NASA logo on the wall. When asked what he thought of the performance, the actor nebulously replied, “It’s incredible to relive the dream here on Earth,” then recommended I have more champagne before crawling inside the capsule for myself. I willingly complied and carefully maneuvered my pumps up the aluminum ladder and into the entry hatch. In the claustrophobic cabin, a group of young partygoers (including a ten-year-old boy ogling the wall of whiskey bottles) soaked up final views of Sachs’s handiwork.
Left: Gagosian's Sam Orlofsky and Allyson Spellacy. Right: Artist Miranda July.
As the guests began to disperse (a select few made for the intimate after-party at West Hollywood’s El Coyote cafe), an energetic Gagosian staffer called me over to present me with official “Space Program” merchandise: a T-shirt (not for sale, following a cease-and-desist order from NASA) decorated with a Lunar Module silk screen and two appliqués—an American flag on the arm with GAGOSIAN GALLERY written underneath and a NASA patch with Sachs’s signature stitched over the heart. With my new uniform came a welling pride in becoming a part of Team Sachs.
After Wednesday’s boisterous Frieze Art Fair vernissage, Thursday’s 9 AM viewing of Tate Britain’s Turner Prize retrospective seemed a tough date to keep. Yet several hundred dealers, collectors, and curators turned up—some bleary-eyed and grateful for the champagne—to survey the survey that stands in for the annual exhibition of short-listed artists, which has decamped to the museum’s outpost in Liverpool for the first time in the prize’s history. After brief introductory remarks from Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota, Tate Modern curator Jessica Morgan took the podium to announce the museum’s annual Outset/Frieze Fund acquisitions. The institution purchased only four works this year, though two—an impressive installation by Pawel Althamer and a windmill sculpture by Andreas Slominski—are significantly larger than works bought in years past. A suite of black-and-white photographs by Mauro Restiffe and a slide-projection piece by Armando Andrade Tudela round out the new additions.
Everyone then shuffled into the exhibition, which refreshed memories of the semiforgotten and reconfirmed the early promise of those, like Steve McQueen and Wolfgang Tillmans, who are still very much with us. Exhibition curator Lizzie Carey-Thomas noted the atypically long run of winning sculptors (from 1987 to 1995) before recounting the story of the nail-bitingly tight installation of Gilbert & George’s monumental work (there is a one-centimeter difference in height between the photo montage and the wall). She admitted that putting together the show produced a special affinity for Malcolm Morley, and when I brought up Grenville Davey (winner of the 1992 prize), artist-curator Matthew Higgs scurried by, noting: “It’s amazing what fifteen years out of the limelight does for you, isn’t it?” The exhaustive, at times thrilling Millais exhibition downstairs—its second and third rooms are splendid—is evidence that artistic relevance might operate on a 150-year wavelength as well.
Left: Stuart Shave director Jimi Lee with dealer Stuart Shave. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: “Turner Prize: A Retrospective, 1984–2006” curator Lizzie Carey-Thomas.
In any case, we traffic in Warhol’s fifteen-minute cycles, if that, so I quickly made my way to the Royal Academy of Arts, site of this year’s Zoo Art Fair. At the mobbed afternoon preview—due to pesky fire codes, the wait to enter reached an hour—many dealers were happy to leave behind the fair’s namesake venue in exchange for higher ceilings and varied booth layouts. Some exhibitors were also gearing up for big moves of their own: Laura Bartlett told me she’s a month shy of opening her gallery's new venue, on London's Northington Street, and Matthew Dipple happily discussed the new branch of his London gallery, Museum 52, opening on New York’s Lower East Side in November.
A bevy of young photographers left distinct impressions amid the general frenzy. Patrick Lakey’s flatly lit blend of still life and (nude) self-portraiture, from a series in which he plays dozens of characters from the Marquis de Sade’s writings, caught hold of me at The Happy Lion’s booth; at Madrid’s Travesia Cuatro, Gonzalo Lebrija’s intimate communion between himself, wearing a red hooded sweatshirt, and the lone red canvas in a selection of On Kawara “Date Paintings” brought out the latent melancholy in any notation of time; and at Cherry and Martin, Elad Lassry’s small-scale conceptual tableaux possessed at once a fierce confidence and an estranging oddness. Public Art Fund director Rochelle Steiner, Detroit-based collector Burt Aaron, and other dealers eager to find new artists, such as James Cohan Gallery’s Elyse Goldberg, squeezed past one another in the aisles.
That evening, the burgeoning strip of galleries along Vyner Street in the East End held concurrent openings, and I dropped in at Stuart Shave/Modern Art for the Canadian artist Steven Shearer’s London solo debut. The exhibition, comprising radiant oil-on-canvas portraits, the artist’s well-known digital collages, charcoal-on-paper poems rendered in blocky sans-serif typefaces, and a child’s playhouse intermittently erupting into ear-searing guitar solos, among other things, sent mental sparks flying in every direction. Ikon Gallery curator Nigel Prince, whose Shearer solo show travels to Toronto’s Power Plant in December, spoke fondly of working with the artist, who graciously accepted accolades from all manner of well-wishers.
Left: Hayward Gallery director Ralph Rugoff. Right: Tate Modern film curator Stuart Comer with dealer Sarah Gavlak.
Dinner for what must have been one hundred guests followed at art-world stalwart Bistrotheque, where I talked shop with Ossian Ward, Time Out’s new art editor; the enterprising young curator Bart van der Heide, whose soon-to-open Tris Vonna-Michell exhibition inaugurates his eighteen-month stint at the helm of the artist-run Cubitt Gallery; and the writer Michael Bracewell, who is a 2007 Turner Prize judge and whose book about the formation of Roxy Music, Re-make/Re-model, is out next week from Faber & Faber. Other obligations took me across town before dessert, and yet the night went on until 3 AM, making the wake-up call for Friday morning’s previews all the harder. But the exhibitions, at the Hayward Gallery and the newish BFI Gallery, easily won out over sleep: The former, “The Painting of Modern Life,” curated by Hayward director Ralph Rugoff, was recommended to me by many passersby in art-fair aisles; the latter, a presentation of three recent films by artist Mark Lewis, promised the perfect balm for harried eyes.
Rugoff’s effort presents examples of the “use and translation” of photographic imagery in recent painting and considers each of its twenty-two artists in surprising depth: Most have about half a dozen canvases in the show. Depth was in fact the word Rugoff employed in answering my questions about the show. Deliberately avoiding the term Photorealist, he spoke of favoring those artists engaged in complex meditations on their source material over those who “fetishize surface.” Savoring Malcolm Morley’s mid-1960s palette, I began to understand how Carey-Thomas could be drawn to the work; likewise, the Vija Celmins canvases Rugoff selected—including several grisaille canvases featuring subjects atypical of the contemporaneous work for which she is known—prove yet again that she contains multitudes. Younger painters whose appeal has escaped me to date, like Wilhelm Sasnal, shone in the company of carefully selected elder statesmen like Franz Gertsch. Despite the fact that it couldn't help but prove how difficult it can be to illuminate the nuances of conceptually elaborate practices, it was quickly apparent why so many had excitedly urged me to visit.
Left: Artist Mark Lewis. Right: Van Horn gallery director Daniela Steinfeld with dealer Philip Martin of Cherry & Martin.
A short walk brought me to the nearby BFI Gallery, where Lewis said, regarding his fantastic new film, Isosceles, “I’ve been biking past the building for seven years, always wanting to make a film about it. I was just waiting for the right idea to come to me.” The result is a slow, single-take tracking shot that completes a circuit around a boarded-up triangular restroom that once served meatpackers in the city’s Smithfield market, and in the process reveals the accretion of several centuries’ worth of architecture in the vicinity. It made me wish I could see “Modern Time,” a survey of Lewis's work that opened yesterday at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Some hours later, I settled into a front-row seat for critic Dave Hickey’s keynote lecture in the Frieze fair’s auditorium. Well, not quite the front row: Art history–student supplicants amassed on the floor in front of me, ready to bathe in the great talker’s aura. Hickey did not disappoint, rolling out a joke-laden morality tale haunted by the specter of dealer Leo Castelli, whose “idea of being wrong was to sell art for too much money.” After a pithy synopsis of 1970s “noncommercial art” and two subsequent “hypocritical” decades, in which installations of “confetti and dog turds” served as loss-leaders for secondary-market sales, Hickey rolled around to his twin entreaties: for replacing money-driven caprice with community deliberation in valuing contemporary art, and for an ethos of individual honesty and goodness predicated on basketball titan Dr. J’s idea of “playing fair without the referee.”
These points, if plucked from between the improvised riffs in which Hickey was clearly playing to the bleachers, resonate in the art-fair context. When the market bubble bursts and “thousands of Icarii plunge into the surf” (he is ever the stylist), those who “do right by doing good” will reap the rewards of a system righting itself after a thirty-year headlong tumble away from giving new art due process. Primary practice will return, like foliage overtaking the city in postapocalyptic ruin, and artists will confidently step over the bones of consultants and their hedge-fund-managing clients. If nothing else, one can find inspiration in the man’s optimism after this many years in the game.
Left: De Appel director Ann Demeester and De Appel curatorial fellow Inti Guerrero. Right: Public Art Fund director Rochelle Steiner.
Later still, I found myself just north of Camden Town at the Roundhouse, a venue that hosted acts like Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and the Living Theatre of New York during its heyday. This history makes it appropriate that I was joining several hundred art-fair denizens and avant-garde music geeks for a rare performance of Hallucination City, Glenn Branca’s symphony for one hundred electric guitars. After four days in London, it would take a thorough sonic pummeling to cut through the jumble of conversations and artworks jostling for attention in my head, and Branca’s piece delivered.
Conductor John Myers—straight out of “downtown New York central casting, circa 1984,” according to one pal—summoned an at-times-unholy noise from the six hundred assembled strings, and the music’s power conjured a litany of metaphors, all describing moments verging on abandon: His calisthenic conducting elicited a tidal surge of synchronized nodding heads; the performers then inspired him to feats of excitement that could compete with Christian-revival praise dancing; his attempts to rein in the players for quieter passages gave the impression of a lion tamer placating a feisty animal. It was enough to make you momentarily forget the person standing next to you, and certainly the myriad events that had transpired over the previous few days. And yet, as midnight once again came and went, I found myself ensconced at one last invitation-only event, in the Roundhouse’s upstairs bar, energetically debating the merits of young painters with friends.
“The Frieze Art Fair is a good thing. It’s like having a poker stuck up your ass or electrodes somewhere. It makes everyone put their best foot forward,” said The Guardian’s Adrian Searle over a glass of red last weekend. The earthy remark was a change from the unhinged cheerleading of other members of the British press, who see the fair as an “impossibly hip”—no, make that a “fantastical”—big-top experience. Without a hint of irony, the Sunday Times declared: “On the surface, it’s an art fair, but beneath that it’s an art-world conspiracy to subvert the system.”
Indeed, the Frieze fair is more than a trade show; it’s a roller coaster of a week, one of those indoor-outdoor rides, full of smoke and mirrors, that’s a tad grueling for those with an aversion to crowds. For me, the week began on a high point. At 7 PM on the Saturday before the grand art bazaar commenced, I attended the opening of “The Return of the Real,” Phil Collins’s exhibition at Victoria Miro Gallery. With a stage-door-style sign out front, the gallery had been rebranded as Shady Lane Productions, and both floors of the main space were devoted to video works that Collins had researched from his office-installation at Tate Britain during last year’s Turner Prize. With the exception of diehard collecting couple Vicky Hughes and John Smith, who don’t seem to mind drinking beer with the hoi polloi, there were no Frieze VIPs present. (The champagne crowd would be attending a much more private view a few days later.) Even Collins’s various dealers—Kerlin, Tanya Bonakdar, Victoria and her senior staff—were absent. Apparently, they were next door, sitting around a boardroom table, having a pricing meeting. In a testament to the demands on dealers during Frieze week, it was the only time they could schedule it in. Merrily, this meant guests were free to spend quality time with Collins’s humanoid Deep Throat works, teleprompters with scrolling testimonies from people who’d worked on the muckraking Trisha chat show. They offered the most engrossing conversation I’ve had at a preview in a long time.
Left: Collectors Jason and Michelle Rubell. Right: Artist Rodney Graham and Lisson Gallery owner Nicholas Logsdail.
On Monday, I’m glad I made it to Thomas Dane Gallery for the opening of Steve McQueen’s looped single-frame 16-mm film, Running Thunder, which depicts a horse, just dead, lying in the grass. As the on-screen sun faded and rigor mortis set in, a vital artery of the art world fumbled in and out of the dark. It was very Edward Albee—absurd in the best sense of the word.
The next evening, I hit Lisson Gallery, where owner Nicholas Logsdail was gladly caught in a triangle of collectors anxious to acquire paintings from Rodney Graham’s “Wet on Wet—My Late Early Styles.” Graham told me that the exhibition wasn’t a homage to Morris Louis, but “more about a guy who saw Louis’s last show and thought it looked easy.” A large light box called The Gifted Amateur, Nov. 10th, 1962, 2007, shows Graham dressed in navy pajamas, smoking a cigarette as he pours paint onto raw canvases in a vintage 1960s living room. When I asked Graham whether he would be attending the Frieze fair, he said, “I guess I should go, except I know I’ll end up thinking, Wow, this is so today, and I’m so yesterday.”
Finally, it was Wednesday, the invitation-only first day of the fifth-annual Frieze Art Fair. At 11 AM, big-spending VIPs scurried into the tent, too intent on shopping to air-kiss fair directors and art-world darlings Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover, who loitered by the entrance in well-tailored suits. I started the day by shadowing a leaner-looking Charles Saatchi on his sprint through the stands. When he stopped to form a minyan of collectors on the Herald St booth, Anita Zabludowicz looked up from a Peter Coffin neon floor sculpture and said, “Are we all fighting over this piece?” The new space in which she is showing off her collection—named, simply, 176—had been making a stir. “For one year, you’ll be the queen,” said Saatchi. “Then pffft,” he added, with a smile and a ruthless downward swipe of his hand.
Left: Hotel gallery owners Darren Flook and Christabel Stewart. Right: White Columns director Matthew Higgs.
I bumped into Matthew Higgs, who asked me: “So what’s the story this year? The car, the banknotes, the flea market?” The good curator had summed it up. Richard Prince’s contribution to the fair came in the form of an orange 1970 Dodge Challenger, which he had placed on a revolving podium and draped with a young girl endowed with booming boobs. In a tone not unlike the deadpan of his joke paintings, Prince told me: “I wish there was less art and more cars at these things. I thought I was contributing to a car fair when I was invited here.”
Next on the news agenda was Jake and Dinos Chapman’s latest art-fair ruse. Punters were queuing around the White Cube booth to submit twenty-pound notes, which the artistic duo would deface for free. The Chapmans, who have a habit of drawing on other people’s work, concentrated on “enhancing” the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II with mustaches, fangs, and cat ears.
Why don’t you sign them? I asked.
“Can’t spell,” said Dinos.
Do you like the queen?
“Never met her,” he said.
Are you a monarchist?
“The only reason to be a monarchist is if you’re a member of the Royal Family,” he declared as he gave Her Royal Highness a black eye.
Just then, English rose Tracey Emin leaned in to her gallery stablemates and said: “I’m calling the police! I’ll have you arrested!”
Left: Artist Gert Tobias with Team gallery owner Jose Freire and artist Uwe Tobias. Right: Dinos and Jake Chapman.
Across the aisle at Gavin Brown was Rob Pruitt’s Flea Market. With works like the legendary Cocaine Buffet, 1998, and the fabulously honest press release for his curated show “Teacher’s Pet,” 2007, Pruitt has unveiled the mixed mores of the art world like no other. On this occasion, he’d invited fifty artist and curator friends to hawk their wares. Nick Relph, sitting at a card table, was selling bootlegs of his and Oliver Payne’s videos. “They have a crappy black-and-white cover and no certificate, but apart from that, they’re the same thing,” he said, as he burned another disc on his MacBook Pro. “They’re twenty pounds each or six for one hundred pounds.” Artist Jonathan Horowitz had sold ten of his found plastic figurines, which he’d recaptioned with lines like LIPSTICK LESBIANS ARE PEOPLE TOO and LARRY GAGOSIAN IS A PERSON TOO. Horowitz told me that he had already sold ten works at fifty pounds each and was looking forward to personally off-loading the lot.
As I basked in the familial fun, a jubilant Gavin Brown sauntered over in a black blazer adorned with two badges. One declared I’M THE BOSS; the other commanded SHOW YOUR TITS. He glanced avariciously at my notebook and asked, “Do you have anything to sell?” When I informed him that I had nothing but my clothes, he replied, “We’ll sell your dirty knickers.” Next to a rack of vintage Vivienne Westwood, I discovered a closet hung with bigger-ticket items—a Laura Owens embroidery, an Elizabeth Peyton canvas, and three Martin Creed marker drawings. Pruitt caught me at the door and affirmed, “It doesn’t violate the integrity of the idea.” Actually, the closet added a conceptual kick, and I complimented Pruitt on the clarity of his site-specific work. He nodded gracefully, then said, “Would you like a hash brownie? They’re under the table over there. Three pounds each.”
Left: Dealer Iwan Wirth with Zwirner and WIrth director Kristine Bell. Right: Dealer Amanda Wilkinson with artist George Shaw and dealer Anthony Wilkinson.
Thankfully, other participating galleries also understood the difference between moving inventory and building reputation. Eva Presenhuber took risks with her real estate, as always, and offered an architectonic stand featuring young artist Valentin Carron. Jose Freire’s Team gallery offered a made-to-measure installation by Gert and Uwe Tobias that integrated twenty-seven pieces, including ceramics, typewriter drawings, and large, colorful woodblock prints. Still, there were enough unimaginative white-walled cubicles for artist George Shaw to assert: “The thing I love about art fairs is that they’re a great equalizer; they make established artists look like they’re having their degree show. Actually, I think artists should turn up with their parents.”
It’s amusing to observe the way fairs bring out gallerists’ status anxiety. At least 50 percent think they deserve a better location, not because they would make more money if they were twenty yards to the left, but because every corner offers a unique frisson of distinction. So it’s refreshing when a dealer with a modest, midrow address like F31 seems genuinely content. Hats off to Louise Hayward of Store, who told me: “I’d rather be up here than in the lion’s den. It’s our first year; we have to grow claws before we can go down there.”
Left: Artist Richard Prince with Dazed and Confused's Karley Sciortino. Right: Artist Rosalind Nashashibi with curator Francesco Manacorda.
What do you get when you mix a knob of elephant dung with half a cow, a smidge of transvestitism, and a full-scale garden shed? Why, a Turner Prize retrospective, of course. Last Monday night, Tate Britain unveiled an exhibition that is exactly what it says on the tin—a retrospective of works by all the winning artists. Short-listed “losers” were contentiously excluded from the exhibition, warranting only a mention in the show’s “supporting material.” Ouch.
Seen by many as the catalyst in bringing contemporary art to the attention of the British public—a public only too eager to proffer a vociferous opinion however ill informed—the Turner Prize can always be counted on to incite, delight, and infuriate.
On arrival, a cursory glance around indicated the presence of all the right ingredients for the usual effusive art-world hyperbole and madness. An hour in, however, I had the distinct impression that something was amiss. It was as though the guests—artists, their coteries, and gawkers alike—had been struck by collective ennui. There was a wary listlessness in the air even as ice clinked in glasses and conversations hummed. The attending past winners were in a cagey mood and curiously tight-lipped. Not even the cocktails were loosening them up. What was going on? Had the Turner lost its mojo?
Left: Artist Anish Kapoor. Right: The scene at the Tate.
German-born Wolfgang Tillmans, the winner of the 2000 prize, played his height to his advantage as he dodged questions about the prize, its significance, the retrospective, and just about everything else. Laughing nervously, he copped a military-style code of conduct by repeating, “The show is good . . . the Turner Prize is good . . . everything is good.” That stone wall was clearly not about to tumble. While it’s no secret that winning the prize is something of a mixed blessing, it’s generally regarded as an accolade rather than the secret curse of Tutankhamun’s tomb. I began to wonder.
Other past winners appeared unusually discomfited. Anish Kapoor remained fortressed inside a tight knot of rapt hangers-on, while Grenville Davey, back in the public eye after a protracted absence following his win in 1992, appeared, frankly, baffled. Richard Long looked grumpy (possibly owing to his startling bat-wing eyebrows), and only hypersociable Keith Tyson seemed characteristically unfazed.
Self-confessed “media slag to the stars,” cross-dressing potter Grayson Perry, in not-so-little-Bo-Peep regalia, was the only one willing to talk. On the subject of his reticent cowinning colleagues: “Unfortunately, some artists believe that publicity is incompatible with the noble pursuit of contemporary art”; he described its entire realm as “a small, esoteric world up it’s own arse.” At last, a little passion, an opinion. Of the actual exhibition, he admitted, “I quite like its randomness. It’s been . . . decurated.”
A little later, a spectacle that might have rejuvenated the night’s flailing spirit failed with an e for effort (even as it inspired paroxysms of delirium in two pogoing girls, front and center). Performance artists Chicks on Speed delivered a cacophonic set worthy of the New York Bowery scene ca. 1983. As the sound ricocheted off the uncompromising marble and plaster surfaces, art historian Dr. Richard Cork’s pained expression said it all. While the Chicks jumped up and down in varying degrees of dress, an accompanying overhead projection showed a film of naked bottoms (theirs, of course) being repeatedly smacked in lieu of a drum beat, and nude women (them, of course) playing air guitar and mimicking the preening conceits of strutting cock-rockers. A political statement, no doubt, and actually kind of compelling, but some of the more sensitive and dignified in the audience took flight and ran toward the bar for cover.
Through perhaps no fault of its own, the evening suffered an odd disjointedness, an atmospheric malaise that could conceivably be chalked up to the weather (wet and windy), the moon, or . . . the Curse of Turner. As the band played on, a weary Perry, in voluminous bloomers, handmade pinafore, and red Mary Janes, greeted his approaching wife and, sighing deeply, complained, “This music is ageist . . . Do take me home, dear.”
Left: Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit. (Photo: Stefan Maria Rother) Right: Artist Mike Kelley. (Photo: Frida Plucinski)
How did Europe steal back the idea of modern art? I pondered the question with Milan gallerist Giň Marconi as we drove from the fairgrounds of Art Forum—no relation to Artforum—to Neugerriemschneider to check out the Jorge Pardo show. Sure, London would be lead suspect for having all the money, and relational aesthetics would play cupid by bringing many European artists together with one neat theory. But Berlin would humbly affirm its own significance by providing a cozy home to artists from Europe and beyond. Marconi noted that he had no intention to open a branch of his gallery in Berlin. “London is for business. I come to Berlin for dinner parties.”
Lucky for us, invites to dinners and parties abounded. The weekend kicked off when Ceal Floyer stepped up to the podium last Thursday night to accept the Nationalgalerie Prize for Young Art (along with a handsome trophy and a seventy-thousand-dollar check). The audience was amazed that international curator David Elliot had mastered the German habit of giving really long speeches at art events in cavernous halls with terrible acoustics, although his echoing mash-up of Hegel, Kant, Debord, and Lewis Carroll raised a few eyebrows.
The eyebrows rose even higher when Peter-Klaus Schuster, general director of Berlin museums, took the stand and informed us all that a certain “Tina” Sehgal was one of the finalists, along with Floyer, Damián Ortega, and Jeanne Faust. Some gasped as a young woman did indeed walk up to the podium along with Ortega and Faust to collect the consolation flowers. But she was no Rrose Sélavy—Sehgal, who never takes planes and thus travels only by slower means, like boats and trains, simply had other commitments abroad. The jurists had wasted no time choosing Floyer. “We decided unanimously in two minutes,” said Van Abbemuseum director Charles Esche, to the hearty agreement of fellow jury member Lynne Cooke.
Afterward, in the Veuve Clicquot Room, the champagne poured as freely as the rain outside. Loitering with critics Kito Nedo, André Rottmann, and Luca Cerizza, I wondered whether the wonderful Widow Clicquot changed the name of her late husband’s champagne brand to celebrate or to mourn his passage (or both), until a waitress reminding us not to smoke shook me out of it. “I have to smoke for my heart problem,” explained Nedo, blowing a few rings into the air.
There was no shortage of smoke, or heart problems, at the ballroom in Clara’s Ballhaus, where yet another prizewinner, Danh Vo, who took this year’s blueOrange award, was being feted among—what can I say?—total art cuties, including artists Laura Horelli and Susan Philipsz and Berlin Biennial 5 cocurator Elena Filipovic. (And that was only the gals!) I tried to convince dealer Jan Mot that he should represent Joep van Liefland, Joep van Lieshout, and Erik van Lieshout, and then Adam Szymczyk that he should curate a show based on Witold Gombrowicz’s Pornografia, which had just been banned from high school reading lists in Poland, despite its brilliantly apropos combination of voyeurism and murder.
Left: Berlin Biennial 5 cocurator Adam Szymczyk. Right: Dealer Iwan Wirth with collector Karl Friedrich Flick. (Photos: Stefan Maria Rother)
Next day: the fair. Art Forum is not the only fair in Berlin—you also have spin-offs like Berlin Liste in Gleisdreieck and Preview at Tempelhof Airport. Of course, the question on every visitor’s mind was: Why weren’t the major Berlin galleries participating at any of these fairs?
With fairs on the brain, Marc Spiegler and Cay Sophie Rabinowitz—two-thirds of the new Art Basel triumvirate—showed up, looking exhausted, with Sam Keller at Grill Royal. “I cannot reveal any details about the future,” said Spiegler, although the fact that he had just come home from China suggests that perhaps Art Basel Beijing is in the offing. With Rabinowitz and MoMA curator Christian Rattemeyer, we mused on office policies, from MoMA’s tie policy to Art Basel’s yoga sessions. We tried to ask Mario Testino whether it’s true that at Prada offices you can’t wear socks and stockings, but he wasn’t revealing any details either—just his fabulous smile. Too tired to make it to the bash for Agathe Snow, Terence Koh, and Bruce LaBruce at Peres Projects, I headed home.
Saturday night brought Mike Kelley’s opening at Jablonka Galerie—a nice collaboration with Sammlung Falkenberg, where six privately purchased pieces were also on view. Talk about instant criticism: An irate guest punched Kelley in the face for making too much money. (The visitor would have had a real field day at the fair!) At the postdinner party at Sale & Tabacchi, there were rousing rounds of applause for the glass teams from the Czech Republic, where you can get the biggest bell jars in the world blown by hand or mouth. Everyone—from the glass teams to Kelley to Rafael Jablonka—were making speeches while standing on chairs. Patrick Painter yelled “YES” to every thanks as if it were a goal in the World Cup. I was sitting with Mark Francis from Gagosian, and together we nominated Emi Fontana the best-dressed woman there.
Left: The Süddeutsche Zeitung's Holger Liebs with artist Franz Stauffenberg. (Photo: Maureen Jeram) Right: Artist Rita McBride with curator Ami Barak. (Photo: Stefan Maria Rother)
After chatting at Grill Royal with Frieze critic Dominic Eichler, we decided that before heading home, it was our critical duty to attend the Texte zur Kunst panel with the deceptively simple title “How to Have a Party to Celebrate the Magazine.” But we couldn’t find the panel, just people discussing, dancing, drinking, and spilling out into the street—an old Berlin party tradition. Although the party survived the many trams and cars veering close to the guests, it couldn’t quite recuperate from the round of pepper spray released—perhaps by an angry theorist—in the club around 5 AM.
Sunday morning, we headed over to Sammlung Hoffmann, where grande dame Erika Hoffmann was hosting her annual brunch for the gallerists. What a fab installation. A favorite: Nancy Spero’s 1968 work Super Pacification (made during that other failed war—Vietnam), with an A-bomb plane dropping what looked like breasts (the other great American pacifier). After brunch, I skipped an afternoon tour with Jonathan Monk at Kunstlerhaus Bethanien for the Kelley talk at the American Academy, run by Gary Smith, the Walter Benjamin scholar–cum-diplomat. Smith had persuaded Michael Kimmelman—yet another new Berliner, heading the New York Times’s office here for the year—to be Kelley’s foil. It was quite a crowd—even Diane von Furstenberg showed up to see what they had to say. Kimmelman did an excellent job of remaining afloat during an absolutely brilliant talk from Kelley. Indeed, I never learned so much art history in so little time, despite his saying intermittently and self-depreciatingly, “Blah, blah, blah.”
The dinner—an intimate, lakeside affair in Potsdam, featuring such eminent guests as Jablonka, Tacita Dean, Thomas Demand, and Heike Föll—was fantastic, although I could not understand why Andreas Slominski kept saying good-bye to me. (Perhaps he mistook me for Tina Sehgal.) Teaming up with Diedrich Diederichsen, Monica Bonvicini, Juliane Rebentisch, and American Academy program director Philipp Albers, we took a cab to Ex ‘n’ Pop club, where the charming curator Reiner Opoku was hosting a collaborative painting show between Jonathan Meese and Tim Berresheim. Quite frankly, beyond reading a large sign stating NO DRUGS!!!!, I cannot remember the rest. I woke up in the recovery room of the Friedrichshain hospital with the chief of endoscopy giving me my last quote: “Frau Doktor Allen, you have an ulcer.”
Left: Curator Anselm Franke. Right: Klaus Wowereit, Art Forum Berlin artistic director Sabrina van der Ley, and dealer Kamel Mennour. (Photos: Stefan Maria Rother)
Last Saturday, held up by typical Los Angeles traffic, I arrived at the Hammer Museum’s theater a few minutes after 3 PM, which is to say a few minutes late for the lecture Francis Al˙s was delivering on the occasion of “The Politics of Rehearsal,” his solo retrospective opening that night. Al˙s sat alone at the rear of the dark stage, a stack of notes and a laptop before him, speaking quietly in a soft Belgian accent inflected mildly by his years spent in Mexico. The capacity audience—which included artist Alexandra Grant, Gallery at REDCAT curator Clara Kim, and critic Jan Tumlir—was equally subdued, hardly moving while the artist read aloud his notes on moving mountains and building unfinished bridges out of fishing boats.
Al˙s described each project with the bare minimum of additional commentary; his utilitarian explanations gave the impression of a how-to demo. During the Q&A, a man joined Al˙s onstage and fielded many of the heftier questions lobbed by the UCLA students and independent curator Bill Kelly Jr. This stranger was, I later discovered, Rafael Ortega, a longtime Al˙s collaborator and cameraman.
Afterward, standing beside the high bamboo in the open-air courtyard outside the theater, artist Piero Golia declared Al˙s “a bad talker, but a great artist.” Golia smiled, revealing a twinkling gem embedded in his front tooth, and continued in his thick Italian accent, “and truly helpful if I ever want to build a bridge out of boats.”
That night’s opening proved less matter-of-fact though no less instructive, as is often the case where an open bar is concerned. Inspired by Al˙s’s famous walks, I kicked around the marble courtyard of the Hammer, trying to extract a little poetry from the political rumbling of an art world ill at ease.
There was some talk about New York dealers opening spaces in Los Angeles, including rumors of Zach Feuer’s quiet decision to no longer maintain his connection to his LA outpost, Kantor/Feuer, and Gavin Brown’s newest enterprise with L&M, which the hoi polloi has already written off, especially since it’s slated to open in Venice. Even Honor Fraser, who opened in that neighborhood recently, has jumped ship for Culver City. One former director of a prominent LA gallery opined that the New Yorkers were just pissing away their money; he had left the gallery to enlist in the city’s ever-lucrative entertainment industry.
As the evening progressed, the Hammer, renowned for its crowded parties, felt strangely subdued—perhaps proving the local law that Los Angeles only comes out for its own, though the more likely story was that everyone was already off to Europe for the run of fairs—Art Forum Berlin to FIAC in Paris—that reaches its commercial climax at London’s Frieze Art Fair. No complaints here. The thin crowd only made it easier to see the exhibition, a compendium of classic Al˙s works, including a video of a Sisyphean VW Beetle charging up a hill only to roll back down, as well as documentation of the artist’s many walks through the streets of Mexico City. As Al˙s ambled through the gallery, I couldn’t help but feel a little like I was watching a virtuoso do the scales.
Before departing for the unofficial after-party in Culver City at the Mandrake, I walked downstairs to the Hammer project gallery for a peek at Jamie Isenstein’s show, which was also opening that night. Isenstein draws something subtle and elegant from her blend of P. T. Barnum’s circus chicanery and Conceptual-art know-how. But aside from an empty birdcage swinging mysteriously in the center of the gallery, there was no sign of the elusive artist. Perhaps, I thought, her disappearance was just one more bit of legerdemain pulled from her bag of magical Conceptualist tricks. But according to Andrew Kreps Gallery director Liz Mulholland, for the past few weeks Isenstein had been very easy to locate. During gallery hours, up until the Hammer opening, Isenstein had been stuffed in the lower end of a box split in two, a sort of headless take on the classic woman-sawn-in-half routine; only her wiggling feet had been visible. Once Isenstein has completed this endurance performance, she’ll begin a slightly less strenuous tenure as the Hammer’s artist-in-residence.