Left: Artist Trisha Donnelly with curator Daniel Birnbaum. Right: Astrup Fearnley, museum director Gunnar Kvaran, and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist.
Few of us have had occasion to visit Oslo before, but a Saturday seminar organized by Daniel Birnbaum, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Gunnar B. Kvaranthe three curators of the show “Uncertain States of America” at the Astrup Fearnley Museet for Moderne Kunstbrought a boatload of American artists and three European journalists into Viking territory. After two weeks of pale-gray German skies that faded to black at half past four in the afternoon, traveling even further north to witness the spectacle seemed like a perverse crash-course in surviving the Prussian winter.
My plane from Berlin was delayed, so after a quick trip to the minibank to load up on Norwegian Kroner, I arrived at the tail end of lunch (forgetting that in a socialist democracy like Norway, the train is faster than the cab). I took a seat next to German colleagues Dr. Michaela Neumeister (of Phillips de Pury & Company) and Niklas Maak (head of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung culture pages and part-time professor at Portikus). The towering Adam Putnam kicked off the post-lunch lectures with an homage to Steven Parrino via Yves Klein, whose Leap into the Void, 1960, Putnam punned, “hovers over” many of today’s artistic practices. Trisha Donnelly, blessed with a voice as seductive as Madonna's, ended the studious segment of our day with her homage to the compression of time in Nina Simone's “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” In between, we heard lectures from Ilana Halperin, Jesse Bransford, and Seth Kelly, but a thumbnail outline would do them scant justice. Afterwards, standing in front of Matthew Day Jackson's homage to Eleanor Roosevelt, Obrist led a small group on a “hurricane” tour of the show before hustling off to catch the Norwegian debut of Miranda July's film Me and You and Everyone We Know. The movie’s childlike humor and touching lyricism helped ward off the dark discontent of winter. If you’re lucky enough to have seen it, you’ll remember that even lines like “You poop into my butthole and I poop into your butthole. Back and forth . . . until the poop is one . . . forever” are lent an unexpected beauty. If not, well, you’ll have to take my word for it.
Later, huddled around the fireplace at the fabulous apartment of Mr. Hans Rasmus Astrup (Fearnley is his mother's name), Trisha Donnelly let slip what she called a “rectum-ification” while Adam Putnam denied us all a “de-abstractification” of his budding oeuvre. Both terms reminded me that I forgot to ask Halperin what exactly she meant by the phrase “coincidental erogeny” earlier that afternoon. An elderly gentleman asked me something in Norwegian as I hovered near the local variant of tiramisu. My inability to respond prompted him to continue: “Are you one of those bloody Americans here for that idiotic show of contemporary art?” Owning up, I asked him where he thought the discipline had lost its way. “I am an art historian and for me Mark Rothko is young.” Faced with what threatened to become an uphill battle, I excused myself and headed back toward the fireplace, where I bumped into a colleague making a similar escape. A well-endowed blonde had been chatting him up. “She asked me why Picasso is considered a great painter!” “Great question,” I retorted. “Why didn’t you answer?” Birnbaum’s story about a humorous misunderstanding was more entertaining: many moons ago he was talking to a serious contemporary art collector from Texas who earnestly expressed admiration for that “lovely young man Okwui Enwezor who was making a documentary in a castle in Germany.”
Surrounded by so much wood paneling, it felt as if we were in a “castle-apartment.” Some of us looked out of place, others right at home. Apparently, Mr. Astrup had double-booked himself that evening, bringing together what otherwise would have remained separate worlds as a group of Roman specialists (in town for a seminar of their own) were also invited to dinner. It was a situation that a Situationist might have dreamed up. Mr. Astrup's well-heeled friends stirred up more than just your usual “how interesting” cocktail conversation, and by the end of the evening I was in a swoon, enamored of Norwegian frankness and happy these latter day vikings were behind this newest invasion of our uncertain states.
Just how elite can you get? The invitation for a pre-press conference dinner from the 4th Berlin Biennale (BB4) promised the company of a “small, exclusive circle” of guests and curators Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni, and Ali Subotnick. The rarefied group that assembled last week at Kunst-Werke's Dan Graham-designed Café Bravo turned out to be the usual suspects from Berlin's critical establishmentfrom Süddeutsche Zeitung arts editor Holger Liebs to Frieze scribe Kirsty Bell. As we “lucky few” listened to welcoming speeches by our hosts—Gioni, along with Hortensia Völckers, the formidable director of the Kulturstiftung des Bundes (the main state backer for BB4) and Markus Müller, the BB4 press director and Documenta XI's PR wizard, it began to dawn upon me: This evening, however well-intentioned, might be too elite to be interesting, let alone fun.
After all, what is exclusivity if you can't flaunt it? I tried to imagine throngs outside the café, enviously pressing their noses against the glass. But there was next to no one: One quick glance around the room and you could catalog every guest in attendance. At the dinner table, I sat beside Cattelan, who fed me a string of “exclusive” quotes. What is it like curating the Berlin biennial, titled 'Of Mice and Men?'“ I asked him. ”Exciting . . . challenging . . . rewarding!“ Could this biennial be considered a work of art, like the Sixth Caribbean Biennial? ”Oh no, it's a job."
And what a job: After interviewing over 300 Berlin-based artists, Cattelan and company had not only settled on a list of participantsfrom Tomma Abts to Cathy Wilkesbut also published another edition of Charley (the 700-plus page “Checkpoint” issue). More, it seems, is more: The team also produced a column in the local weekly Zitty, a diary in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung and a fake branch of Gagosian Gallery, opened in September. Did you have a problem with the real Gagosian? “Well, the gallery always wanted to work with me,” explained Cattelan. “So I thought this would be a good way to do it.” Gagosian never answered a request for permission, but “I took their silence as a yes.” Cattelan then insisted on asking me a question: “So . . . where do you come from?”
It was up to superconnector Gioni to incite a more serious mid-meal discussion. His threateither we ask a question or we don't get the next coursedid not deter anyone from remaining silent. But by dessert, the division of labor in the curatorial team was plain to see: Gioni handles statements, Cattelan provides comic relief, and Subotnick is the brains behind this operation. Consider the trio's answers to the sole question, posed by the Tageszeitung's arts editor Brigitte Werneburg. Why open the Berlin Gagosian with a show featuring works by Dorothy Iannone? Gioni went on about how biennials today can present older artists alongside younger ones. Cattelan: “Because she's sexy!” Subotnick: “She has a great apartment!” See what I mean? Everyone knows that real estate trumps sex appeal and curatorial manifestos.
Left: A woman holds up Gelitin's copy of her bra. Middle: Inserting a white shoe into the “Tantamounter.” Right: Dean Daedarko wearing the copy of his suit and T-shirt.
The toughest decision facing visitors to Vienna-based collective Gelitin’s “Tantamounter 24/7”a weeklong performance and exhibition featuring a homemade “duplication machine” that was presented recently at Chelsea gallery Leo Koenig, Inc.was what to bring. After casting about my apartment at midnight Tuesday for something suitable for reproduction, I settled upon a cork bulletin board covered with sentimental relics. Stuffing it in to the back seat of a cab, I was smugly confident that the lateness of my visit would mean a smaller crowd, but soon discovered that othersartists and students, thirtysomething businessmen, passersby lured out of the coldhad had a similar idea. The cramped space reserved for visitors at the front of the gallery was nearly full. (This being the most recent iteration of their playful installations-cum-endurance-tests, the Austrian pranksters were ferreted away inside a large sealed wooden box.) I found a spot in line, but what I brought wouldn’t fit inside the top-loading compartment marked for receiving.
No matter. The atmosphere was collegial (“I’m going for beer. Who wants beer?” queried a bike-messenger type) and the objects regularly popping out of the box broke up the monotony of waiting. Some duplications took minutes, others over an hour. The artists, who had already been locked behind the partition for six days, seemed to enjoy making sculptures. A blue-glass seltzer bottle was returned quickly, along with its copy: two blue plastic cups that were stuck together and speared with a turkey baster balancing a bent metal spoon. Brilliant. We played guessing games: Whose object would arrive next? How accurate a copy would it be? And would it involve pornography? Behind the wall the Gelitin boys (plus artist Naomi Fisher, who lent a helping hand) were obviously having fun: Most two-dimensional objects were returned accompanied by raunchy imagery excised from a seemingly inexhaustible supply of triple-X magazines.
Dean Daderko, an independent curator, put all of his clothes into the machine and wrapped himself in a copy of the newsprint exhibition poster while awaiting the results. No one who entered after he disrobed seemed to mind (or even notice) the unseasonal nudity. An hour later, his black T-shirt, suit, and wallet came back, along with its duplicate: a blue flower-print dress, some green rope mesh, a small belt, and a note: “Dean we love that you are naked so close to us.” Five minutes after that, a second note emerged: “Dean send us a picture of your new clothes.” The cameraphones immediately went to work as Daderko gamely struck a pose.
In honor of Thanksgiving, I had the invisible alchemists duplicate a greeting card that featured a photograph of a turkey. For good measure, I stuck in another card (depicting a monkey raising a mug of beer) as a gift. I should’ve guessed that the result would incorporate porn. (I leave it to you to guess what unclothed body parts best resemble the holiday bird.) Pocketing my treasures, I waved goodbye to those still waiting and headed home. It was 2:30AM: Gelitin had twenty more hours to go. Two afternoons later, the turkey on my dinner table seemed a little less appetizing than usual.
“Man, that Whitney museum sounds good!” actor/poet Jim Fletcher drawled into the microphone between sets at an evening of Cajun country music hosted by Richard Maxwell and the Reena Spaulings Fine Art posse. This installment in the institution's series of Friday night gigs was also affiliated with the French Embassy and Association Française d'Action Artistique's “Act French,” a citywide series of performances celebrating Franco-American cultural exchange. Performed by a revolving quintet of vocalists, including Fletcher, Maxwell, and Reena Spaulings's spritelike founder Emily Sundblad, the songs were sung mostly in French (notes often came in handy here) and were accompanied by a fiddler, guitars, and a guest accordionist.
A number of the tunes were popular (“Me and Bobby McGee,” “Diggy Liggy”) but rendered unfamiliar by the Louisiana dialect. (“We started the band before Katrina,” Maxwell assured me.) Fletcher stole the show, striking runway poses and pouting at the audience between bouts of singing, dancing, and showing off his talent on the harmonica. “Jim Fletcher, he picked all these songs. He’s the man tonight,” Maxwell admitted. Sundblad looked like she was having almost as much fun, do-si-doing with singer Sybyl Kempson and stripping off her hot-pink sweater to perform a French rendition of “House of the Rising Sun” in only her trademark (and slightly ratty) skeleton-print leotard. This was the fifth time the band (which, as both Sundblad and Maxwell informed me, “doesn’t have a name”) has performed since its debut at Reena Spaulings Fine Art's “Robert Smithson” exhibition in February 2004. While they've played only art venues to date (Passerby, Haswellediger), Sundblad expressed disappointment with the acoustics and feel of galleries: “I hope next time we’ll play at a bar, like the Rodeo Bar.”
Left: Reena Spaulings Gallery founder Emily Sundblad and singer Sybyl Kempson. Center: Actor and poet Jim Fletcher. Right: Performer Richard Maxwell, Scott Sherratt, and musician Catherine McRae.
While “Act French” had approached Maxwell, asking for his participation along with a number of “the city’s downtown theater elite,” the Cajun angle was Fletcher’s brainchild. “We were going to play French pop music,” Maxwell recalled. But Fletcher had been haunted by a French blues track he’d heard at a friend’s house: “I'd never heard blues in French and I'd never heard blues so right. It hit the pocket and I loved it. It sounded, like, African.” (Meanwhile a heated discussion about colonialism had ignited between a couple of audience members and the band.) “It’s about the moment of miscegenation,” Sundblad piped up, explaining that “Mon negre” is a Cajun term of endearment. “I do remember a conversation about indigenous French communities,” Maxwell added. With the band's origins as mixed up as a bubbling pot of Louisiana gumbo, Fletcher summed it up: “It's French, but it's American.”
Left: Marian Goodman and Gerhard Richter. Right: Critic and curator Robert Storr with MCA Sydney director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor. (Photos: David Velasco)
I hate to travel. Still, a tempting triple bill (and a “yes” from a favorite New York date) persuaded me to undertake the crossing from London, my habitual stomping ground, as some of you may know. Reviewing our admittedly rigorous schedule, my escort not so sportingly opted out of all but the glamorous main event, a dinner at the Four Seasons hosted by gallerist Marian Goodman to celebrate the star of her starry stable, Gerhard Richter. On my own, and all but stalled in a snarl of Village traffic (the 6PM start-time of my first engagement ticking past), I was beginning to fear my fickle pal had had the right idea.
Destination one: Galleria Illy, the coffee bar-cum-multiplex on West Broadway where Bookforum's editor, Eric Banks, was presiding over a reading devoted to the poetry of Roman decadent Catullus. As luck would have it, our host had not yet called the throng to order, and my spirits were already lifting when Peter Green, translator of a new edition of the ancient's verses, opened the proceedings with a pair of poems in the original Latinthe first, a tour de force of Galliambic form; the second, somewhat more colloquialand more characteristic of the poet’s oeuvre. (We'll have to take his word for it!) Perhaps it was the dead languageits fusty beauty at odds with the toxic modernity of Soho's main shopping dragbut more then a few in the audience succumbed to charmed giggles. Delight proved infectious, as the program moved through selections from Green's own English renderings, performed by a jazzy lineup that included everyone from Olympian wiseman Richard Howard to hipster classicist Daniel Mendelsohn to rectal romantic Toni Bentley.
Left: Gerhard Richter signs a book for a fan. Right: Anya von Gösseln of the Office for Contemporary Art with artist Jacob Maendel. (Photos: David Velasco)
Alas, already running late for my next event, I was forced to forgo “the really dirty bits” promised by Wayne Koestenbaum, though my next event, a buffet dinner welcoming Richard Flood (that hard-partying pillar of the American art community) back to New York, promised our bawdy classicists a run for their money. Regrettably, chiseled centurions in leather wrist gauntlets were in short supply, though a burgeoning company, including Flood's new New York boss Lisa Phillips (he assumes the post of chief curator at the New Museum she directs this fall), his old New York boss, gallerist Barbara Galdstone, recent MoMA defector Terry Riley, the Guggenheim's freshly elevated Lisa Dennison, early-bird collectors Ilene and Michael Cohen, and lawyer to the (art) stars, Michael Stout, all looked smart in more conventional festive wear. Flood, dependably jovial and presiding over a perfectly imperial Tribeca quadplex courtesy of collectors and recent Minnesota transplants Ed Bazinet and Wouter Deruytter, did pull off a respectable Nero. I had scarcely thanked our affable hosts for this lavish entertainment when the sight of a sizable Richter on the wall behind them reminded me that I was expected for dinner uptown.
Goodman pulls out the stops when Gerhard comes to town, and I thought the venue was an inspired choice. The Grill Roomvery Tom Ford for Gucci, albeit a few decades avant la lettrehas always been a personal favorite, spoiled only by the masters of the universe at lunch and the tourists at night. Taking it over is really the only way to go. As I arrived at the top of that fabled staircase, one prominent New York curator mouthed, in camp mock-dazzlement, “F-A-N-C-Y.”
Left: Catullus translator Peter Green. Right: Bookforum's Eric Banks with writers Richard Howard and Wayne Koestenbaum.
Fancy is as fancy does, I worried, confessing my decidedly unfancy behavior to Art Institute of Chicago curator James Rondeau: I was so short on time that I was forced to forego the opening, I blurted. He (squaring his shoulders) replied, “I have never done that!” Then, checking his perhaps too fulsome pride, ventured a more playful, “Something bad will happen to you.” I ventured towards the dining area with increased foreboding, but not only did my missing date miraculously materialize, but a quick scan of the seating cards revealed my assignment to be an altogether congenial one.
Another night our corner might have been deemed a kind of egghead Siberia, but if you know anything about the Goodman value system, you know that eggheads rate at least as high as titans of industry, a fact confirmed at the very next table, where the seats of honor flanking the artist were reserved for Rosalind Krauss and Benjamin Buchloh. I have been given to understand that Buchloh, an essayist (along with Dieter Schwarz) for the show’s handsome catalogue found Philip Johnson's tabernacle to the power lunch an unfit setting to fête his favored vehicle. I wondered if he would have been happier with, say, the brasserie redux of a Pastis or the rigor of a Matsuri. As a one-time editor of the critic, I'm well used to his have-your-Grill-Room-and-hate-it-too schtick, but that doesn’t stop me from counting him among our most credible critics.
Left: Bill Powers and Allan Ritcher. Right: Marian Goodman's Victoria Solano with Guggenheim curator Carmen Gimenez. (Photos: David Velasco)
Speaking of October, while discourse with my immediate partners was so festive and fluid that I scarcely noticed who filled the other ninety plus seats, never mind what was said, I did pick up on some ambient chatter attending the recent spate of negative reviews greeting Art Since 1900, the revisionist Modernist history-cum-textbook penned by four of that organ's chief protagonists. Indeed, with three of the authors in our corner that evening, and one, Hal Foster, directly across the table, I had the bad taste to vent my own frustration with the study to his wife, Sandy Tate. Truth be told, I don’t know anyone, outside the authors and their minions (who are admittedly legion) that is not exasperated by the parochial cliquishness of the treatment of the art of recent decades. Even I, a normally reliable fan of their individual efforts, felt so stifled by their version of the '90s that it will be a good while before I am able to crack the tome again to investigate the probable riches of the earlier sections.
It was time to go, and Rondeau's “something bad” had yet to befall me. In fact, one day hence, a considerable dividend was paid on my opening no-show in the form of a first visit to the exhibitionsans the masses and the madness. A promising young art historian I bumped into at the gallery confessed to “never really getting the abstractions,” and I had to shush a wag that reached me by phone as I stepped back out onto 57th Street and offered up the old painting-by-the-yard quip. Richter's abstractions, of course, have always walked a difficult line: One minute they are mere cipherslike Warhol's blanks, both foils for and negations of the blurry representations with which he juxtaposes them; the next, they are bottomless wells of nuance. “Read, learn, work it up, go to the literature” . . . the refrain is Joan Didion's, and her occasion a genuinely tragic one, yet nudged by the naysayers (not to mention a hall of grisaille panels set off by a squadron of fighter planes), I took her counsel. Catalogue in hand, I stepped across the street and into a McDonald's “town house,” secured a coveted upstairs window seat, and proceeded to make my way through the Buchloch essay along with the three-cheeseburger snack that is a favorite guilty pleasure.
The frisson of fast food and a slow read was recalling for me a bit too neatly the Latin-in-Soho moment that opened my excursion. There was Buchloch's faintly archaic, overweening allegiance to modernist negativity. (Indeed, at first I was skeptical of the utility of the broad-strokes sketch of the history of painterly negation he laid in, at least at this point in the Richter conversation. What, after all, are we to do with the surplus of fresh paintings that after all pack four galleries and a long hall?) But by the time I made it through the critic's rather inspired riff on color after color, and, in fairness, absorbed his gestures towards attending to the real specificities of each micro-manifestation of refusal, I was again the devotee. As for the art? Well, a few yardsor boltsI would happily hang.
Left: “Le Voyage intérieur” curator Alex Farquharson. Right: The “Infinite White Cube” room. (Unless noted, all photos Nicolas Trembley).
Paris is awash with visions of melancholy and esoteric variants of romanticism this autumn, both of which tend to put me in a very good mood. There's “Mélancolie” and “Vienne 1900” at the Grand Palais; the first retrospective of the neglected Girodet at the Louvre; and now a contemporary group show devoted to new manifestations of Symbolism in the work of young artists (mostly based in London and Paris) at Espace EDF Electra. (The cultural exchange between the two cities is also an amuse-gueule to the roughly twenty exhibitions of French contemporary art to be held simultaneously in London next October.)
The glass-fronted site of “Le Voyage intérieur” is a renovated Art Nouveau power station in the 7th Arrondissement, just steps away from Le Bon Marché and the best other top shopping destinations. While I was looking forward to seeing what could be done with the theme of “la Décadence,” I also knew that the show was going to be impossible to get a handle on during the opening, so I opted for the press preview instead. When I arrived, there were maybe five other people wandering around the blacked-out and drastically configured space, in addition to the seven or eight people directly involved with the show standing awkwardly by. (With its three floors, central two-story well, mezzanine, and slick glass elevator, the venue is well suited to design shows, though perhaps less so to art.)
Left: Artist Jean Luc Verna. Right: “Le Voyage intérieur” curator Alexis Vaillant and curator Sofia Hernandez Chong Cuy.
As I walked down a newly erected and appropriately gloomy “Metaphysical Corridor,” illuminated by fake, fluorescent-lit cutout “windows” and mechanically fanned dark blue transparent curtains (shades of De Chirico or “The Turn of the Screw”), I ran into London gallerist couple Cornelia Grassi and Tomasso Corvi-Mora. “This show could never be done in London,” Grassi enthused, implying that the scenography would be thought too kitschnot empty-white-space enough. Having seen little of the art yet, apart from a handsome bronze bust of a helmet-haired androgyne by London artist Enrico David, I was inclined to agree. Both gallerists have artists in “Le Voyage”: Grassi represents Silke Otto-Knapp, whose smallish, Klimtesque paintings of hieratic dancers look highly appealing in the peacock-blue, double height “Salon Egyptien,” while Corvi-Mora shows Roger Hiorns, whose big, black, freestanding metal sculpture, reminiscent of '60s-era Anthony Caro, is hard to make out (and thus doubly mysterious) in the black-walled “Unknown Pleasures” gallery on the ground floor.
Walking upstairs, I found myself in an even darker, latex-lined room, dubbed the “Black Vampire Rubber Zone.” Here I encountered one of the curators, Alex Farquharson, who regaled me with some surprising arcana, such as the fact that the show was inspired by Joris-Karl Huysmans novel À Rebours (1884), that benchmark of fin-de-siècle decadence. According to Farquharson, he and Alexis Vaillant, the show's French curator, along with young scenographer Nadia Lauro, had tried to imagine what the reclusive hero Des Esseintes’s house “would look like today.” (“Not like this,” I said to myself. “Come over to my place.”) Farquharson explained that the hors concours presence in the show was that of Richard Hawkins, a Los Angeles-based artist who had spent time in Paris studying Symbolist texts. But that's not why I liked Hawkins's Chinese lantern collaged with male porn so muchit had more to do with the fact that two similar objects, minus the raunchy veneer, once hung in my own studio apartment.
Left: Artist Vidya Gastaldon. Center: The poster for “Le Voyage intérieur” (Courtesy: Heymann, Renoult Associées). Right: Curator Anne Dressen.
Returning to the show that night, which was appropriately cold, dark, and rainy (“un temps de chien,” the French would say), “Le Voyage” seemed more effectively creepy. There were a couple of limos outside; a few corporate types getting guided tours of the show; a pert little white tent that housed only a cloak room (no bar in sight); and a slightly bedraggled art-world contingent. The biggest group was gathered in the “Club Salo” gallery, where British artist Adam Chodzko's Reunion: Salo, 1998, was on view. Chodzko's piece, which documents a search for the now-grown children who appeared as nude extras in Pasolini's 1976 film masterpiece, prompted the most respectful response of the evening. With its nods to the French ideals of le cinema, l'erotisme, and le policier, Reunion: Salo had them worshipping yet again at the auteur's altar. Curator Bill Arning reminisced about his seeing the film when he was fifteenhow shocking it had seemed then, and how staid and august it all seemed now. Even Chodzko's snippets of nude kids being led around, on leashes and on all fours, by those cruel Italian fascists seemed to induce a very studious response.
Contrasting with all this darkness was an upstairs room called “Infinite White Cube.” This was the utopian epicenter of the show, a tongue-in-cheek paean not only to Jay Jopling's London gallery but also, the curators insist, to an all-white room in the Belgian Symbolist Fernand Khnopff's Brussels house, long since destroyed. Suffused in neon light, the room, a scenographic conceit by Lauro and the curators, looked cool and funny: a Light and Space piece run amok. Inside it was a soft floor sculpture by the French artist Vidya Gastaldon, with yellow velvet “pillows” recalling the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz. “Ca fait du bien, cette lumiere,” exclaimed one female viewer, as the room pulsed with electricity. In the gloomy climes of Northern Europe in November, the “Infinite White Cube”and “Le Voyage intérieur” in generalwere a welcome bright spell.