Surreal Estate

New York

Left: The auctioneer. Right: Hamish Bowles, Vogue European editor at large. (All photos: David Velasco)

While the smaller fry have eBay, Christie’s estate auctions are yard sales for rich people. A bit more personalized than the usual auction, estate sales give you a (highly orchestrated) sense of one individual megashopper, whose accumulation, needless to say, is “significant” enough to merit a one-person show. At once mythologizing the collector (and her stash)—and clinically reducing it to shekels—the auction as ritual strikes a weird balance between a memorial service and a financial autopsy.

For those of you (like me) who didn’t know of María Félix (1914–2002), aka La Doña, the deceased shopper was a Mexican film icon in the ’40s; a celebrated beauty, jet-setter, art collector (mostly fantasias of herself by Diego Rivera, as well as by Surrealists Léonora Carrington and Antoine Tzapoff), and world-class accumulator of furniture, couture, and porcelain (including a massive selection of Jacob Petit—the largest ever to appear on the auction block!). The lavish catalogue documents her bona fides as a full-on “diva at home in high society and with artists on both continents” who “admired the intelligence of Jean-Paul Sartre.” And I continue to quote, because who can beat this? “Her clothes for smart race-going and even smarter parties and balls after the races were designed and made for her by Jean Desses, Dior, Valentino, Chanel, Givenchy, YSL . . . leading her to be named one of the Best Dressed women in the world in 1984.” Another fun fact: “She had inherited from her Swiss banker [fourth] husband a stable of thoroughbred racing horses at Chantilly outside Paris which at its height, had over 100 horses for which saddles and bridles, together with the jockey’s silks, were made for María Félix by Hermès.” Even her horses wore Hermès, OK?

While Christie’s first-floor gallery displayed a mise-en-scène evoking Félix’s lavish abodes, one needs the catalogue photos to truly grasp the over-the-topness we’re dealing with. She lived in a domestic phantasmagoria that was like Elsie de Wolfe meets Salvador Dalí: an exuberant temple of narcissism loaded with surreal beasties; tons of porcelain, ormolu, clam shells, and clawed feet galore; and furniture such as a “Regency polychrome painted dragon form day bed” (lot 267, estimated at twenty to forty thousand dollars) and garnished throughout by portraits of the diva in mythological getups. An amazing artifact in itself, the catalogue exalts Félix’s vanity as both a vocation and an achievement (“She never forgot her mother’s words, ‘It is not enough to be pretty; you need to know how to be pretty’”), juxtaposing glamour shots of La Doña in languid poses (perhaps dreaming of her next porcelain purchase?) with the exhaustive inventory of her stash.

Left: Lots from the María Félix sale. Right: Designer Nicolas Felizola.

In contrast to the catalogue’s paean to one woman’s greed, the vibe at Christie’s was downright Protestant: a demure, repressed-seeming cult of wealth. Like priests and nuns in subdued, irreproachably tasteful office attire, staffers scurried about the hushed paneled hallways, amid mysterious “bid” windows and tellers who seemed part church, part bank. Presiding at the podium, the auctioneer wielded the gavel with a cocky but solicitous air, maestrolike slicked-back hair, and a Windsor-knotted electric-blue cravat, ministering the transmutation of luxury goods into capital with an English accent and gracious hand gestures. He subtly flirted with the bidders on the floor—especially one Nicolas Felizola, a youngish “Mexican designer” in an open shirt and an Hermès belt who bought tons of couture. He was like a conductor eliciting a symphony of bids—from the floor, from the phone banks (absentee bidders calling in from their yachts and helicopters?), and online: the music of sales.

The James Christie Room felt like a sparsely attended conference of not particularly fab-seeming aficionados—with the exception of Hamish Bowles, slumped in the back. New York Times style photog Bill Cunningham was lurking there, too: “His presence always reassures me,” said my colleague, “that I’m at a ‘real’ event.” Indeed, sitting there watching the conversion of luxury goods back into capital became rather tedious. It was like being at a Final Judgment of sorts, where the “truth” of the collection is revealed according to the gospel of money. It took hours—and I attended only one afternoon session out of two days' worth. The fantasia of glamour elaborately conjured by the collector’s ego and celebrated by the catalogue is brusquely ripped away: Tchotchke by tchotchke, its naked truth (i.e., its market value) flashes across the ticker screen. Et voilà. When one of the more “important” lots, a darling Rivera portrait, sold for three hundred thousand dollars hammer (against an estimate of one fifty to two hundred thousand), there was a smattering of applause. Bravo.

“Though she finished her acting career in the 1960s,” discreetly crowed François Curiel, chairman of Christie’s Europe, in the postsale summary, “the María Félix magic ran through the salesroom for two entire days.” Total haul: $7,299,640.

Rhonda Lieberman

Doing Time


Left: Manchester International Festival codirector Peter Saville and dealer Chantal Crousel. (Photo: Nicolas Trembley) Right: Ventriloquist Jay Johnson in Philippe Parreno's Postman Time. (Photo: Joel Fildes)

As tersely reported in Friday’s edition of the Manchester Evening News, “People traveled from across the world to see the premiere of a bizarre performance art show on stage at the Manchester Opera House.” Surely it’s no surprise to find that this was the handiwork of curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist and artist-cum-director Philippe Parreno, who masterfully manipulated the art world’s fickle laws of attraction to draw an international crowd of artistic heavyweights—and at the nadir of summer, no less. Rarely in one night had the city seen the convergence of such an assortment of artsy individuals—many of whom had never before set foot in Manchester. All manner of artists, dealers (Shaun Caley Regen, Barbara Gladstone), collectors (Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Maya Hoffman), curators (Martijn van Nieuwenhuizen, Suzanne Pagé, Maria Lind, and even Japan’s Akiko Miyake), fashionistas (from Ramdane Touhami to Stefano Pilati), and actors (including up-and-coming French hunk Melvil Poupaud) were present.

The occasion was Thursday’s world premiere of “Il Tempo del Postino,” an unusual group show presented onstage at the opera house as part of the Manchester International Festival, directed by Alex Poots and legendary graphic designer Peter Saville. The cocurators’ goal was to rethink the notion of an exhibition venue, seeking to answer the question “What if a show were not about occupying space but rather occupying time?” The only information that had been released was the star-studded artist list, comprising more than a dozen of the most internationally famous artists of the past twenty years. After jumping off the plane in the rain—typical Manchester weather—accompanied by dealer Chantal Crousel and critic Stéphanie Moisdon, I made a pit stop at the traveling Kylie Minogue exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery; in contrast to “Il Tempo,” here a star of stage was presented in a museum. Though the gold lamé hotpants from the “Spinning Around” video were, um, shiny, the show itself was nothing extraordinary.

Left: Olafur Eliasson's Open House. (Photo: Joel Fildes) Right: Artist Koo Jeong-a. (Photo: Nicolas Trembley)

At 6 PM, we all gathered at a bar for a small preshow reception hosted by British collector Frank Cohen (“the Saatchi of the north”), where everyone was given tickets before being shuttled away in buses to the opera house. We also learned that the organizers had made a last-minute modification to the order of the performances; Matthew Barney’s would be presented last and was tantalizingly restricted to those eighteen and over. Most who had seen the dress rehearsal the night before wouldn’t discuss the piece, but someone did tell me, “If you like fist fucking, you’ll get your money’s worth!” To which I replied that I did, and I would have happily paid for a ticket if I hadn’t just received one for free.

Meanwhile, Air de Paris’s Florence Bonnefous, who had just returned from the Imperial War Museum with artist Bruno Serralongue, had purchased a Stalinesque mustache, and we decided that everyone who had his or her picture taken should wear it—not that we’d exclude anyone who refused.

Left: Artist Rirkrit Tiravanija with CCA Kitakyushu program director Akiko Miyake. Right: Dealer Tommaso Corvi-Mora. (Photos: Nicolas Trembley)

At 8 PM, ventriloquist Jay Johnson took the stage, his face distorted by a huge magnifying glass, and announced the opening of the show. This was the contribution of Parreno, who has previously collaborated with such ventriloquists as Ronan Lucas (busy that night filming an episode of Nip/Tuck). Each artist had fifteen minutes to present his or her work. Performances were followed by interludes during which an unmanned piano was played by an “invisible” Liam Gillick. Tino Sehgal presented a well-received work that consisted of swaying stage curtains, Doug Aitken offered up a group of fast-talking/singing American auctioneers, Tacita Dean showed a film about Merce Cunningham, Anri Sala revisited Madame Butterfly, and Olafur Eliasson installed a mirror that filled the entire stage, reflecting an image of the audience. Douglas Gordon brought in June Tabor to sing Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” a cappella on a dark stage, following which Koo Jeong-a revealed a grove of densely foliated trees that shook as though buffeted by a strong wind. Carsten Höller brought to the stage a clutch of human guinea pigs, who had been wearing masks that made the world appear upside down for the previous eight days.

At that point in the original program, there was supposed to be a forty-five minute recess to prepare for Barney’s show. Everyone was a bit uneasy about Barney (whose real mustache trumped our artificial one) and his opus. A burst of music heralded a strange procession of men sporting balaclavas and T-shirts bearing the words DEPARTMENT OF SANITATION. They carried Aimee Mullins (the actress/model/athlete and Cremaster 3 star with dual prostheses) on a stretcher, leading the audience back into the theater.

Left: Artist Matthew Barney. (Photo: Nicolas Trembley) Right: Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler's Guardian of the Veil. (Photo: Hugo Glendinning)

And there, Barney, with a small dog perched atop his head like the Egyptian god Anubis, proceeded to perform a kind of funeral ceremony under the hood of a crashed car. For those—like myself—who missed his apparently very similar performance in New York last April, he presented a ritual that involved contortionists who peed on stage, a young woman (alas, not Björk) who fist-fucked herself, and a bull named Ross, who made headlines by “mounting” the rear end of the car—a Cadillac, no less—thus attracting the attention of animal anticruelty agencies. Some in the audience found this all a bit too much and deemed it “macho”; I even heard the word fascist. In any event, we can safely say that Barney excels in baroque avant-drama, and—should he ever be asked—he’s well prepped to direct one of those Wagnerian operas in Salzburg. It was easy to understand why the order had been changed: The full-frontal artillery, Jonathan Bepler libretto, and musicians in military attire would have brought the night to an early climax, overshadowing the numbers that were originally slated to follow—a sketch with Rirkrit Tiravanija puppets, comic interludes by Pierre Huyghe, and a concert by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. Only Trisha Donnelly, who loudly beat a bass drum in front of musician Helga Davis, could have competed with Barney’s surreal Sabbath.

Finally, everyone got together to drink a pint or two at an event organized by the participating artists’ galleries. I spotted curators Mark Sladen (he, too, with a real mustache), Nancy Spector, Louise Neri, and Jessica Morgan, as well as the designers behind M/M Paris. Jean-Luc Choplin, director of Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet, where the show will tour in 2008, seemed pleased, but I couldn’t help but wonder how the regular Châtelet audience, accustomed to more conventional operettas, will react. Then again, what better preparation for “Il Tempo” than the violent, choreographed spectacle of West Side Story?

Nicolas Trembley

Left: Carsten Höller's Upside Down People. (Photo: Joel Fildes) Right: Manchester International Festival codirector Alex Poots. (Photo: Nicolas Trembley)

Star Trek


Left: Dealer Tony Shafrazi with actor Dennis Hopper. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: Architects Sir Richard Rodgers and Zaha Hadid. (Photo: Dafydd Jones)

When is a party not a party? When it’s a “fearless pooling of knowledge!” pronounced Hans-Ulrich Obrist, indefatigable curator and master of spin, as he surveyed the glamorous gathering at London’s Serpentine Gallery on Wednesday evening. Director Julia Peyton-Jones had pulled her usual star-studded crowd on the occasion of the esteemed not-for-profit’s annual summer party. Imperiously branded, The Summer Party dwarfs every other art-world event on London’s social calendar. At £250 ($500) a pop, tickets are by invitation only and highly sought after—and everyone who scores one attends.

As seasoned paparazzi were herded into “the pit” and ladies in ambitious frocks began to strut past the heavily guarded gates, the sun broke through the clouds in time to illuminate thousands of Swarovski crystals glittering in every conceivable place—on the lawn, swinging from the ceiling, and even glinting in the eyelashes of the Grey Goose cocktail girls. Peyton-Jones herself was resplendent with an enormous crystal serpent coiled around her neck. “It must weigh a ton,” I sympathized. “Not at all,” came the reply, and in an act of solidarity, she took it off so I could try it on. Shoulder to shoulder with Peyton-Jones was the rhinestone heiress and party sponsor Nadja Swarovski, who, sporting a de rigueur strapless minidress that exposed the legs of a gazelle, was tirelessly meeting and greeting VIPs as they filed in.

Left: Spice Girl Geri Halliwell. Right: British culture minister Margaret Hodge with Serpentine councilman Franck Petitgas and Serpentine director Julia Peyton-Jones. (Photos: Sarah Thornton)

A tremor running through the crowd announced the arrival of cochair Dennis Hopper, Hollywood’s art-world liaison. Clean, sober, and better looking than in his youth, the septuagenarian bad boy strolled in, flanked by son Henry and an exquisitely turned-out redhead. Wife? Daughter? Granddaughter? “Probably his PR agent,” sniped a waiter as he topped off my champagne glass. It was Mrs. Hopper—but my server could have been forgiven the assumption—glam undercover press minders seem to be everyone’s choice of date these days.

Hopper slid past the flashing cameras and into the Tatler photo booth, where he would be photographer in residence for the bulk of the evening. A dedicated collector, he has used the time he’s regained not drinking, doping, and womanizing to return to his first love: art. Though arguably better known for his film roles and wild reputation, the venerable Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg is currently hosting an exhibition of his photographs and paintings, while his dealer, Tony Shafrazi, has big plans for more shows.

As the evening progressed, so did the “fearless pooling of knowledge.” Little Britain actor David Walliams was ensconced in conversation with Rod Stewart, while Marc Quinn chatted up Jade Jagger. Meanwhile, the queues for the portable loos proved to be great spots for chummy chat. “Oh, look!” cried proud aunt Louise Wilson, as sister Jane passed photos of her new baby up and down the line. Spice Girl Geri Halliwell admitted that it was her first time properly visiting the Serpentine, though she has often “nipped in to use the toilet” on her morning jog through the park.

Left: Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Serpentine codirector of exhibitions and programs, with artist Olafur Eliasson. Right: The Hours's Antony Genn with artist Damien Hirst. (Photos: Sarah Thornton)

Scuttlebutt abounded with conflicting reports of sales made and lost, most notably Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull. According to the artist’s business maestro, Frank Dunphy, Hirst declined an offer of the asking price—to be “paid in full by the weekend”—because the prospective buyer would “only lock it up in a safe.” Dunphy pulled out his mobile phone. “Why, here’s the lil’ feller!” he said as he revealed not a smiling grandchild, but the rictus grin of the famous skull.

Tracking down the skull’s creator for comment, I caught Hirst in the middle of a tirade about beverages. Like Hopper’s, his liver had finally quivered, and these days it’s Diet Coke or nothing. “Unfortunately, sir,” explained a cowering waiter, “Coca-Cola isn’t one of this evening’s sponsors.” Hirst resolved the issue by sending his driver to buy some.

In recent years, The Summer Party has pivoted on the unveiling of a specially commissioned pavilion. This year’s creation, by Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen, won’t open until August, so architect and party cochair Zaha Hadid rose to the occasion by creating a trio of umbrellalike structures towering above an elevated platform. Though I heard grumbling that it was a bit “wrinkly” and “poorly built,” another vociferous pundit defended its “terrific ergonomics and social warmth.” Judging from the way the pavilion morphed into a thrumming dance floor, the latter wag was right; nothing like a sympathetic space, designer cocktails, and great outfits to get a crowd undulating.

Lynne Gentle

Left: Artist Michael Craig-Martin with Vidal Sassoon. Right: Little Britain's David Walliams with Rod Stewart. (Photos: Sarah Thornton)

Eye of the Storm


Left: Gang Gang Dance's Lizzi Bougatsos. (Photo: Camille Acey) Right: Yamataka Eye. (Photo: Frank Hamilton)

“YOU are the 78th member!” explained Boredoms band leader Yamataka Eye in the program notes for 77BOADRUM, a once-in-a-lifetime performance held last Saturday by the Osaka, Japan, noise-rock quartet. “This is because the sound will spiral outwards, from left to right, like DNA, from deep inside of us right out to you. The 77 drum group is one giant instrument, one living creature. The 77 boa-drum will coil like a snake, and transform to become a great dragon!”

The four thousand or so people lucky enough to gain entry to Brooklyn’s Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park were greeted by the sight of a seventy-four-piece drum spiral, radiating out from a center platform on which Eye and his fellow Boredoms—Yo, Yoshimi, and Senju—had erected three drum kits of their own. So: seventy-seven drummers total, on 07/07/07, with the performance set to commence at 7:07 PM and proceed for seventy-seven minutes. Photographers would have seven minutes to snap photos at the outset. Whether this last restriction would help summon the aforementioned great dragon was unclear.

The boa-drum, bordered by the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, seemed a challenge to the dominance of the city skyline. The line for admission, estimated to contain as many as seventeen thousand people—most of whom were turned away—formed a small horde of undaunted youth and Japanophile hipsters, a meandering echo of the adjacent East River.

The unmanned drum circle, viewed from the ground beforehand, looked like a random assemblage of abandoned cymbals and snares, remnants from some ancient civilization of percussionists. The drummers—drawn by musical director Hisham Bharoocha from the thickets of US underground rock, and including, among others, Gastr del Sol’s David Grubbs, Lightning Bolt’s Brian Chippendale, Tim Dewitt and Lizzi Bougatsos of Gang Gang Dance, Spencer Sweeney, and Andrew WK—nervously waited among the crowd. The ensemble’s one rehearsal had taken place earlier in the day; most were depending on a few players, such as Chippendale and Bharoocha, who had been chosen as section leaders. Onlookers included artists Dash Snow and Brendan Fowler, designer Benjamin Cho, and what seemed to be fully half of the city’s remaining summer youth. They sat and drank beer in the late afternoon sun and cast frequent, semi-awed gazes at the vacant stage.

“Drummers, if you’re hearing this, you need to be at your drum sets now.” There was a grade school camaraderie in the run-up to 7:07, an aura of amateur play encouraged by the escalating anxiety in the announcer’s tone: “We remind the audience not to walk into the drum circle while the drummers are playing.”

Eye was the actual seventy-eighth member (or, according to his diagram, the “0th”), the only performer standing above and apart from the drums. He manipulated a bank of multicolored panels, each triggered by an assortment of bright, hollow tubes. At one transcendent moment, Eye raised a seven-foot trident, waving it as a cue for the next movement. Cymbal crashes began at the center platform and spread outward, unfolding into seventy-seven variations on the same sound. When the pattern reached the edge of the spiral, Eye raised his hands, conducting, and a crescendo built. Onlookers joined in, screaming. The performers’ sound reverberated with a deep roar, echoes ricocheting off the Brooklyn Bridge.

Each evolution of the “great dragon” migrated from the center out, the drummers switching over in increments until the tiny alterations grew in mass. The seventy-seven-minute mark came and went, and with the sun setting, the Boredoms relentlessly continued. Given the rarity of the occasion, who could blame them?

When at last the time came, the four bandmates stood and, one by one, so did the rest of the seventy-seven drummers. The crowd then rose, too, accompanied by the bridges’ activating nighttime lights. As the participants and witnesses of 77BOADRUM dispersed, people obeyed the last instruction received before the performance began. “When it’s all over,” the MC had asked, “please hug your drummer.”

Banks Holiday

New York

Left: Dealer Barbara Gladstone with collector Barbara Jakobson. (Photo: Ryan McNamara) Right: Artist Lydia Lunch. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky)

Sometimes the most ordinary events can seem historic. Witness the divine convergence of punk and punter last Thursday, when spoken-wordsmith Lydia Lunch performed live in New York for the first time in more than a decade, and Prince of Darkness Banks Violette greeted his opening at both Barbara Gladstone and Team with a disappearing act.

The call came from the Gladstone gallery about an hour before its doors were to open on Violette’s blue-chip Chelsea solo debut. “Banks is still working on the installation,” Miciah Hussey told me with studied nonchalance. “So the show will open next Friday, but we’re going ahead with the dinner tonight.” I couldn’t help but wonder about the delay; something to do with propane. I had been planning to see the show, of course; I wasn’t planning to rush. Now I was dying to go. Alas, I would have to occupy myself till dinner.

“My problem . . .” Lydia Lunch was saying when I got to Leo Koenig. “My problem is that I have too much fucking e-lec-tri-ci-ty.” The onetime punk priestess, briefly in town from her home in Barcelona, actually did electrify old-guard New Wavers who turned out for her single performance at the gallery, where she also had several color photo montages on display. Filmmaker Scott B was there to video her program, serendipitously titled “Hangover Hotel,” for possible use in a kind of where-they-are-now documentary that he is making about the East Village Super-8 movie scene of the late ’70s. That was when the cool people expected to spend at least one night of the week watching semiamateur but oddly compelling films by the B’s (Scott and his then partner Beth B, who made New Wave noirs in which Lunch frequently starred), Jim Jarmusch, James Nares, Vivienne Dick, Amos Poe, and Becky Johnston.

Left: Team Gallery director Miriam Katzeff with Team Gallery owner Jose Freire. Right: Yvonne Force Villareal. (Photos: Ryan McNamara)

Lunch is a voluptuous tattooed beauty who, if memory serves, is the daughter of a Bible salesman and arrived in New York at sixteen to take the underground music scene by storm with Teenage Jesus & the Jerks. She formed a few other bands before reinventing herself as a ’90s fetish feminist who spoke out for the resistance to violence against women, collaborated with Nick Cave and Thurston Moore, took up with composer J. G. Thirwell (aka Foetus), and left town to write books, start a record label, tour her shows, and make art. She is a compelling subject for a film, but she remains most effective on a stage, and it didn’t take long for her to find a groove at Koenig. You could see it in the upturned faces of other performers in attendance, Karen Finley and Reno, Bush Tetras guitarist Pat Place (who costarred with Lunch in Vivienne Dick’s 1978 short She Had Her Gun All Ready), and musician Pat Irwin, from the Raybeats, Eight-Eyed Spy, and the B-52’s.

Then it was time for dinner. Or at least I thought it was, but dinner was still a long way off when I arrived at Indochine. Making my way through the bar, I spotted Maureen Paley and Joel Wachs, Richard Flood and Barbara Jakobson, Clarissa Dalrymple and Neville Wakefield, and Keith Sonnier and Jane Rosenblum. I did not see Banks Violette. “Barbara has too much class to start without Banks,” I heard Dalrymple say of Gladstone. “I don’t think he’s going to make it,” Times Style man David Colman reckoned. “I think he might be embarrassed the show didn’t open,” ventured Gladstone Gallery director Rosalie Benitez. I asked Team Gallery owner Jose Freire what was going on. “It’s been a very complicated installation,” he told me, blaming himself for spreading his artist too thin. There were lights it had taken a master electrician two weeks to wire. There was refrigeration. And there was that nasty propane.

Left: Artists Dan Colen and Aaron Young with Clarissa Dalrymple. (Photo: Ryan McNamara) Right: Filmmaker Scott B. (Photo: David Velasco)

By now, a couple of hours in, the evening had acquired a mystique it would never have achieved had the guest of honor or his art been within easy reach. “Brilliant marketing,” I told Gladstone. “Yes,” she agreed with a nervous laugh. “We’ve been planning it for weeks!” Finally, even Gladstone had to admit defeat. Violette wasn’t coming; dinner was served. Collectors Eileen and Michael Cohen were at my table, hidden behind a column with their collector friend Wendy Goldberg, a senior vice president at Six Flags. A moment later, Nancy Spector came over to join us, saying there was no room at her table. Violette’s good-looking bad-boy compadres Dan Colen and Aaron Young soon followed, in the company of Yvonne Force. It seems that the inner circle does just fine without its center. “Oh, I own a work of yours,” said Goldberg when she was introduced to Young. “And I have work of yours,” Eileen Cohen told Colen. They were meeting for the first time, too—sitting there was very copacetic. Later, I heard that Violette had spent the night at a Brooklyn bar. I don’t know whether it’s true, but I will bet that if he were a female artist, few people would be so amused.

Linda Yablonsky

Left: New Museum curator Richard Flood. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky) RIght: Dealer Maureen Paley with Steve O'Malley from Sunn 0))). (Photo: Ryan McNamara)

Smoking Grass

New York

Left: Günter Grass's translator, Günter Grass, and author Andrew O'Hagan. Right: Norman Mailer. (Photos: David Velasco)

If, as the New York Public Library’s promotional literature promised, last Wednesday night was when the twentieth century would go on trial, I began the evening as the Millennium Baby, trailing Father Time, played by Norman Mailer, as he ambulated glacially on twin canes toward his date with Günter Grass. Due to audience overflow—the event sold out in four minutes—members of the press were shunted through a long, spartan back hallway to the loading dock, where we were to check in. It was in this concrete fallopian tube that I found myself following Mailer—brought low by time and entropy—a living objective correlative for the convulsive, murderous century he and Grass tirelessly chronicled. The moment was almost painfully metaphoric, but, spotting a colleague, I unceremoniously passed Mailer and tamped its resonance with a laugh. There was ample significance awaiting me inside, and I had to save room.

Grass was there to promote the Stateside publication of his controversial memoir, Peeling the Onion, to be interviewed by novelist Andrew O’Hagan, and to chat with Mailer, ostensibly about Hitler, war, the novel, and other breezy subjects. Putting “the twentieth century itself on trial” seemed a bit of a stretch, even for these wizened titans. Indeed, as O’Hagan, Grass, and a translator took their seats onstage, it soon became clear that it was Grass himself who would be on trial. O’Hagan immediately adopted the prosecutorial line Grass has faced in his homeland since the release of his memoir, in which the Nobel Prize winner and self-appointed conscience of postwar Germany revealed that he was a member of the Waffen-SS for several months in his teens, near the end of the war. The rub wasn’t Grass’s service record per se, but his apparent silence about it during the decades he spent challenging Germans to own to their complicity in the Nazi era.

The fresh-faced, clean-cut O’Hagan clearly didn’t want to be accused of a softball interview, but this pairing—a Scot with a man whose name bears an umlaut—had some unexpected consequences. As with all of his countrymen, O’Hagan is no stranger to the long u, so his tenacious cross-examination—with its recurrent interjection, “But Gyooonter . . .”—came off a bit sillier than intended. For his part, Grass was evasive and hard to parse. This didn’t deter O’Hagan, who interrupted Grass’s ramblings with delicate queries like, “Your mother . . . she was raped, wasn’t she?”

Left: Günter Grass takes the stage at The Box. Right: Artist Roni Horn with publisher Gerhard Steidl. (Photos: Patrick McMullan)

What I could glean from Grass: He wanted to be a submarine crewman but was drafted into the SS; he publicized his SS past in Germany during the ’60s, but no one cared; America “seems to be going down”—inspiration no longer flows from here to the world; when O’Hagan noted that one of Grass’s several eel etchings depicts one of the creatures entering a vagina, Grass explained that “eels have no limit; they want to go anywhere there’s a hole”; fascism came from Italy and, given the right conditions, can happen wherever democratic governments fail to address social ills; on the day he heard he was to receive the Nobel, he celebrated by going to the dentist.

Mailer then ascended the stage and, characteristically, ran the table. After claiming that this might be his last public interview due to failing health—hearing, eyesight, the works—Mailer turned to face a kinder, gentler O’Hagan. Highlights: Mailer has always been angry at America, but this is tempered with a strange love—a man’s relationship to his country is like a marriage; fascism is a more natural form of government than democracy, which is a miracle; literary reputations are made by one’s detractors, “like getting bricks made of shit for one’s house”; the devil created television so he could destroy human minds with narrative-interrupting commercials; Grass’s memoir excerpt in the New Yorker was the best thing he’d seen in that magazine for a decade; reflecting on why Grass took so long to write about his SS experience, Mailer said there was an analogous event in his life that he may never write about—stabbing his second wife, Adele, in 1960.

Grass returned to the stage for the three-way, but this was like setting a crackling clock radio next to a bullhorn—Mailer continued to dominate. When O’Hagan noted that Hitler was a failed artist, however, Grass got off a zinger: “We should admit and keep these mediocre artists in art school—they’re too dangerous.” After some vague banter about existentialism, O’Hagan wrapped up the conversation, and the two authors received a partial standing ovation. To cap it all off, the following night I attended a party for Grass thrown by his German publisher, Steidl, at Lower East Side hideaway The Box, complete with a gay hipster cabaret that, perhaps unintentionally, suggested Weimar culture filtered through postmillennial sensibilities. How it related to Grass or his work, I couldn’t tell. Maybe it had something to do with the eels.