Left: Artist Vanessa Beecroft. Right: Flavio Del Monte, artist Paola Pivi, and curator Massimiliano Gioni. (All photos: Sarah Thornton)
“We have no museum of contemporary art!” was the refrain of my recent trip to Milan, which began with espresso at the Trussardi Alla Scala Café, a well-air-conditioned bar that acts as a second office for curator Massimiliano Gioni and artists who are working on exhibitions commissioned by the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, such as Paola Pivi. When I asked them how Milan’s art world is different from other art worlds, Pivi responded laterally: “That’s like asking: How is my mother different from other
women?” But Gioni had a theory. A complete lack of public support had resulted in fashion companies opening foundations. “In Italy, we suffer from gerontocrazia‘government of the old’so many people are out of date. The word curatore is not recognized by Italian spell-checkers. As an act of modesty, we curators should recognize that our job is new and probably just a fad.”
As I left the cafe, I ran into four impossibly tall, wafer-thin girls and enjoyed a Fellini-esque moment; the models, here to audition for the fashion-week catwalks, looked like circus freaks. Galleria Francesca Kaufmann was a short walk away. In Milan, the rivalry between art and fashion is a delicate subject and most dealers are cagey, but Kaufmann spoke her mind: “Fashion is a secondary art, even though I respect it. Shoes are not going to change your vision of the world.” As if on cue, in teetered Mariuccia Casadio, the art consultant of Vogue Italia, who chose to highlight continuities: “The maximum level of luxury is art. . . . Both are wonderful glossy ghettos.”
Later, I met couturier-friendly dealer Giň Marconi at his gallery in a three-story building that he shares with the fondazione of his father, Giorgio. We talked about the difficulties of exporting work by local artists. The Castello di Rivoli in Turin is a prestigious “bridge to abroad,” but without organizations like the Goethe Institut and the British Council, Italian artists are disadvantaged. Importing foreign art is a different matter because Italians “are travelers, like Christopher Columbus. They’re curious; they buy early.”
Left: Dealers Giorgio and Giň Marconi. Right: Critic Mariuccia Casadio and dealer Francesca Kaufmann.
Milan’s galleries are inconveniently spread out but wonderfully diverse. Set in the back of an eighteenth-century barracks (where Maurizio Cattelan still keeps an apartment), Galleria Emi Fontana was difficult to find. An African guy in a crimson fedora, loitering like an extra in a blaxploitation flick, gave me accurate directions, and I eventually encountered S&M artists John Lovett and Alessandro Codagnone installing their show. I admired the couple’s sculptural performance props (which included their carefully crafted pecs) and was treated to a short lecture on their genealogical relationship to Antonin Artaud, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
The following day, Friday, was bound to be frenetico because some thirty galleries were opening shows as part of a cooperative effort called “Start.” Claudio Guenzani was showing Stefano Arienti, a well-respected Italian artist who teaches at academies in Bergamo and Venice. I sat down with Guenzani, and we settled into the topic of Los Angeles. Just as Hollywood dominates LA culture, so even Milanese slobs are highly fashion literate. Unlike LA, however, the art schools here are not validating gatekeepers, and Guenzani looked aghast when I asked him whether dealers in Milan attend degree shows.
I was running late, so the good dealer offered to drop me off at the kitschy Diana Majestic hotel, where I was scheduled to meet artist Francesco Vezzoli. Guenzani handed me a helmet, and, moments later, I was on the back of his motorino, living out a Roman Holiday fantasy.
Vezzoli looked unexpectedly wholesome, particularly given that he’d just flown in from New York. He let slip that he was about to start work on a documentary funded by Miuccia Prada. “Just imagine me as a slimmer, more glamorous Michael Moore. I want to do a visually over-alluring Kinsey Reporta scientific survey of contemporary sexuality, a film with nail-me-to-the-wall politics and nail-me-to-the-couch images.” After that, we talked about the relevance of the art press, and the famously flattering Vezzoli delivered this gem: “In terms of the way the art world functions today, ‘Scene & Herd’ is the new October.”
My next stop was Vanessa Beecroft’s “South Sudan” show of photographs in which the figures assume classic Christian poses at Galleria Lia Rumma. When I introduced myself, Beecroft immediately took me aside. “My dealer in the US refuses to show this work!” she said stridently. I confirmed that she was referring to Larry Gagosian, then she continued: “Images of black people are too loaded in the US, but this work is based on a true story. I went to the Sudan and nursed three newborn babies in the orphanage. They were malnourished, and I fed them. They thought I was their mother. But my husband said there was no way we could adopt them . . . so I am thinking of leaving him!”
I welcomed the long taxi ride out to the industrial suburbs of Lambrate. Once back on foot, I hooked up with Flavio Del Monte (press officer for the Trussardi Foundation and all-around promoter of art in Milan), then whizzed through a makeshift complex of artists’ projects called Lambretto and a series of good-looking galleries before taking a deep breath in Paolo Zani’s Galleria Zero, a small but special space with wraparound windows and a roof terrace, which featured Jeppe Hein’s uplifting fountain works.
Next door, Massimo De Carlo’s bright and airy converted coffee-machine factory offered three solo shows, one of which was the reason I’d flown to Milan: Chris Burden’s first performance-related work in thirty years. Neck-high in water and wearing swimming goggles, there was Burden in a tight close-up, his face six feet wide, reciting a paranoid rant in schoolboy French about the threat of “des chiens sauvages.” Funny and scary, the two-minute video loop was part of a four-room show, which included six of Burden’s famous “LAPD uniforms” from 1993. While standing among the blue suits, Burden explained that the works here didn’t bear the original guns because Italian customs refused to believe, despite much written evidence on museum letterhead, that they were art.
It was time to make our way to an unassuming restaurant called Piero e Pia, where De Carlo was hosting his three-artist dinner for Burden, London-based Ryan Gander, and local star Roberto Cuoghi. De Carlo is a well-known gourmand, and the Italians at my table were excited that it was porcini season. As the night unraveled, Gander talked about “faux conceptual art,” curator Andrea Viliani entertained us with his theory of “the Peter Pan syndrome of the post-Cattelan generation of Italian artists,” and thirty-three-year-old Cuoghi protested, “I'm more like the sick grandfather of Peter Pan!” By the time we stumbled out of the restaurant, I’d concluded that the Milan art world may be small but is actually less provincial than New York or London, not only because everyone is always traveling but because no one is under the illusion that they occupy the center.
Left: Dealer Larry Gagosian, artist Rachel Feinstein, curator Dodie Kazanjian, the New Yorker's Anne Stringfield, and Steve Martin, with artist John Currin in front. Right: Studio Museum director and chief curator Thelma Golden with artist Richard Prince. (All photos: Julie Skarratt)
On Thursday, I attended a cocktail party and dinner inaugurating a new contemporary-art gallery within the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. The gallery is the felicitous brainchild of Peter Gelb, the new general manager of the Met. Gelb asked Dodie Kazanjian, editor at large for Vogue, to act as the Met’s curator at large for the gallery. She invited ten artistsCecily Brown, George Condo, John Currin, Verne Dawson, Barnaby Furnas, Makiko Kudo, Wangechi Mutu, Richard Prince, David Salle, and Sophie von Hellermannto submit artworks inspired by heroines from the six new productions that the Met is mounting this season. Christoph Willibald von Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice was the choice of Dawson, Furnas, and Mutu. I spent some time contemplating Dawson’s picture: Euridice beckonsmore accurately, she points atOrfeo from her netherworld domain on the sad side of an oddly sunlit River Styx, garbed in what looks like a customized version of the Scream costume. As she seems here rather like a flesh-eating zombie, I took her gesture to mean, “No! Go back. It’s just not going to work out,” which, in fact, it doesn’t, in both Gluck’s opera and the Greek myth on which it is based.
I quite liked Prince’s “Joke” painting apropos Madama Butterfly. The joke reads: “I went to the opera. It was Madame Butterfly. I fell asleep. When I woke up the music was by Klaus Nomi and Cio Cio San had turned into a lesbian and refused to commit suicide. It was a German ending.” Above and below the painted text, Prince has collaged hundreds of pornographic pictures of girl-on-girl hanky-panky. If only there were a contemporary composer as passionately vulgar as Puccini who could carry off the artist’s inspired revision of the all-too-well-known story. Richard Strauss, no stranger to operatic perviness, could have done so with élan. Die Äegyptische Helena, a lesser-known work by one of my favorite composers, was the choice of Currin and Salle. Currin represents a somewhat chunky Helena, her head thrown back in (orgasmic?) ecstasy. Salle’s large-scale painting, a good example of his recent “vortical” style, is also porn-oriented, featuring at its center, as far as I could ascertain, a ménage ŕ trois between a man and two women. Queer theorists–cum–opera buffs beware: Salle and Prince's representations of sapphism are unmistakably heterosexist!
Left: Conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson with Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb. Right: Artist David Salle with Dodie Kazanjian.
The event was exceedingly well attended: All of the artists save for Mutu, Kudo, and Hellerman were there, as well as numerous dealers, curators, and artists. The list is long, but I spotted Maurizio Cattelana close friend of Kazanjian’s who apparently acted as an unofficial advisor to the projectChristo and Jeanne-Claude, Jeff and Justine Koons, Chuck Close, Clarissa Dalrymple, Barbara Gladstone, Carol Greene, Neville Wakefield, Yvonne Force Villareal, Thelma Golden, Roland Augustine, and Larry Gagosian. I chatted with Rachel Feinstein, who was wearing an extremely pretty dress that she described as “vaginal japonisme,” I suppose referring to the large “pubic” pleat that ran down its center. An homage to Madama Butterfly, which opened the Met season the following Monday, I wondered? Many of these eminences were also at the dinner, held in the Met’s Opera Club. I was fortunate in my placement: Steve Martin was at my table. Surprise, surpriseMartin said many exceedingly witty things, but a rudimentary, one might say medullary sense of etiquette prevented me from pulling out a pad and writing them all down. Speeches by Kazanjian and Gelb were easier to listen to than speeches at events such as this usually are; for one, both erred on the side of relative brevity. Gelb gave Deitch an especially enthusiastic shout-out“I would like to thank Jeffery Deitch and all the other dealers,” etc. Perhaps this comment did not sit too well with “all the others”; I did notice at least one prominent dealer shift uncomfortably in her seat, but possibly she was adjusting her hemline. Deitch later explained to me that Kazanjian is an old friend, and that she had asked him to be on the advisory committee for the gallery. He also recommended the fashionable South African architect Lindy Roy, who designed the modest but attractive and attractively understated (rather than annoyingly architectish) gallery, the entry to which is conveniently located on Lincoln Center Plaza.
It is perhaps churlish to find fault in any aspect of this otherwise charming and well-intentioned endeavor. Nonetheless, one wonders how much actual progress is to be made in bringing together contemporary art and fustian opera. Is opera somehow to ride the coattails of “wild” art and glamorous, or at least fashionable, artists? Simply hanging opera-inspired paintings in the gallery doesn’t go very far in bridging any sort of gap. Apparently, it is being considered that artworks exhibited in the gallery might be reproduced in the Opera's playbills, but beyond this modest proposal is the notion that in the future artists might design curtains and even stage sets. I’m certainly not an expert in operatic scenic design, but offhand I can’t think of many notable modern/contemporary art–opera synergisms. David Hockney’s sets for Ravel’s Les Enfants et les Sortilčges (a Met production, 1981) is the only one I can recallvery pretty. At best, perhaps the new gallery at the opera heralds future collaborations of similar brilliance.
Left: Eteam's Hajoe Moderegger with Chaplain Henry J. Right: Art in General programs manager Sofia Hernández Chong Cuy. (All photos: Michael Wang)
Wearing a modish flight-attendant uniform, Art in General programs manager Sofia Hernández Chong Cuy distributed packaged toiletries, an “airport map,” and vouchers for food, coffee, and shuttle rides to a group of seven arts patrons, curators, and writers packed inside the chartered plane headed for Las Vegasby way of Montello, a small town in northeast Nevada. “This is a travel kit, compliments of AIG airlines, because the layover might be rather extended,” Hernández warned. Once on the ground last weekend at the closest working airfield, Wendover Air Force Base, participants in AIG’s travel program headed to the site of a weekend “layover” at the International Airport Montello, the latest project by the artist collective eteam, German-born and Queens-based artists Franziska Lamprecht and Hajoe Moderegger. Funded by Art in General’s 2006 commissions program (and developed in part during a residency at the Center for Land Use Interpretation), IAM’s fictional terminals, transit lounges, and runway occupy a ten-acre plot, purchased on eBay for less than five hundred dollars, and an abandoned airstripbut it doesn’t end there. Working in cooperation with the residents of nearby Montello, the “airport” includes the entire town, its convenience store temporarily housing a gift shop of hand-decorated IAM merchandise, its two bars (the Saddle Sore and the Cowboy) servicing stranded travelers, and its wind-battered plateaus, outfitted with a few folding chairs, doubling as less-than-cozy airport lounges. “This whole trip to Vegas was created around the layover,” Hernández admitted; its participants would complete a cultural tour of the state in the coming days, including visits to the Las Vegas Museum of Art, the Neon Boneyard (where Vegas’s landmark signs go to die), the Liberace Museum (in a converted strip mall), and Michael Heizer’s Double Negative. “I want to see the International Airport Montello in relation to land art in the area,” Hernández clarified. “Not in the context of relational aesthetics.”
On deplaning at Wendover Field (the base once housed the Enola Gay), we were met by the eteam, in German military jackets and caps; Brooklyn-based artist Jason Dean, in a jumpsuit, as “IAM Layover Support”; and a bevy of filmmakers wielding cameras and booms making a documentary with development money from the Sundance Channel. “Everyone has defined their roles,” explained Hernández, referring not only to the artists involved but to Montello’s residents as well. “I decided to be the stewardess.” Loading us into a van, “shuttle driver” Anthony Marcellini (AIG’s curatorial assistant) drove us through the penny-slot casinos and golf courses of Wendover, UT, and into the open desertcrossing the state line into Nevada en route to “another terminal”our first stop in Montello. After parking in front of a twelve-wheeler hung with a red wooden cross (Montello’s mobile chapel), we were greeted by the town leaders. “Welcome to Montello, population sixty-six. Sorry, sixty-seven. We had a baby born last week,” announced chaplain Henry J. Casolini.
Shuttle service was, for the most part, off-road, taking us to the Sky View Dinner Club, operated out of a trailer home by former casino-lighting technician Nevada Red (whose rhinestone-studded belt buckle also boasted an LED display) and Darla (Skyview’s chef), and to the overgrown airstrip, marked only by an “International Airport Montello” sign. Surveying the dinner club, circumscribed by rocks around a cinder-block fire pit, Red contemplated the benefits of living off the grid: “I pay fourteen dollars in taxes a year for ten acres.” When we made a stop in town before heading on to the airstrip to await our connection, “airport manager” Dr. Ron Abbott informed us that the rapidly degenerating weather would entail yet another delay. (Easy to believe with a dust storm blotting out the surrounding mountains and pummeling us with fine grit.)
Killing time in town, we met with local musician Ron Tello, who had pasted up a “Transit Lounge” sign outside his home, which was hung with Marlon Brando and Rocky Horror Picture Show posters, photocopied pictures of his gun collection, and dangling strips of flypaper heavy with quarry. Lamprecht introduced him as “building the largest drum set in Nevada.” Curator Elizabeth Thomas observed, “Because of the kit and the flies, he reminds me of Dave Lombardo from Slayer in the Matthew Barney film.”
As we toured Montello’s desolate downtown, video artist Kristin Lucas, driving a Volkswagen sporting an antenna constructed from a fishing net and a colander, unexpectedly pulled up and, distributing hand-stenciled bingo cards, began to broadcast numbers (intercepted, she claimed, from alien radio signals). When we finally arrived at the airstrip, Modregger handed out distinctively saffron flags, and, amid coy whispers of “The Gates,” we filed down both sides of the runway in an attempt to direct our missing plane. Explaining the ephemeral nature of the installationand of IAM in generalModeregger spoke of a desire “to create something emerging temporarilythat is what a town is. There is nothing here, but in a way there is everything here.” High winds forced us back to the Cowboy Bar, where resident Jodie Mueller had organized “the first annual Taste of Montello,” for which she sought out visitors to act as judges. We sampled down-home dishes from meat loaf to meringue; first prize went to a cake shaped like a jet liner and frosted with the initials ”IAM." The grill was fired up outside, and the whole town descended on the bar as Hernández alerted us that we had to leave immediately or we would miss our flight. We piled back into the van as a man on horseback cantered down the road and trotted through the bar’s front door. As the euphoria of Montello’s AIG-funded party-of-the-year wore off, cinematic memories of ghost-town isolation and eccentric characters took its place. “It was like Grey Gardens,” Bronx Museum director Holly Block put it. Collector George Mills was quick to qualify: “But the zombie version.”
Descending from the dark closet where I hang upside down coated in a thin layer of Vaseline, I ventured out for a doubleheader of openings by two of the bestest artists to emerge ca. 1990—the last time I went out regularly. I arrived at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, my first stop, early. Not many art appreciators were there to block my view of Rob Pruitt’s hilarious installation: big fancy abstract paintings twinkling with the artist’s signature glitter, innertube objets encrusted with more sparkly “action painting,” and (literally) heavy-duty floor pieces composed entirely of cement-filled jeans (Levi’s, Sasson, brands from every price point): Five stuffed pairs “sitting up” created a starfish; a snakelike lineup of several more doing splits straddled the floor like a team of torso-free cheerleaders; denim couples, oozing cement cellulite, spooned, mounted each other, and/or tempted one to sit on them like furniture. It was like a casualwear version of Richard Serra. It all struck me as very American (“The Levi’s HQ in SF should buy it,” John Waters helpfully suggested later) and droll, despite the disturbing dismemberment references. I wondered whether all these half bodies, like the whimsically styled remains of a bomb site, would disturb the gallery’s feng shui? Your diarist loitered, hoping to recognize someone, even Pruitt, who wasn’t there yet—but the only semiengaging creature was a basset hound (I didn’t catch its name). So I headed up to 303 to the Karen Kilimnik opening.
Here, too, I didn’t recognize anyone—except Kilimnik and gallery owner Lisa Spellman. (I should get out more.) Kilimnik is the queen of girly installation stuff, which still looks great, and one of those artists, I’ve noticed, who consistently omit their year of birth from their bios. She’s an ageless ingenue—tonight, in jeans, no makeup, and an untucked white tuxedo shirt. I soon spotted Sofia Coppola and was immediately occupied with whether I would/could stalk her or not—a tricky operation, since the place wasn’t big and I had to stick around until the dinner. Plus she made eye contact and seemed weirdly normal, though she was flanked by a pair of PR minders: a perky gay guy and an aggressive-looking gal with a Fendi logo bag, both of whom chatted with her intently while eyeing everyone around them eyeing her while Sofia herself seemed oblivious. I wanted to tell her I loved her in Godfather: Part III (her casting was a genius, meta-, Coppola-as-Corleone-dynasty moment) but decided just to get a good look, discreetly or not. For a superconnected rich person, she has great personal style, which is surprisingly not usually the case. Plus I like to see ethnic-looking petites pull it off. She was prim but not stiff in a steel blue, shape-hiding—the fashion press informed me she’s pregnant—sheath (Marc Jacobs?), black ballet flats, classic Chanel shoulder bag, and intense red lipstick on a bare-ish face. Her hair wasn’t too done. She must have been pooped (Fashion Week just ended) but pored over each piece intently, flanked by the handlers.
Like Coppola, with her recent film Marie Antoinette, Kilimnik was having a French-history moment with a rock sound track. Was this a coincidence? In the front room of the gallery was an installation of a Napoleonic campaign tent. Striped fabric with fleur-de-lis enclosed the general’s crib: a mise-en-scčne that featured an Empire desk styled with plastic toy soldiers, old maps, and a neoclassical helmet. I plotzed in the old leather chair and watched people peer at an antique sword, a dear painting of an ocelot, and a rare candid portrait of an Empire-era officer laughing that looked like a handmade paparazzi shot. Strauss marches and the Who emanated from speakers inside the desk in the mishmash of period flourishes and rock ‘n’ roll that Sofia, too, is working this season. Someone wanted to buy just the ocelot painting, but was told the whole “tent” was for sale for like three hundred thousand dollars.
The dinner afterward, at the Russian Samovar, was subdued, despite the many flavors of vodka. “These dinners are boring,” said one collector’s wife, appreciating that I had bothered to engage her. “People are doing business.” “I saw Baryshnikov holding forth here once at a long table,” shared one curator, as we enjoyed gobs of smoked salmon and discussed unhelpful colleagues. “I wonder if this is where they shot that scene in Sex and the City?” Indeed, in keeping with the meta-ness of the evening, I recalled that Aleksandr Petrovsky, Carrie Bradshaw’s superserious artist paramour (played by Baryshnikov), was perhaps the only character ever to read Artforum on TV. He made “light installations.” Looking over the private room of museum people, gallerists, and a few collectors, Karen’s mother noted, as if surprised, “There aren’t any African-American people here.” She was expecting a mix, “like back in Philadelphia.” I wanted to ask all kinds of nosy questions. Instead I chatted with John Waters about Anna Nicole Smith’s recent mishap. He was dismayed by her druggie train wreck of a “reality show.” Anna Nicole Smith is every couch potato’s dream: a total vegetable with an unlimited budget. Her lawyer spoke for her. Bobby Trendy shopped for her. She did absolutely nothing but consume. Like Edith Massey, I observed, the “egg lady” in Waters’s legendary Pink Flamingos, but with money. Waters was genuinely moved, he said, when Massey’s brother wrote in a recent, self-published bio that Edith had always wanted to be a glamorous, Marilyn-like movie star, but couldn’t “of course”—because of her weight—until Waters came along and made her dream come true! Even better, according to Waters, Massey’s dying wish was to have her ashes flung on Marilyn Monroe’s grave in Westwood Village Cemetary. Another wish granted. “Trespassing!” he chuckled, delighted.
“I do believe that LA is one of the great art capitals of the world,” pronounced Eli Broad to the donors, dignitaries, and artists attending the suitably pompous opening of UCLA’s new Eli and Edythe Broad Art Center, the munificent billionaire’s latest attempt to secure his legacy as a city father. Fresh from his latest bid for the Los Angeles Times, the former land developer and insurance executive bequeathed $23.2 million to the Art Center that bears his name (less than half his $50 million gift to LACMA, but who’s counting?). The unseasonably cloudy day did not dampen the enthusiastic spirits of the architects of this new boosterism. Assembled on an outdoor platform in the large plaza in front of the majestic but chilly Richard Meier–designed structure were the Broads, Meier and his architectural amanuensis Michael Paladino, artist Richard Serra, and the First Lady of California, Maria Shriver. Los Angeles, merely a century and a half old and only a metropolis since World War II, is still fertile soil for groundbreaking bids at immortality. Marking a decisive victory in the ongoing war of the LA art schools, Christopher Waterman, dean of the UCLA School of Arts and Architecture, declared, with a warm glance at Broad, that this was another milestone in the relationship between “enlightened benefactors and public institutions.” Other milestones perhaps include Broad’s substantial donations to UCLA’s rivals, like CalArts’ Broad Studios and Claremont College’s Broad Center and Broad Hall.
Although I anticipated hearing about the importance of UCLA’s art department amid this fanfare, I did not expect to hear “UCLA is the greatest art school in the world” three timesmost notably from Richard Serra, whose 42.5-ton Cor-Ten steel sculpture, T.E.U.C.L.A., graced the plaza behind the podium. (It may be the heaviest piece of institutionally branded artwork in America.)
“I don’t see anyone I know. This isn’t for us. Inside is for us,” said the affable artist Mark Bradford, surveying a sea of suits and pointing at the Art Center itself. As the crowd around the dais dispersed, I followed the slow-moving heads of white hair into the Center.
Remarkably, the work of the UCLA faculty displayed in the galleries (which in the future will show mostly student art) buttressed the university’s enormous ego. Recent works by John Baldessari hung next to Appliance House, 1998–99, a lighted steel box by Jennifer Bolande, and not far from James Welling’s abstract light-screen photos that oozed orange and yellow magma. Chris Burden enjoyed a prominent video projection that showed excerpts of selected performance works from 1971–75. Despite his abrupt and not altogether happy departure in December 2004, UCLA still proudly exhibited his work and listed Burden, alongside Nancy Rubins and Paul McCarthy, as distinguished emeritus professors. Mary Kelly’s Mea Culpa: Beirut 1982, 1999, a piece of compressed lint marked with words describing the death of a laundress during a bombing of the city of Beirut, offered powerful, though lamentable, contemporary resonance.
I headed out of the galleries and wandered through the sterile white hallways examining a fraction of the eight stories of offices, studios, and classrooms. Not wishing to be late for a potential free meal, I scurried across campus to the private lunch at the chancellor’s mansion. I managed to mix with the crowd sipping white wine on the front driveway, where I overheard artist and UCLA faculty member Christian Moeller complain, “This is the most boring event.” While attempting to enter the luncheon, I was given an irritatingly well-mannered and icy brush-off by a wall of smiling PR people. Demeaned but not defeated, I lingered glumly in the driveway, wondering whom I might spy on the way out. The grand impresario himself was one of the first to leave, and I was dumbfounded to see the esteemed collector struggling on his own to put a unwrapped, framed picture into the trunk of his shiny black Cadillac. Evidently, it didn’t quite fit, so he shoved it unceremoniously into the backseat. Then, climbing behind the steering wheel, he clipped on his shades and disappeared into traffic on Sunset Boulevard.
Left: Artist Stéphane Dafflon. Right: Samuel Keller and Jens Hoffmann. (All photos: Nicolas Trembley)
This year, the opening of the fall season was marked by a slew of Asian biennials. Singapore, Shanghai, and Gwangju all opened within five days of one another, bringing to this side of the globe swarms of jet-lagged art professionals, journalists, and VIPs who would soon be suffering the heartburn caused by too-spicy kim chi. To ward off indigestion, I decided I would confine my tour to Korea.
I’m always amazed by how many familiar faces one encounters on these trips. Checking in at Roissy, I ran into artist Stéphane Dafflon, who was just getting back from Geneva (and skipping the biennials), and then Armin Linke, in transit from Milan. On board the plane, I sat near Claude Allemand-Cosneau, the director of the FNAC, who sneaked me some Ambien. This insured that on arrival in Gwangju, I fell asleep immediately in my room at the Prado hotel—which, sad to say, is nowhere near as impressive as the Spanish museum—and was fully rested for the next day’s press preview.
That morning, artistic director Kim Hong-hee explained how “Fever Variations” (nothing to do with SARS), the sixth Gwangju biennial, is made up of two large sections, roughly summed up as 1) what happens in Asia; 2) what happens in the rest of the world. Divided into subsections that function according to dual themesechoing Korea’s political position, split into North and Souththe well-designed exhibit was curated by Wu Hung (Chicago), Binghui Huangfu (Sydney), Shaheen Merali (Berlin), and Jacquelynn Baas (Michigan), the last responsible for a show of Fluxus archive material. The presentation of Chinese propaganda photographs, doctored before the advent of Photoshop and presented by Zhang Dali alongside the originals snaps from which they came, was a big hit. The second section shows art made elsewhere, mainly in Europe and the Balkans. Designed by Cristina Ricupero (Paris) and Beck Jee-sook (Seoul), this part is far less zen-kitsch, so to speak, and much more political, as illustrated by the subsection titled “Exhibiting US Imperialism and War,” conceived by Chris Gilbert and Cira Pascual Marquina in collaboration with activist groups focusing on Latin America.
Left: Artist Bruno Serralongue and Gwangju Biennale curator Cristina Ricupero. Right: Gwangju Biennale director Kim Hong-hee.
Once they’d looked around, the talk between people on their way to/from Singapore and/or Shanghai centered on establishing comparisons involving complex equations of art, food, crowds, weather, and the like. A simple summary: Shanghai is better than Singapore but worse than Gwangju. Somehow, these discussions passed the time, and we were faced with a choice of two dinners: one for the press, the other for the artists. I chose the press dinner, naturally. At the end of the evening, tradition required that everyone meet up at a karaoke bar booked by Samuel Keller, who was in a jubilant mood. Even a rendition of Nirvana’s “You Know You’re Right” by curator Jens Hoffmann, critic Marc Spiegler, and artists Sean Snyder and Erik van Lieshout couldn’t sour things.
Cristina Ricupero, less confident about her singing voice (“I haven’t slept for a week”), suggested delicately that we end the night in an absolutely extraordinary club where the performances of singers/contortionists/strippers clad in ’80s-style glitter held up well in comparison with those we saw at the biennial. We were all speechless with admiration, especially Elmgreen & Dragset and Runa Islam (who, to her surprise, was booked into a love hotel).
The next day, during the official opening, there were as many police officers as guests at the awards ceremony held in the local ampitheater (yes, Gwangju also has its awards). Given out by Mori Art Museum director David Elliott and his jury—Ute Meta Bauer, Charles Esche, Ra-Young Hong, and Kim Hong-hee—the thirty-thousand-dollar biennial award was split between Chinese artist Song Dong, for an incredible installation that displays all the inconsequential knickknacks his mother saved during the past few decades, and Michael Joo, for his not-so-convincing video installation in which surveillance cameras are trained on a Buddha. “Well, there had to be a Korean winner,” said someone in the know. Two additional five-thousand-dollar awards were given out, to Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas (from Lithuania) for their protest-lab archive and to Lim Min-ouk (Korea) for her women-only club. I wonder how the jury—50 percent male—was able to judge the piece. (I heard that girls had the opportunity to make photocopies of their buttocks in there, and apparently they weren’t shy about
it . . .)
Left: Ute Meta Bauer, head of the Visual Arts Program in the architecture department at MIT. Right: Gwangju Biennale Ex Aequo Prize winner Song Dong.
I didn’t really have the patience or the time to sit through the inevitable open forum on the “role of international biennials and significance in particular of Asian biennials” (featuring Hou Hanru, Yuko Hasegawa, Fumio Nanjo, Sung Wan-Kyung, and more). From the little I heard of it, everyone ended up concludingperhaps because most of the panelists were Asian-biennial directors?that these biennials are a new breed, much better than the older ones, and they should continue to be held. (Great! A reason to come back.)
On my last night in the city, I just had time to make it to the traditional Korean dinner held in honor of the artists and attended by Bruno Serralongue, Thomas Allen Harris, Superflex, Michael Beutler, and Gimhongsok, among many others. I sat on the ground, enjoyed the tasty barbecue, and momentarily forgot not only about the party taking place nearby, in the rain, but about going to Busanyet another biennial!as well.