Left: Miuccia Prada. Right: Artist Wangechi Mutu, dealer Bruna Aickelin, and dealer Suzanne Vielmetter.
ANY GHOSTS FLOATING AROUND contemporary art have a fabulous new piece of real estate to spook. Dubbed the Haunted House by its owners, who sheathed its five stories in twenty-four-karat gold leaf, it’s one of ten buildings on the grounds of a former distillery in Milan that now make up the Prada Foundation. (A new nine-story tower that will house a restaurant and eight floors of exhibition space is still under construction.)
As the first institution dedicated to contemporary art in the city of La Scala and The Last Supper, it’s a game changer. As the fruit of designer-collector Miuccia Prada’s collaboration with architect Rem Koolhaas and OMA, it may be the most elegant private museum in the world—certainly the best that money can buy.
Last weekend, Mrs. Prada and her spouse, Patrizio Bertelli, welcomed the president of Italy, billionaire collectors, jet-setting museum directors, the writer Umberto Eco, and artists including Damien Hirst, Wade Guyton, Andreas Gursky, and Goshka Macuga to dinner above the museum’s Wes Anderson–designed café and bar. This party was too exclusive even for me, so all I can talk about is the place.
Tricked out in 1950s-style décor, Anderson’s Bar Luce looks just like a film set, but that may be because the whole two-hundred-thousand-square-foot campus feels just like a movie studio.
Left: Prada Foundation director of programs Astrid Welter. Right: Graphic designer Michael Rock and Prada Foundation publications and research chief Mario Mainetti.
Roman Polanski selected the films unspooling in the museum’s plush two-hundred-seat cinema with a documentary about him. Mrs. Prada personally and permanently installed several works by Robert Gober with two by Louise Bourgeois in the Haunted House, which looks like a mirage above the bleak, industrial landscape outside the compound walls.
“The gold was a way to give value to the mundane,” Koolhaas noted during a May 2 press conference in the cinema. “I also discovered that gold is a very cheap cladding material,” he added with a grin. “And the light on gold changes the whole environment.” Another discovery was what he called “the efficiency of fashion. In eight hours you can make something sublime. For architects to reach the sublime takes eight years.”
Left: Artist Robert Gober and dealer Matthew Marks. Right: Artist Lara Favoretto.
Unusual even for Koolhaas, two opposite walls of the cinema are mirrored on the outside and open like drawbridges to form stages for concerts and other live performances on the outdoor plazas.
“This is the finest cinema in Europe, or maybe anywhere, ” Mrs. Prada whispered to National Portrait Gallery director Nicholas Cullinan, one member of her museum’s five-person Thought Council, an advisory curatorial board. Cullinan made the picks for “In Part,” an exhibition of works from the Prada collection that focuses on close-ups, cropped images, and body parts by artists who include Lucio Fontana, Maurizio Cattelan, Richard Serra, William Copley, and John Baldessari—a disproportionately male lineup barely relieved by the presence of an Eva Hesse and the Bourgeois on view in other buildings.
“In Part” complements “Serial Classic,” an exhibition of reproduced classical statuary that imagine how the lost originals might have looked. Salvatore Settis, Italy’s leading expert on antiquities, did the research and got the loans from such places as the Vatican Museum and the archeological museum in Athens. A contemporary art museum seems an odd place for ancient Greek and Roman statuary, even if they are imitations—until you see how far back the idea of repetition and appropriation in art actually goes. (A companion exhibition of similar copies but in miniature, “Portable Classic,” is on view in the foundation’s outpost in Venice.)
“The show,” Settis said, “is here for one purpose: to make people think.” I hate to dispel that lovely notion, but it actually makes people gawk—mostly at Koolhaas’s exhibition design and the severely modern two-story concrete and glass pavilion housing it. Travertine floors, aluminum foam walls, arched doorways, and abundant daylight give the building classical overtones that struck at least one museum director from New York as “fascistic.” But it’s beautiful, so that’s OK. Macuga has the next show in this space. It should be interesting to see what she makes of it.
Left: Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Foundation curator Irene Calderoni. Right: LACMA director Michael Govan with Prada Foundation artistic director Germano Celant and Katharine Ross.
Behind the cinema, where Thomas Demand’s permanently installed Grotto looks right at home in the underground lair beneath it, is the barrel-shaped building of the old distillery. Collectively curated by the current Thought Council—Shumon Basar, Cédric Libert, and Cullinan—its three giant, concrete exhibition rooms have a stunning distillation of another sort, with just one work by Hirst, Pino Pascali, and Hesse in each.
“Introduction” is a very personalized, rhythmically sequenced collection sampler by Germano Celant, the foundation’s longtime director—now its “superintendent of art and science”—and Prada. It embraces the minimal and the magnificent from twenty-five years of collecting, and it reflects Prada’s inimitable design style, which often combines seemingly incompatible elements to perfection.
Take Barnett Newman’s Onement I—inaccessibly hung on the wall of a roped-off staircase to nowhere on patterned wallpaper of Prada’s own design. The show also includes a fifteenth-century de Medici Studiolo, a Kienholz installation with junked but working radios, and a room with a crazy-quilt salon hang of more than fifty paintings from the 1980s forward. The show ends by opening out to a hangar-like garage with several cars modified by artists such as Elmgreen & Dragset, Sarah Lucas, and Walter de Maria. (Apparently, Prada has been collecting cars for years.)
“I like the free flow of ideas,” the beaming designer said as she toured the show, fussing with this and that as she went. I couldn’t help but ask what would come next. “I’m already thinking,” she said.
Left: Head of publications at Mousse Stefano Cernuschi and artists Christian Holstaad, Michael Elmgreen, and Ingar Dragset. Right: Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani and collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo.
Saturday night brought a caravan of collectors and dealers to Turin, where collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo was celebrating her foundation’s twentieth anniversary by honoring Her Excellency Al Mayassa bint Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the spendthrift director of the Qatar Museums, with the StellaRe Prize. The award acknowledges women whose cultural, political, or economic activities make a difference to contemporary society.
When questioned, Re Rebaudengo defended her choice of awardee by expressing admiration for the Sheikha’s efforts to extend her cultural and educational activities to poor migrant workers in Qatar, despite her family’s suspected support of terrorists. Nonetheless, many in the crowd were uncomfortable, no matter what. Someday, the world will have to come to terms with all of the dirty blood money in the global art market.
Left: Collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo and artist Francesco Vezzoli. Right: Dealers Ludovica Barbieri and Flavio del Monte.
People complained privately, because no one wanted to offend the super-generous Re Rabaudengo, all listened in silence to the odd lineup of speakers: Tate director Nicholas Serota, Italian Vogue editor Franca Sozzani, and Francesco Vezzoli, an artist whose work is yet to appear in the foundation’s collection. He spoke to Sheikha Mayassi’s accomplishments by limning those of the sexually deviant seventeenth-century Queen Christina of Sweden, though the reference might have been too subtle for the audience to catch.
Left: Dealer Massimo De Carlo. Right: Vogue Italia editor in chief Franca Sozzani.
When it was her turn, the personable Sheikha, who was educated at Duke and Harvard, gave a boosterish presentation of her efforts to help migrant Asian laborers—slaves, as many have it—in oil-rich Qatar. She wound it up by claiming that “Women in Qatar have equal status to men.” I found that an extraordinary statement, given that in her next breath, she credited her father, her brother, and her husband for her success.
Next day, back in Milan, where Expo Italia was underway, Massimo De Carlo opened a show of large hand-blown Murano glass vases by Elmgreen & Dragset. They contained beautiful pastel pigments that turned out to be the exact colors of the toxic chemicals in HIV drugs. That set us up for Okwui Enwezor’s politically charged, morally uncompromised, and often unforgiving “All the World’s Futures,” his exhibition for the Fifty-Sixth Venice Biennale, which requires some getting used to. Not everyone attending previews this week had the patience.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. On Monday, May 4, the night before the Biennale’s first preview, a huge crowd of new arrivals in Venice came to Palazzetto Tito for a show of new paintings by Peter Doig. It included Theaster Gates and Isaac Julien, artists whom Enwezor has included in the Biennale. “I love looking at other people’s paintings,” Gates said. “And this guy is a real painter.”
Everyone liked the show, organized by Fiorucci Art Trust curator Milovan Farronato, and everyone jammed the narrow quay by the canal outside to board waiting water taxis taking them to dinner at Vecchie Carampane. “It’s Venice,” observed former Biennale director Bice Curiger, as she pushed through the crowd. “The ambulatory cocktail party.”
Dealer Pilar Corrias provided an alternative with a dinner for Philippe Parreno—another artist in the Biennale—at the gracious Palazzo Persico, the San Polo home of collectors Barbara and Gaetano Maccaferri. I knew on first bite that this was going to be the most delicious meal I would have all week.
Though it seemed that half the art world had gone to the Doig dinner, the company here was primo too, and equally underscored the international character of the Biennale experience. Gathered around the buffet table were Moderna Museet director Daniel Birnbaum; artists Rirkrit Tiravanija, Luigi Ontani, Koo Jeong A, and Carsten Höller; collectors Maja Hoffman, Ethan Wagner and Thea Westreich; the ubiquitous Serpentine Gallery cocurators Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist; and Pinault Collection curator Caroline Bourgeois.
Left: Tate Modern director Chris Dercon with Ullens Center director Phillip Tinari and Samdani Art Foundation artistic director Diana Campbell Betancourt. Right: Pinault Collection curator Caroline Bourgeois and Bard CCS director Tom Eccles.
Bourgeois was riding high on “Slip of the Tongue,” the group exhibition she has done with artist Danh Vo at the Punta della Dogana—the best that venue has ever seen, and one that counters Enwezor’s more morbid show with sensitivity and much needed sensuality.
After all, Venice is a romantic city, a labyrinth where getting lost is an exercise of the spirit. There’s no better, or more conflicted, place for art, its national politics, and its driving principles, all of which this Biennale is bringing to the surface. As MoMA director Glenn Lowry said of the Dogana show, “It’s complicated.”
Left: Artist Peter Fischli and Moderna Museet director Daniel Birnbaum. Right: Art producer Asad Raza and collector Maja Hoffman.
Left: Dealers Daniel Buchholz and Alexander Schroeder. Right: Dealer Gerd Harry Lybke with Berlin Nationalgalerie director Udo Kittelmann and artist Martin Eder.
UPDATE FROM BERLIN: Klara Liden is still making punk art, developing a practice that began with smashing bicycles and evolved into architectural interventions. Laura Owens has incorporated text into her polite paintings—in the form of an apocalyptic death note. Cyprien Gaillard debuted a 3-D film that’s like Bill Viola gone major motion picture. Merlin Carpenter has begun a polemic about why the readymade really has nothing to do with fetishistic consumer value. (Take that, Koons!) The essay is due out next month. For now, see his show, which includes several identical objects—a pram, a fridge, a motorcycle, a spin table—sleek and ironic as ever. I text an image to a friend in New York: “Alex Israel? Props?”
I land in Berlin on Wednesday just past 8 AM and spot dealer Alex Zachary in customs. He’s arriving in time to see Isa Genzken, who’s just finished casting several young male models to catwalk jackets she designed in the 1980s (think flowers, ruffles, and chains) at her opening at Galerie Buchholz the following evening. I’m just in time to meet Galerie Neu’s Alexander Schroeder, one of the founders of Gallery Weekend Berlin twelve years ago, at a café in Charlottenberg. But first Zachary and I share a cab, dropping me at Bikini Hotel, 25 Hours—the city’s latest hip hotel—which overlooks the zoo. “Willkommen,” the receptionist says, then switches to English. “Your room is not ready, but you’re welcome to take a sauna and watch the monkeys.”
Each year, Gallery Weekend coincides with International Workers’ Day, which in Berlin has become something like a hard-core version of the Love Parade. I ask Schroeder what the Workers of the World were uniting for this time and he shrugs. “I don’t know, gentrification?”
“They shoot off water cannons—water cannons,” adds Carpenter, a genuine self-described Marxist, as he slouches against the wall of MD72, Galerie Neu’s second space.
Gentrification is already an animating principle of Berlin life, but it’s really salient at the Weekend’s Saturday night gala at the Kronprinzenpalais on Unter den Linden—now converted into a post-GDR event space—soon to be joined by a replica of the Kaiser’s city palace. It’s like Disneyland, except newer and more expensive and less fun. Artist and Schinkel Pavilion director Nina Pohl (in Saint Laurent knee-high boots—without a doubt the most elegant woman I see in Berlin) tells me at the welcome ceremony that Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, has been recruited to figure out what to do with the space, which was built without a function.
Manuel Miseur of Galerie Johnen appears and kisses Pohl on the cheek. “We’re merging with Esther Schipper,” he shares. “Imagine Pierre Huyghe, Ugo Rondinone, and Thomas Demand with Hans Peter Feldmann, Tino Seghal, Martin Creed, Thomas Ruff—it will be such a stable.”
A new addition to another stable: Brazilian artist Renata Lucas at Neugerriemschneider—which happily, adding spirit of the weekend, means the Mendes Wood team, who also represents her, has hit Berlin full throttle. Lucas installed a fountain outside the gallery. Inside is entirely empty save black-polished pavement and a single, circular drain. Another new artist, at Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Daniel Keller presents an exhibition based on a recent Texte zur Kunst essay about different structures for marriage—namely an LLC. He materialized the concept via four bioreactors bubbling with spirulina. “They’re single-cell asexual beings—no desire, no structure just growth,” says the artist. Wedding rings were strung across tubing connecting each to the other. And Sanya Kantarovsky has brought together a group of young painters at Tanya Leighton in a poised presentation that speaks, if anything, to the level of sensitivity and sophistication among emerging artists.
At the Owens exhibition, a strict no-photo policy is enforced. The paintings are fully installed, but Owens has not signed off—this is an artist who works until the twelfth hour, adding a spot of color, moving a canvas just so. Owens walks in. “Laura,” I wave. “Can you tell me about the text in the works? It’s the first time you’ve used text in your paintings?”
She gives me a deadpan look and says nothing. I press on: “It seems a loaded choice, considering it details aliens and cats finding eleven million bombs and destroying the earth. It’s a little—”
“Dark?” she answers and mutters something about being late to St. Agnes, an old church Johann König has used as a project space for several years, and which he has just renovated into a gallery that reads Rothko Chapel circa 2015. The association is doubled by Katharina Grosse’s enormous abstractions, spectacular and garish in the best sense of the word.
Left: Bloomberg reporter James Tarmy and dealer Alexander Hertling. Right: Kunsthalle Basel director Elena Filipovic (center).
Friday night in Berlin—Grille Royale, known for seventy-two-euro steaks and an upscale art-meets-fashion-meets-society crowd. (“It’s the place you don’t go to when you’re in Berlin,” Société’s Daniel Wichelhaus informs me. “Everyone is watching for everyone else.”) That night it hosts dinners for Liden, Gaillard, and Owens. Sadie Coles, Beatrix Ruf, Eva Presenhuber, Marc Spiegler, Isabelle Graw, Yngve Holen, Ida Ekblad, Matias Faldbakken, Richard Chang, Karl Holmqvist, Klaus Biesenbach, Glenn Lowry—a zoo indeed. The dinners eventually congeal into one, spilling into a paneled back room filled with photographs of naked young girls by David Hamilton. Gaillard was billed to DJ, but in a stunning act of persuasion convinced techno legend Moritz von Oswald to play instead. Oswald rarely performs. Even Philomene Magers takes to the floor—and the crowd, in the words of Graw, is “jeunesse dorée.”
The next day brought Neďl Beloufa and Gretchen Bender to the Schinkel Pavilion, the latter presenting Total Recall, 1987, a work that vivifies her conviction that society and technology are inextricably bound. Installed in a dank, cavernous room, the work felt more contemporary and radical than most artistic output being made today. Across town, the same applied to Genzken, who presented a slim, sinuous sculpture made in 1980, which was conceived via a computer the size of a small bedroom and which possesses the poetics of an Anne Truitt.
At the gala the next evening, Marco Roso, Dis cofounder and cocurator of the forthcoming Berlin Biennale, and I sit and discuss the readymade, the replication of capitalist systems, the capacities of art as a political tool. “Replication creates confusion. We’d sell work in Bed Bath & Beyond in an instant. You know, Putin’s right-hand man is a conceptual artist.” He has a gracious smile and a sensible mien. The table begins to debate the merits of open relationships. Conclusion: Go for it.
Left: Dealer Manuel Miseur and Bureau N founder Silke Neumann. Right: Dealer Mickey Schubert.
Across the table, Kunsthalle Basel director Elena Filipovic talks politics of fundraising and policy for cash-poor institutions. Her solo exhibition with Anicka Yi opens during Art Basel this June. As part of the show, Yi will also sell a limited-edition book, each page dipped in the scent of “forgetting”—the book is to be burned after reading. Upstairs, the castle, again, is the center of conversation.
“I think it’s quite nice,” says Bloomberg reporter James Tarmy. “It took Germany one hundred years to conquer Europe but they’ve finally done it. They might as well celebrate in the worst possible way.”
The Germans exchange nervous glances. “He’s American,” I break in. “Sarcasm!”
Nearing 2 AM, Pohl and I are leaning against the stately windows of the GDR banquet hall sipping drinks out of delicate crystal glasses when Fondation Beyeler director Samuel Keller and artist Andreas Gursky suggest Watergate, a premiere techno club. We shake our heads—“We continue in Venice,” she smiles. From afar, the party slightly evokes a corporate Christmas party, with so many men in business suits, made eerie by the place’s history. But any association is trumped by the energy from der Harte kern. I leave for my hotel on the zoo but am told the room stayed full until 5 AM.
AN AIR OF SOLITUDE hangs around the practice of philosophy; dispelling this aura, or its reputation, seemed perhaps the point of last week’s Night of Philosophy. Organized by, among others, the French Embassy (bien sur), the event gathered the secular monks of episteme, Francophones, and looky-loos from 7 PM to 7 AM, Friday night to Saturday morning, in two adjacent, shabby-regal buildings on Fifth Avenue a few hops from the Met. Sixty-two twenty-minute lectures by luminaries including Kwame Anthony Appiah, Barbara Cassin, Simon Critchley, and Monique Canto-Sperber (whose appearance on the topic of free speech roused some controversy) would be accompanied by a dozen performances, a video program, a complete reading of the Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Boudoir for the cuddlebugs in the crowd, tractati for sale, a cash bar, free coffee, the odd disbursement of charcuterie, and, of course, a DJ: a life-of-the-mind mini-Lollapalooza. And if you hung around all night, you got a T-shirt.
By 8 PM, lines outside both the Cultural Services of the French Embassy and the Ukrainian Institute stretched five blocks. People were waiting three hours or more. It was chilly, and every so often the wind burst out of Central Park and down the streets, but the crowd seemed to relish the chance to display their dedication, and have something to complain about. A kid even played an acoustic guitar and led a singalong. It was cold but it was spring, after all: hope. Inside, those standing tight-lipped (and tight-legged) in the proportionately long lines for the toilets were enjoying their wait less.
The first speaker I caught was Appiah. He gave a somber talk on honor and shame, which touched on Gitmo and “honor killing” in contemporary Pakistan. The photo of a woman face down in a pool of blood, murdered for wanting a divorce, didn’t exactly fit the festival atmosphere. “Is a Thought Experiment a Real Experiment?” seemed more comfortably abstruse, but the murmuring of naysayers (it’s a trite subject, allegedly) led me to explore. Volunteers flurried all over, working hard, but everywhere capacities were stretched. The coffee machines kept running dry or breaking. When a gratis cocktail crept up on the schedule, people mobbed the serving station fifteen minutes early. Numb waiting became a hallmark of the evening, though the dance floor in the bookshop—its sole, chic illumination a neon sign saying HORIZON—had ample room whenever I checked.
Left: The line outside the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. Right: Dia curator Manuel Cirauqui (right).
I stuck my head in on a talk tracing parallels between certain passages in Rousseau and Kieslowski’s Red and found myself in familiar surroundings: In fall 2012 Petzel et al. had thrown a party at the Ukrainian Institute for Wade Guyton’s Whitney show. Here, in the Library Room, on fishy pink morphine tablets, I had watched Mitt Romney wax a grumpy Barack Obama in the second presidential debate, not long after an ex-friend introduced me to Laura Owens and added, “She’s a painter,” as if I had been an art critic for fifteen years and didn’t fucking know who Laura Owens was; as if I were a child and my frame of reference was smearing around primary colors with my fingers.
All in all, the memory brought back nausea, which led me across the hall for a drink in the Chandelier Room. In the corner a group of a dozen very young adults argued about, I shit you not, solipsism. Such kids and many less annoying members of their cohort made up a plurality of the crowd. In addition to the expected 10–15 percent of randos and senior citizens (my identity lying somewhere between), there was also a high percentage of earnest young professionals, the ones pleasantly surprised with the selection of microbrews—but have another, at this hour? No, I shouldn’t; the ones who told me they had come to the event with philosophy groups or meet-ups but now seemed to be drifting alone; the ones wearing plaid casual Friday button-downs or chunky black heels that transition from office to lounge without too much embarrassment. I got the sense that these people had maybe minored in philosophy in college, or had fond memories of an intro class, or for other reasons related to elapsing youth and evaporating idealism clung to the idea of the intellect as something higher and greater beyond their jobs in PR or IT, something that those who surrounded them on the day-to-day failed to understand, and that if they could only find a lover or friend who understood this as well, then they might be happy.
You would think, then, that there would be a hot pickup scene going on. If so, it was too coded for me to detect. Plus people never got very drunk, though the college kids had an occasional excited glaze. I checked out Philosophy in the Boudoir on a live feed in a (highly unnecessary) crowd-overflow room, just in time for some observations on sodomizing a seven-year-old, and tried to download dating apps. My reception was lousy, though, and wifi was not one of the giveaways. In the end, I got on neither Tinder nor Grindr, and I didn’t see anybody make out all night.
Left and right: Clifford Owens in A Medley: 5 Performance Art Scores.
Clifford Owens took over a second-floor lobby at 3 AM. He performed a few scores, the first of which, by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, resulted in his requesting asylum from the French government: Technically he was on French territory, and as a black man in America, he was a political prisoner and lived in imminent danger. The request seemed maybe not rhetorical and discomfited the crowd. But the performance continued without the ambassador being summoned. Another score, by Jacolby Satterwhite, required that Owens find a black male artist in the crowd who would agree to spend the next twenty-four hours with him collaborating on a body of work. When Owens mentioned that he lived in Queens, the ranks of prospects noticeably thinned.
Critchley had the most rock ’n’ roll slot, 4:30 AM, and balls-out topic, suicide. I had packed a razor blade for the occasion. When the time came, clad in all black, he preambled to the throng that he had just come from the pub (he did look ruddy), then launched into a discussion of self-slaughter. He read from E. M. Cioran, and Virginia Woolf’s death note, then To the Lighthouse—at which point the talk seemed to pivot toward the life affirming. Critchley read a passage to the effect that it was the little things that made life worth living: “Always, Mrs. Ramsay felt, one helped oneself out of solitude reluctantly by laying hold of some little odd or end,” it began, and ended “It is enough! It is enough!” Personally I felt deflated; but the crowd ate it up. Plausibly impromptu, Critchley tried to raise a chant of “It is enough!” which made it through maybe four weak iterations. Pro to the end, he knew when to quit.
Left: Monique Canto-Sperber's talk. Right: Emily Apter.
After the only talk that could have fit one of those Dis bills at the New Museum Triennial, “Metaphysical Daring as a Post-human Survival Strategy,” I went downstairs and waited for the 5:30 AM free croissants. I gave up on them at 5:45. Over at the Ukrainian Institute, a talk on the concept of exodus was going on. I found a piece of floor at the back of the room and kept my head down to avoid the clammy blue tendrils of dawn reaching through the windows. Happily my neighbors turned out to be the only people on drugs at the entire event, two young women between high school and college age. Their collective wardrobe included combats, tights with images of whirling galaxies, a thrift-store animal-print coat, and a head covering that I swear (though I was bleary) comprised a bunch of fake stoles clumsily stitched together, some still with eyes. The pair were curled up on each other reading Julio Cortazár in Spanish; one of them traced and retraced an intricate linear abstraction on a mostly blank page. They warily offered me language instruction, which I declined and regretted declining immediately. But what’s the point of staying up all night if you don’t end up with regrets?
There was a music act at 6, back in the Chandelier Room, and whoever wrote the program had dropped a Deleuze quote in the blurb. But it was just a guy with an acoustic guitar—unbelievably, the ex of one of my exes, reterritorialized. So I went and waited stoically for my T-shirt. The consolations of philosophy seem limited when you’re going home alone at 7 in the morning, no matter where you’ve been.
Left: Simon Critchley. Right: Audience at the Night of Philosophy.
RECENTLY RHIZOME threw a panel to celebrate the online restoration of the germinal feminist CD-ROMs of video game designer, artist, popular blogger, and—by the time she committed suicide in 2007—conspiracy theorist Theresa Duncan.
The panel was less than rigorous, but it did little to mar the truly fantastic, usable product created by Rhizome that we were enthusiastically celebrating: Any lady noodling on her computer at work can now access an outmoded operating system—via an “online emulation infrastructure”—to play Chop Suey (1995), Smarty (1996), and Zero Zero (1997), Duncan’s idiosyncratic story-driven interactive CD-ROMs for girls aged seven to twelve. “People call them video games,” explained Rhizome artistic director Michael Connor. “I call them art. Other people call them interactive narratives or literature.” Three of the five speakers noted, as a point of contrast, that Barbie Fashion Designer was the most popular CD-ROM for kids in 1996.
What a laudable moment in digital video game preservation! May all media eventually “live beyond their [original] operating programs,” to carry further an idea posited by Rachel Simone Weil, the founder of FEMICOM museum. Of course, there are limitations to living in the past, but only a haggard programmer seemed to be sweating it. His name is Dragon! A kind and fastidious man, by which I mean he has a soft voice and a cropped haircut. (It’s spelled Dragan, I found out later, Dragan Espenschied, the digital conservator at Rhizome.) He explained that each frame of the game cannot “handle more than 256 colors at a time.” Zooming in on a projected image, we see hidden “little mosquitoes buzzing around…that shouldn’t be there.” (Pixels?) “The problem has been solved.” He paused. “The problem has not been solved, actually.” He shrugged, we laughed. “It has been a work-around,” he continued, sheepishly. The stills of the video game being projected in the background were beautiful and intricate in a patchwork, 1990s DIY way. Flies buzz, dogs bark; I like Chop Suey and Smarty because they take place in towns like the one I grew up in. There’s just one of everything: one fun place to eat lunch (the Ping Ping Palace), one carnival, one “quirky” resident...
In Duncan’s game world, provincial girls speak to glamorous and eccentric adults prone to wistful monologues and matter-of-fact proclamations about how they live. In Smarty, Aunt Olive and her best friend sit in apple red chairs in an unabashedly bubble-gum pink kitchen discussing “heartbreak” and “palm readings.” Speech bubbles dance across the screen like lyrics in a Karaoke machine. In Chop Suey, Aunt Vera explains to the two little protagonists that in New York places have “gleaming names like the Rainbow Room, Pearly Palace.” The narrator notes that Aunt Vera’s “voice got all sweet and sugary” when speaking of the city.
“A lot of children’s stuff is didactic,” Duncan said at a media panel at MIT in 1998, “but this [CD-ROM] is satirical.”
Yet Duncan’s early work takes seriously two dichotomies that preoccupied her entire career: the dead-end hometown versus New York City as the land of promise; respectable grammar (work) versus fickle glamour (fame). “In dreams all territory I’ve ever covered is mine, Manhattan and the dull countryside of my childhood whirled together in a dream city,” she mused in a blog post on July 3, 2006. “The noise of the dreamy, gleamy, cosmopolitan future far away from home all around like the best of anything I ever put myself into externalized.”
Theresa Duncan & Monica Gesue, Chop Suey, 1995, interactive CD-ROM.
The technology of a “point-and-click” CD-ROM was simple, but it suited Duncan’s sensibilities. The major mode of “play” in her games is to go from person to person and place to place collecting anecdotal (how they thought the world worked) and aesthetic (what they wanted the world to look like) impressions. There is no clear sense of how to get out of the small town and become an adult, no endgame, only an endless loop of social calls and excursions into town. As Jenn Frank, a games critic, pointed out on the panel, there’s something “strange and unhappy that we never see [the protagonists’] parents,” only disenfranchised adults mourning their past lives. A player may only explore a home as meticulously as one does its inhabitant, intently collecting the stories they are willing to tell and perusing the carefully curated material possessions, as if one can live as others do just by willing it, if only you can get close enough. As if the trick is in the image—your persona, what you can make it do, and what you dress it up in. As if everything is an experience waiting to be curated.
That an adult like myself—not a gamer—would enthusiastically anticipate the opportunity to play these CD-ROMs speaks to the aura surrounding their enigmatic and ambitious creator. I’m not alone in treating Duncan’s life or what’s left of its original traces as a Google video game. Point and click, point and click, point and click. For this reason alone, it was difficult not to home in on Lia Gangitano, founder of downtown’s Participant Inc. and the only self-proclaimed friend of Theresa’s there—and not coincidentally the fiercest, coolest person on the panel (planet?), in draping black fabrics, extra large leather boots, and metal choker. She didn’t look like she was having a particularly good time—talked about “a game Theresa wanted to make called Apocalipstick, in which weapons were replaced with contemporary cosmetics.” Chic!
In retrospect, it seems Duncan warranted the posthumous media treatment naturally designed for, but rarely rewarded to, NYC’s niche celebrities: competing, lengthy obituary-profiles in New York and Rolling Stone. The story had all the elements: high tragedy, high art. Her lover of twelve years, the digital artist Jeremy Blake, drowned within a week of her suicide. He collaborated on Smarty and Zero Zero, as well as Duncan’s short film The History of Glamour (2000)—her successful venture into not only film but the art world, via that year’s Whitney Biennial. She had yet to have a noticeable setback and was an indefatigable PR dynamo—yet no mention was made on the panel of her failure to get her later work produced. One nearly forgets that seven years passed between The History of Glamour, her last completed project (she had two film options, and then a pilot; Hollywood just wasn’t panning out) and her death in 2007. But she didn’t forget.
Of course one craves, after the suicide or overdose of a quixotic, beautiful, unusual, and talented public figure, to step back from the whimsical mess of fawning and sordid hagiographic details and look at…a primary source. Duncan, and perhaps especially Blake, did not have the opportunity to cultivate their eccentricity and charisma the easy, old-fashioned way (inheritance, disinterested parents). They were promising artists who got their first brushes with money and fame because of their work.
But so, here is her work. As Weil noted, she “couldn’t think of another kids’ game that had [her] reading books.” And all the themes of a brilliant, complicated woman are there, intact, fully formed. To quote from the ending monologue in The History of Glamour: “I used to think that glamour was completely necessary. […] What do I need? […] An ability to recognize if I’m caught in the wrong story or the story someone else wants me to inhabit.” Duncan saw her fate very clearly. She knew she’d get caught in a little world of her own design; these were the only worlds she knew how to create.
Left: Dealer Phil Graver, Adrianne Rubenstein, and Art Cologne director Daniel Hug. Right: Artist Hans-Peter Feldmann.
THE DINING CARS of the high-speed ICE are a culinary wasteland. But with their dented red-leather couches, they serve well as social hubs for the temporary traveling communities moving 150 miles per hour throughout Germany. When I boarded the train in Berlin, it was the place to meet companions en route to the forty-ninth edition of Art Cologne. It was dealer Johann König who invited me to his table, where we spent the whole journey enjoying a lengthy breakfast, which grew into lunch the longer it lasted. Cell signals aren’t stable on the ICE, but König managed to work the phone whenever the train was slowing down or approaching a station. At home, König had been busy rebranding his gallery and moving into a defunct Brutalist concrete church from the 1960s by architect Werner Düttmann that underwent a three-year-long renovation.
Why invest so much in a gallery space? Isn’t this the age of art fairs? Yes, he goes to fairs. But he also believes in grand exhibitions. The more spectacular the space the better. König talked about a popular Cologne-based comic who shares his name. The dealer fosters a certain obsession with his namesake—he told me that he was even toying with the idea to let him represent his gallery at his booth. But that would require more preparation, and, said König quoting König: “Being funny is hard work!”
Left: Dealer Johann König, curator Kasper König, and dealer Leo König. Right: Philipp Fürnkäs of the Julia Stoschek Collection and artist Isaac Julien.
The next day I was reminded of the Königs’ words at the fair’s preview. In the early hours, the Düsseldorf-based artist Hans-Peter Feldmann walked the halls slowly, holding a protest sign that seemed more a poem than anything: “Hell erstrahlen alle Mienen bei dem schönen Wort verdienen.” It’s almost impossible to translate in all its intended ambiguity: “Light shines on all the faces when it comes to the beautiful word earning.” Was it some sort of self-criticism by a former “anti-artist” now embraced by the market? Or a slick Publikumsbeschimpfung?
At least there was a historical resonance: Forty years ago German artist Timm Ulrichs walked among visitors of the Cologne art fair wearing a sandwich board. With big black glasses, blind man’s stick, and an armband for the visually impaired, Ulrichs sported a sign written in bold black letters: “Ich kann keine Kunst mehr sehen!” (I can see no more art!) In contrast, during his intervention Feldmann wore an elegant anthracite-colored suit that gave him the aura of a businessman. No better place than a major fair to stoke the ashes of issues once hotly debated.
Art Cologne these days is a very orderly affair: modern and postwar art in the lower level, established contemporary in the middle, and young galleries in the upper floor, which also houses an immense VIP lounge. This new setup and the spacious booths that come with it seemed to go over well with collectors and dealers alike. Everyone except the critics, of course, who distrust the lush hum of a well-oiled business machine. Some crave astonishment. And it’s true that these days there are fewer moments of bazaar-ness. But that is probably a good thing.
After some years of crisis, Cologne is again the undisputed leading trade fair in the region: It’s the place where the majority of collectors, curators, and museum directors from Germany and the Benelux visit. “After last year, we were quite doubtful at the beginning, but now we are really satisfied with this year’s fair,” dealer Daniel Buchholz told me during a book launch for artist Cameron Jamie at Walther König on Ehrenstraße, Cologne’s traditional gallery district. “But the dinners got out of hand,” Buchholz added half earnest, half jokingly. “Sometimes I feel not like a gallerist but a party caterer. Instead of dinners, we will do more apertifs in the future.” I am tempted to believe Buchholz, who enjoyed a cigarette on König’s premises. Maybe there are small solutions, as shown at the Petrit Halilaj happening at Kölnischer Kunstverein. Director Moritz Wesseler had booked Metzgerei Innhoven for catering, who made their—quite spectacular—bratwurst on site: Mera Rubell, who was in front of me in the queue, seemed impressed.
Left: Art book publishers Franz König, Walther König, and artist Cameron Jamie. Right: Director of Hamburger Kunstverein Bettina Steinbrügge and Kunsthalle Wien curator Vanessa Joan Müller.
The week was a cascade of dinners and afterparties: On Tuesday, the Freundeskreis für Moderne Kunst celebrated Michael Krebber and R. H. Quaytman with the Wolfgang Hahn Prize. The dinner took place at Flora, a late-nineteenth-century building in the botanical garden. On Wednesday I attended a gallery dinner hosted by David Zwirner, Gisela Capitain, and Daniel Buchholz at Alter Wartesaal right next to Cologne’s central station. Zwirner saluted the crowd of artists, collectors, and curators with a toast to Art Cologne, which he said is improving steadily. Another toast followed, by painter Georg Polke, son of Sigmar, whose impressive traveling retrospective is currently at the Ludwig Museum. After, the Ludwig’s Leonie Radine took me to the Schmitz, where artists Gerd and Uwe Tobias were celebrating their birthday in the basement. CFA’s Bruno Brunet rocked the dance floor to “Carbonara,” an early-1980s anthem by the German band Spliff. It was a quite different tune on Thursday night, when the art crowd celebrated the birthday of Cologne DJ-hero Tobias Thomas in the basement of Hallmackenreuther. Yes it’s true: Monika Sprüth, Andreas Gursky, and Johann König love techno, Cologne style.
On Saturday I took the train to Düsseldorf to see exhibitions at the Kunstverein (Anna Franceschini) and the Kunsthalle (Ian Cheng, Wu Tsang, Jordan Wolfson). Since Susanne Pfeffer introduced “post-Internet” to institutional audiences with her Material Show at Kassel’s Fridericianum a few years ago, “Post” is very hip again. Even ironic references to good old poststructuralism are cool: “If you want to teach me French philosophy / I’ll sleep with you,” artist and Berlin It Boy Dan Bodan crooned into the mic at Düsseldorf artist hangout Salon des Amateurs. At the bar I bumped into the smart young dealer Max Mayer. He’s a regular at the Salon. “They call it the ‘Post-Kraut Hacienda’ on TripAdvisor,” Mayer said, handing me a bottle of beer. Silently, we listened to Bodan’s sad and beautiful songs floating through the night like futurist sound tracks for Edward Hopper paintings.
“ALL ARCHITECTS should be forced to live, for at least a week, in every building they design,” says an architect friend of mine. What if it were the same for curators? What if, every time a curator picked a theme for a biennial, he or she was forced to cohabit with some twisted version of that theme? It happened last week with Alfredo Cramerotti, who curated Sequences, Reykjavik’s biennial real-time art festival. Cramerotti had picked “plumbing” as the focus of this year’s edition. And just like that, as if curatorial conceits carry their own karma, on a recent Saturday morning his kitchen sink overflowed and flooded the entire room, upending his already full day of logistics.
Flooding sinks aside, plumbing made for an apt motif. As Cramerotti explained, it relates to everything from the geothermic energy that heats Iceland’s houses to the transatlantic, fiber-optic superhighway that uses the nation as a hub. But along with plumbing, the dual notions of presence and absence became (somewhat less formally) touchstones as well, in both art and in accompanying discussions. Partly this had something to do with the fact that Carolee Schneemann, the honorary artist, couldn’t make it due to health reasons. Ed Atkins also couldn’t be in Reykjavik, but he contributed a video featuring his creepy, emotive avatar.
Sequences got its start on Friday, in downtown Reykjavik; while rain kept things chilly outside, the crowd—in furs, knit caps, a lime-green Mongolian cape—stayed warm with wine and cheese. Everyone had gathered for the unveiling of Schneemann’s More Wrong Things at Kling and Bang. (Outside was another performance: Hanna Kristín Birgisdóttir, who enlisted workmen to drill a hole into the graveled ground.)
Left: Kling and Bang. Right: Artist Finnbogi Pétursson.
Kling and Bang—which some may recognize from its Frieze booths—is an artist-run space which operates so democratically that, when it was formed, even its name was subject to a vote. The meaning of the final result? “It doesn’t run that deep, I’m afraid,” laughed member Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir. “It’s sort of the same it would be in English—subtle noises and big explosions.” (Sigurjónsdóttir was also the sister of Edda Sigurjónsdóttir, curatorial consultant and project manager of the biennial. She’s “the secret ingredient in a lot of stuff that happens in the Reykjavik scene,” according to her partner, artist Ragnar Kjartansson, who’s at work preparing a fall show at the Palais de Tokyo.)
But if Kling and Bang’s name “doesn’t run that deep,” its significance in Reykjavik sure does. The city’s handful of artist-run spaces apparently function as the beating heart of the Icelandic art world: Without a ravenous commercial art market on the island—there are only a few major contemporary art collectors—Icelandic artists and curators have had to step up their game. Said one artist, “Not many people here are making art as their main job.” Not to be overlooked, though, is the Icelandic Art Center, a government-funded institution that’s presenting Christoph Büchel at the nation’s Venice pavilion next week.
The scrappy, resourceful spirit of the island’s artist-driven projects was reflected in Sequences’ scrappy, repurposed venues. A bus dropped the likes of Collection Maramotti’s Marina Dacci and London-based artist Jordan Baseman at a sleepy shopping mall. There, in its atrium, the Kunstlager collective featured everything from a drone-flying performance to a cotton-candy machine. Not too far away, in a loft space under construction, Icelandic sound artist Finnbogi Pétursson presented a series of tubes playing, in and out of phase, mesmerizing 50Hz tones. “No drugs, no alcohol,” he laughed. “This is sober art.”
Back downtown, a room at Hotel Holt, a very retro, wood-paneled establishment that was once the fanciest in Reykjavík, became the site of a performance by Styrmir Örn Guđmundsson, who incanted and rapped (almost) and then led his audience to a hotel room. As his partner sat in lotus position covered in blue body paint, he led everyone through a meditation sequence, intoning, “Don’t worry: I promise you. You will all die successfully.”
Even a boarded-up public women’s bathroom became a site for Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson’s art, after Ólafsson and his team cleaned the facility out. “We must have burned two boxes of incense while cleaning,” he laughed. The underground space had been shuttered for security, since it was mere meters away from the Mayor’s house.
Ólafsson’s piece projected a live feed of the room’s image through the ground to a tiled wall in the men’s bathroom (still boarded up), then a second live feed captured the result and sent it back. It was a poetic display of presence and absence: knowing your images were elsewhere, seeing them projected back to you. It was also a reminder of the balance governments maintain between security and access—a timely reflection, given recent suggestions that Edward Snowden might get Icelandic citizenship if certain political tides continue to turn.
With all the spas and public pools around town, people kept vanishing and then reappearing—an hour here, an hour there—coming back with radiant skin. Still, everyone managed to see art and more art, from Margrét Blöndal’s form-sculptures to the New York–based Beatrice Pediconi’s immersive projections of water currents. At openings, everyone seemed to know each other. Dogs came. Sandwich crčmes were put out at one venue, and the kids roamed freely.
Left: Curator Birta Guđjónsdóttir. Right: Artist Styrmir Örn Guđmundsson.
Which made me realize that there were no “mature content” signs alerting parents to the sexually explicit footage in Schneemann’s piece. Cramerotti said he’d asked, and explained the reply he’d received: “We accept it, we don’t use any warning; we know it can be tricky, it can be sort of uncomfortable for a moment.” He also brought up the concern that shards of glass were scattered across the floor in Margrét Helga Sesseljudóttir’s piece—but again, no warning signs or roped-off areas had been required.
Cramerotti hypothesized that this laissez-faire approach to art was connected to something else he’d seen in Iceland: “playgrounds for kids made out of industrial leftovers”—right by the harbor, between a busy road and the ocean. No fences.
“Here it’s totally accepted because of the land they’re in. Naturally it can be dangerous. You can hurt yourself, and you have to learn that when you’re a kid.”