REMEMBER SUMMER? I ended mine with one foot already in the fall season, nabbing a four-hour train to Zurich for last weekend’s early-bird, back-to-school opening rush, where many an art acolyte sought to show off her tan before the great fall fade.
Thankfully, it was an inspiring congregation of shows, and a solid reminder that sometimes it’s worth sacrificing one’s tan (and sleep schedule) for some great art. I wasted no time when I arrived on Friday, running straight to the intimate lunch at la Terrasse in honor of Dorothy Iannone’s show at the Migros Museum. There, her longtime collector Franz Wassmer rubbed elbows with dealers Javier Peres and Florence Bonnefous, Berlinsche Galerie director Thomas Kohler, and Migros director Heike Munder. Peres exposed us all to MeituPic, a new Chinese photography app that makes you look younger and thinner. But Iannone didn’t need an app to look fab: The eighty-one-year-young artist looked marvelous as ever, albeit slightly flustered as she hadn’t seen the show installed yet.
As some guests jumped into a collector’s Rolls Royce (hello Zurich!) for an impromptu preview, I followed Migros curator Judith Welter onto the tram. The show was stunning. Taking her 1982 artist book Censorship and the Irrepressible Drive toward Love and Divinity as a point of departure, the exhibition features more than fifty years of love and sexual liberation, and includes some of her greatest historical responses to suppression, like her 1970 book The Story of Bern, or Showing Colors, which logs the controversy over her images that erupted during a 1969 show at the Kunsthalle Bern.
From there I explored the newly expanded Löwenbräu building, an epitome of Swiss efficiency. “It’s like being at a fair 24/7,” said graphic designer Maria Lusa as I entered Vittorio Brodmann’s show at Galerie Gregor Staiger. “Except that people are relaxed here.” (I think that was a compliment.) Next was Parkett’s space, where cofounders Bice Curiger and Jacqueline Burckhardt were giving collector Ursula Hauser a tour of the exhibition they organized for the august publication’s thirty-year anniversary. (Their current issue features a cover by Shirana Shahbazi and a special section on performance.) Each of the works on view evoked a personal anecdote from Curiger. I would have liked to hear more about the time she introduced Jeff Koons to Martin Kippenberger over lunch.
As the crowds began to amass in the Löwenbräu, I realized the party was almost upon us. I worked my way into the former brewery’s lodestar—and that day’s elephant in the room: Kunsthalle Zürich. There was plenty of chatter among insiders about who would succeed the black-clad, sharp-minded art priestess Beatrix Ruf, who’s moving on to direct the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam full-time on November 1. Three names were on everyone’s lips, but in the end, as we now all know, it came down to that incorrigible wit Daniel Baumann.
Good luck to him! Ruf is hell-bent on setting high standards until the end: Slavs & Tatars precise and elegant proposition “Mirrors for Princes,” in the Kunsthalle’s first space, was one of the weekend’s standouts, combining an incisive approach to religion and politics with bold irony and unexpected sensuality. To be sure, the guided tour by Payam Sharifi, one-half of the beguiling collective, was very persuasive. “Art is to this decade what fashion was to the ’90s and movies to the ’70s: a zeitgeist catalyst,” Sharifi argued. “Which gives us artists a huge responsibility.”
Joined by S&T partner-in-crime Kasia Korcsak and dealer Amadeo Kraupa-Tuskany, we moved on to Eva Presenhuber to take on Wyatt Kahn’s impeccable Swiss debut and a remarkable comeback by painter Steven Shearer. I then jostled through the crowds to get a view of, well, everything: solo shows by Matthew Day Jackson at Hauser & Wirth, Nedko Solakov at Bob Van Orsouw, Jutta Koether at Francesca Pia, and a group exhibition curated by Arthur Fink at LUMA’s Westbau.
“It used to be inconvenient to open before everyone else at this period of the year,” said dealer Jean-Claude Freymond-Guth, who launched stellar shows by Loredana Sperini and Martin Disler at his space. “No one came to Zurich, but somehow it changed.” You bet it did: What used to be a mostly local affair, a once-a-year stopover B.B. (Before Basel), has become a mandatory destination on the competitive art circuit. Freymond-Guth kindly offered vouchers for drinks at the Löwenbräu afterparty that featured a “Macedonian wedding band,” three words that made my heart sink. “Don’t go,” said a fellow Parisian reveler I ran into in the stairs. “It will rain, the sound system is really bad, and even the bratwurst aren’t that good.” Trusting in the perspicacity of French snobbery, I took the advice.
I retreated to Presenhuber’s dinner at Times in honor of Kahn, Shearer, and Sam Falls. “Anyone going to São Paulo…?” began someone seated on my left, while the debate to my right centered on “unacceptable” tax increases in Zurich. How much I had missed these quirky talks over summer. The food was delightful, and so was the company, among them Peter Fischli, dealers Franco Noero, Kurimanzutto’s José Kuri, and T293’s Marco Altavilla; Swiss Institute director Simon Castets; and Kahn’s charming family. While everyone was planning postprandial drinks at Gonzo, I had a sudden rush of conscientiousness (or was it just FOMO?) and repaired to the party at Limmatstrasse. I came, I saw, and I turned in early(ish): Sometimes, when you’ve been gone from the party too long, no amount of beer will get you on the same page as the swirling crowd.
I enjoyed my last few hours in sunny Zurich as well as I could on Saturday. Brunch at Markthalle seemed to be the ultimate rendezvous for the hungover art crowd. After eggs and Bircher muesli, I ran to Karma International to check out Judith Bernstein’s impressive solo show, and then to the Kunsthaus to glimpse Cindy Sherman’s bewildering survey. With Iannone as head of household, it seemed that the new season was all about girls for a change. Just another example of how Zurich is ahead of the curve.
SEND A FISTFUL of youngish art-world denizens off to fete an exhibition on a Greek isle in August and the term “opening” no longer seems appropriate. But what to call it, this sunny brew of beach beds and sweet wine, artists and curators and writers? Junket, retreat, vacation—bliss?
Lest I seduce you, disloyally, with tales of boat trips and tanned biennial directors, first a quick clarification of the context. Although it’s now the site, thanks to Art Space Pythagorion, of a laudable annual exhibition series—Harun Farocki in 2012, Slavs and Tatars in 2013, Nevin Aladağ in 2014—Samos is not how contemporary art typically reacts to saltwater. Samos is not Jeffrey Deitch admiring Matthew Barney smear petroleum jelly in Dakis Joannou’s slaughterhouse. Not VIP rooms by Audi and hors d’oeuvres by Rolex. Not glittering yachts and infinity edges. Samos, my Greek friends report, is not Mykonos, not Santorini, not Rhodes. In other words, Samos is so not where you’d expect a Munich entrepreneur, Kurt Schwarz, and his Greek-born wife, Chiona Xanthopoulou-Schwarz, to plant a new art institution.
Off the beach and into Pythagorion, via silver chartered bus, we went Monday night for the opening of Aladağ’s “Borderline,” a rumination on migration, the murkiness of cultural identity, the malleability of boundaries, and, of course, borders of any and all kinds. Such themes have been on the mind and in the work of the Turkish-born, Germany-raised artist for some time now, so there was less surprise upon encountering the display than a certain incitement to reconsider. To reconsider the water in which I had just swum, the backdrop to my hotel room’s picture-perfect view, the imperceptible geopolitical theater that beach chairs are front-row seats for on this part of the island, on this part of the earth.
Left: Poet Quinn Latimer reading. Right: ARTER assistant exhibitions director Başak Doğa Temür.
At their nearest points, Samos and Turkey are barely 4,500 feet apart. “So close you can discern the cars going up and down the hills,” as ASP curator Marina Fokidis described the distance to the Turkish mainland. It’s tempting to call them close, but they are only close if by close we also mean nonproximity, disjunction, fissure. This rift—one that facilitates weighty distinctions like “Turkey” and “Greece,” “Asia” and “Europe,” “East” and “West”—is the space from which Aladağ’s newly commissioned work issues. Only because there is not quite here could fifteen wooden coils be wrapped with black fishing rope the length of that gap and then permit, as sculptural installation (Beeline), political and cartographic questions to pass through an aesthetic prism. For Borderline, a video work that gives the show its title, Aladağ navigates—by boat, aided by GPS—along the seam dividing the two countries. There is no story, only the record of an appearance and disappearance of a line, of the “real” border rendered, momentarily, by the boat’s quickly dispersing backwash.
It was summer, it was Greece, so naturally most fled the darkened galleries for the breezy, playground-adjacent patio. It was there that organizers had promised something that might once have been called a poetry reading—had one or another recent “turn” not mandated every art-funded utterance don a Pedagogy badge—but was now being billed as a “poetic lecture.” Lecture, thankfully, is not what poet Quinn Latimer did. She drew in rather than thinned out the crowd, crooned over rambunctious children’s shrieks and their parents’ shhs, and concluded with an ecstatically recursive accounting of oh so many bounded categories that were being scuttled by all of us, by the hour. “Border of cult / Border of leisure / Border of culture / Border of labor.” And on and on and on.
The next day’s gap in the art itinerary left abundant opportunity to test just how soft the wall dividing work and play was. While many had come to Samos with specific duties—n.b.k.’s Sophie Goltz, Tate Modern’s Andrea Lissoni, ARTER’s Başak Doğa Temür, and art-agenda’s Filipa Ramos were running workshops for ASP’s curatorial fellows; Künstlerhaus Stuttgart’s Adnan Yildiz, curator Chus Martínez, and writer Ingo Niermann were participating in Wednesday evening’s roundtable—in this maritime barter economy, a couple of hours of speaking was trading for a few seaside days, and no one was feeling guilty about the exchange rate. By Tuesday afternoon, most everyone had fled south, by boat, to the barbell-shaped Samiopoula to commune with wild goats, the tiny island’s only permanent residents, and to down what felt like the thirtieth and thirty-first grilled fish in two days.
By night, all were back at Glicorisa Beach communing, cash-bar assisted, on a hotel terrace perfect for—well, you know. Choreographer Alexandra Bachzetsis was the first to show her stuff. Then Alkis, the resort’s star cabana boy (does a ripped, barrel-chested thirty-year-old still count as a “boy”?), showed his, and anyone still seated now appeared more prude than prudent. Once the sound system was ours, right before midnight, Documenta king-in-waiting Adam Szymczyk offered a four-song set—New Order, Joy Division, the Smiths, A Certain Ratio—that ignited all kinds of wild speculation across the dance floor. What does this mean for the next Documenta? was the question posed, with varying urgency, to me by not one, not two, but three artists—each trying, clairvoyantly, to read the back-to-back British postpunk as if curatorial tea leaves.
Wednesday’s archaeological tour had seemed like the ideal preface to that evening’s talks, centered as they were on the symbolism of East and West in Europe. Yet the guide’s violent chatter about wars, piracy, pillaging, and plundering was discordant with the mood that had settled in by day three. To each impassioned nonquestion that consumed the postroundtable Q&A and sent more than a few eyes rolling, Martínez, admirable show stealer, responded with a brainy graciousness. “Nice is the new cool,” Temür announced to me on our walk to dinner, pushing back against the idea that only the toughest curators survive. Composure, too, was the vibe down at my end of the table. To one side of me sat the perpetually understated Niermann, and to the other the always-on Yildiz, who was not only more serene that eve but was also, I had noticed, abstaining from the beef. “Meat makes me aggressive,” he confessed.
What had made everyone so tranquil, so soft? The sun? The art? The air? Who cares. Here’s to hoping that a bit of Samos calm survives September’s hectic openings.
“EVERYONE IS COMING UP with a creative excuse to hang out and make art on Fire Island,” artist Lee Maida told me as we watched the tide roll in.
And why not? Two of Fire Island’s hamlets—Cherry Grove and the neighboring Pines—are gay oases with a storied artistic lineage. Roughly three hours from NYC by train and ferry, Fire Island offers both respite and raunchiness for queers and comrades. Oscar Wilde, W. H. Auden, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Peter Hujar all summered and made work there. And over the past four years, programs such as the Fire Island Artist Residency (FIAR), the New York Performance Artists Collective (NYPAC), and BOFFO have built a flamboyant infrastructure for creative types.
Four recent days testified to the growth of Fire Island’s cultural scene. It all started on a Thursday in early August with a Nicole Eisenman lecture for FIAR—though in true Fire Island fashion, it was preceded by a little drama. The Meat Rack—a wooded sexual cruising ground that separates Cherry Grove from The Pines—had caught fire, sending black smoke billowing over the ocean. “A burning post-blow-job cigarette might wipe out the Meat Rack!” yelled a local. In Cherry Grove, where FIAR is located, the mostly lesbian group of volunteer firefighters sped along the wooden walks in service vehicles—the only sign of automobiles in the otherwise car-free community—eventually containing the blaze.
Unfazed, Eisenman went ahead with her talk: “I packed this one full of queer signifiers for that asshole Putin,” Eisenman described It Is So, her painting referencing Eve Fowler and Ulrike Müller that’s currently on view at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg for Manifesta 10. The striking work, depicting an ambiguously gendered pair caught in the act, definitely resonated with the below-the-belt-friendly audience.
The crowded lecture took place in the Cherry Grove Community House, a newly landmarked building that in 1948 became the first theater continually producing work for a gay audience. Drinks and a drawing game with Eisenman followed at the Holly House, where FIAR’s monthlong residency takes place. FIAR’s makeshift live/work space is more beach bungalow than artist studio, but living on top of one another seems to encourage close relations among the group. Rihanna rave remixes from the adjacent Ice Palace bar wafted into the living room as the residents and Eisenman swapped sketches and talked “gay utopias.” The dynamic that FIAR’s cofounders Chris Bogia and Evan Garza foster among the visiting artists and the queer artists-in-residence is a strength of their program.
“Nicole’s visit was a highlight,” Garza gushed. “But girl, you should have seen Rashaad Newsome when he was here doing vogue drops on the Cherry Grove pier!”
Studio visits on Friday with FIAR’s five residents—RJ Messineo, Dana DeGiulio, Jonah Groeneboer, Sam Ashby, and Ginger Brooks Takahashi—proved fruitful. Ashby had been splicing together footage of Fire Island’s filmic history into a “narrativistic essay portrait of the island.” Titles shot in the area include Andy Warhol’s 1965 My Hustler, Wakefield Poole’s 1971 The Boys in the Sand (an early mainstream gay porn flick), Derek Jarman’s 1974 Fire Island, and Norman René’s 1989 Longtime Companion. Wandering deer, outdoor showers, and bathing-suit tan lines are common tropes throughout. From early physique posturing in the 1950s to the “gay golden age” of the 1970s to the impact of AIDS, Ashby’s project explores shifts in queer identity over the past half century and promises to be an art-fag crowd-pleaser.
When the topic turned to FIAR’s explicit mandate for queer-identified artists, the residents were in full support. “I get better reads on my work from queer artists and curators,” Messineo said. “I think there is a felt reality there, an intuitive understanding between form and content being one and the same.” DeGiulio seconded: “I often feel myself outnumbered; it’s been great to lose that and expect to be understood because of the shared fluency of language we seem to have out here.”
DeGiulio also waxed poetic about the “straight-up diversity of confident bodies” in Cherry Grove, where body-positive beach nudity is on prideful display. (I counted four leopard-print banana hammock speedos within as many hours.) Events for the bear community and the black community brought additional contingents together on the beach on Saturday, when much of the island moved slowly after the antics of Friday night’s popular underwear party. “Gay men are very sentimental about their jock straps!” laughed artist K8 Hardy, an alum of BOFFO’s residency in the Pines.
If Cherry Grove reflects queer diversity, the Pines is a hotbed for bodies burnished by David Barton and Equinox gyms. “Your shoulders are so chic, so gay ’70s” was the oddest (best?) compliment I heard over the weekend. An impromptu Saturday pool party at dealer Brent Sikkema’s well-appointed home in the Pines drew architect Charles Renfro and Fabian Bernal, founder of NYPAC, whose recent programming included Gerard & Kelly’s The Frank O’Hara Memorial Library. O’Hara died after being hit by a dune buggy on the beach in Fire Island; the memorial library is a mobile unit in his honor, with circulating texts in tribute to the poet who wrote “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island.” (In a related gesture, the Frank O’Hara Fire Island Pines Poetry Festival earlier in the summer featured readings from Eileen Myles, Ariana Reines, Rickey Laurentiis, and Edmund White.)
Pool party at the BOFFO Art Camp Block Party Benefit (Photo: Marcelo Krasilcic)
Saturday evening brought the weekend’s flashiest event, the BOFFO Fire Island Art Camp Block Party Benefit. Coordinated by BOFFO founder Faris Al-Shathir, the fete spread across three extravagant homes on a boardwalk lined with flyers from the residency’s recent sessions with LaFawndah and Raul de Nieves, among others. Nightlife fixture Frankie Sharp DJed by the pool, which quickly became host to a skinny-dipping bacchanal. Let’s just say I saw “more” of the gay New York art world in that hour of debauchery than I will during a year of openings. BOFFO’s beachfront lobster dinner after was surely lost on many of the guests, causalities of the Tanqueray-sponsored open bar.
“Last night I think I made out with half of the gay artists from the city,” one reveler confessed the next morning. “I hope they don’t remember come September.”
With its “sunset musical performances” and movie screenings, BOFFO’s model of artistic incubator advertised as discotheque is an effective lure for the party-friendly Pines crowd. BOFFO’s resident artists, Malik Gaines and Alexandro Segade, kept up their creative collaborations. Along with Robbie Acklen, the trio used historical Fire Island photographs by PaJaMa—a collective comprising Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French—as a jumping off point for their own scenic tableaux.
“Fire Island seemed like a great place to make work exploring multiple affective relationships,” Gaines said.
“Three-ways, basically,” said Segade.
By Sunday, the Cherry Grove Art Show brought a calm conclusion to the week’s festivities. The event was produced by the Arts Project of Cherry Grove (APCG), which, founded in 1948, is the longest running arts organization on Fire Island. Amid the recent surge of creative arrivistes, APCG exemplifies the local community’s long-standing commitment to the arts. Chaired by Dennis McConkey, the art show featured booths by approximately fifteen artists of scenic landscapes and primarily Fire Island–sited work.
These days, even strung-out circuit-party queens would find it hard to ignore the recent cultural energy on Fire Island. Now when walking down Fire Island Boulevard, pasted alongside flyers for Shady Bingo and sex parties are posters advertising visiting artist lectures and performances. “If you haven’t founded an arts nonprofit on Fire Island, then you’re a nobody out here,” joked DAP vice president Alex Galan. Sounds like utopia to me.
THE HOUSE OF EXTRAVAGANZA lies at the end of a narrow lane that slopes up toward the volcano. “You made it,” Fiorucci Art Trust director Milovan Farronato greeted me shortly after I arrived on the opening evening of the ten-day Volcano Extravaganza festival. Getting to the remote Aeolian island of Stromboli from Saint Petersburg in a day certainly felt like an achievement. But losing a night of sleep seemed a small price to pay to hang out with fellow lotus eaters on the terrace of the whitewashed villa at the foot of the volcano.
Lest I forgot this was meant to be work, someone motioned me to take a seat inside a small projection room with a low-hanging chandelier-like sculpture casting shadows on the wall. I was handed a pair of 3-D glasses. Even once I worked out how to use them, Trisha Baga and Jessie Stead’s “spaghetti western,” filmed on Stromboli in the run-up to the festival, was a bit of a blur. The anguished harmonica sounds, a train chugging along, gunshots, a horse neighing didn’t quite tally with the black sand, the lava rocks, and the bare-chested, bearded women lounging about in cowboy hats (Baga chief among them). “I don’t do serious,” said Baga in an interview with the online NTS Radio.
The mood was more somber yet every bit as eerie during the ambient noise performance that followed, which featured siblings Celia and Sam Hempton playing electric guitar with a sawed-off drumstick and copper pipe against the backdrop of the cloud-capped volcano, perfectly framed by an agave, prickly pears, and other garden shrubs. At times the throbbing noise became indistinguishable from the sporadic rumblings of the volcano. Nottingham-based guitarist Sam Hempton of the former drone-pop quintet Six by Seven used a range of pedals to feed back certain sounds, including ones recorded on a bus journey in Hackney, and a beautiful loop meant to convey the idea of freezing lava in the entrancing final sequence.
Lia Haraki's The RRR Show.
Volcano-electromagnetic effects have as peculiar an impact on electrical equipment as on people, according to Celia Hempton. Three days prior to the concert, the neck of Hempton’s guitar snapped at the top; the artist eventually resigned herself to bolting the broken parts together in a delicate operation in which a group of people had to “huddle round it like surgeons” at the villa, after the local carpenters failed to fix it using clamps and glue.
Undeterred by the mishap, the intrepid artist ascended the three-thousand-foot-tall mountain carrying a box of brushes on her back to paint in short bursts, in full view of the erupting volcano. The resulting series of volcanic paintings, titled “Ejecta,” bear scratch marks from falling debris, and will be shown at the Gwangju Biennale next week.
“Stromboli has a touch of hell about it,” Tabitha Thurlu-Bangura neatly summed it up in the inaugural NTS Radio broadcast from the island, part of the overall “Forget Amnesia” concept. Curated by Farronato in consultation with artist Haroon Mirza, the festival’s fourth edition emphasized experimental sound, electronic music, DJing, and, yes, clubbing, its title riffing on the legendary “Amnesia” club in Ibiza, which started life in 1976 as the “Workshop of Forgetfulness.”
Next morning, as some of us gathered back at the House of Extravaganza for the first part of Cypriot choreographer Lia Haraki’s Record Replay React workshop, there was talk of boat traffic to and from the island being suspended due to weather. While surely a logistical nightmare for the organizers, the prospect of being stranded on Stromboli for a few more days, practicing “forgetfulness,” was not without appeal.
The villa used to belong to Marina Abramović, and I’d like to think that at certain points during the two-day workshops—a blend of group meditation, standup comedy, automatic writing, movement, and voice exercises in preparation for individual performances drawing on autobiographical materials—we did Marina proud. My favorite moment, at the start of day two, came in the shape of a trancelike state, partly induced by continually moving from volcano- to seaside, mirroring each others’ movements, at first in line and then in pairs, and partly by a rhythmic sound track cooked up for us then and there by Haraki’s sound designer, Christos Hadjichristou.
The workshops turned us into insiders sitting in on Haraki’s performance, The RRR Show, staged in the garden later that night. Made in collaboration with Hadjichristou, the multilayered show rested on the technical possibilities offered by the loop station that the artist would activate with her foot to “record,” “replay,” and “react” to the sound of her own voice. The words “Wait,” “Stay,” “Wait a sec,” “Hang on,” “Here, or here?,” “Like this, or this?” returned with each new cycle of repetition, variously embodied through movement and gesture. Conceived as a dialogue among the performer’s present, past, and future selves, The RRR Show played havoc with temporal markers.
The next morning I sat on a bed of ropes, nursing a hangover after Eddie Peake, Prem Sahib, and George Henry Longly’s Anal House Meltdown party and inhaling fumes from the back of a ferry bound for Naples. As Stromboli receded into the distance, Louise Bourgeois’s words inscribed in capitals on a handkerchief rang in my head: I HAVE BEEN TO HELL AND BACK AND LET ME TELL YOU, IT WAS WONDERFUL.
Left: The scene at Anal House Meltdown. Right: George Henry Longly and Chisenhale Gallery director Polly Staple at Anal House Meltdown.
IN JAPAN, Yokohama’s a city that’s stayed ahead of the curve. We were told in our tour bus that Japan’s first-ever train line connected Yokohama and Tokyo. The newfangled transportation was so baffling that (absent any other protocol) the train’s first passengers politely left their shoes in neat rows on the Yokohama station platform—only to find themselves in Tokyo, twenty miles away, parted from their footwear.
Apparently, Yokohama’s progressive leanings extend to the realm of the art festival. While it seems that other major biennials and triennials will stick with the imported star-curator model until kingdom come, the Yokohama Triennale’s organizers took a bold step this time around, making artist Yasumasa Morimura this edition’s artistic director. Famous for his self-portraits dressed up as everyone from Marilyn to van Gogh, Morimura has a relatively short curatorial resume. Which, in the context, was a point in his favor: As the organizing committee put it, the 2011 earthquake and ensuing disasters marked “a great change in the Japanese consciousness,” which had people seeking out “the flexible concepts and views of artists.”
Flexible indeed. Morimura gave the triennial a theme (“oblivion”) inspired by a book (Ray Bradbury’s Farhenheit 451), and divided work by sixty-five artists into eleven chapters, each with a header and poetic explanation. Chapter Eight, for example, read: “We are helpless wanderers drifting between the waves of life and death, and the flashing light of the actual slide show.”
Left: Artist Residency Tokyo's Johnnie Walker and Kafka. Right: Blum & Poe Tokyo director Ashley Rawlings.
On opening day, we were all handed special-edition bottles of triennial water. Good thing, too: In between rainy season and typhoon season, this was the hottest time of the year. At the Yokohama Museum of Art—the triennial’s main venue—the central AC was on full blast, the edifice’s granite network of terraces and steps cool to the touch. A crowd both international and Japanese wandered through a labyrinthine route that doubled back and forth, winding past rickety, mechanized musical instruments by Yuko Mohri and then snaking around a lectern, where a queue of people waited to flip through the pages of a Taschen-size book by the group Moe Nai Ko To Ba that contained historical texts whose authors dealt with censorship and, of course, oblivion.
We navigated past giant red chairs and a monstrous clacking gavel—where a collective called the Temporary Foundation will stage a mock trial of sorts—and followed an elevator down to one of Gregor Schneider’s unsettling environments: German Angst, a dim, windowless concrete basement where bolder visitors could don a pair of galoshes and stomp about in a shallow pit of mud. (More unsettling, to some, was the prospect of plunging their feet into rubber boots that had borne the sweaty hooves of so many before them.)
Everyone regrouped at a midday press conference, where one critic in the audience tried linking the fact that Morimura was an artist to the triennial’s theme of oblivion. “You’re an artist; your work might be forgotten. So there’s a sense of crisis there. I wonder if that’s your starting point?”
But Morimura, it became clear, saw oblivion as something to be embraced as much as feared. “Some people speak in a loud voice, so we tend to focus on those people. But there’s also the world of silence and whispers,” he said.
And added: “There’s a huge amount of failure. We want to say it’s not meaningless to look at these things.”
No doubt that philosophy fueled his fondness for Michael Landy’s gargantuan Art Bin, given pride of place at the center of the museum’s atrium, dwarfing all around it. Landy’s piece (first shown in the South London Gallery) is a receptacle for other artists to dump their unwanted creations, and, one by one, as a crowd took photos, local artists processed up a narrow two-flight staircase to toss out their canvases, photos, and sculptural appendages. Morimura himself led the way by discarding a giant photograph of himself dressed as Frida Kahlo.
Why’d he choose to dump that piece? “It’s so big,” he explained to me lugubriously, “When I ask places to contain it, they refuse—which is why it’s a very sad piece of work.”
A couple hours later, mourning gave way to celebration a fifteen-minute walk away at the triennial’s other main venue, Shinko Pier. There, as faint gusts of river breeze seeped into the exhibition hall, a spectacle-seeking crowd had gathered around artist Miwa Yanagi’s latest project. At first glance, it was a hot-pink RV of some kind. But as a bass beat blared over loudspeakers, the trailer began to morph. Powered by hydraulics, its innards unfolded into multiple panels decorated with lotus petals and fluorescent tendrils.
Yanagi will eventually use the mobile stage as a backdrop for her theatrical adaptation of Wings of the Sun, a novel by Nakagami Kenji about three old pilgrims. For now, no elderly travelers appeared on stage. Instead, there was one very young, very limber pole dancer, who strutted forth and performed for the crowd.
Later that day, familiar faces from all corners of the art world gathered beneath the chandeliers of the Yokohama Royal Park Hotel hotel, competing for space with an elaborate buffet-style cornucopia that would shame a Carnival cruise. Among those in attendance were M+ director Lars Nittve and Johnnie Walker, who runs Artist Residency Tokyo. Ashley Rawlings, director of the new Blum & Poe space opening next month in Harajuku, was impressed by the triennial. “Large group shows in Japan often tend toward being painfully didactic or utterly vague,” he said. “But this show has a clear, coherent vision.”
In the hotel lobby, I chatted briefly with artist Wim Delvoye, who revealed that it was his first time showing in Japan. (He’d gone in 2000 to propose Cloaca, his infamous shit machine, but couldn’t rouse much interest in it.) “I remember people were depressed in 2000,” he said. “Not so today.”
Not so, at least, this night: The festivities gathered steam, artists like Zhang Enli and Gregor Schneider joined in, and everyone moved from the hotel venue on to the blue-lit Seamen’s Club, where the party grew wild—or so I was told. What do I know? All the journalists, lured away by the promise of okonomiyaki, or Japanese pizza, had found themselves corralled back onto a bus promptly at eight.
If you close your eyes and squint, it would almost seem like the professional curator’s grown démodé in Japan. First there was Morimura, an artist, directing the triennial. And then, over an hour north, Ryuichi Sakamoto had guest-directed the art festival that kicked off this month in the bucolic city of Sapporo. A full-time curator Sakamoto is not. Many know his name from his electronic music group Yellow Magic Orchestra, as well as his scores for The Sheltering Sky and The Last Emperor.
Unfortunately, because of his ongoing battle with throat cancer, Sakamoto had mostly weighed in from afar. Still, his sensibility was everywhere. “He’s very serious,” said someone on the curatorial team. “He likes people like Beuys and Kiefer and serious ’80s art. He doesn’t, for example, like toy-like things.” Indeed, as part of the festival, the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art featured—count ’em—three works by Kiefer. (“Shit happens,” one grump said.) But there was lighter fare, too. At the cacophonous “Internet Black Market” (which had the feel of a school science fair) young artists sold various objects and in-person services related to the Internet. One performer in costume promised to be a “physicalized” version of a Twitter follower: For a handful of yen, he followed you—literally. Around the room. Repeating things you said.
In his proposal surrounding the festival’s bipartite theme, “City and Nature,” Sakamoto wrote, “Issues such as energy and art, and urban agriculture and art defy easy solutions.” He’d wanted to “keep the remains of coalmines as works of art,” and hoped, specifically, to get Kiefer to preserve the coal-mining facilities in the neighboring town of Yubari. For years, Yubari’s economy had depended on coalmining. But the industry collapsed. (More recently, residents pinned the economic hopes for their city on a fruit: The Yubari melon can fetch top dollar at auction.)
All of this probably has something to do with why the most poignant moment in the festival was an exhibition featuring the scores of composer Akira Ifukube. Ifukube, a Sapporo native, famously wrote the sound track to the very first Godzilla movie. As we examined his original scores through dimly lit vitrines installed in a musty neo-baroque building, you could almost hear the sound of the original Gojira’s cri de coeur. I’ve always loved Godzilla, who reminds me of my cat. They’re entirely innocent. If anyone’s ever, ever at fault, it’s never them. It’s us.
We were told that Sapporo, meanwhile, was once mountains. It was humans who leveled the terrain into the flat city it is now.
“ALL OF THESE BIENNALES boast of being a forum for the exchange of ideas,” curator Adrian Bojenoiu, cofounder of the Mobile Biennale, reasoned over a Bellini and a tomato-mozzarella skewer on the steps of the Museum of Fine Arts in Craiova, Romania. “We thought to ourselves, if that’s the case, why not just put the emphasis on the ideas? Why even bother with the exhibition part?”
We had gathered to toast the launch of the Mobile Biennale, whose “emphasis on ideas” translated to packing a bus with around thirty potential idea-havers, -sharers, and -negaters for a seven-day tour across what some may see as the armpit—albeit a well-formed, beautifully groomed, entirely desirable armpit—of Romania. The biennial’s founders, Bojenoiu and artist Alexandru Niculescu, had earned street cred as the minds behind Club Electroputere, an artist-run space based in the old cultural center of a factory that once produced locomotive engines. While many artists may have decamped to Bucharest or Cluj, Bojenoiu and Niculescu chose to double down in Craiova, a town whose substantial artistic legacy (it is home to some of the only early Constantin Brâncuşi works to remain in the country) is being mined for a revival of sorts, thanks to the race for the 2021 European Cultural Capital. According to Vlad Drăgulescu, director of Craiova’s campaign, “Everyone writes off Craiova as the underdog in the competition”—which includes frontrunner Cluj, Home of Painters—“but if you look at the criteria, category by category, Craiova comes out on top. Especially when you add the surrounding area of Oltenia!”
The Mobile Biennale would take a closer look (and a gazillion Instagrams) at what Drăgulescu was talking about during its weeklong exploration of Oltenia. Club Electroputere had tried a beta version of the trip two years ago that attempted to cover all of Romania. “That was way too intense,” Niculescu confessed. “Romania is a big country.” Oltenia was a much more accommodating size, with a stunning mix of topographies—from the lush, boat-lined bays of the Danube, to the watermelon-bearing flatlands, to the pristine Transalpina, running along the ridges of the Carpathian mountains—all within a two- or three-hour drive.
The biennial’s championing of “Mobility” may have deemphasized place conceptually, but that didn’t mean the participants—all either invited or selected through an open call—didn’t have every opportunity to play the tourist. The itinerary included a photo op at the Iron Gate II (which sounds straight out of Westeros but is in fact a hydroelectric dam); a pilgrimage to Brâncuşi’s Endless Column at Târgu Jiu; and a brief respite at a chalet in Turcinești, where Niculescu and Dan Vezentan’s Cannibal Disco party featured a human-shaped mirror-ball roasting on a spit over red neon “flames.” Along the way, there were monasteries, mammoth caves, and hot springs galore, not to mention—crucially—outposts to replenish supplies of alcohol and cigarettes. And yes, there were the nightly presentations, more or less formal, though the real conversations raged over bottles of red wine and roadside tuică. Topics skittered from what it might mean for an artist to take responsibility for his or her work to whether an artist could ever effectively comment on another culture to who was left behind on a mountaintop (a conversation I missed, being one of the ones left behind on a mountaintop).
The first major stop was Port Cultural Cetate, a former agricultural port on the Danube, recently transformed into a lovely holiday haven and artist residency by its new owner, celebrity dissident, poet, writer, and sometime vintner Mircea Dinescu. “The whole country has seen this house,” curator Raluca Velisar explained. “Dinescu hosts a talk show where he invites guests here and cooks a meal for them.” “Like Martha Stewart?” ventured Vilnius-based curator Juste Jonutyte. Velisar responded with a wry smile: “Not exactly.”
That evening would culminate in a midnight buffet served dockside to the sounds of Impex, a trio fronted by Dinescu’s violin-wielding son, Andrei Dinescu, who himself is best known as a member of Steaua de Mare (“Starfish”), popular for their electronica spin on Romanian folk music. First, however, we paid a call to Cetate Arts Danube, the neighboring artist residency program launched by Joana Grevers, collector, patron, and founder of Bucharest’s 418 Gallery. The sprawling estate had belonged to her family before communism. By the time Grevers was able to buy it back, many of the buildings had fallen into disrepair, including the magnificent stables, whose collapsed roof had allowed plants to colonize the building. Still, Grevers had managed to retool a hulking barn as the “Cetate Atelier la Dunăre,” a studio space for residents, and the property’s small chapel had been completely redesigned by architect Alexandra Afrăsinei. “I think it’s always best to start with a chapel,” Grevers mused, as we sipped a local rosé wine beside the lavender fields. (She could have said anything at that moment and I would have agreed.)
The following evening we settled into a cabana outside Eșelnița, where, with a little ingenuity and a lot of extension cords, we were able to set up a riverside screening of The Ister, a 2004 film by David Barison and Daniel Ross that travels up the Danube while revisiting Martin Heidegger’s interpretation of Hölderlin’s hymn to the river. As Bernard Stiegler voiced his thoughts on Prometheus on-screen, across the river, Zeus himself decided to weigh in, unleashing one of the most stunning thunderstorms any of us had ever witnessed. The lightning began over the Serbian highlands, but it soon swept to the Romanian side of the river, eventually drenching the hotel with a downpour as mighty as the light show.
In the morning we would learn that the storm had flooded a large part of the region, leaving some of our route blocked. No matter. While participants were dutifully awed by official stops like the Tismana Monastery or the Rovinari open pit mines, we were just as content with spontaneous stops for cigarettes and alcohol. Smoke breaks were held in the strangest of places—on a speedboat in the Danube, in a cave outside the spa town of Herculane. “You know what they say,” chided architect Thomas Tsang. “When in Romania…”
Left: Steaua de Mare (“Starfish”) practices at Port Cultural Cetate. Right: Cannibal Disco party in Turcineşti.
Rumored to have been founded in 102 AD by Emperor Traian—responsible for the “Roman” in Romania—over the centuries, Herculane has hosted the elites of myriad empires, from Marcus Aurelius to Franz Joseph I and his wife Elizabeth (immortalized on film as Princess Sisi). During the land grabs of privatization, many of the town’s more jaw-dropping Austrian Baroque mansions were snapped up on the cheap, and they now belong to people who can’t afford to maintain them but refuse to let them go. “I mean, you could sink a million dollars into fixing up one of these buildings, but then you would never see that money again, so long as the rest of the infrastructure isn’t here,” illustrator Alex Neagu lamented. Perhaps the most impressive building of all, the Imperial Austrian Baths, sits boarded up, its badly patched windows offering glimpses of the grandeur (marble tiles, gilded chandeliers, indoor fountains, etc) within. Upon discovering a door with its bottom panel kicked in, we couldn’t resist a little bathhouse B&E. Inside, the long corridors were lined with stall after stall of private baths where emperors could come to soak their troubles away. “Talk about a spot for a biennial,” Bojenoiu cooed, with an appreciative whistle.
On the last day, we fudged the rules slightly, slipping out of Oltenia and into the neighboring region of Transylvania to visit the home of artists Lia and Dan Perjovschi in Sibiu. Lia greeted us with platters of local delicacies and her home-brewed wonder tea, before indulging us with a tour of her archives, which she has organized by shelves: “The Earth, The Body, Science, Culture, The Universe…” The stacks of books were propped up by jars full of such museum store finds as a magnetic Obama finger puppet and a breath spray promising to help users “Understand Modern Art.” (“I don’t really care for that kind of irony,” she admitted, “but I thought it was important to acknowledge that it’s out there.”) The artist maintained that she is more strategic in her acquisitions than her “collector” husband. “Dan just wants to buy any and everything. I have to be more selective. I never buy anything above the budget of fifty euros,” Lia glanced affectionately at her spouse. “Dan’s more successful; he doesn’t have to think about budgets.”
Left: Artist Mihai Barabancea at a stop along the Transalpina. Right: Artist Jonas Lozoraitis at a stop along the Transalpina.
Lia envisions her archive functioning as a Knowledge Museum. “Knowledge is expensive, but knowledge is also survival,”she continued. “Someone asked me if I thought we had landed on the moon. Did we actually land? I believe we did. But if we didn’t…? What does it matter, whether or not we actually went there?”
One place the Perjovschis won’t be going is the MNAC, Bucharest’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which in 2004 relocated to the gargantuan Palace of the Parliament, the world’s second-largest administrative building (after the Pentagon), as well as its heaviest. “It’s like we’re in a village, where there’s one big house, and you make your parties, your funerals, and your politics all under the same roof,” Lia snapped. “Why the provincialism? We can afford to build these things their own buildings!”
Half the group had to catch the train to Bucharest, but Dan led the stragglers on a walking tour of shamelessly charming Sibiu, which already had its turn as Cultural Capital in 2007. Over a stop for—what else?—cigarettes and alcohol, talk turned to the next Mobile Biennale, which is considering a tour of Hong Kong. Even more pressingly, the MNAC had offered the Biennale an exhibition of its own this coming November. What would a biennial dedicated to ideas have to show for itself? “We’ll have to think about it,” Niculescu shrugged. And just like that, we were planning the afterparty.