IF THE OLD MCLUHAN adage holds true, first we shape our tools and then they shape us. At this stage in history, however, we face the very real possibility that our tools might soon evolve beyond us, a moment ominously dubbed “The Singularity.” This is the dilemma explored in The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present, a pocket-size primer on our blossoming obsolescence, coauthored by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Douglas Coupland, and Shumon Basar. Modeled after McLuhan’s tenets, the book embeds images by Rosemarie Trockel, Taryn Simon, Hito Steyerl, Jon Rafman, Amalia Ulman, and Camille Henrot with bon mots, titillating questions, or irksome observations, like, “In Star Wars there is no shopping,” or “I miss getting emails from Nigerian princes.”
The guide served as unofficial muse to this year’s Global Art Forum. Now in its ninth year, GAF has come into its own as Art Dubai’s brainy twin—the Elizabeth Wakefield to the fair’s Jessica. And just as Art Dubai has matured, growing more elegant and steady in its purpose, so too has GAF branched out to find exactly what it does best, supplementing its traditional run at the fair with two-day jaunts to Gulf-area destinations like Doha or, beginning this year, Kuwait, where the forum spent the days preceding Art Dubai’s March 18 opening.
While Basar remains GAF’s director-at-large, this year’s event was programmed by Turi Munthe, founder of the “citizen newswire” Demotix, and Sultan Souud Al-Qassemi, the Dubai-based political commentator and all-around master of making Twitter matter. Under the blithe title “Download Update?,” the duo focused on the role of technology in the wake of the Arab Spring. Programs ranged from a series on digitizing archives and the persistence of paper-publishing to a panel outlining “The Arab Technocracy,” led by Roland Daher, head of business development for the entrepreneurial incubator Wamda. “It was surreal having a conversation about technology in the region and not discussing a three-hundred-billion-dollar economy next door,” Daher confessed during a break. One of his colleagues was less reserved: “If anyone has made a brilliant use of technology, it’s Israel… oh, and ISIS! ISIS is, like, the Airbnb of extremists.” “The Uber,” Daher corrected him. “It’s all outsourced, remember?”
For its home away from Art Dubai, GAF settled in Kuwait’s oldest concrete building, the Amricani Cultural Centre. Once an American hospital, the structure is now occupied by Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, the thirty-thousand-piece-strong art collection of the ruling al-Sabah family. The premises are festooned with the institution’s logo, a loopy little font, like someone making shadow puppets with their fingers. “Look familiar?” artist Payam Sharifi quizzed, gesturing toward the welcome banner, black with white lettering. “There’s only one other organization that publicly uses that font.”
Inside, the Amricani was studded with selected treasures from the al-Sabah Collection. We were struck dumb by these “Splendors of the Ancient East,” figurines of tigermen, conquered boars, interlocking scorpions, and several heavily dreaded warriors, all reputedly thousands of years old, but astonishingly intact and suspiciously shiny. “It looks like there’s been a lot of restoration on these,” a reporter mused. “No no, sir,” a guard assured us: “Laser cleaning.” The last gallery had been temporarily hijacked by “Jaykar: The Cheeky Video Scene of the Gulf,” a loop put together by Monira Al Qadiri, whose own video SOAP superimposed somber South Asian maids and chauffeurs into Gulf soap operas. The next video—by quirky Saudi spoofers Telfaz11—featured rapping migrant workers throwing down the ultimate boast: “I’m not afraid of my sponsor.” “That’s actually pretty gangsta,” designer Tiffany Malakooti said admiringly.
The next morning we loaded up into buses for a tour of the Arab Fund corporate headquarters. “It’s not a museum, but it’s by far one of the most beautiful buildings in the Gulf. Plus, the collection is fantastic!” Al-Qassemi raved, prepping us for the hand-tiled fountains, spiraling staircases, and the soaring, nine-story atrium, stocked with everything from contemporary paintings to ancient bureaus and intricately fashioned marriage beds from all corners of the Arab world. The mix of art and corporate culture made for the perfect prelude to our next stop, the historic Sultan Gallery, where the collective GCC had just unleashed their latest, A Wonderful World Under Construction. Set up to resemble an executive-level press conference, the exhibition staged the fictional launch of an app that would bring government-sponsored branding to its citizens as a kind of public service.
“The Gulf loves its superlatives, but Sultan really was the first Arab art gallery,” explained writer Kristine Khouri, who has spent several months helping to scan the gallery’s tremendous archives. “Everything that’s going on now in Doha or Sharjah has shared roots in Kuwait.” Founded in 1969 by brother and sister Ghazi and Najat Sultan, the gallery provided a critical hub in a regional network that stretched from Kuwait to Casablanca. Having shown artists like Dia Azzawi, Saleh Al-Jumaie, and Etel Adnan, Sultan Gallery was forced to close with the 1990 invasion, only to be reopened in a new location by the Sultans’ younger sister Farida in 2006. “Farida Sultan’s really the reason any of us are here now,” Khouri told me. Scanning the GAF crowd for a possible patroness, I found myself unceremoniously poked by a waggish-looking woman with a wave of russet-colored hair. “Pose! I’m taking photos for Playgirl Magazine,” she winked. Khouri shot me a smile: Farida.
That night, we would be guests of another art-world lioness, when Sheikha Paula Al-Sabah flung open the many doors of royal residence Dar Noor for an elaborate buffet dinner. Every bit as jaw-dropping as the architecture was the Sheikha’s collection, with its concentration on the 1960s and ’70s, as spelled out in de Koonings, Rauschenbergs, Motherwells, Warhols, and a feisty Frank Stella. Apparently the collection had been decimated twice now—once in Beirut, once during the war—but both times the Sheikha has resolved to build it back up. I was drawn by a framed map of Kuwait, its coastline riddled with spiky red clouds, like cartoon sound-effect bubbles minus their KAPOW!s. “Joana and Khalil?” I wagered. Khouri laughed: “This is actually not an artwork; it’s a map left behind by the US army when they used this floor of the house as their command center during the invasion.” So, not Joana and Khalil?
Left: Dealer Priya Jhaveri. Right: MoMA associate curator Ana Janevski, Garage Museum director Kate Fowle, curator Luiza Teixeira de Freitas, and MoMA chief curator of media and performance Stuart Comer.
The next morning, all available units reported to Dubai, where the city was already rippling under the fair’s effect. And while the Sharjah Biennial may have consciously uncoupled with the fair (pushing its opening to Armory Week, and the March Meetings to the same week in May as Frieze New York, a not-so-subtle message to the transatlantic art world), there was more than enough distraction for a Monday evening, with Dubai Design Days, the Abraaz Art Prize, and a spate of openings in the Alserkal Avenue gallery district. Currently home to Ayyam, Lawrie Shabibi, Grey Noise, Green Art Gallery, and Carbon 12 (to name but a few), Alserkal has extended its holdings, taking on at least two more blocks of warehouses, soon to be occupied by the Third Line and a Leila Heller outpost, among others. For the fair week, the Third Line had set up a temporary pop-up program, screening an eight-channel video installation by Rami Farook in its new digs, while its present location featured Ala Ebtekar’s celestial cyanotype paintings, alongside a thoughtful installation by Abbas Abkhavan upstairs. (“Don’t bother, it’s lit by natural light,” a frustrated colleague huffed as she made her way down the shadowed steps.)
Outside yet another pop-up at Cinema Akil, Mehreen Murtaza’s Deep Earth Object, 2015, turned one of Alserkal’s newly acquired courtyards into a crash site, where a hulking, otherworldly orb had seemingly collided with the cobblestones. “Actually, none of this was paved last week, which might have been why they were even willing to let me do this,” the artist chuckled. The piece was one of the offsite commissions for Art Dubai Projects, curated this year by Lara Khaldi. In a space next door was another: Maria Thereza Alves’s Wake: The Flight of Birds and People, 2015, an elaborate time line tracking the botanical history of the UAE. Seeds, it seems, fear no borders.
Not so labor activists. The next morning, I left bright and early for New York University Abu Dhabi to catch Slavs and Tatars’ “Mirrors for Princes,” an exhibition packing power puns around the physical and spiritual grooming of one’s heart and tongue (as it seems the safest way to critique royalty is through metaphor). The walls of the first gallery are carpeted in Pepto-Bismol pink. (“It’s actually made to match the color of Avril Lavigne’s hair,” curator Maya Allison clarified. “That’s the photo they sent us.”) Viewers are then swallowed into a series of black-lit galleries before emerging in a tea parlor–reading room, which has become quite popular with the faculty. That day, all talk swirled around NYU professor Andrew Ross—part of the Gulf Labor Working Group—who had been denied entry to the UAE the night before. While the university has a policy guaranteeing unhindered access for its students and professors, Ross was technically on his spring break, which he planned to spend researching independently. “It’s funny,” one professor mused. “The university really tried to bring up the conversation by setting these labor standards, and while, yes, of course, they should have done more to uphold them, they also became the scapegoats for a truly widespread issue.”
There was certainly a lot to mull over on the long ride back to Madinat Jumeirah (“an authentic recreation of ancient Arabia”) for the opening of Art Dubai. With last year’s introduction of Art Dubai Modernrelegated, along with GAF, to the tonier settings of the neighboring Mina A’Salamthe fair continues to grow, mingling international operators like Chantal Crousel, kurimanzutto, Galerie Krinzinger, Sfeir Semler, and Victoria Miro with potent presentations from Mor Charpentier, Canvas Gallery, and Jhaveri Contemporary, whose suite of Alexander Gorlizki miniatures brought a lump to my throat. While its geographic positioning draws in galleries from Lagos’s Art Twenty One to Moscow’s Pechersky Gallery to Tokyo’s OTA Fine Arts, it’s still heavy on regional players. Local staple Isabelle van den Eynde split her sizable booth in two, showcasing the quietly kooky Mohammed Kazem on one side, with Madame Tussaud, a boisterous total installation from Hesam Rahmanian and the brothers Haerizadeh—Ramin and Rokni—on the other, while over at Leila Heller—where art historian Shiva Balaghi had curated a four-artist show—I heard the dealer purr to one of her artists, “Getting into a museum! How’s that for a birthday present?”
In the second hall, Honor Fraser had decked out her booth in KAWS paintings of Snoopy characters. “Everyone here seems to know Charles Schultz,” Fraser grinned. I personally found Linus—x’s over his eyes, backpack slung low—a dead ringer for many a weary fairgoer, especially as art-world extremists (Princess Alia Al Senussi, collector Alain Servais, and Annette Schönholzer among them) began to arrive straight from Art Basel Hong Kong. They were greeted in the foyer by a roaming, compliment-dispensing robot. “You have to make eye contact with it first,” I overheard someone explain to a flustered guest, cornered by the machine. As if on cue, the robot piped up: “What a great color on you!” Perhaps those fears of the coming Singularity are a little premature.
Left: Artist Abbas Akhavan, dealer Sunny Rahbar, and artist Kamrooz Aram. Right: Dealer Honor Fraser.
SO, YOU’VE BEEN to Art Basel and to Art Dubai, but have you been to Art Europe? With no air of irony, the twenty-eighth edition of the European Fine Art Foundation (diminutively, TEFAF) commenced Thursday, March 12, with the pomp and pageantry of all the Continent’s histories rolled into one. Selling antiques, classical antiques, design, haute joaillerie, painting (contemporary, modern, and premodern), sculpture, and works on paper spanning seven thousand years of art history, the VIP opening in Maastricht’s MECC building felt as fragmented and contrived as one could expect from any union of Europe’s cultural differentials. With a notoriously picky vetting committee (one dealer told me he was only accepted after seven years of rejections) which guarantees lifelong membership and the greatest concentration of connoisseurship in their particular fields, the dealers at TEFAF boast the most elegant objects chosen to delight private and institutional collectors who come to gawk at the spoils and exploitations of the occidental past.
An onslaught of wine and hors d’oeuvres held by benignly pretty Dutch waiters and waitresses flooded the aisles, while gentlemen in jackets and ladies in eveningwear took to the booths at noon. I stumbled into Dickinson’s stand and before an 1888 Van Gogh painting made early during his Arlesian sojourn. “This work speaks of a happy moment in Vincent’s life, before the arrival of Gauguin,” surmised Dickinson’s James Roundell, with no less than a ten-million-euro asking price to back it up. Here, romanticization and the market coexist better when the artists are dead. Offering so many posthumous sales, TEFAF felt less like watching one’s parents having sex and more like imagining your great-great-grandparents marrying young and living together happily ever after––a fantasy better fit for the airtight confines of the museum than the art-fair agora.
“Maastricht: where the most beautiful objects in the world go to die,” admired one London-based curator, in reference to a truly arresting 1882 seascape by Monet at Keitelman Gallery, made ever more invaluable by its troubled provenance. Owned by Paul Rosenberg, looted by the National Socialist Party, and passed on through several collections in Switzerland before being restored to its owner after international litigation, seeing this seven-million-euro painting once again in exchange stirred mixed emotions, for better or for worse. If the contemporary art world has any remaining taboos about an increasingly flagrant market, come to Maastricht to see how even the masters end their days.
With the road to institutional collections lined with trials, TEFAF felt like a purgatorial salle d’attente for objects awaiting a permanent resting place elsewhere. Agnew’s capitalized on the ambiance with a thematically Dantean booth, flanking its centerpiece, Burne-Jones’s Souls on the Banks of the River Styx, 1873, with video works from Bill Viola’s “Martyrs” series, 2014. More macabre was a stunningly gruesome terra-cotta statue at Merrin Gallery of Xipe Totec, an Aztec votary gowned in the flayed, drooping skin of a sacrificial victim. New to the artistic programming was “Night Fishing,” a “curated presentation” by Sydney Picasso––stepdaughter of Pablo––and conceived by dealer Hidde van Seggelen, which focused on sculpture by artists who had never been shown at the fair (Baselitz via Ropac, Cragg via Buchmann, and Paik via Hans Meyer were discoveries for many collectors here).
Friday evening’s dinner at the Hedgehouse Foundation, hosted by collectors Jo and Marlies Eijk, was centered around an overview of Expressionist paintings by Lithuanian artist Richard Vaitiekūnas. Attached to the three-century-old gardens of Château Wijlre in Gulpen, the Wiel Arets–designed cold, sharp interiors provided refuge from the even more hostile temperatures and wildlife awaiting outside. (Frédéric de Goldschmidt was aggressed by a swan in the garden upon his arrival.) The Silvers were in town from New York, as was artist Ewerdt Hilgemann, whose stainless steel sculptures graced Park Avenue last fall. Things eventually took a quick turn from polite to heated when one German dealer at my table posed the question, “What’s worse: dirty money or dirty sex?” Upon asking my neighbor if he was enjoying the fair: “Well, if you’re going to be raped, you’d might as well lie down and enjoy it.” Ready to extinguish any hot topics came a tall, handsome waiter with a limoncello-flavored zephyr which he sprayed on each invité with a ceremonial air that announced dessert. A zesty end to dinner indeed.
Sunday afternoon, on the road back to Brussels, I stopped by the sixteenth-century Château de Waleffe outside of Liège for a private screening of British artist Emily Wardill’s new film The Palace. Hosted by Brussels art space La Loge, where Wardill’s acclaimed When You Fall into a Trance exhibited last spring, the screening took place in the estate’s old kitchen and was presided over by the property’s owner, the Baron de Potesta de Waleffe. A gritty, silvered topography of architectural and texturally indistinct forms flooded the subterranean cookery while a voice described, without narrative cohesion, the experience of monochromatism. Sight restored, the group met upstairs for a discussion between Wardill and neuroscientist Israel Rosenfield surrounding color blindness and body image. “There is no such thing as landscape. There is no such thing as character. There is no such thing as color. Our entire sensory world is a consequence of a synthesis of stimuli,” Rosenfield assured us around the dining table, while we tried to swallow his ontological-isms with heavy doses of cake and tea. As the last glimmer of sunlight shone onto the transfixed faces of surrounding guests and portraits from a distant ancestry, our immediate sense of who we were and where we were going seemed simultaneously lost and under formation.
Left: Neuroscientist Israel Rosenfield. Right: Dealer Philippe Jousse and art adviser Philippe Segalot.
STEPPING INSIDE the plush lobby of the Grand Hotel Kronenhof in Pontresina—a mere four miles from Saint Moritz in the Engadin valley—felt like walking into a time warp. The beautifully appointed Kronenhof, overlooking the Roseg Glacier and a pine-clad valley, is what the Grand Budapest Hotel in Wes Anderson’s film may have been like in its glory days. A bottle of champagne was chilling in my room, but alas, there was no time to wallow in the luxury of the place that evening, as the Schwarzenbachs were expecting our party for dinner at Villa Meridiana in Saint Moritz.
Champagne was being served at the preprandial drinks in the Schwarzenbachs’ reception room as we arrived. A Picasso hung salon style beside a Schnabel and a Basquiat. “That’s the largest Basquiat I’ve ever seen,” pronounced Financial Times Chinese correspondent Peifen Sung. Over an exquisite candlelit dinner, our hostess, who adamantly denied being a former Miss Australia (though she certainly looks the part), told us about the billionaire couple’s collections of Dutch masters, aboriginal art, Russian Constructivists—you name it—housed in as many homes, and at the privately owned Garangula Gallery in New South Wales.
This “informal gathering” was meant to introduce us to some of the actors in “What Could Happen,” conceived by the New-Territories’ “anarchitect” François Roche and his partner Camille Lacadée with the artist Pierre Huyghe. The last of these was conspicuous by his absence, and would remain so for the entire run of the performance staged and shot live on a vintage Alpine train over three consecutive days. But Roche and Lacadée were in attendance, as was Michèle Lamy of Owenscorp, who provided the refreshments for the train journey, as well as former Vogue editor Helen White and some of the sponsors, including Polish collector Ania Starak and LUMA Foundation’s Maja Hoffmann. (Once completed, the film will be shown at LUMA Westbau in Zurich.)
The stage was set for the “sparkling decadence of the train” catering to, as Roche put it, the “moneyed gregarious tribes.” We had been consigned to the first carriage, where the film shoot was to take place, and asked to wear dark clothing accordingly. No one told Norman Foster, apparently, who stood out in a white outfit with an off-white pullover; in contrast, Lady Foster sported a black fur hat that more than rose to the occasion. So did Lamy’s sculptural Comme des Garçons coat. A rakish nearly black headscarf with a skull motif completed the ensemble.
Death and disease were on the agenda. Prior to boarding the train, we had been briefed by the perpetually grumpy Lacadée not to overact and to stay in character: “You are passengers en route for the sanatorium and your main subject of discussion, your only subject of discussion actually, will be your pathologies.” The sanatorium in question was the one where Thomas Mann penned his 1902 novella Tristan, a prelude to Magic Mountain. (The dates of “What Could Happen” coincided with the tragic denouement of the novella.)
Talk of pathologies kept us going for a while. Giorgio Pace, the event’s producer, looking snug in a wooly turtleneck with a black cape thrown over it, chose to talk about his depression (real or imaginary) just as we were being filmed. Something of an impresario with an extensive carnet d’adresses, he has taken upon himself to turn the Engadin valley into an art destination for the happy few.
Altitude made us giddy. Hunger kept us on edge. (Tucking into our “picnic” bags was not allowed during the filming.) I would occasionally glance over my shoulder to see what the heavily made-up actors in our midst—portraying a domineering mother and her rebellious teenage son—were up to, but the plodding dialogue punctuated by long silences did not hold my attention for long.
More intriguing was the bulbous glass object that the Son held in his hands and fiddled with obsessively. This was Huyghe’s McGuffin, in film noir parlance a term designating a coveted object or some other plot device that motivates the characters and moves the narrative along. This “riddle in glass,” as Roche put it, furnished the Son with an exit strategy, a means of weaning himself in a symbolic rite of passage.
As we reached a small frozen lake, Lago Bianco on the Bernina Pass, surrounded by snowy peaks and glaciers, the train suddenly ground to a halt. A piercing shriek was heard at the front of the train—an impression, no doubt, of the wailing she-devil after whom the Diavolezza mountain rising in front of us is named. Everyone rushed to the windows, through which we could see a path in the snow leading up to a crystalline structure, delicately etched out against the lake’s snowy expanse. Soon a naked man appeared on it and slowly, deliberately made his way toward the cavelike structure, before crawling into it to take his place among the piled-up congealed bodies of which it was constructed.
The transparent dome, gesturing toward the utopian glass and Alpine architecture of Bruno Taut and Paul Scheerbart, was made with a six-axis robot from bioplastic: starch, corn, wheat, and the like. “It’s coming from agriculture,” Roche explained to us as we huddled together drinking Glühwein outside a Rhaetian railway outpost and trying to shake off the morbid vision.
Left: Francesca Schwarzenbach and fashion editor Helen White. Right: Owencorp's Michele Lamy; Frith Kerr of Studio Frith, and curator and producer Giorgio Pace.
“I think it’s fascinating. I’m only starting to understand it,” Foster said, speaking for many, once we resumed our seats in the carriage for the return journey. It takes an architect, perhaps, to fully appreciate the fine features of design, the attention to detail, the sense of proportion, how the color of the outside echoed the wooden fittings inside the recommissioned Swiss train made in 1910. We came away fully convinced of its being a design marvel.
Those same qualities were everywhere in evidence at Chesa Futura, the Fosters’ Saint Moritz pied-à-terre, where we reconvened for drinks and canapés later that evening. The bubble-like, timber-clad building designed by Foster + Partners, naturally, does away with corners. Half of it is owned by Urs Schwarzenbach, who had hosted the dinner party on the previous night. The Fosters awaited us in the penthouse with its sinuous furniture and sweeping views of the town. Norman Foster had changed to a black outfit—too late for the shoot. There was more champagne on offer, along with an assortment of pinchos (Elena Foster hails from Madrid).
We happily mingled for an hour or two, in much the same rarefied company as the night before, with maybe one exception. At one point a softly spoken graying man, who looked strangely familiar, introduced himself to me. It was Aleksander Kwaśniewski, former president of Poland. Ah, the Elysian Fields of Saint Moritz.
Left: Philosopher Lu Xinghua. Right: Dealer Johnson Chang, philosopher John Rajchman, and artist Xu Longsen.
WHAT EXACTLY MAKES A “WORLD”? Maybe a heady topic for an art fair, but that was the one courted by infamous philosopher Lu Xinghua last Friday during a book launch for 3 Parallel Artworlds at Hong Kong’s Hanart TZ Gallery. “Alain Badiou once said that we all live in the same world, but one reigned by different logics,” Lu argued. “As a way of drawing equivalences, money has ruled us for the past five hundred years. If we could find a way to overturn the rule of money-logic, we may finally achieve communism.”
I’m not sure if that’s exactly how Badiou put it, but Lu’s speech was a perfect fit for its subject. 3 Parallel Artworlds began as a catalogue for the gallery’s thirtieth-anniversary exhibition in 2014, “Hanart 100: Idiosyncrasies.” A year later, after the addition of articles by Boris Groys, Gao Shiming, and Qiu Zhijie, the book has grown into a chunky, five-hundred-page tome. Lu didn’t neglect to emphasize the value of Hanart founder Johnson Chang’s storied art collection while he continued to elaborate on the concept of the “world” and its complications. Indeed context is key: Nothing could make us realize the ambiguity around our different views of “world,” as well as money’s power to bring together like and unalike, than art fairs.
Yes, art has no national boundaries. Neither do art fairs, especially Art Basel. But that doesn’t mean lines weren’t drawn in the massive sorting last weekend, as galleries and other institutions did their best to lure the (right) crowds to every manner of party, launch, and dinner around Hong Kong. After a spate of openings Thursday night, visitors from the Western hemisphere had trouble distinguishing between two symbiotic vertigos: jetlag and hangover.
Left: Artist Olafur Eliasson; Right: Collector Xue Bing and Vitamin Creative Space Zhang Wei.
Our trip began Thursday morning in Guangzhou, where Olafur Eliasson opened his exhibition “We have never been disembodied” at Vitamin Creative Space’s Mirrored Gardens. After enjoying congee with collectors like Yang Feng and Wang Wei, we strolled into the new galleries designed by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto. Eliasson’s works focusing on space and perception integrated beautifully with the architecture, which had been specially adapted to the local ecology. In one of the rooms, an enormous bronze compass needle hung in the center, bathed in orange light. “If you stare at the needle long enough, you’ll find it gradually dissolving in your vision,” advised Vitamin Creative Space founder Zhang Wei. Alas, we didn’t have time to play hide-and-seek, as our 3 PM ride was taking us to Hong Kong. Though I did feel a little woozy walking out, a foreshadowing of what was to come.
By 6 PM we had already joined the army of art-spelunkers on the ground in Hong Kong. Starting with the “The Tell-Tale Heart” at chi art space, we eventually joined the excruciating long line to get into the Pedder Building galleries and finally walked to nearby Edouard Malingue Gallery, where Wang Wei’s solo show “Two Rooms” had transformed the space into a human zoo. (One could pick up the bananas on the floor and eat them.) I gave myself a pat on the back for making it to the final stop, Dinh Q. Lê’s show at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, just before they locked the doors.
By 10 PM, LEAP’s party at Wai Chai’s famous Pawn restaurant was the gathering place for the Beijing art dogs. Some expressed disappointment at the most recent interior renovations to the hundred-year-old building, but we had to take their word for it, as the limited second-floor space could barely fit the guests. Those lucky enough to score drinks enjoyed them outside by the street fences, a familiar atmosphere that made me think of eating lamb kebab on the sidewalks in Beijing. As I was chatting up Ned Levin, LEAP’s former star translator and now a Wall Street Journal Hong Kong correspondent, UCCA director (and former LEAP editor-in-chief) Philip Tinari suddenly arrived. Looking enthusiastic, Tinari pulled out his phone, gathered the crowds, and tried to take a group picture. “Everyone, try to look a little depressed, please. We don’t work for LEAP anymore!”
Left: LEAP publisher Cao Dan and UCCA director Philip Tinari. Right: Dealer Shugo Satani, artist Pio Abad, Paul Pfeiffer, and M+ curator Pauline J. Yao.
On Friday morning, Art Central, a new fair organized by the old ART HK crew and mostly geared to young Asia Pacific galleries, opened for a preview in the white tents at Hong Kong’s Central Harbourfront. Only time will tell if it’ll find its groove alongside Art Basel. Because of the Hanart book launch in the afternoon, we couldn’t attend the preview for UCCA and PYE’s T-Shirts collaboration, and we were also a little late to Art Basel’s private preview, whose change in schedule from prior years had sent many galleries into a whirlwind of preparations. But somehow it all worked out, and, at least to those of us not here for the buying and selling, the fair seemed much neater than last year—and best of all, no flowers or skulls in sight.
Maybe it was Friday the 13th that brought bad luck to M+ curator Yung Ma, who seemed a little dispirited when we ran into him at the fair. “Why now?” asked Ma, who had just lost his phone. At which point the resourceful artist Heman Chong whipped out his backup iPhone 4 and offered it up. My friend and I left the surprised Ma and went off in search of festive chat and refreshments at the Long March booth, usually a champagne reservoir. Long March director Lu Jie generously looked as though he could provide, but as he pulled out the bottle, there was nothing left inside. I guess business was just that good.
It’s too bad. We could have used a drink to steel us through the weekend’s obstacle-course itinerary. On Sunday morning, Mobile M+: Moving Images had an opening at Cattle Depot Artist Village; in the afternoon, we attended the annual Intelligence² Debate, which ended with Christie’s Elaine Kwok and Artforum publisher Charles Guarino scoring the winning points against the motion that “the art world is a boys’ club.” Then there was a viewing at Spring Workshop for “Days push off into nights,” curated by Christina Li, Pékin Fine Arts for an Arik Levy show, and Para Site’s opening for “A Hundred Years of Shame,” or, as the proper Chinese translation has it, “The Edge of the World.” “World” remained the keystone for me, and I asked the curator of the last, Anthony Yung, how his show squared with 3 Parallel Artworlds, which Hanart so articulately delineated as 1) China’s premodern world, 2) China’s socialist world, and 3) the contemporary global capitalist world. “Hanart’s three worlds are too mainstream. You can’t possibly dig our ‘Edge of the World’ out of that, not until the end of time,” he explained in Mandarin with a thick Hong Kong accent.
So I guess “world” is an elastic concept. Especially around an art fair, land of a thousand-million worlds. To use a Buddhist term, it’s the great trichiliocosm. Too bad we only had three days to explore. But in any case, the same old friends will be seen again, in March 2016, still in the Convention Centre.
Left: Spring Workshop founder Mimi Brown and curator Christina Li. Right: PYE CEO Dee Poon.
“IT WILL BE the first time that a vortex to the spirit world has been opened at Art Basel,” Alexie Glass-Kantor, the new curator of the fair’s Hong Kong Encounters section, promised me. “At least deliberately.” This was after we shared a sixteen-hour redeye from New York, in advance of a shamanic blessing planned for the aisles of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center Friday morning, as the finishing touches were being made to the premiere March edition of Asia’s most formidable art fair.
Thursday was gallery night in the Central district, where the blue-chip dealers opened shows clustered around the city’s highest concentration of watch and diamond boutiques. Predictably, a crush of bodies filed in and out of the elevator of the Pedder Building, where Hanart TZ, Pearl Lam, Simon Lee, Ben Brown, and the like are stacked on top of one another. Following White Cube’s opening for Beatriz Milhazes, Brazilian compatriot Bebel Gilberto played a show at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental hotel around the corner. A couple dozen stories up, at a lounge atop the Princes Building, Lehmann Maupin hosted a cocktail reception for Alex Prager’s solo show. Illuminated by the sinister red-and-white flicker of the HSBC skyscraper, trays of curious, outsize beverages in triangular goblets caught the eye: martini milkshakes garnished with chocolate reproductions of one of Prager’s works. Was this an authorized reproduction? “Of course!” she gushed. “How could I resist?”
Hong Kong is a city ever in transition, and many of its most prominent institutions are in a state of fluxor, in the case of M+, the West Kowloon Cultural District’s MoMA-scale visual culture museum, under construction. Several of the exhibitions also opening on Thursday were pop-ups. As part of their Mobile M+ series leading up to the building’s projected 2018 debut, M+ took over two floors of Midtown POP, a towering mall in Wan Chai, for “Moving Images,” a show of recent acquisitions buttressed by curatorial selections, two highlights of which were commissioned for the 2013 Sharjah Biennial: the Indian collective CAMP’s cell-phone-shot odyssey From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf and Dilbar, a collaborative piece by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Chai Siris telling the story of a Bangladeshi migrant worker at sea in the United Arab Emirates. Another standout was local painter Firenze Lai, whose pinched-head portraits abstracting physical mannerisms into emotive forms have been making the biennial rounds and are currently on view in the New Museum’s triennial in New York. At her studio later that week, she expounded on the lived experience of a megacity that has been romanticized by the neon poems of Wong Kar-wai: “The subways have purple light—and no one cares.”
An endeavor of retail scion Adrian Cheng, the K11 Art Foundation has a penchant for cross-collaborations. At the Cosco Tower in Sheung Wan, K11 partnered with the Palais de Tokyo for “Inside China,” which traveled from Paris after its debut there last fall. Tucked away on the eighteenth floor of New World Tower 2 in Central, “The Tell-Tale Heart” is coproduced by London’s Pilar Corrias and Shanghai’s Leo Xu. Inspired by the Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name, the show tapped seven international artists whose works intersect with that narrative—new videos by Ian Cheng and Guo Hongwei, and a daily dumpling performance orchestrated by Rirkrit Tiravanija among them.
When Art Basel Hong Kong’s new director Adeline Ooi breezed into the press conference for the fair Friday morning, she ordered a hot water and commented on the festive vibe set by the string of openings around town. “I must say that Pilar Corrias made a very stunning dumpling lady,” Ooi said, speaking to her participation in Rirkrit’s culinary action. That afternoon, the convention center’s escalators began feeding Art Basel’s aisles with visitors from around the world. Some of the most memorable works were projects in the Encounters section, from Siobhán Hapaska’s Intifada, presented by Kerlin Gallery, for which an olive tree is harnessed into a wireframe machine that vigorously shakes it, to Yang Maoyuan’s forebodingly titled “THEY” are coming to Hong Kong, a suite of stuffed, hoofed mammals swollen into hide-upholstered globes, brought to town by Platform China.
On Saturday, Art Basel held a reception on top of the convention center for a viewing of arguably the world’s best skyline, which is where one of the fair’s specially commissioned works came alive. As dusk drew and the spires twinkled, an 8-bit sound track commenced and a nostalgic arcade animation by Cao Fei began to play on the face of the International Commerce Centre, the tallest building in the city. Later that night, Vitamin Creative Space, neugerriemschneider, and Esther Schipper cohosted a dinner at Duddell’s, the favored high-end haunt of the Hong Kong art world. The evening turned into Cao’s de facto birthday party, and when she arrived and received her rounds of dual congratulations, she smiled and said of the ICC, “It’s like a big candle.”
The next evening, the artist Amalia Ulman locked the door on fifteen participants selected for a twelve-hour sleepover at the Airbnb Art House. “It’s basically going to be like living inside one of my pieces—really uncomfortable and violent and cute.” Not to be confused with the Airbnb pavilion at last year’s Venice architecture biennial, this endeavor, for which two New York–based artists converted a storefront on Hollywood Road, was funded by Airbnb corporate and produced with Paloma Powers. Shawn Maximo provided virtual furnishings and ethereal decor by way of 360-degree projections of glassed-in penthouses, while item idem created a red, white, and black Ikea symphony described by the Swiss Institute’s Simon Castets as “Yayoi Kusama for Ligne Roset on acid.”
A counterpoint to the glitz and fun of such shows, earlier that day the venerable artist-run institution Para Site had held an open house to celebrate its new space in Quarry Bay. The exhibition, curated by Cosmin Costinas and Anthony Yung, brings a historical dimension to compelling new works by regional artists. Its title, “A Hundred Years of Shame—Songs of Resistance and Scenarios for Chinese Nations,” draws from a popular Chinese mantra (“a century of national humiliation”) that characterizes the Chinese experience of modernity as an asymmetrical one vis-à-vis the Western world—a conceit that continues to motivate global ambitions.
I rounded a hexagonal aquarium piece by Hong Kong artist Trevor Yeung, stumbling on an anonymous 1904–05 watercolor of a Japanese solider “buggering,” as the label read, a defeated member of the Russian army, which was described as the “West.” It was just one jarring moment amid the plenitude, but somehow it stuck. As the easternmost outpost of Switzerland’s presiding marketplace for contemporary art, Art Basel Hong Kong still provides not just a momentous shopping spree but, writing as a Westerner, a variety of transposed vantages on an art world composed of increasingly familiar landscapes.
Left: Danielle Brazell, Hammer director Ann Philbin, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, artist Mark Bradford, Amy Wakeland, A+P's Allan di Castro, artist Charles Gaines, and philanthropist Eileen Harris Norton. (Photo: Andreas Branch). Right: Art+Practice's Sophia Belsheim with curator Naima Keith. (Photo: Stephanie Keenan).
ON THE LAST DAY OF FEBRUARY, as yet another record(/will)-breaking snowstorm bore down on the frostbitten East Coast, Zurich-based dealer Karolina Dankow was perched on a terra-cotta-colored swing in one corner of a sunbaked cactus garden, in the backyard of an LA gallery space just east of Culver City. Inside, the walls were lined with breezy Juliette Blightman portraits, the first in a series of pop-up shows from Dankow’s Karma International, the latest gallery-in-residence to be arranged by art adviser Simmy Swinder, who had inherited the venue from Carmichael Gallery. “If I’m doing my job correctly, then people don’t see it as my space,” Swinder reasoned. Last year she invited London-based Ibid, who used the site as an incubator while they put finishing touches on their own project space in Boyle Heights. Next up after Karma International is Milan’s Brand New Gallery. And who wouldn’t want an excuse to come to California, even temporarily? “It’s so nice here,” Dankow beamed, carefully setting down her giant green juice before bounding over to greet a newly arrived collector couple.
With big name-brand imports like Hauser & Wirth and Sprüth Magers on the horizon, LA is looking more and more appealing to ambitious international galleries. But not everything in the art scene is arriving via LAX. Recently one of the city’s most historic institutions, the Brockman Gallery (1967–1989), saw a modest revival of its legacy as its former Degnan Boulevard storefront was relaunched as Art+Practice, a nonprofit initiative cofounded by artist Mark Bradford, social activist Allan DiCastro, and philanthropist Eileen Harris Norton, in partnership with the Hammer Museum. Shirking traditional models, A+P combines an artist residency and gallery space with social advocacy and community outreach. Partially sited in Bradford’s former studio (just around the corner from his mother’s old hair salon), A+P will soon occupy the better part of a block, in the heart of Leimert Park, a bucolic model community built in the late 1920s using designs drawn up by the son and brother of Frederick Law Olmsted, the urban planner responsible for New York’s Central and Prospect Parks.
“This used to be what we called a ‘walk-through only neighborhood,’ ” recalled artist Dale Brockman Davis, referring to the city’s exclusionary zoning laws that prevented African, Asian, or Latin American families from moving into many of the more desirable middle-class neighborhoods. As these laws were repealed, the area evolved into one of the most affluent African American communities in the country, home to Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as the first (and only) black mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley (who stayed in Leimert Park for the first few years of his record twenty-year term), and filmmaker John Singleton, who inadvertently created the neighborhood’s tagline when he dubbed it “the black Greenwich Village.”
However you prefer to describe it, Leimert Park became a national nexus of black culture, and the Brockman Gallery was at its center. Founded in 1967 by Davis together with his brother Alonzo, the gallery boasted a jaw-dropping roster of talents from John Outterbridge, Romare Bearden, Betye Saar, Jacob Lawrence, and Noah Purifoy to Mildred Howard, Samella Lewis, and Carrie Mae Weems. “We were artists, we didn’t know anything about running a business. We just wanted to be able to show our work, and there wasn’t a place for black artists to do that,” Davis told me. The Brockman Gallery’s legacy figured prominently in the survey “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980,” which opened at the Hammer as part of the 2011 Pacific Standard Time festival and later traveled to MoMA PS1. “They were the first gallery to give David Hammons a solo show,” curator Jamillah James marveled. “That is a whole life’s worth of achievement in and of itself.”
Davis reconnected with Bradford a few years back when they both spoke at the California African American Museum. “I thought to myself, who was that tall, good-looking brother down from me on the panel?” Davis grinned. “Well, turns out, Mark was a kid from the neighborhood who remembered coming to our gallery.” Bradford invited Davis to be one of A+P’s inaugural artists-in-residence. Davis is spending his fourteen-month tenure scanning the Brockman Gallery’s extensive archives, which have spent the last thirty years in storage. A paper printout taped to the wall above one of his scanners reads, “Opportunity is the connection between preparation and timing.”
“Opportunity” might be Art+Practice’s motto. Next door to the artist studios, the complex hosts the RightWay Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at empowering former foster youth in the tricky transition period of eighteen to twenty-five years old, providing everything from counseling to career development. Their involvement began when RightWay placed one of its youth in the A+P office. “Originally Mark called and said he wanted a meeting,” founder Franco O. Vega recalled. “I said, okay, who is Mark Bradford? So I Googled him, and then in five minutes called him back and said ‘I can be there in three hours.’ ”
Now RightWay Foundation youths help staff the A+P’s exhibition space, which has been programmed by James and will feature upcoming solos from Outterbridge and Njideka Akunyili Crosby (one of the knockouts from the New Museum’s recently opened triennial). The gallery launched on February 28 with an exhibition by Charles Gaines, timed to coincide with a larger survey of the artist’s stunning early works currently on view at the Hammer. Titled Librettos, the series at A+P overlaps Manuel de Falla’s 1904 class-driven opera La vida breve (Life is Short) with a 1967 Stokely Carmichael speech briefing the young graduates at Garfield High on mainstream America’s contradictory stances on violence and the inherent dignity of being human.
The night before the opening, A+P’s friends and supporters gathered for a casual dinner at Post & Beam, where museum directors Philippe Vergne, Thelma Golden, and Annie Philbin; dealers Susanne Vielmetter and Sarah Watson; curators Connie Butler, Naima J. Keith, and Allison Agsten; artists Barbara Krueger, Sam Durant, Andrea Bowers, Ruben Ochoa, and Ana Prvacki; collectors Larry Marx, Ari Emanuel, and Heidi and Erik Murkoff; and actor Will Ferrell all gathered around plates of deviled eggs and smoked catfish, served family style. When it was Bradford’s time to speak, he shared a few heartfelt words in tribute to the beloved Leonard Nimoy before turning to Gaines, his former professor at CalArts. “I picked an independent study with Charles because I thought it would be easy,” Bradford confessed. (“I don’t remember that part of the story,” Gaines chuckled later.) “Charles is the next great LA teaching artist,” Durant told me. “You know, you have Baldessari—,” “Michael Asher,” Butler chimed from across the table. “Right,” Durant continued. “Baldessari, Michael Asher, and now Charles Gaines. We just need to get him his own building, like Baldessari.”
Left: Artist Edgar Arceneaux with Underground Resistance's Ray 7. (Photo: André Daughtry). Right: Curator Aram Moshayedi with Maria Hassabi's performance at the Hammer.
Saturday afternoon, it felt like Gaines had an entire neighborhood, as hordes flocked to Leimert Park for A+P’s grand opening. “For the first public program A+P hosted, they had to turn people away,” the Hammer’s Jennifer Green reported proudly. That shouldn’t be a problem once A+P opens its next installment, a two-story building soon to be home to a lecture space and the seminal Eso Won bookstore, which is moving from its current spot across Degnan Boulevard. I spotted Eso Won’s cofounder James Fugate in the crowd alongside the Mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, and the mayor’s partner, Amy Wakeland. “Everyone’s here,” dealer Michelle Papillion smiled approvingly. Papillion is another new addition to the neighborhood, having moved her gallery into the space beside A+P more than a year ago. Her current exhibition, a solo by London-based Lakwena Maciver, includes a sixteen-foot painting with the sparkling, multicolored slogan JUST PASSING THROUGH, facing out the gallery’s big bay windows.
That evening, as the crowds thinned and the clouds gathered, I dodged the barrage of downtown openings and drove up to Glendale’s Riverside Studios where Los Angeles Nomadic Divison was hosting a special screening of Edgar Arceneaux’s latest film, A Time to Break Silence. Splicing Martin Luther King Jr.’s anti-Vietnam speech (given just two weeks prior to Carmichael’s Garfield address) with a riff on 2001: A Space Odyssey, and shot in an abandoned Detroit church, the film was flanked by smoke machines and visuals from the seminal Detroit techno-collective Underground Resistance. One of UR’s own, Ray 7 was there to provide a live sound track to the film, while DJ Dex was on hand for the afterparty. He had his work cut out for him after a film whose central image was a stark, illustrated cutout of Dr. King, passionate pleading for “a genuine revolution of values” that has yet to materialize fifty years later. “We’ve attempted this screening-to-dance-party transition a few times before, though never too successfully,” Arceneaux admitted. But just as King’s speech ends on a note of hope, the sudden deluge outside kept everyone in long enough for the rhythm to get them. “It’s always the one or two really committed ones that get it started,” Arceneaux grinned. It reminded me of something Thelma Golden had said the night before: “Sometimes it only takes a small conversation to influence a person for a long, long time.” Live long and prosper, Art+Practice.