“SÃO PAULO IS WHAT WOULD HAPPEN if New York threw up on LA,” Alex Cuadros wrote in last year’s Brazillionaires, about the meteoric rise and fall of the country’s rich from the aughts to the 2016 Rio Olympics. I thought of the line often during this year’s Sp-Arte, while overlooking Paulista Avenue and the Lina Bo Bardi–designed Museu de Arte de São Paulo from the perch of an Airbnb in Oscar Niemeyer’s Edifício Copan downtown. Twisting the comparison could work for politics, too. Look at the crisis in Brazil last year in a funhouse mirror, and one might see something similar to the US at present; to put it bluntly, America in 2017 is sort of like what would happen if 2016 Brazil threw up on it. Dissolving the ministry of culture, abetting cries of prosecuting the former president, closing doors to refugees: The unelected interim—now permanent—president of Brazil, Michel Temer, checked off all three last year. And the uncertainty fostered by the sudden change of leadership—the president’s name literally translates as “to fear”—has become the norm.
Last year, Sp-Arte opened days before the impeachment vote on former president Dilma Rousseff, and in the midst of the Zika crisis, and tensions ran high. (The Bienal, held in the same Niemeyer-designed pavilion as the fair, attracted protests.) This year, one got a glimpse of what normalization looks like through the glimmer of an art fair.
“People are paralyzed,” Sp-Arte founder and director Fernanda Feitosa said of the current moment, at a meet and greet with press at her house. “I hope the fair will help them come out of their, eh, shyness,” adding, “I think we can’t wait for a good time. It’s the time we have.” Would collectors be wary? “Not more or less than any collector based in London last year, or New York now,” she offered. Point taken.
Left: Dealer Jacqueline Martins. Right: Pivô artistic director Fernanda Brenner.
For the dealers’ sakes, there was optimism: While last year the Brazilian real hovered close to a four-to-one exchange rate with the dollar, this year it settled closer to three-to-one. And despite the anxiety, the city’s art world welcomes much that is new. There’s Japan House, a recently inaugurated sparkling cultural center on the city’s main drag helmed by Marcelo Dantas. Respected outfits are regenerating, too. Jaqueline Martins moved to a multilevel space in the Centro a few months ago, and the nonprofit Pivô recently completed a renovation of an event space above the exhibition hall and twelve artist studios. And top dealers continue to expand abroad: Mendes Wood DM now has locations in New York and Brussels, while Nara Roesler recently moved its New York location to the Upper East Side and will also inaugurate a new space in Rio.
On Tuesday, when the Jardins dealers participated in a gallery night, Roesler opened a pair of shows by Daniel Buren and Daniel Senise. “Brazilians aren’t really into asking questions,” Daniel Roesler said of the exhibition talk held before the opening. Does that extend to governments? He laughed. The night also saw about a dozen other openings, such as site-specific installation work by Bosco Sodi at Luciana Brito and Paulo Nazareth’s examination of cultural appropriation in everyday Brazilian commodities at Mendes Wood DM.
The fair opened for VIPs on Wednesday––by nightfall, lines of cars choked Parque Ibirapuera, and a steady stream of crowds entered the pavilion. I noted the sickly sweet paintings of Pedro Caetano at both SP’s Luciana Caravello and Rio’s Galeria Cavalo. Popsicle canvases made ghoulish faces, and a pink pastel painting announced BRAZILIAN LATIN ART 20% OFF! BLOW JOB INCLUDED. Here’s some 2017 millennial pink I can get behind, more like cotton candy around a razor blade.
FREEDOM CANNOT BE SIMULATED said a T-shirt. The Rirkrit Tiravanija installation at Galerie Neugerriemschneider began to pop up on fairgoers backs by afternoon. “The city is destroyed,” curator Pablo León de la Barra said about Rio, wearing the T-shirt at a party that night at the home of Pedro Mendes and Matthew Wood.
“I’m trying to get in the right mood,” said artist Roberto Winter, holding a drink.
“That’s a great philosophy for life,” said gallery director Renato Silva.
In São Paulo, people complain how traffic trumps time. Though outside New York, where isn’t that true anymore? Ditto the art world’s glut of events, as Sp-Arte this year wedged itself snugly alongside Dallas Art Contemporary, Milan design week, and Documenta 14 in Athens, with dealers and artists racing between time zones, all before a summer of nonstop parading.
“It’s an art-world eclipse,” Michael Wellen of Tate Modern noted Thursday night on his way to the annual dinner party at Feitosa’s home.
In the backyard of the chicly minimalist compound, amid circles wielding champagne and caipirinhas, John Kunemund of Alexander Gray confided, “I tell everyone every year: If I were rich, I’d want to be São Paulo rich.” São Paulo is home to nearly all of the country’s art culture as well as its billionaires.
Left: Artist Bosco Sodi. Right: Artist Marcos Chaves with dealers Gabriela Moraes and Daniel Roesler.
“They still let me in town so I guess it went well,” said Pinacoteca’s new director Jochen Volz, joking about his recent Bienal.
At Pina, Ana Maria Tavares has a survey of decades of work that takes over most of the building, even the corridors. “I grew up with dictatorship,” Tavares said during a walkthrough of the show, which deals with questions of, in her words, “what happened to our utopian ideas.”
Even if the fair itself had lost some of its steam by the weekend, it always delivers on parties. Collector Fabio Faisal’s annual Friday rager at his Jardins home, cohosted with Jacaranda magazine, began hours earlier than in previous years, though by 1 AM I caught sight of a coat dangling off what I was told was a sculpture by Tunga.
A harsh snapshot of the current moment arrived with the new show at Videobrasil, centered around Miguel Rio Branco’s 1980s film featured in the exhibition “Nada levarei quando morrer, aqueles que me devem cobrarei no inferno” (When I Die I Will Take Nothing, Those Who Owe Me I Will Charge in Hell). “What’s a nice way of saying this,” curator Gabriel Bogossian mused about the show’s more explicit conceit: “victims of economic growth.” Contemporary works included Virginia de Medeiros 2015 paean to Rio’s red-light district, which was uprooted during the port revival project for the Olympics.
Left: Artist Ana Mara Tavares and curator Fernanda Pitta. Right: Dealer John Kunemund.
The Mendes Wood DM party at its new Centro bar Lourdes bled well into the fair’s final day, so I took a break to see Era O Hotel Cambridge. Eliane Caffé’s docufiction film focuses on a housing occupation in São Paulo’s city center in an abandoned hotel, where squatters, many of whom are refugees, live cooperatively. The occupation also became the site of an artist residency last year of which Medeiros was a participant.
“I’m a refugee from Palestine in Brazil,” one resident says during a meeting to discuss the occupation’s then-jeopardized status. (It has since been legalized.) “You are refugees from Brazil in Brazil.” I hope the film sees a US release: It is a strong reminder that São Paulo’s present is vitally important—in the US, and everywhere.
LET’S SAY YOU LIVE IN TWO DIFFERENT PLACES. Maybe you were born in one city and live in another. One is cold, orderly, efficient, and peaceful; the other is hot, chaotic, wildly corrupt, and untenable. You endlessly set them in dialogue, sure that something meaningful will be made from the echo back and forth, the jagged path, and the way you move between them.
If you’re lucky, your exile is of your own choosing. You haven’t been forced out by war, disaster, or economic collapse. But in that case, you have temptations to avoid (exoticism, exploitation) and tricky questions to answer. Who are you to live here, to make this place your own and create your work from it? And who are you to say that you do so from a place of love, not ambition or pity or arrogance, not from some misplaced need to affirm your position or legitimize your politics?
Thirty-six hours after arriving in Athens on Thursday morning for the opening days of Documenta 14, I lost my train of thought.
I was squeezed in by a majestic view of the Acropolis lit up against the nighttime sky on one side and a roomful of loud people on the other, shouting above the din, all of us brought together, in theory, by the quieter act of looking, by the promise to listen and learn. We were expending nervous energy everywhere.
The night before, I’d found myself at a calmer table, listening to the artist Amar Kanwar as he told five of us about living in one city, one neighborhood even, and barely ever leaving. It was a wonder to us all, that willful stillness, which also permeates Kanwar’s astonishing new film, Such a Morning, commissioned for Documenta 14, that tells the story of a man losing his sight and retreating from the world. None of us had a clue how to live this way. Writer and novelist Shumon Basar and curator Natasha Ginwala, one of five curatorial advisors on the Documenta team, joked about who was more perfectly opposite. Both are nominally based in Berlin, but neither of them can sit still.
Now it was Friday night, at a dinner on Avissinia’s Square hosted by the Breeder, one of the powerhouse galleries on the Athenian art scene, celebrating three of its artists in Documenta (Andreas Angelidakis, Maria Hassabi, and Angelo Plessas) as well as the opening of a new show at the gallery curated by Milovan Farronato. I was having the same conversation on repeat, meeting a Greek DJ just returned from Detroit, an Iranian artist raised in Switzerland, an Egyptian from Assiut who had lived in Athens for twenty years, an architect from Thessaloniki who lived all over Europe before returning somewhat reluctantly to practice in Athens, myriad South Asians in Dubai, New Yorkers in Istanbul, countless Athenians in London, artists from everywhere now in Berlin, and curators who think nothing of flying from London to Mumbai for lunch with an artist who is eccentric, and demanding.
Sitting across from me was an affable Greek hotelier who divides his time between Athens and Crete (loves one, hates the other). He looked at me with a gap-toothed grin and laughed. “Yeah, you’re fucked,” he said, sliding his hand through the air. “Whichever city you choose,” he stopped and shook his head vigorously. “You’re fucked either way.”
And so it is, perhaps more delicately, with Documenta 14. Kassel feels betrayed, Athens invaded. Artistic director Adam Szymczyk has described his edition as a divided self, a theater and its double, an apparition, a phantom, an exhibition intent on unsettling its own format, emphasizing repetition and the retake. What is poetic in these formulations has been largely overlooked. Szymczyk must have some personal stake in this—his wife, the choreographer Alexandra Bachzetsis, is Greek (also Swiss), and Athens isn’t exactly new to him. And a divided Documenta stands repeatedly and in so many ways not for the crisis of Europe but for the body that is both, the identity that is mixed, the history that is messed up and complicated by too many things tangled together.
Left: Artist Aboubakar Fofana with Documenta 14 curatorial advisor Marina Fokidis, founder of Kunsthalle Athena and South as a State of Mind. Right: Locus Athens cofounder Maria-Thalia Carras with artist Cevdet Erek.
At an earlier dinner, thrown by Hans Ulrich Obrist to mark the opening of his Maria Lassnig show at the Municipal Gallery of Athens, I had a chance to catch up with Sylvia Kouvali—and to meet one of her artists, the very funny painter Apostolos Georgiou. Born in Athens, Kouvali opened her Rodeo Gallery in Istanbul a decade ago. For a time, it was split between there and London. I hadn’t seen her since she closed the space in Istanbul. I asked Kouvali if she missed it. “The things I miss aren’t there,” she told me. “The things I miss aren’t anywhere.”
The great Alexandrian writer André Aciman, an expert in melancholic exile, calls those absences shadow cities. And to extend his logic, the current edition of Documenta isn’t only about Athens and Kassel but about everything Athens has been, including, currently, a shadow of itself, and the burden of all the past Documentas in Kassel—including the prior one, which featured programing if not the full-blown exhibition in foreign cities such as Cairo and Kabul. Perhaps what’s at stake isn’t one city or the other but us, spectators and participants, and what we might constitute together.
By staging Documenta in exile, and promising to return it home later, Szymczyk has walked into a familiar set of roles: dodgy foreigner, eccentric expat, probable spy. It doesn’t help that he is impossibly tall but impish, a waif of a man with funny hair. Local critics have jumped all over his air of suspicion. Their responses to the arrival of the Documenta enterprise range from the humorous (scratching out the first letter of the title so it reads “Earning from Athens” instead of “Learning from Athens”) to the hyperbolic and insane (“FUCK DOCUMENTA. FUCK ADAM SZYMCZYK AND ANYONE WHO SUPPORTS THIS BULLSHIT IN A LAND WHERE UNFOLDS A GENOCIDE. DOCUMENTA IS A FORM OF COLONIALISM AND ANYONE WHO SUPPORTS IT MAKES MONEY FROM NAZISM. END OF STORY.”) Szymczyk’s intentions may be forever misrepresented. But he and Team Documenta have also produced so much verbiage about what they’re doing that it’s no wonder so much of it ends up sounding tone-deaf to local history or insensitive to local politics, those of a highly factional Athenian art scene included.
Left: Documenta 14 curator at large Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung with artist and radio journalist Tito Valery. Right: Artists Nikolas Ventourakis and Panos Tsagaris.
Witness the press conference, which opened at noon on Thursday in the white gleaming concert hall that many regard as a neoliberal dream palace, an emblem of all that has been stolen from the common Greek people to enrich the elite. The curtain was raised to reveal a crowd mirroring the crowd. The team of artists and curators and staff is huge. About a dozen of them speechified for a full two hours before opening to questions from the audience.
That’s when I scootched in. A reporter from the Wall Street Journal wanted to know: Isn’t the agreement among finance ministers nearly signed? Hasn’t the crisis that brought you here ended? Don’t you risk calcifying it in place? Aren’t you, in essence, already passé? Journalists from South America and West Africa wanted to understand how their regions were being represented and what Documenta could do for them. The artist Thierry Geoffroy, who might be the first proper gadfly of the biennial era—he always wears a blue UN helmet because, as he explains, arms manufacturing is big business in Kassel and he is afraid—said that Szymczyk had become a phenomenon like Mother Theresa. Then Geoffroy asked Team Documenta, pretty directly, if they had developed a mechanism for internal critique, to question whether or not what they were doing was actually working.
Dieter Roelstraete, one of Documenta 14’s seven curators, cracked a few jokes. Hendrik Folkerts, another curator, insisted over and over: “We don’t have fixed opinions. We don’t speak with one voice.” Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, a curator at large who worked on an extensive radio project, picked up that idea and ran with it: “What we are really trying to do is figure out a way to live together.” Rhetorical yes, but true as well.
Left: Artist Bouchra Khalili. Right: Artist Nevin Aladag with graphic designer Ludovic Balland and Portikus curator Fabian Schöneich.
After the press conference, I was swept by hunger to a garden restaurant next door to the concert hall, crammed with the Documenta melee. It was my good fortune to find a seat under the not-too-blazing sun next to the artists Lala Rukh and Gauri Gill, who are showing two of the exhibition’s most striking projects. Lala Rukh’s installation, on a lower floor of the architectural marvel that is the Athens Conservatoire, moves from older calligraphic drawings to a beautiful, moody animation based on subtle changes to fixed musical patterns that have no notational system.
Four of Gill’s mesmerizing series of black-and-white photographs are installed in the incredible Epigraphic Museum, the oldest (and perhaps only) museum of writing in the world. Also at our table was Naeem Mohaiemen, who is showing a gorgeous feature-length film, Tripoli Cancelled, about a man stranded in the Athens airport, specifically the Ellinikon terminal designed by Eero Saarinen, which closed in 2001, was later used for refugee housing, and has since been sold off for real-estate development. The artist Nikhil Chopra arrived and split off with Mohaiemen for the kind of intense talk among artists for which Documenta might best be known, and loved.
Then the dealer Umer Butt arrived complaining bitterly about the lack of wall texts, or any explanatory texts at all. (He represents Lala Rukh at his gallery, Grey Noise, in Dubai.) I thought he was being a drama queen, but I later realized he was right. For all the talk of the press conference, for all the published material, and despite a great little booklet offering concise histories of the venues, there really is nothing that does the same for the artists and their works. (Communication about the event to the city is so bad that the director of a prominent Athens gallery whispered to me one morning: “Even the local hipsters aren’t going to see Documenta for themselves.”)
Naturally, Shumon Basar was restless, so we set off to make sense of it all. As we were leaving, who should roll up in a van with a driver but Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, curator of the previous Documenta. She humored me with an air kiss. Then she turned on us.
“Where is it?” she asked sharply.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Oh, Carolyn, this is a restaurant, lunch, sociability!” I chirped.
“No! There is work here! You missed it!”
I blinked. Thirty seconds of small talk and she was scolding us.
“We’ll come back.”
“Oh, yeah, you’ll come back.”
I realized that Christov-Bakargiev reminds me of my mother. I also realized that this was going to be yet another exhibition in the treasure-hunt style, with more than 160 artists scattered across more than forty venues, and all of us, insufferable, crumpled, and occasionally rude, guided by spare maps and limited time.
A few days later, I did, in fact, come back to see how Abounaddara’s videos were placed in the nearby Museum of Anti-Dictatorial and Democratic Resistance. They weren’t there, or they had been moved somewhere else, but given that anyone with a decent internet connection can watch any of the work made by the anonymous collective of Syrian filmmakers at any time, the point seemed more about getting us there.
Left: Marfa’ Projects founder Joumana Asseily with Protocinema founder Mari Spirito. Right: Documenta 14 curator Dieter Roelstraete.
Before traveling to Athens, I had spoken with a curator I admire who also divides her time between cities: one in the Middle East, the other in Europe. She wasn’t sure she would make the trip. Honestly, the heyday of Documenta was during our parents’ generation. We grew up with the mythology, possibly false, that Documenta was where artists would do their best work, where they’d push themselves and use the time—five years!—to take risks. She worried that this edition would be too much like a kunsthalle show.
In a way, she was right. Szymzcyk’s show is definitely too big. There is too much packed in. There are loads of archival presentations, so many books in glass boxes—useless. There’s a thread of works approaching Hitler with loud, brassy humor, which seemed in poor taste. (Do I really need to imagine myself in the position of Eva Braun being fucked in pornographic detail by Hitler? I do not.)
But I came away with a surprisingly long list of artists who I think have done some of the best work of their lives for this Documenta, including Kanwar and Mohaiemen, as well as Banu Cennetoğlu, Bouchra Khalili, Mounira al-Solh, and Angelo Plessas. The Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh’s installation in the amphitheater of the conservatory, matching the ticker tape of a stock exchange to hauntingly funereal vocals, is something I won’t soon forget. The room of more than one hundred folk-history paintings by Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu is a wonder. I’m dying to know more about the painters Ganesh Haloi and Sedje Hémon and the wild embroideries of Britta Marakatt-Labba.
Of course, whether the show or the works are any good is almost beside the point. The split between Athens and Kassel will remain the most distinctive thing about this edition. Maybe the question to ask is whether Documenta-in-exile does any harm. For sure it isn’t going to solve Greece’s unsustainable economic settlement. “People who are totally honest go off the books because the tax situation is impossible,” a photographer from a family of Athenian architects told me one day. “Let’s say a freelance designer makes 6,000 euros a year. Then he’ll have to pay 7,500 euros in taxes? It makes no sense.” Ask anyone and they will tell you the refugee crisis is nothing new. It’s now a deluge but it’s been a flood for years, even decades. The presence in Greek politics of ultranationalist, fascist, even explicitly neo-Nazi parties like Golden Dawn is also nothing new, just emboldened by the current climate.
Left: Artist Yiannis Papadopoulos with Yuli Karatsiki of the Kalfayan Galleries. Right: Curator Tarek Abou El-Fetouh.
Athens is a city blasted by graffiti, some of it exuberant, much of it angry. It felt more explosive to me than anywhere I’ve been in the Middle East. “Suicide rates among men are through the roof, ” I was told, repeatedly. Was any of that destructive energy channeled by Documenta? Perhaps as critique. But it’s hard to say what an anarchist response would really look like. If Documenta’s harshest critics were to make an exhibition of their own, or propose a different model of politically useful artmaking altogether, what would it include that Documenta has missed, or refused? Maybe the most damning thing that can be said is that Documenta risks replacing tough, real politics on the ground with the fake politics that inform the global art world.
But I don’t really buy it, just as I don’t buy the statement made by Abounaddara’s spokesperson, Charif Kiwan, at the end of the press conference about how artists are artisans and how artists have failed. At that dinner on Thursday night, Amar Kanwar told a story about being a young man hired to film a charismatic politician and community leader who was sure he was going to be killed. He was, more quickly than he thought. Kanwar recalled his slogan. Your struggle alone is not enough. You have to construct and create something new from your struggle.
Such a Morning does that, as do several of this Documenta’s best works. The one that does it most fully, in my mind, is Bouchra Khalili’s The Tempest Society. A sixty-minute film in Arabic and Greek, it tells a meticulously composed, uncompromising, and highly emotional story about the struggle for equality, linking Al-Assifa, a Parisian theater troupe that lasted for just six years in the 1970s, to a hunger strike among North African factory workers in Thessaloniki, the referendum protests on Athens’s Syntagma Square, and a group of Syrian children who formed another theater troupe, mirroring Al-Assifa, while waiting to find out if they could go to school in Greece. “We were not interested in art,” says Malek, one of Khalili’s characters. “We just wanted to turn sadness into beauty.”
This Documenta might do that, as a gift, which is not an unproblematic gesture. But if the goal is indeed justice, then participants and spectators might start, in the spirit of Khalili’s film, by viewing each other, and the exhibitions in Athens and Kassel, as equals.
Left: Natasha Hoare and Samuel Saelemakers of the Witte de With. Right: Documenta 14 curatorial advisor Natasha Ginwala with writer and novelist Shumon Basar.
DURING SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE’S initial 1970s run, Dan Aykroyd starred in a skit parodying newspaper entrepreneur Charles Foster Kane of Citizen Kane (1941), a thinly veiled speculative biopic about real-life newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, known for his papers’ yellow journalism. The film was directed by Orson Welles, who prior to coming to Hollywood had made national news with his 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast, in which actors pretending to be news announcers breathlessly reported the landing of spaceships in New Jersey. The broadcast was simply an imaginative recasting of the H. G. Wells science-fiction classic, but many listeners believed an alien invasion was underway and called their local papers for verification.
In the SNL skit, which lampoons an actual scene in Citizen Kane, Aykroyd has just started his first newspaper, and he and several colleagues sit in their office at night, bemoaning the lack of sensational news that would boost the fledgling paper’s profile. Aykroyd removes a pistol from a desk drawer, walks over to the window, and shoots a number of pedestrians on the street below, killing them. Turning to his colleagues, he barks, “Take a headline, Bernstein: ‘Crazed Sniper Guns Down Six!’” He continues shooting pedestrians throughout the skit, offering new headlines for each: “Get out an extra! ‘Sniper Kills Organ Grinder’s Monkey, Not Even Pets Safe in Weird Murder Spree.’”
Aykroyd, of course, also played the anchorman on the recurring Weekend Update skit, one of the earliest manifestations of satirical fake news on television, presaging The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and countless others. And Welles wrote and directed the deceptive documentary F for Fake (1975), a cinematic essay on art forgery, media hoaxes, and the slippery nature of truth that itself indulges in genial, winking mendacity. To recap: Kane, a fake Hearst, who was a real purveyor of fake news, was played by Welles, a lifelong enthusiast of magic and fakery who, before and after playing the fake Hearst, perpetrated media hoaxes in the real world, which led to, decades later, Aykroyd playing a fake Kane who generates fake news with real actions, while elsewhere on the same TV show he plays a fake anchorman delivering fake news to a live studio audience.
As the above illustrates, reporting reality is a tricky, endlessly reflexive process, an ouroboros of self-generating, self-devouring facts and narratives that themselves create other facts and narratives, which can then spread virally. There’s a term of art for this, “circular reporting,” in which news is reported as if it were confirmed by multiple sources (usually other news organs) when it actually emanated from a single, possibly fraudulent source. Anyone who witnessed the 2016 presidential campaign and its aftermath, which persists to this day, knows that we are currently experiencing peak fake news—not only the unprecedented frequency and reach of ersatz news stories, but also the constant media discussion of the issue as a national scandal, a disease in the body politic that must be eradicated before it consigns any consensual notion of “truth” to utter irrelevance.
To interrogate this peculiar moment, the artist Andrew Lampert, formerly a longtime curator at Anthology Film Archives, recently staged one of Recess’s “Sessions,” in which an artist unfolds a process-based work. Under the rubric Public Opinion Laboratory, Lampert presented “Faked/Out” from March 10 through April 8, proposing the fake-news bureau FONI (Faked Out News Inc.) and hosting a series of speakers on topics such as libel, academic fraud, fact-checking, impersonation, UFOlogy, and media hoaxes. The news bureau, which promised to create and spread fake news stories, appears to be fake; at least I can’t find any record of its work. In my two visits to Recess, one to see a talk by legendary media prankster Alan Abel, there was no sign of any news-generating activity, though there were color printouts on the wall of stills from films concerning fake news—Network (1976), Ace in the Hole (1951), etc. Introducing the Abel talk, Lampert said he was “less interested in news, more interested in fake . . . Fake news offers more hope than reality does.”
The “Faked/Out” press release further elaborates Lampert’s perspective: “Rather than go on the attack and decry the fake as malice, this project operates from the premise that fakeness and fake news can provide an optimistic space for wish fulfillment and self-actualization . . . Alternative facts and alternative fictions are possible daydream spaces that might serve as portals to hopeful futures and unobtainable realities . . . Does accepting fake news as a given rather than a problem provide us with the impetus we need to create the world we want?”
It has become fashionable in recent years among producers and consumers of culture to celebrate artifice and decry appeals to “authenticity”—from writing music criticism in the prevailing “poptimist” mode to bashing mason-jar hipsters to satirizing a waitress’s absurdly detailed explication of the provenance of an organic chicken (“His name was Colin”) in a Portlandia skit. I call it antihipster hipsterism, and it is presently threatening to become what it once quite reasonably opposed—a rigid orthodoxy allowing no deviation from the purity of its core premises, unable to accept or even entertain countervailing views.
The reasons for this pendulum swing in reception values—rejecting “the real,” however manufactured, in favor of the proudly fake, exchanging cool for glee, MTV Unplugged for American Idol—were legitimate and understandable. The 1990s “alternative” culture eventually ossified into a puritanical, exclusionary movement, automatically suspicious of anything that smacked of consumerism, glamour, and artifice, qualities often stereotypically associated with female and LGBTQ tastes.
Meanwhile, social media and search algorithms have isolated people in increasingly specific filter bubbles, such that they rarely encounter worldviews that might conflict with their own. Everyone at every point on the political spectrum feels entitled to their own reality. This is a recipe for disaster. In little over a decade, we have gone from Bush administration officials referring to mainstream journalists as members of the “reality-based community” to a situation where the president tweets provocative falsehoods on a weekly basis, behaving like a classic internet troll, intending to derail discussions, divert inquiries, and destabilize the very concept of consensus reality.
Yes, we all loved The Onion, but Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” are not funny. Sean Spicer telling us that we can’t believe our own eyes when comparing photos of inauguration crowds is Orwellian, demanding that we accept that 2+2=5 if the state says so. Trump’s smearing of the mainstream media as “enemies of the people” is Fascism 101. In such an environment, characterizing fake news as “wish fulfillment” in the service of attaining “hopeful futures and unobtainable realities” seems off, anachronistic, better placed in the pomo underground of the 1980s and 1990s, when the reality stakes were lower and serious bullshit like the Church of the SubGenius and RE/Search’s Pranks book (an inspiration to Lampert) were sources of endless amusement.
In many ways, the authenticity versus artifice debate is an argument about capitalism; real versus fake easily translates to substance versus packaging. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, a 1985 critique of television’s baleful effects on culture and politics that is currently enjoying renewed attention, Neil Postman wrote, “American businessmen discovered, long before the rest of us, that the quality and usefulness of their goods are subordinate to the artifice of their display.” The question remains as to whether we trust American businessmen, including the walking gilt facade that is Donald Trump, as stewards of the ship of state—or of reality itself.
AS EVERY BORN-AND-BRED MILANESE KNOWS, Milan is a special kind of beauty: She thrives behind closed doors and reveals herself to the lucky few only after careful vetting. Milan will give you a boring and self-righteous gray facade and then a door will open into an enchanted garden where pink flamingos stare at you, or a striking art collection pretends not to be there.
And yet, this edition of MiArt, the first under the direction of Alessandro Rabottini, has somehow managed to open those doors and let an enormous amount of people in. “We knew we had the potential for amazing events, we just weren’t sure Milan had enough art-lovers to fill them!” an art PR person told me pensively on the Tuesday of MiArt week while we juggled risotto and a glass of wine in the art-filled house of art-producer and curator Paola Clerico, after fending crowds at her exhibition, appropriately named “Case Chiuse” (Closed Houses, also a reference to old Italian brothels).
Flash-rewind to five days prior: The Milano Art Week began with the conjoint openings of Monica Bonvicini’s solo show at Raffaella Cortese and “Pascali Sciamano” at Fondazione Carriero, an exhibition devoted to Pino Pascali’s relationship with African art. The venue of the foundation, which is directed by Olimpia Piccolomini, is inside Palazzo Visconti, one of the very few remaining examples of Gothic architecture in town. Parts of its interiors have been redesigned by Gae Aulenti, but the top floor still has the original Baroque décor: Here, curator Francesco Stocchi installed Pascali’s Bachi da Setola. The weekend before MiArt, the scene was also animated by the launch of an artsy perfume at the fashion-meets-art-space Marsèlleria, in collaboration with Museo Carlo Zauli, and there was a sense of anticipation that had never really accompanied MiArt before.
This year, when the actual week began, I had to pin on the fridge a schedule of all the events. On Monday, I managed to attend quite a series of exhibitions: Adrian Paci’s “The Guardians” at Chiostri di Sant’Eustorgio, where the Albanian-born artist also “invades” Cappella Portinari, an example of Lombard Renaissance. (Paci is also showing at Kaufmann Repetto.) Then Outerspace at Futurdome, a building/animated museum with many souls¬¬––the creature of curators Ginevra Bria and Atto Belloli Ardessi––that hosted ten Italian project spaces, with performances and happenings. (There, in the ultimate act of “milanesitude,” mega-curator Davide Giannella’s vernissage consisted of him playing Scopone—cards—with some friends.) Then “1+1+1,” an art and design exhibition curated by Marco Sammicheli at Elena Quarestani’s Assab One Space that brought together colorful patterned walls by British designer George Sowden, geometric paintings by the Korean Milanese artist Eung Cheun Mo, and meditative installations by Indian architect Bijoy Jain. Many fellow creative architects and designers were in attendance, from Stefano Boeri to Paola Navone. Some discussed George Sowden and Nathalie Du Pasquier’s recent collaboration with Valentino. Others discussed the connections between art and design––Milan being stronger than anywhere else––and already gearing up for Salone del Mobile week.
From Via Assab, getting to M77 Gallery on via Mecenate (next to the brand-new Gucci Hub) meant riding with friends in a taxi on the Tangenziale, the external ring highway. This was the first hint that the week would drive me more and more often outside the Cerchia, the internal circle of roads that conceptually separate Centro Storico from the rest of Italy. At M77, a solo show by Flavio De Marco brought together a generation of Italian painters and friends: Velasco Vitali, Marco Petrus, Giovanni Frangi, and Alessandro Papetti. In the afternoon, I missed Diego Perrone and Piero Golia’s workshop on Chris Burden, curated by Paola Nicolin at the Classroom, and at 9 PM I barely managed to make it to dealer Flavio del Monte’s birthday party, the unofficial start of the week’s artsy social events. The Botanical Club, in the quickly gentrifying neighborhood Isola (once an artists’ retreat), looked like a relaxed HQ for MiArt, with dealers, curators, designers, artists, museum directors, VIP managers, locally brewed spirits, and risotto.
Alessandro Rabottini, who inherited a renewed MiArt from his predecessor, Vincenzo de Bellis—lured abroad by the Walker Art center in Minneapolis but very present at every event—along with very high expectations, was about to enter when I arrived. His look of slight concern, that of a perfectionist, would fade only toward the week’s end, when it became clear that Milan responded with enthusiasm to his careful construction of an event that could rival more global ones and redefine Italy’s art-market scene.
On Tuesday, I carefully planned my tours to avoid taxi rides along the Tangenziale and began with Riccardo Crespi’s “The Uninhabitants,” featuring textile works by Patrizia Giambi and Patrizia Dal Re as well as an installation by Gal Weinstein—an opportunity to hear the dealer explain the Israeli pavilion of the Venice Biennale. The following stop was Francesco Pantaleone’s new venue near Porta Romana: The Sicilian dealer debuted with a solo show by Liliana Moro, whose minimal drawings of dogs have also found their way onto Pantaleone’s arms in the form of tattoos. Then it was Case Chiuse time: a mobile project where artist Gabriele De Santis installed in, of course, a secret garden, belonging to collectors Vautrin and Vudafieri, a little flock of small polymateric parrots, which you could buy for one hundred euros and name after someone you loved and lost. By the time I arrived at the Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea later that night, the crowd assaulting Santiago Sierra’s show had almost dissipated. Almost.
Wednesday began in one of Milan’s most unusual art places, Albergo Diurno Venezia, a former underground Liberty day hotel that used to welcome travelers with showers and mani-pedi services and which now belongs to the Fondo per l’Ambiente Italiano. After last year’s Sarah Lucas site-specific installation, this year the FAI exhibited Flavio Favelli’s Senso 80, hybrid furniture pieces made of marble and hand-painted old tiles, and a series of old Coca-Cola billboards. (Favelli is also showing at Francesca Minini’s, in the other arts district, Lambrate Ventura).
Later that day, Daniele Innamorato opened at Marsèlleria and Paola Pivi launched her site-specific windows at La Rinascente, the historic department store in Piazza del Duomo. On the rooftop, a jet-set cocktail welcomed Milanese socialites and made it clear that big Italian brands are quickly learning to team up with blue-chip galleries and artists.
At the same time, a super-crowded preview of Christie’s Modern and Contemporary auction was happening at the other side of Piazza del Duomo. Museo del Novecento, inside the Arengario building, was the most coveted invite of the evening, with the vernissage of Warhol’s “Sixty Last Suppers.” Gagosian was hosting a dinner on the breathtaking terrace of Giacomo Arengario, with director Pepi Marchetti Franchi greeting guests at the entrance. Among them was Madeinart CEO Consuelo Nocita, who produced Keith Haring’s “About Art” for the nearby Palazzo Reale, curated by Gianni Mercurio, another blockbuster that opened in late February with two days of receptions and parties for international collectors.
After Gagosian’s high-end crowd, there was a big jump to Porta Venezia again. Massimo De Carlo chose Trattoria Trombetta to host the dinner in honor of Liu Xiaodong, who is showing his “Chittagong” series at the dealer’s new Palazzo Borromeo venue. Liu’s close friend Yan Pei-Ming attended the (risotto) dinner, along with Art Basel director Marc Spiegler, MiArt liaison Oda Albera, and Rabottini. A few days later, De Carlo would send out the announcement of an even newer venue: the Portaluppi-designed Casa Corbellini Wassermann in Viale Lombardia.
MiArt’s opening on Thursday had somehow become the least stressful day of the week. Energy levels were high, big names like Gladstone and Marianne Boesky joined the ranks. More than 40 percent of the dealers were foreign, more than forty-five thousand people were to attend, and acquisitions from private and public art funds are growing, especially for Italian artists—Fondazione Fiera Milano’s international committee chose a work by sculptor Chiara Camoni.
The offerings at MiArt, with 174 exhibitors, spanned from large-scale wall sculptures by Agostino Bonalumi (“He did this when Anish Kapoor was seven years old,” Davide Mazzoleni proudly told me) to a Nanda Vigo solo show at Allegra Ravizza’s to performances such as Riccardo Buscarini’s “horizontal storytelling” at Nahmad Projects. The rest of the afternoon was given to visiting Frigoriferi Milanesi for the vernissage of “The White Hunter,” a show about memories and representations of Africa curated by Marco Scotini. From there I headed toward Brera for the dinner hosted on Via Fiori Chiari by Kaufmann Repetto, Andrew Kreps, Sadie Coles, and Gladstone, where I sat between dealer Emanuela Campoli and Castello di Rivoli curator Marianna Vecellio, ate completely raw tagliata, and discussed the “new” Milan and Biennale participations.
Wanting to experience my hometown with fresh eyes, I had also signed myself up for the VIP program, which, to my horror, started at 8.30 AM the next morning. After a quick breakfast with Sofia Bertilsson from Copenhagen’s Wanås Foundation, I boarded the bus with an Ecuadorian collector who confessed he skipped the previous night’s vernissages to go to La Scala. Other voices on the bus joined in praise of Gaetano Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, and it made me think that Milan has so many iconic experiences to offer that it’s about time it headlined the circuit of global art destinations. We visited Fondazione Prada and had more cappuccinos at Wes Anderson’s Bar Luce, and by Friday night I was more exhausted than I was in Miami or Hong Kong—and just as jet-lagged. I skipped tightly scheduled visits to private collections Sabbadini and Consolandi to attend Lisson Gallery’s opening of Spencer Finch’s solo show, which extends inside Orti di Leonardo—named after Da Vinci, who lived there when he was painting The Last Supper across the street for Ludovico il Moro.
Left: Artist Robert MacKenzie, collector Joseph Delle Nogare, and curator Eva Brioschi. Right: Artist Giuseppe Stampone.
On Saturday I saved my energy for what I feared would be a very formal occasion: Beatrice Bulgari’s dinner at Armani in via Manzoni. Her production company In Between Art Film has been supporting the work of many Italian artists and is a partner of MiArt Talks. The conversation at my table, however, was informal and interesting. Rabottini discussed the future of Fondazione Fiera Milano’s collection with its president, Giovanni Gorno Tempini, while curator Beatriz Colomina talked biennials with Diana Campbell Betancourt, curator of MiArt’s conversations program. I was so taken that I forgot to leave in time for Trim’s concert at Hangar Bicocca—the musician was invited by Laure Prouvost. Hangar was also showing Miroslaw Balka, which I will visit when I recover from this tour de force. The evening continued at the traditional Milanese Bar Basso, where spring fever was in full swing. The video duo Masbedo discussed the best art destinations (“Belgrade is the new Berlin, Reykjavik the new Belgrade”), and Viennese curators asked me the address of Fondazione Trussardi. It is an idea, not a place, I explained, remembering all those years when I thought I was living on the outskirts of the art scene. Now that feeling is gone, and we all toasted to Milano’s renaissance with Sbagliato, a stronger version of a Negroni served in giant glasses. That’s maybe why I missed my VIP bus on Sunday morning: It would have taken me to several Milanese churches, from San Fedele to Chiesa Rossa. But the day was full anyway, as Art Week began to overlap with Design.
The final highlight of my week was, again, in a secret place near Porta Venezia: the building recently acquired by Fondazione Rovati, Palazzo Bocconi-Rizzoli-Carraro, the future venue of the Etruscan Museum of Milan. I toured the Piano Nobile rooms with their original interiors: When finished, the museum will feature 35,000 square feet of exhibition spaces, which will extend underground, where the Rovati will dig to build a subterranean dome that will be visible from the garden. For now, it hosted Paul Cocksedge’s “Excavation: Evicted,” a design project wanted by Beatrice Trussardi, who in two weeks will also inaugurate “Terra Inquieta,” Massimiliano Gioni’s exhibition focused on conflicts and migrants, at the Triennale. The design crowd had by then invaded Milan: A critic I previously held in the highest esteem looked very interested in Cocksedge’s reclaimed tiles but yawned when I mentioned Etruscan vases, then told me serenely he had never been to the Venice Biennale, and wasn’t planning to. Nobody seemed to mind. That’s how I knew that MiArt week was over, at last.
Left: Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak with Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys. Right: Swoon and team at Pearly's Beauty Shop.
ANNE PASTERNAK’S FIRST COUPLE OF YEARS as director of the Brooklyn Museum have been interesting ones, though not always in the sense she might have preferred. A few short months into her tenure, the firebrand former head of Creative Time caught heat from protesters for renting out the space to the Sixth Annual Brooklyn Real Estate Summit. It was a decision they saw—with some justification—as incompatible with the institution’s commitment to local audiences in a quickly gentrifying neighborhood. Following intense negotiation, another event, the Brooklyn Community Forum on Anti-Gentrification and Displacement, repurposed the museum again, this time as a platform for heated debate around an all-too-familiar clash of high culture and everyday economics. And while the institution seemed to have secured something of a coup last April with the appointment of Nancy Spector as deputy director and chief curator, the former Guggenheim creative supremo lasted less than a year on Eastern Parkway before returning to her longtime former home uptown.
It was thus hard to ignore the fact that one of the two honorees Monday night at the museum’s Seventh Annual Brooklyn Artists Ball fundraiser had himself been a lightning rod for controversy around New York redevelopment. Rapper and producer Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean was criticized for an arguably ill-considered project in the Bronx last August, an art fair titled No Commission. Offering works for sale without dealer participation, thereby putting earnings straight into artists’ pockets, the event certainly had its plus points, but the specter of gentrification again proved disruptive. By throwing a party in a property newly purchased by developer Keith Rubenstein, Dean exposed himself to accusations of insensitivity, with Rubenstein having stepped in it pretty firmly the year before by organizing his own velvet-rope event with the less-than-tactful “Bronx is Burning” theme. Add to such missteps a distinct shortage of local involvement in the fair, and activist groups such as Take Back the Bronx had plenty of fuel for their fires.
Still, as the debate over a certain canvas in the Whitney Biennial continues to demonstrate, such issues—and the people behind them—are invariably more complex than we might prefer. Dean’s efforts in the Bronx may have been ill-informed (and one does get the impression that their shortcomings were the result of naïveté rather than greed), but he can claim back substantial credibility as cofounder, with his wife and fellow honoree, Alicia Keys, of the AIDS charity Keep a Child Alive. He also demonstrated a not insignificant ability to fire up a distinctly multigenerational dance floor. Before we got there, though, there were, of course, cocktails and dinner, the former distinguished by the presence of Pearly’s Beauty Shop, a popup “full-service unisex shop art installation and party all in one” by artist Swoon that kitted out a long line of attendees in elaborate makeup and headgear. Among those doing the rounds minus fanciful war paint was David Byrne, fresh from a rally at City Hall in support of the threatened National Endowment for the Arts.
Another musician, one Lenny Kravitz, appeared only later, somehow already ensconced and holding court at a central table in the museum’s third-floor Beaux-Arts Court when I arrived—I’d worried rather early—for dinner. My own companions for the meal were Lisa Small, the museum’s senior curator of European art, and artist and actor Gregory Siff, who had his mother, Maryanne, and collector Beth Redmond in tow. I complimented Siff on his impressive collection of pendants and he launched into an account of their varied and colorful origins: “This is a gold bar I made, and this I got from a graffiti crew I run with in LA. Oh, and this die is from my dad—he used to roll.” His enthusiasm was infectious, as was his genuine excitement at spotting Fred “Fab 5 Freddy” Brathwaite; Redmond, however, remained impassive. Small, for her part, was concerned primarily by Pasternak’s promise in her effusive speech that the curator would be conducting after-dinner tours of the Georgia O’Keeffe show that she’d coordinated—without having warned her in advance.
Returning downstairs I found Dean in full flow and the crowd commendably raucous, bellowing along to an ever-catchier sequence of pop-dance bangers—a stark contrast with Kelsey Lu’s plaintive musical interlude during dinner. (“I cried though the whole thing,” claimed an emotional Pasternak.) Keys didn’t perform but did join her husband in the booth for some whoops and fist-pumps. A Marilyn Minter video of stiletto-clad feet stomping in pools of silvery paint was projected overhead and struck just the right, fabulous note for a benefit that raised upward of $1.7 million. Dean’s touch on the decks may not be the lightest but he can certainly move a crowd. He made it all seem easy—a trait the BMA itself must surely covet.
LAST WEEKEND, I took a walk through downtown Cairo with the writer and novelist Yasmine El Rashidi. In the years I’ve known it, the neighborhood has always demanded that you move in a particular way: jaunty, quick, cutting across wide avenues into narrow alleyways, angling for a space between cars, garbage, and throngs of other pedestrians, looking for a way through.
This day was no different, but something had changed. We stopped for lunch with Mai Elwakil, part of the resilient little arts institution Medrar for Contemporary Art, and Jenifer Evans, culture editor of the über-critical online newspaper Mada Masr and a cofounder of the great experimental art space, also tiny, known as Nile Sunset Annex.
I was in town for a workshop and the opening of an exhibition I’d found upsetting and disjointed. I wanted to know everything that had been happening in the art scene but it was too much to understand all at once. Five years earlier, Rashidi explained, something had really broken—in the country, the city, and its people. Now, she said, it was as if they were putting their thoughts back together. “Something is starting again.”
Earlier in the day, William Wells, who nearly twenty years ago opened the inimitable Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art in an alleyway filled with car mechanics, had told me much the same thing: “People are having conversations again.” Wells will hate me for saying so, but it was immensely reassuring to sit with him once more in that alleyway, a cluster of plastic chairs and high metal tea tables, whirling stories with a weathered laugh.
And yet: “The last year was awful,” Aleya Hamza told me one morning, as we were talking in the back room of her gallery, Gypsum, which she opened in 2013 after years of working as a curator, first with Townhouse, then with the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC). “Funding dried up completely. The government cracked down on everybody. It was really scary. In Cairo today,” she added, “you don’t want to be in the limelight, that’s for sure.”
Given all the upheaval in Egypt since 2011, one might be forgiven for assuming that the art scene—so lively and contentious a decade ago—had simply died somewhere along the way. The euphoria of the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak was enough to give several generations of Egyptians a story they’d tell for the rest of their lives. But the disasters that followed only frayed that story to an angry silence, one abetted by the brutal irony that, with Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Egypt had reinstated a military dictatorship even more draconian than Mubarak’s. Mubarak, by the way, was quietly released from prison the Friday before last, a free man for the first time since he was deposed.
There was a time when Cairo’s artists and thinkers were sending out pretty strong signals. Around 2005, there was an actual movement known as the Cairo School of Urban Studies, which was highly critical of globalization and neoliberalism and used the complex enormity of the Egyptian capital to offer the world applicable lessons on radical democracy and municipal reform. The Cairo and Alexandria biennials, as well as a popular annual youth salon, were often terrible but going strong. There was a classic sense of competition pitting the state-sponsored fine-art sector against a crew of scrappy young downtown galleries and projects. Members of the latter camp never took a dime from the regime but often depended on foreign funding. They earned considerable acclaim abroad but were always viewed locally with suspicion. Their work was innovative, often infuriating, subversive, playful, and always argumentative. But over the past few years, the whole scene has gone quiet.
In 2014, Sisi’s regime effectively criminalized foreign funding and made it all but impossible for nonprofits to function. At the end of 2015, a handful of Cairo’s most interesting, hardest-working arts organizations were raided by government agencies. CIC, founded by a group of artists, photographers, and photojournalists in 2004, was charged with using pirated software in its office. Studio Emad Eddin, a workshop and rehearsal space for performing artists established by the playwright Ahmed El Attar in 2005, was accused of making online videos for the Muslim Brotherhood—a serious claim that was quickly dropped, though it was still taken to court for an expired license. “The environment is not as friendly as it once was,” Attar told me when I stopped by to see him last Sunday. “It was a way of putting everyone on guard.” Townhouse was raided by multiple agencies and closed. Then one of its buildings began to collapse, which led to weeks of yo-yoing between demolition and salvation. The government sent in a team of workers to hammer the place down to the ground, only to call them off and return the badly damaged building to the Townhouse fold.
Was it all over, then? Had the art scene caved to collective depression?
Maybe. Sporadically. Understandably.
But when I landed in Cairo almost a fortnight ago, I found an awful lot happening on the ground. Townhouse, for one, had stealthily reopened in the former paper factory next door. There, beside a makeshift library, some whacky vintage furniture, colorful palettes, and a staff of energetic youngsters all pounding away on their laptops and smartphones, the artist Malak Yacout was showing a roomful of austere, nearly mathematical concrete sculptures exploring time in relation to the patterns of Qur’anic text. Gypsum’s exhibition of Daniele Genadry’s paintings made her work look more luminous than ever. The Sixth Annual Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival, cutely known as D-CAF and controversial for its partnership with the real-estate developer Al Ismaelia, a company explicitly on a mission to gentrify downtown, had opened a week earlier with an interactive remake of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Jérôme Bel’s Disabled Theater. I soon had in hand a list of newish galleries to visit—including Ubuntu Gallery (founded 2014), Gallery Misr (founded 2011), and Art Talks Egypt (founded 2009)—as well as word that older galleries such as Karim Francis and Mashrabia, so pivotal to the downtown scene in the 1990s, were still alive, if only haphazardly active.
Four of the six performers in Manuel Pelmuş's Museum of Contemporary Art, part of the visual arts program for D-CAF.
To my chagrin, I arrived just as the sixth edition of Photo Cairo, a downtown arts festival that CIC inherited more than a decade ago from Townhouse, was winding down. For five weeks, two exhibitions and a string of performances, screenings, and discussions had taken place in six venues under the title “Shadows of the Imperceptible.” Organized by CIC’s current artistic director Andrea Thal and the curator Nour El Safoury, it was based almost entirely on workshops that had been ongoing for ten months. As CIC was packing up, I headed to the opening of D-CAF’s visual-arts program, which was organized this year by the German curator Berit Schuck. Schuck is now heading into her second term as the program director for MASS Alexandria, an experimental art school founded by the artist Wael Shawky. Her D-CAF program is essentially a three-artist show called “CaMoCA” (there is some other programming, too), an exercise in asking people to imagine a Museum of Contemporary Art in Cairo. CaMoCA occupies a thread of rehabilitated downtown spaces, including an apartment on Hoda Shaarawi Street and a pair of storefronts lining the old Kodak passageway, which was cleaned up and beautified three years ago by the Cairo Lab for Urban Studies, Training and Environmental Research, better known as CLUSTER. (All these spaces are owned by Al Ismaelia.) I tried to make sense of the rooms on Hoda Shaarawi, which were painted black and half-filled with an installation made jointly by Brad Butler and Noor Afshan Mirza, an artist I’d formerly known as Karen. There were silks hanging from the ceiling, videos of a dancer breathing hard, and a room filled with text related to a vague but captivating story about a car crash in Turkey.
Next door to their installation, a team of writers-in-residence was meant to be working away, responding to the show as part of a project called Saout and Sura (“sound” and “image” in Arabic), but the space was empty. Adelita Husni-Bey, showing a video about American high-school athletes in the Kodak passageway, wasn’t around. Manuel Pelmuş, whose three-hour-long Museum of Contemporary Art required six performers to enact a series of works, manifestos, and encounters from the history of Egyptian art, was leaving the next day. Before exiting the apartment, I noticed an Audre Lorde quotation stuck to the wall: “As women, we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and non-rational knowledge.”
Distrust, disclosure: I have to say I saw all of this through a privileged lens. I was in Cairo for the second installment in a six-month-long writing workshop organized by Townhouse. This meant I had four long and intense days with sixteen participants, including young artists, established journalists, screenwriters, researchers, pop-culture junkies, a Goldsmiths grad, a self-professed feminist, and an undergrad who writes fragmented, sci-fi inflected fiction. They were by turns shy, thoughtful, bombastic, and brassy, all highly critical in their thinking and seriously opinionated. D-CAF’s visual-arts program was our case study, and it gave us a wealth of problems to unpack, not only about gentrification, the festival’s inevitable albatross, but also about race, class, feminism, nationalism, the history of art in material objects versus immaterial gestures, language, translation, accessibility, arrogance, condescension, and a bit of neo-orientalism as well.
Collectively perplexed by the opening, we returned en masse to the Kodak passageway on Friday night for a talk with Reem Fadda, who spoke about her experiences as a curator for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, a museum that also does not exist but occupies a rather different mental terrain than Schuck’s fantasy Cairo museum. Fadda gave an admirable lecture, in Arabic, about how she pieced together a history of modern and contemporary Arab art in a context totally ignorant of artists or artworks from this part of the world. But the rhetorical question—who cares about the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi?—hung heavy. Mohamed Elshahed asked it, with attitude, in the Q&A that followed. Museums in Latin America, for example, had done excellent work on their own art histories for decades, he said, precisely “by not giving a shit about the West” or what the West thought of their work. Elshahed’s point? Who cares about some ill-fated foreign institution in the UAE—a place for which very few Egyptians can even get a visa—when there is so much material, so many museums, so much work to do here and throughout Cairo. I was impressed. I figured he was an artist. But I laughed out loud when I asked him what he did and he told me: “I’m a curator for the British Museum.” A contradiction? Indeed. But his argument holds.
On Saturday, we returned for a tour with Schuck. This did not go smoothly. Pelmuş is an extremely interesting artist. I loved his work in the Romanian pavilion for the Venice Biennale four years ago. But the trope of enacting existing artworks from an unfamiliar history, in an unfamiliar place, wasn’t translating well, most blatantly because the performance script was in English while most of the work’s audience and all but one of its performers spoke Arabic. (The other spoke Greek.) According to Schuck, there was no time for translation, but at least one of the works cited—Inji Efflatoun’s We Egyptian Women, to use the most obvious example—was written in Arabic and is widely available in its original form. Also, the choices: a bit of Egyptian surrealism, a painting by Abdel Hadi El Gazzar, a photocollage by Huda Lutfi, who, incidentally, lost her studio in the partial demolition of the Townhouse building. Fine. But what was the connection to Marcel Duchamp, Henri Matisse’s red dancers, Martine Syms’s “Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto,” a quotation from John Berger, some useless patter about the lamentable television series Homeland, a throwaway reference to a show at the Prada Foundation, and Mladen Stilinović’s An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist, delivered without any detectible irony?
Left: Artist, curator, and CLUSTER cofounder Beth Stryker. Right: Saout and Sura writer-in-residence Yasmine Zohdy with Sandra Edward of the Contemporary Image Collective.
In the summer of 2012, I had seen a roomful of visiting artists and curators coil around a group of Egyptian art students like a python hungry for insight. That was at MASS Alexandria, the school where Schuck now works. In that toxic season, the students had wilted. Now, I was watching a group older and wiser, several of them MASS graduates too. They heard Schuck make a number of wild assertions, and they weren’t having any of it. They pushed back, hard. When Schuck proposed that there was no adequate word in Arabic for feminism, they told her she was wrong (and according to Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke, editors of an important anthology of Arab feminist writing, there’s been a consensus on niswiyya since the early 1990s). When Schuck said one does not see black or brown bodies in the contemporary art that is typically shown in downtown Cairo, and that her show was an act of representation, they were flabbergasted and told her this was false.
If Schuck’s curatorial premise seemed disconnected from its context, even disconnected from the works she had chosen to show, this may have been symptomatic of a larger issue, that the visual-arts program is disconnected from its own festival. On Saturday evening, I went to Cloture de l’amour, one of the performances that were part of D-CAF’s main program, starring the popular television actor Mohamed Hatem. The contrast was striking in terms of audience, professionalism, and accessibility. It made the visual-arts program look like an afterthought. When I asked Ahmed El Attar, the festival’s artistic director, about this, he told me visual art is “absolutely not my field.” Attar is a doer. He isn’t mediocre. His partnership with Al Ismaelia is debatable, but it’s also extremely important in posing the private-sector potential as a third way, dependent on neither the state nor foreign funders. Aleya Hamza, who curated the visual-arts program last year, told me it has always had a problematic relationship with the rest of the festival. Mai Abu ElDahab, who organized the program two years ago, said the issue wasn’t that it was an afterthought but that it was the only part of the festival that required real production, and so it fell apart. Another problem: In six years, Attar has rotated through six curators. Going forward, the program might need a steadier hand, or a longer-term partnership, to be on par with D-CAF proper.
Because there is talk of Al Ismaelia opening its own downtown museum, the current edition of D-CAF added to an already simmering debate. To imagine a nonexisting museum seemed almost foolishly complicit in clearing away inconvenient history. This had also been an issue late last year, when the state sponsored an exhibition of Egyptian surrealism, focusing on a movement (Art and Liberty) that had previously been written out of the nationalist art history (for being expressly antinationalist). Two of the workshop participants spelled this out for me. “For the government to sponsor a show of Egyptian surrealism now makes total sense. They want to make the revolution a dream, something we think we imagined but didn’t experience because it wasn’t real.”
Shadows and dreams. An art scene under the radar and out of the limelight. Imagination as ignorance, the trap of a police state. Imagination as breakthrough, the only means necessary to change the world, but at a terrible price. These two positions sat side by side. I was troubled by their proximity. But more so, I was mesmerized, and grateful, for the sharp thinking of those who showed me how they were navigating a path between them, looking for a way not just through but forward.
Left: Artist Ash Moniz with Townhouse program manager Mariam Elnozahy. Right: Artist Huda Lutfi.