Last Saturday, held up by typical Los Angeles traffic, I arrived at the Hammer Museum’s theater a few minutes after 3 PM, which is to say a few minutes late for the lecture Francis Alÿs was delivering on the occasion of “The Politics of Rehearsal,” his solo retrospective opening that night. Alÿs sat alone at the rear of the dark stage, a stack of notes and a laptop before him, speaking quietly in a soft Belgian accent inflected mildly by his years spent in Mexico. The capacity audience—which included artist Alexandra Grant, Gallery at REDCAT curator Clara Kim, and critic Jan Tumlir—was equally subdued, hardly moving while the artist read aloud his notes on moving mountains and building unfinished bridges out of fishing boats.
Alÿs described each project with the bare minimum of additional commentary; his utilitarian explanations gave the impression of a how-to demo. During the Q&A, a man joined Alÿs onstage and fielded many of the heftier questions lobbed by the UCLA students and independent curator Bill Kelly Jr. This stranger was, I later discovered, Rafael Ortega, a longtime Alÿs collaborator and cameraman.
Afterward, standing beside the high bamboo in the open-air courtyard outside the theater, artist Piero Golia declared Alÿs “a bad talker, but a great artist.” Golia smiled, revealing a twinkling gem embedded in his front tooth, and continued in his thick Italian accent, “and truly helpful if I ever want to build a bridge out of boats.”
That night’s opening proved less matter-of-fact though no less instructive, as is often the case where an open bar is concerned. Inspired by Alÿs’s famous walks, I kicked around the marble courtyard of the Hammer, trying to extract a little poetry from the political rumbling of an art world ill at ease.
There was some talk about New York dealers opening spaces in Los Angeles, including rumors of Zach Feuer’s quiet decision to no longer maintain his connection to his LA outpost, Kantor/Feuer, and Gavin Brown’s newest enterprise with L&M, which the hoi polloi has already written off, especially since it’s slated to open in Venice. Even Honor Fraser, who opened in that neighborhood recently, has jumped ship for Culver City. One former director of a prominent LA gallery opined that the New Yorkers were just pissing away their money; he had left the gallery to enlist in the city’s ever-lucrative entertainment industry.
As the evening progressed, the Hammer, renowned for its crowded parties, felt strangely subdued—perhaps proving the local law that Los Angeles only comes out for its own, though the more likely story was that everyone was already off to Europe for the run of fairs—Art Forum Berlin to FIAC in Paris—that reaches its commercial climax at London’s Frieze Art Fair. No complaints here. The thin crowd only made it easier to see the exhibition, a compendium of classic Alÿs works, including a video of a Sisyphean VW Beetle charging up a hill only to roll back down, as well as documentation of the artist’s many walks through the streets of Mexico City. As Alÿs ambled through the gallery, I couldn’t help but feel a little like I was watching a virtuoso do the scales.
Before departing for the unofficial after-party in Culver City at the Mandrake, I walked downstairs to the Hammer project gallery for a peek at Jamie Isenstein’s show, which was also opening that night. Isenstein draws something subtle and elegant from her blend of P. T. Barnum’s circus chicanery and Conceptual-art know-how. But aside from an empty birdcage swinging mysteriously in the center of the gallery, there was no sign of the elusive artist. Perhaps, I thought, her disappearance was just one more bit of legerdemain pulled from her bag of magical Conceptualist tricks. But according to Andrew Kreps Gallery director Liz Mulholland, for the past few weeks Isenstein had been very easy to locate. During gallery hours, up until the Hammer opening, Isenstein had been stuffed in the lower end of a box split in two, a sort of headless take on the classic woman-sawn-in-half routine; only her wiggling feet had been visible. Once Isenstein has completed this endurance performance, she’ll begin a slightly less strenuous tenure as the Hammer’s artist-in-residence.