Left: Performance artist Julie Atlas Muz. Right: DJ Spooky. (All photos: David Velasco)
“No one’s wearing a bathing suit in this weather,” groaned Julie Atlas Muz, the miraculously upbeat MC of last Saturday night’s benefit for Sens Production at Williamsburg’s McCarren Park Pool. Gray skies and a broken L train may have foiled the kickoff swimwear competition, but the evening ahead still promised musical performances by Worange Drexler and DJ Spooky, along with sneak previews of Agora II, a site-specific “choreographic game for one thousand bodies” orchestrated by Sens Production director and 2004 Whitney Biennial participant Noémie Lafrance.
Prior to his set, I found Spooky conversing about plans (or lack thereof) for Burning Man and Moby’s “crazy psycho groupies.” Is the electronic-music scene as small as the art world? When I got him alone, he discussed his latest projects: After penning Rhythm Science, releasing a new album, teaching a course at the European Graduate School, and giving concerts in Central Park and the Tate Turbine Hall, he still has two nights booked at the Apollo in October and another book (Sound Unbound) due out early next year. Oh, and he’s taking his remix of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation on tour with a live score in 2007. Spooky is an object lesson in overachievement, a one-man culture-recycling plant. He then pulled out his Treo to demonstrate his theories on “material memory” via his summer “cell-phone diary.”
The pool’s massive, empty shell hosted plenty of carnivalesque distractions. I was daunted by the “world’s largest game of Twister,” and it was too chilly for the slip ‘n’ slide (so much for global warming), but I did take advantage of the Madagascar Institute’s Ring My Bell, a lewd Double Dare–like physical challenge involving a helmet, a water hose, and mannequin legs mechanically rigged to rise in response to aquatic “stimulation.” I asked Institute member Violette Olympia about the group’s inspiration for the game. “Oh, we were just dicking around in our studio,” she deadpanned.
The previews of Agora IIthink Stomp outdoors, with colorful acrobats and a gaggle of talented children dancing with chairswere entertaining enough, and though the founding concept of a Greek marketplace feels thin, Lafrance’s ambition and commitment to neighborhood revitalization is commendable. Filling a space this huge, there’s not much leeway for editing, and having seen the original piece last September, the changes don’t seem significant, with much of the excitement still driven by the pool’s spectacular ambience.
Left: Artists Ryan McNamara and Paul Mpagi Sepuya. Right: Author and artist Mike Albo with Cherry Dazzle.
Spooky’s set was the event’s highlight, evidence that the iPod’s shuffle function hasn’t completely usurped the role of the DJ. Day slipped casually into dusk, unfolding a scene reminiscent of both Busby Berkeley and Sesame Street, as small children in white rode scooters around crowds of hula-hooping performers. I snuck out during the early moments of an outdoor screening of graffiti-culture classic Style Wars to seek adventure elsewhere.
There was no shortage of swimwear (or bike shorts, pajamas, fishnets, thongs . . .) at the “Red Party,” the latest in a sporadic series of color-themed, artsy, queerish soirees in Greenpoint. Red decor clashed and coagulated with red regalia; it was the world as seen through rose-colored lenses, or a tour of an unregulated slaughterhouseI couldn’t decide which. “With all this red, I feel like I’m in Cries and Whispers,” offered one cultured guest. “I was planning on coming naked except for a kabbalah bracelet,” remarked Dazzle Dancer Cherry Dazzle, “but I hurt my back and punked out.”
Left: Artist Travis Boyer with Dan Kellum. Right: Klaus von Nichtssagend gallery director Sam Wilson.
The crowd, a crossbreed of Dancer from the Dance and Desperate Living, heaved, drank, and exposed themselves while Justin Timberlake brought the “SexyBack” from a pint-size stereo. In conversation with artist Paul Mpagi Sepuya, I pointed out that August’s Vogue has already declared (with a fourteen-page Demarchelier-Turlington spread) that “red is the new black”; he retorted: “Should we all go Cherokee?”
The night was getting old, and I still hadn’t tasted any of the mysterious red jungle juice fueling the party’s lascivious spirit. On my way toward the makeshift bar, I ran into performance artist and The Underminer coauthor Mike Albo. In the kitchen’s bright light, his toga appeared scandalously salmon. “Are you red on the inside?” I asked. “No,” he replied, confirming my suspicions. “I’m pink.”
Left: Georg Quander, head of the cultural department of Cologne, with Museum Ludwig founder Irene Ludwig, Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts president Joel Wachs, and curator Frank Wagner. Right: Museum Ludwig director Kaspar König.
I traveled to Cologne for the opening of “The Eighth Square,” the big show—over eighty artists—now spreading its skirts at the Museum Ludwig. The exhibition, curated by Berlin-based freelancer Frank Wagner along with the Ludwig’s own Julia Friedrich and director Kasper König, looks at “gender, life and desire” in art since the '60s, and takes its title from the chess move that turns a pawn into a queen. Wagner has curated numerous exhibitions in this territory before, stretching back to late-'80s examinations of art and AIDS, so I was keen to see whether this exhibition would update the discussion.
I couldn’t help feeling that starting the show in the '60s was slightly odd, given that the explosion of art about alternate sexualities did not occur until the subsequent decade. Even though the exhibition is not arranged chronologically, this entry point has the effect of making the earlier works seem like a token (and closeted) prelude. An example of this, hanging on the wall above my head as I entered the Friday-afternoon press preview, was a pairing of a Jasper Johns flag painting with Jonathan Horowitz’s Three Rainbow Flags for Jasper in the Style of the Artist’s Boyfriend, 2005. The latter flags were in glitter, and the boyfriend in question, of course, belongs to Horowitz rather than Johns.
Left: Artists Stephen Barker and A. A. Bronson. Right: Artist Peter Knoch with Babsi and friend. (Photo: Annette Frick)
Nevertheless, beginning in the Pop era does allow the Ludwig to show off its spectacular holdings of American art from this time, and the inclusion of a number of choice Warhols, still radiating sexual ambivalence, perhaps justifies the strategy—as well as the Warhol Foundation’s generous underwriting of the show. Foundation president Joel Wachs gave a tub-thumping speech at the reception later that evening, declaring that the exhibition was “long overdue in this country—and ours, too.” Perhaps the foundation has taken the unusual step of supporting this show in Europe for the very reason, sadly, that a queer-oriented show of this size and profile could not happen in the States.
The exhibition is laden with American artists, however, and features super works by the likes of Jack Smith, Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe, Nan Goldin, Nicole Eisenman, and Catherine Opie. It also has a good spread of German artists, many less internationally established, and I was especially interested to encounter powerful work from the earlier period by Ferdinand Kriwet and Jürgen Klauke. However, the show is patchy in its coverage outside these two countries, contains too much weak work from the culture-wars era, and is especially disappointing in the contemporary department. Recent works by artists such as Cerith Wyn Evans, Francesco Vezzoli, or Eli Sudbrack might have helped pep it up.
Nor did the after-party really redeem the day. Perhaps due to the show’s mid-August scheduling, the event, held in the Ludwig’s cavernous bar/restaurant, was attended by only a handful of the participating artists. I did, however, have the chance to renew my acquaintance with the charming Piotr Nathan, whose work from 1993—in which urinal doors are made into a Japanese screen, supporting photographs by David Armstrong—is one of the show’s highlights. Nathan hails from Berlin and was having an impromptu reunion with a number of friends from the city with whom, in the '80s, he had founded a group with the wonderful name the Silent Heroes. Among the reminiscing heroes was Ute Meta Bauer, former curator of the Berlin Biennial and now director of the Visual Arts Program in the architecture department at MIT.
Left: Georg Quander with Cologne mayor Angela Spizig. Right: Artist Piotr Nathan with Jawu. (Photo: Annette Frick)
Other partygoers included North American exhibitors Kaucyila Brooke and Deborah Kass, as well as A. A. Bronson (the latter recently found expounding on his mastery of anal massage in Butt, the self-declared “Fantastic Magazine for Homosexuals”). Bronson could be seen talking to Beatrix Ruf of Kunsthalle Zürich, as well as to leading Cologne gallerist Daniel Buchholz. I couldn’t help thinking that if the Ludwig’s curators had studied their neighbor’s program more closely, then they could have arrived at a more sophisticated reading of “gender, life and desire” in art right now, given that a contemporary take on queerness is part of the Buchholz signature.
Nevertheless, if “The Eighth Square” disappointed in some of its choices (and if the party suffered from late-summer doldrums), the contemporary relevance of the issues it touched could not be ignored. For the exhibition’s poster, the organizers had chosen a photograph by Wolfgang Tillmans, an image of a cock and balls viewed from below, the camera looking up through a man’s makeshift skirts. This playful and celebratory image has been refused a place on the city’s billboards—the row having gone all the way up to the mayor of Cologne, who has refused to back the museum. Queens may be crowned every day, but the game isn’t over yet.
Left: Artists and Mandrake proprieters Flora Wiegman and Drew Heitzler. (Photo: Justin Beal) Right: Dealer Jeff Poe. (Photo: Christopher Williams)
“It’s gone from Irving Blum to Blum & Poe. Art on La Cienaga has finally come round,” said dealer Jeffrey Poe, martini shaker rattling in hand. Poe, who owns Blum & Poe with Tim Blum, pretended to Irving's swashbuckling fame at the Ferus Gallery back in the '60s, and today's scene of capable artists and wily dealers may well reclaim the boulevard’s former glory. Last Wednesday, for one night only, Poe bartended and artist Dave Muller DJed at an insiders’ pre-opening of LA’s newest art bar, the Mandrake, which sits behind a nondescript storefront on the new gallery strip. As the official launch is September 2, only an upturned cardboard liquor box set upon a pole out front announced, in scrawled black marker, “The Bar Is Open.”
Walking into the woody, low-ceilinged space, I could see the party had already begun. LAXART curator Lauri Firstenberg and Maccarone director Erica Redling swapped gossip and quipped, “Doesn’t Dave Muller look like the Incredible Hulk?” Artists Mark Grotjahn and Jennifer Bornstein huddled in a corner shirking the limelight with new Jack Hanley director Alexandra Gaty, while Poe, sunburned and clad in a Greek fishing cap after a day at sea, lumbered behind the bar, slingin’ drinks much more slowly than he sells art. Founded by artists (but, true to art-world ways, funded by dealers), the Mandrake was formed as an entrepreneurial extension of Champion Fine Arts, but wasn’t officially christened until artist Christopher Williams finally nailed the name. For a while, wags dubbed the space Untitled, but after failed attempts and a little emotional infighting, they decided to pay homage to the venue’s previous incarnation as a gay bar called the Manhandler.
Left: Angela Hanley gallery director Allyson Spellacy. Right: Artists Marc Grotjahn and Jennifer Bornstein with Jack Hanley gallery director Alexandra Gaty. (Photos: Andrew Berardini)
Williams and his wife, MoCA curator Ann Goldstein, were in attendance at the low-key fete. He balked at being photographed, but compromised by snatching the camera out of my hands and snapping a quick pic of Poe looking like a grizzly Hemingway in front of a cigar-chomping Castro. Muller stood in the large room at the end of the bar surrounded by stacked records, as if stuck in the middle of one of his signature music-archive paintings. “It all started with me being a DJ as an undergrad. It’s good to get it out into the world like this again.” The party, music, and unpretentious creative energy of this art bar echoed Muller’s Three Day Weekends, even though the only art on hand was a lonely video piece by art collective and band Hurray, which played quietly to no one in the desolate backroom. (This same “Backroom,” by the way, was curated for a spell by Magali Arriola, Kate Fowle, and Renaud Proch and featured artists Thomas Lawson, Allan Kaprow, and Euan Macdonald, among others.)
As the night wore on, artists, dealers, and writers reconvened in a mellow way before the September 9 opening-night cluster-fuck art bonanza. During a calm moment behind the bar, Poe stopped to talk about what’s going on. “LA is slow and low,” he said. “It’s just as happening as New York, but it’s not as flashy. LA is far-flung and displaced, but it’s all here.” Slipping away to fulfill a drink order, he returned with a Corona, taking a comradely sip before handing it off to a cute drunk girl. I asked Poe what the difference was between art dealing and bartending. After a contemplative pause, he said with a shrug, “They’re both service industries.”
Left: Curator Lauri Firstenberg and Maccarone gallery director Erica Redling. Right: Artist and DJ Dave Muller with Jeff Poe. (Photos: Andrew Berardini)
Art and liquor have been bedfellows for a long time. When I queried a comfortably smashed Allyson Spellacy (Gagosian installer and director of the new, by-appointment-only Angela Hanley Gallery) whether she thought artists drank too much, she took a swig from her beer and lamented, in her low Irish brogue, “Not at all. They dooonnnn’t drink enough.”
“We've got everyone from Dina Merrill to Debbie Harry,” Anne Livet was saying, and what do you know if it wasn't the truth, and not just a proud PR rep's quip. Among the patrons who turned out Friday night for the 75th Anniversary Summer Gala at East Hampton's Guild Hall, which also served as the opening for shows by Elizabeth Peyton and Andy Warhol, I spotted the movie-star aristocrat (who can forget Merrill's cuckolded WASP in BUtterfield 8?) moving among the art-star bohocrats in Peyton's personal orbit: not just the ageless Harry but also Juergen Teller and Sadie Coles, Helmut Lang, Terry Richardson, Jorge Pardo, T. J. Wilcox, Rob Pruitt and Jonathan Horowitz, Matthew Higgs and Anne Collier, Gavin Brown and Hope Atherton, and, of course, Tony Just, Peyton's longtime sweetheart.
“I feel like I'm in a Woody Allen movie,” Pruitt observed, and indeed the full-moon gathering of Manhattan sophisticates did seem scripted. I was reminded of the dance-hall scene in West Side Story, the artists (Sharks) on one end and the patrons (Jets) on the other. That is just the way it was under the big-top tent, anyway, where the twain met only on the dance floor.
Left: Auctioneer Simon de Pury. Right: Actress Dina Merrill with Guild Hall executive director Ruth Appelhof. (Photo: Barry Gordin)
There was something heartwarming, if faintly absurd, about an event where Higgs, Harry, Peyton, and company would eagerly cut a rug to society bandleader Peter Duchin's music. In fact, they hit the dance floor ahead of Guild Hall board chair Melville Straus and honoree collectors Thomas H. Lee, the Snapple man, and his wife, Ann Tenenbaum, a Guild Hall trustee. (“I so wish I could have had that Billy Sullivan,” Tenenbaum confessed after the live auction by the estimable Simon de Pury, during which a Peyton print went for $7,500, inexplicably less than a portrait session with Andres Serrano, which went for $10,000. (Altogether, the event raised more than $350,000.)
The band, which played a succession of cover tunes spanning from Cole Porter and George Gershwin to Motown and Top 40 oldies like “American Pie,” kept the crowd on its feet much of the evening. During “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” the tables emptied completely. “We've never had everyone dancing like this before,” marveled Guild Hall's director, Ruth Appelhof. “We usually have another band,” she told me, “but for our seventy-fifth anniversary we thought, ‘Hey, we have to get Peter Duchin!’ Clearly, we did the right thing.”
Left: Artist Jean Pagliuso with New Museum director Lisa Phillips. Right: Guild Hall honoree Ann Tenenbaum.
Even more simpatico were the anniversary exhibitions inside the museum across the road from Mulford Farm, the East Hampton Historical Society site where the party was held. Onetime Montauk resident Warhol was getting his first-ever survey on the South Fork of Long Island. (Better late than never!) Think you've seen enough Warhol portraits? Curator John Smith placed a dozen silk-screened portraits of fellow artists (Donald Baechler, John Chamberlain, Donald Judd, Roy Lichtenstein, et al.) edge to edge in two rows along the north wall, as if the works were one big paintingpossibly the perfect way to read them—and suddenly one couldn't get enough. Also in two rows, on a freestanding wall directly opposite, was a fabulous collection of ’70s and ’80s Polaroids (Martha Graham, Bianca Jagger, Robert Mapplethorpe) that continued on the back of the wall, facing several black-and-white celebrity portraits on paper (Truman Capote, the Shah, Giorgio Armani). The interest hardly flagged in a back gallery, where there were a number of portrait drawings and gouaches from the ’50s, all such a flavorsome sight I forgot there was a crowd pushing in to see what was what.
I hunted in vain for Smith, former assistant director for collections, exhibitions, and research at the Warhol Museum. Finally, Appelhof told me he had left that afternoon for his new job in Washington as director of the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art. Gosh, I thought. He hasn't even started yet and already he's been swallowed up by the Bushies.
Left: Bandleader Peter Duchin. Right: Guild Hall trustee Christopher Brown, Andrew Gordon, and Guild Hall trustee Billy Wright. (Photo: Barry Gordin)
I didn't feel sad for long, however, as the Peyton show, of recent monotypes, woodcuts, and etchings (Rirkrit, Spencer, Nicole, etc.) was a total upper, grabbing both eye and spirit. My one regret was missing Terry Richardson's “FTW” (or “Fuck the World”) opening at Glenn Horowitz the following night, though the store's display window alone, which I did see, inspired a return visit. I missed the opening because I stumbled first on Jean Pagliuso's “Poultry Suite” photographs down the lane at the Drawing Room, where East End art-establishment types like Donald Sultan, Eric Fischl, April Gornick, Jennifer Bartlett, and Ross Bleckner were milling. “Fowl as couture,” New Museum director Lisa Phillips observed, and indeed each chicken looked somehow coiffed and styled by the likes of Chanel, Balenciaga, and Dior. Leave it to an artist to transform a barnyard animal into a thing of beauté.
Speaking of animals, I then raced off to join the 250-strong herd of people who came to the Charles Gwathmey–designed Lily Pond Lane manse of Howard and Sheri Schultz, who were giving a benefit dinner for chimp champion Jane Goodall, whose speech, which included perfect imitations of chimp lingo, may well be the most powerful piece of performance art I have ever seen. “Ooh, she's good,” said Merrill, now my tablemate, at one point. “She's very, very good.”
The following night brought me full circle back to Guild Hall, for Robert Wilson's Persephone, with music by Philip Glass, costumes by Christophe de Menil, and an audience that included Calvin Klein, David Salle, Bob Colacello, Bleckner, and the Sicilian Principessa Maita di Niscemi, who cowrote the script with Frank O'Hara biographer Brad Gooch. “I enjoyed it!” she said, sounding surprised.
Left: Artist Scott Hug and Borna Sammak. Right: Alex Tuttle, dealer John Connelly, and artist John Kleckner. (All photos: Michael Wang)
A happy hunting ground of sorts for ex-electroclashers, reformed notebook doodlers, and other lost boys (and a few girls), K48’s latest incarnation, “Kamp K48,” lured the last of the season’s gallerygoers to John Connelly Presents’ far-west-Chelsea foothold last Friday evening. Taking viewers on “an artistic hike through the breathtaking scenery and boundless beauty of the natural world,” show curator, artist, and “Kubmaster” Scott Hug (of “Boy Skouts of Amerika Troop K48”) conjured a scene somewhere between jamboree and NAMBLA meeting. (The press release hints at “troop leaders gone wild,” while artist Terence Koh’s contribution, Ode to Five-Year-Old Boys, 2005, blended Underoos with bondage gear.) Hug summed up his inspiration for the show in the narrative of “little boys going out into nature and becoming men.” His own chain-link-fence wallpaper, made with his boyfriend, artist Michael Magnan, marked the entrance to the main gallery, while Connelly himself stood sentry at the doorway to the back-room annex, where Hug et al. bivouacked on a patch of “assume vivid astro turf” and stocked the tent with sleepover accoutrements, including Noah Lyon’s silk-screened pillows and LoVid’s patchwork T-shirt (the checklist listed dimensions as “size: boy small”).
Streams of scantily clad fagsters (DIY cutoff tees and tank tops seem to be de rigueur this summer, the more crudely hewn the better), supporting the show’s fifty-two artists, poured through the galleries and pooled around the tub of JCP’s signature Grolsch. Beer, set out at precise twenty-minute intervals, was quickly rationed to the anxious crowd. “It’s gone in one or two minutes,” warned the gallery assistant; it seemed more like seconds. Those in the know pumped lemonade from Andrew Guenther’s totemlike, hair-and-coconut-adorned water cooler. Hug leaped around with a Polaroid camera, shooting anyone he knew peering from behind Hrafnhildur Arnardottir’s Hairy Hunchback, a carnival cutout braided from real and synthetic hair.
Amid whispers that show artists Mirror Mirror were about to perform their goth-glam art rock outside, the bicycle-short-and-tank-top-wearing quartet Durty Nanas took the stage, luring everyone onto the cobblestones for their booty-bass beats just as the sun set over the Hudson. The thinning crowd inside lingered for a minute around the campy campsite, marveling at the sylvan ephemera assembled there while an eccentric visitor, dressed as a kind of purple raver bunny, picked through the assembled works with an affected innocence. With a little more elbow room for roughhousing, Peter Coffin clambered on top of his construction-orange “wolfcycle,” which looked like a carousel beast affixed to a mountain bike. Mounting the larger-than-life canine, the lanky artist could just reach the pedals. By this time, Connelly was taking the gallery pug to relieve itself outside, surely a sign that it was time for the party to move on.
Left: ICA director of exhibitions Jens Hoffmann and Tate Modern curator Jessica Morgan. Right: “Surprise, Surprise” cocurator Rob Bowman. (All photos: Sarah Thornton)
It’s important to be astonished, it really is. As I walked into the ICA’s summer show in London last Tuesday, I was relieved to find that not every arts institution wants to lead its audience around by the hand as if it were an infirm patient in a mental hospital. Forty-five big-name artists had contributed atypical works for the show . . . and there were no wall texts. “Is that a Chris Ofili? I think it is, but there’s no dung. The painting next to it . . . an Ofili too? Wait a minute. I’ll look in the catalogue. No . . . a Peter Doig.”
A sweltering crowd, clinging to their “Surprise, Surprise” brochures, had their mettle testeddoggedly searching for clues as to who had provided what for exhibition director Jens Hoffmann’s curious and captionless show. The word “Nixon” was etched into a mammoth polystyrene brick on which a papier-mâché penguin was perched. “It’s an early Jake Chapman!” shouted a keen art student. Half right. It was a Chapman, but it wasn’t early. The brochure said it was made in 1970, but when I bumped into Chapman outside, he confessed that he’d made it last week. “If I’d been four years old when I finished it, why isn’t the tape holding the sculpture together yellow by now? Come to think of it, at that age, would I have even known who Nixon was?” Ah, the Chapmans do love to make a mockery.
The art-historical antics seemed to be working for Hoffmann, curator Rob Bowman, and the ICA team. Apparently Joachim Pisarro, MoMA curator and great-grandson of Jacob Pisarro, wants to bring “Surprise, Surprise” to New York. Even artistic director Ekow Eshun was taken aback. “I can’t believe so many people have turned up in August. The art world is supposed to be on holiday.” Artists Wolfgang Tillmans and Daniel Sinsel and dealers Nicholas Logsdail and Jake Miller certainly weren’t on vacation. Picking his way through the crush, Sinsel, a painter, talked about being pipped to the post for this year’s Beck’s Futures prize by Matt Stokes. “I’m glad Matt won. I imagine he needs the money more than me. Making videos is a very expensive business.”
Martin Creed was in Los Angeles (where he’s showing his new “shit film”a series of people, erm, defecating for the camera) on Tuesday, but when I saw his name in the catalogue and couldn’t find his work, I phoned him from the lower gallery for help. “I gave them a black painting,” he said. “It’s essentially a pile of brush marks. You can't escape from yourself, so you may as well try to do something different.”
In a corner of the upper gallery, I discovered an exquisitely dressed mannequin that looked a bit like a headless Charles Ray, next to a '70s-era cosmetics ad that could have been appropriated by anyone. Turned out it was Paul McCarthy. It seems that the artist caused the ICA some consternation by submitting this piece perilously late. Thirty years ago, he asked Max Factor if he could “steal” one of their advertisements for his 1976 magazine Criss Cross Double Cross. Last week, McCarthy (and his gallery Hauser & Wirth) persuaded the head of Gucci to donate the mannequin for “Surprise, Surprise.” Hauser & Wirth’s Aileen Corkery said, “When Paul wants something to happen, it happens. He hates anything that is static. He wants to fuck it up.”
The show largely delivered on its promise to “explore the one-off, the unknown and the unfamiliar,” but my biggest revelation of the night came from Hoffmann himself. “It’s time to leave,” the pink-pinstripe-tie-wearing curator admitted. “I am going to San Francisco to be the director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts.” Apparently, this news had been circulating in the US, but few in the UK seemed to know. “I’m happy about my time at the ICA and about this show,” he said. “If I’m surprised about anything, it’s that I expected tonight to be an antispectacular event, more of a Situationist gesture. It worked out well in the end, thoughit turned into a madhouse.”
Left: Kenny Schachter, owner of Rove, with wife, artist and designer Ilona Rich. Right: Anthony Reynolds Gallery director Costanza Mazzonis.
“The Ramakien,” writes artist (and, on this occasion, artistic director) Rirkrit Tiravanija in the program notes to his “rak opera” of the same name, which premiered at the Lincoln Center Festival last weekend, “questions what it is to be Thai, what it is to be Buddhist, and what it is to exist in contemporary conditions and elaborates on how desires are formed, how hopes are attained, how illusions are lost, and how to live together in this world.” An ancient tradition that is “part creation myth, part cautionary tale, and part celebration,” the Ramakien is an epic drama that was borrowed and adapted from India’s Ramayana by King Rama I of Siam at the turn of the nineteenth century. A hundred or so years later, it was whittled down, for the benefit of visiting Westerners, to a single, more manageable episode. Yet while modest compared to the days-long original, Tiravanija’s staging of this colorful myth still called on the talents of numerous performers and, according to the press materials, a cadre of “assorted Thai hipsters.”
Having blundered into some alarming footage of a recent Pink Floyd extravaganza on TV the night before, I set off for the Upper West Side with some trepidation, trying to keep in mind that, sometimes, more can be more. Shoehorning downtown Manhattan staple Arto Lindsay onto the same stage as “Thailand’s biggest rock star,” Sek Loso, and “Thailand’s Radiohead,” Modern Dog, for example, seemed frankly ill-advised on paper but, hey, it might just work. I arrived ten minutes ahead of the 8 PM curtain but, having snacked en route, elected to pass up the freebie Thai nibbles circulating in the lobby (they weren’t even Tiravanija’s own, popular Williamsburg eatery Sea having apparently muscled in on his act). The crowd was difficult to characterize, save for the recognizable art-world faces of the Public Art Fund’s Rochelle Steiner and artist Gabriel Orozco, but kept up an expectant buzz that continued as I took my seat. My neighbor was a dance critic and told me excitedly that she expected great things from the show’s choreographer, Pichet Klunchun, who was also slated to perform. I tried to elucidate Tiravanija’s standing in the art worldinternationally exhibited, Hugo Boss Prize winner, tenured professor at Columbia University, a fine short-order cookbut ran into problems with his role in the project at hand. What to expect from him here? I had no idea, though a number of performers were already onstage as we spoke.
Once everyone was seated, but without any announcement, a singer launched into a histrionic vocal and we began to settle in for the duration. But was this the music, or just some music to take in while we waited for the main event? The song ended, to scattered applause, and another performer stepped up to do much the same thing. It was all very casual, and rather confusing. The house lights were still up, and the set, a double-height metal framework fronted by sheets of white fabric that acted as the screens for various projections, appeared to be still under construction. This went on for a good half hour until, at some unseen signal, the house lights dimmed. What followed was nothing if not unpredictable. A fight between two characters that looked uncannily real? Yep. Lindsay pairing a fabulously ornate traditional Thai costume with brand-new white sneakers? Uh-huh. Loso acting out an embarrassing Jimi Hendrix fantasy before flopping into an easy chair? You got it. A seemingly endless alternation of cacophonous multiartist jam sessions with ultraslow stylized dance routines? Afraid so. Ramakien suffered from exactly the tendency toward overripeness that I’d feared ever since my TV-screen encounter with Gilmour, Mason, et al. Tiravanija’s name seems set to remain in lights no matter what he signs off on, but on the basis of this well-intentioned but overambitious crosscultural enterprise, one would be hard-pressed to say why. My dance-critic compadre described the audience as “very sweet” for their enthusiasm, but about the performance itself remained tellingly silent.
Left: CASCO director Emily Pethick, “Publish and Be Damned” curator Sarah McCrory, and South London Gallery curator Kit Hammonds. Right: Artist Donald Urquhart. (All photos: Morgan Falconer)
Why is it that when over sixty “art self-publishers”outlandish radicals, fringe commentators, and makers of oddball multiplesget together, the atmosphere is still that of an English country fete? Maybe Britain’s revolutionaries are content these days, as the mood at last Sunday’s “Publish and Be Damned,” the third installment of the annual British fair, was certainly genteel. Classy caterers sold fine food to the crowd lounging on the lawn of East London’s Rochelle School, while a young designer entertained them with an accordion. If you ignored the fact that some of the stalls inside offered strong obscenities (“It’s banned,” one man boasted to me of his pilot issue), you could have been in the English shires.
Curators Emily Pethick (now of CASCO in Utrecht) and Kit Hammonds (of the South London Gallery) initiated “Publish and Be Damned,” but this year, curator Sarah McCrory told me, while waving a wineglass and a mobile phone, she has been “stupid enough” to take on the administrative hassles of this venture herself. McCrory explained that many magazines wanted to participate, but that the event was not for vanity publishers. Like any trade fair, publishers had the opportunity to swap notes and distribute their wares. One man was down from Scotland with an ample number of copies of the remarkably enduring paper, Variant. “Take one,” he said. “And another . . . and take this CD containing every single issue since 1984.” He explained that, these days, it is actually cheaper to give the thing away free than to find someone to sell it.
Was anyone doing serious business? Michal Wolinski was certainly attracting a lot of interest with Piktogram, a very fine art journal from Poland. But the model of entrepreneurial success was surely artist Stephen Willats, who was doing a roaring trade with old copies of Control Magazine. “The thing to do,” he confided, “is never to date them. Then they’re never obsolete.” But that didn’t stop him telling his customers that his '60s produce was rare nor from cleverly squirreling away extra copies under the desk.
One had to have a shtick, a gig, or a punch line. Artist Donald Urquhart, with his hair lathered up in elegant curls to attract punters to his poster-size drawings, looked like a camp Raymond Pettibon. The people in the With Love from Brussels stall drew me into the game, and I spent the rest of the afternoon sporting a badge that claimed “My Boss Is Flemish.” Artist Lali Chetwynd wore a see-through dress to market her CDsthough she also pointed emphatically to a plateful of peanuts and told me that this was the currency in which she was trading.
Of course, some people really were trying to stir things up. Richard West, from The Vacuum, has a date in court following the brouhaha his paper caused in Belfast when they put out simultaneous issues on “God” and “Satan.” Their cause was not helped by a subsequent series of “Sorry” events, which included “ritual feet washing.” Meanwhile, Iain Hetherington from Glasgow’s Radical Vans and Carriages (subtitled Ideological vehicles of expression) told me that one of the higher purposes of their sheet was antagonizing the Glasgow City Council. Indeed, Hetherington kindly passed along a book-size compendium of back issues and assured me that the book will also be “printed on chair legs in an attempt to liquidate a false bourgeois cultural inheritance.” I nodded dutifully at this revolutionary nonsense and made a mental note: Never doubt the commitment of a radical pamphleteer.
Left: Radical Vans and Carriages coeditors Iain Hetherington and Alex Pollard. Right: Piktogram editor Michal Wolinski.
Left: Architect Rem Koolhaas and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: The Serpentine pavilion lights up. (Photo: Claire Bishop)
In the UK, Channel 4 television is broadcasting a masturbate-a-thon for charity. Some people have drawn unkind parallels between this event and the twenty-four-hour interview marathon hosted by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rem Koolhaas at the Serpentine Gallery last Friday and Saturday. Sixty-four luminaries were lined up to chew the fat inside the distinguished Dutch architect’s paviliona clear display of the duo's pulling prowess and a flamboyant declaration of Obrist’s arrival in London.
The event was broken into eight three-hour slots priced at £15 each. I skipped the first to catch Roman Ondák’s opening at Tate Modern. There I was surprised to find no one willing to join me on the trek to Kensington Gardens. Indeed, I encountered overt skepticism. Many perceived the marathon to be an act of shameless Serpentine PR, Rolodex curating, and territorial aggression toward other London institutions that do serious, in-depth talks. I couldn’t wait to check it out.
As I entered the Koolhaas bubbleaglow in the dying sunsetfirst impressions did not disappoint. Around a hundred punters were half-listening to artist Susan Hiller holding forth on the topic of London, while the interviewers looked disengaged and tense. Happily, Hiller is one of those speakers who can rattle on and on once you’ve pressed the “play” button. When she finally drew to a halt, there was an agonizing silence until Obrist muttered, “It is too dark and I cannot see my notes!” Penumbral gloom filled the bubble. There was only one way out. Obrist asked the question we would learn to love and loathe in equal measure, the one that would signal the impending termination of every interview over the next twenty hours: “Have you any unrealized dreams or projects?”
Left: Artist Louise Wilson and Serpentine director Julia Peyton-Jones. (Photo: Claire Bishop) Right: Fashion designer Hussein Chalayan. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)
Many others were keen to pontificate on the theme of London: a politico for culture and the Olympics, a criminologist, the editor of Time Out, and a cultural-studies guru. Outside the bubble, the atmosphere was less chat show and more Glastonbury: People were strewn on the lawn watching the big screen, enjoying the way that the cameramen spiced up duller talks by zooming in on bored audience members. Intellectually, it was just not happening.
Like trying to watch all five Cremaster films in one go, there eventually came a breakthrough when the experience was no longer painful. Mine arrived when I realized that our interviewers were suffering, too. Koolhaas’s opening gambit to laidback design legend Ron Arad couldn’t conceal his resignation: “I have always felt sympathy and respect for you, but never the inclination to talk to you. Now I have to ask you questions.” Despite his apparent disinterest in many guests, Koolhaas was sporadically capable of fantastic curveball questions. He asked choreographer Michael Clark, for example, “Have bodies changed since you began dancing in the 1980s?”
Midnight saw an influx of people from the Ondák party and a night session dominated by artists. Cerith Wyn Evans was reliably majesterial. Releasing the inner bard, he recited a Robert Frost poem and denounced Guy Debord. To the inevitable question about unrealized projects, he announced in his stately Welsh accent: “I am a fan of Orlan, so it would be great if you had a sex change, Hans Ulrich.”
Left: Fashion designer Giles Deacon. (Photo: Claire Bishop) Right: Artist Gustav Metzger. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)
The graveyard slot that followed (3–6 AM) was a little thin on speakers. My bed beckonedbut only for three hours. I was back by 9 AM, tuning in to comic actress Eleanor Brondignified by a pink visor and pom-pom earringsentertaining the audience while Koolhaas and Obrist faded. Despite this, the morning session was fantasticas full of inspirational content as the previous evening had been wanting. The speakers were intellectual heavyweights, and the sparsely populated pavilion lent the proceedings the air of a free university seminar. Top geographer Doreen Massey was electric, questioning the marathon’s celebration of the capital: London is a propagator of deregulation and privatization, she argued. We have to take responsibility for our dependence on third-world and Eastern European labor.
Venerable eighty-six-year-old philosopher Mary Midgley followed Massey and spoke with staggering lucidity and energy about Gaia, creationism, and the city as parasite. Architectural theorist Mark Cousins then challenged Obrist’s “campaign against forgetting” by arguing that one can remember too much, and topped this with a Nietzschean appeal for negativity, the ugly, and the undeveloped. “Where in this city,” he asked, “is the nonimproved to be?”
I was addicted. The final sessions were consistently good, and, for the closing hours, the pavilion returned to maximum capacity. Gustav Metzger (bright-eyed despite having stayed up all night to hear the entire marathon) launched his campaign for the art world to fly less. The final speaker, octogenarian author Doris Lessing, spoke with quiet and moving precision. The entire bubble was rapt. “We are a calamitously stupid species,” she said of the global ecological crisis, before moving onto foundational religious texts: “If you read them all one after each other you realize they’re all the same, but nobody wants to know that.” It was the perfect finale.
Left: Writer Doris Lessing. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: Rem Koolhaas. (Photo: Claire Bishop)
In conclusion: The marathon was amazing, uplifting, life affirming. But it was not without its exasperations. Aside from the prohibitively expensive ticketswhich precluded a truly collective experience of the marathonthe interviewers were embarrassingly underprepared for a substantial number of speakers. Like Obrist’s exhibitions “Utopia Station” and “Cities on the Move,” the event got where it did through sheer relentless overload. The incessant production of talks and symposia is undoubtedly the new performance art. Authenticity, presence, consciousness raisingall of the attributes of '70s performancenow attach themselves to discussion. In this environment, it would seem that Obrist and Koolhaas are the new Ulay and Abramovic.