MAYBE YOU’VE NOTICED that James Franco has been steadily inching his way into the art world: showing up at high-profile openings, befriending artists, and collaborating with artist and filmmaker Carter on the art film Erased James Franco. Franco’s art-world trajectory reached its bewildering apex last Thursday evening during the unfolding of Soap at MoCA: James Franco on General Hospital, the latest installment in the fiction-cum-reality of his ongoing guest appearances on the classic soap opera as the mysterious handsome bad guy with a dark creative edge: “Franco” . . . the psychotic artist “whose canvas is murder” . . . dun-dun-dun!
Culminating several narrative arcs on the daytime drama, Franco’s character “Franco” lands an exhibition that was staged on location in the plaza in front of the MoCA Pacific Design Center. The taping of his final GH episodes doubled as a live metaperformance acted out before an audience of invited art-world guests and giddy soap fans. A massive, looming image of the artist-actor’s face was projected, all night, onto the front of the museum, both a creepy backdrop for the filming and a big-brother touchstone for everyone present. A dizzying wild card, the collapsing of “real” Franco with “soap” Franco in the MoCA limelight was handily played by actor, museum, and television show alike. When we asked (“real”) Franco about his motivation for entering the art world and appearing on GH, he seemed very aware of the complexity of the situation and explained that “if I did it on a soap opera, we could get away with being over the top” and possibly capture something real about the art world in the process. He clarified that his surprising descent into soaps was part of a larger self-reflexive, conceptual project. (Too bad—if he were less explicit and more deadpan, the gesture would have packed more of a punch, like Andy Kaufman incongruously waiting tables at Jerry’s Famous Deli at the height of his Taxi fame.) MoCA’s newly anointed director, Jeffrey Deitch, billed the event as the Warholian meeting of middlebrow pop culture and vanguard art.
The evening, which got rolling around 7 PM (and was scheduled to last until 6 AM!), brought together three distinct groups: everyone directly involved in the shooting of General Hospital (including cast, crew, Franco, Deitch, and artist-turned–GH guest Kalup Linzy); the cheering soap audience (corralled onto a small, grassy knoll around the ad hoc set, spontaneously breaking out into a squealing estrogen-drenched fervor with every glimpse of GH star Steve Burton); and an insouciant art crowd (who mostly congregated atop a third-floor balcony, literally looking down on the performance with much the same aloofness that one imagines the vodka-sipping Romanovs might have had watching Russian peasants wrestle bears in the town square). Hammer curator Ali Subotnick, a longtime genuine GH fan and among the very first to arrive, must be the only crossover audience member alive.
Left: Artist Paul Farance, Franco body double Brad Standley, and dealer Shirley Morales. Right: Artist Kalup Linzy.
Despite being in celebrity-saturated LA and having a chronic case of jadedness, many in the art crowd followed Franco with secretly star-struck eyes as he strolled about debonairly between takes, smiling like a suave politician you’ve been hypnotized to vote for. Linzy (dressed in his usual performance drag) was the crowd fluffer, entertaining the restless soapies during long, boring bouts of downtime. Deitch sauntered onto the set in time to rehearse his lines and proudly work the photo op, cameras flashing and glinting off his signature circle frames, like two hollow gold coins. As the shoot wore on and the night grew late, the few artists, writers, and dealers that remained wandered around the set, gleefully inspecting Franco’s ersatz AbEx-meets-graffiti prop art, including one area that looked more like my orthodontist’s waiting room than like any believable gallery. Meanwhile, Franco had the night’s whole whirlwind filmed as part of his behind-the-scenes documentation of his GH performance project, to be shown later at MoCA.
The art crowd’s barely concealed confusion and skepticism were palpable in the frequency of raised eyebrows, worried looks, and sarcastic offhand remarks mumbled through sighs. Since the LA art community has been anticipating Deitch’s arrival at the helm of the city’s preeminent contemporary art institution with a fair dose of apprehension, “Soap at MoCA” was watched closely and cautiously as his first act in office. (Several invitees purportedly chose not to come in protest of spectacle.)
Trepidations aside, the exhilarating highlight of the night was the stunningly simple but gasp-worthy stunt in which first-time stuntman and Franco body double Brad Standley threw himself over the side of the three-story building to his presumptive death below. For one climactic moment, the three divergent spectator groups merged, boundaries dissolved, and suspicions relaxed; extras, artists, and soapies all looked up together as one seriously captivated audience. “Don’t kill me! I know where the baby is!” Franco exclaimed dramatically at one point during the shooting. Interrupting the hushed silence that followed, someone near the fifty-foot projection of his laughing face could be heard asking, “Is this art?” The moment was so perfect and perfectly ridiculous that it didn’t even matter whether it was or wasn’t, but if we had to answer, we’d say yes, because who could say no to that face?
Left: Collector Brenda R. Potter, General Hospital's Steve Burton, and UCLA Hammer curator Ali Subotnick. Right: A set.
SINCE THE ART WORLD is never in one place very long, membership often means flying hither and yon without knowing what’s in store. After an unmemorable Art Basel, the lure of more exotic climes was irresistible. So on the weekend of June 18, I headed into the Italian countryside and across the Mediterranean to Greece in pursuit of more art, and not just the kind that turns a profit.
My first stop was Milan, and the theater of obsession that is Paul McCarthy’s Pig Island. Located in a subterranean labyrinth below the crumbling Palazzo Citterio, around the corner from La Scala, the installation is McCarthy’s Decameron—a Santa’s workshop gone mad with moral abandon. The work, the centerpiece of a miniretrospective of McCarthy’s videos and sculptures, is curated by Massimiliano Gioni for the nomadic Nicola Trussardi Foundation, and is on view through this weekend. It also marks the palazzo’s first opening to the public.
Greeting visitors just inside the entrance is Static, one of McCarthy’s Pepto-Bismol pink tableaux of George Bush ramming a submissive pig. Guided by Trussardi publicist Flavio del Monte, I descended a winding, slightly creepy stone staircase that seemed out of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Cask of the Amontillado,” catching a glimpse of McCarthy’s giant ketchup-bottle inflatable in an interior courtyard.
Hair-raising screams from the sound track of Pirate Party, a four-channel escapade in rubber masks, ketchup, and other effluvia, resonated throughout the underground lair. We made our escape into a whitewashed, high-ceilinged stone chamber featuring a cracked model ship that del Monte called “Paul’s Bilbao,” as well as a solid Minimalist cube of tomato ketchup that McCarthy had poured on the spot and sealed under a glass top. From there it was on to a smaller, darkened alcove, where the grinning figure of a bald Paula Jones spread her legs across a low platform. “Paul’s Étant donnés,” offered del Monte.
Pig Island itself is in an even more subterranean bunker dug out in Brutalist style and left unfinished. Set on a raised platform measuring about a thousand square feet, the installation is a chaotic mess of puppets, maquettes, stray lumber, battered musical instruments, and found objects that McCarthy has accumulated in his Los Angeles studio over the past seven years. Here we saw the big, decapitated George Bush, Bill Clinton, and Paula Jones heads happily doing the dirty; the Disneyesque dwarves; the butt plugs, spilled paints, used coffee cups, empty KFC buckets, and dusty shoes associated with McCarthy, all piled onto tables and plywood crates under bright movie lights. Looking it over from a loge above the floor, I couldn’t help but think that all the people who say contemporary art is a tasteless joke would rejoice at the sight. But power isn’t pretty, and it often makes human beings act like pigs, be they politicians, movie stars, or collectors.
Still, truth-seekers need fresh air, so I made a getaway in a rented Fiat for the two-hour drive to the Hotel Somaschi, a converted monastery in Cherasco, a medieval Piedmont Valley town near Alba. For those who don’t know, Alba is a foodie paradise, ground zero for white truffles and hazelnuts. Nutella comes from there. So do Tic Tacs. And so does a wine-producing family named Ceretto, who were celebrating the fifth anniversary (and second Michelin star) of La Piola and Piazza Duomo, their art-appointed dining rooms at the center of town.
Among their guests for the weekend were the artists Kiki Smith, Francesco Clemente, Donald Baechler, Thomas Nozkowski, Terry Winters, Lynn Davis, and James Brown, all of whom had contributed signature plates for the restaurants at the behest of New York architect Bill Katz, the establishments’ designer. All were also friendly with the late Steven Shaller, a Katz associate who died last December. In his memory, Katz had organized an exhibition of works on paper by these and other artists including Robert Indiana, Anselm Kiefer, Philip Taaffe, Marina Karella, and Simrel Achenbach, dealer Andrea Rosen’s other half.
The festivities began Saturday night with the opening of the show in the baroque choir of the Chapel of Mary Magdalen, a twelfth-century church on a narrow street in Alba. There the artists were joined by Shaller’s parents, Katz’s family, two generations of Cerettos, and various friends who included the remarkable man-on-wire Philippe Petit and his wife, Kathy O’Donnell; the Paris-based art writers Brooks Adams and Lisa Liebmann; Leo Castelli biographer Annie Cohen-Solal; the male fashion models Bertil Espegren and Norbert Michalke; Dior leather goods designer Leonardo Pucci; Guggenheim Foundation deputy director Ari Wiseman; former Gagosian Gallery and Phillips de Pury specialist Rodman Primack; and art dealer Lorcan O’Neill.
It’s possible that such a gathering could take place in New York, but it still seemed unnatural to see this soigné crowd in a church instead of a bar. With Shaller as the binding force, the event provoked an intimacy that underscored the way art can make friends of strangers and family of friends. Federico Ceretto welcomed the group with an amusing anecdote about meeting Shaller—in a New York bar—and his later introduction to Katz. “My father is the vision behind all of this,” Ceretto told me. “But Bill is the one who made it happen.”
He was speaking not just of the show and the restaurants but of the plates and the artist’s residency that his family was inaugurating that weekend in a Katz-designed house and studio on the family winery’s estate. The plates, Ceretto said, derived from an old tradition in Italian restaurants that preceded printed menus; diners ordered from pictures of classic dishes painted on platters. But, he added, “a meal is not an exhibition. It’s about the pleasure of eating.”
Those words rang in my ears during dinner at Piazza Dumo, in a formal pink dining room frescoed by Clemente. It began with an amuse-bouche of a little green cube that looked like a sponge. In fact, it was a sponge, with a bit of tuna puree on top. What can I say? It was scrumptious. Next came a salad of fifty-one tiny ingredients served in hand-painted blown-glass bowls and eaten, one ingredient at a time, with a pair of long-handled tweezers so fabulous that everyone present ached to take one home.
Each course was more delectable, and more beautifully presented, than the last, especially a panna cotta overlaid with paper-thin, fruit-flavored leaves. It was nothing if not a painting. Afterward, the young, unbelievably svelte chef Enrico Crippa appeared in the dining room to accept our appreciation, and half of us got on a bus back to Cherasco like Midwestern church ladies on their first tour of the Continent.
The next day, after breakfast, we set off for the winery, to visit the first resident of the new artist’s studio, James Brown, and enjoy a Crippa-produced buffet lunch for two hundred. It followed a surprise performance by Petit, whom Katz introduced as “that poet of the air,” which involved a juggling act and a slide show touching on the high points of his career. More than one of us had a lump in our throats when an aerial picture of the World Trade Center came up. “My towers,” Petit sighed. “Now our towers.”
After a stop at an abandoned chapel in Barolo painted in 1999 by Sol LeWitt and David Tremlett, we hardly had time to change for a dinner that seemed a little anticlimactic when we had hardly digested lunch. I didn’t stay for breakfast the next day, but only because the art juggernaut was still in motion and I had to catch a plane for Athens and a boat to Hydra, where collector Dakis Joannou was holding a scaled-back version of his annual party for the artist commissioned to make a new work for the island’s former slaughterhouse. Last year, Matthew Barney and Elizabeth Peyton had done the honors. This year it was Maurizio Cattelan, who kept it simple with a single work, We, a child-size bed on which two diminutive mannequins of himself lay side by side, dressed in funereal black suits.
“So you finally came out of the closet,” I said when I saw it. In response, Cattelan handed me a copy of Toilet Paper, a surreal new picture magazine he has produced with Italian photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari and Micol Talso, with support from Joannou’s Deste Foundation. It comes with two different covers. Mine has a black-and-white close-up of a woman’s eye staring up at the open mouth of a man with a fake eyeball between his lips. The other is a color portrait of a deranged priest. They are both quite scary.
There was a dinner, of course, on the terrace of a restaurant overlooking the Aegean. Most of the fifty guests were Greek, with a spray of foreigners like artists Doug Aitken, Josh Smith, and Kerstin Brätsch; dealers Thaddaeus Ropac, Lawrence Luhring, Daniele Balice, and Massimo De Carlo; collectors Adam Lindemann and Amalia Dayan; and curators Cecilia Alemani and Massimiliano Gioni. I asked Gioni what made him want to make an exhibition of Pig Island. “I knew no one else would,” he said.
Aitken is Joannou’s pick for next year, though he is not an artist that previously interested the Koons-mad collector. “Doug has an ambition I like,” Joannou said, and went on to describe a transmission project that would spin out of the tiny slaughterhouse to points across the globe. “I’m not going to put an object in a room,” Aitken said. “We have enough objects in the world already.”
That may be true, but we have to make some use of the ones we have, and Gioni’s picks for the Deste Foundation’s latest show, “Alpha Omega,” make a good case for keeping them in view. When I saw it the following day, I was struck by how much more varied Joannou’s collection is than Jeff Koons made it seem in “Skin Fruit,” the sex-and-death show he curated this year for the New Museum. Most compelling was the hypnotic film Barney made from last year’s Hydra performance, Blood of Two. Had I really come halfway across the world to relive a past experience? Well, some art just doesn’t wear thin, especially in these social circles. Clearly, the farther you go for art, the closer to home you get.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN 1971, The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol was a real-time oral history of the Factory compiled by John Wilcock, a cofounder of the Village Voice, publisher of Interview, downtown scribe, and Factory regular himself. (“It’s not an autobiography and there’s no sex in it.”) I remember being a young Pop-obsessed weenie and gobbling up the book in the school library, where I learned to confuse postwar aesthetics with gossip. Quaintly DIY-looking and strangely neglected considering Warhol’s robust afterlife, the groovy period piece was discovered in the early 1990s by editor Christopher Trela, who decided to give this underexploited gem a slick art-book makeover, glossy production values, and its rightful place in the Warhol archive.
Pushing forty and sporting its spiffy new face-lift, the text was celebrated last Wednesday at a New York Public Library panel moderated by Dr. Steven Watson, Warhol maven and “expert on the group dynamics of the American avant-garde.” On hand were several of the original interviewees: Taylor Mead, Warhol superstar (Tarzan and Taylor Mead’s Ass); photojournalist Gretchen Berg, perhaps Warhol’s most earnest hagiographer; Gerard Malanga, Warhol’s assistant and cruise director; Mr. Wilcock; and “surprise guest” Bibbe Hansen, a tween Warhol superstar (Prison) and mother of pop star Beck.
Mead was a geriatric potty mouth (“What a big cock he had—he tried to make it with me but [he was] not my type . . . ”) and a wag: “Someone wrote an article in a downtown mag, ‘I shot Andy Warhol.’ Well, I wrote an article: ‘I would have shot Andy Warhol’ ” (big laugh from the crowd). Gretchen Berg recalled when she got off at the fourth floor of the Factory: “At that moment my life changed. This person was like myself. This person had suffered. ‘Come here,’ he said. ‘I will comfort you. I am the old Zen master.’ He drew people toward him. I felt: ‘You are the unmet friend I am looking for.’ He was unique in American art.”
I wonder if she ever perused Holy Terror by Bob Colacello, who offers a slightly different take on Andy. Malanga, a silver fox, reminisced about the “dawn patrol,” what he called the amphetamine subculture: “We’d be up all night. [It was] an intellectual atmosphere. I always wondered what these people did, though. They always seemed talented at something. People who were on amphetamines would get into a rapture and be talking constantly. And Andy would have some of these people in his films.” Hansen, poised in a salon-fresh bob, flashed beauty-pageant smiles as she brightly recounted how she was a street kid who’d been in jail and how Warhol instructed the sixteen-year-old editor of Sleep to do a simple splice: “If you see anything interesting—cut it out.”
As I surveyed the plush auditorium, I shouldn’t have been surprised that the overflow crowd was rather mature, with a smattering of savvy-looking design queens, stylish ladies, and some schlubs who might have wandered in off the street. I wished everyone had name tags. I fantasized I was surrounded by Factory alums, as if I’d stumbled into a Superstar Senior Center. And indeed there was something time-warpish about the panel. Forty years later, Warhol was still the fascinating black hole of fabulosity (“I’m just a receiver,” Wilcock said he told Charles Henri Ford) who flattened the difference between art and life, and people who were “on the scene” still basked in his cult of fame and his weirdly contagious vision, which can seemingly transmute anything—however banal or freakish—into Pop.
Wilcock: “I asked Sam Green: ‘Do you regard yourself a friend of Andy?’ Sam Green: ‘Does anyone?’ ”
Most of the anecdotes they recounted can be found in the book (did they crib to refresh their memories?), but it was strangely affecting to see that Mead and Malanga (familiar fixtures documented in the Warhol archive) had naturally aged, as if one expected them, instead, to be like Dorian Gray.
Watson kept the panel moving nicely, no mean feat since they were all ramblers. The Q&A period was eaten up by one questioner, a former New York Times art director who used a circuitous Warhol reference to plug her own book and got the gong: “Question?!!”
Wilcock, in turn, plugged his book Manhattan Memories, about the early days of the Village Voice. “A story about [Warhol] is very brief—and now I’ve forgotten it! He was a very kind person. I never saw him angry or nasty to anyone or mean. Though whenever you asked him something, he’d say ‘What do you think?’ ”
Hansen recalled Warhol’s “endless curiosity. [A state of being] ‘interested in.’ He wasn’t a person who sat around being interesting. He was engaged.”
“Very interesting,” said the fellow next to me.
I WISH LIFE WAS EASY; I WISH FOR INNER PEACE; I WISH FOR A HOLIDAY ON THE BEACH. The last of these pleas—all samplings from Rivane Neuenschwander’s participatory installation Eu desejo o seu desejo (I Wish Your Wish)—seemed not only the most achievable ambition but also the most timely, as guests arriving late to the Brazilian artist’s Tuesday night opening at the New Museum looked distinctly soggy after a summer storm. The mottos were printed on ribbons arranged around the walls of the lobby, and viewers were invited to take and wear one in exchange for suggestions of their own. If scoping outfits (and there were some highly styled ensembles around) failed as a guide to attendees’ personalities, these wordy accessories were helpful backups. Should I go for I WISH FOR A MARGARITA IN MY FAVORITE BAR IN MEXICO, I pondered, or was I more of an I WISH OBAMA COULD BE RE-ELECTED type?
I clocked critic Paul Laster and curators Matthew Higgs and Clarissa Dalrymple among the VIPs (entrance to the event was staggered so that the toffs could slope off in time for dinner, leaving the kids to party in the Sky Room all the way ’til 10 PM), but all were keeping their desires to themselves. Neuenschwander’s third-floor work Primeiro amor (First Love) also promised more than it delivered in the all-too-controlled setting. For this bit of interactivity, a sketch artist had been hired to render crushes from back in the day based only on participants’ remembered descriptions, but the pace was understandably slow and there were no revealing captions. Still, it was fun to watch the expressions of mingled nostalgia and horror that crossed the faces of one or two guinea pigs.
Left: Artist Eli Sudbrack. Right: Producer Carlos Quirarte, actor Justin Theroux, and artists Hanna Liden and Nate Lowman.
There was something a little odd about the dinner that followed. It wasn’t the surroundings, the enjoyably shabby-luxe Jane hotel. And it wasn’t the guests, most of whom were familiar from the opening (artist Steve Miller being one chatty exception). No, it was the food itself, which, though it looked lovely, tasted a little, well, flat. The fault lay not with chefs Benedetto Bartolotta and Patrick Kriss, however, but with the ingredients they had to work with. These were derived from a shopping list, written in English, that Neuenschwander had found in a Frankfurt supermarket. The resulting Iron Chef–style cook-off was billed as a re-creation of the artist’s performance Gastronomic Translations. As New Museum director Lisa Phillips noted, it made for a healthy repast—while certain food groups were well represented, the list made no mention of sugar or salt.
“I’m making my way around a large cat’s head that I think I last saw in The Infidel with Lana Turner . . . ” (Perhaps he meant Katherine MacDonald?) Knocking back a chilled cantaloupe shot and polishing off my banana and cashew tart with, uh, cantaloupe, I listened as avuncular New Museum curator Richard Flood took to the mic and narrated his own journey to the stage before launching into an extended series of shout-outs and thank-yous. This got progressively more enthusiastic: “Dude, I salute you!” he cried to one lucky subject, then, bizarrely, “Let’s dial it up!” Finally embraced by a shy and overwhelmed Neuenschwander, he toasted “good, slow food” and reclaimed his seat. By the time a platinum blonde Kirsten Dunst arrived with a gaggle of girlfriends in little black dresses and ensconced herself at a corner table with the remaining eligible-male contingent, Flood and Neuenschwander had long since made their exit.
WHILE OTHERS angled for last-minute flights from Berlin, my Art Basel warm-up consisted of a full night’s sleep chased with champagne and a visit to Droog at the Monday afternoon preview of Design Miami/Basel. It would have been nice to stick around and enjoy the smartly dressed company, but staying put wasn’t on the agenda. Instead, I set off for the opening of Liste, a less well-heeled event, if only because everyone knows stilettos are no match for the iron-grate stairwells of the labyrinthine Werkraum Warteck, the longtime venue for the “young art fair” that is now celebrating its fifteenth year.
Burgweg street was packed with beer and bratwurst in the reliable and familiar art-kegger format. Out on the veranda, Amsterdam’s ZINGERpresents offered an archive of works exploring masculinity, while upstairs A. L. Steiner and A. K. Burns’s video at Taxter + Spengemann was raising more eyebrows (among other things) than Christian Marclay’s guitar porn at Art Unlimited. “I don’t mind the fisting so much,” one viewer claimed, squirming back into the hallway. “It’s just that when they start sewing each other’s faces . . . ”
For her project at Hotel, artist Juliette Blightman had scoured Basel in search of its most reliable tarot reader. The result? Madame Yvonne, who arrived in style with her own posters and decor, offering to read fairgoers’ fortunes. “Oh, I’ll get mine read eventually,” Hotel director Darren Flook sighed. “But honestly, what if I don’t want to know? It’s only day one, after all.”
Day two came quickly enough—at this pace, who has time to care about the future? I made an attempt at the opening of the main fair, but skipped out before closing time to catch a book launch for Rob Pruitt’s Holy Crap! at the artist-run alternative space New Jerseyy. Pruitt was on hand for his panda-themed Flea Market, passively peddling panda memorabilia given to him by collectors. An assistant held up a poster: “Is fifty euros OK for this?” Pruitt shrugged and returned to “personalizing” a copy of his book, i.e., ripping out random pages.
I spotted Pruitt’s dealer Gavin Brown, artists Andro Wekua and Pamela Rosenkranz, SculptureCenter’s Fionn Meade, and I’m pretty sure new Tate Modern director Chris Dercon—the problem with dark-horse appointments being that it takes a while before the rest of us can properly recognize them. The growing crowd was already casually drinking beers streetside (all in their newly purchased panda hats and aprons, natch), and the evening only promised to get rowdier. A band pulled up in a car with a trunk full of amps and treated onlookers to an impromptu concert, but, already late for the Ambra Medda/Emmanuel Perrotin dinner, I didn’t stick around to see where it led.
The Medda/Perrotin fete was once again held on board Das Schiff, a party boat on the Rhine, and once again cohosted with world-renowned Parisian hedonists Le Baron. Paris-based band Fortune was charged with the task of ushering in the dinner-to-dance-floor transition, while a roof deck offered a place to cool off and some respite from the crowd. Weaving between the two venues, I passed Sotheby’s Oliver Barker and Loic Gouzer, dealer Harry Blain, and collector Jean Pigozzi safely ensconced at the bar, and spotted Perrotin artists Jesper Just, Daniel Firman, and Xavier Veilhan kicking things off dance-wise. As the evening progressed, orphaned bottles of champagne kept appearing on tabletops, and the lively set by Le Baron ensured that no one kept track of time (or, let’s face it, anything else).
Roughly four hours after finally making it off that boat, I was nabbing a coveted seat at the inaugural Art Conversations, this year featuring New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni and artist Paul McCarthy. The 10 AM talk centered on McCarthy’s sprawling Pig Island, curated by Gioni and currently on view at the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi in Milan. The artist regaled the crowd: “I never thought art could cure anything. Art for me is not therapy, in the sense that I’m not getting well here.” Later, during the Q&A, one woman inquired as to what the artist found “so interesting about sex.” McCarthy cocked his head and thought for a moment, before the woman clarified, “ . . . in your work, I mean.”
The next day, an intrepid group joined Hauser & Wirth on a day trip to Milan to see the sculpture itself, but I opted to spend my Thursday touring the jewels of Basel—the Schaulager and the Beyeler—before taking the tram back to the town center for a book launch of Cyprien Gaillard’s Geographical Analogies, held in the back room of the Kunsthalle bar (which, as it turns out, no one had actually seen in the daytime). I caught up briefly with the Sprüth Magers team and scattered members of the New Jerseyy clan, who were eager to advise on the best of that evening’s Black Forest parties.
Fueled by a Basel-specific diet of white wine, espresso, and candy from the Beyeler’s Felix Gonzalez-Torres show, I continued up the street to the Kunstmuseum for a reception honoring Gabriel Orozco. I was somewhat surprised to discover the artist himself standing outside the museum’s gates. Apparently, in Switzerland, people not only bother to open their gallery mail, but they actually follow instructions and bring paper invitations to events. This would be quaint if someone had thought to provide guest lists to the stern-looking security, so that, you know, important but forgetful people could get in. As it was, with no lists to ensure entrance, a crowd of undisputed title holders—among them Hans Ulrich Obrist and Tate Modern’s Jessica Morgan—congregated around Orozco. The artist guided us around to the back entrance, then turned to the assembled: “Before we go in”—he smiled—“let me tell you that you should really work on your PR.” With that, the doors opened and we poured into the rear lobby, where flustered Swiss museum guards held us until they could secure everyone a yellow wristband.
Next up was Art Parcours, a new program of site-specific work, which required a special map to track down (shades of Skulptur Projekte Münster). We scurried through the rain to track down Martha Rosler’s community-wide Fair Trade Garage Sale and Angela Bulloch’s light box, suspended above the altar of the Basel Münster cathedral, before trying our luck at getting on the passenger ferry where John Bock was taking a Charon-esque turn for his work Seawolf. Given the persistent downpour, it didn’t seem likely that the Cerith Wyn Evans fireworks (“His biggest ever!” I had been advised) would go on as planned, so we skipped along to the next destination: banker and Basel grandee Peter Handschin’s party in Seltisberg.
Thanks goodness for the free Art Basel VIP cars (and the foresight to schedule one in advance). Evidently, the drivers had received so many requests for a ride to a house with no discernible address other than “out in the countryside, kind of near a post office,” that they had met beforehand and group-Googled the location. Winding through the country roads, we watched foxes and field mice flash in and out of the fog until finally, after a stretch of off-roading (the VIP Volkswagen fleet’s best advertising yet), two pretty, blonde valets appeared in the headlights.
The bonfire was blazing as promised and orange tents were spread across the yard, but the rain kept the majority of the guests inside, where they met myriad Choose Your Own Adventure–style doors and stairways (all in keeping with the Magic Castle feel of the evening). One entry might lead you to a lavish buffet, another to Bianca Jagger. (Of course, there were other staircases, other rooms, but I—wisely, I think—left those adventures to others.)
Left: Jane Hait of Wallspace Gallery. Right: Dealers Dealer Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers. (Photos: Kate Sutton)
The stately, art-filled interior was precariously packed. No one seemed to mind that people were getting precipitously close to the Sterling Ruby painting at the top of one stairwell. “It’s like the parents are out of town for the weekend,” an artist friend whispered. Surveying the crowd, however, by all appearances it was the kids who had split the scene. The impromptu dance floor boasted an uncomfortable combination of jabbing elbows and flying cardigans, as the abundance of alcohol and the eclectic YouTube-based playlist (The Smiths’s “Some Girls Are Bigger than Others” followed by the new Kylie Minogue single) coaxed an unlikely assortment to flail about. Amid the mom jeans, I did spy artists Danh Vo and Tobias Madison, as well as dealer Martin Eder and Cay Sophie Rabinowitz, who was holding court near a trio of what I’m pretty certain were the villains from Superman 2.
“It’s a little Hansel and Gretel, right?” Josée Bienvenu’s Samuel Roeck pondered as we attacked a plate of gingerbread. Indeed, it was hard to properly indulge in the decadence without worrying about how—or if—we would find our way home. I’ve read enough fairy tales to know to be on guard when stumbling on a castle in the woods—especially one bursting with beautiful men perpetually topping up champagne glasses. Perhaps against better judgment (or maybe just the first good judgment of the week), I snagged a seat back in the first available taxi before things got full-on Grimm.
FOR ALL ITS undeniable charm, Aarau is not an obvious destination on the art-world map. But there many of us were early on a sunny Sunday morning, hovering over a very orderly Swiss buffet brunch of käse and brot and kaffee. It’s possible that the art intelligentsia needed somewhere pleasant to cool their heels in between Zurich and Basel, and that Olten (poor Olten) just wasn’t cutting it. But pleasant’s not enough to draw Eva Presenhuber and Barbara Gladstone and Beatrix Ruf to your township. For that you need a kunst-something of some renown—here the Aargauer Kunsthaus—and you need a formidable show, in this case Ugo Rondinone’s “The Night of Lead.”
“You’re going to make Kelley Walker jealous!” joked Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs, observing the painted brick-pattern covering the Kunsthaus’s glass-plate exterior. “Well we’re all indebted to Cady Noland,” Rondinone noted convivially, and he should know, having curated Noland into a show at the Palais de Tokyo three years back.
Rondinone was everywhere in Basel this year, his BIG MIND SKY rainbow text soaring above the Ramada on the Messeplatz, a massive wall of colored windows anchoring the rear wall of Art Unlimited. On Monday, the latter section opened at 4 PM, the week’s first real taste of the fair’s carnivalesque spirit. Attendees crammed into the cavernous space, grasping for flutes of champagne from the official sponsor, Ruinart. (“Ruin art, really?” asked a patron. The waiter corrected: “Roonärrt”—or something like that. “Okay, fine,” the patron responded impatiently. “But ruin art?”)
Left: Kunsthalle Zürich curator Beatrix Ruf. Right: Museum Ludwig director Kasper König with artist Katharina Sieverding.
“I’m so glad we’re in Art Unlimited,” said one dealer. “I was getting so bored with all the limited art.” There was a lot to see—too much for a preview, really—though it would have been a shame to miss the roomful of Sigmar Polke “Laterna Magica” paintings, his final project before his death, or the installation of Nancy Spero’s Cri du Coeur. Visitors lined up for film installations by Doug Aitken, Ryan Gander, and Agnès Varda too—while others shuffled out, wide-eyed, from Christian Marclay’s “filthy” (to quote one stunned viewer) video Solo, featuring a woman who undresses and plays a guitar with her…
That evening, everyone, as they say, seemed set for the Gladstone dinner feting Matthew Barney, Rondinone, and Rosemarie Trockel—a tony lineup for feting indeed. Collectors queued around 7 PM behind the Swissôtel Le Plaza, across from the creepy-looking “Crazy Sexy Center” (Basel’s red-light district isn’t very discreet), to wait for the coach service to the Reithalle Wenkenhof in Riehen, an impressive pile on the city’s outskirts, which, in autumns, is also home to the Basel Ancient Art Fair. (You thought Art Basel was the only one?)
Once we’d arrived and passed through the majestic gate, we decided the appropriate word for the mise-en-scène—verdant grounds and pleasingly expensive interiors—was splendid. The place also, somewhat ominously, recalled the set for Dynasty’s season-five cliff-hanger, the so-called Mordavian massacre, though this probably says more about our limited (i.e., mostly televisual) reference points for mansionlike settings, generally.
Left: Art Basel directors Marc Spiegler and Annette Schönholzer. Right: Michael Werner’s Gordon VeneKlasen.
In any case, the crudités were also splendid, as were the guests: Here’s Peter Eleey, new curator at MoMA PS1, and Lisa Phillips, director of the New Museum, and the charming Nicholas Baume of Public Art Fund. There’s Neville Wakefield, who put together the exceptional (also splendid) Barney show at the Schaulager. (“We finally have an American Beuys,” raved collector Mera Rubell on seeing it.) And then, of course, there was Barney’s wife, Björk, a rather significant artist in her own right, wearing a weirdly elegant pumpkin-y dress. Collector Maja Hoffmann showed up near the end of the cocktail hour. “And now it’s time to eat,” said Team Gallery’s José Freire.
A parade of maybe a hundred walked to the “barn”—more like another mansion—and then to our assigned places. “Is this impressive or is this impressive?” Wachs asked, and we all knew what he meant. Flowers as weird and beautiful as the art lined the centers of the long tables. The aubergine salad was suitably dressed. I sat next to an intelligent Belgian collector, who admitted she prefers to buy art that’s already established. “And I don’t like to meet the artists,” she said sagely. “You might be disappointed.”
The next morning, under a cloudy sky, the crowds amassed, as they do every year, at the main entrance for the 11 AM First Choice view. There is, after all, so much choosing to do, and no one flies here to play seconds. The jostling and waiting to flash your card seemed particularly uncivilized this year. “Isn’t there a VIP entrance?” asked one clueless collector, not realizing that this was it. “Being a VIP on Tuesday is like being a Jew in Israel,” a writer later quipped.
The rich have their rituals, Art Basel among them. They also have “spendorphins,” a new term (not hers, she assured me) that I acquired from writer Sarah Thornton. Spendorphins seemed to be running freely this year. “No complaints—and for good reason!” Hauser & Wirth director Anna Helwing happily announced. (The “good reason” might have been a sale of a set of Paul McCarthy sculptures that sold Tuesday for $3 million.) Dealers weren’t taking low bidders, either. “I don’t bother with them,” one dealer sniffed at a pair of collectors. “Their limit is twenty thousand dollars—they can’t afford anything here.”
Since it’s not a Venice year, this fair was low on celebrity wattage: Bianca Jagger shipped in for her first Basel experience, and Val Kilmer hit the ground running with collector Peter Brant. (“I guess becoming an art collector is a better fate than Dancing with the Stars,” meowed one observer.) But then we spotted Jeanne Greenberg Rohaytn, who now has a reality show on Bravo—that counts, right?
The big advance news, at least for journalists, was the fair’s sophisticated new iPhone application, replete with an (actually functional) 3-D map. “We’re ranked number three in the ‘Productivity’ section,” bragged Art Basel director Marc Spiegler. “But does it show prices?” asked one perfervid journalist. “Look, you have to do some work,” Spiegler said. Demonstrating Apple’s complete dominance of the art market, the new de rigueur accessory on the booth this season was an iPad. Emmanuel Perrotin’s staff brandished them like the high-tech menus for art that they were, while 303 Gallery was slightly more discreet. “We thought we’d be the only ones,” said Carol Greene, looking at hers. “Maybe it’s a bit embarrassing now?”
Left: Metro Pictures’ Helene Winer and Tom Helman. Right: Dealer Gavin Brown with collector Dakis Joannou.
Eva Presenhuber’s booth gave good face. “This looks like a museum,” said one wowed reporter. “You have to be on the committee to get this kind of booth.” Team Gallery’s stand popped, too: “It’s black-and-white and Cory,” observed an artist, referring to Cory Arcangel’s massive Photoshop CS3 prints so bright they hurt your eyes. The big (both literally and artistically) standout of the fair, though, was Cindy Sherman’s strange new prints on PhotoT Tex adhesive fabric at Metro Pictures: just “her” gussied up and printed large on some intriguing new chiaroscuro landscapes of her own design. “She’s playing around with her props, just doing things for whatever reasons she does them,” the gallery’s Helene Winer said blithely. If only we could all play with such panache.
At 9 PM, after ten hours of Olympics-style cubicle-dashing, the fair ended with typical Swiss punctuality. There was still more to see and do—dinners for Marian Goodman and Emmanuel Perrotin, a “BallyLove” (?) party for Philippe Decrauzat. It seemed we arrived either too early or too late for everything, swooped quickly into (and out of) a Gavin Brown dinner around the corner from New Jerseyy’s compact space on Hüningerstrasse, and then on to the Perrotin shindig on Das Schiff. The crowd was dense, but our soles were wearing thin, so we taxied back to the Kunsthalle bar, where dealers danced with unselfconscious abandon in that way only Europeans can manage. I turned in early…ish—after all, the next day was Art Goes Brunch at the Schaulager, and contrary to popular Basel belief, it’s breakfast (not cocktails) that’s the most important meal of the day.
A STRANGE MIX of nostalgia and anticipation accompanied the opening of the Sixth Berlin Biennial. Last Tuesday night, artists Wolfgang Ganter and Kaj Aune raised a giant heap of trash on a small forklift in a parking lot in front of Vittorio Manalese, Bruno Brunnet’s new gallery. The performance brought to mind two “trashy” installations from the legendary First Berlin Biennial in 1998: the maniacal videos and sculptures of the (now forgotten) Honey-Suckle Company and those of Jonathan Meese.
Curator Kathrin Rhomberg dispersed all notions of nostalgia right away during the press conference on Wednesday morning, arguing that this year’s Biennial embraces the present moment. “No pleasure-ful gaze,” she said. This obviously meant forgoing the glamour of the Mitte district. The press conference was held in the Alevitic cultural center in Kreuzberg, close to the Biennial’s main location at Oranienplatz, in the most culturally diverse area of Berlin. Artist Katharina Sieverding sat in the front row, taking pictures, and MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach also attended, of course. The conference was cut short––only a handful of questions were asked––because the minister of state for cultural affairs, Bernd Neumann, wanted the first view and had a tight schedule. A strong political realist himself, he used his speech mainly to explain one thing: how he had heroically saved the federal cultural budget from cuts after the Greek/Euro crisis. As far as the speeches were concerned, Michael Fried’s elaboration on über-realist Adolph Menzel was the clear highlight of this event. Fried spoke very passionately on Menzel: “Clearly one of the best draftsmen of all times—completely ambidextrous.”
While viewing the exhibition, I noticed that a sense of nostalgia also seemed to be at play in Phil Collins’s documentation of the memories of former Marxist-Leninist teachers from the GDR and Hans Schabus’s mutilated dinosaur and mammoth from a defunct amusement park in East Berlin (one of the few sculptural works on view). The installation was decidedly sparse, with plywood walls and secondhand carpets.
I quickly made my way over to Kunst-Werke, but found the doors blocked. Entering through the basement, I came across the most compelling artistic statement of the Biennial: Petrit Halilaj’s reconstruction of his parents’ new house in Kosovo. It not only fills KW’s ground floor but emerges through its roof. Next up, I stopped by the opening of “Edge of Saudi Arabia” at Soho House. The art? As one German critic remarked: “It’s not great, but it’s really not so bad.” Most surprising: no alcohol, only “Saudi Champagne”—whatever that is. Finally, I made it to the Temporäre Kunsthalle, where brothers Olaf and Carsten Nicolai were warming up their turntables. The bass lines were impressive, but I left before the battle was over: King Size was waiting. The bar/club on Friedrichstraße had emerged as a new art-world epicenter during Gallery Weekend in April (Samuel Keller dancing, Johann König headbanging). Tonight, tape artist Gregor Hildebrandt had switched to records and performed on the turntables: The floor was hot, crowded, and drunk.
The next morning, the first reviews in the daily papers arrived: No paintings! So much video! Tagesspiegel, Berlin’s local paper, called it “pale”; the FAZ: “sobering.” (Peter Richter in Sunday’s edition of the FAZ called it the “most disappointing” Biennial. That’s what happens when you deny the right to a pleasure-ful gaze and force critics to see more than a dozen videos in one day.) I rejoined the art world in the early evening with the private tour of the Menzel works arranged for the American ambassador, Philip D. Murphy. Fried was showing Menzel’s realist drawings and paintings, including works depicting the artist’s foot, his bed, and Frederick the Great addressing his generals.
Later that night was the Art Basel dinner for special guests, across the street from the Alte Nationalgalerie at Kronprinzenpalais. Pop as can be: Michael Stipe with boyfriend Thomas Dozol, Peaches (in the best dress of the week), Elmgreen & Dragset, Maurizio Cattelan, and Sturtevant. Even later was the official opening party on the banks of the River Spree, at the club Kiki Blofeld. The Biennial team had their private stack of beer bottles but shared freely with bystanders. This was clearly the place to be, as was proved by the presence of guests like Biesenbach; artists Tal R, Monica Bonvicini, and Martin Eder; and collectors like Angelika Taschen.
Left: Artist Ingar Dragset and Kunst-Werke curator Susanne Pfeffer. Right: Artist Olafur Eliasson with collector Maja Hoffmann.
Friday night brought many more openings: Sturtevant at Neu, Lara Favaretto at Klosterfelde, and John Smith at Tanya Leighton, to name a few. The Künstlerhaus Bethanien finally moved into its new space––after squatters had taken over parts of its old building. Meanwhile, the worst form of Kreuzberg nostalgia (combined with some “activism”) appeared: Someone posted pictures of Rhomberg, KW director Gabriele Horn, and KW press director Denhart von Harling with the slogan I AM A GENTRIFIER on walls in Kreuzberg, replete with the victims’ mobile numbers and e-mail addresses. Whether this was meant to be art or anticapitalist action remained unclear. The KW team took it as art: They left the posters up but blacked out the contact details.
I managed to squeeze in a performance by Nevin Aladag at Ballhaus Naunynstraße before heading over to Borchardt for dinner. No collectors or curators here; only artists and writers were invited to this event hosted by Birte Kleemann of Pace Gallery. The Nicolais were there, as was Hildebrandt (not to mention dealer Larry Gagosian). Afterward we slouched on to King Size once more, bumping into artists Martin Rosengaard of Wooloo.org and Tue Greenfort. While drinking red wine from whiskey glasses, Rosengaard summed up the Biennial: “It is a depressing show. I really like it.”
MADRID NUNCA DUERME, they’ve said. Of course, New York never sleeps either. (No rest for the wicked.) So it wasn’t so strange, perhaps, that the two cities became bedfellows last Wednesday during the opening of Douglas Crimp and Lynne Cooke’s revelatory and expansive “Mixed Use, Manhattan” at the Reina Sofía. That day brought not just New York art but also New York weather as the sun was supplanted by a cranky gray, though rain didn’t stop a crowd of festive Madrileños from gathering to toast the occasion.
“I was daunted by the idea of the exhibition at first,” Crimp admitted during Wednesday’s opening conversation. “After all, I haven’t done a show since 1977.” (And what a show that was.) “Mixed Use” makes an argument both for the fecundity of cities in transformation and for the significance of photography to the art of recent decades—not simply as documentation or “critical” practice but as a mode of “use” proper. So the modernist vantages of Peter Hujar and Danny Lyon rub shoulders with more reflexive works by Cindy Sherman and Barbara Probst (and even nonphotographic representations, such as Glenn Ligon’s text-based accounts of places he’s lived).
It’s a pedestrian show. Not average at all, but cruisy—characterized by various modes of flânerie. Weirdly, the “moving-image” works often seem the most “still,” staying focused on a single site or subject (Steve McQueen’s Statue of Liberty porn Static or Donald Moffett’s projections-on-canvas of the Central Park Ramble or James Nares’s mesmerizing Pendulum). In photography, which of course makes up the bulk of the exhibition, serialism is peripatetic—John Miller’s sex clubs and Moyra Davey’s newsstands and Tom Burr’s bathrooms and Roy Colmer’s East Village doors evince an insistent wanderlust. Hujar traces his night journeys down Manhattan’s west side, Christopher Wool probes East Broadway, and David Wojnarowicz draws circles around the city. (“All of my favorite stuff in one place,” raved Emily Roysdon, who’s in the exhibition too.) Of course, you’re always wondering what’s behind the photograph (the sleazy “outside the frame”)—except in the case of Alvin Baltrop, who rarely spares the details. You have to walk a lot to take it all in—the forty-plus-artist show is tight but expansive, something like six city blocks long, which must be traversed on the museum’s unforgiving stone floors.
“New York’s really come to Madrid,” Tate Modern curator Stuart Comer observed as we arrived at the elegant Paradís for post-opening tapas. Present amid the crowd were artists Ligon, Roysdon, Matthew Buckingham, and Vera Lutter; Stephen Koch of Hujar’s estate and Rena Gill of Stefan Brecht’s; and dealers Janice Guy and Rose Lord and Shaun Caley Regen (who’s at least an honorary New Yorker). A little after midnight, Guy suggested we hit the exclusive Bar Cock up the road. This piqued some interest, but it was not, despite what some first thought, much at all like New York’s (more salacious) Cock, and a few intrepid travelers soon ventured off in search of seedier fare.
Madrid never sleeps, but it also never seems to stop eating. Weekdays there’s lunch from 2:30 to 5 PM, and then dinner from 9:30 to midnight and beyond. The entire city appears to break for the long midday meal, and, apparently, some don’t bother to return to work. (You learn just how American you are when you arrive at a gallery at 3 PM to find everyone out to lunch.) Many of the New Yorkers found the slow-food culture crazy-making, and one artist went so far as to characterize the time devoted to food, satisfying as it so often was, as “terrifying.” Where did we go wrong?
In an erudite talk Thursday evening with Rosalyn Deutsche, Johanna Burton distilled the uncanny, displaced experience of “moving away from New York to Madrid in order to walk New York differently,” a sentiment that jibed with the smart crowd. If only New York audiences didn’t have to go all the way to Madrid to see it that way. Later on, after midnight, maybe fifteen of us—Cooke and Crimp, Lutter and Roysdon and Buckingham among them—found our way to Casa Patas in the city’s Lavapiés quarter for postprandial flamenco. We sat there, pressed to the stage, watching the prodigious guitarist Pepe Habichuela (“from a very famous flamenco family,” I was assured), the crowd around us evaporating into a chorus of fervent olés. At 3 AM we strolled back down Calle de Atocha to our hotels, the streets wet with rain, the city open before us. I guess I ♥ New York, but Madrid me mata.
Left: Manuel Borja-Villel, director of the Reina Sofía (right). Right: An installation view of Sharon Hayes's In the Near Future, 2005.
A FRENZY OF FLASHBULBS greeted the ubiquitous UK television host and magazine cover girl Alexa Chung as she posed in front of a gargantuan sculpture of a rabbit, made by the late sculptor Barry Flanagan, in the courtyard of London’s Royal Academy. So began the Summer Exhibition Preview Party on Wednesday, the headline-hitting bash that kicked off the largest open submission contemporary art exhibition in the world––now in its 242nd year. A throng of wealthy, well-groomed attendees flooded the Academy rooms, which were adorned with over 1,200 works, most for sale.
Paul Stewart, son of the legendary racing driver Jackie Stewart, was among the affluent collectors on the hunt for a bargain. His hopes of bagging a Sean Scully painting on display, however, were dashed after discovering that Outside In (Yellow) by the Irish artist was unavailable. “I have a painting of his dating from the early 1980s,” Stewart said. Over his shoulder, the new UK home secretary, Theresa May, was seen darting through the crowd while Chung conversed with her father, graphic designer Philip Chung. “I’ve bought two works from previous RA Summer exhibitions,” Chung fille explained, adding that she was now keen on a top-notch George Condo piece, The Butcher, the Maid and the Master of the House.
A fellow social butterfly, British model Poppy Delevigne, swooned over a vibrant silk screen by John Hoyland. Other partygoers included Duran Duran member Nick Rhodes, who singled out Sarah R. Key’s painting Jonas as a Young Fox. “I collect Surrealist works and graffiti art,” noted the British musician. Opinion on the floor was wildly divided about the art on view, but not everyone was concentrating on the exhibition. “Look at the face-lifts. You come here for the art and you end up marveling at the plastic surgery,” one attendee quipped. A lavish seafood stand swamped by hungry guests was also a talking point.
At the postpreview dinner, Tracey Emin, with her Royal Academician medal pinned proudly on her waist, got into the swing of things, toasting “Honor and glory to the next exhibition!” Emin cochaired the gala with the British accessory designer Anya Hindmarch, prompting the Brit artist to declare that “it’s fantastic that two women are holding a feast at the RA––and we don’t have beards.” Emin gallantly pointed out that all proceeds raised from the ticket and art sales provide income for the Academy’s self-funded Exhibitions and Schools program.
Over a meal of salmon in sea salt crust and roast fillet of beef, the air was thick with talk of whether the recent Art HK fair posed a serious threat to Art Basel. London dealer Pilar Corrias in particular waxed lyrical about the Asian fair where she had a booth. Artists, meanwhile, were out in force, with Grayson Perry, Richard Wilson, Polly Morgan, and Mat Collishaw huddled around a single table. Collishaw was engaged in intense discussions with Harry Blain, the dealer who recently left London’s Haunch of Venison gallery. Blain plans to open a new space in Mayfair in the next year with Graham Southern, another ex–Haunch of Venison stalwart. (Collishaw, incidentally, is part of the HoV stable.)
As the supper crowd thinned out, artist Jonathan Yeo perked up the proceedings with the announcement that his elephant sculpture Gerald, included in the “Elephant Parade” series made up of 250 garish Dumboesque creations dotted around central London, has been removed from the capital’s landmark Selfridges store. The reason? “Leaf” details used to decorate Gerald’s feet were made up of pornographic imagery, a saucy Yeo motif that sent shock waves through the shoppers’ paradise. There were sighs of relief all round when news reached the table that Yeo’s risqué elephant is now set to go on show at the Chinawhite nightclub in Fitzrovia.
ONE SWILLED WHISKEY ONSTAGE. Another played sounds of beastly breathing. One more reconfigured Kraftwerk for a merengue band. Yet another expressed an interest in “elephants picking up subsonic sounds from a tsunami and escaping over the mountains.”
Such was the range of activity in Montreal last week during Mutek, an international festival of “digital creativity and electronic music.” Here, the term “electronic music” applies to a wide range of matters: from the stuff of sound-art galleries and stroboscopic dance clubs to heady discursions and head-bashing noise to fantastical technologies and furrowed futurism. Sometimes––by will or by strategy––they swirl.
So it went on Saturday, when in the span of one hour I caught both Ben Frost and a character called Señor Coconut. Frost is a musician living in Iceland who drafts improbably dark and dramatic sounds with an occasionally brandished guitar and a table full of processing gear (laptop, synthesizer, black boxes of various kinds). He played, in what was effectively a big concrete bunker, at an exceptionally high volume, such that his abrasive washes of noise and waves of bass took on an almost narrative quality of foreboding. Then, out of nowhere, Frost pulled the action back to focus on material much more sparse: the sound of an animal (probably a bear, definitely a brute) catching its breath after doing something dire. There was nothing expressly “musical” about it, just slow and steady heaving, but the surprisingly sinister interlude sounded as composed as a string quartet.
The mood was different a few blocks away, outside on a plaza at Place des Festivals. This was the site of a free outdoor concert featuring Señor Coconut & His Orchestra, a group that does the noble work of re-setting electronic-music classics as highly orchestral Latin jams. It would seem to be a novelty act. (Daft Punk done as salsa!) And it is—but only in part. As they moved through game versions of landmark club tracks like Telex’s “Moscow Disco” and pop songs like Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams,” Señor Coconut (a German artist named Uwe Schmidt, on laptop) and his eight-piece band (horns, congas, vibes, upright bass) managed to reconcile the chasm between unabashed kitsch and austere appreciation. And when the program moved into Kraftwerk, things got downright reverential: During extended tributes to “Tour de France” and “Autobahn,” the band cycled and churned through source material whose epochal machinic spirit proved even more irrepressible in throwback fleshy form.
Señor Coconut also signaled an interesting confluence of old and new at Mutek this year. As electronic-music culture continues to age, the allure of the past—of the idea of history itself—has crept into realms of numerous kinds.
To wit: One standout performance at Mutek was an odd show by the Caretaker, aka James Kirby, an English artist who makes ghostly aural collages with records from the 1920s and ’30s, among other things. To present his work at the stately eight-hundred-seat proscenium theater in Monument-National, Kirby decided to . . . basically just sit onstage with his computer and a bottle of Glenlivet, which he proceeded to gulp while staring at a screen that flickered with drunken images from late nights out at bars. That was pretty much it. The performance began with a disarmingly personal paean to “chaos and debauchery” projected on-screen, and its lack of action had an effect that proved strangely as haunting as the Caretaker’s sound—especially in a realm still figuring out what it means to “perform” music made with computers. When the Caretaker finally stood up, he’d taken off his black jacket to reveal a shiny silver shirt—perfect flash for what turned into a demented encore version of Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were,” which the Caretaker himself croaked through an effected microphone like a corpse crooner. Memories, indeed.
The Caretaker’s gambit was simultaneously one of the best and worst performances at Mutek, a festival smart enough to entertain the ramifications of both. Other highlights ranged from the markedly physical (dancing to French house genius Pépé Bradock and DJ Koze, the latter of whom spun in a downpour beneath a Calder sculpture in Jean-Drapeau Park) to the fitfully cerebral (a panel discussion on “The Moment of Impact: The Physicality of Sound,” in which artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff talked about elephants’ specialized hearing and Pythagoras’s habit of giving lectures out of view, so students would focus attention on the sound of his voice).
Somewhere in the mix of it all lurked the heart and wires of Mutek. Or maybe it was in the disembodied mood of a rare show by the industrial-music legends Nurse with Wound. Or, more likely, it was in the middle of Actress and King Midas Sound, two by-products of the churning contemporary club genre known as dubstep. The lone-man Actress played a stiff but intriguingly rigorous dance-floor set full of new formalist conceits, while King Midas Sound steered toward the ghosts of old dub reggae and—in its near-religious fetishization of bass—lowered an overwhelming BOOM! With every low-end throb, Mutek seemed to shake at its core.
THE DIVA HAS LANDED.
Last Monday afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art, Marina Abramović rose from the Judd-like throne where she had been sitting since the middle of March, silently absorbing the egos of thousands, and bowed to the floor. By Tuesday night she was ready to party.
“My life is so incredible,” gushed Abramović, who had returned to New York’s temple of modernism for a drop-dead face-off with fashion and celebrity. It wasn’t much of a contest. The opposing team, rounded up by Givenchy, the evening’s sponsor, was dressed by Riccardo Tisci, the designer for the Abramović art squad as well. He had provided the performance goddess with a black crocodile jacket for which, she said, many reptiles had given their lives, but oh well.
Abramović is a proponent of participatory art. Tisci’s idea of collective responsibility seems to be to turn out beautiful dresses that require at least two attendants to slip on or off. Paper-thin models like Joan Smalls and Maria Carla were strapped into narrow transparent frocks tied or buttoned in places impossible for their own hands to fasten. Björk was smothered in a plume of ruffled gold. Even the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black’s Kembra Pfahler needed help for her getup, which consisted of white body paint with golden glitter accents on her naked flesh and a voluminous black veil that fell from the top of her black, flower-bedecked hornet’s nest of a wig nearly to her feet.
With Christina Ricci, Liv Tyler, and Courtney Love on hand amid the many models (male and female), Givenchy treated the event as a promotion for the brand, though the occasion was nominally a celebration of Abramović’s marathon, seven-hundred-hour love-in with her audience. Her top-floor retrospective, “The Artist Is Present,” attracted more than seven hundred thousand visitors, only 1,545 of whom actually got to bask in her personal aura in the museum’s central atrium. Nearly seven hundred showed up on Monday afternoon for the final moments of her performance, also called The Artist Is Present. They included one who did not require designer clothes, Lama Doboom Tulku, head of the Dalai Lama’s Tibet House in New Delhi, though his maroon and gold robes made another kind of fashion statement.
When he took his seat before Abramović, no sparks flew and no one came down from a mountain. All was serene. Only the exhibition’s curator, MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach, was in a sweat. As the closing sitter, he was granted fifteen minutes in the chair. He lasted for eight. That left Abramović alone on the floor to bow to thunderous and extended applause from the crowd, which by then included the thirty-nine lab-coated “reperformers” from the show and the heavy security staff that had protected them from the occasional streaking, vomiting, tearful, and self-aggrandizing crazies and inappropriate touchers who had lined up to join the circus.
Tuesday’s equally showboating dinner for three hundred included other kinds of performances, one of them unplanned. But first there were the paparazzi to deal with. For Orlando Bloom and James Franco, this was water off the proverbial duck’s back, but Pfahler, singer Antony Hegarty (clad in Tisci robes), artist Terence Koh, hotelier André Balazs, and musicians Michael Stipe and Patti Smith were equally accommodating, as was Abramović herself.
Left: MoMA director Glenn Lowry with Susan Lowry. Right: Lama Doboom Tulku.
“I hope she’s having a good time,” MoMA president emeritus Agnes Gund said, as Abramović engaged in a tête-à-tête with the wheelchair-bound art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto, one of her greatest enthusiasts. “I told her she better!” said her dealer Sean Kelly, disappearing behind the clutch of cameras and microphones trained on her by a documentary film crew that has been following her every move over the past year. Trustee Anna Marie Shapiro, collectors Willem Peppler, Melva Bucksbaum, and Raymond Learsy, and Abramović’s nutritionist and healer, known as Dr. Linda, stayed out of the limelight, while reperformers made themselves known by mingling with the crowd Abramović-style, one-to-one.
Dinner began with a speech by MoMA director Glenn Lowry, extolling Abramović’s effect on the city as well as the museum. (He didn’t mention the news media, which were even more enthralled.) Lowry also thanked everyone who played a part in the show, particularly Biesenbach. “He helped transform the way MoMA thinks about its exhibitions and its public,” Lowry said, while calling attention to Marco Anelli, the photographer who recorded the faces of every single sitter during the show, and Tunji Adeniji, the head of museum security, who stood up for the loudest cheers. Praising Abramović’s endurance and vulnerability, Lowry said, “This lone figure was able to change a building and a city. She allowed the public to experience the making of a work, instead of just looking at it.”
For entertainment, Abramović had imported a Montenegrin vocalist, Svetlana Spajic, who appeared in traditional dress and sang a haunting Serbian folk song a cappella to more cheers. But the most unsettling part of the evening came when the tippling Biesenbach took the podium. He didn’t thank anyone. Instead he used the moment to make public his two-decade-long unrequited love for Abramović. “Look at me, Marina,” he began. “Listen to me, Marina,” he went on. “Why don’t you look at me? You know,” he then said to the guests, tossing aside his prepared remarks, “she can’t see anyone without her glasses,” thereby negating the experience of all those sitters who thought she was paying special attention to them. This brought loud murmurs. “Will you stop talking and listen to me?” he said. “OK, don’t listen. I don’t care. Marina? Are you listening?” It didn’t stop there.
Recalling how he had fallen in love with Abramović, twenty years his senior, at first sight, he said that he believed she had fallen in love with him too. “Biggest mistake of my career,” he said, though clearly not bigger than this one.
Embarrassing though this was—the fashion mob was tweeting like mad—Biesenbach had the crowd’s sympathies. As too many of us probably know, a wounded heart never quite heals. When it was Abramović’s turn to speak, she couldn’t help blurting, “I could kill Klaus Biesenbach for that.” But if Abramović is a diva, she is a gracious one. “He also brought me to MoMA and the biggest show of my life,” she said. Looking straight at him, finally, she said, “You are unpredictable, and I love you for that.”
Introducing Tisci, she said, “I also love vanity and I love fashion,” and then thanked the museum, her collectors, the Kelly family, the reperformers, Spajic, Dr. Linda, Lama Tuklu, Anelli, and the security team. “I have never felt safer in my life,” she said. Which was saying something. The speech was both eloquent and funny, and included a minute (but only a minute) of silence for the passing of Louise Bourgeois and Butoh master Kazuo Ohno, whose name Hegarty had written on his forehead.
Abramović also addressed the people who had come before her during her show, whom she saw struggling with themselves, each one. “I believe art should be and will be more and more immaterial,” she concluded. “And this was the most immaterial piece I could imagine.”
After the applause died down, Martha Wainwright appeared, unannounced, to perform “La Vie en rose” in a voice so sweet and full and longing it left mouths open. That was good timing, as the dessert, provided by Kreëmart, was on the table, gift-wrapped in clear Plexiglas boxes. A limited-edition chocolate ball with a gold-leafed mold of Abramović’s teeth embedded in it, it required the guests to paste gold foil over their own mouths, and they left licking their lips.
AS THE CLOUDS PARTED and a chorus of angels rang out, God looked down from heaven and said, “Rome shall be the capital of contemporary art for one week.” And so it was last week, when the unusually torrential spring rain stopped just long enough to oblige a remarkable flurry of Roman contemporary art events, including the inaugural shows at the explosive new Zaha Hadid–designed MAXXI and the edgy expansion of MACRO, as well as the Rome art fair, in its expansive new premises at the ex-slaughterhouse in Testaccio.
The first of many American-sponsored events was on Tuesday, with an unprecedented exhibition of Philip Guston’s “Rome” paintings at the Museo Carlo Bilotti, situated suitably in the Villa Borghese gardens. US cultural attaché David Mees gave a formal introduction to the crowd, a mix of American officials and Italian curators including MACRO director Luca Massimo Barbero. Iconographic depictions of Italian landscapes and towns, ruins and statuary fragments dominated the impressive selection of paintings, rendered in fleshy, unsettling pink and red. The show’s curator, Peter Benson Miller, whispered, “I feel like I’ve gotten a gold star on my forehead, like in school.”
The same evening, the Gagosian Gallery opened an exhibition of eight large canvases by Christopher Wool, chaotic multilayered compositions of paint and silk screen. Carmela Vircillo Franklin, director of the American Academy in Rome, stopped by breathlessly on her way to the Guston opening. Romans and visiting American VIPs had to choose between the Guston party, at the elegant Villa Aurelia up on the Janiculum Hill, and Larry Gagosian’s dinner, at the ancient Castel Sant’Angelo. Choosing the cylindrical papal fortress guarded by statues of angels, I ascended to the panoramic aerie through a series of eerie passageways and staircases lit by candles.
Upstairs the party was in full swing, with Francesco Vezzoli flitting around the tables like a devil in a camouflage-patterned Prada shirt, while Barbero and MAXXI codirector Anna Mattirolo were making each other giggle. Achille Bonito Oliva, curator of both the de Chirico exhibition at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni and MAXXI’s Gino De Dominicis retrospective, who had not shown up for his scheduled talk at the Guston conference that morning, had clearly recovered in time for the dinner, where he was spotted standing on a chair and flirting with all of the women. The dramatic view from the loggia over the domes of Rome was as potent as the array of guests, which included Mercedes and Sid Bass, the Taschens, and curators Francesco Bonami and Carlos Basualdo. Next stop was the courtyard of the vintage Hotel Locarno, a new hot spot with pencil-thin waitresses where attendees of the Gagosian and Guston dinners merged to compare notes, and even Larry stayed until the wee hours.
The third edition of the Rome art fair, titled “The Road to Contemporary Art” (which just begs for the adjective “long”), opened on Wednesday afternoon in its new digs, a former butchery that normally houses the exhibitions of MACRO Future. Previously the fair was spread throughout several historic palazzos. Here, the sixty-seven galleries, overwhelmingly Italian, occupied booths that were arranged nicely in three spacious and easily navigable pavilions, amid the meat hooks and former pig-shaving vats. Nearly all of the foreign galleries were from London, including Haunch of Venison, whose name certainly suited the venue. To whit, critic Martin Herbert, who I ran into right off the bat, commented, “It is impossible to resist the obvious comparison to a meat market.”
When the place got too packed to see anything, I stopped for a drink with some other friends at the outdoor lounge, in the former cattle stalls, where dealer Peter Nagy regaled us with tales of living in India. The humid weather that day was not unlike the subcontinent, but luckily the fair hours were Roman—late afternoon to midnight—which also suited the surrounding nightclub zone. Adding to the buzz in Testaccio, Roman collector Giovanni Giuliani opened his new foundation earlier this month in a former electric company facility with the show “Mutiny Seemed a Probability,” curated by Adrienne Drake, making the area the Roman equivalent to New York’s Meatpacking District. (Now we just need a Whitney satellite and a Mexican diner.)
High society was out in full force that night at the gala in honor of Miuccia Prada, also held at the Villa Aurelia, on the campus of the American Academy in Rome, where the designer was awarded the prestigious McKim Medal. I arrived at the same time as Hadid, who was dressed in a white silk Prada coat with sparkly mirrored starbursts. Guests were being shuttled the short distance up the tree-lined walkway in golf carts to where drinks were being served on the lawn, in a scene resembling a summer party in East Hampton (except for the painterly backdrop of umbrella pines).
Black-clad curator Milovan Ferronato chose to make a fashion statement with a swirling jeweled headpiece. Dressed in almost the same Prada shirt as the previous night, only with a brighter palette, Vezzoli complimented Verde Visconti’s bohemian-style caftan: “You look like a star!” The seated dinner took place under transparent canopies hung with chandeliers, where denizens of the art, film, and fashion worlds mixed with politicians and business magnates, among them Rome’s mayor, Gianni Alemanno; Fiat chairman John Elkann; Marco Tronchetti Provera, president of Pirelli; and Vogue Italia editor in chief Franca Sozzani. My dinner companions debated the merits of the new MAXXI building. After dinner, curator Robert Storr lauded Prada, then Adele Chatfield-Taylor presented the designer with the medal, after which diners filed through the well-manicured hedges to the dessert tables next to the villa.
The highlight of the week was, of course, the anxiously anticipated opening of the MAXXI’s first exhibitions on Friday evening, which would answer the question that has been on everyone’s mind since its tardy unveiling as an empty shell last fall: Will the bombastic $224 million building function as a museum or will the spectacular architecture overwhelm the art? The title of the main exhibition, displaying more than eighty pieces from the collection, says it all: “Spazio!” Starting on the ground floor, the De Dominicis survey, “The Immortal,” wound its way through the galleries, with large works hung above a ramp ascending from the entrance atrium. Although the journey was splendid, we had difficulty figuring out which work belonged to which show and which level we were on. When I commented on how disjointed it was, artist Max Renkel quipped, “Well, isn’t that what the architect intended?” Eventually we ran into the building’s structural engineer, Federico Croci, who offered to guide us to the top level. When someone argued, “No, those steps go down!” he replied, “But then they go up!” There was a lot of that.
The real spectacle that night was the stream of people moving like so many ants along the undulating curves and suspended serpentine ramps, visible from the myriad vertiginous perches. De Dominicis’s incessant laugh—a sound piece titled D’io, a play on the words for “God” (Dio) and “of myself” (d’io)—resounded throughout the labyrinthine museum, adding to the sensation of a carnival funhouse. One visitor referred to a sloping gallery with display walls tilting to and fro as a disorienting “hall of mirrors.” That is not necessarily a bad thing—it is an awesome experience. But as one friend noted, “If it’s the museum of the twenty-first century, why are most of the artists in the show dead?” As we watched one woman after another struggle to disengage an elegant shoe heel from the metal floor grating, artist Maurizio Fioravanti joked, “They should call it ‘the drama of the stilettos.’ ”
Outside, the exuberant party serenaded by discordant live music went on until after midnight. The Bulgaris, Fendis, and Pradas, François Pinault, Lia Rumma, and Gagosian were all there, as well as what seemed like all of Rome. “I love the building from the outside all lit up, and seeing the silhouettes of people behind the glass,” Financial Times critic Rachel Spence raved, referring to those peering down from a cantilevered precipice that looked like it could fall off at any moment. “Nobody will come after this since everybody has already seen it tonight,” joked critic Stefano Chiodi, who wrote an essay for the exhibition catalogue. “We will see how it works. In any case, it is really great for Rome.”
The next day, the other female architect of a Roman contemporary art museum, Odile Decq, held court at a brunch for local artists and curators on the terrace of her sleek new addition to MACRO. Connected to the original building, a former Peroni brewery, the airy steel-and-glass expansion encompasses a rooftop restaurant, a café, two new exhibition spaces, and a new entrance. I was told that I should check out the auditorium, a giant faceted geometric object floating in the central space, which is saturated in bright orange inside and out. “But you must see the bathroom,” insisted the always black-clad architect, who perfectly matched the black umbrellas and spiky futuristic lights of the restaurant. Although the new exhibition spaces are much more straightforward than those of Hadid, they also display the work of established artists such as Bruce Nauman, Jannis Kounellis, and Giulio Paolini. The question remains: Will the Italians ever let go of the past and take the giant leap forward? You could say that contemporary Rome was not built in a week, but it’s a good start.
LAST MONDAY, shortly before the vernissage of the third annual Hong Kong Art Fair, the city’s government inaugurated the first-ever Hong Kong Art Week. That night, Ben Brown Fine Arts held an opening for Candida Höfer’s stately exhibition “In Italy, Naples, and Florence,” which served as an unofficial kickoff to the attendant slew of private views, parties, and panels. Conversation moved from unfettered admiration for the photographs (“I love these!”) to focused anticipation for the fair, whose list of exhibitors had increased by some fifty galleries since the preceding year. The crowd, which included Sydney-based dealers Roslyn Oxley and Conny Dietzschold, curator Josef Ng, and artists Hiram To and Jonathan Thomson, traded notes on the parties to hit and tried to hammer out a general strategy for getting through the week. A game plan was of utmost importance.
The next night I stopped by the opening for Wu Yuren’s exhibition at Tang Contemporary Art. “My wife likes to come to Hong Kong to consume,” Wu said. “I am an artist—I am meant to be consumed.” A perfect attitude for the week. Later that evening, Emmanuel Perrotin held a dinner for the Japanese pop artist Aya Takano at the Hong Kong Jockey Club in Happy Valley. Artists Takashi Murakami, Zhang Xiaogang, and Yoshitomo Nara were on hand to celebrate Takano’s solo exhibition at the fair and the publication of a book on her work. Nara had made it to Hong Kong the night before, having traveled from his home in the Japanese countryside to Tokyo before reaching Hong Kong. “I usually don’t go to art fairs, but I had to install,” he said between bites of a monkfish exquisitely prepared by chef Alain Passard of Parisian restaurant L’Arpège. Art Basel codirectors Marc Spiegler and Annette Schönholzer had flown in a mere four hours earlier, and their joint presence seemed another sign that ARTHK had arrived. Like many, Spiegler had hit the ground running. “I went to the hotel, took a shower, and came straight here,” he remarked.
The week’s relentless pace continued. At Wednesday night’s vernissage, the halls of the convention center swarmed with people. “Who says we don’t have art audiences in Hong Kong!” Asia Art Archive’s Claire Hsu said amid the bustle. Near the entrance, at Tang Contemporary Art, Rirkrit Tiravanija’s installation Ne Travaillez Jamais, which featured live birds flying in two towering cages, won over new art audiences. Nearby, White Cube had a selection of Damien Hirst works on view, including The Inescapable Truth, a white dove suspended in formaldehyde. This piece wasn’t initially for sale, but a persuasive collector snapped it up for $2.6 million. Persuasion, apparently, isn’t cheap.
Along a walkway, director Baz Luhrmann sat atop a ladder near the 10 Chancery Lane booth, which contained a project, The Creek, 1977, he had made with the Australian artist Vincent Fantauzzo. It was difficult to hear Luhrmann speak, his voice lost in the crush of bodies clamoring for a view. In a cluster of media booths, Sir David Tang signed copies of his book A Chink in the Armour, and near the back of the fair, artist Samson Young conducted an iPhone orchestra playing his composition 21 Etudes for iPhones. As the evening went on, people trickled over to the nearby Grand Hyatt hotel, where Modern Media, publishers of Philip Tinari’s Leap, was hosting a cozy after-hours by the poolside. “I hope people will swim,” Tinari said. “Then it’ll be a really good party.” The editor of a local weekly looked around the open space and noted, “It’s not the usual socialite crowd—there are actually artists and collectors here.” Among the masses were curator Eugene Tan, art historian Tony Godfrey, photographer Virgile Simon Bertrand, and artists Chow Chun Fai and Nadim Abbas. By midnight, around the time sound artist and curator Yang Yeung arrived on the scene, the party wasn’t showing any signs of winding down.
Despite being out late, a solid crowd made it to the Asia Art Archive the next morning for a VIP breakfast and the opening of “Materials of the Future: Documenting Contemporary Chinese Art from 1980–1990.” Once again, AAA was the education partner for the fair, presenting a series of discussion panels, “Backroom Conversations,” which provided an academic counterpoint to the market hustle. Performance artist and activist Choi Tsz-kwan gave a riveting presentation on two local protests, while curator Yukie Kamiya, discussing the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, made clear the issues that Hong Kong will face in its attempts to establish its first museum for contemporary art, slated for construction soon in the much-anticipated West Kowloon Cultural District. Michael Rush, former director of the Rose Art Museum in Massachusetts, gave a passionate talk, too, referring to the art fair as “the three-hundred-pound gorilla in the room,” then continued with a lively discussion with Martha Rosler.
On Friday, Antony Gormley, writers Tim Marlow and Sarah Thornton, and Hans Ulrich Obrist debated the topic “You Don’t Need Great Skill to Be a Great Artist” at Intelligence Squared (Gormley and Marlow speaking for, Thornton and Obrist against). The result: 248 voted for the motion, 157 against, with six audience members remaining undecided. That night at Osage gallery, a large crowd ventured out to catch Lee Mingwei’s opening in the Kwun Tong space. “I’m beyond tired. I’m catching my second or third wind,” artist Adrian Wong said. At least he could still count his—others seemed beyond the pale. Artist Lee Kit revealed that he was “feeling better today because I gave up waking up early and slept in until three. Now we just have to keep this up until Sunday.”
The end was indeed in sight. On Saturday I finally caught up with fair director Magnus Renfrew at the convention center. “I’m already thinking of improvements for next year,” he said. He gestured at the numerous people walking in and out of booths. “But it feels like a real fair, doesn’t it?” Moments later, curator Davina Lee echoed his optimism: “The weekend crowds make it harder and harder to ignore Hong Kong’s hunger for art.” Indeed, the fair seemed to answer a hot-button question: Can Hong Kong actually sustain a large contemporary art museum? If this week offers any evidence, it seems the answer is a resounding yes.
IN APRIL, the Kitchen presented The Juvenal Players by Pablo Helguera, which theatricalized a panel discussion between a curator, a collector, a critic, an artist, and an arts administrator. Helguera, an artist and the Museum of Modern Art’s director of adult and academic programs, has written extensively on performance, pedagogy, and art-world etiquette (see The Pablo Helguera Manual of Contemporary Art Style), even once complaining: “In my role as programmer, I have frequently been frustrated by the low or nonexistent public-speaking skills of those who lecture and participate in academic discussions.” He clearly relished the chance to create a full cast of panelists speaking eloquently and behaving badly.
It was therefore with some anticipation that I attended a recent forum organized by Helguera, “Audience Experiments: Contemporary Art in the Age of Spectacle,” held at MoMA on May 18. The program was structured in three “acts”: a presentation by artist Andrea Fraser; a roundtable featuring theater and performance practitioners, curator RoseLee Goldberg, and UC Berkeley professor Shannon Jackson; and a performance by artist David Levine. Would the participants turn on one another and reveal their deepest, darkest secrets? Or this time, given the program’s title, would the audience take the lead?
The opening salvo was fired by Fraser, who, after expressing surprise that she had been invited, launched into a critique of participatory and interactive artwork, arguing that it is often a “profoundly narcissistic form of generosity” that bolsters privatization by suggesting that nonprofits are better able to provide for some social functions. Fraser concluded, and the audience clapped—at which point she thanked herself and began to introduce the “next” speaker, whose role she also enacted. In fact, her bracing remarks had been the preface to Official Welcome, a 2001 work that collages introductions and keynotes by various art-world types . . . as well as an intermittent “striptease” (at which point Fraser announces she’s “an object in an artwork”).
Although advertised as a roundtable, Act Two turned out to be more a series of largely unrelated presentations. Hannah Hurtzig, the Berlin-based director of the Mobile Academy, discussed her Blackmarket for Useful Knowledge and Non-Knowledge, a large-scale installation featuring as many as one hundred “experts” who can be booked for simultaneous half-hour one-on-one conversations by audience members—who are, in turn, watched and listened to by the spectators surrounding them. The interactions in this “agora,” as Hurtzig called it, tend to differ from place to place. “In Warsaw,” she gave by example, “where people are more knowledgeable about parallel economies, as soon as they found out that they can bribe the hostesses, the whole thing transformed into an auction.” A US iteration has yet to be commissioned (Creative Time and Lincoln Center Festival, take note), although the director’s ultimate dream might be hard to finance: “We would like to do it in a stadium. We call it—you won’t like this—the Leni Riefenstahl version.”
Left: Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg. Right: A view of the panel. (Photos: Paula Court)
New Yorkers Charlie Todd, the founder of Improv Everywhere, and Bill Wasik, the inventor of the flash mob, represented more popular and public approaches. The pranklike nature of Todd’s “scenes of chaos and joy in public places” (such as the self-explanatory No Pants! Subway Ride) and their Candid Camera–style video documentation might set them apart from performance art, but some of the actions themselves did not seem far removed from, say, Christian Jankowski’s Rooftop Routine—a Performa 07 commission (presented earlier in the night by Goldberg) in which strangers hula-hooped atop buildings. Wasik came to his project from a different angle, as he described how an interest in viral e-mails and social networks led him to create the first flash mobs in 2003 as “contentless” events in which “the scene constitutes the work.” Although the phenomenon and even the term itself quickly grew beyond the initial concept, Wasik considered the flash mob to be “implicitly political,” introducing the excitement of collective action in a country that faces ever-shrinking public space. These early flash mobs were never documented or YouTubed, as they were intended to disperse and disappear as quickly and mysteriously as they had formed.
Jackson, the final panelist, addressed the differences and overlaps between the “interstitial” practices of the various artists and speakers. She argued that context affects expectations: The same act changes according to whether it’s placed in a theater or in a museum. She also proposed that our reception of this work depends on our own background, be it theater, visual arts, dance, or so on. “One person might think about how Andrea’s performance addressed the institutional site that we’re in today,” Jackson suggested, “while somebody else might say, ‘What do you think about her acting?’ ” She rephrased: Do you watch Andrea Fraser and think about the work of Hans Haacke, or do you think of Anna Deavere Smith?
All told, it was an engaging evening but a long one, and thus when Helguera asked the audience for questions, few were forthcoming. Hurtzig seized the moment to commence an animated protest of the symposium’s format: “It’s not interesting having people on a panel talking to you. It’s done. There are other possibilities.” She proposed that people be allowed to exit the space and return freely, and to interrupt as they see fit. “There are so many ways to think about what sharing knowledge means, so that you really produce it in the moment when we meet,” she continued. “Because this is not a live event.” The outburst received enthusiastic applause and, more significantly, revived the audience. When Helguera attempted to end the Q&A and move on to the third section of the evening, Levine’s performance, the artist wouldn’t have it. “Although I make work about performance, I don’t generally perform,” Levine explained. “Now that the room seems to be coalescing, it would be totally tragic to stop it.”
But Levine’s fundamental question to those seated in the auditorium—“You all came to a panel on audience experiments. So let me ask you: Why experiment with audiences?”—went unanswered. The audience, it seemed, were quite content to stay as they were. Indeed, the most passionate statement of the night came from a MoMA intern: “I realize that there is an intractable irony in this,” the woman began, “but I actually worry about the privileging of what the audience thinks. I came here to be an audience member, not to participate.” Afterward, as the crowd milled about, everyone agreed that the “failed panel discussion”—as Queens Museum director Tom Finkelpearl termed it—had been a success. Hurtzig’s outburst and Levine’s takeover as moderator had saved the evening, even if they didn’t quite manage to turn “two rooms into one,” as Levine had hoped.