IT WAS A STORMY START for Hong Kong art week. Just as I left the house for all of Monday night’s gallery happenings, it began to rain. But inclement weather didn’t stop dozens of other art lovers from traveling to the week’s kickoff shows—Wang Keping’s “Eternal Smile” at 10 Chancery Lane and Miquel Barceló’s opening at Ben Brown Fine Arts, in the historic Pedder Building. Comparing itineraries with another writer at the latter space, I discovered that we would hardly have a moment apart from each other. “It’s like we’re on a theme vacation together,” she said.
The next night I was back at the Pedder to catch Richard Prince’s much-talked-about show at Gagosian. In the elevator, I overheard some well-groomed out-of-town ladies talking clothes: “I never wear dresses to gallery openings in LA.” The sartorial analyst confided to her friend that she had bought three new frocks for the fair. Smart. After all, in Hong Kong many women wear full makeup and carry designer handbags to eat at fast food restaurants.
Inside the spacious gallery (which only opened this past January), security was especially high, with men dressed like Secret Service agents milling about and observing the crowd. I’d apparently just missed Takashi Murakami, but international bigwigs like François Pinault, Alberto and David Mugrabi, dealers David Zwirner and Gavin Brown, and artist Zeng Fanzhi were there to eyeball works from Prince’s “Nurse,” “Girlfriend,” “Fashion,” and “Joke” series. Afterward, guests swigged champagne at the Prince fete at FLY, a club on the outskirts of party neighborhood Lan Kwai Fong, where late in the night the DJ played Jessie J’s “Price Tag,” a kind of ironic anthem for an art fair. And then, again, there was the rain . . .
The fair’s press conference took place a little after noon the next day at Hong Kong’s main convention center. The sale of the majority stake of Art HK to MCH Group, which organizes Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach, and the fair’s position on Ai Weiwei were, of course, hot topics. “Ai is an artist whose work we greatly admire,” said fair director Magnus Renfrew. “And we are very pleased that his work will be on show alongside the work of over a thousand other artists at the fair. I think it’s right that it should be shown in Hong Kong—it’s a great platform for freedom of expression.”
The collectors preview soon followed. Near the entrance, a videographer told Richard Chang, an advisory board member to Art HK, that he should do a TV program on collecting art. “I like to shop for art, go for dinner, and go home to sleep—I don’t like to work that hard,” he joked. He had spent a solid hour touring the fair with two journalists, and he had numerous other interviews to attend to.
The vernissage picked up steam later that afternoon, and the fair’s corridors began to teem with people, including the rare celebrity. As I walked to the VIP entrance, I spotted a phalanx of paparazzi and fans surrounding actor Simon Yam, the charismatic Hong Kong star who’s made his name in films by Johnnie To and John Woo (not to mention that Angelina Jolie vehicle, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider).
This year, with two floors (and 260 galleries—it seemed that everyone from New York and London was participating), it was much easier to see the art, but harder to network; the fragile series of coincidental run-ins so crucial to the fair structure was compromised a bit by all the extra space, and a cash-bar situation meant that the mood in the aisles was slightly subdued. The VIP areas, though, were packed with people drinking champagne, and the alcohol continued to flow at various afterparties. At the LEAP bash, held poolside at the Grand Hyatt in Wan Chai, editor Philip Tinari chatted with Art Basel codirector Annette Schönholzer over wine while other guests did their best to keep the spirit lively.
“I’m going to try get Magnus to jump in with me—though I suspect his tie is too nice,” said writer and curator Melissa Lam, wearing a black-and-white bikini top. Later, she did jump into the pool, and several other people joined her (though not the fair director), with one guest being pushed in fully clothed.
On Thursday, the sun finally made an appearance. It was the perfect day for “A Wedding,” a show opening at Para/Site Art Space. Dozens of artists, including Antony Gormley, Olafur Eliasson, and Cao Fei, had gifted the organization with “wedding presents” to celebrate the occasion. “We’re lucky to have such generous friends,” said Cosmin Costinas, the gallery’s new curator.
A traditional Chinese wedding banquet with over two hundred guests, including Schönholzer and Marc Spiegler, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and MoMA curator Doryun Chong, was held at restaurant Lin Keung Kui for Vitamin Creative Space directors Hu Fang and Zhang Wei. Throughout the evening, they and others presented their gifts to the happy couple. Para/Site’s board members sang a song together in Cantonese. “Singing?” said artist Chow Chun-fai. “This is a really traditional banquet.”
Left: Curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. Right: Artists Hiram To and Scott Redford.
As I was making my exit, I ran into star auctioneer Simon de Pury, who reminded me that he was in town for the following evening’s Intelligence Squared debate, also being hosted at the convention center. I was glad not to miss it. The motion for the debate was “Art must be beautiful,” and before the proceedings began, an entry poll was taken, with 90 undecided, 136 for the motion, and 281 against.
The artist Ming Wong—dressed in a turquoise qi pao, wearing full makeup, and carrying a black handbag—began with a story about an expatriate friend living in the city: “He said, ‘Hong Kong is totally captivating. She is like a woman in an expensive fur coat, but underneath she wears dirty knickers.’ So, today I will try to show you how that woman is a work of art, not because of her beautiful, expensive fur coat, but”—pause—“the truth.” To underscore his argument, he began to strip. (We were going to see the truth!) Off came the qi pao. Then a bra. Then a girdle, until he was left with nothing but a pair of black underwear. Moderator Lars Nittve, head of the yet-to-be-built M+ Museum in the West Kowloon Cultural District, drily tapped a glass to indicate that time was up before Wong could remove the last article of clothing.
“Let me put you at ease immediately,” said de Pury, who took the podium as soon as Wong was seated. “I will not be emulating our fantastic Ming Wong.” He began to go over his method on how he’d sway the crowd to vote that art must be beautiful.
“You’re going to have to take it off!” yelled artist David LaChapelle, to much hooting and hollering.
The end result: 9 undecided, 175 for the motion, 380 against. Even though we expect artists and others associated with the art world to be beautiful, isn’t it nice to know that art itself is off the hook?
“MADONNA HAS SO MUCH INFLUENCE in every sphere. I think she could kill people just by looking at them.”
We walked by the paparazzi step-and-repeat and down a blue carpet in MoMA’s sculpture garden, passing male models who held umbrellas for guests in case of rain.
She has a lot of restraint, I suggested.
“She’s the only person that would make me pass out if I met them.”
Then: “Madonna, I’d like you to meet Ryan Trecartin! He’s a fabulous artist.”
Ryan Trecartin did not in fact pass out when Klaus Biesenbach introduced him to Madonna, though neither of us was able to muster any words for the occasion. She didn’t have much to say either. She just looked up at us dubiously (murderously?), her weapon eyes framed by black hipster glasses as she chewed on a piece of bread. (LOOKING GOOD! Perez Hilton e-scrawled on the shot-from-the-hip photo he posted the next day.)
Madonna sat next to James Franco, who sat next to Marina Abramović, who sat next to Terence Koh, who sat next to Lizzie Fitch at a small table that also included Trecartin, Spike Jonze, Guy Oseary, Daphne Guinness, Martha Wainwright, and professional crier Laurel Nakadate.
I sat at the next table, squeezed between MoMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey and Humberto Leon, dapper proprietor of Opening Ceremony. “The art world is the big tent,” a friend observed. “These kinds of meetings couldn’t be orchestrated anywhere else—or certainly not at this speed. People come into our world, but we don’t really send people out. Except maybe Kathryn Bigelow.”
The reason for Monday’s small gala dinner, announced only days before and coming less than two weeks after MoMA’s Party in the Garden, was ostensibly to celebrate a partnership between MoMA and Volkswagen (which is sponsoring some education programs, the current Francis Al˙s exhibition, and another show down the line). But why Madonna? “She’s here to see Hahn-Bin,” someone shrugged.
Hahn-Bin is the twenty-two-year-old Itzhak Perlman protégé currently in the custody of Biesenbach and surrogate of cool Brian Phillips. Wearing leather wedge-heeled boots, leopard-print tights, and a sleeveless black kaftan and white turban, Hahn-Bin did a spellbinding, virtuosic rendition of Ravel’s Tzigane, climbing atop the grand piano in the center of the atrium and swinging his bow into the air. The world’s number one Heather stood up from her seat and watched intently, arms folded, occasionally smiling and nodding her head to the ostinatti. After Hahn-Bin finished, Biesenbach swooped in, grabbed a chair, and sat him next to her. They enjoyed a public/private tęte-ŕ-tęte, then hugged. She left almost immediately after.
“She was so nice!” Hahn-Bin said. “She said she’d call me. We have a lot in common. We’re both Leos.”
“There are two people in the art world who really mediate the worlds of art and celebrity: Jeffrey Deitch and Klaus,” suggested another guest. “The difference is that Klaus is actually one of them—he’s a celebrity.” A stranger in a strange land, he descends from Hollywood to spread the happy truth of fame.
Abramović and Koh climbed a podium on one side of the room and commenced a brief history of the use of Volkswagens in art. Works flashed on the atrium’s walls: Al˙s’s Rehearsal, Pipilotti Rist’s Ever Is Over All, Damián Ortega’s Cosmic Thing. Abramović played the straight man, announcing titles and such, while Koh spoke in gibberish, parroting/parodying his own performance Art History, a Lecture: 1642–2009. When a photo from Chris Burden’s Trans-Fixed appeared, with the artist nailed, Christlike, to his vintage VW Beetle, the executives and artists and sundry icons of culture laughed and clapped in winking unison. All at once art and the market, the marketing of art, swirled in a transfixing, stupefying mix.
“YOU KNOW THIS IS WHERE the sugar cube was invented, right?” So my companion helpfully informed me last Thursday as we taxied it out to the veritable no-man’s-land known as Modřany, an area of Prague I had neither seen nor even heard of, despite having spent half of the aughts in the city. “No one’s going to find it,” artist Ondrej Brody predicted the night before at his opening at STYX Project Space in Berlin.
Yet the obscurity of the locale ultimately served the minoritarian aesthetic that has always been fostered by the Prague Biennale, an event that has been entrenched in local controversy ever since it began in 2003 as a rough-fated collaborative effort between critics Helena Kontová and Giancarlo Politi, and Milan Knižák, the notoriously prickly former director of the Czech National Gallery (better known internationally as the sole Czech member of Fluxus). The lead-up to the second installment, in 2005, included a very public feud among the collaborators, resulting in two separate Prague Biennales, with Kontová and Politi’s camp relegated to an abandoned factory space in the then recently flooded Karlin district. Their version of the biennial has endured, despite major political resistance fueled by Knižák’s power plays, its zero-budget approach feeding the adventurous sensibilities of a region that has been largely ignored by the contemporary art world over the past two decades.
Now that Karlin has fallen victim to gentrification—and ironically, of course, its biennial is probably partly responsible—the move to a disused office building, in a homely industrial part of town unseen by the millions of tourists who flood the Golden City on the Vltava each year, is somewhat inevitable and gives the 2011 edition an even grittier edge than its predecessors. Unsurprisingly, few complaints were aired at the opening about the ugly industrial carpeting and painful fluorescent lighting; the white cube is hardly a sure thing in post-communist Europe, where apartment art and barely visible conceptual interventions linger in collective memory as the subversive strategies of yesteryear. As such, the limitations of the space were cast aside, allowing the content of the show to spark chatty debates.
Left: Artist Cecile Martin. Right: Artist Mark Ther. (Photos: Mike Gisondi)
“The Czech section is too conceptual,” complained Mark Ther, an artist whose highly stylized and absurdly scripted videos have led some critics to finger him as the Czech response to Keren Cytter and Ryan Trecartin. “The young generation wants a big show, a spectacle!” Maybe so, but I still spotted standout work by Karel Kunc, Aleksandra Vajd and Hynek Alt, Tereza Severová, Tomáš Svoboda, František Kowolowski, and Evžen Šimera.
Since its inception, the biennial has been among the few to emphasize painting, and this year, with its large “Expanded Painting” section, was no exception. The centerpiece exhibition, “Painting Overall,” was rather weak, with a preponderance of student-y work. A more advanced state of the art could be found in “Some Domestic Incidents,” focusing on paintings by the youngest generation of Bright Young Things from Great Britain. When I entered the room, cocurator Matt Price was being besieged by an Italian TV crew, to whom he diligently explicated the apocalyptic wastoids depicted in Sally Payen’s canvases. (My personal fave, however, was the dark figuration of Justin Mortimer.) I informed him I was at work on a book about bad painting; he (jokingly?) asked if I intended to start with Manet.
The opening was a scaled-down affair, with the afterparty across town at the gallery of the National Technical University Library, DJ'd by members of the confrontational art collective Guma Guar, who swapped out the hard techno they are best known for promoting in favor of a more crowd-friendly blend of witch house and eccentric electronica. The whole thing thinned out around 11 PM. The following day there were late-afternoon performances by Cleo Fariselli and Ilona Németh. Fariselli’s, which took place on the ninth floor of the biennial headquarters, featured the artist and two colleagues playing handpainted drums; Németh’s consisted of two young ladies mud-wrestling to R&B and Eurotrash disco tunes outside in the parking lot.
Well, there is the old spiritual idea that you have to crawl through the filth to cleanse the soul.
LAST FRIDAY, as the would-be-Raptured Craigslisted off their futons, the PinchukArtCentre celebrated what lies ahead: not only its Future Generation Art Prize (which makes its international debut next week in Venice), but also “Your Emotional Future,” Olafur Eliasson’s jaw-dropping (at this point, does he have another mode?) exhibition, seeping through three floors of the building. Eliasson demurely shrugged off a share of the credit: “I just do half the work; you do the rest by coming here.”
And come they did. It helped that SANAHUNT, a luxury concept store, was staging its own version of the Rapture. The store’s crew transported an international team of art/music/fashion up-and-comers—along with their boosters and handlers—to Kiev for a “Cultural Initiative,” a heady mix of events from book launches to boat rides to bacchanal dinners that revealed the city had more to boast about than the idea of wrapping a chicken around a stick of butter.
The program kicked off on Thursday with the opening of “032c Workshop Report #2 (Kiev)” in SANAHUNT’s top-floor gallery space. Photographs by Danko and Ana Steiner surrounded Helen Martens’s assemblage of odd accoutrements. On a mirrored pedestal nearby, Scott Campbell’s meticulously tattooed eggshells earned more than a few gasps, as did Olympia Scarry’s turn about the room in a sublimely eerie Givenchy burka. 032c magazine itself may have stolen the show, however, with a Juergen Teller centerfold that raised more than eyebrows. (032c’s disclaimer quoted the architect Carlo Mollino: “Everything is permissible as long as it is fantastic.”)
Left: On the boat. Right: Photographer Danko Steiner with Visionaire's Cecilia Dean. (Photos: Kate Sutton)
“Fantastic” was an understatement for the exhibition’s afterparty, a Société de 032c bar night in honor of Eliasson. Designer Joseph Altuzarra and artists Jennifer Rubell and Kon Trubkovich lounged on long couches, trying to get a glimpse of the weekend’s host, Oksana Moroz-Hunt, who was decked out in McQueen (see above, re: “fantastic.”) Salem’s Jack Donoghue kicked things off in the DJ booth, treating guests not only to a killer set—including a new Salem track—but also to a video montage as mesmerizing and eclectic as the audio samples. Afterward, Milan’s most beloved extrovert Marcelo Burlon and Broken Hearts Club’s Niki Pauls kept it rowdy on the floor, while smoke machines ensured that even the most image-conscious could dance with abandon.
The party proved an adequate warm-up for Eliasson’s exhibition opening the following day. A recent work, Your Blind Movement, cast visitors in a dense, multicolored fog, not altogether dissimilar from the one that had consumed the dance floor. Visitors were visible in the mist only when they were a few steps away, riddling the otherwise serene experience of immersion with adrenaline.
Upstairs, Room for One Color flooded a space with monofrequency light, which drained all other colors but yellow, so that everyone appeared as if in a black-and-white photograph. “When you lose the other colors, you see each other more,” the artist explained. We paused to give each other a good perusal, discovering that the pull on Pauls’s Comme des Garçons clutch was weirdly glowing its usual neon pink. “How creepy!” said curator Carson Chan. “It’s like that coat from Schindler’s List.”
The opening was followed by what was pitched as a “friendly party” at Brasserie Jean-Claude, situated above the central Besarabsky market. I nursed a glass of champagne with dealer Tanya Bonakdar and writer Guy Kennaway before we were invited to slide down the table to sit with Serpentine director Julia Peyton-Jones and Fondation Louis Vuitton director Suzanne Pagé. As we each struggled to describe our experiences of the exhibition, Victor Pinchuk took an empty seat alongside us, also pulling up a chair for his friend, who was later introduced—almost apologetically—as “Oh, just the leader of the country’s opposition party.” Stilted swallows of champagne all around.
Pinchuk always scrounges up the best in music—global icon Elton John, Ukrainian pop staples—so I was reluctant to leave before the promised concert, but I had to get back to SANAHUNT, where the opening for a Visionaire retrospective was already underway. Designer Rafael de Cárdenas had created a series of multiplatform kiosks to display the selected issues, which were stationed strategically throughout the building’s four floors. At the very top, artist Cyprien Gaillard shared the DJ booth with Donoghue and Burlon, while a pile of punishing-looking stilettos were stashed by a couch. Out on the terrace, I found the culprits: a troupe of oligarchs’ girlfriends, looking no less glamorous for their bare feet.
We briefly dropped by XLIB (Kiev’s “bare-bones” alternative club that is supposed to be void of glamour; we found it to be void of patrons as well), perking up after a text from 032c’s Victoria Camblin inviting us to join some of the SANAHUNT crew at a Boy George afterparty. We assumed it must be some sort of theme night at a struggling club, but as eastern European kitsch still beat an empty bar, we piled into taxis to Club Arena, in the space behind PinchukArtCentre.
We were greeted not by a cheesy tribute but rather by a full-fledged open-air party in the center of a circular shopping center that once played host to Damien Hirst’s shark tanks. Boy George himself, ducking under his oversize spring-green top hat, kept to the back of the stage, DJ-ing and singing, while rotating pairs of go-go dancers twirled their long, lean, scantily clad bodies in front, batting false eyelashes and flashing fierce smiles. By the time Boy George dropped “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” our crew was reconsidering those rumors about the Rapture.
Saturday was a blur of events, though I was most excited for Розвага Room, the pointedly polyglot collaboration between Parisian wunderkind Item Idem (aka Cyril Duval) and Moscow designer Gosha Rubchinskiy. Taking over a suite in the iconic Ukraine Hotel (where “room service,” such as it is, is available only from the lobby strip club), the pair invited lovely local boys—cast from the streets of Kiev—to wallow in a hotel bed while generating a surreal, live-action zine. The rest of the suite was decked out with Ukrainian memorabilia the artists had collected from marketplaces and souvenir stores. “At first I wanted to do something with the flag because, you know, it’s just so cute, right?” Duval explained. “But then I started looking around and I realized the whole city is color-coded in blue and yellow. I mean, even the cleaning supplies!”
That night, sipping Stellas atop the Hyatt with Camblin, Chan, Duval, and Emma Reeves, we observed some glowing red lights slowly ascending from various parts of the city. “Is that . . . ?” Chan began. But if it was the Rapture, no one was complaining. We were pretty happy to stay right where we were.
FRAMED IN GENTLE OPPOSITION to a perceived “cultural amnesia” about the art-world significance of Los Angeles, “Greater LA” gathers work by some forty-seven of the city’s artists in the appropriately sprawling environs of a supersize SoHo loft. Organized by art advisor Eleanor Cayre, New Museum curator Benjamin Godsill, and Untitled Gallery boss Joel Mesler, the show is thus aimed less at introducing new names and more at reminding New Yorkers that many of their fave raves likely share the same West Coast stomping ground. And while an introductory wall text quoting Anthony Kiedis’s lyrics for the Red Hot Chili Peppers song “Under the Bridge” seemed to promise a melancholic take on the Californian lifestyle, the timely and neatly installed selection runs the formal, conceptual, and emotional gamut.
Last Sunday’s invitation-only opening (a frosty reception from the clipboards at the door sat awkwardly with hopes of a laid-back vibe) attracted a decent crowd, though LA and NY contingents remained entrenched in their respective camps. Artists hovered around their work, entourages in tow, as the likes of Mary Heilmann and Lisa Kirk, dealers Andrew Kreps and Laurel Gitlen, frieze’s Dan Fox and New York Times scribe Roberta Smith lapped the room. There was some uncertainty over the exhibition’s commercial status: Works were labeled but there was no price list in evidence, or indeed any clues for the uninitiated as to who might be holding any purse strings. Not more than fifteen minutes in, I overheard a typical exchange: “Is stuff for sale?” “It’s all sold.”
Left: Dealer Andrea Zieher and Tennessee Zieher. Right: Artist Lisa Kirk with dealer Nicelle Beauchene.
As I took note of some assertive fashion—a pair of ultra-deep-dish stacked heels there, a rigorously deconstructed suit there—a familiar figure appeared, more unassumingly attired but also, apparently, in confrontational mood. “I disagree!” he began, apropos of nothing. The man with the beef was critic Jerry Saltz, and his seemingly preemptive rebuttal turned out to be in answer to an earlier correspondence concerning unfriendly gallerinas (he’s an apologist, I’m of the “politeness costs nothing” school). On the show, the New York critic thought it at least made for a good test of the cities’ attitudes toward each other: “I’m glad it’s raining,” he grouched, suggesting that the inclement weather served a noble purpose in allowing our visitors a taste of true Gotham grime. “Sometimes LA thinks we have it all.”
Joined momentarily by curator Clarissa Dalrymple (“one of the most amazing people in the art world,” according to a suddenly reverential Saltz) before she took off complaining of a hot flash, we were collared by dealer Alice Judelson, who took me to see two paintings by Eduardo Sarabia hung at the far end of the room. “It’s all about his palette,” she assured me repeatedly of Sarabia’s Photorealist canvases, based on paint-smeared snapshots of the artist’s wife. “I love his palette.” I nodded and smiled, but the room’s heat was becoming oppressive and at the earliest opportunity I ducked outside for some air, clocking Performa director RoseLee Goldberg, dealer Gabrielle Giattino, and publicist Maureen Sullivan on the way.
“Are you shooting for Clinic?” Back inside for a final round, I was assailed by Mesler with a question that seems even more peculiar after an online search for the title. (Why would I be playing paparazzo at a Manhattan art opening for what I now know to be a Dutch fetish magazine?) Correcting his impression, I asked him if he’d like his picture taken. Not only did he relish the opportunity, he drafted a succession of companions, including Cayre (who switched with impressive ease from haranguing her co-organizer over a problematic sale to an all-smiles pose for the camera) and Newark mayor Cory Booker (who, according to Mesler, is a shoo-in for next president of the United States). If anyone’s ready for his close-up, it’s this guy.
Left: The scene outside Christie’s “Bear Party.” Right: Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale. (Photo: Erika Nusser)
THE SATURDAY BEFORE LAST, Christie’s hosted a tony “Bear Party” in a big plastic tent erected at the Seagram Plaza in Midtown. No bears attended. “A straight person must have thought of that name,” someone murmured outside, their face washed in the glow of Urs Fischer’s twenty-ton teddy bear/streetlight, which sat, slumped and lonely, looking out at Park Avenue. Flashbulbs bounced off the glittering girls vamping in front of a CHRISTIE’S photo-op backdrop and lining up for entrance bracelets. It was like a Millionaire Matchmaker mixer, except here the goal was to partner rich people with merch. Or maybe just media and merch. “There’s no one here who could afford this,” another guest speculated, waving toward Fischer’s sculpture. “These people are comfortable wearing wristbands.”
Inside, Alberto Mugrabi, the dealer whose family was putting the feted object up for auction, admired his bear. “It would look great anywhere. It would look great in Paris. In Dubai. It will go to either the Russians or the Arabs.” Mugrabi knows how to hit the selling points, also detailed in the work’s fifty-four-page advert/catalogue, which featured a multipage spread, “A Bear for All Cities,” with the sculpture Photoshopped, like a traveling gnome prank, into various world locales: Untitled (Lamp/Bear) in Abu Dhabi, Untitled (Lamp/Bear) in the Red Square, Untitled (Lamp/Bear) in Paris’s Place de la Concorde, etc.
The auctions may or may not be a place where the mysteries of art and money are resolved or even clarified. But the way we look at them you’d think that the esoteric happenings of the salesroom might reveal something concrete about the market, something besides the fact that some people in the world are richer than you or I. If the auctions are one thing, they are a cipher for privilege, a place where entitlement is made salient, where class is rigorously policed.
On Tuesday evening, those arriving at Sotheby’s for the biannual Contemporary Art Evening Sale were greeted by a massive inflatable rat and a line of picketers who passed out information sheets decrying the auction house’s hiring of presumably nonunion painters. Sotheby’s handed out their own information sheets—a new, passive-aggressive “Media Guide to Attendance at Sotheby’s Auctions”—to reporters checking in at the entrance, each of whom was then escorted by an official representative to the auction room on the seventh floor. “All journalists must remain in the designated press areas,” read item one (of eight)—a rule that doesn’t apply to the New York Times’ Carol Vogel, who always stands beyond the ropes.
Left: Collector Peter Brant and dealer Larry Gagosian outside Sotheby’s. (Photo: Erika Nusser) Right: Collector David Ganek and dealer Alberto Mugrabi.
Sotheby’s sale began convincingly enough in the scheme of these things but never fully picked up, with audible bids for the most hyped works (Lot 10: Koons’s porcelain Pink Panther, 1988, put up by Benedikt Taschen, and Lot 21: Warhol’s Sixteen Jackies, 1964) staying below the low estimates. “This is a tough night for Tobias,” someone in the press pack observed sympathetically, referring to chief auctioneer Tobias Meyer. In the end, the sale brought $128.1 million with premiums, just over the house’s low estimate of $120 million. “We took slightly larger steps, anticipating a market that isn’t there quite yet,” Anthony Grant, one of the house’s senior contemporary art specialists, explained during the press conference.
“I’m asking please that you stand in the designated area.” The next night, just before Christie’s evening sale, Toby Usnik, the house’s head of communication, tried to corral press behind the crowd-control stanchions at the back of the room. “Do we really need to suffer the additional humiliation of standing behind the line?” one writer cried. “I’m asking nicely,” Usnik grimaced. “And I’m telling you nicely,” came the retort. The face-off fizzled when a bulky security guard picked up the velvet rope and placed it in front of dissident reporters.
The press pack is a kind of collective hermeneutics—a para-society forming around a common impossible task and a similarly restricted view of events. Members try to divine meaning from the smallest gestures: a glance at the phone banks, a stutter in the bids—any wrinkle in the proceedings is weighed and interpreted. Thus, seeing is everything: “Those ladies better get out of our way,” a writer said loudly before the proceedings. “Press don’t get many perks, but one is a fucking sight line.” Penned up like unruly sports fanatics, or unmanageable oracles, reporters are the Greek chorus of the auction drama.
Left: Brett Gorvy, Christie’s international co-head of post-war and contemporary art. Right: Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Evening Sale. (Photo: Erika Nusser)
A good narrative is essential to the action. The plot of Christie’s sixty-five-lot sale that night was strategically calibrated, with the right mix of pathos, climax, denouement. The first “moment” was Lot 6, Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #96, 1981, one of the artist’s iconic centerfolds, first commissioned for Artforum. Consigned by Jane Kaplowitz, wife of the late Robert Rosenblum, the print went to adviser Philippe Ségalot for $3.89 million (with premium): a world record not just for Sherman but for any photograph at auction. “It’s great to see an artist from our community, a real collector, reap some rewards,” an exuberant Amy Cappellazzo said later.
A pair of Warhol self-portraits—a red “fright wig” from 1986 (Lot 16) and a blue quartet from 1963–64 (Lot 22) constituted the pinnacle of the sale. The first went to Jose Mugrabi for $24.5 million hammer, under its low estimate of $30 million. My neighbor in the press pack was rooting for the second, which was “so covetable. I really want it to go for more than ‘Fright Wig.’ ” And it did. Auctioneer Christopher Burge kept the bidding war going for an unheard-of fifteen minutes, eventually landing it, to much applause, at $38.4 million (with premium). “That’s what you want—a little show, some drama!” a colleague yelled.
Fischer’s Untitled (Lamp/Bear) was at Lot 32. It quickly went for its high estimate—$6 million, an easy record for the thirty-seven-year-old artist, though considering the hype, it was a relatively small amount in the grand scheme of the evening. In the end, Christie’s raked in $301.7 million, selling 95 percent of its lots. “We broke the $300 million barrier. You have to go back to 2007 to see that,” a nearly giddy Brett Gorvy said during the press conference, as Cappellazzo teasingly shushed him.
During and after the show, in the foyer and in the plaza, many journalists, freshly free from the confines of the pen, stalked principals from whom they could pry a choice sound bite. Outside, Vogel caught up with Alberto Mugrabi, whose family had done quite a bit of business that night. He plucked Vogel’s cigarette from her mouth, used it to light his own, and then held hers as she took notes. “The two sales were day and night,” he told her: a nice, summative phrase that she used in her Times report. Another writer hovered, waiting for her quote, but was blocked (“Dammit!”) by the arrival of Greek tycoon Stavros Niarchos. “Why am I even bothering with this?”
Left: Simon de Pury at Phillips de Pury & Company’s Contemporary Art Part 1 sale. Right: Amy Cappellazzo, Christie’s international co-head of post-war and contemporary art.
“What! Another auction? Don’t these people ever run out of money?” The next night, walking toward Phillips de Pury down Fifty-Seventh Street with a colleague from another magazine, I considered this weird masochistic voyeurism, how shopping becomes sport, how transaction becomes transubstantiation. How the stuff of money tangles with the stuff of history.
“I come to get a sense of the market,” said a dealer next to me at the back of the room. “It’s good so far, but still soft. And it’s hard to say what it all means. Three hundred million dollars is nothing in terms of a whole industry. It’s two planes. Or a development project in Miami during the boom.”
The cover lot and talk of the evening at Phillips de Pury was a turquoise Warhol Liz from 1963 (similar to the one Hugh Grant sold at Christie’s for $21 million hammer in 2007). Many considered it a coup for the auction house to land it in their sale. The work went in a flash, just shy of a minute, quickly achieving $24 million hammer.
Later on, an early-1980s Robert Morris wall piece came up on the block. “Oh, this isn’t going to do well,” reported the same dealer. “Too serious. Too gloomy.” And indeed, the droopy felt was passed over with nary a bid.
The sale was finished in just under an hour. Fifty-one lots brought in $94.8 million—less than one-third of Christie’s evening sale from the night prior, but just $33 million shy of Sotheby’s take-home on Tuesday. Other people will no doubt parse what, if anything, this means. It seemed like a lot of money.
Out on Park Avenue that night, after an exhausting week at the theater of privilege, members of the press pack bid their adieus in the gloaming:
“So, you fly out tomorrow?” he asked. “How about a drink next time? You never have time for a drink when you’re in town.”
“That’d be lovely,” she said, buttoning her coat. “Tea though. I don’t drink before the sales . . . I’ll see you in November?”
“Yeah, see you in November.”
LAST WEEK, while the rest of the country obsessed over the demise of Osama bin Laden, the New York art world fell captive to itself. Beginning with the May 4 start of the New Museum’s Festival of Ideas along the Bowery, the town soon erupted in such a torrent of openings, talks, performances, screenings, book signings, and dinner parties it would have taken Noah’s ark to ride out the rising tide of events.
Three galleries (Matthew Marks, Nicole Klagsbrun, and Team) inaugurated new satellite spaces, while about a hundred more opened exhibitions calculated to attract collectors in town for this week’s contemporary auctions. Sixty dealers signed on for New York Gallery Week, actually a three-day, fraternal rush of living artists and more than a few—namely Keith Haring, Jack Smith, Martin Kippenberger, Robert Mapplethorpe, Donald Judd, and Salvatore Scarpitta—who have left their bodies but not the market, ravenous as ever for the new, the tried, and occasionally the true.
Leo Villareal took the shimmering lead uptown on Wednesday at Gering & López, while Katy Moran went dark and semifigural at Andrea Rosen in Chelsea and the Haring estate moved into Barbara Gladstone’s Twenty-First Street space for a handshake of a show cementing the new partnership. Central to the display were Haring’s not-for-sale sketchbooks—pages and pages of decorative line drawings and studies of penises drawn, say the handwritten captions, in front of places like Tiffany’s and the Museum of Modern Art. “There were some I’d rather not have seen,” admitted the artist’s mother during dinner at Del Posto. She preferred to talk instead of the protomural Haring drew for a high school show on a continuous roll of adding machine paper—sadly missing now.
There was no absence of material on Thursday night, when Jasper Johns and John Chamberlain each gave past themes and forms a spry, wisdom-with-age spring boost. An unusually jocular Johns showed guests around Marks’s Twenty-Second Street gallery, where Charles Ray, Terry Winters, and Vija Celmins took in recent bronze and aluminum castings of the master’s sturdy gray numerals. “That’s what artists do when they get older,” Celmins observed. “It’s all about looking back and inching forward again.”
Over at Gagosian, the eighty-four-year-old Chamberlain sat in a wheelchair surrounded by gleaming towers of crushed American cars, shaking hands with the likes of James Rosenquist, Alanna Heiss, and Frank Gehry, who then toured the show with Gagosian. “We’re always together,” the architect explained. Hmmm.
Standing apart from collectors at Tanya Bonakdar, Gillian Wearing returned to New York after an eight-year hiatus with a searing group of video and photo portraits not seen here before, all guaranteed to make viewers cringe through their tears. At Anton Kern, it was clear that Mark Grotjahn had emerged from his monochrome butterfly cocoon: He brought a slew of bright paintings that suggested fireworks.
Down in SoHo, Jose Freire inaugurated his second gallery, a fresh white cube reclaimed from a Girbaud jeans shop, with a show of paintings by David Ratcliff. (Jakob Kolding handed out his posters in the dealer’s original space on Grand Street.) Team players Ryan McGinley, Banks Violette, and Cory Arcangel hung out for a dinner in the new back room, while I felt duty-bound to check out the return of Area, the druggy performance-driven 1980s nightclub, that Creative Time promised for its annual benefit. Though hundreds of paying customers (artists, collectors, dealers, Courtney Love, Moby) came to honor the exuberant philanthropist Liz Swig, the only vestige of Area in evidence were two windowed cubbyholes in which costumed performers acted out debauched revels that anyone could join. Few did, but everyone cheered for Shots!, a riotous music video directed by Paula Greif that featured a chorus line of high-kicking socialites on the Creative Time board.
Friday was fright night in Chelsea, as the late Kippenberger, Judd, Mapplethorpe, and Smith had to compete with Ashley Bickerton, Alexander Ross, Richard Tuttle, Louise Lawler, Roe Ethridge, Paul Sietsema, and Sean Landers, who all fired off scarily good shows at once. Dressed in a purple suit, Bickerton perfectly complemented his “Jimbo Fatsurfer Bali,” the lurid, electric-blue blubber of a man in several of his opulently framed paintings. “They’re not supposed to be weird,” Bickerton said. They’re not. But they are beautifully strange.
Death has certainly not diminished the influence, or even, apparently, the output, of Jack Smith, whose color photographs and films have been restored to a luster they never had during the artist’s lifetime in a stellar show at Gladstone curated by Neville Wakefield. “Gosh, I never saw any of these pictures before,” said performance artist Augusto Machado, one of Smith’s former collaborators. Next door, at Metro Pictures, Louise Lawler also broke new ground by blowing up some of her photographs to billboard size and printing them on vinyl. “I gave up a lot of control to do this,” she said, explaining that buyers could order the pictures in a size suited to individual sites. One of the most alluring images was a monumental detail of a Degas ballet dancer. “It’s upstairs,” she said of the sculpture. “But I’m not supposed to tell anyone.”
The dinner for Lawler was on one end of the terrace of the Gramercy Park Hotel. Andrew Kreps nabbed the other end for Ethridge, who mistakenly walked into Lawler’s party and stayed, thinking it was his own. “You mean I’m in the wrong room?” he asked, only just noticing that the guests included Lawler cohorts Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo, and Laurie Simmons. His own friends and followers (Mike Ovitz, Sam Orlofsky, Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, and Liz Swig, among others) were bellying up to the bar in a room where every wall had a George Condo painting. No wonder Ethridge was confused.
Early on Saturday, when a record eleven thousand people visited the Alexander McQueen show at the Metropolitan Museum, Chelsea went eerily quiet. That was because the blue bloods had ferried themselves to Greenwich, Connecticut, where the polo-playing collector Peter Brant threw open his enormous barn for “The American Dream,” a show of paintings and sculpture commissioned from Josh Smith, whose version of America, like his previous works, mostly bears his own name. Back in Manhattan, I relaxed in the plush screening room hidden within the Bumble and Bumble hair salon, where Rainer Judd was unspooling a sweet short about her father’s transformation of Marfa, Texas, from a cattle town to a sacred art site.
With so many people having a day in the country, visiting the auction previews, or nursing hangovers from the night before, the triumvirate of 2013 Carnegie International curators roamed Chelsea in relative peace. But not for long. A van painted with the words “Scarpitta Art and Racing” pulled up in front of the Boesky Gallery to unload a Scarpitta race car branded with the name of its original sponsor, Leo Castelli. Down the street at Mary Boone, David Salle drew a crowd of art stars and writers like Fran Lebowitz, Salman Rushdie, and Francine Prose, who all mingled before new paintings that recapitulated Salle’s appended canvases of the ’80s, only with more lightbulbs and contorted nudes than before. Clifford Ross also did what he does best in his landscape photographs at Sonnabend, but added color abstractions that were animated in a film with a soundtrack by Phillip Glass. “It’s only five minutes,” Ross said. “You have to see it.”
Buzzed from all this old-is-new-again excitement, I found perennial enfant terrible Aaron Young flipping the American dream at Bortolami, where he was showing patinated sculptures of folded American flags. “Wild that this came in bin Laden week,” Young said, recalling an outside world that had almost disappeared from view. Nate Lowman also touched base in his humongous double show at Gavin Brown and Maccarone, in canvases that referred to floods, plane crashes, and other conflagrations. “But this is the fire-sale room,” said collector Mera Rubell, coveting one of the many de Kooning–esque Marilyn Monroe paintings installed in a gallery at Brown. “They’re selling like hotcakes.”
Hotter still was the combined Salle/Ross dinner, an upbeat affair that took up the whole of Matsuri in the Maritime Hotel, absolutely the most glamorous event of the week. Jeff and Justine Koons, Cecily Brown and Nicolai Ouroussoff, Amy Sillman, Alex Katz, and Prose, for example, somehow all ended up at one table. I took the lone remaining seat in the house among the members of the Bruce High Quality Foundation, Vito Schnabel, designer Elise Řverland, and consultant Alex Marshall. Suffice it to say anyone who wasn’t there was at the combined Lowman/Young fete at the Jane hotel, a boozy party from which Lowman’s mother left early and the younger crowd stayed late, as if there were nowhere else to go. But in the ritualized world of contemporary art, there is always another place and a new tomorrow, even if it looks just like today.
THIS WEEK’S controversy over the New York magazine profile of trans performer Justin Vivian Bond—with some readers calling the article offensive and others arguing that it simply performed the translation that’s required when writing for a general audience—raises once again a perennial question: How do queer acts play when they come to occupy a wider stage? The title of Emily Roysdon’s recent performance event at the Kitchen, A Gay Bar Called Everywhere, gestured toward this problematic, while the event’s subtitle, “(With Costumes and No Practice),” hinted at some possible strategies for dealing with it.
As I set off for the Kitchen last Friday evening, I was thinking about the notable appearances queer friendship and community have lately made in art-world contexts, in representations more (Ryan Trecartin) or less (A. L. Steiner) elliptical. To make art about a liminal community for broad consumption can be to walk a jagged line between justly celebrating intimacy and reifying a self-congratulatory clubbiness. Plus, what happens when you render an aestheticized emanation of deviant family for an audience that may not get it? I remember feeling fiercely protective and a bit queasy at seeing my friends naked or part-naked in Steiner’s pastoral portraits at “Greater New York” last year, even though I’d enjoyed similar work of hers in the safer harbors of Participant Inc.
As the L train hurtled under the East River, I checked my reflection in the darkened window and pondered whether the community-based art practices that felt appropriate when my friends and I were all in our mid-twenties and nobody else was really watching—and when, not incidentally, I spent the wee hours of quite a few Tuesday mornings, at Roysdon’s ecstatic urging, dancing near her at a gay bar called something far less innocuous than Everywhere—may have lost their efficacy or acquired unintended resonances ten years later, with so many graduate degrees and fellowships and solo shows between us and the soft, fermenting dark of youth and obscurity. What does it mean, in other words, for a community to grow up?
There were a few stops to make before hitting the Kitchen. All of Manhattan seemed to be swirling toward Harris Lieberman for the opening of a massive exhibition appropriately titled “A Painting Show,” and I swirled there too. In the crowd I spied Nicola Tyson and Joyce Pensato, both in the show, and I gawked in admiration at stellar works by Polly Apfelbaum and Dona Nelson. Keltie Ferris and Molly Zuckerman-Hartung had paintings up as well, and they were abuzz on the breeze of the night, receiving fans or shyly inching over to heroes. Maybe that’s part of what it means for a community to grow up: Your friends have to leave you to go work the room.
Skidding off with some fellow scribblers to the Jack Smith opening at Gladstone Gallery, I found a pair of arch critiques sharing a wall: Steiner’s text-scrolling video screed inveighing against the art-world establishment, capitalism, etc.; and Ryan McNamara’s video of a pre-opening he had thrown a few nights earlier. “I think Jack would have hated this opening,” McNamara explained, “so I wanted to create one he would have come to.” In the video, a band of fabulous young creatures batted glitter-heavy lashes, licked nipples, nuzzled, hogtied one of their tribe on the floor. “We made the place as dirty as we possibly could for four hours,” McNamara recounted, as his on-screen image pulled a very Smithian mournful skyward gaze. “But they cleaned it up so fast! By the next morning, it looked like nothing had happened in here at all.”
The dynamics of tribute and ventriloquism haunting the Smith show served as apt lead-in to A Gay Bar Called Everywhere, a high school talent show combined with a gay karaoke night served up as an underground performance salon in a postindustrial loft. Nearly all the performers used other people’s words: Neal Medlyn howled a basement hardcore version of Hannah Montana’s “Wake Up America,” Tara Mateik segued from an 1848 Elizabeth Cady Stanton speech into Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby,” Barbara Hammer dressed up like a mask-happy Claude Cahun, Will Rawls subjected us to Billy Collins’s notoriously rapey poem “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes,” and Nao Bustamante read some Nikki Giovanni over a disco track while rocking full ancient Rome/bitch goddess realness. As for Roysdon, she strolled around the stage in hot pants and a bra, taking in the proceedings with the rest of the cast.
The show struck a good balance, flaunting contingency and provisionality without being disrespectfully shoddy. And the fact that everyone was inhabiting somebody else’s voice helped temper the potentially alienating “we’re all good friends—and what are you doing here?” energy. Even when performers’ clothes came off, the costumes of the evening’s subtitle remained in place.
A few silent performances ran the length of the program: JD Samson seducing (and finally humping in a corner) a tall mannequin meant to be Ann Cvetkovich; a silver-faced Nicole Eisenman as a nearly motionless bartender–sketch artist; Yve Laris Cohen crouching against the space’s back wall, reading, as blood slowly oozed from his mouth and down his shirt; Lucy Dodd parading naked with a placard—by Steiner (again!), Ginger Brooks Takahashi, and Dean Daderko—that said THE PATRIARCHY IS A PYRAMID SCHEME.
In a standout act that partook of the karaoke theme but felt more like a traditional performance than anything else on the bill, dancer-choreographers Vanessa Anspaugh and Aretha Aoki combined elements of a past dance by Anspaugh with readings from passive-aggressive emails they had apparently sent each other. Such a complete piece felt out of place next to so many sketched-out renditions, but it was so good that I didn’t mind. The same went for MPA’s utterly mesmerizing X-rated shadow-puppetry dumb shows. These two segments underscored how almost everything else, even a skit by Sasha Yanow and the usually blazing Jibz Cameron (aka Dynasty Handbag) and an uncharacteristically straightforward lip-synch by K8 Hardy, was pretty reined-in. Roysdon had given her performers only a short time to prepare their pieces, and while this kept the bugbears of mastery and completion at a safe distance, it also seemed to keep the individual artists from making their most memorable work. Out of a gaggle of soloists, she had wrung an ensemble piece, complete with a big group number: a dance party at the end with audience members pulled onstage, like in Hair but less irresistible. The evening read, smartly, as both a paean to community and an ambivalent demonstration of its drawbacks.
In the lobby at the end, though, ambivalence took a backseat to love as the performers accepted kisses and accolades. “It wasn’t too creepy? I felt so creepy!” Samson confessed. “I was sewing my wristbands backstage right before going on,” Bustamante divulged, proud of her last-minute glam. “It all went pretty well, considering it was the first time we’d run through it,” Roysdon grinned.
But maybe another way you know your community is growing up is that instead of heading to the bar at midnight, you’re heading home. “Are you going to the afterparty at Tammany Hall?” Anspaugh teased, clearly too wiped out for any such thing. Cameron hollered, “Afterparty in my bed!” It wasn’t an invitation.
“REM,” AS ARCHITECT REM KOOLHAAS is known in architecture and design circles, knows how to draw a crowd. Tickets to his New Museum–sponsored talk last Wednesday at NYU’s Kimmel Center, the keynote address to the heavily publicized “Festival of Ideas for the New City,” disappeared well before the event. (Heard on the blogosphere: “That guy sells out venues like Lady Gaga.”) And so it was a surprise to show up to a remarkably civil occasion—with plenty of seats to spare. “It’s a real insider event,” the gentleman seated to my left whispered, peering at the architecture- and art-world-heavy front rows: Marina Abramović, Jerry Saltz, Cynthia Davidson, Eva Franch Gilabert, Tony Vidler, and New Museum associate director Massimiliano Gioni. The museum’s director, Lisa Phillips, took the podium and set the stage for the Dutch architect’s triumphant return to the city that inspired his first urban theories in the 1970s. But when she gestured to the picture windows looking toward Fifth Avenue, “one of the greatest avenues in the world” (and the site of some of Koolhaas’s early research), the automated blinds of the Kevin Roche–designed auditorium had shut out the view. The building itself, symbol of NYU’s corporatization of downtown, had literally drawn the curtain on Koolhaas’s beloved “Manhattanism,” doubling the disappearance of Gotham’s “culture of congestion,” in favor of what Koolhaas himself has described as a “narcissistic” historicism. The city is “delirious no more,” Koolhaas observed several years back.
Roche’s postmodern pastiche, however, provided the perfect backdrop to Koolhaas’s address on the “future of memory,” a challenge to think beyond stage-set architectural reference or tourist-friendly reconstruction to find new strategies that marry preservation to destruction. In what seemed to me to be a wry update of the mandatory Acropolis shot that opens every musty architecture lecture, Koolhaas gave us the crumpled cement casts at Pompeii: an “involuntary act of preservation.” Instead of architectural monuments built for eternity, frozen moments of everyday life offer a “messier” picture of the past. Ensuing slides tracked the growing trend of Disneyfication (preservation as good economics) and offered other possibilities for preserving the palimpsest of the past, architectural and otherwise. “Twelve percent of the earth’s surface, including the oceans, is now subject to some form of preservation”—a difficult situation, Koolhaas was quick to note, for eager architects. Using recent OMA projects as testing ground for his theories, Koolhaas also didn’t shy away from mining his own architectural past. Familiar Koolhaasian figures (point grids, barcodes) reappeared as strategies not for building but for selective preservation. He even offered up his own design for a house in Bordeaux as a kind of bureaucratic limit case: It was classified as a historic landmark at the moment of completion.
Left: Anthony Vidler, dean and professor of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at the Cooper Union. Right: Rem Koolhaas.
Koolhaas reserved a good half of the presentation for his discussion of the state of the contemporary art museum: a space both for preservation—the reuse of former industrial buildings—and for erasure: the clearing out of functional details in favor of the “neutrality” of the white cube. His frustration with the situation was clear in his account of the competition to retrofit an old power station into what has since become Tate Modern. “Artists,” the would-be designers were told, prefer spaces with “minimal architectural intervention.” After inviting several highly polemical architects to participate, “they were telling us ‘back off.’ ”
When the Q&A began, Koolhaas returned to the theme of the museum with a question of his own. “Are there any artists in the room?” he asked, to uncomfortable chair-shifting. After a self-described “artist-architect-philosopher—and-a-feminist” offered herself up, Koolhaas turned to Abramović seated in the second row: “Marina, you are an artist. Is there a sense of panic with the ever-expanding space at your disposal?” Abramović addressed, of course, the MoMA atrium, a space she had attempted to “fill with energy, something immaterial.” She then went on to reiterate the Tate’s party line on artistic taste. Architectural spaces, Abramović complained, “have so much decoration, so much stuff, you cannot see the work.” “And,” she added, perhaps to counter Koolhaas’s tacit assumption that all the artists in the room might think alike, “I’m not a feminist.”
In what almost seemed like a planted question, collector Dakis Joannou asked simply whether Koolhaas “would have demolished the Berlin Wall.” Koolhaas referred all the way back to his own thesis work at the AA in London, where he presented “the Berlin Wall as a piece of architecture.” The project was the inspiration for his first major design (with Elia Zenghelis): Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture, in which a wall becomes the site of the city. “To get rid of the [Berlin] wall,” Koolhaas leveled, “was a primitive, triumphalist gesture”—anything but the “scientific” destruction of existent urban fabric that he had just proposed. But for Koolhaas, too, preservation is, on some level, personal. “I cannot take my grandkids, even my kids, to where the wall was,” he lamented. “You cannot see it anymore.”
THE TWENTY-NINTH EDITION OF ART BRUSSELS was certainly the place to be last week for a breather between the Royal Wedding in London and Pope John Paul’s beatification in Rome. Brussels is elegantly retro and understated, cool and multicultural, and doing just fine without a national government—ironic considering it is the seat of the European Parliament. In any case, the art market here is robust and dependable, and Belgium has some of the most sophisticated collectors in Europe.
Inside the Brussels Expo during the fair preview, the hallways were bustling with an urbane crowd resembling the studious attendees of an academic conference: Groups engaged in intense discussion in the aisles or sipped champagne in one of several corporate VIP lounges. First-time exhibitor Asli Sümer, of Istanbul’s ArtSümer, was already impressed: “The Belgian collectors really know what they’re looking at, which is great.” Although things did not seem to be flying off the walls at first flush, the dealers seemed sanguine, and even philosophical, none of the hysteria of days past, boom or bust. “You can tell they are serious here,” dealer Javier Peres said.
Later we dashed across town to a party for the exhibition “Red Floors, White Walls, Black Corners,” curated by collector Frédéric de Goldschmidt-Rothschild, a real estate developer who lives in one of three raw buildings hosting the show. We spotted Orlan just inside the entrance, before looking through the equally colorful exhibition, which included one of Alighiero Boetti’s small palindromes in primary colors and a strangely simpatico plastic spoon composition by Laone Santos Brasil. After partaking of the delicious fish and chips served from the vintage “Fish Caravan” on the corner, Goldschmidt-Rothschild took us on a tour of his lofty apartment, whose centerpiece was a mirror-framed chandelier by artist duo Ghost of a Dream that employs infinite regress to magical effect. While regarding an anachronistic portrait, the collector confirmed that he had parlayed money from the sale of a family heirloom into a contemporary art collection.
The next morning I visited South African artist Jane Alexander’s exhibition “Security,” at the Centrale Electrique, where several dioramas featuring animal-human hybrids touch evocatively on the current security-obsessed climate of discrimination-cum-domination. After, we could hardly resist a tasting tour of the venerable Belgian chocolate shops with artist DeAnna Maganias, which fortified us for the crowded opening of “After Images,” a show curated by Fionn Meade at the Jewish Museum.
The party that night was at the Escheresque Vanhaerents Collection, a delightful standing dinner on a mezzanine overlooking the phantasmagoric exhibition “Sympathy for the Devil.” It was a spectacular show to be sure, the apogee a colossal space devoted to David Altmejd’s dazzling Colossi. On the way out, collector Walter Vanhaerents said, “There are great private collections here, but they are pretty quiet about what they’ve got. The Dutch and French have moved here for the low 6 percent tax on art imports.” To which Hungarian art consultant Anna Bagyo added, “The Belgians are the most intelligent and cosmopolitan collectors in the world, but they usually buy outside the country.”
On Friday, whether due to a royal wedding hangover or the exodus to Berlin, or both, the fair was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop, and nobody seemed to mind much. I was transfixed by The Circle, Eléonore Saintagnan’s video at Elaine Lévy Project portraying a series of distracted young men and women, and Galerie Lelong hosted a solo installation by Barthélémy Toguo, Dreams Territory, showing migrant displacement via colorful totes and things toted to assemble an itinerant domestic space. Barbara Gladstone had perhaps altogether the most tempting selection, with strong sculptures by Anish Kapoor and Thomas Hirschhorn alongside single works by Raymond Pettibon, Allora & Calzadilla, and Wangechi Mutu, and a series of canvases by Ugo Rondinone.
That evening Brussels had its own gallery night, decidedly more low-key than the one across the border. Our first stop was Xavier Hufkens, whose show “Everything You Can Imagine Is Real” had, as you can imagine, an appealing mix of works throughout its elegant meandering spaces—a visceral blood-smeared feather-and-crystal head by Altmejd, a George Condo painting, and an entryway evocatively smudged in black by Latifa Echakhch. At Aeroplastics, I ran into American collectors Marion Brenner and Robert Hartshorn Shimshak, who argued that coming here was not just about buying but making contacts. “The Belgian collectors are fanatics, the galleries are great, and there are very good artists here too.”
Saturday brought more openings, and I ran against time itself to see David Claerbout’s retrospective “The Time That Remains,” at Wiels. Then it was on to the inauguration of the posh Maison Particuličre, a new private club that will host exhibitions culled from various collections, along with a changing selection of furniture plucked from a local dealer. Afterward, I joined in on an intimate dinner at La Vigne in Brussels’s version of Little Italy, where one waiter spoke Italian and the other French without a hint of irony. Greek dealer Rebecca Camhi mentioned the new jewelry store she recently opened under her gallery space: “It takes the same amount of effort to sell a $100 item as it does a $50,000 work of art,” she advised. That started a discussion about the great shopping we had found in the city, Maureen Paley on chic rue Dansaert and others of us at the more down-market Place du Jeu de Balle. With flea markets to die for and every European capital within two hours, Brussels may be the best bargain on the Continent. That is perhaps why all the connoisseurs who live there are keeping it a secret.
Left: Outside neugerriemschneider gallery. (Except where noted, all photos: David Velasco) Right: Udo Kittelmann, director of Berlin's Nationalgalerie (center), with Gallery Weekend Berlin organizer Michael Neff. (Photo: Nick Ash)
AI WEIWEI WAS NOT at the dinner held in his honor Friday night at Tim Raue, the Michelin-star restaurant around the corner from that old-school symbol of the old-school cold war, Checkpoint Charlie. Nor was he amid the convocation of concerned Germans attending Sunday morning’s panel, “Why We Urgently Need Ai Weiwei,” at Martin-Gropius-Bau. He wasn’t at Wednesday’s buoyant but intimate opening for Anna Ostoya at Silberkuppe or Thursday’s launch for Esther Schipper’s bright new space or Saturday’s world premiere screening of Sarah Morris’s film Chicago at Babylon Berlin Mitte or any of the other events where one seemed to run into people.
But although Ai himself was not present he also very much was, with signs of him popping up everywhere over the course of the fifth Gallery Weekend Berlin (a “weekend” now in title alone). His name appeared on solidarity buttons and petitions and (rather optimistically) on VIP check-in lists. WHERE IS AI WEIWEI read the massive banner made by Rirkrit Tiravanija, which hung from neugerriemschneider at the opening of Ai’s show there on Friday. FREIHEIT FÜR AI WEIWEI read the one hanging from the entrance of M-G-B. I heard (and said) the artist’s name so much it began to seem like a dada speech exercise. If the Chinese government really wanted to keep Ai out of the conversation, they’re doing an awfully bad job of it.
“People tell me that I shouldn’t travel to China now, or even Hong Kong for the fair,” said curator-without-borders Hans Ulrich Obrist. “One has to at least think about this.” Obrist, like thousands of others, was in Berlin to take inventory of the city’s cultural happenings in one fell swoop. I saw him the first time (of many) on Friday at the opening of Helen Marten’s articulate sprawl of a show at Johann König. From the general mishmash of events, Obrist and colleague Stéphanie Moisdon pinpointed the Rainer Fetting retrospective at the Berlinische Galerie as a must-see.
Though satellite events, like Konstantin Grcic’s reception at 032c Workshop, began as early as Tuesday, the official openings for Gallery Weekend ran Friday from 2 to 9 PM—making for a delirious seven-hour social binge (this before dinners and afterparties). The first faces I recognized, at Daniel Buchholz for Nairy Baghramian’s standout show of haunting viscera, were fellow out-of-towners Shaun Caley Regen and Elizabeth Peyton. Alex Logsdail of Lisson Gallery, which is opening its own Ai show next week, popped up everywhere. At Tanya Leighton gallery for Gianni Jetzer’s “The Confidence-Man,” I spotted artist Gabriel Kuri and avuncular dealer Darren Flook, the latter “just doing the whole German thing—eating sausages for breakfast, staying in flats four times the size of what I’ve got in London.” I didn’t see any natives (besides dealers) until late afternoon. “Berliners don’t know how to get up in the morning—it’s totally foreign to them,” a friend advised.
“Germans are impregnated with angst,” artist Monica Bonvicini argued between cigarettes at a massive dinner that night at decadent art-world headquarters Grill Royal. She should know better than most, having moved here from Italy in 1986. But angst is for the idle: Who has time to indulge ennui when you have two or three days to hit forty-four “official” shows and a dozen or so other exhibitions (Susan Philipsz at Isabella Bortolozzi, Meredyth Sparks at VW, Berta Fischer at Giti Nourbakhsch, for instance) not on the “list”? “Survival mode” was how Art Basel codirector Annette Schönholzer characterized it, and with her job, that’s hardly an exaggeration.
Left: Artist Olaf Nicolai with dealer Gerd Harry Lybke. Right: Dealer Daniel Buchholz.
The consensus seemed to be that while Gallery Weekend was drawing greater and greater non-art-world crowds, the shows were also becoming more institutional. “It took me twenty years to build a waitlist. You have one in just three?” an incredulous Daniel Buchholz asked Silberkuppe’s Dominic Eichler. Suits were de rigueur, even at some of the parties. For all the sprawl and the occasional riffraff it all felt a bit professional, a bit clean-cut. A bit . . . New York?
On Saturday night, GWB’s monster finale of a dinner was like a battle royale of art-world dignitaries. The crowd—somewhere around a thousand, someone speculated—mingled raucously in the industrial “foyer” of Station-Berlin. Someone gave a short speech that no one could hear, and a giant curtain behind the stage fell away, revealing another room three times the size of the one we were already in. “It’s like Harry Potter,” Helen Marten said, looking out at the rows of banquet tables stacked end to end to fill the stretch of the grand former train depot. “I expect to see Prince William arrive at any moment.” Leap founder-editor Phil Tinari and I took seats—everyone’s napkins were decorated with a single sunflower seed—across from a pair of middle-aged Germans who looked dourly at anyone who lit up a cigarette. (Turns out that one of them was a bigwig in the German Green party.) “I’m having a David Shrigley moment,” my droll neighbor intoned. The night wore on much as one would expect, and we found ourselves at the center of a seemingly endless expanse of art-world “names”: Gilbert & George and Peter Saville and Angela Bulloch and Ingar Dragset and Marc Spiegler (“the Bismarck of the art world,” a friend observed) and Gerwald Rockenschaub and Martin Klosterfelde and pretty much everyone, except, of course, for Ai.
Left: Artists Gilbert & George. (Photo: Nick Ash) Right: Artist Gabriel Kuri.
Left: Filmmaker Albert Maysles. Right: Performa founder and director RoseLee Goldberg with artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla and Art in General executive director Anne Barlow.
“ARE YOU TECHNICOLOR?” Squeezing into my seat at a cramped table for Anthology Film Archives’s eighteenth annual Film Preservation Honors Dinner and fortieth-anniversary benefit concert at City Winery last Wednesday evening, I was unprepared for what seemed like an unusually abstract conversation starter. I felt fine, but this flamboyant-sounding descriptor might have been pushing it somewhat. As it turned out however, my tablemates—all employees of cineast video distributors the Criterion Collection—had been anticipating the arrival of a higher-up from the famed film production company. But they were graceful in disappointment, and once we had made our introductions, the elderly but reliably puckish figure of Jonas Mekas, Anthology’s beloved founding director, took to the stage.
Peering out from under a wide-brimmed hat, our host addressed the room in his heavily Lithuanian-accented English. “Our building was built as a prison,” he reminded us in reference to Anthology’s East Village digs, “so it will last for hundreds of years!” A typically dour Lou Reed, appearing immediately thereafter in the form of a black-and-white video projection, lent his more reserved support to the enterprise’s endurance. Next up was New York–based musician Richard Barone, who, in addition to his duties as official emcee, knocked out a few songs including Gotham standard “The Sidewalks of New York” and (presumably in deference to Reed) the Velvet Underground’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” But was he joking when he claimed that Mekas was responsible for introducing Andy Warhol to VU chanteuse Nico?
As I’m usually more at home in the museum and gallery world than among the great and good of avant-garde film, I’d been intrigued to note the name of Marina Abramović on the night’s bill. But while the Artist was Present, she wasn’t about to perform, instead introducing her 2005 video Balkan Erotic Epic. It was a courageous choice, given that watching villagers humping the ground and flashing the sky in an attempt to stimulate crops or ward off evil might not have been everyone’s first choice for dinner-and-a-movie combination. The lengthy series of award presentations that came next was more standard stuff, with scholar Vlada Petric, critic Tony Pipolo, and documentary-maker Al Maysles all picking up gongs, alongside emissaries from the Library of Congress and—there was our guy—Technicolor.
Another supporter appearing only in on-screen form was Harmony Korine, whose short film recounting his invention of “curb-dancing” garnered rapturous applause. (“One day it will rain down tap shoes,” predicted the former enfant terrible, “tap shoes across the universe.”) Idiosyncratic in a different style was David Amram, performing (with help from his son on bongos) the score for Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s Jack Kerouac–narrated film Pull My Daisy. Adding an introduction tailored to the occasion, Amram knew his crowd but did, I am bound to report, veer into scat singing. As the horror unfolded (albeit with merciful brevity), words of warning from the Mighty Boosh’s Vince to his jazz-besotted cohort Howard came to me with renewed urgency: “Don’t start scatting—we don’t need scat at this point.” Even an endearingly chaotic turn from Icelandic folkie Ólöf Arnalds couldn’t quite erase the memory.
On Thursday evening it was Art in General’s turn to pull out all the stops, though they kept the musical diversion to a background buzz. The hook for the thirty-year-old not-for-profit’s shindig, held at Stephan Weiss Studio in the West Village, was a “double blind” silent auction. Ten nominators had been asked to select one artist each to shoot a roll of film that would remain undeveloped—and thus unseen—until purchased. Among the selectors were artist Spencer Sweeney, actor Alan Cumming, curator Dan Cameron, and dealer Janice Guy. The picks included artists Jeremy Deller, Matt Mullican, Shirin Neshat, and hard-partying musician Andrew W.K. (“What will his photos be of?” wondered one guest, aghast. “A gutter full of beer bottles?”).
As collectors hovered around the spotlighted bid forms, which in the absence of any visible artwork suggested a conceptual installation, White Columns director Matthew Higgs and I compared notes about the upcoming royal wedding back in our shared home country. The ever-loyal Brit swore he’d be up at 5:30 AM the following morning to catch the event as it happened; homegrown curator Amie Scally didn’t look quite so enthusiastic. I chatted too with architect Steven Learner, whose firm was responsible for the renovation of Art in General’s SoHo space in 2006, about his hand in the green redevelopment of tornado-flattened Greensburg, Kansas. Cocktails filled a pleasant hour or so, though preprandial announcements began on a sad note as we raised a silent glass to the memory of Ioana Nemes, a Romanian artist who had been in residence at the gallery when she died suddenly the week before.
After the meal and a blink-and-you’d-missed-it announcement of who’d won what—a tablemate acquired Tim Lee’s sequence of eighty 35-mm slides—I joined artists Jason Bailer Losh and Emily Roysdon, Art in General director Anne Barlow and board member Melinda Wang, Guy (clutching a large bunch of wild flowers), and a few others for an afterparty at the nearby Jane hotel. Arriving to discover another event already in full swing, we were diverted to the Rusty Knot, where a free jukebox and a deal on Tecate saw the remaining handful of celebrants through.