THE SIDEWALKS surrounding the Berkeley Art Museum last Thursday were filled with dazed and eager newbie scholars who brazenly streamed through crosswalks, taunting drivers on the first day of classes at Cal. It also happened to be the opening of Barry McGee’s rollicking home-turf midcareer survey at the BAM. McGee and his street-inflected artwork have always had an ambivalent relationship with authority, and it was a fitting and yet somehow awkward merging of events. The university is a zone of both youthful energy and bureaucratic entanglements: During the opening, there were reports of campus police having hassled the artist late the previous night as he tagged the outside of the museum with the word SNITCH. Officials intervened and the paint kept spraying.
Heavy metal played at a subdued volume in the massive, open-plan museum, but the vibe was calm and respectful, not wild or iconoclastic. More youth culture than art-worldly. The pervasive sangfroid had something to do with the fact that the sun hadn’t set and the bars were outside on the patio. The beer (microbrew kegger, fittingly) ran out quickly. Wonderfully fragrant marijuana clouds wafted over the crowd with regularity. There was a burst of excitement, a rock star moment, when the notoriously shy artist made his way to the patio. He was immediately crushed by fans, one brandishing a bike frame with McGee graphics. The rest clutched cell phones with which they captured the moment. The artist amiably signed the bike.
Left: The Filth Mongers. Right: BAM/PFA director Lawrence Rinder and Oakland Museum of California curator René de Guzman. (Photos: Styrous)
To cope with his ambivalence about being contained in a museum, McGee brings the outside in. The show’s centerpiece is a stage set with scenes of gritty urbanity, complete with animatronic taggers. A collaborative version in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles’s “Art in the Streets” exhibition was dense and dark. The Berkeley version—a towering, painting-encrusted faux storefront in BAM’s massive Brutalist atrium—seems more plazalike, with plenty of open space to stroll. Throngs of fans comfortably mingled around the work. MoCA director and McGee champion Jeffrey Deitch was probably the most notable figure besides the artist, and he was spotted ambling through the crowd with a slight limp. The music grew louder as dusk settled into evening. The Filth Mongers, a band comprising anonymous McGee pals (many of whom helped in the months-long install), performed a set wearing paper bags on their heads.
The show’s objects exude a kind of accessibility and vulnerability. Many of them are displayed casually, outside of vitrines, under the gentle watch of work-study attendants. In a mezzanine gallery, curator and BAM/PFA director Larry Rinder told me that the show was “a moment of reflection, of where we are, and where we are going.” Before I could fully process that, lanky Berkeley-based performance artist Philip Huang knelt on the floor in devotional pose and began a seemingly guerrilla (but actually sanctioned) performance that involved cross-dressing, a large stuffed animal, and a neti pot, which the artist used to rinse his nostrils, letting the water rinse his bare foot. The puerile gross-out factor was effective enough, though its relationship to McGee’s work was tenuous. “They said I could do whatever I wanted,” Huang told me. The DJ picked up from there.
Things were quieter and notably more adult at the afterparty at Pizzaiolo in Oakland. The entire restaurant was booked by Ratio 3, McGee’s SF gallery, and guests were plied with primo Italian nibbles and California reds. Deitch sequestered himself in a booth (and admitted he was looking forward to a public conversation with Rinder on McGee’s work, though MoCA’s controversies seemed off the table), while Adam Sheffer of Cheim and Reid, which just picked up the artist, chatted with collectors. A few of us played genteel games of bocce ball on the patio, while McGee kept a low profile, visiting friends, seeming to enjoy the calm. They sent us home with McGee tote bags, while the restaurant offered its remaining loaves of the day’s house-baked bread. Like the exhibition we celebrated, it was a hearty gesture, which we happily accepted.
THE ISLAND OF SAMOS was the scene of a recent summertime détente between Greeks and Germans on the occasion of Harun Farocki’s “Between Eye and Hand,” the inaugural exhibition of the Culture Hotel Pythagoras art museum and residency. Munich-based entrepreneur Kurt Schwarz and his Greek wife, Chiona Xanthopoulou-Schwarz, bought and renovated the abandoned hotel, long an eyesore on the quaint touristic harbor of Pythagoreio, where the eponymous mathematician lived. Also initiating that weekend was the Samos Young Artists Festival, a series of concerts taking place every August in the ancient theater, founded by the couple three years ago and directed by composer Konstantia Gourzi. I arrived on a Friday by boat from Chios and joined the museum’s director, Alexandros Stanas, and curatorial team—Jason Kontovrakis, Apostolos Vasilopoulos, Yannis Arvanitis—at a kitschy beach bar for an organizational meeting in the guise of cocktails until sunrise.
For the opening the next evening, the famed Samian nectar flowed as a convivial mix of Germans, Austrians, and Greeks repaired to the museum terrace, circumscribed by a marina, a playground, and a beach. Not a bad location at all: With a taverna attached to the back of the building and a kiosk selling beach supplies and cigarettes near the front entrance, you have just about everything you need. A Greek island may seem an odd location for an international art institution, but Samos once was a major artistic center, peaking around 600 BC, when it achieved the greatest engineering feat in antiquity, the Eupalinos tunnel, among other wonders. And then the Athenians destroyed it all out of jealousy. “It’s not really on the map; it took me eleven hours to get here from Salzburg,” said Arne Ehmann, director of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac. “At first I thought it was a crazy idea, but it is perfect. The view from the reading room is like an Alex Katz painting.”
Left: Artists Arthur Summereder and Katharina Schild and curator Yannis Arvanitis. Right: Marek Bartelik, president of AICA, architect Penny Petrakou, and Culture Hotel Pythagoras director Alexandros Stanas.
During his official speech, Schwarz lauded Farocki’s work: “We saw a video two years ago at Art Basel, and my wife said it would fit perfectly here because it is political but also tells stories.” Farocki returned the favor and praised the pristine white venue as ideal for showing video work, comparing his own approach to music and poetry. I went inside to see the evidence: Projected on a double screen, Comparison via a Third uses traditional montage to juxtapose the contrasting ways bricks are produced in different cultures—mind-numbing Western machine–operated mass production versus the communal approach of artisans in India, for example, who work together to shape and fire the clay by hand. It is an evocative, and sad, commentary on the alienating effect of advanced technology on humankind.
Later everyone sauntered to a beachfront restaurant down the street. At the head table was a lively discussion of Farocki’s series “Serious Games,” depicting US military training exercises using computers with simulated battle scenarios very much like children’s video games. “For me it is not about one country or the other,” Xanthopoulou-Schwarz commented. “I am worried about our children.” More than war, the videos are about the postmodern disengagement of society and its fragmented view of reality through a screen. Subtitles from Eye/Machine III, a rapid montage of images taken by 1980s cruise missiles alternating with stored data portraying the same terrain, point to the perversity: “Meant to threaten and entertain.” “A genre prone to exaggeration. Hardly suitable to depict death.” In one video psychologists illustrate the virtual reality immersion programs used to treat PTSD, which are nearly indistinguishable from those used in training. “It took six months to get permission from the military to film, not because it was sensitive material but because the press officers are lazy,” Farocki explained. “When they saw the end product they did not know what to make of it since there was no commentary.”
Left: Elculture’s Calliope Alpitsi and Nikos Ververidis. Right: Nathalie Hosp of the Samos Young Artists Festival and a friend.
Sunday night there was a festival celebrating the anniversary of the Mykali sea battle, wherein the Greeks defeated the Ottomans. “Low budget!” exclaimed a curator as we watched a less than spectacular simulation of a Turkish frigate burning. Not to mention anachronistic, especially at this moment in history. “Why are we celebrating a long-ago naval battle when we have an economic war going on now?” a fellow spectator asked. I walked to the other end of the harbor to watch the traditional dancers doing the sirtos, but then decided to partake in the age-old ritual of ouzo drinking.
Monday night was the inaugural concert of the Young Artists Festival, this year titled “Music Flows Across the Sea.” I took up a tranquil spot under some pine trees in the ancient theater on the hillside. The music, a mix of compositions from Greece to Asia Minor by the Ross Daly Quartet, was from a time when national borders were more expansive. I ended the night on the museum balcony with a view to the sea and Turkey. Over a bottle of tsipouro, Kontovrakis and Vasilopoulos reported that some artists visiting that day, on their way back from Documenta, had read about the exhibition at Culture Hotel Pythagoras and thought it must be a mistake. Another tourist asked if there was a room available.
ON SATURDAY NIGHT I boarded a chartered “pARTy bus” from Salt Lake City to the Central Utah Art Center in Ephraim, Utah. Mikell Stringham, a member of CUAC’s board, welcomed passengers on the bus to the “Farewell to Ephraim Party.” Her colleague Andrew Shaw quickly corrected her: “It’s the ‘Footloose Dance Party.’ ” The city council served a surprise eviction notice last month, but as of yet no terms of settlement have been decided for the early breach of contract, and CUAC is trying to stay in Ephraim (pop.: 6,000) to maintain its unusual status as a small-town contemporary art gallery. I asked several people if they knew of any comparable institutions around the United States and got furrowed brows and shaking heads in reply. That doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t exist—before last week I had never heard of CUAC.
I was in Utah after a week of visiting relatives in the Rocky Mountain region, and when I learned about the Footloose Dance Party via RSVP notifications on Facebook I thought: Why not? It’s too bad I never got to see an exhibition at CUAC; Edgar Arceneaux, Rashawn Griffin, Kerry James Marshall, and Mariah Robertson have all recently shown there. The only vestige of its program on Saturday was a curator’s credit stenciled on the wall. “Curated by Jorge Dick,” it said when I entered, but by the next time I passed it the last word had been erased. (A few partygoers blamed Jorge Rojas’s aggressively provocative and budget-busting show “superHUMANS” for CUAC’s troubles.) The gallery was decorated with balloons, icicle lights, and a disco ball, and—to bolster the defiant mood—there was a silent screening of the party’s namesake Footloose, the 1984 hit about a teen dance party in rural Oklahoma whose organizer struggles against persecution by the town elders.
“What if you have your dance in Bayson?” This suggestion from a janitor to the young protagonist of Footloose happened to appear in the subtitles when I glanced at the monitor. Even the people who thought the relationship with Ephraim was beyond repair didn’t think CUAC was done for. Stringham said they had run an online poll, and fans suggested reopening in Ogden or Park City; Adam Bateman, an artist and CUAC’s director, told me that some potential funders had encouraged him to move to Salt Lake. But CUAC has invested heavily in Ephraim, raising money to renovate their building, a granary built by Mormon settlers in the mid-nineteenth century, as well as a cabin that belonged to pioneer artist C.C.A. Christensen, which was towed across town to CUAC’s backyard and converted to a secondary exhibition space.
Left: Artists Shane Smith and Ryen Schlegel. Right: CUAC board members Mikell Stringham and Andrew Shaw.
CUAC had little tension with the local administration before the election of David Parrish to the mayor’s office. Parrish, I was told, owns twenty-one McDonald’s franchises in Utah and has a statue of Ronald (the clown) on his front porch. “They [CUAC] weren’t involving the local flavor,” he told the Huffington Post. “You’d think that these guys are big capitalists and only care that we bring a shit ton of money to Ephraim,” Bateman said, referring to substantial national grant funds that CUAC spends in the town. “But apparently that’s not their only concern.” Kathleen Peterson, who founded CUAC in the early 1990s as a place to show works of local artists and craftsmen and to educate local schoolchildren, reflected on her tenure in an open letter to the city council: “The exhibits were of high quality and were recognized by many artists in Utah but as the years went by, there was not much support from the community of Ephraim.” She has argued that shifting CUAC’s focus away from contemporary art would result in decreased attendance and funding.
Several of the people I talked to insisted that the city council’s opinions do not necessarily reflect those of its constituents. But, they said, Ephraim’s citizens had been regrettably quiet throughout the conflict. Jason Metcalf—an artist who ran a nonprofit gallery in Provo in 2008 and 2009 without support from the staunchly Mormon city’s administration—spotted an opportunity to get an authentic local opinion when Shaun Christensen, a descendant of the builder of the cabin, approached the pop-up taco stand in CUAC’s yard. But Christensen, who said he was a “digital artist,” hadn’t even heard about the eviction. “I was just passing by and saw something was happening,” he said between bites of tacos, and added: “I’d show you my portfolio but I lost my iPod last week.”
In the gallery, the party escalated. The dancers stomped their feet desperately, and the people hanging out in the basement office would occasionally raise their eyes, wondering if the floor might collapse. All the tunes were from the ’80s, in keeping with the Footloose theme. “If I go there will be trouble,” the Clash sang through the speakers. “If I stay it will be double.” As it neared midnight, Bateman rounded up the revelers for a sleepover at the Birch Creek Ranch in Spring City, the site of CUAC’s residency program. The next day, he and a few others would return to mount an unannounced project by Metcalf: a total installation incorporating some anonymous paintings—a fox in a field, a moonlit waterfall, a desert scene—that had been abandoned at CUAC and had languished in the basement for years. The guerrilla show is CUAC’s last sally to declare its commitment to Ephraim.
IN SEPTEMBER 2008, a little-known group by the name of Voina descended on an unsuspecting hypermarket on the outskirts of Moscow, blocking off one of the massive aisles with shopping carts and staging a lynching of three hired gasterbaiters (a derogatory but prevalent term for migrant workers from Central Asia). These workers-cum-performers had agreed to be paid for their services, and the happening might have effectively addressed the city’s callous labor system had it not been for the added distraction of two hot-panted “homosexual” comrades-in-nooses, who spent most of the video documentation prancing and giggling into their feather boas and angel wings while the workers looked on bewildered. It was supposed to speak to gay rights, but it felt like a fraternity stunt.
Two years later and Voina was up for the state-funded Innovation Prize for spray-painting a giant penis on the drawbridge across from the former KGB headquarters (now home to the FSB, Russia’s military police). The puerile accent to the collective’s less-publicized high jinks—from tipping cop cars on Palace Square to setting fires under parked buses on New Year’s Eve—suggested that Voina was something of a boys’ club. To call their actions involving women “empowering” you’d have to subject them to the most convoluted interpretations. An oft-cited orgy in a museum reduced women to reproductive props, while How to Snatch a Chicken: A Tale of How One Cunt Fed the Whole of the Group Voina, 2010, offered a highly sophisticated statement about the capacity of a woman’s vagina to shoplift. The photo spread of a blond girl in a supermarket aisle, stuffing a raw chicken into her perfectly waxed genitalia, read more as fetish porn than feminism.
In 2012, tables turned, and the women of Voina took center stage with their offshoot group Pussy Riot, whose catchy name has arguably garnered them more fans than their purposefully abrasive music has. The “band” had been performing guerrilla-style “concerts” since last November, screaming songs from store windows, the rooftops of a public tram, and a detention center, and even on Red Square, where they spouted calls for Tahrir in Moscow (“Egyptian air is good for the lungs”). They wore balaclavas to cancel out the distraction of female beauty—and perhaps rightfully so. Once unmasked, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s pouty prettiness—even after five months in prison she looks like she just patted off her face in a Noxzema commercial—earned her an international following, as well as an invite to pose (unpaid) on the cover of Ukrainian Playboy.
Pussy Riot’s performances made the social networking rounds as campy videos, but the general public—then preoccupied with pre-election protests—barely took note. That is, until lady-Voina targeted the country’s unspoken second-in-command. Not Prime Minister Medvedev (he already had his orgy), but the Russian Orthodox Church and its Patriarch Kirill Gundyaev, a former KGB colleague of Putin’s who was promoted to the church’s head when he assumed leadership, and who promptly mobilized God and his congregation in support of Putin. Under this regime, the church has increasingly intervened in state matters, forming a kind of Second Kremlin in the Church of Christ the Saviour, the seat of Russian Orthodoxy, or—as the Moscow court would continuously refer to it—“God’s personal address.”
Left: Madonna in concert in Saint Petersburg, August 7, 2012. Right: Voina, How to Snatch a Chicken: A Tale of How One Cunt Fed the Whole of the Group Voina, 2010.
Irina Prokhorova—who, if anyone, deserves to be the face of feminism in Russia, as one of the country’s strongest and most steadfast advocates for an educated civil society—has publicly stated that there can be no such society so long as “hurting the Orthodox’s feelings” trumps any other crime. This was the case when courts ruled in favor of Orthodox marauders who destroyed artworks from the 2002–2003 Moscow exhibition “Watch Out! Religion!,” and instead opted to fine the curators for irresponsibly inciting strong emotions. And it’s the charge Madonna is now facing after the fresh filing of a $10 million suit citing “moral damage,” prompted by her August 9 performance in Saint Petersburg, during which the Material Girl spoke out against recent city laws aimed at curbing “homosexual propaganda.” (“While speaking of tolerance, she abuses the feelings of believers,” a spokesman for the case explains. In other words, not enough tolerance for intolerance.)
While regularly pimped on Russian TV, the Orthodox Church could probably use a little international PR. In April, Patriarch Kirill adamantly denied that he owned a $30,000 Breguet watch, which sent the church scurrying to Photoshop away evidence of said accessory. (Unfortunately, in their rush, they forgot to wipe out the watch’s reflection, a problem when you’re going to wear something so damn shiny.) If this weren’t already a communications nightmare, the church has also recently come under fire for operating a series of (literally) underground enterprises in the bottom floors of the cathedral, including an elite car wash, dry cleaning service, paid parking, and a number of kiosks peddling Walgreens-style knickknacks, all at unregulated prices. What’s more, if you like what you see upstairs, several of the cathedral’s grand halls are available to rent out for private events.
On February 21, 2012, five masked girls sang about exactly this corruption, pleading with the Virgin Mary to drive Putin and his cronies from her church. The girls entered the cathedral as any other members of the flock, but once inside, they stripped off their coats and donned colorful masks, in flagrant disregard of the cathedral’s code of conduct. The invaders then broke into the altar (an area reserved for the priests and thus expressly forbidden to women), where they performed some aerobics-y maneuvers for all of thirty seconds before being chased out by security. When a retooled video of the events appeared on YouTube (accompanied by the song “Virgin Mary, Drive Putin Out,” and edited so as to seem much longer), the state was forced to act. In early March, three of the performers— Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Ekaterina Samutsevich—were arrested and officially charged with felony hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, an offense carrying a sentence of up to seven years in prison.
Pussy Riot, Punk Prayer, 2012.
Notoriously delayed for months after the original trial date accidentally coincided with Putin’s election day, the case grew in popularity (partially thanks to the surefire search engine terms “Free” and “Pussy”). In response to the barrage of international attention, the trial itself was to be conducted with unprecedented transparency, in full view of journalists and streaming feeds, all in dedicated contrast to the infamous trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which took place in the same courtroom a few years ago. Thus the world was given front row seats to the theater of the absurd that is the current Russian legal system.
In one of her court statements, Tolokonnikova cited the early-twentieth-century avant-garde collective OBERIU as a precedent for Pussy Riot. That group’s surrealist spirit certainly prevailed over the courtroom proceedings, where inconvenient evidence was ignored, defense witnesses denied, and “dialogue” emerged that rivaled the brilliant inanity of Ilf and Petrov. One witness, having elaborated the emotional suffering brought on by the thirty-second sight of the girls in the church, was questioned as to why he would masochistically repeat that torture by watching the performance on YouTube. The judge overruled this question before it could be answered, as she did the following questions, which hinted that the same witness had testified on the church’s behalf in other notable cases and that the young man may be professionally offended. Another witness was dismissed as inadequate to determine whether or not the girls might have been possessed after it was revealed that he was not, in fact, a medical expert trained in the field of demonic possession. Meanwhile, the court allowed the presumably “expert” prosecutor to rant on the downward spiral of “so-called contemporary art,” which he saw as ushered in by “artists like Oleg Kulik and Ekaterina Degot.” The announcement set the art community to speculate what kind of clandestine art practice the latter, an esteemed critic and curator, may be practicing.
Without witnesses, the defense found consolation in the escalating gestures of support from international icons on the outside, including Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono (who may as well be deities within secular Russia). During her August 7 concert, Madonna one-upped Anthony Kiedis’s homemade Pussy Riot T-shirt by having someone Sharpie FREE PUSSY RIOT directly on her back. These heartfelt displays were welcomed, but with Russian celebrities keeping suspiciously quiet, and with statements like “punk rock is not a crime” bouncing around the Web, one had reason to wonder how well these pop stars understood their new pet cause.
After all, this wasn’t about Pussy Riot’s musical sensibilities or even their right to protest; it was about whether blasphemy, or “offending the feelings of the Orthodox church,” is criminal under Russian law. Pussy Riot describe their transgression as “having said a prayer in a church in the wrong intonation.” (Those who have watched the video clip understand that this was a very strategic understatement.) They insist that their misstep was ethical, not criminal. The “Punk Prayer” was a plea to the Virgin Mary to become a “feminist” and drive Putin out of the church, destroying the neo-Byzantine alliance of church and state that they see as harmful to the former. As one line snarls, “Patriarch Gundyaev believes in Putin / Better to believe in God, bitch.”
In her concluding statement, Alyokhina said she realized Pussy Riot did not have any chance of “winning” the trial, but that she still considered the group victorious for revealing the extent of corruption under Putin. “Thousands of people will now hear our statements,” she prophesized. And so it was that August 16 and 17 were declared Global Pussy Riot Days, with readings of the court proceedings taking place around the world. One of these readings convened Thursday night in the Liberty Hall of New York’s Ace Hotel, a speakeasy-style basement where invited guests took turns on the modest, candlelit stage.
Punk veteran and cultural critic Johanna Fateman got the evening started, looking the part in pink leggings and a bright green dress. Actress Chloë Sevigny, wispily demure in a white eyelet baby doll frock, was the perfect choice to read Alyokhina’s solemn description of prison life. (“Nina keeps saying it won’t get any worse.”) Cult heroes Mx. Justin Vivian Bond and Eileen Myles both drew hoots and catcalls from the audience, delivering their statements with a conviction that felt as though they had composed the sentiments themselves. Artist and activist K8 Hardy—wearing a shirt that featured Reagan and Gorbachev jacking each other off to the caption MISSILE VERIFICATION—received no less a response for her impassioned delivery of Pussy Riot lyrics. Hardy was a natural, pausing to raise an eyebrow after her enunciation of “discontent with the culture of male hysteria,” and clearly reveling in the phrase “Orthodox religion of a hard penis.” Karen Finley read everything in a voice that wavered between someone telling scary stories in the bunk at summer camp and someone trying to whine her way out of a long-overdue breakup, while writer Masha Gessen made for a welcome surprise guest, pulling excerpts from her own coverage of the trial as if it were a stand-up routine. The bumbling cast of characters—the security guard, so traumatized by the thirty seconds that he has been unable to report to work for two months; the janitrix, who, when asked if feminism is a bad word, replies, “In church, it is”—inspired more and more raucous laughter, until it started to sink in that This Is Real Life.
The selected texts—ranging from court documents to letters to some of Alyokhina’s poetry—repeatedly returned to biblical citations. Alyokhina in particular flaunted her mastery of scripture, pointing out that the definition of blasphemy the church used in their accusations was a quotation of the charge the Jews leveled against Jesus. (“You might want to have checked your Bible before quoting it,” she chided.) The accused scored more points when she objected to the prosecution’s constant refrain of “so-called”—a modifier once flung in court against poet Joseph Brodsky—but concluded, “This trial is a so-called trial. I am not afraid of you. The only thing you can deprive me of is so-called freedom.”
“Sometimes maybe it just takes actions like Pussy Riot’s to make way for meaningful dialogue,” curator Pati Hertling observed from the seat beside me. “Think back to the moments that started revolutions. They weren’t always the most intelligent ideas, but they allowed for those ideas to be heard.” Irina Prokhorova would agree. In a statement released before the trial, she admitted that it’s “amusing that the catalyst for the maturing of an intellectual revolution comes not from the underlying efforts of Russian Kants, Voltaires, or Adam Smiths, but from the antics of the girls from Pussy Riot. Then again, what can we say? We’re living in a postmodern era.”
On Friday, August 17, by 3 PM Moscow time (8 AM in New York), the verdict was live-streamed across the world. The accused traded small smiles and rolled their eyes as Judge Syrova recounted the trial line by line, particularly when she read aloud the lyrics to their Punk Prayer, essentially reperforming it. Before pronouncing the sentence—two years in a penal colony for each of them—the court acknowledged the catalogue of potential attenuating circumstances, including the fact that both Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina have small children. Tolokonnikova and Samutsevich could not stifle their giggles when the court declared that they had minor mental deficiencies (evidenced by their “ambition” and “stubbornness,” among other traits). Alyokhina, previously established as “a good person” (“She writes poetry”), was deemed to have no disorder but was pronounced “emotionally unstable” and “too easily manipulated.”
If “confidence” and a “proclivity to expressing one’s opinion” are now signs of a mental disorder, the ruling in the Pussy Riot case was enough to challenge anyone’s sanity. (Perhaps this explains how chess champion and opposition leader Garry Kasparov could be arrested for allegedly biting a police officer outside the Moscow courtroom.) To gauge New York’s reaction, I turned off trial coverage and headed to the Russian Consulate on Ninety-First Street and Park Avenue, where the crowd was smaller than anticipated, and certainly smaller than the lines that had snaked outside the Ace. A woman in an acid-yellow dress explained that part of the protest was already en route to Times Square, while police rounded up any masked protesters who tarried behind. (There’s an antiquated “anti-mask” law in New York City that is used against protesters sporting balaclavas.) A girl with a guitar and a pink LEGALIZE GAY! T-shirt strummed a Pussy Riot–themed song that sounded an awful lot like “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” It felt a little that way too, as I watched officers march a newly arrested protester to the van, unceremoniously stripping off her mask. She unleashed a Pantene-ready smile-and-hair-toss, a vision of radical chic.
TOM SACHS HAS MADE an art of aping the emblems and rituals of American culture. So when the artist was honored during the rituals of this year’s ArtCRUSH, it seemed a chance for the culture to give back. Wednesday marked the kick-off of the Aspen Art Museum’s annual benefit gala, and after eight years the museum and its winning host committee have the three-day fund-raiser down to a science. The events began with WineCRUSH, an opening ceremony held at the impressive home of collectors and AAM board members John and Amy Phelan. Though the Phelans’ collection was rehung to strike a serious note—with two late Ellsworth Kellys, a fantastic Basquiat, and a huge Jim Lambie—the mood at the party was kept light with plenty of Dom Pérignon, some amazing mountain vistas, and a four-course dinner paired with expertly selected wines.
In his preprandial toast, Mr. Phelan lauded Sachs’s most recent parodic project, Space Program: Mars, noting the concurrence of ArtCRUSH with the real NASA mission to Mars. “That’s important,” Sachs later joked, “because we’re hopefully going to find the answer to two big questions: Where did we come from? And are we alone?” Here on planet Earth at least we had good company, including Anne Pasternak, Marianne Boesky, Gavin Brown and Hope Atherton, Honor Fraser and Stavros Merjos, Perry Rubenstein, collectors Linda and Bob Gersh, Lance Armstrong, and Rashid Johnson (among others!). Over dinner, board member Paul Pariser explained his task of keeping the museum’s new Shigeru Ban building on schedule, while artists Jonathan Horowitz and Rob Pruitt chatted about Palm Springs, the next stop on their westward itinerary, all of us grabbing from Sachs-inspired centerpieces overflowing with cigarettes, grapes, and shooters of booze.
Much of the same crowd showed up the following night at the Baldwin Gallery’s previewCRUSH event, where bidders got a first peek at this year’s live auction lots. Making my way to the gallery, I was stymied by a motorcade of Escalades, state troopers, and what looked like secret servicemen. If not for a small group of protesters lampooning the 1 percent with signs and masks, I might have forgotten that Mitt Romney was in town hosting his own fund-raiser and participating in a retreat for the Republican Governors Association. Late, great local Hunter S. Thompson would have been proud of the scene being caused, but the elite mob that convened at the gallery had other objectives on their mind. “You won’t stop me from bidding this year,” one attendee whispered to her husband. Everyone seemed excited about outstanding works by Pruitt, Jim Hodges, Tom Friedman, Monika Sosnowska, and Ryan Gander. “I spend a large part of my year working on this auction,” curator Jacob Proctor wearily admitted. But the hard work would pay off the following evening when Sotheby’s European deputy chairman, Oliver Barker, would take the stage. “It’s not every day that such a high-level auctioneer is willing to come to a tent in a parking lot for a good cause,” noted AAM director Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson. “It will be interesting to see how he works the crowd, which will be different than how Tobias [Meyer] does things.”
ArtCRUSH’s Friday night feature event put Barker to the test. But first guests were treated to more Dom and gourmet bites of comfort food, including maple syrup fountains with bacon and tater-tot dippers (Sachs’s favorite). As if these little hints weren’t enough, the museum literally spelled out its artist crush via a large carpet with I ♡ TOM SACHS scrawled in the artist’s signature font. Surrounded by a lawn full of Mylar heart-shaped balloons, the décor was quite the valentine. The feeling was clearly mutual: Sachs had donated a new wall sculpture, Poche Vide—a stereo cabinet–cum–survival kit (or a quasi-satanic altarpiece with iPod dock)—created specifically for the auction. Bumping Beyoncé, Nina Simone, Snoop Lion né Dogg, etc., for the crowd, the work was a hit, and when it came up for auction, Barker was kept more than busy orchestrating the bids. Museum supporters across the tent clamored for the piece, pushing its value ever higher and making it the highest grossing work in the auction, bringing in an impressive $155K for the nonprofit. Among those outbid was big-time Dallas collector Howard Rachofsky, who summed it up best, shouting, “We know where Tom lives, and we’ll find him!”
Left: Curators Peter J. Hoffmeister and Laura Murray. Right: Artist Fred Fleisher with Fred's HeadEat Me. (All photos: Michael Wilson)
THE IRRESISTIBLE PREMISE of “Artists Guarding Artists,” a summer group exhibition at Family Business, is that the folk who watch sternly from a corner as one edges closer to classical statuary at the Met—or contemporary installations at the Whitney—are most likely artists themselves, supplementing meager incomes by loitering on the cultural periphery. The show’s two young curators have both earned their custodial stripes—Laura Murray is a New Museum visitors’ assistant and Family Business gallerina, while Peter J. Hoffmeister is a Met guard and former coeditor of SW!PE, a magazine dedicated to showcasing work by his fellow employees. Canvassing MoMA and the Guggenheim as well as their own workplaces, the pair uncovered a rich seam of underexposed talent, reminding us that the illustrious likes of Brice Marden, Robert Ryman, Robert Mangold, Dan Flavin, and Eric Fischl—not to mention your correspondent—were all once employed to keep greasy fingers away from vulnerable surfaces.
Those familiar with the cramped space of Maurizio Cattelan and Massimiliano Gioni’s latest experiment in gallery management—they also collaborated on the still more confined Wrong Gallery in 2002—won’t be surprised to hear that the show’s recent opening spilled immediately onto Twenty-First Street. Fortunately the cops were nowhere in evidence as attendees took their light beers and Two-Buck Chuck to go, and a relaxed, familial vibe set in. I chatted with painter Yoichiro Yoda (not showing here but playing for Team Met) about his pet topic, the almost-extinct movie palace, and with sculptor Matt Callinan (also batting for 1000 Fifth Avenue, and represented in the show by a delicate plastic snowflake) about the many and varied challenges of grant and residency applications. As the street got busier, the event began to feel more like a reunion, with shop talk and gossip about the city’s treasure houses gathering volume and pace.
The show itself presents a relatively affectionate view of the guard’s professional lot. Hung salon style (is there any other way in this miniscule storefront—actually a subset of Anna Kustera Gallery?), against distinguished sage-green walls, it features twenty works interspersed with empty gilt frames. Among those that respond more directly to the museum environs is Hoffmeister’s own cyanotype floor plan of the Met, which he reimagines as a cross between its current self and a kind of primordial organic counterpart, and Emile Lemakis’s Uniganger (aka Baby Guard), a diminutive self-portrait doll (shades of Cattelan) in a familiar blue uniform. The extent to which hours clocked in the presence of greatness has augmented these artists’ own practices remains debatable, but at least it hasn’t intimidated them. (An exception to this rule is Jeff Elliot, whose drawing Fuck You Picasso slams the master as an albatross around every contemporary artist’s neck).
Around 7:30 PM, artist Fred Fleischer announced a giveaway of the first edition of Fred’s Heads—Eat Me, a small self-portrait bust cast in solid milk chocolate and sealed inside a plastic bag. Once the first set of these tasty skulls was snapped up and stashed (the heat seemed threatening, but mine remains recognizable a day later, albeit it with a slight bloom), Cody Westphal launched into an acerbic guitar-’n’-harmonica set (announcing “The Elevator Operator Blues”: “This is a song about being a guard in a museum . . . ”). This was followed by animated poetry readings from Christopher Molusso, Robert Calero, and Samuel Perry, all SW!PE contributors. As the sky over Chelsea began to darken, Fleisher and entourage headed for local watering hole the Brass Monkey. His stay would be a brief one, though, because, as he explained with dutiful resignation, “I’ve gotta be at the Met by twelve—I’m working the night shift.”
Left: Comedian Jerrod Carmichael. (Except where noted, all photos: Miriam Katz) Right: Comedians Eric Andre, Ryan Hamilton, Chelsea Peretti, and Pete Holmes. (Photo: Dan Dion)
“IF YOU WERE being raped and you saw a shooting star, would you use your wish to stop the rape? Or would you look at the bigger picture?”
The question came courtesy of twenty-four-year-old LA-based comedian Jerrod Carmichael during his set at the cozy Théâtre Sainte Catherine in downtown Montreal. I had arrived from the airport just hours before for the final week of the monthlong, annual Just for Laughs festival. The latest iteration, the fest’s thirtieth, featured dozens of shows per night in bars, tents, strip clubs, and opera houses radiating outward from the crowded Place-des-Arts.
Given the recent scandal (New York Times megillah and everything) involving Daniel Tosh making light of the subject, rape jokes, or jokes about rape jokes, were just another way of staying topical during comedy’s hoariest showcase. The other recurring touchstone was the humor industry itself, which Patton Oswalt tackled in his cautionary keynote: “Us comedians, we’re beginning to realize our careers don’t hinge on someone in a plush office deciding to aim a little luck in our direction. If you keep trying to cram all our wildness and risk-taking back into the mimeographed worksheet form of middle school, we’re just going to walk away.” And while Oswalt criticized agents, managers, and producers for their lack of imagination, he used a reverential tone with regard to his fellow comics, who he deemed “the most top-heavy with talent young wave this industry has ever had.”
Left: Comedians Joe Wengert and Ron Babcock. Right: Comedians the Lucas Brothers and Mookie Thompson.
Andy Kindler wasn’t so precious about his colleagues-in-humor during his “State of the Industry” address, taking down heavy hitters Robin Williams (“he’s not funny, we were all just on coke”), Chelsea Handler (“I mentioned her in Melbourne and nobody knew who she was; for one night I was on top of the world”), and even the seemingly untouchable Louis C.K. (“I have so much anti-C.K. material, but none of you believe me”). He proceeded to mock C.K. for seven straight minutes, poking holes in the logic of his bits, deriding him for laughing at his own jokes, and scoffing at his narcissistic PR tactics: “I throw away my material each year. Put that in the article. I write and direct and star in my own show. Put that in the article.” And while I am a devoted fan of both Louis and his sitcom Louie, it was still a thrill to see the emperor stripped bare. Later I mentioned to Kindler how surprised I’d been by his speech. He smiled brightly: “Me too.”
Much of the festival mingling took place either on or around rue Sainte Catherine—where conversations competed with political demonstrations, spoken-word stylings, and incomprehensible parades (lots of aliens)—or after hours at the Hyatt hotel bar, which sometimes led to dancing nearby (the Funny or Die party was a highlight). And while most JFLers weren’t seeing much of Montreal, the centralized socializing made it easy for an art worlder to dive into the funny biz.
My status as Artforum ambassador-spy elicited reactions from most everyone I chatted with. “Oooh, classy,” (comedian Will Weldon). “Oooh, fancy” (IFC VP Dan Pasternack). Eugene Mirman called me “sneaky,” impressed that I had parlayed five days of endorphin-raising activities into a writing gig for such a heady rag. Some offered more fleshed-out feedback, particularly when asked about comedy as art. Marc Maron argued that both artists and comedians only hit the genius mark when they “infuse the form with their own personality, their own style, even if it’s difficult or misunderstood.” Or as Pete Holmes put it, “Comedians are trying to do art from the beginning, but I don’t think I got near what I would consider artistic stand-up until later, when I hit pain.” He paused. “Is that cliché?”
One of the pleasures of watching comedy is that you instinctively know what you like; you really don’t have to think about it. Lauren Lapkus, one of the comics in “New Faces,” the festival’s emerging comedians showcase (an essential credit in the career of a young funny), floored me with her lethargic stripper character at the sleek Place-des-Arts Theater, in which she apathetically removed her hoodie and lazily gyrated to the tune of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.”
On the edgier side of things was Chappelle’s Show veteran Neal Brennan, cocky and compelling during his nightly “Midnight Surprise” show, where he delivered sharply written material (“Every time a woman pleasures herself she makes a hundred million epic movies in her head—dozens of horses in carriages, thousands of extras in period garb”). So did many of the comics he programmed onto the bill, including Chris D’Elia, Rory Scovel, Chelsea Peretti, and Arthur Simeon. Hannibal Buress did a killer bit about a run-in with the Montreal police: “I apologize not for the act of jaywalking, but for how my jaywalking made you feel.”
Left: Comedians Eugene Mirman and Mike Birbiglia. Right: Comedian Neal Brennan. (Photo: Matthew Cope)
One of my favorite moments of the fest was at the intimate live version of Holmes’s “You Made It Weird,” a podcast in which the host green-lights his guests’ musings about strange and uncomfortable subjects (Eric Andre going overboard on MDMA, Jamie Lee responding to her suicidal cat . . .). And while the in-person event was a touch less titillating than the show itself (the two-hour, psychedelic Duncan Trussell episode is a must), I loved geeking out and cheering with the crowd of fellow weirdos.
Overall, the festival had a summer camp/family reunion vibe—both supportive and ball-busting. (“Comedy Christmas” was how manager–talent scout Brian Baldinger described it). There was something refreshingly cathartic about this convocation of funny-industry insiders. “By round of applause, how many people here tonight are just actively trying to keep their shit together?” Joe Wengert asked at the beginning of his “New Faces” set. At its most therapeutic, the ministry of comedians helps do just that, manufacturing joy and exposing the fallibility and ridiculousness of it all. Bigger picture indeed: Who knew rape jokes could be so Zen?
Left: Collector Lisa Anastos with artist and Watermill Art Center founder Robert Wilson. Right: Artist Cindy Sherman and musician Lou Reed. (All photos: Clint Spaulding/Patrick McMullan)
HAVE YOU EVER NOTICED that whenever the leisure class receives its comeuppance, the women get the worst of it? Just ask Marie Antoinette, or Imelda Marcos, or the women who braved downpours to attend the Watermill Center’s annual summer benefit in the Hamptons. Thanks to the rain that just wouldn’t let up, we were at a severe disadvantage—“we” being those of us with hair that could deflate, eyeliner that could dribble, and heels that sank directly into the muddy grounds. (And have you ever noticed that men’s dress shoes are practically rain boots?) As guests made their way up stairs to the Watermill Center itself, cutting through waist-high grasses and tiki lamps, and then traversing the building’s front hall, the “Triumphal March” from Verdi’s Aida played on loop. “Is this a joke?” said one girl in stilettos, eyeing the cobblestoned floor.
The silent-auction tent was big enough to shelter everyone, and so we all huddled together, but convivially, and drank, and watched performances: Out on the plaza, artist Heeran Lee, wielding a leaf blower, inflated a giant white balloon and then kept it hovering in the air, for one drawn-out moment, before it popped. Meanwhile, Paula Garcia had put on a full-body suit of magnetic armor, and her assistants were pelting fistfuls of scrap metal at her that collected on her torso and transformed her into a rusted junkyard scarecrow. “Maybe that’s a signal that she’s had enough,” someone observed, when her carapace began to writhe around, somewhat stiffly, looking ready to topple over.
“The dress code’s just for women, not men,” said dealer Joel Mesler, explaining why his understated getup didn’t personify the evening’s theme, “The Big Bang Is Pop.” Performance artist and singer Kembra Pfahler had opted for red body paint, author Jay McInerney for a blue pin-striped blazer. The crowd included Dorothy Lichtenstein and Bob Colacello, Klaus Biesenbach and Stefano Tonchi. James Franco wasn’t there, but he had a piece in the silent auction.
“I’m going to sue.” A paparazzo lingered under an umbrella in the middle of the forest, beyond the tent, where various sculptures and tableaux vivants were situated among the trees. He had arrived in search of Hollywood, to no avail, and so contemplated “throwing in the towel”—heading back to New York. Besides, it was about time: “All the cool kids come for the cocktails. The old fogeys stay for dinner.”
Dinner took place in a separate tent. Installed in its center was a multistory-high, cotton candy–like form: inflated translucent-white garbage bags tied together by pink streamers.
“Now, I would like my wife to bid because I really like this work,” said auctioneer Simon de Pury into a mic. It was the live-auction portion of the evening, and de Pury was peddling a scratched ink-jet print by Jim Hodges. “And you’re allowed to bid against my wife.” A de Kooning charcoal, up next, went for $55K.
The evening would have been your typical (if rainier) version of the annual fund-raiser, except for one odd, heartfelt addition: a mini-retrospective of works by artist Mike Kelley in the Watermill’s south wing, many of which were being shown in the US for the first time. Curator-collector Harald Falckenberg had rounded up everything from audio tracks by the Poetics (Kelley’s band with Tony Oursler) to his video Heidi (with Paul McCarthy) to the sculptural models he made of Kandor, Superman’s home. Ambitious for its nonprofit venue, the exhibition nonetheless confined itself to mostly video, avoiding the performances, and the rooms full of detritus, wax, and stuffed animals that littered his oeuvre.
“It’s so sad,” said RoseLee Goldberg, pausing between Kelley’s videos of Kandor. And if the show was poignant, it wasn’t just because viewers were reminded of his tragic end but also because one began to see—or perhaps hallucinate—traces of his dark, spirited, and outre sense of play throughout the evening’s variety of installations and performances, whether in Misaki Kawai’s cartoonishly costumed performers or in Desi Santiago’s magenta neon-tube outline of the rear end of a dog or in Kitty Huffmann’s tableau vivant—a man and woman, both in red satin hoop skirts and black corset jackets, pulling each other’s long braided hair. As curator Noah Khoshbin said: “In some ways everyone tied into Kelley, but that is enviable given his diverse practice.”
Watermill founder Robert Wilson had proposed the Kelley show to Center board members Bill Campbell and Roger Ferris. “They told me, ‘You can’t afford to do this.’ And I said, ‘We can’t afford not to do this.’ ” He also brought up Paul Thek, who was friends with Kelley and whose Big Bang painting inspired the evening’s theme. “I was with [Thek] when he died,” said Wilson. “He said to me: Take care of Mike Kelley.”
A SMALL BUT DIVERSE ART CROWD representing nearly every continent recently invaded the obscure city of Donetsk, Ukraine, on the tails of European football fans, for the opening of “What Is the Time?” at the Izolyatsia Art Centre. Undeterred by the political boycott and charges of national racism that plagued the Euro Cup 2012 matches here, this particularly unlikely incursion of the Ukrainian frontier was led by Italians, namely the intrepid principals of San Gimignano’s Gallery Continua, who invited six artists to create site-specific installations at the former communist insulation factory. From the plane a strip of haze on the horizon demarked the city, the hub of the country’s steel and mining industries, on the green-and-gold patchwork of the never-ending steppe. We were welcomed by a brand spanking new terminal at the Sergey Prokofiev International Airport, surreal in its emptiness, and immigration officers who spoke just enough English for a cheerful welcome.
Dinner guests were greeted that evening with a pagan ritual at the village-style restaurant Deryovnya: Costumed ladies proffered bread to be dipped in salt and eaten as protection from the evil eye. Then a feast of smoked fish and piles of pork, served at long wooden tables and washed down with a perpetual supply of vodka, went on for hours. We were entertained by a group of young women with halo-like headdresses singing in tiny, high-pitched voices. “This place is full of contradictions,” Galleria Continua’s Silvia Pichini observed. “It is run by women, who rebuilt it after the war.” Shiny car dealerships and small shopping malls alternate with crumbling communist apartment blocks in various shades of gray. Newly built gated communities with mansion copies of the old-style houses across the street recall the eerily empty set of The Truman Show. The owners of the gigantic McDonald’s were forced to preserve the mosaic Bird Woman, created for the building by activist artist Alla Horska, whose sudden death in 1970 is widely believed to have been at the hands of the authorities. For all that, the sleepy city on the plains resembles nothing so much as a midwestern American town.
The press conference took place the next morning, in four languages, at a building in the Izolyatsia complex. “This is the happiest day of my life,” founder Luba Michailova began. “Two years ago today we established the foundation here, and nobody understood why.” Halfway across the vast country from capital city, Kiev, Donetsk has no art scene to speak of. The locals have been reticent, only slowly trickling in to Izolyatsia, which hosts themed artist residencies and site-specific art installations, as well as educational workshops and conferences. “If it is not about making money, they don’t think it is worthwhile,” explained Michailova, herself an industrialist. “This place was a utopian ideal of communism, and my father worked here every day for forty years.” Ivan Michailov was the Soviet-era director of the factory until it closed, so Luba bought the place to preserve its legacy. Hans Op de Beeck’s film Sea of Tranquility was being screened upstairs in the former apparatchik meeting room, still furnished with vintage theater seating, red velvet curtains, and an upright piano. Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr described the first visit the artists made, in February: “It was a shock; I have never been so cold in my life. So I discovered the importance of vodka.”
We strolled the grounds outside, encountering the first of many brightly colored doors framed in black and white, Daniel Buren’s attempt to infuse life onto disused facades. “There is still the feeling of the hard labor the people did here,” he said. The former factory is stark and splendid, with gigantic chutes and tracks crisscrossing overhead; an old slag heap, topped with an iron deer sculpture made by a former worker, has transformed naturally into a verdant hill. When we got to Leandro Erlich’s Bank, a giant building facade with a mirror suspended perilously above and reflecting all the people lying on top, the Argentinean artist was waving his arms: “I love telling stories!” he said. “Our perception of reality extends as far as our imagination will allow.” At the other end of the complex was Pascale Marthine Tayou’s sexy tribute to the Ukrainian women, a towering smokestack turned into a gigantic lipstick. Taken together, all of the installations were pitch-perfect, matching the surreal tone of the place.
Eventually everyone headed to a long warehouse next to the hillside, slated to become an exhibition hall, for the dinner party, where the women were given traditional flower headbands and the men red sashes. The place smelled like the countryside; crickets were chirping. A bonfire had been set up outside. Little did we know we would be participating in a pagan mating ritual in celebration of Midsummer. Continua’s Pichini alerted me: “They jump over the fire and then into the water, and then they go off and make love in the forest.” Over dinner, the discussion about the power of Ukrainian women continued. “Nearly all of my employees are female,” PinchukArtCentre curator Björn Geldhof said. “It is true: The Ukrainian women are simply superior to the men.”
We had barely finished eating when a group of women dressed in white gowns started dancing around a man with a drum. Shortly everyone got up and joined in, moving outside and circling the fire while others leapt over it in pairs. After a while the guests started diving enthusiastically into the small pool, and then Erlich hit his head and starting bleeding profusely, requiring stitches on-site. Later a DJ moved from Russian pop songs to disco classics. By that time everyone was well lubricated, and following some pretty wild dancing, a spontaneous karaoke session began, with shirtless dealer Mario Cristiani, always the star of the dance floor, belting out “Volare.” That was not all: A giant cake of the factory decorated with the artworks as cookies arrived. “We are very communist; we love to do things together and share,” Luba announced. “It’s like a wedding,” exclaimed Michelle Kasprzak, director of the Dutch Electronic Art Festival. “Next they will throw the bouquet, and whoever catches it will open an arts center.”
Left: Artist Moataz Nasr. Right: Dancing around a fire.