Wishful Thinking

New York
04.30.15

Eve Bailey's Rising Awareness at the Night of Philosophy. (All photos: Bruce M. White)


AN AIR OF SOLITUDE hangs around the practice of philosophy; dispelling this aura, or its reputation, seemed perhaps the point of last week’s Night of Philosophy. Organized by, among others, the French Embassy (bien sur), the event gathered the secular monks of episteme, Francophones, and looky-loos from 7 PM to 7 AM, Friday night to Saturday morning, in two adjacent, shabby-regal buildings on Fifth Avenue a few hops from the Met. Sixty-two twenty-minute lectures by luminaries including Kwame Anthony Appiah, Barbara Cassin, Simon Critchley, and Monique Canto-Sperber (whose appearance on the topic of free speech roused some controversy) would be accompanied by a dozen performances, a video program, a complete reading of the Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Boudoir for the cuddlebugs in the crowd, tractati for sale, a cash bar, free coffee, the odd disbursement of charcuterie, and, of course, a DJ: a life-of-the-mind mini-Lollapalooza. And if you hung around all night, you got a T-shirt.

By 8 PM, lines outside both the Cultural Services of the French Embassy and the Ukrainian Institute stretched five blocks. People were waiting three hours or more. It was chilly, and every so often the wind burst out of Central Park and down the streets, but the crowd seemed to relish the chance to display their dedication, and have something to complain about. A kid even played an acoustic guitar and led a singalong. It was cold but it was spring, after all: hope. Inside, those standing tight-lipped (and tight-legged) in the proportionately long lines for the toilets were enjoying their wait less.

The first speaker I caught was Appiah. He gave a somber talk on honor and shame, which touched on Gitmo and “honor killing” in contemporary Pakistan. The photo of a woman face down in a pool of blood, murdered for wanting a divorce, didn’t exactly fit the festival atmosphere. “Is a Thought Experiment a Real Experiment?” seemed more comfortably abstruse, but the murmuring of naysayers (it’s a trite subject, allegedly) led me to explore. Volunteers flurried all over, working hard, but everywhere capacities were stretched. The coffee machines kept running dry or breaking. When a gratis cocktail crept up on the schedule, people mobbed the serving station fifteen minutes early. Numb waiting became a hallmark of the evening, though the dance floor in the bookshop—its sole, chic illumination a neon sign saying HORIZON—had ample room whenever I checked.

Left: The line outside the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. Right: Dia curator Manuel Cirauqui (right).


I stuck my head in on a talk tracing parallels between certain passages in Rousseau and Kieslowski’s Red and found myself in familiar surroundings: In fall 2012 Petzel et al. had thrown a party at the Ukrainian Institute for Wade Guyton’s Whitney show. Here, in the Library Room, on fishy pink morphine tablets, I had watched Mitt Romney wax a grumpy Barack Obama in the second presidential debate, not long after an ex-friend introduced me to Laura Owens and added, “She’s a painter,” as if I had been an art critic for fifteen years and didn’t fucking know who Laura Owens was; as if I were a child and my frame of reference was smearing around primary colors with my fingers.

All in all, the memory brought back nausea, which led me across the hall for a drink in the Chandelier Room. In the corner a group of a dozen very young adults argued about, I shit you not, solipsism. Such kids and many less annoying members of their cohort made up a plurality of the crowd. In addition to the expected 10–15 percent of randos and senior citizens (my identity lying somewhere between), there was also a high percentage of earnest young professionals, the ones pleasantly surprised with the selection of microbrews—but have another, at this hour? No, I shouldn’t; the ones who told me they had come to the event with philosophy groups or meet-ups but now seemed to be drifting alone; the ones wearing plaid casual Friday button-downs or chunky black heels that transition from office to lounge without too much embarrassment. I got the sense that these people had maybe minored in philosophy in college, or had fond memories of an intro class, or for other reasons related to elapsing youth and evaporating idealism clung to the idea of the intellect as something higher and greater beyond their jobs in PR or IT, something that those who surrounded them on the day-to-day failed to understand, and that if they could only find a lover or friend who understood this as well, then they might be happy.

You would think, then, that there would be a hot pickup scene going on. If so, it was too coded for me to detect. Plus people never got very drunk, though the college kids had an occasional excited glaze. I checked out Philosophy in the Boudoir on a live feed in a (highly unnecessary) crowd-overflow room, just in time for some observations on sodomizing a seven-year-old, and tried to download dating apps. My reception was lousy, though, and wifi was not one of the giveaways. In the end, I got on neither Tinder nor Grindr, and I didn’t see anybody make out all night.

Left and right: Clifford Owens in A Medley: 5 Performance Art Scores.


Clifford Owens took over a second-floor lobby at 3 AM. He performed a few scores, the first of which, by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, resulted in his requesting asylum from the French government: Technically he was on French territory, and as a black man in America, he was a political prisoner and lived in imminent danger. The request seemed maybe not rhetorical and discomfited the crowd. But the performance continued without the ambassador being summoned. Another score, by Jacolby Satterwhite, required that Owens find a black male artist in the crowd who would agree to spend the next twenty-four hours with him collaborating on a body of work. When Owens mentioned that he lived in Queens, the ranks of prospects noticeably thinned.

Critchley had the most rock ’n’ roll slot, 4:30 AM, and balls-out topic, suicide. I had packed a razor blade for the occasion. When the time came, clad in all black, he preambled to the throng that he had just come from the pub (he did look ruddy), then launched into a discussion of self-slaughter. He read from E. M. Cioran, and Virginia Woolf’s death note, then To the Lighthouse—at which point the talk seemed to pivot toward the life affirming. Critchley read a passage to the effect that it was the little things that made life worth living: “Always, Mrs. Ramsay felt, one helped oneself out of solitude reluctantly by laying hold of some little odd or end,” it began, and ended “It is enough! It is enough!” Personally I felt deflated; but the crowd ate it up. Plausibly impromptu, Critchley tried to raise a chant of “It is enough!” which made it through maybe four weak iterations. Pro to the end, he knew when to quit.

Left: Monique Canto-Sperber's talk. Right: Emily Apter.


After the only talk that could have fit one of those Dis bills at the New Museum Triennial, “Metaphysical Daring as a Post-human Survival Strategy,” I went downstairs and waited for the 5:30 AM free croissants. I gave up on them at 5:45. Over at the Ukrainian Institute, a talk on the concept of exodus was going on. I found a piece of floor at the back of the room and kept my head down to avoid the clammy blue tendrils of dawn reaching through the windows. Happily my neighbors turned out to be the only people on drugs at the entire event, two young women between high school and college age. Their collective wardrobe included combats, tights with images of whirling galaxies, a thrift-store animal-print coat, and a head covering that I swear (though I was bleary) comprised a bunch of fake stoles clumsily stitched together, some still with eyes. The pair were curled up on each other reading Julio Cortazár in Spanish; one of them traced and retraced an intricate linear abstraction on a mostly blank page. They warily offered me language instruction, which I declined and regretted declining immediately. But what’s the point of staying up all night if you don’t end up with regrets?

There was a music act at 6, back in the Chandelier Room, and whoever wrote the program had dropped a Deleuze quote in the blurb. But it was just a guy with an acoustic guitar—unbelievably, the ex of one of my exes, reterritorialized. So I went and waited stoically for my T-shirt. The consolations of philosophy seem limited when you’re going home alone at 7 in the morning, no matter where you’ve been.

Domenick Ammirati

Left: Simon Critchley. Right: Audience at the Night of Philosophy.


ROM Com

New York
04.29.15

Left: Rhizome digital conservator Dragan Espenschied. Right: , FEMICOM museum founder Rachel Simone Weil. (Photos: Rhizome)


RECENTLY RHIZOME threw a panel to celebrate the online restoration of the germinal feminist CD-ROMs of video game designer, artist, popular blogger, and—by the time she committed suicide in 2007—conspiracy theorist Theresa Duncan.

The panel was less than rigorous, but it did little to mar the truly fantastic, usable product created by Rhizome that we were enthusiastically celebrating: Any lady noodling on her computer at work can now access an outmoded operating system—via an “online emulation infrastructure”—to play Chop Suey (1995), Smarty (1996), and Zero Zero (1997), Duncan’s idiosyncratic story-driven interactive CD-ROMs for girls aged seven to twelve. “People call them video games,” explained Rhizome artistic director Michael Connor. “I call them art. Other people call them interactive narratives or literature.” Three of the five speakers noted, as a point of contrast, that Barbie Fashion Designer was the most popular CD-ROM for kids in 1996.

What a laudable moment in digital video game preservation! May all media eventually “live beyond their [original] operating programs,” to carry further an idea posited by Rachel Simone Weil, the founder of FEMICOM museum. Of course, there are limitations to living in the past, but only a haggard programmer seemed to be sweating it. His name is Dragon! A kind and fastidious man, by which I mean he has a soft voice and a cropped haircut. (It’s spelled Dragan, I found out later, Dragan Espenschied, the digital conservator at Rhizome.) He explained that each frame of the game cannot “handle more than 256 colors at a time.” Zooming in on a projected image, we see hidden “little mosquitoes buzzing around…that shouldn’t be there.” (Pixels?) “The problem has been solved.” He paused. “The problem has not been solved, actually.” He shrugged, we laughed. “It has been a work-around,” he continued, sheepishly. The stills of the video game being projected in the background were beautiful and intricate in a patchwork, 1990s DIY way. Flies buzz, dogs bark; I like Chop Suey and Smarty because they take place in towns like the one I grew up in. There’s just one of everything: one fun place to eat lunch (the Ping Ping Palace), one carnival, one “quirky” resident...

In Duncan’s game world, provincial girls speak to glamorous and eccentric adults prone to wistful monologues and matter-of-fact proclamations about how they live. In Smarty, Aunt Olive and her best friend sit in apple red chairs in an unabashedly bubble-gum pink kitchen discussing “heartbreak” and “palm readings.” Speech bubbles dance across the screen like lyrics in a Karaoke machine. In Chop Suey, Aunt Vera explains to the two little protagonists that in New York places have “gleaming names like the Rainbow Room, Pearly Palace.” The narrator notes that Aunt Vera’s “voice got all sweet and sugary” when speaking of the city.

“A lot of children’s stuff is didactic,” Duncan said at a media panel at MIT in 1998, “but this [CD-ROM] is satirical.”

Yet Duncan’s early work takes seriously two dichotomies that preoccupied her entire career: the dead-end hometown versus New York City as the land of promise; respectable grammar (work) versus fickle glamour (fame). “In dreams all territory I’ve ever covered is mine, Manhattan and the dull countryside of my childhood whirled together in a dream city,” she mused in a blog post on July 3, 2006. “The noise of the dreamy, gleamy, cosmopolitan future far away from home all around like the best of anything I ever put myself into externalized.”

Theresa Duncan & Monica Gesue, Chop Suey, 1995, interactive CD-ROM.


The technology of a “point-and-click” CD-ROM was simple, but it suited Duncan’s sensibilities. The major mode of “play” in her games is to go from person to person and place to place collecting anecdotal (how they thought the world worked) and aesthetic (what they wanted the world to look like) impressions. There is no clear sense of how to get out of the small town and become an adult, no endgame, only an endless loop of social calls and excursions into town. As Jenn Frank, a games critic, pointed out on the panel, there’s something “strange and unhappy that we never see [the protagonists’] parents,” only disenfranchised adults mourning their past lives. A player may only explore a home as meticulously as one does its inhabitant, intently collecting the stories they are willing to tell and perusing the carefully curated material possessions, as if one can live as others do just by willing it, if only you can get close enough. As if the trick is in the image—your persona, what you can make it do, and what you dress it up in. As if everything is an experience waiting to be curated.

That an adult like myself—not a gamer—would enthusiastically anticipate the opportunity to play these CD-ROMs speaks to the aura surrounding their enigmatic and ambitious creator. I’m not alone in treating Duncan’s life or what’s left of its original traces as a Google video game. Point and click, point and click, point and click. For this reason alone, it was difficult not to home in on Lia Gangitano, founder of downtown’s Participant Inc. and the only self-proclaimed friend of Theresa’s there—and not coincidentally the fiercest, coolest person on the panel (planet?), in draping black fabrics, extra large leather boots, and metal choker. She didn’t look like she was having a particularly good time—talked about “a game Theresa wanted to make called Apocalipstick, in which weapons were replaced with contemporary cosmetics.” Chic!

In retrospect, it seems Duncan warranted the posthumous media treatment naturally designed for, but rarely rewarded to, NYC’s niche celebrities: competing, lengthy obituary-profiles in New York and Rolling Stone. The story had all the elements: high tragedy, high art. Her lover of twelve years, the digital artist Jeremy Blake, drowned within a week of her suicide. He collaborated on Smarty and Zero Zero, as well as Duncan’s short film The History of Glamour (2000)—her successful venture into not only film but the art world, via that year’s Whitney Biennial. She had yet to have a noticeable setback and was an indefatigable PR dynamo—yet no mention was made on the panel of her failure to get her later work produced. One nearly forgets that seven years passed between The History of Glamour, her last completed project (she had two film options, and then a pilot; Hollywood just wasn’t panning out) and her death in 2007. But she didn’t forget.

Of course one craves, after the suicide or overdose of a quixotic, beautiful, unusual, and talented public figure, to step back from the whimsical mess of fawning and sordid hagiographic details and look at…a primary source. Duncan, and perhaps especially Blake, did not have the opportunity to cultivate their eccentricity and charisma the easy, old-fashioned way (inheritance, disinterested parents). They were promising artists who got their first brushes with money and fame because of their work.

But so, here is her work. As Weil noted, she “couldn’t think of another kids’ game that had [her] reading books.” And all the themes of a brilliant, complicated woman are there, intact, fully formed. To quote from the ending monologue in The History of Glamour: “I used to think that glamour was completely necessary. […] What do I need? […] An ability to recognize if I’m caught in the wrong story or the story someone else wants me to inhabit.” Duncan saw her fate very clearly. She knew she’d get caught in a little world of her own design; these were the only worlds she knew how to create.

Kaitlin Phillips

Cool as ICE

Cologne
04.28.15

Left: Dealer Phil Graver, Adrianne Rubenstein, and Art Cologne director Daniel Hug. Right: Artist Hans-Peter Feldmann.


THE DINING CARS of the high-speed ICE are a culinary wasteland. But with their dented red-leather couches, they serve well as social hubs for the temporary traveling communities moving 150 miles per hour throughout Germany. When I boarded the train in Berlin, it was the place to meet companions en route to the forty-ninth edition of Art Cologne. It was dealer Johann König who invited me to his table, where we spent the whole journey enjoying a lengthy breakfast, which grew into lunch the longer it lasted. Cell signals aren’t stable on the ICE, but König managed to work the phone whenever the train was slowing down or approaching a station. At home, König had been busy rebranding his gallery and moving into a defunct Brutalist concrete church from the 1960s by architect Werner Düttmann that underwent a three-year-long renovation.

Why invest so much in a gallery space? Isn’t this the age of art fairs? Yes, he goes to fairs. But he also believes in grand exhibitions. The more spectacular the space the better. König talked about a popular Cologne-based comic who shares his name. The dealer fosters a certain obsession with his namesake—he told me that he was even toying with the idea to let him represent his gallery at his booth. But that would require more preparation, and, said König quoting König: “Being funny is hard work!”

Left: Dealer Johann König, curator Kasper König, and dealer Leo König. Right: Philipp Fürnkäs of the Julia Stoschek Collection and artist Isaac Julien.


The next day I was reminded of the Königs’ words at the fair’s preview. In the early hours, the Düsseldorf-based artist Hans-Peter Feldmann walked the halls slowly, holding a protest sign that seemed more a poem than anything: “Hell erstrahlen alle Mienen bei dem schönen Wort verdienen.” It’s almost impossible to translate in all its intended ambiguity: “Light shines on all the faces when it comes to the beautiful word earning.” Was it some sort of self-criticism by a former “anti-artist” now embraced by the market? Or a slick Publikumsbeschimpfung?

At least there was a historical resonance: Forty years ago German artist Timm Ulrichs walked among visitors of the Cologne art fair wearing a sandwich board. With big black glasses, blind man’s stick, and an armband for the visually impaired, Ulrichs sported a sign written in bold black letters: “Ich kann keine Kunst mehr sehen!” (I can see no more art!) In contrast, during his intervention Feldmann wore an elegant anthracite-colored suit that gave him the aura of a businessman. No better place than a major fair to stoke the ashes of issues once hotly debated.

Left: Artist Yvonne Roeb. Right: Artists Payam Sharifi and Christian Jankowski.


Art Cologne these days is a very orderly affair: modern and postwar art in the lower level, established contemporary in the middle, and young galleries in the upper floor, which also houses an immense VIP lounge. This new setup and the spacious booths that come with it seemed to go over well with collectors and dealers alike. Everyone except the critics, of course, who distrust the lush hum of a well-oiled business machine. Some crave astonishment. And it’s true that these days there are fewer moments of bazaar-ness. But that is probably a good thing.

After some years of crisis, Cologne is again the undisputed leading trade fair in the region: It’s the place where the majority of collectors, curators, and museum directors from Germany and the Benelux visit. “After last year, we were quite doubtful at the beginning, but now we are really satisfied with this year’s fair,” dealer Daniel Buchholz told me during a book launch for artist Cameron Jamie at Walther König on Ehrenstraße, Cologne’s traditional gallery district. “But the dinners got out of hand,” Buchholz added half earnest, half jokingly. “Sometimes I feel not like a gallerist but a party caterer. Instead of dinners, we will do more apertifs in the future.” I am tempted to believe Buchholz, who enjoyed a cigarette on König’s premises. Maybe there are small solutions, as shown at the Petrit Halilaj happening at Kölnischer Kunstverein. Director Moritz Wesseler had booked Metzgerei Innhoven for catering, who made their—quite spectacular—bratwurst on site: Mera Rubell, who was in front of me in the queue, seemed impressed.

Left: Art book publishers Franz König, Walther König, and artist Cameron Jamie. Right: Director of Hamburger Kunstverein Bettina Steinbrügge and Kunsthalle Wien curator Vanessa Joan Müller.


The week was a cascade of dinners and afterparties: On Tuesday, the Freundeskreis für Moderne Kunst celebrated Michael Krebber and R. H. Quaytman with the Wolfgang Hahn Prize. The dinner took place at Flora, a late-nineteenth-century building in the botanical garden. On Wednesday I attended a gallery dinner hosted by David Zwirner, Gisela Capitain, and Daniel Buchholz at Alter Wartesaal right next to Cologne’s central station. Zwirner saluted the crowd of artists, collectors, and curators with a toast to Art Cologne, which he said is improving steadily. Another toast followed, by painter Georg Polke, son of Sigmar, whose impressive traveling retrospective is currently at the Ludwig Museum. After, the Ludwig’s Leonie Radine took me to the Schmitz, where artists Gerd and Uwe Tobias were celebrating their birthday in the basement. CFA’s Bruno Brunet rocked the dance floor to “Carbonara,” an early-1980s anthem by the German band Spliff. It was a quite different tune on Thursday night, when the art crowd celebrated the birthday of Cologne DJ-hero Tobias Thomas in the basement of Hallmackenreuther. Yes it’s true: Monika Sprüth, Andreas Gursky, and Johann König love techno, Cologne style.

On Saturday I took the train to Düsseldorf to see exhibitions at the Kunstverein (Anna Franceschini) and the Kunsthalle (Ian Cheng, Wu Tsang, Jordan Wolfson). Since Susanne Pfeffer introduced “post-Internet” to institutional audiences with her Material Show at Kassel’s Fridericianum a few years ago, “Post” is very hip again. Even ironic references to good old poststructuralism are cool: “If you want to teach me French philosophy / I’ll sleep with you,” artist and Berlin It Boy Dan Bodan crooned into the mic at Düsseldorf artist hangout Salon des Amateurs. At the bar I bumped into the smart young dealer Max Mayer. He’s a regular at the Salon. “They call it the ‘Post-Kraut Hacienda’ on TripAdvisor,” Mayer said, handing me a bottle of beer. Silently, we listened to Bodan’s sad and beautiful songs floating through the night like futurist sound tracks for Edward Hopper paintings.

Kito Nedo

Plumbing the Depths

Reykjavík
04.27.15

Left: Performance by Styrmir Örn Guđmundsson. Right: Sequences' Edda Sigurjonsdottir and Alfredo Cramerotti. (All photos: Dawn Chan)


“ALL ARCHITECTS should be forced to live, for at least a week, in every building they design,” says an architect friend of mine. What if it were the same for curators? What if, every time a curator picked a theme for a biennial, he or she was forced to cohabit with some twisted version of that theme? It happened last week with Alfredo Cramerotti, who curated Sequences, Reykjavik’s biennial real-time art festival. Cramerotti had picked “plumbing” as the focus of this year’s edition. And just like that, as if curatorial conceits carry their own karma, on a recent Saturday morning his kitchen sink overflowed and flooded the entire room, upending his already full day of logistics.

Flooding sinks aside, plumbing made for an apt motif. As Cramerotti explained, it relates to everything from the geothermic energy that heats Iceland’s houses to the transatlantic, fiber-optic superhighway that uses the nation as a hub. But along with plumbing, the dual notions of presence and absence became (somewhat less formally) touchstones as well, in both art and in accompanying discussions. Partly this had something to do with the fact that Carolee Schneemann, the honorary artist, couldn’t make it due to health reasons. Ed Atkins also couldn’t be in Reykjavik, but he contributed a video featuring his creepy, emotive avatar.

Sequences got its start on Friday, in downtown Reykjavik; while rain kept things chilly outside, the crowd—in furs, knit caps, a lime-green Mongolian cape—stayed warm with wine and cheese. Everyone had gathered for the unveiling of Schneemann’s More Wrong Things at Kling and Bang. (Outside was another performance: Hanna Kristín Birgisdóttir, who enlisted workmen to drill a hole into the graveled ground.)

Left: Kling and Bang. Right: Artist Finnbogi Pétursson.


Kling and Bang—which some may recognize from its Frieze booths—is an artist-run space which operates so democratically that, when it was formed, even its name was subject to a vote. The meaning of the final result? “It doesn’t run that deep, I’m afraid,” laughed member Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir. “It’s sort of the same it would be in English—subtle noises and big explosions.” (Sigurjónsdóttir was also the sister of Edda Sigurjónsdóttir, curatorial consultant and project manager of the biennial. She’s “the secret ingredient in a lot of stuff that happens in the Reykjavik scene,” according to her partner, artist Ragnar Kjartansson, who’s at work preparing a fall show at the Palais de Tokyo.)

But if Kling and Bang’s name “doesn’t run that deep,” its significance in Reykjavik sure does. The city’s handful of artist-run spaces apparently function as the beating heart of the Icelandic art world: Without a ravenous commercial art market on the island—there are only a few major contemporary art collectors—Icelandic artists and curators have had to step up their game. Said one artist, “Not many people here are making art as their main job.” Not to be overlooked, though, is the Icelandic Art Center, a government-funded institution that’s presenting Christoph Büchel at the nation’s Venice pavilion next week.

The scrappy, resourceful spirit of the island’s artist-driven projects was reflected in Sequences’ scrappy, repurposed venues. A bus dropped the likes of Collection Maramotti’s Marina Dacci and London-based artist Jordan Baseman at a sleepy shopping mall. There, in its atrium, the Kunstlager collective featured everything from a drone-flying performance to a cotton-candy machine. Not too far away, in a loft space under construction, Icelandic sound artist Finnbogi Pétursson presented a series of tubes playing, in and out of phase, mesmerizing 50Hz tones. “No drugs, no alcohol,” he laughed. “This is sober art.”

Left: Artist Ragnar Kjartansson and Kling and Bang member Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir. Right: Collezione Maramotti's Marina Dacci and Beatrice Pediconi.


Back downtown, a room at Hotel Holt, a very retro, wood-paneled establishment that was once the fanciest in Reykjavík, became the site of a performance by Styrmir Örn Guđmundsson, who incanted and rapped (almost) and then led his audience to a hotel room. As his partner sat in lotus position covered in blue body paint, he led everyone through a meditation sequence, intoning, “Don’t worry: I promise you. You will all die successfully.”

Even a boarded-up public women’s bathroom became a site for Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson’s art, after Ólafsson and his team cleaned the facility out. “We must have burned two boxes of incense while cleaning,” he laughed. The underground space had been shuttered for security, since it was mere meters away from the Mayor’s house.

Ólafsson’s piece projected a live feed of the room’s image through the ground to a tiled wall in the men’s bathroom (still boarded up), then a second live feed captured the result and sent it back. It was a poetic display of presence and absence: knowing your images were elsewhere, seeing them projected back to you. It was also a reminder of the balance governments maintain between security and access—a timely reflection, given recent suggestions that Edward Snowden might get Icelandic citizenship if certain political tides continue to turn.

With all the spas and public pools around town, people kept vanishing and then reappearing—an hour here, an hour there—coming back with radiant skin. Still, everyone managed to see art and more art, from Margrét Blöndal’s form-sculptures to the New York–based Beatrice Pediconi’s immersive projections of water currents. At openings, everyone seemed to know each other. Dogs came. Sandwich crčmes were put out at one venue, and the kids roamed freely.

Left: Curator Birta Guđjónsdóttir. Right: Artist Styrmir Örn Guđmundsson.


Which made me realize that there were no “mature content” signs alerting parents to the sexually explicit footage in Schneemann’s piece. Cramerotti said he’d asked, and explained the reply he’d received: “We accept it, we don’t use any warning; we know it can be tricky, it can be sort of uncomfortable for a moment.” He also brought up the concern that shards of glass were scattered across the floor in Margrét Helga Sesseljudóttir’s piece—but again, no warning signs or roped-off areas had been required.

Cramerotti hypothesized that this laissez-faire approach to art was connected to something else he’d seen in Iceland: “playgrounds for kids made out of industrial leftovers”—right by the harbor, between a busy road and the ocean. No fences.

“Here it’s totally accepted because of the land they’re in. Naturally it can be dangerous. You can hurt yourself, and you have to learn that when you’re a kid.”

Dawn Chan

Head Above Water

Săo Paulo
04.26.15

Left: SP-Arte fair director Fernanda Feitosa. Right: MASP artistic director Adriano Pedrosa. (All photos: Frank Expósito)


“PURCHASE POWER comes from optimism,” said SP-Arte fair director Fernanda Feitosa confidently on the second day of its eleventh edition. Fresh off Brazil’s reelection of President Dilma Rousseff and news of its shrinking economy, the national art market had yet to be tested under new conditions. The worst, I was told, was yet to come. Yet despite this, the fair had generously welcomed on its first day five thousand guests who had—optimistically or not—drunk one thousand bottles of champagne.

“It has affected our mentality,” said dealer Alessandra d’Aloia of Galeria Fortes Vilaça, referring not to the festive consumption but rather to the largest political corruption scandal in Brazil’s recent history, allegedly involving kickbacks by state-owned oil company Petrobas—consistently strewn across the front pages. “Art offers an escape from that,” d’Aloia explained. International dealers like Monica Manzutto, on the other hand, planned for the reality of 40 percent markups for imported art. “Knowing the situation, we chose to bring younger artists,” she said. That week, all would see if art behaved more like a mirror or if it turned a blind eye.

The fair itself was designed to grow organically within the sinuous interior of Oscar Niemeyer’s Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, which it has occupied since its first edition. This year, the building’s third floor was reserved for its inaugural “Open Plan” exhibition that left the floor in its “natural state,” without partitions amid the canopies.

Left: Dealers Andrew Hamilton and Pedro Mendes. Right: Dealer Luisa Strina.


But below, the art being sold contradicted architectural confinement. Carolina Caycedo examined the impact of dams on surrounding populations at Institution de Visión in the solo section of the fair, curated by Instituto Inhotim’s deputy director Rodrigo Moura and Contemporary Art Museum Bordeaux director and curator María Inés Rodriguez. “The indigenous people of Colombia believe that all rivers are connected,” said bright-eyed dealer Omayra Alvarado. Caycedo’s video showed rivers turning in on themselves in a kaleidoscopic mélange. “Those peoples remember that the sea came first. If we’re not connected, it’s easy to take three-hour showers during shortages.” The work recalled the low water levels in California as well as those currently plaguing Brazil. “I can’t escape it,” said collector Mera Rubell, about the environmental themes she was seeing in work by contemporary artists. “Last night I dreamed I was at one of these dinners at a friend’s who had run out of water, and all the lights turned off. I was the only one with a lighter.”

Deeper in, Noguerasblanchard showcased Bochner-inspired work of Cuban artist Wilfredo Prieto involving two pebbles and a spotlight. Upstairs, Alexander Gray dedicated its curated booth to artist Luis Camnitzer for the gallery’s first appearance at the fair. The historical works included the diptych Canales, 1980, which addresses the creation of canals after Panama to redistribute world power. Galeria Fortes Vilaça showed anthropomorphic work by Erika Verzutti and Ernesto Neto, while Luisa Strina showed work by Brazilian Beto Shwafaty that made apparent the failed promises of oil in the development of Brazil. “The real dropped by a third in value in the months leading up to the fair,” noted dealer Eliana Finkelstein.

Outside the fair, duo Gisela Motta and Leandro Lima and installation artist Ana Maria Tavares addressed the shortage trope at Galeria Vermelho. In one of Motta and Lima’s works, Chora-Chuva (Cry-Rain), 2014, blue buckets filled with water are equipped with an internal speaker that plays the sound of falling droplets, vibrating the clear liquid to create reverse-gravity mandalas that exist only for a moment. In another, the level of the “dead volume” of the country’s water reserve is painted bright sapphire on the lower periphery of the black outer walls of the gallery. “The Brazilian government brought in an expert from California,” said dealer Jan Fjeld. “Over there is a nine-ton water tank; it’s a very important part of this project.” Back inside, Tavares’s video installation took apart the facade of Alfred Loos’s plan for Greta Garbo’s house with rushing river water. The house included a design feature that would allow onlookers to see Garbo bathing naked in her backyard pool. It was unclear if she was ever in on the provocation.

Left: Artist Marina Abramović. Right: Dealers Eduardo Brandăo and Eliana Finkelstein.


The next day, over a long, traditional Brazilian lunch of steak, rice, farofa (fried cassava flour), and chocolate brigadeiros with New York dealer Simon Preston and Brazilian artist Jessica Mein, discussions moved from the local gallery scene to distinctions between Paulistas and Cariocas. Mein was showing her billboard painting series at the fair as well as at Galeria Leme’s local Brutalist space, designed by Pritzker Prize–winning Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha. The work engaged with the inheritance of the interior. “We can’t be a Club Med for the world,” said the artist about Brazil. “This is why Paulistas are generally negative. We often contradict the Rio mentality of carefree consciousness, which has been stereotypically limited to the body.”

That night, dealers Pedro Mendes, Matthew Wood, and Felipe Dmab hosted their annual house party. “We kept the guest list tighter this year,” said Mendes, though there seemed to be a thousand infiltrators. “We get party spies who come in early to let others know,” explained Wood. “This year I told them we would play bossa nova and turn in early.” But of course that trio never turn in early. This year they even offered their guests a place to charge their iPhones should they run out of juice Instagramming. “There’s an outlet in the Neďl Beloufa upstairs,” said Wood. Guests like Guggenheim UBS Map Latin American Curator and Casa França director Pablo Leon de la Barra, curator Bernardo Mosqueira, collectors Eduardo and Camilla Barrella, and dealer Sylvia Kouvali hung off the third-floor balconies or danced in the basement to TLC’s “Waterfalls.”

Left: Dealers Monica Manzutto and Jose Kuri. Right: Dealer Luciana Brito (right).


Museo Jumex chief curator and interim director Julieta González had just taken a post as adjunct curator at the Museu de Arte Moderna de Săo Paulo, which opened two shows that night in a first of a series that will delve into the history of the collection. The exhibition displays are a reconstruction of the project designed by Italian-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi. “It’s so interesting how we both ended up here at the same place—MASP’s artistic director Adriano Pedrosa and me—in a way rejecting contemporary art all together,” said González. “It’s so much fun! And Adriano can do it because he came from that world.” An upcoming show at MASP will reconsider the anthrophagic work of Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral, a dual show with the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

At the Lina Bo Bardi–designed SESC Pompeia, Marina Abramović was celebrating her exhaustive local retrospective. “Since I first came to Brazil in 1985,” she said, “I’ve taken material from here and showed it somewhere else. Now I’m taking the material and bringing it back.” For “Terra Comunal,” all objects come from collections in Brazil. Along with the Abramović Method, three large-scale installations, Abramović curated eight long body-art performances by local artists. Each at one point seemed to have cited Abramović as an influence in their work—particularly Grupo Imprensa, whose bloodletting recalls Abramović’s early durational performances.

Left: Dealer Jacqueline Martins. Right: Dealer Daniel Roesler.


A select few from the art world accompanied Abramović to amfAR’s Inspiration gala the next night, where two socioeconomic classes attended the open-air manor. One served, while the other posed in sequins and propped their hair before friendly cameras. Cocktail hour turned into “How to Model 102.” Kate Moss didn’t like to take free pictures, learned one cameraman whom she had apparently pushed the year before. Naomi Campbell forgot to thank the gala’s chair, Dinho Diniz, in her opening speech for hosting the event again this year and had to backpedal later on.

Kylie Minogue performed; honoree Cher didn’t. Abramović and Vik Muniz blended in with Jean-Paul Gautier, Ricardo Tisci, and Kenneth Cole, along with Victoria’s Secret model Izabel Goulart and New York club promoter Ladyfag. Plastic gold chalices held dry champagne. Few ate their stuffed tomato appetizer. “I hate this part,” said Valentino brand ambassador Carlos Souza between cigarettes during the night’s auction, which included Givenchy travel luggage and Harry Winston diamonds. “The reason I’m here is not because I have deep pockets. It’s because I worked with Elizabeth Taylor.” The benefit that night raised $1.8 million for AIDS research—money in exchange for goodwill and a good time. Maybe D’Aloia was right. That weekend, 200,000 protesters took to Avenida Paulista demanding answers to Rousseff’s corruption. A lucky few, days before, had welcomed Cher to SP-Arte, though there wasn’t word if she bought anything.

Frank Expósito

Left: Kylie Minogue at the amfAR gala. Right: Curator Pablo León de la Barra.


American Beauty

New York
04.23.15

Left: Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg and collector Anne Bass. Right: Whitney Museum chief curator Donna De Salvo with architect Renzo Piano. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)


IT’S UP. IT’S AMAZING. And it’s never coming down. So said its architect at an exclusive, black-tie dinner this past Monday night, when Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg “delivered” Renzo Piano’s new 28,000-ton baby to the people who paid $422 million for it.

With a select group of artists in the museum’s collection—think Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Claes Oldenburg, Cindy Sherman, Zoe Leonard, Roni Horn, Wade Guyton—and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, they had already seen for themselves what the rest of the world will know on May 1: that the Whitney has put its money where its heart is—on its made-in-America art—and given it a space and a frame so choice it’s almost invisible.

Following the Museum of Modern Art’s dismaying 2004 expansion, New Yorkers had good reason to dread what might be waiting for them inside the Whitney’s new Meatpacking District home. Move the museum out of its storied and distinctive, Marcel Breuer–designed headquarters on Madison Avenue and into an ungainly, industrial-looking structure designed by a hit-or-miss architect? Like the price tag, the risks were enormous.

Left: Whitney curator Barbara Haskell, Diana Taylor, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Bloomberg Philanthropies CEO Patti Harris. Right: Artist Cindy Sherman and singer-composer Rufus Wainwright.


The excitement was palpable as the four hundred opening night guests filed into the glass-walled lobby. (Unlike the Brutalist fortress uptown, transparency is the keyword here.) Though she has been working in the building for some time, curator Elisabeth Sussman still couldn’t get over how marvelously it turned out. “Just look at the trees framed by the windows!” she exclaimed. “I hate to sound like a convert to a cult, but after the Breuer, the light is amazing.”

Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs was so blown away he couldn’t quite get his sea legs. “Is this the bar or the elevator?” he inquired of a group who appeared to be waiting for liftoff. For this night only, it was both. The doors closed and, as a bartender filled flutes of champagne, the car, with trompe-l’oeil walls designed by the late Richard Artschwager, rose slowly to the eighth floor, where the earlier works in the 22,000-works-strong permanent collection were about to astonish.

It was almost as if no one present—not Charlie Rose, Chuck Close, Dorothy Lichtenstein, or Brice Marden—had ever seen an Edward Hopper, Arthur Dove, Jacob Lawrence, or especially a John Covert before. “The installation is really profound,” said collector Thea Westreich of “America Is Hard to See,” the museum’s inaugural exhibition. As arranged by Donna De Salvo, Scott Rothkopf, Dana Miller, and Carter Foster, the exhibition’s core curators, the show makes such clear art-historical sense of its decade-by-decade contents that it belies the title. Personally, I don’t think any of the works on view ever had better placement or a more spacious hang. “It’s clean, it’s healthy, and it’s beautiful,” added Westreich. With her husband, Ethan Wagner, she has given the Whitney five hundred works. “The show opens in November,” she said.

Left: Studio Museum director Thelma Golden and artist Glenn Ligon. Right: Artist Jasper Johns.


The exhibition galleries all have high ceilings that both reveal and hide the infrastructure of the museum. (They also echo the gridded ceilings of the Breuer.) The reclaimed-pine floors are warm and gorgeous. Ditto the appropriately rich colors of the flexible walls on the seventh floor. The conservation lab looks like the most glamorous operating room imaginable, and a Minimalist gallery with an Ellsworth Kelly sculpture and paintings by Carmen Herrera, Ad Reinhart, and Agnes Martin feels like a meditation room here. Outdoor terraces offer not just panoramic views and fresh air but sculpture; Mary Heilmann’s commissioned Sunset installation of painted outdoor furniture is especially joyful.

Inside, comfortable couches face the biggest picture windows, with more artworks on the walls behind them. (Glenn Ligon’s neon Untitled (negro sunshine) stares down the city to the east.) “It’s downtown architecture and it belongs downtown,” said Leonard Lauder, a leading light of the Whitney for many years and a voice for resistance to the move early on. He wasn’t complaining anymore.

Politicians mixed with the artists and other trustees, like Brooke Garber Neidich, Neil Bluhm, Ray McGuire, Stefan Edlis, and Gael Neeson. The relaxed Bloomberg toured the exhibition with an all-female posse and spoke to nearly everyone, including Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehmann, Rudolf Giuliani’s old nemesis.

From the current administration at City Hall came cultural affairs commissioner Tom Finkelpearl with first deputy mayor Alicia Glen in tow. (Mayor Bill De Blasio will arrive next week for the ribbon cutting.) Also on hand was Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Campbell, whose institution has the lease on the Breuer building for the next eight years. “We’re his landlord,” chortled De Salvo, the Whitney’s chief curator. “Modern and contemporary art is an area of high interest to us right now,” he said.

Left: Whitney Museum curator Scott Rothkopf. Right: Artist T.J. Wilcox and Whitney curator Carter Foster.


Waiters signaled it was time for the Sotheby’s-sponsored dinner by playing single notes on triangles. They had a hard time getting people to leave the galleries. Some went down slowly on the stairs, which surround a Félix González-Torres curtain of light bulbs hanging in the shaft top to bottom.

With everyone seated at tables in the expansive lobby—clearly the future go-to room for social New York—board cochair Robert Hurst was first to take the podium. It was the high-level donors evening, and he celebrated them. “We did it!” he began. “We exceeded our goal of $760 million.” Looking to Lauder, who has (so far) donated 950 artworks to the museum, he said, “Leonard, this night, this Whitney, would have been impossible without you.” There was loud applause at Weinberg’s appearance onstage. “Change is good,” he said. “It makes New York New York.”

But he addressed his first remarks to the reason that the city needs such a museum in the first place. “Every square foot of this building has been designed with the artists in mind,” he said, recalling that Bloomberg, as mayor, had told him, “Don’t screw this up.” Bloomberg also privileged artists, underscoring the way art and culture are inseparable from New York, while De Salvo reminded everyone that the Whitney has always been an artists’ museum. “It’s also a curators’ museum,” she said, describing the opening show as “a novel in twenty-three chapters.”

“I think that this is the real beginning of the twenty-first century,” said a starry-eyed Josephine Meckseper, surveying the room during a break in the speeches. “Adam and Donna did everything right. And for the right reasons.” Finally, just past 10 PM, the main course was served. Unlike most events of this size, the food—from Untitled, the Whitney’s new Danny Meyer restaurant—was actually good, not rubber.

Left: Collectors Ethan Wagner and Thea Westreich. Right: Artist Josephine Meckseper.


Rufus Wainwright bounded to the Steinway on stage, looking up midway through his first number, “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” surprised that his listeners were so rapt. He was just a few bars into “New York, New York” when he went blank on the title words. Recovery was swift; he started over, and the song was perfect. Finally, board president Neil Bluhm presented Piano with a kind of medal—a cement block designed and inscribed by artist Lawrence Weiner.

“To have a great building you need a great client,” Piano said, and went on speak with such honesty and humor that it was obvious why the trustees chose him as architect. “Today is a great moment, a moment of joy,” he said. “Yesterday it was our building. Today it’s yours. It’s still the Whitney,” he added. “Not the new Whitney. To me, an Italian, American art has always been freedom. This building is a house of freedom. I love making buildings. I especially love making buildings for art, because art is about beauty, and beauty will save the world, I’m pretty sure.”

When he returned to his seat beside a grateful Flora Miller Biddle, granddaughter of the founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, I followed Paul Chan, Rachel Harrison, choreographer Sarah Michelson, and Jewish Museum director Claudia Gould back up to the ’80s/’90s floor—“our floor,” as Gould put it, the one with the Barbara Kruger and the David Salle over the Donald Moffett wallpaper, the one with Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, the one with the David Hammons–Fred Wilson–Karen Kilimnik group and the Charles Ray–Jeff Koons–Peter Halley configuration, the one with the art of our time.

Congratulations, Whitney! You’ve always gone to bat for the home team, and this time you’ve done us proud.

Linda Yablonsky

Left: Artists Rick Liss and Mary Heilmann. Right: Artist Mark di Suvero.


Speaking in Tongues

Venice
04.19.15

Left: Fondation Pinault director Martin Bethenod, curator Caroline Bourgeois, and François Pinault. Right: Danh Vo and Julie Ault. (All photos: Jason Farago)


WAIT FOR THE BEGINNING and the end will have already come. Once, the art world’s more social participants only needed to get in for previews. Now even the previews are too late. The Whitney, officially opening May 1, has already had multiple parties in its new building. At the various Basels the dinner circuit can start a whole week before opening day. As for Venice: Mi dispiace, but I’ve already been and gone.

Nearly a month before the vernissage of Okwui Enwezor’s biennial, I bounced into the Most Serene Republic with much of the Paris art mafia for the openings of two new exhibitions organized by the Fondation Pinault. Danh Vo, impish, adorable, and holding down the Danish pavilion in a month’s time, had also taken on the large task of curating a full-scale exhibition in Punta della Dogana, stretching from the late thirteenth century to last Tuesday. Over at Palazzo Grassi—which I hadn’t seen since Rudolf Stingel upholstered it in 2013, and which looks damn fine carpet-free—it was the turn of Martial Raysse, a French hero who stumps Americans, still. After a year in which another French luxury goods billionaire had taken up most of the air, with the opening of the showier Fondation Louis Vuitton, the return to Venice was also a rappel ŕ l’ordre.

Left: Martial Raysse. Right: Andrew Blackley from the Félix González-Torres foundation and Essex Street dealer Maxwell Graham in front of Tintoretto, Creation of the Animals, ca. 1550


Last year’s Raysse retrospective at the Centre Pompidou revalorized his early Pop works, but it didn’t do much for the later figurative paintings. Yet even Bernard Blistčne, who’d been showing camera-phone shots from the Pompidou’s new Málaga outpost in our taxi boat, had to admit that Raysse’s Venice show is better than Beaubourg’s—an asynchronous, open-ended exhibition that finally let this American see what the fuss is about. Panoramic paintings that looked dreary and unconvincing in Paris, where they came at the end of a fifty-year slog, turned here in the Venetian light into independent, energetic tableaux whose Day-Glo colors and thank-heaven-for-little-girls iconography chimed with his pre-’68 experiments. Best of all were the nearly one hundred small-scale works, displayed in vitrines like Beuysian relics, among which Caroline Bourgeois, the justifiably proud curator, had a few favorites: a pigeon with a tricolor sash wielding a neon longbow, or carefully wrapped packages sprouting psychedelic mushrooms.

Vo’s exhibition, meanwhile: Well, santo cielo. At times Vo’s art can be too dependent on backstory, too interested in evocation at the expense of form. But “Slip of the Tongue,” his exhibition at Punta della Dogana, is the best artist-curated exhibition I’ve seen in years—a sober, broken-hearted, and endlessly moving show of suffering and remembrance. His selections from the Pinault collection are shrewd (Sigmar Polke’s potato house is back from MoMA, and there’s almost a Lee Lozano miniretrospective going on), but Vo has also borrowed many artworks not in the collection: Roni Horn’s shimmering Gold Field, 1980–82, in a gallery whose window gives onto San Giorgio Maggiore, and Nancy Spero, whose biting Artaud collages from 1969–70 have been hung in the central gallery by Julie Ault. “A lot of the works that I’ve looked into have really been introduced by Julie,” Vo confessed over a jet-lag-averting spritz. “If a collection like Pinault’s is acquiring a certain amount of works of mine, then they should understand where I’m coming from.” Hence Nairy Baghramian’s titular sculpture, composed of flaccid rubber and polystyrene, which Vo thinks evokes less a tongue than another appendage. “She wanted to make a sculpture related to the form of a penis after ejaculation. Or that’s just my thinking! And it looks fucking good!”

Left: Dealers Amalia Dayan and Dominique Lévy. Right: Artists Ingar Dragset and Michael Elmgreen.


Relics here too: body parts, bodies in pieces. Erections courtesy of Peter Hujar; an encephalitic head, signed Jean-Luc Moulčne; an original Rodin plaster from 1890–91, missing a head and arm, lying flat out on the floor. The body in pain, and the potential for martyrdom, arrives first and foremost through illuminated manuscript and Old Master paintings that Vo borrowed from Venice’s museums—a Bellini head of Christ, painted circa 1500 and brutally cut from a larger composition, stares out at passersby, while Saint Stephen in ecstasy gets stoned to death in the center of a big blue letter C. “When Napoleon occupied Venice,” Vo suggested, “it was the first time that all these accumulated collections—from noblemen, from churches—were dragged out. And I thought that was an interesting starting point, where cultural production is a trace of warfare and occupation and destruction.” Or illness, he might have added. Hujar, David Wojnarowicz, Martin Wong, Paul Thek, and especially Félix González-Torres imbue Vo’s exhibition with quite literal creation in the face of oblivion—González-Torres’s red beaded curtain hangs in a doorway guarded by a plague-forefending gargoyle. “I felt, like, kind of ashamed how gay-ified it turned out to be,” Vo chuckled. Whether Raysse felt any similar remorse at his show’s raving heterosexuality remains unknown.

I know that you want to hear about the parties. I’m afraid you will have to wait another month. This is why you come to Venice early—the seating-chart politics are for the poor souls who arrive on time, while in April you can breathe, wander, have a spritz with your friends and remember why you love art in the first place. On the morning I left Venice, I wound my way through the empty alleys of Dorsoduro, disconcertingly serene under the April sun. In the little church of San Sebastiano, Veronese’s altarpiece for the ultimate Christian gay icon had no one to genuflect before it but me. Saint Sebastian, as he has been since 1565, remains tied to a column, one arrow piercing his loincloth, another impaling him in his left shoulder. Above, the Virgin and Child are enthroned with angels and musicians, and the steely blue-black wing of one of Mary’s guardians slices down from the clouds into the realm of the living. I thought of Vo’s own saints, many of them gay, as I sat alone in the little church: men transubstantiated, souls but also bodies. And I realized why I loved his exhibition of relics and martyrs so much: Vo turned the group show into an instrument of beatification.

Jason Farago

Left: Elmgreen & Dragset diving board with view on San Giorgio Maggiore. Right: Christie's deputy chairman Xin Li in front of Giovanni Bellini, Head of Christ, ca. 1500–1505.


Chill Factor

Milan
04.17.15

Left: Dealer Gió Marconi, curator Francesco Bonami, and dealer Alma Luxembourg. Right: Art Basel director Marc Spiegler with MiArt director Vincenzo De Bellis. (All photos: Cathryn Drake)


MILAN IS THE FASHION and design center of Italy and yet until recently its fair, MiArt, had been a poor stepchild to the grandfather Artefiera Bologna and elegant Artissima. Since director Vincenzo De Bellis took it under his wing in 2013 MiArt has matured into a cosmopolite with a fresh viewpoint. Previously a truly Italian affair, it has grown to include nearly 50 percent foreign galleries, largely American and British—just big enough to be confident and not yet full of itself.

The relaxed tempo of the preview last week was the calm before the coming storm, as the fair was a warm-up for the Salone del Mobile and Expo, both just about to hit the city. I began at the Loro Piana lounge, displaying two luminous tapestries by artist Pae White, made of precious thread and being sold by Kaufmann Repetto, where family members Maria Luisa and Lucia—dressed casually in natty cashmere blazers—hung out and chatted about art for sale. Just outside a nod to Milanese design was embodied by a section of twelve dealer booths, titled “Object,” offering limited editions. Luisa delle Piane’s booth was an appealingly whimsical installation around Plexiglas shelves by Andrea Branzi.

The objects of most desire on the floor seemed to be monochrome canvases by artists of the Milanese Spatialism movement: Paolo Scheggi, Enrico Castellani, Turi Simeti, Agostino Bonalumi, and, as always, Lucio Fontana. “There has been a recent raise in prices and international standing of Italian modern art, pushed by the sales at Italian auctions in London last October,” explained Giovanni Gasparini, of Christie’s Education. The “painting-objects,” termed estroflessioni, look like the work of modernist ghosts trying to punch their way out of pristine canvases in aesthetically pleasing compositions. If Artfiera Bologna is the biggest fair for Italian modern art, MiArt proffered a select squadron of key international dealers with broad offerings, such as Robilant & Voena, Tornabuoni, and Mazzoleni. Galleria Cardi upped the ante with a fantastic selection of Arte Povera—like a Michelangelo Pistoletto mirror and a steel, lead, and coal piece by Jannis Kounellis. Adding to the renaissance, Alberto Burri’s 1973 “Teatro Continuo” is being reinstalled in Sempione Park, thanks to curator Gaby Scardi, in time for the Expo.

Left: Dealers Sadie Coles and Lieselotte Seaton. Right: Dealer Federico Vavassori, artist Oliver Payne, and curator Niels Olsen.


The genius feature of the fair was the section called “THENnow” (a cute retort to Artissima’s “Present Future”?), pairing an established and a younger artist and two galleries in one exhibition. A standout was Giorgio Morandi, represented by Galleria d’Arte Maggiore G.A.M., and Sadie Coles artist Paloma Varga Weisz, whose Wunderkammerlike assemblies and sculpture were kindred spirits to the luminously quiet still lifes of the Bolognese painter. Kounellis and Tony Lewis made a felicitous union in a booth curated by the Christian Stein and Massimo De Carlo galleries. I ran into De Bellis giving a tour to some VIPs including Art Basel’s Marc Spiegler, who quipped, “I am then, he is now.” De Bellis explained his winning strategy: “I didn’t want to force young galleries to do solos—it does not serve them well—so I let them do what they want. Highlighting one artist is better for established galleries, who already have clientele and exposure at other fairs.”

Dinner that night was hosted by the Phillips auction house at the Palazzo Visconti, where Francesco Bonami had assembled “Great Wonderful: 100 Years of Italian Art” as a preview for the upcoming New York sale. It was a surreal and voluptuous scene, sundry modern artworks mounted against the florid Baroque setting in the palace of director Luchino Visconti’s family, whose emblem, depicted in the mosaic floors, is a child being devoured by a serpent. Two white canvases by Castellani and Bonalumi flanked a marvelous self-portrait by De Chirico; on another wall a white multilayered Scheggi kept company with a luscious sculpture resembling feather plumes in a box by Piero Manzoni.

“It is so relaxing here, I really enjoy it,” Persian collector Amir Shariat effused. Exiting the palace onto the quiet street, I looked to the right pondering the T293 party and then to the left in the direction of the Christie’s/Artribune bash at the Frigoriferi Milanesi; I so hated to miss either, but all I could do was descend into the Metro, surrendering to a fatigue born of aesthetic-hedonist overload.

Left: Pierpaolo Forte, president of MADRE, and dealer Umberto Di Marino. Right: Dealers Michael Callies and Memmo Grilli.


The word with Italian fairs is that as a foreigner you have to come several times before selling, but here the young dealers seemed quite pleased. On Friday I checked out the international “Emergent” booths to see how they felt and ran into Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo making the rounds. “There is a different pace here, less hurried than fairs in New York, for example, where there is a sense of urgency because they do three fairs in three days,” noted the Sunday Painter’s Tom Cole. Esperanza Rosales, of VI, VII is on her third stint at MiArt: “We did very well here with Eloise Hawser our first time around, and now she is a rising star.” This year she risked another solo, of artist Landon Metz. At the coffee bar, dealer Mauro Nicoletti groused, “The south is coming north!” Although it related to the slow bar service, it is true of galleries; from Naples Lia Rumma and Mimmo Scognamiglio have arrived, and Blindarte’s Memmo Grilli will open a space soon in Milan. “The Neapolitan collectors are esterofilia, but they like to buy things in other cities so they can say, ‘Oh this thing, I bought it in London!’ ”

Friday evening brought the “Spring Awakening” in a flush of openings around town. Lisson threw a party for Cory Arcangel’s show in the enchanting garden frequented by Leonard Da Vinci. No time to stop for long, we headed for the Lambrate area to visit Ida Pisani’s Prometeogallery for Giuseppe Stampone’s show “Emigration Made Pavilion 148,” where a child played with one of three remote-control boats in tubs named the Nińa, Pinta, and Santa Maria; the Elad Lassry show at Massimo De Carlo; Ali Kazma’s “Intimacy” at Francesca Minini; and last but not least, Federico Vavassori’s new space, with a show of Mélanie Matranga and Oliver Payne curated by Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen. Payne’s fantastic “Portal” painting transported us directly into the Gavin Brown’s Enterprise-Bridget Donahue fair booth, where one there is a view into the gallery.

Left: Curator Andrew Bonacina, collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, and dealer Steve Pulimood. Right: Artist Cory Arcangel.


Afterward we attended the dinner in honor of artist Giuseppe Stampone at the home of collector Davide Blei, near the Gucci quarters overlooking a public garden. It was like a family reunion with a largely Italian group of collectors and curators including Eugenio Viola and Gaby Scardi. The effusive host came round and said, “All the food is homemade!” Setting out for a party hosted by twelve galleries at the vintage Sala Liberty, we got waylaid by dealer Michael Callies and a posse heading toward the Mousse party at the 1950s Ex Cinema Manzoni, where everything seemed psychedelic and the crowd dazed, so we ended the night at the jam-packed legendary Bar Basso, hosted by Vavassori and dealer Carl Kostyŕl.

On Saturday I made my way to Lucie Fontaine, where Irma Blank’s “Pink Writings,” delicate lines painted on paper to resemble opaque texts in a book, were as Delphic and delightful as the artist herself. It seemed appropriate that the sunny weekend would end at the opening for “Painting, Painting” at Peep-Hole, De Bellis’s first baby, so I walked around the big cemetery and arrived at the Fonderia Artistica Battaglia, the foundry where artists like Giuseppe Penone, Arnoldo Pomodoro, and Marino Marini have cast their work, in time for Oliver Payne’s “Chill Out” session. To be honest, I was late and the artist was manning the door wearing a SECURITY jacket; after a short discussion he allowed entrance, which turned out to be the chilled-out MO in spite of warnings that the doors would close shut promptly at the start time. The music was like a journey by time capsule—snippets whizzing past evoking different places/eras/memories—and it conceptually extended the space to the outside, where crowds were already gathering for the Peep-Hole opening upstairs. “This is my favorite album by KLF,” Payne explained. “They burned the money they made on their music and deleted the band’s back catalogue, disappearing, as if speeding up the inevitability of time.”

Cathryn Drake

Left: Collector Raffaella Sciarretta and dealer Francesca Minini. Right: Artist Irma Blank and curator Nicola Trezzi.


Whisper Campaign

New York
04.14.15

Artist Hans Haacke at the restaging of Tania Bruguera's Tatlin's Whisper #6 in Times Square.


TOURISTS AMBLING through Time Square on Monday between 12 and 2 PM encountered something different from the usual melee of naked cowboys and competing Elmos: a tight cluster of people gathered around a soapbox upon which speaker after speaker took a stand for the freedom of speech.

As they spoke, a man held an unusually cooperative white dove upon their right shoulder. The lack of amplification meant the crowd had to lean in to hear the likes of artist Hans Haacke, art historian Claire Bishop, and curator RoseLee Goldberg protest the continued detention of Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, whose performance piece Tatlin’s Whisper #6 this event restaged. In Spanish and English, scripted and impromptu, each speaker took their minute before an attentive audience.

Bruguera herself was incommunicado: She has been under house arrest in Havana since last December, when her attempt to stage Tatlin’s Whisper in Havana’s Revolutionary Plaza, as part of the #YoTambiénExijo (I Also Demand) campaign to bring ordinary Cuban voices into the public dialogue about the normalization of diplomatic relations with the US, was firmly shut down by the regime. (You can read details about the events leading up to her arrest and those of other activists on this site’s news column and in a detailed post by artist Coco Fusco, as well as a 500 Words with Bruguera about her project.)

Left: Artist Malik Gaines. Right: Parkett US senior editor Nikki Columbus.


On a day when a handshake between Presidents Castro and Obama was making headlines around the world, the restaging of Tatlin’s Whisper was a forceful reminder that state control of the arts and public expression hasn’t evaporated overnight. And while the speakers were united in condemning Bruguera’s detention (along with many other dissident artists and intellectuals, including Danilo Maldonado “El Sexto”, who was also arrested in Havana in December for attempting to mount a political performance), many also linked her cause to broader struggles for social justice in Cuba and beyond.

“We don’t think of our own context here as one in which freedom of speech is repressed,” Bishop said, “but I think we self-censor ourselves,” offering numerous cases where “speech is unequal and unfree because of fear of retaliation.” Haacke read a solidarity statement from the Gulf Labor Coalition, of which both he and Bruguera are members, and which has been calling attention to labor and human rights abuses in the UAE, where museums and universities are building shiny new citadels. The artist Dread Scott, whose work has been censored here in the US, reminded the audience of the arrest and police harassment of Ramsey Orta, the man who bravely filmed the killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island last summer. Another artist, Malik Gaines, told the crowd that Americans love the right to free speech almost as much as we love the right to bear arms, but that even where artists enjoy the freedom of speech, they often fail to use it to confront power.

Claire Bishop at the restaging of Tania Bruguera's Tatlin's Whisper #6 in Times Square on April 13, 2015.

Tatlin’s Whisper did not only draw art-world luminaries to Times Square; it also brought a proud, banner-bearing contingent from Immigrant Movement International, a long-running activist project Bruguera has been organizing in Corona, Queens. It was moving to see working people take time to attend a protest held in another borough on a Monday afternoon (timing that probably accounted for the fact that the bulk of the other speakers were artists and arts professionals). Laura Raicovich, director of the Queens Museum of Art, told me how this confluence answered earlier reservations expressed in the media as to whether Bruguera’s community-organizing among undocumented immigrants qualified as art. “Those questions seem to be resolving themselves in interesting and unexpected ways.” Raicovich said. “I always say if an artist tells me its art, I believe them, because at the end of the day artists often see things we don’t.”

Nato Thompson, chief curator of Creative Time, who helped organize the restaging, told me the event was intended to keep Bruguera’s case in the public eye at a time when formal charges could be imminent. If charged and convicted of “counter-revolutionary activities”—a disastrous eventuality—Bruguera could face a long prison sentence. In addition to the event at Times Square, restagings of Tatlin’s Whisper were held in Los Angeles, Rotterdam, Chicago, Amsterdam, Knoxville, Pittsburgh, and Dallas. Raicovich told me that future events were also being planned at the Queen’s Museum: “It has got to be this layered, long-term approach, until things get resolved for her.”

With the Havana Biennial opening in May, many wondered how Bruguera’s case would affect artist’s willingness to participate. Filmmaker Ela Troyano, performance artist Carmelita Tropicana, and playwright Jorge Cortińas, who were all in attendance, felt that continued engagement with artists on the island was crucial. Pulling back now, they told me, would only feed into the disastrous politics of the blockade.

Left: MoMA associate curator Ana Janevski. Right: Artist Ryan McNamara.


Thompson reminded me that working as an artist today necessarily entails negotiating contradictory relations to difficult state regimes, including our own. “Being someone that operates in the United States, you are always in a state of deep contradiction when you stand up for the rights of people in other countries,” he said. “It’s hard to find a place that we haven’t, either through economic or military means, exploited. So you always come equipped with some kind of humility and awareness of the contradiction. Nevertheless, one has an obligation to stand up for these rights, regardless, in this country and abroad.”

Paul B. Preciado, who is currently facing legal charges of his own after an exhibition he cocurated at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona (MACBA) was censored for a crime of insulting the king, placed the ongoing detentions of artists in Cuba in a broader context, lest any conclude the problem is quarantined to an island-nation that has, after all, historically stood up against cultural and economic imperialism. “The Right is organizing in Europe to give an ideological coup d’etat to block the cultural institutions where ideas, representation, and artistic experimentation are taking place,” he told me. “This is happening in Spain, France, Italy, Greece… We have to get organized and fight together.”

Tavia Nyong’o

Left: Creative Time chief curator Nato Thompson. (Photo: Malik Gaines) Right: MoMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey.


Gang Shebang

New York
04.07.15

Left: Steven Weiner, Fab Five Freddy, Art Production Fund cofounder Doreen Remen, and Stuart Sundlun. Right: Artist Leo Villareal and Art Production Fund cofounder Yvonne Force Villarreal. (All photos: Billy Farrell Agency/bfanyc.com)


LAST TUESDAY, I listened happily as a woman expounded on the “civilizing effects” of socializing in a taxidermy-friendly room of “people over thirty-five.” We both had had enough of parties full of “so-called young collectors.” Then I tripped over a small, obviously feral child. (In his mother’s defense, which I will not come to, he was wearing a suit.)

Still, the Art Production Fund’s “Gangs of New York” gala was satisfyingly stacked with representatives from all the heavy-hitting cliques, and not just the art world’s. Liv Tyler! Cathy Horyn! Even AOL’s mascot Shingy. No one had heard of the event space, the Down Town Association—once a men’s club for maritime lawyers—but they’d certainly heard of one another. Not that any of our guests-of-record would go on the record as to which art-world “gang” they belonged to. Artists—always thinking they’re in a class to themselves.

A smattering of men and women tried to dress in theme, despite the obvious handicap: Was it a reference to the Scorsese film? Person-about-town Meghan Boody favored this theory, strapping a round of bullets around her midriff; her ex, the artist Randy Polumbo—wandering what seemed a safe distance away—donned fluorescent nipples of his own extraterrestrial design, situated like wingtips on the shoulders of his suit jacket. (No theme there, but a fine personal advertisement.) Too bad the couple didn’t pan out; few others expressed such willingness to engage the night’s possibilities.

Left: Designer Lazaro Hernandez and artist Rachel Feinstein. Right: Art Production Fund director Casey Fremont.


I cozied into a leather couch with Susan Feinstein (of the New Museum gang). We gave each other fake Sean Landers–designed tattoos; she chose a cat with large female breasts for our upper arms. “I feel sexy!” she giggled, and rightly so, in a flirty ’20s-style flapper dress. (“Just a little thing from Paris.”) Dealer Sandra Gering, seated opposite, declined to participate. We knocked over a couple of glasses of champagne and talked about her newly acquired Warhol sketch, then I excused myself to check out the Haim Steinbach installation, sequestered in a side room.

A similarly inspired couple joined me and we three alone stared at the steel shelf, rather certain that none of us was going to be moved. Two pairs of high heels with long, grasslike tassels were placed, archly “haphazard,” on the display. (The other guests of honor were Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of fashion house Proenza Schouler.) “This ‘art’ is not for me,” said the woman, downing her glass, “but I’d wear the shoes.”

In search of my table I realized, quite on accident, I hadn’t spoken to a single man. Thank God I was seated between two at dinner. Fab Five Freddy was on my left. “You can Google me,” he said after introducing himself. I smiled gamely, only to realize he wanted to watch me Google him right then. I waved my BlackBerry in the air as an excuse. He was undeterred. I was saved by the ever-polite Frank Benson, responsible for the show-stealing glossy-green 3-D sculpture of Juliana Huxtable now in the New Museum’s triennial. He watched a documentary on Fab Five Freddy “last night!” Huxtable herself floated over later in the evening, her famously fab braided locks (Google them) churning as she hugged him hello.

Left: Artist Juliana Huxtable. Right: Rose Dergan with artists Will Cotton and Sean Landers.


The only thing that separates the art world from high school is the ability to leave the lunchroom for a smoke break, so I exercised my status as an adult in control of my whole entire thing. Never mind. It was raining. I’m the only smoker left in New York. What does one expect in the middle of dinner? Sometimes we must look within ourselves and accept the clique to which we’ve been assigned by God, or, in this case, a random PR underling. I returned to my table and spotted the shaggy-haired, tonight disenchanted-seeming artist Jonah Freeman, heretofore opposite me at dinner, and we shared chagrin about our table’s empty seats (two!). Stella Schnabel either was a no-show or had finagled a better spot.

On my way out the door I ran into the always-chic Sarah Morris—in a crisp white pantsuit, black hair cropped and slicked back—repairing to Lucien with her entourage. I failed to convince Marilyn Minter to join—she had “to go home and feed the dogs or they’ll shit all over the rug.” At coat check, the painter Garth Weiser and I realized we’re both from Helena, Montana, and…know a man named Laughing Water, etc. We decide to form our own gang.

“Well, that wasn’t too nauseating,” said a woman, dumping her Kiehl’s gift bag out on the counter. It really wasn’t. What a world where that’s our only requirement for a night out. 2015, my friends, 2015!

Kaitlin Phillips

Left: Artist Haim Steinbach. Right: Artist Hanna Liden (left) and artist Sarah Morris (right)


Life Is a Cabaret

London
04.06.15

Left: Than Hussein Clark and Anja Diettman (wearing Osman) at DZ Hosts the Violet Crab. Right: Artist Zhana Ivanova. (All photos: Josh Redman)


“1865 – CAFÉ ROYAL, London; 1915 – The Moulin Rouge is destroyed by fire and The Cabaret Voltaire was created in Zurich; 1965 – Liza Minnelli made her debut on Broadway; 2015 – The Violet Crab opened in London.” So stated the release for “The Violet Crab” at the David Roberts Art Foundation, a material exhibition of a definitively immaterial form of spectacle—cabaret—curated by Than Hussein Clark, Vincent Honoré, and Nicoletta Lambertucci.

One hundred years after the establishment of the Cabaret Voltaire, Clark used the occasion to homage the genre by organizing “DZ Hosts the Violet Crab,” an exemplary iteration of that historically rebellious form of variety theatre, which has now, for better or for worse, become an oft-mimicked method. The improvisational atmosphere was made clear at the door. There, a greeter hired by Pierre Huyghe emphatically announced each guest’s arrival as they were ushered into the main exhibition room and seated at cocktail tables before the stage. We have seen Pipilotti Rist in her films, but for her proclaimed “first-ever performance” she invoked the ambience of a nightclub, giving her proxy, Javier Aparicio, room to dance his flirtatious, enthusiastically received striptease to a song Rist wrote in 1997. (Including lyrics like “The blood of your shaving wound/Let me sip it like holy water,” some in the audience wondered whether Rist had played a role in the latest Madonna album.) Zhana Ivanova had her own proxies in Borrowed Splendour, for which she invited plants in the audience to the stage while she sat to its right, speaking directives to the ad hoc actors through a microphone. The meta-intrigue enacted a politics of flirtation and power between the two male characters, played by Citizens! lead singer Tom Burke and artist Eddie Peake, who vied for the attention of the central female, played by dealer Pilar Corrias.

Left: Javier Aparicio performs A Striptease Imagined by Pipilotti Rist, 2015. Right: Artist Celia Hempton.


Like a courtroom drama, the entire evening was documented with pen-and-ink washes by Isobel Williams, who sat at an easel to the right of the stage. I would like to think that these drawings could record the precision of the ballet dancer Jean Capeille, enacting steps from La Bayadčre—most famously performed by Rudolf Nureyev—alongside actor Rory Keys, who read a vivid letter from Christodoulos Panayiotou addressed to a personal friend. In it, Panayiotou describes his stay on the Amalfi Coastal island of Li Galli, which has notorious connections to both Nureyev and the mythical Ulysses, with lyrical candor that departed from the more cartoonish musical comedy routines of the hosts, Hussein Clark and Anja Dietman, who kept to a very Cabaret version a cabaret.

Several of the Violet Crab participants were artists not normally associated with theater, and they employed the stage in developing something different. A first read might infer, from the men’s black leather motorcycle suit Celia Hempton wore as she walked in front of the audience, that she was keeping on-message with the Weimar-era dominatrix theme. But she became a welcome contradiction to the trope as she switched on the room’s stark florescent lights, revealing that her apparel was baggy and ill-fitting; she unceremoniously walked across the stage and punched a man with an unflinching expression, Marco Scuri, in the stomach several times. During an evening that burlesqued sexual representation, the minimal interlude suggested that subversion isn’t always neatly seductive.

This premise had been earlier demonstrated by Matthew Dickman who, while the most deceptively conventional of the evening’s acts—standing onstage, alone, conducting a poetry recital—was also the most innovative, interpolating what are assumed to be personal bedroom encounters—“Your ankles make me want to party, want to sit and beg and roll over under a pair of riding boots with your ankles hidden inside”—with historical and pop-cultural erudition (“The Gettysburg Address is the money-shot of any speech…”). His reading prompted the evening’s most raucous audience response, and confirmed that real inventiveness defies generic notions of bourgeois good taste, and takes us somewhere totally new. To hold the balance, the evening ended with a return to the theatrical cabaret, this inhabited by Wendy Bevan, who seriously delivered in her “songstress” role. Spotlit and alone, wearing a long, sparkling dress, her operatic crescendos shifted the mood from the “experimental” climate established by the preceding acts, emphasizing that a cabaret is, by definition, entertainment.

Mary Margaret Rinebold


Border Lines

Matamoros, Mexico
04.03.15

Left: Bienal de las Fronteras director Othon Castańeda. (Photo: Eduardo Melendez) Right: A visitor takes a selfie with Luz María Sánchez's installation. (Photo: Leslie Moody Castro)


IT’S A RARE DAY that the small city of Matamoros, Mexico, receives international attention in the world of contemporary art. Matamoros sits on the exact opposite side of the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, a growing town on the southernmost tip of the state. For many years the Matamoros-Brownsville metropolitan area has been marred by cartel violence, drug and human trafficking, and recently the construction of the border wall, a concretization of US policies against undocumented border crossing.

Matamoros has the feel of a civil-war zone, where residents simply draw their curtains and live in a constant state of fear and mistrust. It’s an unlikely place for a biennial, but that was my most recent occasion for a trek. The Bienal de las Fronteras (Biennial of the Frontiers), hosted by the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Tamaulipas (MACT) just a stone’s throw from the bridge between Mexico and the United States, was inaugurating its first exhibition after an international open call.

I was greeted at the Valley International Airport in Harlingen, Texas, by Enrique, an enthusiastic government employee who drove me to Mexico. He evinced a profound pride in his community, “happy to see such a large and international exhibition in the museum—and in Matamoros.” The MACT is a stunning construction by Mario Paní, a famous architect of Mexico’s golden era, who is responsible for much of the country’s great architecture leading up to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. The museum was finished in 1969 and stands as an emblem of a once-thriving city.

The biennial boasted an impressive list of jurors—from Guillermo Santamarina of Mexico City’s Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil and the art historian and curator Julia P. Herzberg to Emilio Valdéz, chief curator of the Museo Arte Moderno Medellín— and also cultural partners, including El Museo del Barrio and the Guggenheim Museum. The most significant stats, however, involved the 1,600 applications embracing the “borders” theme that the jury received from artists and curators spanning fifty-five countries. In the end the committee chose works by fifty-five artists. The resulting exhibition was a labyrinth of individual works and curatorial initiatives that complemented Paní’s architecture, and a large rotunda on the second story that featured work acquired by the museum from the open call.

Prizes were awarded to artists based on outstanding work related to the theme. First-prize winner Luz María Sánchez of Guadalajara, Mexico, was chosen for _V.F(i)n1, an installation of sound fragments extracted from YouTube recordings of street shootings throughout Mexico, which she played through speakers shaped like plastic guns. A list of dates, times, and locations of each shooting accompanied the installation. Second place was earned by Jerusalem-based artist Maya Yadid for 443, an absurdist video of a young couple smoking and driving a BMW convertible down a long strip of highway along a desolate landscape while singing along to a song lamenting a better world. The chosen works did not speak simply of physical borders, but of metaphorical and cultural ones: borders of languages and ideas.

Left and right: Visitors at the public opening of the Bienal de las Fronteras. (Photos: Eduardo Melendez)


After a press conference and a public inauguration, the entire curatorial and cultural team was chauffeured to a private dinner at Garcia’s, one of Matamoros’s nicest restaurants, which is surprisingly tucked behind a large, fluorescent-lit store that sells every kitschy “Mexican” item you could think of. I was lucky enough to sit beside director and biennial mastermind Othon Castańeda. While devouring our oversize plates of traditional border-style enchiladas, tamales, and beans soaked with melted cheese, Castańeda opened up about the biennial. He spoke of a mix of cultural pride and determination to change the conversation in the area. Our dialogue went many different directions but circled back to Castańeda’s goals to create a platform for local and international artists and to illustrate broader global conversations. “I want to show residents that there are other people dealing with similar issues along many borders in the world. People living in this border region are part of bigger issues, and are not alone in them.”

The opening events surrounding the exhibition were a buzz of activity. A formal press conference earlier in the day offered the space for every single cultural partner to stand behind a podium and thank every other cultural partner in attendance. Later that night at the well-attended public opening, Coca-Cola was handed out as people gathered around María Sánchez’s installation. As they searched for their city on the list of shootout locations and recalled the shootings they had witnessed or were a part of, many proceeded to take selfies with the plastic guns.

Only a handful of artists were able to make the trek for the opening, but for everyone that did attend we all became a little clan, traveling between the hotel and museum, eating together in the kitschy restaurant across the street obviously catering to US tourists, then packing into cars to grab a late-afternoon coffee while exchanging stories of travel, home, and the general feeling of optimism. After the openings and the celebratory dinner, we all arrived back at the hotel and gathered in the lobby, where we shared a champagne toast to the artists. It was obvious that we were witnessing something bigger than any of us.

Leslie Moody Castro