AFTER A COUPLE HOURS’ LAYOVER and lie-down in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport—site of Edward Snowden’s own private odyssey—I arrived last Wednesday in the former Soviet colony Azerbaijan’s capital: Baku. A city of ancient architecture hemmed in by a flowering of modern construction; producer of a supposed one million barrels of oil a day; metropolis of a country that imprisons elderly journalists with heart conditions: People live here. As for me, I was merely on the hunt for—what else—some contemporary art.
Cruising down the freeway in a cab from Heydar Aliyev airport, named for the current president’s father, it was a short trip to the Yarat Contemporary Art Center, to which I had been dispatched to see “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” a group show named after the devastating 1940 Carson McCullers novel. Situated close to the Caspian Sea, Yarat is also conveniently located near the National Phallic Symbol, or Flag Square as the locals call it—an enormous flagpole supporting a slowly waving Azerbaijan flag that resembles nothing so much as an animated GIF caught in a broadband lag.
At the opening, remarks were delivered by Michael Connor, New York–based curator and artistic director of Rhizome, and Yarat’s curatorial director Suad Garayeva. The elephant in the IRL room was of course the Internet. Connor told us that the exhibition focuses on artists who address “how human experience plays out on the Internet,” noting the “radical decontexualization” that the digital impinges on artistic approaches to real-world material. The artistic director of Yarat, Bjorn Geldhof—only recently appointed from his previous tenure at the Pinchuk Art Center in Kiev—spoke proudly of the curatorial team and welcomed everyone to what was only their third opening. Established as a nonprofit in 2011, the institution launched in its current, government-leased space last March with a commission from Shirin Neshat. It’s something of an umbrella under which operate the Yarat Space, the art educational initiative Artim, and the commercial Yay Gallery.
Dodging the elbows and shoulder camera rigs of a small crowd in which local media predominated, I cruised the show for clues to my questions: Why this show, here? Would any of these works reflect Mick Kelly’s desperation or John Singer’s quiet empathy? Why was there only one lonely Camille Henrot ikebana vase sculpture plunked down on the far right not-quite-corner, not-quite-center, of a low white platform? Why is Parker Ito in this show at all? And how can such a small group of artists be elected to represent a condition that affects all cultural activity? The provincialism of a “post-Internet” canon itself belies the multiplicity that the Internet affords art and culture.
We were in the realm of the literal: Pierre Huyghe’s seminal project “No Ghost Just a Shell” was cited as a precedent for the current generation of post-Internet rumblings, so it was represented by two videos right smack in the center of the show in its own white cube. A Neďl Beloufa sculpture, lost in customs prior to the opening and heroically re-created from scratch by a local metal worker, sported large globs of glue at its joints. Bunny Rogers had to directly intervene with visitors grabbing her Elliott Smith dolls off the shelves of her Clone State Bookcase.
Later at a dinner in the old city quarter of Baku, Geldhof passionately elaborated on Yarat’s mission to focus on the Caucasus region, starting with Kazakhstan, and claimed that right now is “an important moment here…to map an unmapped place.” Turning to artist Oscar Murillo, who will have his own show at Yarat next February, they began discussing the work of another Colombian-born artist, Carlos Motta, and the relative insult tucked into the term “Eurasia” often tagged to this region. In between traditional songs from local musicians, Rogers also sang for the assembled guests a tune in which someone named “Joey” played a principal role, and my heart started to feel as full as my stomach.
The next morning, it was off to the studio building of Yarat’s artists-in-residence. The taxi carrying myself and Dis magazine’s Ada O’Higgins passed the Zaha Hadid–designed Heydar Aliyev Center toward one side of town…and then reversed course to an entirely opposite quarter, choreographing many a U-turn into our crosstown shuffle. God was fortunately willing that morning, and we arrived to a quiet, multifloor studio building nestled between crumbling apartment blocks. Most of the artists were absent and hence the studios closed, but Orkhan Huseynov greeted us and showed us his videos and plaster casts molded over toys. Vusal Rahim mostly had paintings but also some tortured dolls, and Ramal Kazimov pulled out enormous renderings of contusive bodies across canvases.
Back at Yarat for a series of talks in their compact auditorium, Michael Connor gave a brief history of Net art. A group of teenage girls bounced after Connor was joined by Garayeva, Rogers, and artist Jasper Spicero, the crowd eventually winnowing down to friends, family, and employees, with the exception of an enthusiastic Azeri boy who sat in the front row and raptly listened to the simulcast translation. Garayeva and Connor split hairs about the significance of the show’s title to the actual works; Spicero dilated on the process of making his haunting “Centers in Pain” project; and Rogers spoke candidly about her poetry project, the source of her characters, and using the Internet to carve out one’s own space in an art world that places high barriers to admission. “Honesty isn’t possible,” she said, “so accuracy is the next best thing.”
Postpanel, the auditorium was swiftly taken over by a museum crew who began hammering and drilling away. Everything seemed to be in transition: Renovations could start as soon as you left a room, building, or street. Tear it down and start again. But this is no metaphor; there’s no need for such in a city where empty, manicured public spaces are juxtaposed against neighborhoods with apartment windows that look onto backyards of rubble. In Baku, I had enough time to see the city’s face being made up and the roughage exfoliated, but of its real body, I couldn’t say. Humming on this frequency was Hannah Black’s video featuring local bodybuilders, commissioned by Yarat for the show. Fragments of text blinked on the screen: “I don’t know what to believe I have no appetite”; “I just seem to be lost.” Close-up shots of new Baku condo windows were overlaid across a muscle man’s eyes; the carefully developed bodies of men, the pumped-up body of a new city. Black’s voice intoned: “Big fragile dream muscles, big fragile dream city…the effort of being safe in knowing nothing…I am huge and big and glossy and empty a colossal wind blows through my emptiness.” Here the show and the searing loneliness crying out of McCullers’s novel collided at last, and I was myself, finally, lost.
“IT SMELLS like the late ’80s!” dealer Christopher D’Amelio beamed last weekend. Two days ahead of the opening of EXPO Chicago, he was experiencing a delightful déjŕ vu. We were at the home of collectors Marilyn and Larry Fields, discussing galleries like White Cube that were returning to the fair after a hiatus. Outside, Lake Michigan shimmered. Inside, dealers circled around the Fields’ collection, turn-by-turn seeking audience with the hosts. It was a convivial atmosphere in which to celebrate the city and its signature art-world event. Four years into director Tony Karman’s revamped fair, it was still hard to shake a certain nostalgia for the days when the only competition was Art Basel and Art Cologne. But who wants to go back in time when the present looks so propitious?
Later that evening, at an opening for Kerstin Brätsch’s marbled, psychedelic paintings at the Arts Club of Chicago, I asked Gavin Brown why he wasn’t participating in the fair. He zipped his lips in response. Clearly answers weren’t going to be easy. So the next afternoon, when I came upon a giant inflated speech bubble with the word TRUTH spelled in black bold letters outside the fair’s entrance at Navy Pier, it seemed like a well-placed joke. For this project, artists Hank Willis Thomas, Jim Ricks, and Ryan Alexiev were inviting the public to record two-minute videos beginning with the words “The truth is…” In merry juxtaposition, on the fair’s second floor Tricia Van Eck of 6018 North had installed Rodrigo Lara Zendejas’s Chapel featuring artists as saints. Confession anyone?
At EXPO’s opening, visitors weren’t exactly clamoring for attention, but crowds did form around a few key booths. Dealer Monique Meloche had a steady stream of inquiries, as artist Ebony G. Patterson gave an interview about coffins made of patches of colorful textile last seen in Basel. At David Zwirner, D’Amelio rushed back and forth from the storage closet. Dealer Kavi Gupta tried to orchestrate a crowd in the midst of an impromptu tour in his booth, somewhat overwhelmed as he beckoned two assistants on standby.
Nearly half of the participants from last year were gone, replaced by new heavyweights such as Pearl Lam. Chicago galleries like Western Exhibitions, Volume Gallery, Regards, and Aspect/Ratio that had opted out of prior iterations joined in this year, along with the newly opened Patron. Veterans and arrivistes alike were hung salon style at the exceptional booth shared by Chicago’s Corbett vs. Dempsey and the New York–based David Nolan, but overall patterns remained the same: New York still had the strongest representation, young galleries had a section to themselves, the city’s educational institutions had their own area, selected artist projects were dotted throughout the maze, and prominent dealers were mostly clustered around the entrance. Except perhaps for Wendi Norris, who was, as she put it, “gentrifying the neighborhood” of secondary market dealers.
Daniel Buren was taking over the fair. Eighteen of his blue, orange, and pink Plexiglas panels were suspended from a clearing at the center. A blue-and-white striped piece stood by the discussion hall where the artist gave a hefty talk that weekend, and signature works occupied walls at White Cube and Bortolami Gallery. His cascading sheets served as a compass: I used them to find my way back to Koenig & Clinton to see Ulrich Rückriem’s quiet floor sculptures and CRG Gallery for Tom LaDuke’s mysterious paintings. Other highlights included Haroon Mirza’s work at Lisson Gallery, Solar Symphony – Sunlight Infinato, comprising solar panels with blinking lights and a vivid buzzing sound. Among Galerie Thomas Schulte’s well-considered selection, Idris Khan’s photos of repetition and erasure stood out. Deana Lawson at Rhona Hoffman as well as Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys’s stuffed figures at Isabella Bortolozzi offered compelling contemporary takes on portraiture. Final mention: David Rueter and Marissa Lee Benedict’s Dark Fiber at Chicago Artists’ Coalition, a somewhat frightening video of a cable being laid across seas, deserts, and snow. The weirdest experience? Sitting on a furry stool by the Haas Brothers at R & Company and being urged to “feel its balls.”
This year, Karman invited twenty-odd curators from the Midwest and elsewhere in the US, from institutions as varied as the Whitney and the Columbus Museum of Art, all of whom brought along their boards. Karman pulled in star power too. Hans Ulrich Obrist made an appearance at a heartwarming panel featuring Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, and Karl Wirsum from the Hairy Who. Meanwhile, Chicago’s institutions were taking EXPO week very seriously. The cliché we heard echoed about the city’s “collaborative spirit” was indeed true, but perhaps it was a little too much for any diligent viewer.
Everyone put their best face forward, installing new shows for the incoming crowd. The School of the Art Institute, which was celebrating its 150th anniversary, had multiple exhibitions opening over the weekend at its Sullivan galleries. Faculty member Matt Siber put up photographs of the undersides of billboards at DePaul Art Museum, while professors Seth Kim-Cohen and Laura Davis took over Threewalls. With a new architecture biennial opening in October, architectural form took center stage in Barbara Kasten’s show at the august Graham Foundation and artist Katarina Burin’s presentation of the work of Petra Andrejova-Molnár, curated by Jacob Proctor for the Neubauer Collegium. Meanwhile the Renaissance Society celebrated its one-hundredth anniversary with Irena Haiduk’s creepy mannequins and sound piece on the complicated desire around revolution.
Galleries were open late on Friday for Art After Hours, among them Kavi Gupta, who was showing Jessica Stockholder’s scattered sculptures—a piano on the ground here, a fridge on the wall there. One of the more “sensational events of 2015” took place that night at a gala at the Art Institute—tickets priced at $350 and $1000—to celebrate a retrospective of British architect David Adjaye, anticipating commissions from the likes of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Okwui Enwezor and Thelma Golden and artists Chris Ofili and Lorna Simpson were flown in for the occasion.
But if there was one place to be that weekend it was Rebuild Foundation and Theaster Gates’s opening benefit at the Stony Island Arts Bank. US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker was joined by collectors Eric and Liz Lefkofsky, Adjaye, Enwezor, Ofili, and Simpson—a testament to Gates’s pull. Whether one is a champion or a critic, the extraordinary impact of Gates’s efforts must be acknowledged. Here we were in one of Chicago’s most neglected neighborhoods in a neoclassical building that had been abandoned for three decades, and which Gates has revamped entirely in the hope that it will be an exhibition space, house music venue, or “a nursery, or a soup kitchen,” as needed. As Gates spoke about his vision—first in a British accent, then in an American one—his volume gathered strength. “Amazing things can happen in the black community!” he said, finally shouting, “All these people on the South Side!”
Left: Anita Blanchard (second from left), Martin Nesbitt, US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, and Bryan Traubert (far right). Right: Artist Theaster Gates.
FORGET YOUR GETAWAY SPEEDBOAT. For the latest in stunt curating, it’s hard to top Massimiliano Gioni: The curator missed the official August 25 opening of “The Great Mother,” his sweeping exploration of maternity and its discontents, to be present for the birth of his first child. So did pregnancy inspire the exhibition or the other way around? “I can’t answer that in front of the press!” Gioni laughed. “Let’s just say the show was talismanic.”
As a gesture of goodwill, exhibition organizers Fondazione Nicola Trussardi decided to kick off the season last Tuesday with a delayed celebration dinner in the fabled Hall of Caryatids at Milan’s Palazzo Reale, the former seat of government which now functions as an upscale exhibition venue. Together with his longtime collaborator Roberta Tenconi, Gioni has filled twenty-nine rooms of the palace with works by 127 artists, building an impressively cohesive case for thinking gender politics through the lens of childbearing. Objects ranged from an old photograph of Sigmund Freud with his mother to suffragist propaganda to an image of Sophia Loren in her Oscar-winning turn in the 1960s classic Two Women to a Roman Ondák performance that each day invited a new young mother to attempt to teach her one-year-old child to walk within the exhibition space. “I didn’t know there was a performance,” curator Daniel Birnbaum confessed. “So I just found myself wondering why this baby would want to play by a Thomas Schütte sculpture.”
The exhibition is less a doting portrait of the mamma italiana and more a history of the struggle for control over women’s bodies. Through a rollicking mix of perspectives—from committed misogynists and the women who love them to radical feminists and their analysts—Gioni links modern gender politics to the systematic attempt to make the most natural (and possibly most human) of processes, childbirth, seem monstrous or alien. The perceived threat of female sexuality factors as a kind of double-edged sword where art history is concerned. Figures like Emmy Hennings, Mina Loy, Maria “Nusch” Éluard, or Dora Maar have been popularly demoted to the ranks of lovers or muses for sleeping with their colleagues, while those gender-bending artists who bucked heteronormative stereotypes—Enif Roberts, Claude Cahun, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and Toyen among them—have nearly slipped from the books altogether. Their legacies are reclaimed in the seventy-page work-by-work exhibition guide, which itself is a complement to the four-hundred-page exhibition catalogue featuring essays by Gioni, Whitney Chadwick, Calvin Tomkins, and Marco Belpoliti. “He’s definitely done his homework,” curator Ann-Sofi Noring said admiringly of Gioni.
For all its focus on the female body, “The Great Mother” ultimately argues for an understanding of gender as a spectrum. Still, after spending the better part of the afternoon at the Palazzo, I caught myself taking note of the testosterone of the roster at Fondazione Carriero, where curator Francesco Stocchi had produced a tightly wound exhibition of Gianni Colombo and Davide Balula that then exploded into the numeric confetti of a new suite of Giorgio Griffa’s Canone aureo paintings. “It’s about the perfect number, the golden ratio,” director Olimpia Piccolomini explained as I scanned the trail of pastel digits.
Returning to Palazzo Reale for the Trussardi’s cocktail dinner, I bumped into the radiant Frieze Art Fair director Victoria Siddall, getting photographed on the grand stairwell. “Is it gauche to show up to this thing pregnant?” she joked, revealing that she is due in February. Inside the exhibition space, we were immediately greeted by Gioni, who was reminiscing with Harald Szeemann’s widow and daughter, artists Ingeborg Lüscher and Una Szeemann. The pair had loaned the show its Harrow, a nightmarish bunk-bed death trap that Franz Kafka invented for a 1914 short story. The esteemed older curator had had this real-life version fabricated for “The Bachelor Machines,” the 1975 exhibition that haunts “The Great Mother” like an old flame—not so much the one that got away as the one that gave you all those trust issues. In the Palazzo Reale, the ghastly Harrow is flanked by Francis Picabia sketches and illustrations from Margaret Sanger’s 1913 birth control manual. (After accepting a spark plug as a young américaine, it’s hard not to look at a drawing of an early cervical cap and see an ice cube wearing a bowler hat.) In another hall, the miniature Roman Forum figurines of a permanently installed Giacomo Raffaelli centerpiece faced off against the riot police of Suzanne Santoro’s vagina drawings.
“Given the subject matter, the exhibition is much darker than I expected,” Siddall marveled. “But I have to say, I found the Nari Ward installation of old strollers really moving.” Gioni eyed her barely visible belly: “If I remember correctly, at this stage everything is moving. You find a soccer game moving.”
Dinner was held in the magnificent, half-restored ballroom hidden behind French doors off the azure blue room of Louise Bourgeois sculptures. The massive space was manned by its namesake caryatids, many of whom were missing torsos, heads, and limbs after an English air raid in 1943. “This is the room where Picasso famously showed Guernica,” Gioni told us. “It was actually one of Picasso’s stipulations that they leave the room in this bombed-out condition so as to preserve the memory of war.”
As if the atmosphere weren’t decadent enough, the room was bathed in a magenta-hued light, which temporarily imbued everyone with that rapturous maternal glow. Siddall traded notes with MiArt director Vincenzo de Bellis, while Birnbaum chatted with curator Francesco Bonami by the bar, not far from where MAXXI president Giovanna Melandri was holding court in a cluster of couches. Several Trussardis were in attendance, surrounded by a particularly striking group of (I’m told) television personalities and fashion icons. With my gelato-level Italian, I thought it best to stick to international guests, inserting myself into a conversation with artists Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg, who were opening a solo show at Gió Marconi the following night. I told them how I had started my morning inside Djurberg’s Potato at the Fondazione Prada, and how, when I reached the room in the Palazzo Reale gallery screening the 2008 Claymation It’s the Mother, the guard was visibly agonized by the gruesome depiction of five ghoulish children forcing their way back into their anguished mother. Djurberg sympathized.
By this point, the handsome wait staff were circulating desserts, a reminder that I had missed the entrees. Luckily, dealer Andrew Hamilton had cajoled artists Nicolas Party and Dianna Molzan—in town for their shows at Kaufmann Repetto—to hold us a table at Nuova Arena, a beloved café willing to serve after hours. What could be more nourishing than that?
EVERY SEASON PROMISES the discovery of what’s new. But what can be new in art today? We seem to be in a holding pattern. The new bubbles up from what we missed before, or it introduces the unfamiliar. Both were visible in New York last week, when the fall season opened in a sweat.
That was partly due to an unseasonable heat wave. The calendar made a contribution too, when Labor Day arrived a week later than usual. Instead of a gradual climb to peak form, well over a hundred galleries opened at the same time as Fashion Week, in the middle of the US Open. As if this convergence weren’t feverish enough, the Museum of Modern Art blew its lid off with “Picasso Sculpture.” By 9/11, a day most dealers consider off-limits to the market, it was more apparent than ever that New York has more places for more kinds of art than any other city in the world.
Here’s a sketch of what I can recall from an intense (and pleasurable) seventy-two hours with the resuscitated, reimagined, or reemergent forces that combined with the unfamiliar to welcome the new.
On Tuesday, the 8th—the thirtieth anniversary of Ana Mendieta’s still suspicious death—dealer Mary Sabbatino hosted a memorial tribute to the artist at Galerie Lelong. Raquel Cecilia, the artist’s niece, screened a touching eight-minute documentary for at least one of her aunt’s former lovers (Hans Breder) and a number of loyal friends (Carolee Schneemann, Ruby Rich, Dottie Attie), just as Joan Jonas, art attorney John Silberman, and Helen Tworkov spilled out of the fresh bump that dealer Alexander Gray is giving the late Jack Tworkov, whose estate he now represents.
Meanwhile, Jeffrey Deitch marked his official return to Grand Street with such selflessness that he wasn’t even present to distract from the opening of “Cameron: Cinderella of the Wastelands,” a show of witchy drawings and collages that recalled the dealer’s fractious tenure as director of MoCA in Los Angeles, where he first presented some of this material. Attendance was weirdly sparse.
Farther east, another small group was gathering at Marc Straus for a panel on the notorious Viennese Actionist Hermann Nitsch. He is a large man with a long white beard. Dressed in a three-piece black suit, a black straw hat pulled low over his mischievous eyes, he sat in the front row surrounded by spattered paintings from past and recent performances. “There’s more upstairs,” he said.
Outside, artist Matt Mullican and his wife, the curator Valerie Smith, had a spontaneous sidewalk conference with dealer Janice Guy about the difficulties of nailing an Uber during Fashion Week, before heading up to Nathalie Karg a few doors away. There, the seventy-something potter Wayne Ngan was having his first show in New York, organized by the Vancouver-based curator and former dealer Lee Plested in tandem with new works by John Riepenhoff, the artist-dealer from Milwaukee. Up a white ladder and through a hole at the bottom of a white box bolted near the ceiling one could spy another exhibition—of drawings by one Gordon Payne, an untrained artist that Riepenhoff discovered while making his plein air paintings of the night sky above Ngan’s studio on Hornby Island in British Columbia. “This is the smallest gallery I could make,” he said of the latest in a series of “John Riepenhoff Experiences.” If nothing else, it’s intimate, all right.
Newness showed up on Wednesday morning with Adrián Villar Rojas’s quiet—very quiet—and site-specific, daytime solo debut with Marian Goodman Gallery. The show’s title, “Two Suns,” refers to the double spots of daylight streaming through parted, sound-absorbent, silvery gray blackout curtains blanketing every wall and window, rendering the otherwise unlighted gallery’s infrastructure (including its offices, personnel, and reception desks) invisible. A man delivering flowers was completely disoriented in the dim hush. “Hello? Hello?” he called out. “Anyone here?”
Throughout the long gallery, the Argentinean artist had also installed a new floor of handmade concrete tiles that he embedded with cigarette butts, an iPod, feathers, peach pits, coins, burnt wood, and other detritus from what he said was “typical of an Argentine barbecue.” Awaiting intruders at the gallery’s southern end was Michelangelo’s David, which Villar Rojas has re-created to scale in cracked, raw clay. Only his “David” is a sleeping giant with erect nipples, its enormous body resting uncomfortably, one leg atop the other to hide its privates, on low plinths supporting only head and knees. “I wanted it to be deformed,” Villar Rojas said. If felt like a mortuary in there, or a secret chamber for witnessing the death of classicism in the womb of its rebirth. I liked it.
From there, wandering uptown past Alicja Kwade’s towering clock with an unstable face—a project for Public Art Fund—I knocked at Michael Werner for a peek at Gianni Piacentino’s first show there. Piacentino was the youngest in Germano Celant’s original group of Arte Povera artists, and also the first to split. “I hear he can be difficult,” dealer Gordon VeneKlasen confided. Perhaps that’s because he disdains fabrication. “I make everything myself, by hand,” he said when he arrived with Andrea Bellini, director of the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva and chief instigator of Piacentino’s revival. In fact, the artist was positively jocular.
After that pleasant diversion, and another with the elegant historical matchmaking at Dominique Lévy that brought together Gego and Senga Nengudi, I came to Blum & Poe’s New York outpost, thinking I knew what I would see in “The Avant-Garde Won’t Give Up: Cobra and Its Legacy.” Not even close.
On three floors was a group show of hardly new but quite surprising work by artists associated with these postwar AbExers from Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam (hence Cobra), who are little-known here. “I’ve been obsessed with them for ages,” Alison Gingeras, the show’s curator, told me during a dinner at Alsace that evening attended by about fifty people, including the daughters of the late Cobra artist Shinkichi Tajiri (a Japanese American who settled in Amsterdam), NSU Museum director Bonnie Clearwater, and Julian Schnabel. “I feel like I crashed a party,” dealer Jeff Poe said during his toast to “magical thinking.” The show really should have been in a museum, he said. “But this is how things go now.”
I was surprised that Schnabel had not been at MoMA, where I touched down after flying through a few Lower East Side galleries, including Jackie Saccocio’s romantic abstractions at Eleven Rivington, Nari Ward’s homage to copper at Lehmann Maupin, and Takura Kuwata’s “crazy cake” ceramic sculptures at Salon 94 Freeman’s.
“I think it’s good to shake things up now and then,” the Whitney Museum’s Donna De Salvo was saying, as I hit the Picasso show at MoMA. She must be right. Not only does the show affect prevailing perceptions of the artist—for the better—but it actually changes one’s experience of the museum itself. Curators Ann Temkin and Anne Umland took a radical step by removing the permanent collection works normally installed on the museum’s fourth floor and replacing them with a solo show of 140 sculptures that Picasso made for fun, not profit. (Imagine.)
Their scale fits each of the dozen galleries like the proverbial glove. One work is a small metal hobbyhorse that Picasso made for his grandson, Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, a small boy at the time. He loaned it to MoMA. “In the catalogue, there’s a picture of me riding it,” he said with a grin. Diana Picasso was also spieling personal anecdotes about one work or another. Jeff Koons, who looked closely at everything, loved the show’s clarity. To him, the work felt liberating. “I know it sounds trite,” the beaming Temkin said, “but it was really an honor to do this show.”
Upstairs, on six, was “Transmissions: Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America, 1960–1980,” a collection show organized over the past five years by Stuart Comer, Roxana Marcoci, and Christian Rattemeyer. Nearly all the works had been in MoMA’s storage till now, even though half of them came into the collection when they were new. It’s a big show, a little messy, as contemporary art is wont to be, and hard to absorb after so substantial an experience as “Picasso Sculpture.” “I think it’s fantastic,” said writer Lynne Tillman, who started the evening there. “People don’t know or understand what we did,” observed the Argentinean radical Marta Minujín, one of several artists in the show—David Lamelas was another—who came for the opening.
Thursday brought a deluge to Chelsea, in more ways than one. After weeks of clear skies, the heavens opened and it rained, rained, rained. After the summer hiatus, the fifty or more openings clogged the streets with people and umbrellas. It was hard to get around—but worth it! The installation of Ron Nagle’s exquisite ceramic sculptures at Matthew Marks was breathtaking. “I’ve wanted this my whole life!” the artist exclaimed.
Dana Schutz was happy with her new paintings at Friedrich Petzel. Will Ryman was happy with his elemental new sculptures at Paul Kasmin. Christian Marclay was happy with the installation of his silent, dizzying, film installation at Paula Cooper. (“It’s a musical composition is what it is,” he said.) Josiah McElheny was happy with his Hilma af Klint– and Maya Deren–inspired show at Andrea Rosen, who was happy to meet Scott Rothkopf’s new flame, Go Set a Watchman publisher Jonathan Burnham.
There simply wasn’t time to take in everything. At Tanya Bonakdar there wasn’t even room, so long was the line to get into Sarah Sze’s new exhibition, made on site over the past several weeks and including a sound piece, an elegiac video of a bird in flight, and an uncanny waterfall of white paint that hung from the ceiling like frozen rain.
Dinner for Sze at the Hotel Americano went late and brought out quite an extended family: Sofia Coppola, John Currin and Rachel Feinstein, the Burning Man–obsessed Yvonne Force and Leo Villareal, Jenna Lyons and Courtney Crangi—friends from school, Sze said, though she wasn’t talking about art school but the one their children all attend.
Chelsea also felt like a family estate on Thursday afternoon, when I returned to catch up on shows I’d missed the night before, like Mike Kelley (at Hauser & Wirth) and the Flavin/Matta-Clark combo at David Zwirner. Wolfgang Tillmans, Clarissa Dalrymple, Christopher Williams, and Ann Goldstein all had the same idea, now that the weather was brilliant and the sidewalks were empty. I found Liz Glynn standing in Paula Cooper’s display-window gallery with her show of anguished, black clay masks derived from a very ancient source, Aristotle. “It’s the other side of the argument,” she said. “Pathos.”
IT’S EARLY MORNING in Istanbul and from the upper deck of a small pleasure boat I’m watching the sun pop over the hills, an improbably pink orb playing hide and seek with the clouds and fog. There are thirty of us here wiping the sleep from our eyes as we chug north on the Bosphorus, heading for the Black Sea. We’ve only just discovered our destination. The boat is strewn with microphones, musical instruments, two dozen glass teacups, a well-read copy of an Elif Şafak novel, and a cigarette long abandoned in its ashtray, burning away. No one seems to know what comes next.
The occasion for this four-hour boat trip unfolding at the crack of dawn on Friday is The Anthem of Mu, Theaster Gates’s mesmerizing contribution to the Fourteenth Istanbul Biennial, which opened on Saturday and runs through November 1. His work also fills two floors of a shop on Boğazkesen Street, in Beyoğlu, where some days earlier I found a slide show of patterns, some hopeful pottery, and a great Freddie King record spinning on a Technics turntable.
Boğazkesen, I learn, means “cutthroat” as well as “a cut to the Bosphorus,” and the street really does cut down a steep hill to the strait, which splits Istanbul and divides Europe from Asia. That wide body of water, cinematic at every moment, is the unlikely hinge of this biennial, an exhibition in thirty-six parts organized by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and titled “Saltwater: A Theory of Thought-Forms.” It is unlikely but also obvious—as the defining feature of Istanbul—and moreover effective in restoring the spirit of any visitor to the biennial exhausted by trying to match Christov-Bakargiev’s will and see everything. (Even if you cut the fat from the list of participants, there are still close to a hundred artists with substantial works on view.)
Two musicians climb up from the boat’s lower deck: the mustachioed Burhan Öçal with a Turkish darbuka, and Cory Wilkes in dark shades, torn denim, and a trumpet. They begin to play. Gates joins them, sings a song of love and longing, and settles into storytelling mode. His niece asks her grandfather one day to tell her where he’s from. “Silver City, Mississippi,” he says. She comes back to him skeptical. Where’s that? she asks. Her grandfather tells of how the Army Corps of Engineers built a dam that flooded the land. “Now Silver City is underwater,” Gates growls. “Silver City is Mu…. Mu is the place you can’t see. Mu is the place you can’t go to…. Mu is the place you can never see…. And so I am searching for Mu.”
Our boat rounds a corner and we see the Black Sea. Above us loom the two arms of the controversial third bridge over the Bosphorus, under construction on either side. The closer we get to the bridge the more fraught the performance becomes. Wilkes lurches erratically, thrusting his trumpet to the cardinal points of a scrambled compass. Gates grabs hold of his torso to keep him from falling overboard. A dance of struggle, protection, and paternal love rises and subsides. The boat turns, the engine stalls, and we head back to the accompaniment of Gates’s singing. Öçal and Wilkes play off the edges of the boat, mournful-sounding, an elegy for all that’s been lost at sea.
Left: Artists Theaster Gates, Liam Gillick, and Adrián Villar Rojas. Right: Artist Banu Cennetoglu.
The Istanbul Biennial has been around for nearly thirty years now. It has weathered economic collapse (1994), a devastating earthquake (1999), and unending demonstrations against its sponsors and funders (Koç Holding and the Eczacıbaşı family). The last edition opened within four months of massive antigovernment protests in Gezi Park. At the time, it seemed like everything was at stake. Now, the wider political situation is as urgent, more distressing, and even more complex. Turkey is uncomfortably embroiled in the Syrian civil war. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, three times prime minister and currently president, reacted badly to his party losing ground to a coalition of Kurds and leftists in the last elections. Since then, under the guise of bombing ISIS, he has resumed Turkey’s war with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). He also called for snap elections. Allegations of corruption and rumors of a coup abound. Crackdowns on dissenters, rivals, and power brokers outside Erdoğan’s fold are frequent. Moreover, there are now millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey. One can hear the accented Arabic of Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo everywhere. That’s a minor aural enrichment in the life of the city. Corresponding to it, however, is a major humanitarian disaster, the great travesty of our time, which is now plain for all to see—in the torrent of stories about the migrant crisis in Europe and the single, searing image of a three-year-old boy named Aylan Kurdi, whose tiny lifeless body washed up on a beach in Bodrum last week.
Bleak, I know, but this is the world we live in, a fact that hit me hard as I arrived in Istanbul. On Monday, Mari Spirito’s itinerant young institution Protocinema opened a show in Karaköy for the Moroccan artist Latifa Echakhch, juxtaposing a joyous video of teenage boys jumping into the sea with a ruminative daily performance, for which another teenage boy uses a large Chinese calligraphy brush to write in water on the floor. The lines of text, destined to disappear quickly as they dry, are taken from the letters of young men writing to their mothers (and occasionally their fathers) to say goodbye and explain their joining ISIS in Syria, where they’ll face no shortage of depravity and an all but certain death.
On Tuesday, I was stuck in traffic, winding toward the Marmara Pera Hotel, when I saw Banu Cennetoğlu’s The List for the first time. Up on the hotel’s roof is an old LED screen hosting the public art program YAMA, which the curator Övül Durmuşoğlu just recently revived. Her first installment is the latest iteration of a project Cennetoğlu has been working on for ten years—a list of all the migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers who have died within or on Europe’s borders since 1993, documenting the name, age, sex, country of origin, and cause of death in each case. Earlier versions were circulated on billboards, posters, and newspapers. From now through September 26, The List is flashing on the YAMA screen from sunset to sunrise, one word in Arial font at a time, until the four-hundred-plus-page document is done and the screen goes dark.
A formidable strength of Christov-Bakargiev’s biennial is that in real, no-bullshitting terms, it puts these awful events of our age in historical perspective, delving into past experiences of exodus and exile to see what art has done (and can do) with the wreckage of tragedy and trauma. At a press conference on Wednesday morning, as the assembled masses were sweating it out on the playground of a neoclassical Italian high school, journalists asked if her emphasis on the Armenian genocide had elicited state censorship (the short answer was no) and what her thoughts were on the plan (hatched by Pelin Tan, Anton Vidokle, and Artıkişler Kolektifi) for the biennial’s artists to suspend their participation for fifteen minutes to protest the Turkish government’s actions against the Kurds and demand a return to the peace process.
“Being a feminist,” she began, “politics starts with the body, how we eat, how we sit, how we make love. Politics is everything. It’s not just an action or a gesture. If the artists want to do this, then it’s fine by me.” She paused. “But if you’re asking me if it’s going to have any effect on the Machiavellian deals going on, that’s another question. I’m a skeptic.”
If this makes the preview days sound like a dire political congress, then rest assured, the atmosphere was jovial and festive, with the usual dinners and parties and jarring contrasts between the lives artists lead, the works they do, and the moneyed patrons who are more and more called upon to boost the budgets of biennials everywhere. On Wednesday night, the opening cocktail at Istanbul Modern was a bit rowdy for me, the afterparty on the roof of the gallery-packed Misr apartment building highly unlikely—but I was thoroughly charmed to discover that people still drink and smoke and dance as if they might die the next day.
Left: Curator Emre Baykal with artist Füsun Onur. Right: Artists Francis Al˙s and Kristina Buch.
The next day, still alive, I joined hundreds of others—artists, collectors, curators, museum staff, friends, and a few rumpled members of the press—on a field trip to the island of Büyükada. I avoided, if only just, being run over by the ingénues of MoMA PS1’s patronage set, who were joyriding around the carless isle on a rickety horse-drawn buggy. Some time later I nearly bulldozed through Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s director, who, with rather less of an entourage, was stepping sprightly down the perilous dirt path from the ruins of Leon Trotsky’s island exile home to Adrián Villar Rojas’s wow-inducing installation of crossbred sea monsters on the beach below.
What might have been the highlight of my day, a conversation between the Nobel Prize–winning novelist Orhan Pamuk and the artist William Kentridge, was basically a bust, so I took a break. And throughout those days of dragging my sorry five-months-pregnant self up and down and all around Istanbul in the stultifying heat, I did often wonder if that had been Christov-Bakargiev’s point, to break us and force our revolt. She said nearly as much in a lovely conversation with the elfin septuagenarian artist Füsun Onur, whose performance for the biennial is a whitewashed fishing boat, mounted with a sound system, slowly tooling up and down the Bosphorus while blasting out a poem. In the Q&A that followed, people kept asking Onur, Christov-Bakargiev, and Hans Ulrich Obrist (of course) how it worked, where to find it. “If you just slow down and sit on the roof of Istanbul Modern and have a coffee and sit for an hour,” Christov-Bakargiev said, “it’ll pass and you’ll see it.”
The indefatigable Anna Boghiguian, who lives in Cairo and has filled the ground floor of the old Greek primary school in Galata with a sprawling installation of sails and honeycombs, gave me one such occasion to slow down, stopping me on Boğazkesen Street for a chat about the troubles in our region. ISIS had just destroyed Palmyra’s Temple of Bel, a two-thousand-year-old treasure. “I think they want to destroy all the temples, all signs of paganism and pagan worship,” Boghiguian told me. “This is ignorance at its fullest.”
A haunting performance by Haig Aivazian gave me another moment of respite, as eight members of an all-male Armenian church choir slowly climbed the stairs of the Greek school, singing an ethereal folk song, originally sung in Turkish by Armenian women lamenting the loss of their men who had gone to Istanbul for work. A few hours after The Anthem of Mu, Michael Rakowitz allowed me one last pause when I pulled him aside for a lightning-quick lunch to hear about The Flesh Is Yours, The Bones Are Ours, his impressive three-room installation of plaster casts, rubbings, and retro vitrines telling the story of Armenian artisans through their apprentices. Given how polished the work appears, I was shocked to hear that the whole thing had fallen apart five weeks earlier, when Rakowitz’s main character balked. All of the work was made in the last three weeks, a period of production so intense that at one point he begged Christov-Bakargiev to let him go. She said no, urged him on. Having worked with her for fifteen years now, he swears by her style of tough love.
Left: Artist Anna Boghuigian. Right: Artist Asli Çavusoglu with curators Defne Ayas and Ceren Erdem.
I’ll leave it to the sounder methodology of art historians to suss out exactly what’s going in the exhibition with patterns, decorations, and motifs —and with Art Nouveau, theosophy, and science (loved those early images of the northern lights). For me, the forms that resonated, gave the show its emotional oomph, the preview days their experiential heft, and reached out to other projects and the wider world were those that are most widely shared—the love songs, the letters, the lists.
When I spoke to Christov-Bakargiev in July, she told me that when she decided to divide the biennial into so many small parts, she was thinking of Edward Snowden holed up in his Hong Kong hotel room. “I wanted to get beyond the complaints of there being no public space,” she said, “to consider the use of private space and the agency of a public act.” I thought about that again as I looked up to see The List before leaving. Not for the first time all week I wondered: What will we do? Who will use these moments of solitude—so essential to our travels—to do something brave? At a time when we are losing so much, real places like Palmyra, will we ever recover the lost promise of Mu?
“I’M PRETTY SURE I blew most of my production budget on figs,” artist Asad Raza announced last Thursday evening. We were sitting at a table-lined terrace outside Ljubljana’s International Centre of Graphic Arts (MGLC) nestled in Tivoli Park, a lush garden designed by the city’s premier architect, Jože Plečnik. Raza hoisted two heaping baskets of fruit toward my tablemates artist Lili Reynaud-Dewar, curator Tenzing Barshee, and dealer Emanuel Leyr, who each dutifully took a fig.
If Raza seemed at home, it might have been because he had spent the past few months living off and on in the institution’s attic while developing a makeshift school for the Thirty-First Biennial of Graphic Arts, set to open to the public the following night. “I wanted to mark the opening in a more relaxed way,” he explained as his students busied themselves grilling ćevapi (Balkan kebab) or spooning out thick slices of fresh tomatoes bought that morning at the market. In the distance, the lanterns down Jakopič Promenade flickered on and off for another of Raza’s interventions, There is no east or west. The lights sent shadows dancing across a neighboring biennial commission, the 120 posters constituting Will Benedict’s Bad Weather, which alternated portraits of environmental activists with collaged images like the one branded “mutacija,” picturing an angry shark about to let loose on a cronut, or another centering on a pregnant nude, her genitals stamped with the word “CLIFI.” “It started off being about landscapes and bad weather,” biennial curator Nicola Lees told me earlier. “But then it just morphed into this whole other body of work that was more about climate change and other kinds of environmental disturbances.” The teenage couple pawing at each other under the CLIFI poster seemed fine either way.
The history of the Ljubljana Biennial is one of happy accidents, quite literally. In 1963, just a year into his experiments with printmaking, Robert Rauschenberg famously cracked his lithographic stone and resolved to press on with the broken fragments anyway. The resulting print—Accident—is not only now considered one of the artist’s most iconic works, but it took home top honors at what was then known as the Ljubljana International Graphic Exhibition, where it heralded the changing of the guard from École de Paris to Modernism with an American accent.
This year, Accident was drafted as the unofficial mascot of the biennial as it attempts another sea change, expanding its understanding of a mode of image-making widely seen as on the decline, if not already largely confined to art-fair closets and collector bathrooms. Founded in 1955—the same year as Documenta—the biennial once commanded the world’s attention as a stage where West met not only East but also nonaligned countries like Indonesia, the former United Arab Republic, and Colombia, which had a rousing graphics biennial of its own. Originally conceived as a showcase for modernist trends, the biennial historically allowed only prints in the most traditional sense, with less restriction on the numbers. (The 1981 edition wielded a staggering 1,545 works by 574 artists.) While its earliest incarnations were rooted in the city’s Moderna Galerija, in 1986 the biennial’s charismatic founder and director at the time, Zoran Kržišnik, sweet-talked city officials into letting him set up shop in Tivoli Park’s municipally owned castle.
Now in its sixtieth year, the biennial has to contend with a twofold provincialism, stemming not only from its focus on graphics but also from its setting. No longer a foothold, Ljubljana has come into its own as a ledge unto itself, but in doing so it’s taken the edge off its relevance as a political backdrop. In art circles it still may be best known as the home of Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK), whose career retrospective at the Moderna Galerija this spring got a fraction of the ink spilled over the North Korean concert delivered in August by some of its members, the band Laibach, which revives the city’s name under German occupation. These days it’s tough to reconcile the dirty-blade extremism of the former Yugoslav art scene with Ljubljana’s current mix of clean-scrubbed Vienna Secession and Baroque buildings, unless, of course, you start to think about how that architecture got there. For the most part, the sleepy little city is all postcard-ready quaintness, punctuated with Plečnik’s signature benches, copious bike parking, and posters for Straight Outta Compton.
This year’s biennial title—“Over You / You,” an inscription borrowed from a corner of a Martin Kippenberger print—plays up these contradictions. “It’s like an unsolved equation,” mused Lees, who recruited cocurators Stella Bottai and Laura McLean-Ferris to develop her tight roster of forty artists, ranging from Braco Dimitrijević and Karpo Godina to Gabriel Kuri, Akram Zaatari, and Oscar Murillo. As evident in Raza’s projects, the biennial expands its definition of graphic art by emphasizing print’s repetition and distribution, as well as the potential social or political applications of serial images. The exhibition mingles more traditional prints like Ellen Cantor’s 1997 love story gone awry Mickie and Minnie Suck" nofollow="nofollow">Minnie Suck, Andrea Büttner’s new woodcuts, and Peter Gidal’s artist’s books, with works like Nick Mauss and Ken Okiishi’s collaborative installation Depuis (back to Tokyo), which sent mannequins Roomba-ing around a hall covered with spoons and wooden eggs, a displaced echo of a delightfully confounding Tokyo storefront display.
Left: Galerija Kresija's Mateja Veble with artist Nina Koželj. Right: Biennial cocurator Laura McLean Ferris.
The biennial overflows into the Moderna Galerija, where earlier Thursday afternoon I had caught one of the first public performances of White on White, a collective of AVA art students handpicked by theater director David Gothard with additional input from NSK founder Miran Mohar. “They’ve created it. I’m just somehow a part of it,” Gothard insisted, before waxing poetic about the inspiration for the performance—a choreographed procession of futile actions—citing “Beckett and Camus, the Sisyphuses of our time.” “Or like in Star Wars,” artist Luka Savić piped up. “With the Death Star.” “Right,” Gothard replied, then continued to read aloud from Camus.
After the performance, the biennial hosted an informal luncheon at the Pen Club, an establishment straight out of Bulgakov, whose now deceased owner “Miki” had a mysterious talent for procuring fresh quality ingredients even in tough times, explaining the prominence of politicians in what was supposed to be a humble writers’ cafeteria. (“Don’t ask how many deals have been struck at these tables,” someone warned.) I grabbed a chair near Gothard, artist Stewart Home, Manchester International Festival’s Phoebe Greenwood, and MGLC director Nevenka Šivavec. “The main problem here is that people are very nostalgic for a biennial that didn’t ever actually exist the way they remember,” Šivavec started to explain, before the critical mass of Brits at our end of the table diverted the conversation toward something called “rugger buggers” and Van Morrison’s love life.
After lunch, our group visited the National Library, another of Plečnik’s key contributions to the city. We were guided by Plečnik devotee Žiga Cervenik, who is currently working on a documentary about a little-known incident in 1944 when a German plane crashed into the reading room, destroying sixty thousand books. “They tried to keep it out of the papers at first, because it wasn’t clear if it was on purpose,” he told us as we pored over the few surviving photographs of the damage. Cervenik led us into the library’s inner sanctum, off limits to tourists but widely publicized as one of the world’s most beautiful reading rooms. “We’re very proud of it, even though we didn’t do anything but inherit it,” Cervenik grinned. Plečnik had designed the building as a temple, fit to hold two hundred thousand books at most the library collection now totals more than ten times that number. “We’ve been trying to build a new branch for years now, but libraries aren’t a priority in recession,” Cervenik said. “At least that’s what they tell you,” Greenwood fired back.
Left: Biennial artist Roman Uranjek with Raluca Soaita and dealer Andrei Breahna. Right: Biennial artist Ištvan Išt Huzjan.
Duly inspired, it was back to the MGLC for Azad’s barbecue. As the night wore on, the wine drained and the figs disappeared and a rowdy contingent headed to “the hipster bar,” which no one could really identify by name but which we were told we would know by its viljamovka, a potent pear brandy whose powers over one’s moral compass put tequila to shame. On our way we passed Galerija Kresija, where Warsaw-based artist Michał Woliński’s Bureau of Loose Associations had reconstituted a series of paintings by Luxus, a Wrocław collective from the 1980 and ’90s who found a compellingly ugly plastic cat and resolved to paint it over and over as a commentary on capitalism. Woliński supplemented their Cat with a Stupid Facial Expression paintings with two shrine-like glass boxes: One contained the original cat, while the other featured a 3-D replica printed from the paintings. Unfortunately, the two trinkets were hard to compare from outside the gallery. (When I went back to get a better look the next day, Kresija’s Mateja Veble greeted me with a laugh: “We were trying to make sense of all the smudges on the windows.”) By the time we made it to the—a?—bar, we pushed our way through the door. Reynaud-Dewar looked doubtful: “Are we sure this is the hipster bar?” A fellow patron overheard her and scoffed in confirmation.
The next morning things were off to a sleepy start, which was just as well, as the only official item on the agenda was the biennial’s grand opening. Making the most of the still relatively cool breezes, I grabbed a coffee with Vladimir Vidmar, director of Škuc Gallery, whose solo show of Becky Beasley is part of the biennial program. Founded in the “heroic era” of the late 1970s, Škuc is the oldest alternative art space in the city, with a long-standing alliance to Conceptualism. I quizzed Vidmar about the nostalgia Šivavec had mentioned. “Conservatives are always closer than you think,” he smiled. “But we’re safe as we’ve always focused on contemporary art. No one expects us to preserve the modern canon.”
With that in mind, I finished off the afternoon with a trip to Galerija Jakopič, where Giles Round’s exhibition plucked the very best works from the biennial archives, pairing would-be Vasarelys with actual Vasarelys, alongside a suite of sumptuous ’70s abstractions that would set the Simco Club’s hearts (or lack thereof?) racing. Round contributed his own print—an image of an Ed Ruscha slogan, “You know the old story,” overlaid with Round’s “I can’t tell you again!!!”—but it is precisely in Round’s telling it again that one sees the richness and versatility in graphic art, even when crammed within the archival framework. Suddenly, all that nostalgia seemed perfectly contemporary.
NOTE TO SELF: Always travel with snacks. Especially when trying to work your way through four private views a night, plus afterparties. But that’s festivals for you—even the popular Edinburgh Art Festival, which ran through August and which is now in its twelfth year. When “dinner” turns out to be bread rolls, your next day’s agenda of gallery and studio visits can seem a high mountain to climb. They were nice bread rolls—laid out on a table in the gorgeous Georgian surroundings of Edinburgh University’s Playfair Library Hall. The Playfair, one of the finest of its kind in Europe, is, disappointingly, named for the architect, William Playfair, and not because you’re not allowed to cheat at cards within its walls.
Still, generous quantities of wine and little soakage didn’t exactly seem to be playing fair at the Festival Dinner on opening night. Throw in a follow-up opening party at the Mash House and, I confess, the scheduled five-hour walk from Saint Anthony’s Ruined Chapel to Rosslyn Chapel as part of Anthony Schrag’s pedestrian tour was the first to suffer. I felt even more guilt as Schrag is walking all the way to the Venice Biennale, but with the trip set to take him one hundred days, it’s possible he maintains a healthier diet, and, as I’d already achieved Phyllida Barlow at Fruitmarket, Charles Avery at Ingleby, and Hanna Tuulikki’s performance at Fountain Close, I forgave myself.
Artist Emma Finn was at the Playfair with fellow artist, and costar of her festival film Double Mountain, Nicola Farr. Finn says that in her work the most ridiculous things are also the truest, “but I don’t always know if the stories are true when I start.” Farr played a scout leader: “It was quite intimidating as you have no eyes, but it was good fun. I also helped Tara Donovan glue her cups at Jupiter Artland,” she added. That’s the joy of festivals, people get around.
Also getting around were a delegation of curators and directors including Izabela Pucu from Rio de Janeiro, Daniela Ruiz Morena from Buenos Aires, Bose Krishnamachari of the Kochi Biennale, and Sylvie Fortin, artistic director of La Biennale de Montreal. Do they get competitive? “No, we get collaborative,” said Krishnamachari.
The commissions at this year’s festival are themed under “The Improbable City,” and Edinburgh certainly is improbable. Beautiful, but built into such layers and fold of hills that there’s always the risk that the street you want is underneath you. There’s art everywhere. Walking along George Street I met Neill and Alan Connell Forgie of the city’s newest arts venue, the Biscuit Factory, toasting Derek Anderson’s outdoor photographic installation. It’s not part of the official program, but that’s the way of all successful festivals: You quickly spawn a fringe.
Opening a week before the behemoth Edinburgh Fringe and International Arts Festivals, EAF is, in the words of director Sorcha Carey, all about “strange alchemy. These intense moments when we’re open to encountering the other, when we’re open to the strange and wonderful.” I kept that in mind at Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s performance, one of a series of commissioned events, The King Must Die.
Chetwynd’s husband, artist Jedrzej Cichosz, emerged from a room at the Old Royal High School dressed as a strange sort of pagan fish. “I must tie you up. You can’t go in unless you’re tied up. It will be uncomfortable and annoying,” he said. “You are now our slaves.” What a perfect summation of so much performance art, I thought; but as Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art director Simon Groom, dealer Richard Ingleby, and Faith Liddell, director of Festivals Edinburgh, had all gone through it, I submitted.
We were led under black plastic sheeting as trippy ’60s music played. If it seemed at times like a school play, I realized that maybe that was the last time I wasn’t cynical. More submission—and then it began to work its magic. We shuffled though a tunnel of licking, leering faces and into a womb-like red room with incense and an incantation involving a severed penis of the gods. This was followed by a quick burst of “It’s Raining Men” and a game of musical statues, before we blundered out into the sunshine to race off to Jupiter Artland.
Brainchild of Bonnington House owners Nicky and Robert Wilson, Jupiter Artland is an extraordinary sculpture park, including large Earthworks by Charles Jencks (“It’s a rite of passage for art students to fall off the ones at the Scottish National Gallery,” said Finn); an amethyst cave by Anya Gallaccio; a fabulous monster shotgun by Cornelia Parker; plus all you’d expect from Anish Kapoor, Antony Gormley, and Andy Goldsworthy.
Sara Barker was there, having just put up one of the newest works, Separation in the Evening. “Of all the things I’ve done, this was the least painful to install,” she said, unruffled in the sunshine. Nicky Wilson was briefly more ruffled. “The wild boars escaped,” she told me. “But we’ve rounded them all up.”
Upstairs in the little Tin Roof Gallery, Glasgow International director Sarah McCrory was looking at Samara Scott’s Still Life with artist Pablo Bronstein. “No ball gown this time, Sarah?” asked Bronstein. “I didn’t want to upstage the carpet,” she replied, gesturing toward the installation. Bronstein is working on his commission for Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries, “though it’ll be hard to stick to the budget, filling it with performers for six months,” he mused. McCrory is a veteran of Chetwynd performances, having been in her Serpentine performance Delirious in 2006. “You find yourself doing these things. She builds communities. She’s the real deal.”
I ran into New York–based artist Tara Donovan on the steps of Bonnington House, where her Untitled (Plastic Cups) has been installed in the ballroom. “There are five or six hundred thousand cups. People assume I’m obsessed with numbers, but I’m not,” she said. “They crest at different heights in each install. I bought new ones after Brazil. Shipping them would have made them the most expensive cups in the world.” We consider that for a while, before going in to address ourselves to more cups, this time of delicious champagne, accompanied by a most fairly played restorative feast.