IT’S LATE ON A WARM FRIDAY EVENING and I’m wandering around a new addition to an old museum, feeling a bit like Alice in Wonderland. For all the years I’ve known it, the Sursock Museum has been a quaint but sleepy place to visit, housed in an ornate little palace on a quiet tree-lined street in one of Beirut’s wealthier, historically Greek Orthodox neighborhoods. Built at the end of the Ottoman Empire, the pile belonged to an aristocratic family whose patriarch, after the formation of the Lebanese state, donated the building to Beirut—on the condition that it become a museum after his death, which it did in 1961.
The museum stayed open, if not always active, throughout Lebanon’s fifteen years of civil war, which began in 1975, then closed for a major renovation in 2008. By that time, its glamour was threadbare, its ideas about art out of touch, its finances wrecked. Some artists began donating their works when the museum could no longer acquire anything. Others simply left behind the things they no longer wanted. The collection, which stands today at just under a thousand works, became eclectic at best. The fifteen-million-dollar upgrade and expansion dragged on for years.
In the meantime, a generation of upstart organizations such as Ashkal Alwan and the Arab Image Foundation took Beirut’s contemporary art scene to an entirely different place. In the absence of Sursock, plans for new museums were hatched, and always they seemed to fall apart before breaking ground. The projects on deck these days include an archaeological museum by Renzo Piano, which Solidere, the private real estate company in charge of the reconstruction of downtown Beirut, is building in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture, thanks to a thirty-million-dollar gift from the Kuwait Fund; a contemporary art center known as the House of Arts and Culture, which was jump-started a decade ago with a twenty-million-dollar gift from the Sultanate of Oman; Beit Beirut, a museum dedicated to the memory of the city, which is meant to open next March; and a museum of modern and contemporary art planned for a vast parking lot on the campus of the Jesuits’ Université Saint-Joseph, for which an international design competition was launched on October 1, open only to architects of Lebanese origin, a detail that seems off in its emphasis on static nationalism.
Then, suddenly, amid all of these fanciful plans, many of which are guaranteed never to materialize, Sursock roused itself from a long slumber. The museum hired a new director, poaching Zeina Arida from her seventeen-year perch at the Arab Image Foundation, as well as a director of exhibitions and public programs, Nora Razian from Tate Modern, and a head of collections and archives, Yasmine Chemali, who had been working on one of the most significant collections of photography in Lebanon, belonging to the family of Fouad Debbas.
The museum reopened on October 8 with four new exhibitions dedicated—albeit in very different ways—to Beirut. A fiercely loyal crowd of 3,500 people—including artists, socialites, politicians, and pop stars—turned out for the opening. Hundreds more have come for a symposium on the role of museums and a full slate of walking tours, workshops, and film programs, which, in the past three weeks, have been breathing real life into the place for the first time in decades.
“This is exactly what a public space should be,” Arida tells me, when I sit with her earlier in the week. “We are driven by a public mission, and we receive public funds, but we are run like a private institution,” she explains. “It’s super exciting that people are starting to trust the museum. And it’s important they see that Sursock has a role to play. Because we are witnessing big changes that are endangering the institutions that started in Beirut in the ’90s.”
There’s now five times as much space in the museum as before, much of it taken up by a cavernous, double-vaulted exhibition hall occupying two floors below ground. The renovation was necessary but the results are strange—which is why, on this particular evening, I feel like Alice eating the cake that makes me too big in the old parts of the building, and drinking the potion that makes me too small in the new.
Left: Aïshti CEO Tony Salamé. Right: Dealer Jonathan Viner with publicist Noreen Ahmad and Independent Curators International director Renaud Proch.
The rabbit hole I’ve tumbled into, however, is entirely different from anything else in the everyday life of Beirut. Huge white buses cram the narrow streets of the surrounding neighborhood. A crowd of overdressed art dealers, fashion people, publicists, and other hangers-on are milling around the museum. They have obviously come from far and are looking a little lost. I strain to understand why the owners and directors of seemingly every major gallery from Los Angles, Mexico City, New York, London, Paris, Milan, and Zurich have rushed into this small third-world city that is perpetually troubled and currently in the midst of a garbage crisis, next door to the most gruesome civil war of the century so far, and suffering from serious economic anemia and a totally dysfunctional government, which is nevertheless cracking down on protesters who, for two months now, have been challenging the state’s ineptitude.
And yet, the white rabbit who we’ve all eagerly followed here is surely, or at least allegorically, none other than Tony Salamé, the retail fashion impresario, founder and CEO of Aïshti (an empire of department stores, spas, high-end shops, restaurants, a few magazines, and more), who became a megacollector in a heartbeat and is now the art-world phenomenon of our moment. In forty-eight hours’ time, Salamé is meant to inaugurate the new, one-hundred-million-dollar building of the Aïshti Foundation, a curious hybrid of art and fashion, with four floors and some 40,000 square feet of pristine exhibition space flanking an enormous new shopping mall. All of it is wrapped in a patterned red facade by David Adjaye, which looks, to local eyes, like an accidental riff on the logo of a regional supermarket chain.
Every autumn, the art scene in Beirut spins through several weeks of hysterical hyperactivity before sliding into a gloomy winter. This year, however, the start of that season has been especially intense, and the subject of greater international attention than usual. It began with Sursock; rumbled through the arrival of a new gallery called Marfa (Arabic for “port”), where the artist Vartan Avakian opened his first solo show on Thursday; and then landed on Planet Aïshti, which, in addition to the opening of the foundation itself on Sunday (with the exhibition “New Skin” curated by Massimiliano Gioni), organized a full weekend of events, including a panel discussion at Sursock on Friday, a set of prints from Richard Prince’s Instagram feed hung in the windows of Aïshti’s downtown department store, the opening of “The Extreme Present” organized by Jeffrey Deitch at the Metropolitan Art Society on Saturday, and, on Sunday, and an excursion to one of the warehouses of Salamé’s 2,500-piece collection, where the artist Walid Raad has pulled off a devastatingly clever intervention on and among the crates.
Back at the Sursock on Friday, the symposium is under way and the architect Bernard Khoury is holding forth. The local art scene’s enfant terrible is running through a fortified version of his usual shtick. “I started my career doing bars and clubs and places of debauchery,” he says. “I design for the rich, for bankers, people who want to make money, bad people, and they are my heroes. I have not built any museums and I probably never will. They are cemeteries of culture. I don’t see the possibility of political radicality in museums. I would rather build bordellos.”
“Some museums are bordellos,” says Gioni, who is moderating the event, without missing a beat.
Just as the stories of Salamé and the Aishti Foundation are couched in a lot of history and context, Khoury’s comments are framed in a rather formalist discussion featuring Adjaye (diplomatic), the Swiss artist Pamela Rosenkranz (timid), and the Beirut-based artist Rayyane Tabet (highly entertaining). It also sets an important tone for the weekend, as when Khoury speaks of the mix of influences that have always characterized the city. “This is what Beirut is about, but it’s important that we create meaning from our bad soil. Here you contradict yourself from one street corner to another, and you do so proudly and honestly.”
Khoury studied art to practice architecture. Tabet did the opposite. “I grew up in a city that was reconstructing itself. I didn’t go to museums. The National Museum was closed. My access to form, content, and ideas was just walking down the street. I need to study the practice that had produced and destroyed my city.” When the symposium ends in the dead silence of no questions or comments, I wonder how much the five hundred guests whom Salamé has invited really care about Beirut’s reconstruction, or any of the other local issues that have long been central to the art being made in the city.
Left: Dealer Joumana Asseily of Marfa with Protocinema founder Mari Spirito. Right: Dealers Andrée Sfeir-Semler and Eva Presenhuber.
The first time I understood that Salamé was collecting art was in 2007, when he invited me to see (and write about) four pieces that were on view in the restaurant of Aïshti Seaside, next door to the new foundation. (A building designed by Khoury for Salamé stands next to that.) There was a bronze Sphere Within Sphere sculpture by Arnaldo Pomodoro, a fabric throne by Gaetano Pesce, a silk and crystal wall work by Angelo Filomeno, and a flashy painting by Takagi Masakatsu and Saeko Takagi. Salamé described his taste at the time as neo-Baroque. This speaks to the fact that, up until this weekend, Salamé’s buying power was really better known abroad than in Beirut. Sure, he collected stamps and old books and carpets and a few seventeenth-century paintings that he displayed in his first shop, which opened in Jal al-Dib in 1989. But unless you were actually involved, or a part of the market abroad, who could have known that his collection of contemporary art was so substantial, or that it had been making so many waves internationally?
“When I first started collecting, Dino Facchini [founder of the fashion label Byblos] said, ‘You should buy serious art.’ He pushed me toward Pomodoro, Fontana. I was his agent in the Middle East when nobody trusted me, when I was a kid, just nineteen years old,” Salamé recalls. “At Art Basel in 2006, I met Jeffrey Deitch. He said, ‘You should meet Dakis Joannou. You’re going to open a great foundation one day. I can tell.’ So he pushed me in this direction.”
A few facts bear repeating (and correcting). Salamé’s foundation is not a museum. It really is an exhibition space attached to a shopping mall. And all the new boutiques were open during the inauguration on Sunday. By the end of the night, as the crowd dispersed and the bankers, local millionaires, television celebrities, and a handful of cabinet ministers were all long gone, a clutch of decked-out middle-aged women could be seen trying on vertiginous high-heeled shoes. The place where the foundation sits—squished between the highway, a commuter road, and the deep blue sea on an unloved strip of warehouses, drab office buildings, and oil tanks in Jal al-Dib—is also not a part of Beirut. It is in the Metn, at least four suburbs out from the city. While it may have been beautiful once, at the turn of the last century, Jal al-Dib is certainly not a resort town, or even a beach town. And while Salamé’s foundation may adopt a model that is increasingly recognizable in the intersecting worlds of art and fashion, that model is new to Beirut, and so it is naturally contentious.
A dealer from the Lebanese diaspora widens her eyes at Deitch’s opening on Saturday and says of her foreign counterparts: “They’re like vultures!” Another diaspora dealer gives me his summation of Salamé’s international guests while walking through the National Museum on Sunday: “All they hear about this place is ‘ISIS, ISIS, ISIS.’ Then they come here, and all they see is cleavage, cleavage, cleavage.”
I clock my favorite sarcophagus, bearing the legend of Achilles and showing a man being trampled by a chariot, which adequately captures my mood. Touching on an important truth, yet another dealer tells me: “Whatever happens in this city that is not garbage or war is positive. I wish there had been separate openings for the mall and the foundation. The art became like a dress from Prada. But some of the work is strong. And the foundation holds all the contradictions of the city and its history.”
Drifting through Gioni’s show on Sunday night, there are a number of inspired pairings, such as Glenn Ligon and Danh Vō in one room, Etel Adnan and R. H. Quaytman in another. It is true that the collection seems overwhelmingly concerned with young male abstract painters from New York. But the strengths and subtleties of the Arte Povera works on view almost balance that out. Wearing a leopard-print hat and gigantic pink-beaded necklace, Sarah Trad, the cofounder of the outpatient drug treatment center Skoun, tells me that she arrived skeptical but is leaving impressed. On the top floor of the foundation, I run into Akram Zaatari, who has a new version of an old video, Her + Him Van Leo, in the show. I ask him if the sultry pinup girl who figures in the piece is really his grandmother. “I wish! Both of my grandmothers were quite conservative.”
Left: Artist Ziad Antar. Right: Dealer Esther Quiroga, architect Miggi Hood, and dealers Gíó Marconi and Carol Greene.
Much has been made of the fact that Zaatari is one of only a handful of Arab artists represented in Salamé’s collection. The others are Adnan, Tabet, Ziad Antar, and Mona Hatoum. The Raad in the warehouse is a loan. In general, many of Beirut’s more opinionated artists, writers, and curators are disturbed by Salamé’s achievements.
On Monday, after the circus has moved on, I run into one such artist in my neighborhood. “This is everything we never wanted to be or to do with art in Beirut,” he says to me sadly. I had just seen a new work of his earlier that day, in one of several shows around town that are explicitly devoted to the experience of Beirut. There’s a small but important installation by Jayce Salloum at the American University of Beirut, gathering a wealth of materials about how Lebanon is known. At the Beirut Exhibition Center, the curator Joanna Abou Sleiman Chevalier has installed a haunting recreation of the room where Adnan works, facing the text of her poem “There,” a gorgeous rumination on place, memory, imagination, and love.
The four shows affiliated with Aïshti are fantasies compared to this. And that may very well be Salamé’s point. I ask him why he spends money on art when he could spend it on so many other things:
“For me, art is the only thing that will take you out of your context, out of the problems of your daily life. Whether you are with an artist in a studio or among work in a gallery or a show, art is the only thing that can put you on another planet.”
Left: Curator Joanna Abou Sleiman Chevalier with designer Nada Debs. Right: Skoun cofounder Sarah Trad with artist Lamia Joreige.
PARISIANS LOVE THEIR MEAT. Starting with the sliders and champagne served during last Sunday’s lunchtime preview of “Sterling Ruby: Paris,” in the Gagosian Gallery hangar at Le Bourget, some form of animal fat was on the menu at every meal related to the forty-second edition of FIAC (Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain).
Paris is not for the cholesterol-averse. Then again, who goes to an art fair to slim down? The whole idea is to enrich one’s holdings and experience of art and its associations, be they educational, financial, or social. Though shrouded by a chilly gloom throughout the week, the City of Light laid a feast.
The French love fashion as much as they do art. At Le Bourget, where high-net-worth clients can pull up their private jets to Gagosian’s back door, the Ruby opening was only one sign of how seamlessly the two worlds mesh in Paris. Designers and models do not show up here just for photo ops. They work with artists, and call them friends.
Raf Simons has incorporated paintings by Ruby in fabrics for his eponymous menswear line, examples of which both artist and designer were wearing at the opening. “We’ll do it again,” said Ruby, clad head-to-toe in bleached Simons/Ruby denim. Huge Ruby tapestries hung on the walls. Instead of his signature sculptural ooze, big and black abstract hulks reminiscent of Matthew Barney’s smashed cars sat on the polished concrete floor. These were actually cut up and rearranged parts of a 1972 submarine that Ruby discovered going to rust in Long Beach, California. As art, it’s just as lethal.
The French also love film. Neïl Beloufa was one artist who incorporated its trappings, if not its stars, in “C’est la vie?,” the multifarious group show he was staging in his 5,700-square-foot, suburban Villejuif studio. Half the works on view were installed within the set of Hotel Occidental, a feature film that Beloufa recently shot there, and alluded to the artists’ transience through it. (Either they worked on the film or have rented workspace in the unheated, two-story complex.) “There are a lot of discoveries here,” said dealer Alex Hertling. They included Benjamin Fanni and actor Paul Hamy and the American-born French photographer Elizabeth Lennard. The whole funky enterprise had an unexpected energy—for Paris.
Warnings that I would be in for a sleepy time, at least compared to London or New York, now proved wide of the mark. I had to forgo Paula Cooper’s reception for Liz Glynn at the Petit Palais, on the other side of town, and just made it to the Centre Pompidou for a cocktail celebrating “Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, 1887–2058.” This time-traveling journey to inner space—via film, built environments, and sound—may be the ’90s art star’s most piercing, elaborate, and accessible exhibition yet.
In the reflecting pool on a fifth-floor terrace that offered panoramic views of Paris, Gonzalez-Foerster floated an homage to Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi. This reception did not attract fashionistas or filmmakers, but gathered the likes of MoMA curator Yasmil Raymond, Reina Sofía deputy director João Fernandes, and dealers Esther Schipper, Nicole Klagsbrun, and Lisa Spellman to the side of Pompidou curator Emma Lavigne. “Isn’t this great?” asked Spellman. So was the entirely diverting new hang of modern and contemporary art in the Pompidou’s spellbinding collection.
Left: Bernard Blistène, director of Musée National d'Art Moderne of the Centre Pompidou. Right: Designer Azzedine Alaïa with dealers Almine Rech and Chrissie Erpf.
A few minutes later, Julian Schnabel drew the esteemed Azzedine Alaïa to his opening at Galerie Almine Rech, where art and fashion people mixed with a few better known to film—namely Roman Polanski and Scarlett Johansson. On the walls, if one could focus on the walls, were four new paintings of the taxidermied goat that Schnabel keeps in his New York studio. Here, its image wore one of Mike Kelley’s stuffed animals like a floppy crown. Against a landscape from an eighteenth-century French wallpaper design, the symbolic goat stood at the edge of a steep abyss. “It’s supposed to be a self-portrait,” allowed Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, “but I see it as a portrait of all of us. At least, I can relate.” He didn’t say how.
Though fantasies of a sort, Schnabel painted his homage to Kelley quite differently than he did the ’90s abstractions—good ones—hanging in another room or the de Kooning–esque spray-painted canvases in an adjacent gallery. “People don’t give Julian half the credit he deserves,” said Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak. Had any of those people been here, they would have to shut up.
Notwithstanding the star power here, the evening’s big blowout was a dinner and party at historic Cirque d’Hiver feting the thirty-fifth anniversary of Galerie Chantal Crousel. This was the winter quarters of the Cirque Bouglione, a traveling French big top that, Crousel confessed in her touching speech at dinner, transfixed her as a child on its annual arrival to her hometown. “Now we really are in a traveling circus!” quipped Artists Space director Stefan Kalmár, one among many on the fall art tour of Europe.
The French love their cirques, but this one’s red-on-red auditorium was now inhabited by 250 artists, collectors, dealers, and curators who have been associated with Crousel and Niklas Svennung, her son and business partner. Their devotion to art and each other was palpable during the two dealers’ toasts, before which a slideshow of the gallery’s exhibitions pretty well outlined the history of contemporary art since the 1970s. The turnout of artists—Thomas Hirshhorn, Danh Vō, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Anri Sala, Wade Guyton—was impressive for the level of testosterone alone. (For the record, Jennifer Allora was also present.)
While foie gras and veal shank were on the table for dinner, the afterparty fare in the center ring served an unbeatable, booty-shaking lineup of three artist–music makers. Uriel Barthélémi played an intense set on drums, followed by the can’t-sit-down DJing of Hassan Khan, who brought the whole crowd to its feet—even Tarek Atoui, whose air-pumping, twirling movements with Pinault Foundation curator Caroline Bourgeois foreshadowed his own propellant turn on the decks.
Late Monday morning, I woke just in time for a preview of a two-man show by Hauser & Wirth gallery mates Rashid Johnson and Matthew Day Jackson in the corporate environs of Studio des Acacias. Its current owner, Paul-Emmanuel Reiffers, a producer of couture shows, founded the Mazarine Group and now wants to showcase contemporary art. “Look for me tonight,” Johnson said. “I’m recreating an Allan Kaprow Happening in front of the Palais de Tokyo.”
That evening, the Palais de Tokyo flung open its doors to—I kid you not—an astonishing twelve thousand people. Once they got to the head of the line outside, visitors had to join another for entrance to “Ugo Rondinone—I Love John Giorno,” a spectacular and profound declaration of affection and respect from one artist to another.
Organized for the museum by independent curator Florence Ostende and designed by Rondinone, the show is a retrospective of Giorno’s career and a salute to each of the seventy-eight years of his life. It thrills from the start, with Rondinone’s multiscreen, black-and-white 2006 film of a formally dressed Giorno giving a spellbinding performance of “Thanks for Nothing,” a poem to his first lover, Andy Warhol. Sleep was playing in another gallery with Warhol’s other early films of Giorno, which were getting their first exhibition here.
The centerpiece, however, was Rondinone’s enthralling display of Giorno’s extensive archive—more than fifteen thousand documents and photos that comprise an unmatched cultural history of New York’s bohemia from the 1950s to 2005. How often do people at openings stop to thumb through nearly a hundred thick books? “This is amazing,” said Michael Stipe, whose own video portrait of Giorno was also in the show, as was another by Tiravanija. That installation appeared with perceptive portraits of the poet painted by Billy Sullivan, Verne Dawson, Judith Eisler, and Elizabeth Peyton. Another gallery, curated by White Columns director Matthew Higgs, included beanbag chairs by Angela Bullock and pristine photos of objects in the archive by Anne Collier. If there have been other exhibitions that express the generosity of spirit in this one, I haven’t seen them.
Unbelievably, the museum was opening two other head-turning shows—by Ragnar Kjartansson and Melanie Matranga—at the same time. Their galleries filled up just as Rondinone left for a swim before the dinner in his and Giorno’s honor at the fashion house of Céline, their show’s leading sponsor. Once again, the worlds of art and fashion snuggled in the same cradle. The showroom’s tiles, for example, replicated a Martin Creed floor so perfectly that one might have thought he had done it. “I worship Phoebe Philo,” gushed designer Rick Owens of his competitor, who was hosting the dinner. “This, obviously, is the cool table,” said dealer Sarah Gavlak, as she appraised Philo’s back-room placement with Owens, Michele Lamy, Kalmár, Higgs, Collier, Barbara Gladstone, and the two guests of honor. Eva Presenhuber, Rondinone’s primary dealer, was in another room.
At another table, FIAC director Jennifer Flay brimmed with enthusiasm for her fair and its offshoot for smaller galleries, Officielle. The latter’s location, miles down the Seine from the Grand Palais, sent a less confident message, and I never made it. That was really because of the distracting Paris Internationale, a new Salon des Refusés, where the rejects were not artists but young dealers snubbed by FIAC.
The upstart, Independent-style fair opened on Tuesday in a grand but seedy hôtel particulier purportedly owned by a personage from “the Middle East.” Whatever. The air crackled with the electricity of developing art rubbing against the collectors swarming into presentations by the fair’s thirty-five galleries and seven nonprofits from thirteen countries, including Cluj, Romania. With Gregor Staiger, one of the five organizing dealers, was Marie Lusa, designer of his Zurich gallery’s publications as well as the Internationale’s Situationist-inspired graphics. “This whole fair started as a joke last May,” she said, “when we were so bored at Frieze New York that we asked ourselves what we could do to change things.”
New York’s Room East juxtaposed an unusual wallbound terra-cotta sculpture by Ettore Sottsass with freestanding sculptures by G. William Webb, one of which fell apart when the Greek collector Iasson Tsakonas tripped over it. (Fortunately, the artist was on hand to remake it.) Treize, a nonprofit in the Parisian neighborhood of Belleville, set up an artists’ record shop as an experiment in production and distribution that was doing brisk business.
The evening was fairly quiet, out of deference to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris’s annual gala. Only Balice Hertling hosted an opening—in a parking garage under Place Vendôme, where artist Will Benedict was showing large drawings devoted to activists for environmental salvation.
FIAC opened to VIPs on Wednesday morning, the only one graced by sunshine all week. The Grand Palais, perhaps the world’s best setting for an art fair, also offered the worst food service, but never mind. Booths were spacious on the ground floor and the smaller spaces upstairs still offered something for every taste. “In this place, in this location, I feel rich and important,” said dealer Daniele Balice. In the Salon d’Honneur, which Flay characterized as “fantastic” without hyperbole, Andrew Kreps had a knockout retrospective installation by Marc Camille Chaimowicz that included lamps, screens, and two carpets.
Though Wu Tsang hung a one-ton chandelier of 250,000 Swarovski crystals and a million LED lights from the balcony, if the fair had a theme, it was carpets. Mehdi Chouakri had one, by Saâdane Afif, on his stand. Isabella Bortolozzi had one from 1982 that Aldo Mondino made of beans and seeds. Sylvia Kouvali, on the other hand, had a mosaic floor by Christodoulos Panayiotou, and Gavin Brown fronted his booth with a red curtain by Martin Creed that slowly opened to reveal a wild installation of Creed’s paintings. “It’s like the Moulin Rouge,” noted dealer Lucy Chadwick.
Artist Andrea Blum designed the stand for In Situ-Fabienne LeClerc. “I love a frame without the stuff in it,” she said. “It’s another kind of social space.” Kurimanzutto nailed a prized corner that once was the turf of Yvon Lambert. “People were killing for this space,” said José Kuri, who was still guarding it. And Rondinone killed it again with his installation of target paintings and a fat clown sculpture at Gladstone’s booth. “It’s all just me talking to myself alone in the studio,” he said, adding, “I do love a chubby.”
People said the French looked long and bought later, but sales were clearly taking place. “Thanks to the Americans,” observed nonparticipating dealer Cecile Panzieri, “we have a market!” Carol Greene was busy writing invoices for works by Rachel Harrison in her solo presentation, which featured an effigy of Donald Trump. Paul Schimmel designed an installation of politically minded art for Hauser & Wirth that included, in case anyone missed the point, a pile of Charlie Hebdos. Glasgow’s Modern Institute struck gold with one of Monica Sosnowska’s best group of sculptures yet and Franco Noero hit a conceptualist peak with folded and bound textile works by Jason Dodge. The artist had asked people in different lands around the globe to weave a string, twelve meters long—the distance from the earth to the troposphere—in traditional fabrics (silk, cotton, wool, linen, and so forth), resulting in folded blankets or scarves of sizes as wildly different as their cultures.
The evening brought me to Monnaie de Paris, the former mint, for a tour of “Take Me I’m Yours,” a collaborative 1990s exhibition that Hans Ulrich Obrist and Christian Boltanski were reprising. “It’s an evolution, not a remake,” Obrist told me, “with younger artists but also historic positions.”
This was the most fun of any show I saw in Paris. Artworks, replenished daily, were free for the asking. They included air-dispensing bubblegum machines by Yoko Ono, stencils by Lawrence Weiner, painstakingly wrought clay sculptures by Simone Fattal, badges by Gilbert & George that screamed phrases like “Ban Religion,” and a photo booth by Franco Vaccari, among many others. I came away with an armful of books, posters, and newspapers, as well as a gold candy in the shape of a winged penis that Daniel Spoerri, who had contributed an edible skeleton, had made for the following day. “It’s from Pompeii,” said the Monnaie’s imaginative program director, Chiara Parisi. “It’s marzipan,” Spoerri added. I saved it for later.
First there was a dinner following yet another exhibition by Ruby—this time of paintings made with a broom—at the national hunting museum, of all places, where guests were greeted by a Walton Ford painting, part of the artist’s current show in this eccentric place. In the courtyard were four large, functional wood-burning stoves by Ruby. “What can I tell you?” he said. “I was raised on a farm, and that’s what we had for heat.”
He had also visited the museum four times on vacations with his wife, the artist Melanie Schiff. Inside, guests were greeted by stuffed tigers, polar bears, a giant alligator, and many firearms from centuries past. “What a hilarious venue for a dinner!” exclaimed dealer Stefan Ratibor. It was. How many historic museums would convert their underground garage to a nightclub, with antlered chandeliers? That’s where Simons hosted the afterparty of the week. We might have known something was up when he arrived with Bianca Quets-Luzi, the CEO of his own label, just hours before he sent shockwaves through the fashion business by resigning his post as creative director of Dior.
The art machine rolled on, unperturbed. The next day, bleary fairgoers started packing for Beirut, where collectors Tony and Elham Salamé would open their shopping-mall-in-a-private-museum, designed by David Adjaye. Flay was not only resigned to this overlapping event but gave it her support. “It’s cultural resistance,” she explained. “If we don’t support Lebanon, it’s not a good example for the rest of the world.”
That, like everything I missed while in Paris, remains to be seen, but the French do love their politics. Don’t they?
A PERSON FROM GRAND RAPIDS is called a Grand Rapidian. From a coastal vantage, life in the seat of western Michigan is not particularly grand or rapid, but one could argue that its banner civic event, ArtPrize, is both. In just seven years the open-submission contest that places work by more than 1,500 artists everywhere from Main Street to museums to coffee shops, reclaimed buildings, and hotel lobbies has ascended to the number-one position in the Art Newspaper’s annual Big Ticket shows list, which ranks the daily attendance of large-scale exhibitions around the world. With an average of 23,225 visitors per day, ArtPrize reported nearly twice Manifesta 10’s crowds (#3) and roughly four times those of the Bienal de São Paulo’s (#14).
The other outsize aspect of ArtPrize is the pair of $200,000 cash awards given to winning artists selected by separate juries: one comprising experts, the other the general public, like American Idol except bounded by a “geo-fence” drawn around the three-mile radius of the ArtPrize zone. (In addition, there are eight discipline-based $12,500 prizes given to the best 2-D, 3-D, installation, and time-based projects, each by jury and public.) Last year, both went to the same artist, Pakistani sculptor Anila Quayyum Agha, whose caged lamp Intersections bathed a room in the magnified shadows of anodyne Islamic designs. This coincidence was wildly atypical. ArtPrize’s most striking illustration is the chasm between the institutional or market-oriented art world and the populist one that could not care less about biennials, online-auction websites, or concierge services for international collectors.
I arrived in Grand Rapids on a Thursday by private jet. The plane belonged to Amway, and so did the hotel I stayed in: a twenty-seven-floor riverfront glass tower somewhat overproportioned for a city of fewer than 200,000 people. ArtPrize is the brainchild of Rick DeVos, a grandson of Richard DeVos, who cofounded Amway and is worth more than $5 billion. The DeVos family is nationally known for supporting a conservative Christian political agenda through think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. In Grand Rapids they are famous for everything—their name is on buildings, public squares, and street signs.
Left: Artist Judith Braun. Right: Artist Pamela Alderman with her Hometown Hero. (Photo: Kevin McGarry)
By design, ArtPrize does not seem to privilege Amway politics, though there are definitely some fringe voices sounding off in the competition. Greeting me in the lobby of the Amway Grand Hotel was an interactive drawing by Pamela Alderman called Hometown Hero. A finalist for the public 2-D award, it’s a portrait of a Wyoming solider slain in Iraq made on a whale-length field of red and white stripes. Seated beside the solider, the artist invited onlookers to write the name of their personal hero onto the flag with felt-tip marker. After GOD, GOD, and GOD, the most popular words are DAD, MOM, and JESUS. The reverse side of the drawing, visible from outside the hotel, resembled a Confederate flag. While the placement of this work in the busiest hotel in town was prominent, it was not ArtPrize’s decision. It was the product of the “dating service” through which compatible ArtPrize artist and venue registrants find each other online. The frozen yogurt shop down the street arranged to host an oil painting of a lighthouse called Baby, It’s Cold Outside.
Entering ArtPrize’s HQ, ArtHub, was like walking into a Walmart. An elderly volunteer was stationed at the door to say hello, and another sat at a kiosk registering voters for the competition. With a couple taps, an icon appeared on my screen that looked like a gerrymandered blob, which I recognized as the ArtPrize logo. I asked her what it was, and she told me it’s the outline of La Grande Vitesse, the red Calder sculpture outside City Hall. “I don’t know if Alexander would like it being used this way,” she began, then with a whiff of derision, “He was pretty fussy about his art,” she seemed to tell me in confidence. “But I can’t say that I blame him.”
We drove across town to the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, which was hosting a special exhibition of Japanese ceramics. All the pieces were entered in the competition. A delegate from the museum explained that “they put out a call to all the Japanese ceramicists in the entire Japanese country.” Not a bad way to solicit ceramics from Japan. The artists in the show represent all different ages and degrees of traditionalism, but I didn’t find any of the bowls or figures to be aesthetically compelling. An anthracite skeleton of a demonic cow called Mimesis by Kushiro Akinaga was one of the five shortlisted finalists for the juried 3-D prize.
Next we took an hour-long tour of the Meijer’s new Japanese gardens. This was odd because, with well over one hundred ArtPrize venues we would not have time to see, these gardens had no connection to the competition other than having been paid for by the DeVos family. I asked why they had such a keen interest in Japan, having supported the ceramics show as well, and the curator simply explained that Amway Japan was a priority for them. Makes sense.
Next on the tour was the Rumsey Street Project, an initiative by the volunteer-run, nomadic nonprofit SiTE:LAB, which uses abandoned buildings and other transitional spaces for temporary projects. Founded and led by Paul Amenta, a professor at Kendell College of Art and Design, since 2011 SiTE:LAB has usually won the award for best ArtPrize venue. This year it availed a handful of buildings on Rumsey Street, which after the exhibition will be turned over to Habitat for Humanity and converted into low-income housing.
Friday night was the awards ceremony, which filled a theater downtown for a vampy Oscars-style show complete with scripted banter, live video segments outside, and prerecorded citations from the jury. For one of these, Dallas Contemporary curator Justine Ludwig, who presided over the 2-D award, was inadvertently channeling Saturday Night Live doing Bard CCS when she concluded “…I felt that it was an important body of work—and quite striking.” I want a T-shirt that says that.
The $200,0000 jury prize went to Kate Gilmore for Higher Ground, a house at SiTE:LAB (which again won best venue) painted pink on the outside and red on the inside, with performers in skirts and ballet flats whose toes rhythmically peeked out the windows as they swung on swings strung inside the building. The most telling thing about this selection is that Gilmore is probably the only entrant in the entire competition who was on the radar of the contemporary art world that jurors Dan Cameron and Michael Rakowitz call home.
The public went with the Michigan husband-and-wife team Loveless PhotoFiber for Northwood Awakening, a large-scale collaborative work that begins on the left as a photograph of a forest taken by Steven Loveless and gradually, as you track right, morphs into a photorealistic quilt by Ann Loveless—who won the ArtPrize public award in 2013 as well!
The afterparty was held at a pinball pub called the Pyramid Scheme. It’s quite a cheeky name considering that in 1979 the Federal Trade Commission ruled that the multilevel marketing company Amway is technically not an illegal pyramid scheme. Today, businesses with iffy recruitment structures carefully follow “the Amway Rules” in order to stay on the right side of the law.
The quasi-religious devotion that has been described of Amway distributors could be extended to the constituents of ArtPrize as well. For one, the event is an immense source of local pride and engagement. In terms of finance, while ArtPrize makes a number of grants and donations to some of the host organizations, there are many cases where ArtPrize venues are fronting the costs of presenting ArtPrize themselves. Also, entrance to ArtPrize is universally free of charge, even at institutions that ordinarily sell tickets. These losses are not explicitly offset by ArtPrize.
The biggest heap, at the bottom, consists of the more than 1500 artists who don’t win $200,000. Almost 70 percent come to Grand Rapids with their work. While there are twenty-five $2000 grants available to offset flights, hotels, and production—as well as a couch-surfing program that transfers the costs of boarding artists to townspeople, which locals reportedly love—for most artists, a modest to large buy-in is required to participate. Those who toss their paintings etc. into the ring are entering a fairly random popularity contest (since only a handful would be considered for the jury prize in earnest), and so, more than anything else, ArtPrize reminds me of another profoundly American tradition premised on dreams and delusions: the lottery. Whether this is any better or worse than the reward structure of the international art market, where thousands of artists make nil and several dozen mint works that sell for many times over ArtPrize’s big payout, is a matter of debate. What is not is the fact that ArtPrize represents a step in the evolution of a populist American art world. It would be hubristic of the liberal elite to ignore it.
NILSSON’S “JUMP INTO THE FIRE” plays in my head from the start. Over four days in London, the racing pulse of that Goodfellas song underscores the pace of events detonated by the thirteenth edition of Frieze.
Monday the twelfth is breakneck joy in the trenches of art. It begins at the ICA with the headbanging launch of Zhang Ding’s “Enter the Dragon” (pace Bruce Lee). The black-box theater of this normally sedate institution is alive with the immersive sound of acid punk and electronica—played simultaneously—by Bo Ningen and Powell under flashing strobes and from behind curtains of revolving mirrors on opposite sides of the room. Cosponsored by K11 Art Foundation, Zhang’s exhibition will bring in two bands twice a day for thirteen days. He says, through a translator, that it’s his version of community organizing.
His show, researched in a ten-day club crawl with curator Matt Williams, is the wow version of the ICA’s other exhibition, “Side On,” by artist and Anal House Meltdown co-DJ Prem Sahib, whose mute sculptures sing the visual codes of close encounters in the underground gay club scene.
Back on the street, my art antennae point East to Victoria Miro Gallery and the one-two punch of a pair of talks by writer Hilton Als. Glenn Ligon, Eric Fischl, April Gornik, and 2013 Turner Prize finalist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye are all here for the first. Along one wall is an expansive mural of silhouettes by Kara Walker; adjacent is a huge, manipulated photograph of Stone Mountain, the landscape of her childhood. Against this backdrop, Als delivers the most succinct and personal insight into Walker’s life and work I’ve ever heard.
With hardly a pause for breath, Als picks up a few more VIPs, the collector César Reyes among them, and moves to Miro’s space next door for another poetic disquisition on “Forces in Nature,” the show he has curated. Works by Alice Neel, Chris Ofili, Francesca Woodman, Verne Dawson, and the undeservedly underrecognized Celia Paul illuminate the presence or absence of the male form in landscapes both psychic and natural. We all melt.
A pit stop at Stuart Shave for Mark Flood’s latest foray into lace paintings and the deep sea of digital art. Just one couple of collectors in the gallery, transacting with it. The opening is an hour away. Off I go to Chisenhale, where I am totally floored by A magical substance flows into me. It’s a nonpolitically political, semidocumentary film by the musically named Jumana Manna, the twenty-seven-year-old artist born in Palestine and based in Berlin. It shares space with smooth relics of the human form, sculptures that could be ancient or modern. I’m captivated by the whole installation, but the clock is ticking and there are many miles to go.
Chisenhale director Polly Staple joins me for a run at openings in Mayfair, but wait! Maureen Paley is closer. We arrive in the quiet hour before the FOFs (friends of Frieze) descend on Liam Gillick’s replay of works from the 1990s adjusted for now. It’s all about portent and possibility. “People are really excited about this show,” Paley says. “I’m so happy.” No wonder. We’re in a room with the makings of a bonfire. There’s incendiary text on the wall. Beneath our feet, swirls of silver glitter, painted with a vodka fixative. If only we had time to drink in more of it.
Two shakes later we’re at Gagosian in King’s Cross for a show by Jonas Wood. I like Wood. In his shamrock-green knit cap, he looks like an overgrown leprechaun. The Angeleno’s new paintings of tall vessels by his wife, Shio Kusaka, fairly levitate in the big room. Smaller canvases of imaginary, wood-grain flower pots are endearing. “I was fooling around and got a little carried away,” he says. Good move.
Wood’s patient driver Gazemend is waiting outside in his van. He gets us through the rush-hour traffic as if it weren’t there. By dusk, we’re at Pilar Corrias. People sit along a narrow bench transfixed by Ian Cheng’s digital animation that projects an apocalyptic future. (Is there any other kind?) I can’t follow the many strands of narrative. A quick take tells me that, if the mind be nimble, its wild dogs, icy craters, and fictional celebrity-god will not get in the way of enjoying the experience.
The opening of Elmgreen & Dragset’s “Self-Portrait” is in cheek-by-jowl progress at the Mayfair Miro. For this tombstone-like array of paintings on canvas, paper, marble, and metal, the duo has replicated—at considerably larger scale—the museum wall labels of works by other artists that have affected their own collaboration. The show also signals Elmgreen’s departure from London. He’s moving back to Berlin. “For the price of a tiny studio here, I can get a whole house,” he says, sounding a familiar refrain.
Thomas Demand is standing outside Sprüth Magers, where he is showing photographs of architectural models abstracted to an admirably chiaroscuro degree. The reception has attracted one actual architect, David Chipperfield. “He hates the show,” Demand says. “He told me. It’s too much architecture for him.”
We’ve got empty seats in the van and Gabriel Kuri needs a lift to Tate Modern. We swan into the private view of this year’s Hyundai commission in the Turbine Hall, Empty Lot, by Kuri’s countryman Abraham Cruzvillegas. It’s not empty. Steel scaffolding with caged supporting pillars fills the yawning space, interrupted only by a staircase. We climb it to the mezzanine bridge and discover, beyond the several hundred heads of attending curators, artists, and patrons, tall grow lights beaming down on thirty-four triangular flower beds that extend forward on a platform shaped like a prow. Each raised bed contains dark soil that the artist collected from public parks all over London. In time, we’ll know if the invisible stuff that wafts through the city air has seeded itself in the beds. What will pop up, no one knows, but probably it won’t be an art gallery or shoe shop. Let’s return in a few months.
The Cruzvillegas posse on hand includes compadres Gabriel Orozco and Tamayo Museum director Juan Gaitán. With them is the chef from Rosetta, a favorite haunt in Mexico City, who will cook for the afterparty at Village Underground, a cavernous nightclub in Shoreditch. “She came with a hundred kilos of Mexican ingredients,” the proud Cruzvillegas says. Awesome.
But ooh! A performance by the limber Japanese percussionist Keiji Haino is about to begin at White Cube Bermondsey. Fill the van, I say! The artist Samantha McEwen climbs in. So do Tate performance curator Catherine Wood and MoMA media and performance curator Stuart Comer. Now we have a clown car. “He’s just so good!” Comer whispers once we’re in the gallery and the musician is spinning, gonging, and clanging through a feature-length composition of hammer on metal that, at times, sounds remarkably like the bells of Saint Mary’s.
Watching from the front row is Cerith Wyn Evans, the artist who asked Keiji to play within his exhibition of exquisitely wrought chandeliers of glass tubing. Hanging from the super-high ceilings, they send up the sex machines of Duchamp’s Large Glass with geometry extracted from the movements of actors in Noh theater. It’s complicated. We exit to rolling drones.
The air in the van is thick with art talk until Gazemend pulls up to St. John and Paley’s buffet dinner for Gillick. The artist is in an effusive mood. Annabelle Selldorf, Michael Stipe, Sarah McCrory, Peter Saville, Rebecca Warren, and a hundred other people—you probably know who—hug the bar. Bard CCS director Tom Eccles takes the landing over the former abattoir and, like a minister calling his flock, launches the publication of Gillick’s new book, From Nineteen Ninety A to Nineteen Ninety B.
We want to read this ur-text for curators, but not today. Right now we have a problem: Where to go for a nightcap? The dinner for Woods at Berners Tavern or for Thomas Demand at Bellamy’s? What about the Connaught, where Massimo De Carlo and Miro are toasting Elmgreen & Dragset? There must be hundreds of similar gatherings in town. We can’t decide but the Village Underground is on the way to wherever. With artist Josephine Meckseper and McEwen, I stop in. Dealer Mónica Manzutto hands us plates of something hot made with corn. We catch dealer Chantal Crousel doing a hippity-hop across the dance floor, discuss the attributes of tequila with Asad Raza, then get back on the road. Elmgreen says his party’s breaking up. Wood doesn’t reply to texts. It’s 1 AM. The day is done.
Hopes high for Frieze, the next morning I get on the long line of collectors waiting to get inside the tent in Regent’s Park for the VIP preview. The black-on-black entryway, designed for Nicola Lees’s Frieze Projects by Lutz Bacher, is graffitied with phrases like “Welcome to Purgatory.” Ten minutes later I’m behind the bookstore and in the cave of Pan. It’s Raza’s contribution to Frieze Projects. Students on tree-trunk stools engage visitors in dialogues about gods and monsters. If this reminds anyone of Tino Sehgal, that may be because Raza is the producer of Sehgal’s situations. He’s taking this opportunity to branch out on his own.
Farther on, presentations are generally chaotic. The tent’s hot, bright lights are oppressive. Artists just can’t keep producing new work for every fair. There’s a limit. With an electric blue carpet to enhance small paintings by Peter McDonald, Kate MacGarry’s is an exception. So is Esther Schipper’s charcoal arrangements of wall and floor—very handsome. The dealer dressed herself in the same palette. Gavin Brown’s exhibition by Kerstin Brätsch and the Belgian team of Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys is among the more elegant, though it’s Stuart Shave/Modern Art’s pairing of washing machine sculptures by Yngve Holen and digital Rothkos by Mark Flood that takes the Pommery Champagne prize for best stand. Of the qualified galleries, says Jewish Museum deputy director Jens Hoffmann, a judge, “It was the least cluttered.”
The fair has a veritable mascot in Mark Leckey’s giant inflatable of Felix the Cat, which is scrunched into a corner of Daniel Buchholz’s booth and slowly losing air. Swiss collector Suzanne Syz snaps it up without asking the price. She doesn’t care. At White Cube, Jay Jopling is squiring Bianca Jagger around artworks by Hirst, Emin, and Knoebel. Orozco is visiting Kurimanzutto, taking time from his current sojourn in Tokyo. “In Mexico City, we have too much quality of life,” he says. “Especially nightlife. “ He wants a break.
Dealers at São Paulo’s Mendes Wood can’t catch one. Too busy. I spy Jeffrey Deitch in an aisle, phone to ear. “It’s a wonderful fair,” he says. He loves it. Marc Foxx is selling out his booth. In two days Lehmann Maupin will change its whole stand. “Grr,” goes Rachel Lehmann. “People keep touching the art! And these are adults, not children.” Behavior at art fairs is not refined. The place is overrun with “advisors,” to the annoyance of many. Remember when sculpture didn’t sell? It’s everywhere here.
Visiting Frieze Masters is a whole other trip. With its plush carpeting, low light, and expertly curated stands—some are collections of antiquities, majolica, netsuke, and antique fish hooks selected by Norman Rosenthal—the Selldorf-designed tent knows nothing of chaos. There are discoveries to be made every few steps. De Grunne from Brussels has Indonesian wooden figures that predate Roman antiquities and are hitting the market for the first time ever. It had to happen. Nothing escapes branding anymore. But being at this fair is like walking into an encyclopedic museum where everything’s for sale. If only Frieze were as tight as this.
Valentino is here with his entourage. Anthony d’Offay is making the rounds too. Isaac Julien and Whitechapel curator Lydia Yee drop into Paula Cooper, who is showing a marvelous 1970s wheel of rope by Jackie Winsor. Alexander Gray has Xerox paintings by Jack Whitten of the same vintage. Bologna’s P420 introduces textile and wood works from the same period by a complete unknown, the seventy-five-year-old radical Romanian Ana Lupas, and Alan Cristea is showing a suite of Richard Hamiltons, circa 1944. I’m bouncing off the walls.
The evening starts in Kensington Palace Gardens, where Studio Voltaire patron Valeria Napoleone, collector of art by women only, is holding a dinner for one hundred guests. “What is this, the Israeli embassy?” the taxi driver asks. Ha-ha. I can only stay for drinks. Micheline Szwajcer and Gavin Brown have requisitioned Wiltons, the most old-fashioned and traditional restaurant in Mayfair, where dinner is in honor of de Gruyter and Thys, but the latter is absent. He’s got a flu and a lecture on cars to do the following night. Harald is mad for cars, de Gruyter says, adding that the pair’s artworks will never find their true form. “They will be victims forever,” he says. I don’t know what this means.
Cabinet Gallery’s Martin McGeown is holding down a back booth with Leckey and dealer Isabella Bortolozzi. Also in the house is Martin Creed and Beatrix Ruf, who alights after dinner to Wolfgang Tillmans’s house, where American and British artists, dealers, and curators (mostly male) are crawling over every floor. A Tillmans mixtape plays in the background, actually the recording of his recent DJ gig in Brooklyn. The guy gets around.
I’m a New Yorker. I understand. In London, I want to see everything, but there’s too much and the city’s too big. I head back to the fair. It’s late in the day, not so packed, especially in the back, where the younger galleries in Focus are quarantined. “Some of our collectors never found us,” says dealer Robbie Fitzpatrick, “but we’ve done really well with Amelie von Wulffen.” I get that. Frieze is for business, Frieze Masters for experience.
Tania Bruguera, the artist whose pronounced campaigns for freedom of speech earned her eight months of house arrest in her native Havana earlier this year, is giving a Frieze Talk to a packed house. She’s flown over for a single day from her fellowship at Yale. “I do political art,” she says. “It’s less important for it to be beautiful than effective. What will hurt power most?”
The audience is rapt when she speaks of the one-hundred-hour reading of a Hannah Arendt book that Bruguera gave during the Havana Biennial last spring. She applauds the Cuban government for choosing that moment to jackhammer the street outside her house, an attempt to silence her that she characterizes as “very creative.” You can’t do political art if there’s no need for it, she says. For one thing, it doesn’t sell, but you never know. As noted before, neither did sculpture back when.
Now I’m heading east again, for an evening view of Emily Jacir’s show at the Whitechapel. I want to see Leckey’s film at Cabinet, and Sarah VanDerBeek at the Approach, and Matt Connors at Herald St. I’m missing a lot, because it’s going to take an hour to cross London, where Silka Rittson-Thomas’s Rise Projects is hosting “Snails in Notting Hill,” a dinner in a derelict, Brutalist house slated for demolition. This is only going to happen once. Go, I must.
There is no heat. There are no bathrooms. But this house has something no other can claim: a total, site-specific environment by Nicolas Party, who has painted walls, floors, stairwells, ceilings, tablecloths and the stools at the makeshift tables with rabbit, leaf, and snail designs in very fruity colors. It’s like a doll’s house for grownups. Wonderful fun. The young ceramicist Jesse Wine provided the plates.
Among the guests are dealers Tim Blum, Thilo Wermke, and Toby Webster, with Kunsthalle Zürich director Daniel Baumann and collectors of two generations. Bil Ehrlich and Shane Ackroyd represent one, Tiffany Zabludowicz and Michael Xufu Huang (a student at U of Penn) another. “I started collecting when I was sixteen,” he boasts. “Me, too,” Zabludowicz replies. “So did I!” says Baumann. Isn’t that weird? A few minutes later, Ehrlich tells me when he acquired his first artwork—at age sixteen. What are the odds?
Thursday is for catching up but all I manage to get in are the Jimmie Durham and Rachel Rose shows at the Serpentine. I keep hearing that Durham has given two of the most profoundly moving speeches of the week, both of which I missed. Now I have to move carefully; it’s another night of bounty. Colm Tóibín and Rachel Whiteread sign limited-edition books at Mags in Berkeley Square. What now? Will it be Timothy Taylor’s dinner for Meckseper? With beautifully minimal display windows, she is showing an elegant gray painting of semen on canvas and a stuffed New York rat. “It had to be a New York rat, and it had to be male,” she says. But how can I resist the Kickstarter/Glasgow International dinner in the basement of Barrafina, where all the young female dynamos on the scene are massing? I stop by the Royal Academy’s Ai Weiwei show. The artist is back in Beijing. I don’t get out clean.
I’m winding down, and just as I realize that I have spent a full week in London without running into Hans Ulrich Obrist, I stumble into a command performance of Olde English folk songs by Emily Sundblad and Matt Sweeney. They’re appearing before an international audience of sixty people invited to Chelsea by Fiorucci Art Trust director Milovan Farronato, who is hiding behind a beaded veil.
“You’ll like our finale,” Sundblad says. “It’s ‘Wall of Death.’ ”
PERHAPS UNDERSTATEMENT comes naturally to the British. Last Friday night in London, for example, Delfina Foundation director Aaron Cezar happily observed the many early birds at his fund-raising exhibition, “Then for Now,” noting that “Frieze starts earlier every year!” It was a full five days before the opening of the fair.
The truth is that those attending his opening were homies, and that Frieze needs London, and its healthy concentration of wealth, artists, galleries, institutions, and oddments.
Take the octogenarian art patron Delfina Entrecanales, whose twenty-five-year-old international residency program has given significant support to the careers of over four hundred artists. They include Tacita Dean, Mark Wallinger, Eva Rothschild, Richard Woods, and Anya Gallaccio, five of the eighteen alums that another, Chantal Joffe, put together with cocurator and critic Sacha Craddock. What’s weird, and refreshing, about Entrecanales is that she puts her money into artists, not art, which she is adamant about not collecting.
This keeps her foundation safe from the fickle fashions of the art market. Yet here she was hosting a selling exhibition to keep her very worthy operation going. No one is immune! More fascinating is what got Entrecanales into her line of philanthropy: Soft Machine, the 1960s psychedelic band, which she financed first. “Music was too expensive,” she said, so she turned to emerging artists, whose materials were cheaper and who didn’t need to tour or book recording studios. Entrecanales had spent that very day in a studio at the BBC, where she was the subject of a documentary airing this weekend. “They kept me there for eight hours,” she said. “For ten minutes on camera!”
Such is the price of fame, which Oscar Murillo could have told her something about. The crowd at Delfina was vastly outnumbered by the scene makers filling David Zwirner Gallery’s townhouse in Mayfair for the Colombian-born Londoner’s first show at the space. It brought, on a rare trip to Blimey, MoMA trustee AC Hudgins, other happening young artists like Ed Fornieles, curators including Sir Norman Rosenthal, ICA director Gregor Muir, South London gallery director Margot Heller, and several representatives of Murillo’s other galleries, including Vanessa Carlos, his former schoolmate and first dealer.
Ashley Bickerton, who could tell Murillo a thing or two about art stardom since the ’80s, was hanging out with Robert Norton, the British businessman who was proud to admit that he created Saatchi Online and the video-game version of American Idol as well as Sedition Art (for digital versions of artworks made in other forms), and is now launching Verisart, the new company that purports to verify every artwork ever made by giving it a digital DNA.
Murillo, on the other hand, is still into the handmade, stitched-together, stacked, ripped, burned, and painted canvas and, as the dinner at Bellamy’s that followed his opening suggested, the home-cooked. The artist is very close to his family, who moved to London when he was a boy. Much to the visible chagrin of Bellamy’s owner, his mother and aunt brought a buffet of tamales and a pork-and-rice stew that outdid the banal chicken and artichoke heart salad on the restaurant’s menu. Murillo invited three actors to perform a reading of The Street Cries of London, which has to do with the hawking of goods from street stalls in olden days. It was amusing to imagine a Victorian Zwirner standing in Grafton Street and calling out Murillo’s name and exhibition titles like “binary function” all day.
Thanks to the marketing muscle of our auction houses, he doesn’t have to. Zwirner’s attraction to Murillo is partly the energy of his youth, which reminds the dealer of his own, when seat-of-the-pants improvisation was a requirement. “I didn’t get the show I was expecting,” Zwirner told me, waxing ecstatic about Murillo’s new semidocumentary video, for which he commissioned a sound track from a name composer that, sadly, neither the artist nor the dealer would name. (Just “James.” You guess the rest.) “The sound is so important,” Zwirner said. “It’s really too bad that you couldn’t hear it during the opening.”
During dinner, among company that also included older pals like artist Henry Taylor, fashion designer Duro Olowu, and Kilimanjaro editor Olu Michael Odukoya, the freckle-faced Murillo, newly sporting a nearly shaven head, was quick to give credit to the various people who have helped him up the ladder, including Carlos, Heller, and Rollo von Hofmannsthal, the dealer who introduced the artist to Zwirner. Murillo also credited the influence of exhibitions he saw as a student at the nonprofit Chisenhale Gallery. “It’s so nice that Oscar always mentions us,” said Chisenhale director Polly Staple. “We’ve never even given him a show!”
Over in Soho, Sylvia Kouvali carried on at Rodeo Galley with new works by Ian Law that incorporate birdseed, wall paintings of a ghostly budgie, and stained foam cushions from hospital rooms. The subject was the vacuum of grief that can envelope a person after the death of a loved one after a long illness. Somehow it wasn’t depressing—maybe because of the tenderness the show expressed. Or because Kouvali throws a good party.
Frieze got a little closer the following night, when Simon and Michaela de Pury hosted a preview at Ely House of artworks from the Lambert Collection that are going on the block tonight at Christie’s. “Up until five years ago, this building was my family’s bank,” said Hugo Rittson-Thomas, the photographer who is now in charge of the Fleming Collection, which is dedicated to Scottish art. (The banking family also sired James Bond creator Ian Fleming.)
It’s so difficult to take art seriously when it’s jammed cheek-by-jowl into small rooms with no-longer-wanted furniture, porcelain, and wall hangings that have absolutely no relation other than a common desire by their owners to profit from it. Such junk-shop treatment makes me testy, and I found it more agreeable to meet other people, like the very hospitable Italian hotelier Antonio Sersale, who was in the crowd with Rittson-Thomas’s wife Silka, founder of Tuk Tuk Flower Studio in Mayfair.
Left: Dealer Nicholas Logsdail. Right: Chisenhale Gallery director Polly Staple.
Together we hightailed it to Grosvenor Hill for the opening of Larry Gagosian’s third gallery in London. As is the dealer’s longtime custom, his inaugural artist was Cy Twombly. Big, late scribble paintings from the “Bacchus” series—among my least favorite by this artist—were on view with wonderful drawings from 1969 in two large exhibition spaces converted by Caruso St John, the architecture firm behind the Blain|Southern Gallery in Berkeley Square, the Barbican concert hall, and seven other Gagosians, after borrowing a trick or two from David Chipperfield, who was giving it the evil eye. No one else, said gallery artist Michael Craig-Martin, could nail such an enormous, open space in the middle of Mayfair, where galleries are equivalent in size to those on Madison Avenue in Manhattan (not counting Gagosian’s).
We were talking over an elaborate seafood and truffle-cheese buffet dinner at a gentleman’s club in a grand double town house originally built by J. P. Morgan’s niece as her London pied-à-terre. “I’ve been here a lot,” Craig-Martin said, “and it always looks quite seedy. Tonight, somehow, it seems positively opulent.”
Indeed it was. Perhaps the floral displays and low lighting helped. So did the array of guests, who included dealers Doris Amman and Almine Rech, MoMA trustee Donald Marron, and the fun-loving financier-collector Pierre Lagrange, who recently acquired Huntsman’s, a stuffy Savile Row tailor shop that he is currently kitting out with sheep by Les Lalannes and other animal artworks. Also on hand were gallery mates Jonas Wood, Glenn Brown, and Paul Noble, who claimed that his drawings always had far more fun than he did. Towering over everyone was the self-effacing Edmund de Waal, potter and author of The Hare with Amber Eyes, truly one of the best books I’ve ever read.
It was equally thrilling to meet the bespoke Barry Humphries, the Aussie actor known to theater audiences everywhere as Dame Edna Everage, and to watch a dirty joke told to him by another fan, collector Jean Pigozzi, totally bomb. Before the dust could clear, a mystery band that dealer Stellan Holm whispered would be fronted by Chrissie Hynde started setting up. In fact, the entertainment—as if we needed more entertainment—was the Noisettes of South London, an indie band founded by guitarist Dan Smith and live-wire vocalist Shingai Shoniwa, who sang, danced, and jumped into the audience and finally up on the bar to finish the set.
By that time, Gagosian and Chrissie Erpf had gone home, but Anish Kapoor and his girlfriend Sophie Walker were on the scene. “I’d love to see your work,” Shoniwa told him, minutes after they met. “Can I see it somewhere?”
“GREATER NEW YORK,” MoMA PS1’s signature “quinquennial,” seems more like a Hunger Games Quarter Quell. A broad cross-section of artists is reunited to present an image of just what New York’s whole deal is these days. Judgments are made, and maybe by the end someone will make it out alive. This kind of survey show was once designed to take the temperature of a scene. Well, you don’t check your temperature unless you feel ill, and anyone who lives in New York knows all is not well in the state of us (especially if you made the grave mistake of going to college while poor in the past decade…).
It’s Friday morning. The show is up and the curators are talking: MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach reminisces about how the title came from a map curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev had in the 1990s, when they were first gaming out the idea with PS1 founder Alanna Heiss. “Let’s find out how young artists live now in New York,” sayeth the absent Christov-Bakargiev via the present Biesenbach. Peter Eleey, who curated the current iteration with Thomas Lax and Mia Locks and the art historian Douglas Crimp, notes MoMA PS1’s “role in the changing city” and expresses concern about “the ’70s and ’80s presence in contemporary New York.”
The show’s fourth edition is generationally expansive—the earliest dated pieces seem to be Mary Beth Edelson prints from 1973—as opposed to the physically expansive concentration of works by young bucks installed in the galleries in shows past. It features artists that no one could mistake for “emerging”: Chantal Akerman (RIP), Charles Atlas, Donald Moffett, Howardena Pindell, and Glenn Ligon, to name a few. This is key to their approach this round, a reaction to a reputation for showing hot, new artists that get the market buzzing. To whit, Eleey offers that they purposely delayed releasing the full list of artists until the week of the show in order to “humble” it and make it seem “less related to trends.” (Perhaps a nobler excuse than “because it wasn’t ready”?)
But trending away from the current has instead thrown us headlong into the wistful past. Throughout, the curatorial sweet spot of late-’70s and early-’80s work that engaged the city rears its corroded, haloed head. There’s Alvin Baltrop’s beautifully cruise-y photos of Manhattan’s West Side piers and the men who loved to love there, James Nares’s seminal 1976 film Pendulum, and Henry Flynt’s documentation of SAMO graffiti around downtown. These are golden works, but how can the preserved luminescence of the past not cast a pall over the present, especially in New York, where there will always be someone on hand to let you know how great things used to be? “Greater” New York indeed.
Who and where we are now, the show seems to suggest, has everything to do with real estate transformations that began in the 1970s, a thesis also advanced by Crimp and Lynne Cooke’s 2010 Reina Sofía exhibition “Mixed Use, Manhattan,” from which the current GNY borrows several works. This might help explain several otherwise confusing juxtapositions, such as the repeating documentary photographs of Gordon Matta-Clark’s cuts into the PS1 building during its inaugural 1976 show, one of which is installed next to Collier Schorr’s leaning boards emblazoned with model Jordan Barrett. That said, I think the third floor’s Eckhaus Latta installation, in a room next to choreographer Jen Rosenblit’s ongoing performance Clap Hands/Solo Studies, itself sandwiched between two billboard-style Louise Lawler photographs, feels most true to the present’s messy collisions of fashion and bodies and institutional politics. And as a friend admits, “It’s hard to hate a show with not one but two appearances by Lady Bunny.” (And thirty years apart at that—from Nelson Sullivan’s 1985 video Bunny Chase to Atlas’s 2015 portrait.)
Bunny doesn’t make an appearance at the night’s private opening and dinner, a relatively sparse affair, perhaps due to the raging rain that lets loose thirty minutes prior to doors. The most loyal foot soldiers make the trek. Artists in the show like Kevin Beasley, Howardena Pindell, Su Friedrich, Peter Saul, Adam McEwan, Nancy Shaver, and Sadie Benning take in the array. Benning admits she hasn’t seen her stuff up yet. Eckhaus Latta’s Zoe Latta says the same when I compliment her installation. She dazedly inquires about its location, and I offer a vague approximation that I hope puts the wind back in her sails. Curators lead around museum patrons Phil and Shelley Fox Aarons, Clarissa Dalrymple gasps in delight at the collective KIOSK’s expansive, uh, kiosk of objets d’art and trinkets, and artist Christine Sun Kim demonstrates her interactive sound installation with Dev Hynes.
Once we crunch through the slippery wet gravel out to the steamy VW (eek) Dome, we encounter a Teutonic menu of pretzels and sausages piled in mounds before the now comfortably oversize crowd. Without the pressure of assigned seating, everyone comes and goes as they please. Eleey rises to dole out a speech that starts with “I didn’t want to do this show…” and ends on a reflection about W. H. Auden that I can’t quite absorb after that opening remark.
Biesenbach brings in more tables to accommodate the overflow. We might be in Long Island City, but everyone is tossing back Manhattans. By the time the settings are cleared, the crowd is loose and antsy and in the mood for spectacle, which a few gumptious individuals including Mike Eckhaus, Rosenblit, and (suddenly shirtless) GNY alum Ryan McNamara are happy to provide. The latter two drag a beaming Crimp, sporting a Susan Cianciolo–deconstructed shawl, onto the tables for an impromptu runway show, then dance on said tables until they collapse under the weight of all that attitude. Would Lawler join in? “No way!” she squeals, and runs off to fill her wine glass with milk. Is this how artists live now in New York?
TAKE ONE HAUNTED HOUSE, a bowl of magic, and a brace of hand puppets. Mix with poisonous mushrooms and an intrepid crew of Polish, Italian, British, and American artists. What have you got? A recipe for chaos!
Chaos, in this case, is the wellspring of unconscious desire that fed the second edition of Mycorial Theater, the mycelium of a symposium and retreat organized last week in Rabka, Poland by artist Paulina Olowska and Fiorucci Art Trust curator Milovan Farronato.
Rabka is a provincial spa town in the Gorce Mountains. It’s about an hour’s drive from Krakow and a few miles from Auschwitz. Normally, people go to Rabka to take the healing saline waters and clear their lungs. After trying out Warsaw and Chicago, Olowska went there to marry her philosopher husband, Bartosz (or Bartek) Olowski, and stayed.
Ground zero for Mycorial Theater was the Villa, a three-story lodge built around 1930 in the post-and-beam manner. Designed by the architect son of Kazimierz Kaden, the entrepreneurial pediatrician and medicinal plant expert who founded the spa, it is an especially splendid example of of Zakopane Modernism, the twentieth-century architectural style named for a nearby town. Two years ago, Olowska bought it, saving it from demolition, and renamed it Creative House Kadenówka, hoping to make it a place where artists could come and work and, more important, gather to exchange ideas away from the pressures of commerce and career.
Though named for mushrooms, community is really what Mycorial Theater is about. With Farronato, Olowska incubated the idea a few years ago, during one of the Fiorucci Art Trust’s similarly madcap Volcano Extravaganzas on the island of Stromboli. Together, the pair selected artists working outside the market who might contribute another layer of history to Kadenówka. From Poland (via Berlin) came Maria Loboda. Joining her were Krysztof Stefan Maniak and Iza Tarasewicz, who was accompanied by her American amour, writer Matthew Alexander Post. To add a little Mediterranean flavor, Farronato chose three Italians, Niccolo Gandolfi, Chiara Fumai, and Giorgio Andreotta. Another American, Micki Pellerano, lives in Brooklyn. Not present but contributing via the Internet were Danny McDonald, from New York, and Celia Hempton, from London. Carsten Holler, spiritual godfather of the week, unfortunately couldn’t make it.
To further stir the pot, Olowska brought in a private chef, Mihail Gnilka, who recently returned to Poland after longtime cooking gigs in Bali, Mexico, and London. He also bore very cool tats. One, appropriately enough, is of a big mushroom.
Why mushrooms? Well, I was told, mushrooms make an apt metaphor for an umbrella project shielding many strands of growth. As either remedy or poison, they have an appealing ambiguity. Many varieties of fungus grow in the Gorce, though because of a dry summer, the artists were able to gather only a single basket of inedible, somewhat alarming mushrooms on an overnight hike in the highlands that preceded my arrival. Their catch made a wonderful centerpiece for the long dining table in the central atrium of Kadenówka, which has unfurnished bedrooms and a hot tub but no heat or hot water, other than what Olowska’s crew boiled in an enormous kettle on the hot plate that was the kitchen’s only stove.
Left: Krzysztof Maniak. Right: Artist Jakub Ziolkowski and Goethe Institute (Krakow) program director Dorota Krakowska.
For these reasons, the artists bunked next door in Villa Anna, a monastic caravansary offering towels that felt like sandpaper and absolutely no amenities, unless you count the fake gold-satin duvet covers and pillowcases. However, Kadenówka was said to be haunted. “Something very bad is supposed to have happened to a young girl here,” Olowska said.
That attractive rumor, along with the villa’s past lives as a medical staff dormitory, and the collection of musty objects—a handbag, a pair of slippers, empty bottles, a few tins, a pamphlet, an ancient flat iron that weighs a ton—that Olowska found stuffed in the walls, added context to Mycorial Theater’s first after-dinner presentationa “Mass of Chaos” led by the raven-haired Fumai, a Milanese performance artist. She also happens to be a witch.
Dressed in a traditional black robe and hood, Fumai lit candles in an open space on Kadenowka’s second-floor balcony while the rest of us seated ourselves around her. Speaking the eerie “postmodern language of magic,” which sounded like a mashup of Greek, Latin, German, and Italian, she hollowed out her voice to call upon Metapheranus, or “man of feathers,” a demon savior with the power to vacate any extant evil spirits from the house.
With elements borrowed from Nietzsche, Aleister Crowley, and Tantric ritual, Chaos Magic was the brainchild of a nineteenth-century British artist and mystic felicitously named Austin Osman Spare. It’s about freeing the subconscious, and Fumai performed the fifteen-minute mass with such gravity that it was hard to keep from laughing—until Olowska pointed out, when the lights went up, that my chair had partly collapsed and, balancing itself on three legs, was now leaning against a wall. (I am not making this up.)
Left: Artist Maria Loboda. Right: Mycorial Theater facilitator Kuba Gacek.
There isn’t a whole lot to do after nightfall in such remote places except to listen for the flap of a vampire’s wings, drink, smoke, and play Villagers and Wolves, a card game designed by Pellerano. Weirdly, he practices chaos magic too. What’s Villagers and Wolves? “It’s really fun,” Olowska said. “There’s a lot of killing.” By game’s end, everyone but Pellerano, Post, and Farronato had diedfor fun.
We were all up bright and early next morning for breakfast at Kadenówka. The table groaned with delicious local cheeses, local butter, local honey, local breads, pickled mushrooms,and cooked local eggs. When we were done, Olowska led the group on a stroll through Rabka’s enormous parkland, which is directly behind the house and has many sanitarium treatment centers all over it. It also has a bronze of the Polish Pope, John Paul II, and quite a large cemetery for a place that, in theory, helps people to a longer life.
Next, Olowska took us to a parking lot–flea market to do some shopping. Just up the street was an old puppet theater, where children come every morning to see the show, which has human actors as well as hand puppets. For Olowska, puppetry is a neglected form of art performed with music and objects that move. Artists, she said, always used to collaborate with theaters. So, as a gift to the town, she painted the building’s outside walls with puppet figures. For that reason, the theater’s director gave us access to its costume shop, where the artists had a field day trying on costumes and looking for props to use for the open house that would be the week’s culminating event.
Dinner that evening was a mushroom risotto enhanced by not just Gnilka’s cooking but also a healthy hunk of parmesan cheese that Gandolfi had brought from his native Bologna. Afterward, it was Pellerano’s turn to make witchcraft, and to complete the evil-chasing spell cast by Fumai on the previous night. This time, the two worked together and dressed in white. Out came more candles and a video projection by Pellerano, who bathed our hands in scented water while a recorded female voice intoned a litany that I didn’t quite catch. I can say that afterward we all felt cleansed. “There’s no such thing as black magic or white magic,” Fumai told us. “Magic is gray.”
Left: Artist chef Michal Gnilka. Right: Fiorucci Art Trust curatorial assistant Marina La Verghetta and Mycorial Theater facilitator Aleksandra Idler.
Tuesday was a day to pursue individual projects. I spent most of it at the Olowska/Olowski house and studio, which are set on a gorgeous hectare of gracefully sloping land with panoramic views of the mountains. He cooked the bigos that night for the dinner party that he and Olowska hosted at home to celebrate their ninth wedding anniversary.
This is when it became crystal clear that the purpose of Mycorial Theater was less about mushrooms and magic than realizing a utopian vision of artistic community. “Artists can create gatherings that are quite substantial,” Olowska told me. “In my work,” she said, referring to a monthlong collaboration with Lucy McKenzie in 2003, when the two young artists operated a bar in Warsaw, “I was always interested in establishing a community. That’s why finding mushrooms was less important than the bonding experience of the hike. It’s very important to meet about something other than making objects. It’s about the process,” she said, “about making a future museum of meetings. I’m interested in proposing artists not just to exhibit together but also to question what an exhibition is.”
On Wednesday, I took my own hike up a mountain with Olowski, who has established the Razem Pamoja Foundation, which connects art students and teachers in Krakow to their counterparts in a major slum of Nairobi, Kenya. I would see their paintings and crafts in the foundation’s gallery the following day. Meanwhile, we just talked about it, and night fell before we got back down the mountain. That evening’s root vegetable dinner and performances drew guests from Krakow: the painter Jakub Ziolkowski and Dorotna Krakowska, program director of the city’s Goethe Institute and the daughter of the late artist and theater director Tadeusz Kantor, a revered figure in these parts. First Andreotta showed a beautiful silent film featuring a burning boat and a dance of fireflies—actually the headlamps of miners on an all-night walk along the Sardinian coast. (Fire is his principal material.)
Next came a video documenting the six-night performance of The Mother An Unsavoury Play in Two Acts and an Epilogue, Olowska’s adaptation of an old Polish play performed for six nights the week before at Tate Modern, with the adept Farronato in a supporting role. The set was a reproduction of Villa Kadenowka, though this one had paintings from the museum’s collection. (Olowska will reprise the performance at the Kitchen in New York next year.)
Left: Rabka Puppet Theater. Right: Artist Niccolo Gandolfi.
The rest of the entertainment that night was voluntary—sleeping in the house. Only the two curators did so. “It was kind of cold,” they admitted the next morning, before clearing out the rooms for the evening program. During the Open House, about thirty people came from Rabka and Krakow to sit down for individual tarot card readings by Loboda, drink the bottled waters, eat mushroom hors d’oeuvres and morel-inflected soup by Gilka, and check out the spell that Fumai had painted on the walls of an upstairs room, near a miniature mushroom diorama that Gandolfi created in a closet, opposite his wall-size scan of all the mushrooms collected on the hike. Outside, Andreotta made an intervention with fire pits and the upended roots of a fallen tree.
All week, we had been e-mailing sounds recorded in the house to Hempton in London, and videos shot around town to McDonald. Hempton sent back a resonant sound collage and the images of two abstract paintings that Olowska put on canvas for her, perfectly mimicking Hempton’s impastoed style. McDonald’s hilarious and surreal video played in another room downstairs, while up on the balcony, Tarasewicz and Post presented “Fungal Follies,” a puppet show that would have been more entertaining with live, rather than recorded, voices. To cap things off, Fumai and Pellerano led the audience in a Chaos Magic workshop, “The Secrets of Sigilization,” or how to realize your dreams. The quickest way, it turned out, is through masturbation.
Well, no art camp would be worth its name without a sexual metaphor. “Magic works!” Pellerano exclaimed. It also travels. Next year, Mycorial Theater is likely to generate even more heat—from its satellite location, mushroom-laden Minas Gerais, Brazil.
WHEN CRITIC BORIS GROYS heard that this year’s Moscow Biennale would be called “How to Gather?” he reportedly replied: “Simple. As enemies.”
This sentiment saturated the event’s closing keynote, which was delivered last Thursday with moderate fanfare by Yanis Varoufakis, former finance minister of Greece (and sometime desk editor of Witte de With’s online journal, WdW Review). To start, Varoufakis acknowledged the occasional upsides to conflict, quoting Orson Welles’s famous line from The Third Man: “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Turbulent times may inspire great art, but they can be hell on institutions. The question of not only how to come together but why has prompted a rethinking of this September’s crop of large-scale exhibitions in Russia and Ukraine, two countries embroiled in a conflict-by-any-other-name. Cut loose from most government funding, the Moscow Biennale morphed into a ten-day program of lectures, screenings, performances, and works-in-process, while the Kyiv Biennial refashioned itself into “The School of Kyiv,” a series of similarly fluid, theme-based initiatives (“The School of the Lonesome,” “The School of the Displaced,” etc.), convening over two months in Kyiv and a network of outposts, from Trondheim, Norway, to Tbilisi, Georgia. Over in Ekaterinburg, the Third Ural Industrial Biennial—which enjoys relative autonomy under the umbrella of the Ural branch of Russia’s National Center for Contemporary Art (NCCA)—decamped from its former home in the Uralsky Rabochi Typography (“We gentrified it,” NCCA’s Elizaveta Yuzhakova shrugged, as we passed the hipster burger bar nestled in the factory’s foyer) to another of the city’s Constructivist landmarks: the Iset Hotel. Now defunct, the hotel was originally built in the early 1930s as part of Chekist Town, a utopian housing community for Cheka, the brutal forerunners to the KGB. In other words, the biennial was still “industrial,” just another type of industry.
Left: Writer and culturologist Gleb Berg with curator Andrey Misiano at the Kavkaz Pavilion. Right: Artist Yves Maes and Ural Industrial Biennial commissar, NCCA director Alisa Prudnikova.
Intrigued by the idea of a happy ending for state-sponsored assassins (or at the very least, communal day care), I prefaced my visit to Moscow with a day trip to Ekaterinburg, where the biennial’s China-based curators, Biljana Ciric and Li Zhenhua, tackled the potentially loaded theme of “Mobilization.” Rather than directly engage the military connotations of the term, the curators ruminated on how bodies or political masses come together (albeit via separate exhibitions). Ciric’s exhibition fired off a formidable opening volley of works, crowned by Polina Kanis’s Work Out, 2011, a video showing the artist leading a group of elderly citizens in aerobics in the park, carefully feeding them instructions until she has them marching in step. For his contribution, Li summarized his skepticism through his exhibition title—“No Real Body”—if not through a series of sharp-tongued installations, from the !Mediengruppe Bitnik’s Random Darknet Shopper, a bot that blew its bitcoins on black-market goods, to Sergey Rozhin’s adolescent fantasy transposing a lone Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle to a one-room apartment in Ekaterinburg. (Spoiler Alert: This involves a lot of pizza, Jennifer Lopez pinups, and suspiciously crusty VHS tapes.)
After checking out of the Iset, I made pit stops at the street-art gallery Sweater and the artist-run space Cultural Transit, where artist Sergey Polteryaev guided me through an exhibition playfully conflating an area of the city dubbed “Kuba” with its namesake country. The show spun the tale of a fictional influx from Havana to the Urals, complete with spurious interviews and a long, drawn-out narrative involving a portrait of Che Guevara that transformed into a painting of an old Siberian house after someone spilled vodka on it. It reminded me of something curator Vladimir Seleznyov had said earlier that day: “These mountains are full of myths.”
Back in Moscow, the biennial indulged in some mythmaking of its own, trading traditional white-cube venues for the Main Pavilion of the V.D.N.Kh., the All Russia Central Exhibition Hall, an open-air complex that vaguely resembles Venice’s Giardini, with pavilions dedicated either to individual Soviet republics or to products such as Oil or Wheat. In recent years, most of these pavilions have been colonized by kiosks peddling an icky assortment of patent-leather shoes, secondhand furs, or phone chargers, though with the reinvigoration of Russia’s Imperalist tendencies, several of the larger structures—the Main Pavilion included—have suddenly found the funds for face lifts. As I made my way down the newly spiffed-up grand promenade, I bumped into critic Brian Droitcour, fresh from a neighboring pavilion’s Cat Expo. “It was basically a room full of purebreds and then this guy who just really likes cats, who let you pet them,” Droitcour recounted. He glanced over at some of the biennial artists smoking cigarettes on the building stoop. “This is sort of a petting-the-cats kind of biennial.”
Left: Moscow Biennale team member Kate Savchenko with artists Almagul Menlibayeva and Li Mu. Right: Artist Danae Stratou.
The Moscow Biennale almost didn’t see its sixth edition. Funding crisis aside, the institution faced considerable restrictions with its historical venue under renovation. Forbidden from touching the walls, curators Bart De Baere, Defne Ayas, and Nicolaus Schafhausen brought in architects MEL Studio to devise a system of substitute scaffolding, while mural painters continued their restoration work behind the transparent partition lining the back wall. The biennial was split into two ten-day sessions: the performance-heavy, “process” period, built around keynote lectures from speakers like Varoufakis, Ackbar Abbas, Saskia Sassen, and Rem Koolhaas, and the “documentation” period, which surveyed interventions from artists including Saâdane Afif, Keren Cytter, Isa Genzken, Gabriel Lester, Qiu Zhijie, and Luc Tuymans. Throughout the first session, these artists lingered about the pavilion, participating in free-form discussions, screenings, readings, and group lunches, as well as intellectual and physical “workouts.” (Going by Instagram, the last of these consisted of everyone running in a frenzied circle around the central performance space.)
The resulting exhibition’s exacting subtitle—“Acting in a Center in a City in the Heart of the Island of Eurasia”—was laden with the kind of ideological land mines one unpacks with extreme caution, if at all. While De Baere proudly wore his enthusiasm for the term “Eurasia” (his catalogue essay is an extended advertisement for his decision to rechristen the MuKhA a museum of “Eurasian” art), his audience was reluctant to buy into its potential. In the Russian context, “Eurasia” conjures a strain of radical thought that gained traction at the turn of the last century by indulging in some casually racist self-orientalizing on Russia’s part, advancing the idea that Russia is somehow “more” than Europe, rather than really contemplating that Eurasia might mean more than Russia. The term has recently been revived, albeit with the additional inflections of nationalist and neo-imperial nuances—basically that Russia should be “more,” period. This explained its popularity with sponsors, but also the wariness of artists to adopt the terminology. (Where was Slavs and Tatars, a collective born from this hesitation?)
Left: Artist Haim Sokol and critic Masha Kravtsova. Right: Moscow Biennale participant Ilya Budraitskis and filmmaker Dmitry Venkov.
Picking up on the Eurasian cue (and the money that seemed to materialize around it), many of the parallel projects turned to the edges of the former—knock on wood—Russian Empire. Among the most prominent was a sweeping group show surveying the greatest hits of Vladikavkaz’s Art Alanica exchange program, which spanned three stories in the base of Vera Mukhina’s Worker and Kolhoznitsa. (I assume the irony of filling a monument to labor with work largely from the Caucasus was intentional?) A more overtly self-aware critique came in the form of the “Kavkaz Pavilion,” which huddled beside V.D.N.Kh.’s Main Pavilion in a slipshod “extension” associated with the region’s lack of building restrictions. Organized by the Unbound, a loose association including artist Taus Makhacheva, anthropologist Gleb Berg, and curator Andrei Misiano, the show trades in stereotypes, drawing from personal experiences, YouTube videos, and the occasional artistic intervention (see Farhad Farzaliyev’s Azerbaijani Sandwich, the stack of wallets, car keys, cell phone, and cigarettes frequently spotted on dining tables), all set against a wallpaper backdrop of Chechen warlord-cum-president Ramzan Kadyrov’s decadent dining room.
While “Eurasia” has been widely dismissed as romantic fiction, Europe is beginning to look more and more like fantasy. “It’s not immediately obvious why I am here,” Varoufakis kicked off his keynote. (Funny, I was thinking the same about his opening act, a cover band featuring a girl in a cowboy hat bellowing “Smells like Teen Spirit.”) The self-professed “former finance minister of a bankrupt country” downplayed his considerable art-world cred, stockpiled not only during his tenure as a desk editor at the WdW Review or the time spent accompanying his wife, artist Danae Stratou, on research trips for her projects (including the Athens nonprofit Vital Space, which Varoufakis helped found) but also through his own writing, which is steeped in references to visual culture. If anything, he seemed relieved to be able to speak openly about art. Emphasis on openly. Not one to mince words, he was quick to let me know his stance on Documenta’s sojourn in Athens: “Personally I find it pretty offensive. Like depression tourism.”
Up at the podium, Varoufakis played to his audience. “Do you really want to have a glimpse at what’s wrong with the Euro? Well, take out a bill and look at it. What do you see? A very boring design.” Never mind the general absence of Euros in the house: He had us. “I’ll tell you a dirty secret,” he teased. “These archways and bridges you see don’t exist.” European Union representatives could not come to a consensus as to which of the continent’s treasures—from the Greek Parthenon to Cologne’s cathedral—to feature on the currency, “so they commissioned some third-rate artists to make fourth-rate work. We just had to look at the bill to know it would fail.” He used this observation to springboard into a larger point about how, when we look at a work of art, we often read it through the lens of its social and economic context, but when we look at economics, we read it as if it is an independent series of facts, not affected by culture. This, he warns, is a grave mistake.
Left: Artist Aslan Gaisumov. Right: Artist Dmitriy Fedorov shows a photo to critic Sergey Guskov and artist Sergey Bratkov.
Of course, the gravest mistake, in Varoufakis’s opinion, is the flimsy social architecture of Europe, where the numbing homogenization introduced by an unchecked market erodes rather than bolsters the public sphere. He spoke rapturously of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 1991 film The Double Life of Veronique, which stages a momentary collision of two identical women living on different sides of the Berlin Wall. Varoufakis lamented that a movie like this would no longer be possible in today’s world, where, rather than forge a lasting bond, the two Veroniques would be pitted against each other in competition for the same dwindling resources.
When it came time for questions, most were run-of-the-mill “How would you save Europe?,” until someone raised the possibility that technology might reinforce the public sphere. “Technology in the social body is the equivalent of mutations in biology,” Varoufakis ventured. “We are at a crossroads. We could end up as Star Trek, the utopian society where no one has to work, they just get to sit around talking about problems, and when you want something to drink, you go to the hole in the wall, and there it is. Or we can end up as The Matrix, a world where we are enslaved by the machines we have created. It depends on the strength of our public sphere.”
While it may not have been the most direct route, it was the best answer I’d heard as to why to keep gathering. As for how? Consider it a work-in-process.
Left: Artists Leon Kahane and Keren Cytter. Right: Artists Birdhead.
IMPRESSIVE EXHIBITIONS, like abhorrent oil spills, can really stick: The impact is permanent. Still, I wasn’t the only one surprised to see the budding Chicago Architecture Biennial get in bed with Big Oil the first time around. Perhaps there was some kind of misunderstanding.
“What the heck is an architecture biennale?” asked the president of BP America, John Mingé, at last Thursday’s press conference for “The State of the Art of Architecture,” on view at the Chicago Cultural Center and other sympathetic institutions through January 3. He was recalling his reaction when organizers approached the beleaguered company about a sponsorship a few years back—before it paid record environmental fines for letting obscene amounts of oil gush into the Gulf of Mexico for eighty-seven days in 2010. “But we actually looked into it. We said, ‘What a fantastic thing to do in this city.’ ”
Chicago, elevation 595 feet, certainly stands a better chance against creeping sea levels than Venice. And Chicago—home of the first modern high-rises, world’s fairs, Frank Lloyd Wright, and whatnot—makes architectural heritage a central part of its identity as no other major American city does. Surprised the city wasn’t in the biennial game, Mayor Rahm Emanuel hatched one as part of his 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan, a policy framework dense with phrases like “cultural assets,” “innovation,” and “global destination.” As the mayor, braggart, said: “If it’s my vision, I want to thank you all for realizing it.” We applauded him telling us to applaud ourselves.
Left: Serpentine Gallery codirector Hans Ulrich Obrist and architect Andreas Angelidakis. Right: Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago chief curator Michael Darling and architect Mark Lee.
But, really, what the heck is an architecture biennale? With over one hundred participants from more than thirty countries—architects, mostly midcareer, plus artists like Tomás Saraceno and Pedro Reyes—the inaugural exhibition played the long game. It was, organizers took pains to note, the largest exhibition ever of its kind in North America. The artistic directors, Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima, thought it better to be open, to avoid the all-time-high didacticism of Rem Koolhaas’s epic one-person group show in Venice last year. “We didn’t pick architects to illustrate our themes,” explained Herda while touring press around the principal exhibition site, a block-long, turn-of-the-twentieth-century building facing Millennium Park. The smarts and seriousness I’ve seen Grima, a peripatetic curator and writer, and Herda, head of the Chicago grant-making organization Graham Foundation, reveal elsewhere did not come through as much as some of us would have liked. The catchall title and soft curatorial hand perpetuated a degree of consensus not typical of these types of affairs: The show lacked focus. When I asked Herda whether the director would change with each iteration, she said that remained to be determined, but she expressed excitement for less conventional models, specifically Sally Tallant’s idea of a continuous Liverpool Biennial.
This much was certain: A biennial is not a biennial without Hans Ulrich Obrist. HUO was flown in to moderate “What is Urgent? 99 Telegraphic Manifestos on the State of the Art of Architecture,” an afternoon event that subjected most of the biennial participants to a torturous two-hour experiment in technodeterminism. One by one they mounted the stage, faced a camera, and tried as hard as possible to respond to the titular question within fifteen seconds (the maximum permitted length of video clips on Instagram). The long-winded were castigated, forced to do it over. Andreas Angelidakis admitted his work wasn’t very urgent, but he managed in a quarter-minute to sound pretty sage: Instead of making refugee housing, architects should design legislation that permits refugees to inhabit the glut of vacant buildings in his hometown of Athens. I fidgeted near the door for twenty minutes, then left, finding a few invitees playing hooky. “I don’t know what this word ‘urgent’ means,” said an outspoken Belgian in flawless English.
Absent too was Turner Prize nominee Assemble—both work and members. The DIY architecture collaborative—the first of that disciplinary orientation ever to be considered for the eminent art award—was busy installing its exhibition in Glasgow, letting the gallery space assigned to it in Chicago accumulate with other participants’ tools and castoffs. It was just one of a number of signs of an awkward dynamic between art and architecture. Art—whatever that is—seemed to act the suture here, called upon to mend the gap between architecture as such and the exhibition of architecture.
Left: South Shore Drill Team performs architect Bryony Roberts’s “We Know How to Order” on Federal Center plaza. Right: Artist Barbara Kasten.
In truly desperate moments, middling digital renderings were ink-jetted on stretched FedEx Office canvas. “Artist and architect” Didier Faustino’s BUILTHEFIGHT—a ring of tangled steel tubes and pretty plywood supporting hollow declaratives (Protest, Resist, Occupy) scrawled in Tracey Emin–esque neon—reeked of antiseptic art-fair trade well past its sell-by date. Elsewhere, on a long table the width of a marble foyer, an agglomeration of cut-up printouts related to development in the Indo-Pacific region were affixed to wooden sticks à la Leaves of Grass, artist Geoffrey Farmer’s Documenta 13 diorama. Was it a copy? I asked its artificer, Urtzi Grau, one half of Fake Industries Architectural Agonism. “I’m happy someone got it,” he replied.
Two biennial partners, in different ways and on opposite ends of the city, did the art-architecture thing better. And they showed that traffic between these arts moves in both directions. On Thursday night, Barbara Kasten opened her retrospective at the Graham Foundation’s Gold Coast mansion, her fluorescent photos of mirrored constructs and Troll Doll–hued buildings more ecstatic than ever within the Prairie-style chambers. On Friday morning, press took a junket to the South Shore to see Stony Island Arts Bank, a financial institution converted into an art center, archive, and music venue by Theaster Gates’s Rebuild Foundation. Its official opening, the following day, was timed to coincide with the biennial, but Gates refused the veneer of good mood. “As much as I’m excited about the history of Chicago architecture,” began the artist-entrepreneur, rattling off the superlatives the biennial rides the coattails of, “we also have a major history of racism and segregation, a history of redlining and housing policies that work against the poor, against black and brown people.”
Getting at both sides is probably Gates’s greatest talent—and for his detractors the biggest problem. Back in the Loop that evening for the formal vernissage, I thought about how well architects know this mess of global finance, urban development, and community advocacy Gates is mixed up in, and yet how rarely they negotiate it with as much justice, poetics, and self-reflection.
Late night, lots of us were back down on the South Side, where we were promised a party but got something more like an alumni meetup, cordial and restrained. Lesson learned: The art of architecture—in this case the glorious Mies van der Rohe–designed Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology—isn’t much without life, or attitude.
GO TO SWEDEN for forty-eight hours? Absolutely! Or should I say: Absolut-ly! The advertising-adept vodka brand is one of the twenty-first century’s most ardent sponsors of contemporary art, and last weekend, the 2015 Absolut Art Award was celebrated in Stockholm with pomp. The two winners, winnowed from a list of five finalists in the categories of art and art writing, were Los Angeles icon Frances Stark and Tate Modern curator Mark Godfrey, whose friends and colleagues united for an outpouring of spectacle, marketing, and, yes, meaning.
Careening from the airport into Thursday’s welcome dinner, I disclaimed my discombobulation over an avant-garde plate of roe. Stark effervescently sympathized, adding that she was meeting “Ali” at the museum Monday morning. The dearly missed Ali Subotnick was nine time zones west, in the home stretch of curating the artist’s midcareer retrospective, “Uh-Oh,” which opens this week at the Hammer Museum.
On such pilgrimages, it’s often a split sense of no one understanding why they are there and everyone being reminded of the occasion nonstop. Stockholm was no different. Nearly all of us had been shipped in for a shotgun tour, and without an exhibition or fair to keep on the lips as daily business we rallied around celebrating an artist, a writer, and generosity in the service of selling alcohol. That generosity was well documented. There were as many journalists as arts professionals, as well as a crew of photographers without cameras. They were power Instagrammers, with upward of five hundred thousand followers each, invited to capture the weekend on their phones. They moved in a pack and staged people and cocktails with mercenary gusto.
Left: Rick Herron, Gazelle Paulo, and Scooter LaForge. Right: Artists Nadim Abbas and Adrian Wong. (Photo: Roberto Chamorro)
They even made their way to the Spiritmuseum across the water, where curators Bill Arning and Rick Herron were opening a group show called “Powerful Babies,” inspired by the legacy of Keith Haring. The museum has nothing to do with ghosts. It’s the home of the Absolut Art Collection, and a tribute to the notion of liquor as art. The museum’s graphic identity is a familiarly punchy, all-caps sans serif. (Its straight-faced, socially responsible website touts Sweden’s “bittersweet” relationship to alcohol with the promise of being “an unforgettable journey from pain to pleasure, from park bench to cocktail party”—skål!). During dinner, a party popped off at the Spiritmuseum DJed by Juliana Huxtable, so close yet so far away.
The next day we were off to lunch and barside chats between winners and jurors at the Absolut Atelier. First, Massimiliano Gioni interviewed Godfrey about his project, an anthology of interviews and artist writings from and revisiting “The Black Art Debate” and work made by African American artists from 1965 to the end of the 1970s. Gioni asked about such an endeavor being helmed by a white man. In response, Godfrey name-checked some uber-famous African American artists who have given him their blessing and alluded to non-Italians investigating Boetti. It goes without saying that it’s a good book to be making, and entirely appropriate to his role at the Tate as a curator of American art. What was not good was the feeling I had after I scanned the room of about one hundred people and did not see anyone who appeared to be of African descent; the mirage of a plush living room–cum-agora dissolved into a ivory echo-chamber reality.
It was all the more…unbelievable, really, given the degree of control over the weekend’s appearances, once Negar Azimi began to interview Stark about her project, which is about the predominantly African American and Latino neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles. Stark began to unpack the significances of the place, explaining her recent departure from USC, a fancy private school in the blighted district. Self-reflexively combining autobiography, pop culture, and recent history, she pointed out that Dr. Dre, the legendary rapper and music producer turned billionaire cofounder of Beats By Dre, both had grown up on these streets and was the catalyst for the rapid erosion of USC’s Roski School of Fine Arts via his outsize donation to the university that established a resource-competitive academy for commercial arts in his and Jimmy Iovine’s name.
Soon we were off to the Absolut Art Award gala at Tändstickpalatset, which translates to “match palace.” It was explained to me that the family who built it had invented matches. “Matches—period?” I asked, wondering where flint etc. fit into the narrative, and was told yes. (Now the box of commemorative Tandstickpalatset matches I took from the washroom is my most cherished meta souvenir.)
Dinner was held in the mansion’s courtyard, with tables set around a column of foliage and cocooned by lamps simulating sunshine. The en plein air vibe was intensified by an ethereal loop of woodland chirping. Scholar Julia Bryan-Wilson, a finalist for the art-writing prize, pointed out a preponderance of bears in the room—not caged, not stuffed, but, in a departure from the Great Outdoors motif, homo sapien and homosexual: The demographic of artists participating in the Haring homage was a jolly contrast to a representation of elven Swedish nobles. One such lady seated with me, a collector who woke at 6:45 each morning to swim, corrected a local gentleman across the table who believed he had met her sister at a bar (unlikely!). As a matter of fact, there are three women in Stockholm with exactly this name, and further complicating matters, they are all blond.
The event was heavily surveilled. Not only were the Instagrammers working (overtime, once a Phantom of the Opera/Mr. Peanut character took stage in a top hat, leather gloves, and a satin sheet draped over his face, and began to sing), but cinematographers were zooming between tables in pursuit of VIPs and artfully composed courses.
A cold snap penetrating the room inspired us to enjoy the honey-colored schnapps. There was an hour of toasting and clinking before Gioni stood to introduce the awards ceremony. “It’s my first time as the president of something,” he began, “and I highly recommend it.” From there he offered a boasting candor about being at the point in his career when much of what he does is sit on juries, as well as an eyebrow-raising aside relating the resplendence of the evening to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. By now I had learned that the man who committed the error about the well-born woman with the common name was Sweden’s top comedian (a fate he called “missionary work”). He complimented Gioni’s timing.
By a delightful snafu, the awards were transposed. The writer received a certificate for art, and the artist, a writing commendation. The honorees were more than charming. Godfrey used his moment to speak about Stark’s upcoming show and to spin the mix-up into a comment on the multidisciplinarity of her practice: “In her case it’s true, because in addition to being a great artist she’s a great art writer.”
Reciprocally, Stark thanked Godfrey for his Artforum piece on My Best Thing, which she credits for making sense of her movie to, among other people, her mother. And she added an impromptu, impassioned anecdote: “I’ve been sitting with Bo Nilsson tonight and we talked about having faith in art. I came to a place in my life and my career where I had to realize that this was actually my religion in so many ways.” It was a wonderful metaphor for the tangle of ritual, community, and grandiosity enlivened in the Tändstickpalatset and so often in the art world. “So it’s really, really wonderful when a big company like Absolut can provide and support something that doesn’t serve any purpose.” Amen, Frances!
Wayne Koestenbaum performs at The Kitchen.
LAST WEEK, the great alliance between poets and artists held strong. On Monday, Wayne Koestenbaum launched his latest collection, The Pink Trance Notebooks, at the Kitchen. Set against a pink, black, and gold net stretched along the back of the Kitchen’s black-box theater—a site-specific installation by Leeza Meksin—Koestenbaum took to the piano to perform short pieces by some of his favorite composers, including Scriabin, Chopin, Fauré, Milhaud, and Poulenc, while sing-talking improvisational monologues that obtained the look and feel of both poetry and stand-up comedy. Koestenbaum struck a delicate sonic balance between aural poignancy and the midnight sound of a cat in heat, breaking once between two sets to read a gorgeous, fragmentary poem. (The book is composed entirely of short jottings and notes from a year’s worth of journal-keeping.) Koestenbaum concluded his release by interviewing Meksin, who sweetly glowed under the poet’s loving attention to her work—she referred to it as a kind of drag performance—and afterwards the pair held court over a crowded postreading reception.
Secular poetry aside, much of the city’s attention was focused on the Bishop of Rome, who had landed safely at Joint Base Andrews (née Andrews Air Force Base) by Tuesday morning after a short trip to Cuba. En route, by way of the White House and Congress, to New York, redirected traffic began its lurch toward the weekend when it would finally disentangle with the departure of the Vicar of Christ. While Francis seemed to be everywhere, on every feed, the seemingly liberal pope kept a few of his settings on private, including a secret meeting with the renowned bigot Kim Davis, whom he encouraged to “stay strong” in the fight against civil rights. News of the infallible man’s summit with the right wing’s Rosa Parks (nicknamed as such by presidential candidate and professional racist Mike Huckabee) wouldn’t leak until the following week, when finally the truth would out. Until then, uptown was snarled, the Secret Service was in security prep across midtown, and the city seemed to have reached a fevered Pope-mania as the art world’s third wave of a busy fall began.
“I like this Pope,” dealer Thor Shannon conceded at the opening for John Seal at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise’s Grand Street location on Wednesday. (Neither of us knew, of course, of the Kim and Francis caucus.) The exhibition is the artist’s first with GBE, and the packed opening carried on between walls of his T-shirt-shaped paintings and into a nearby Chinese restaurant decorated to look like a secluded Amazonian cave. “I like him too,” I later admitted to Shannon over pork dumplings and a side of cold cucumbers under a canopy of fake plants. Across town, the Stockholm-based artist Emily Roysdon (much missed here in New York) celebrated her birthday at the city’s oldest gay bar, Julius’, with a small group of friends that included Matt Wolf, Malik Gaines, AF scribe Melissa Anderson, and Jacolby Satterwhite. We convocated in the bar’s back, where Emily was greeted with hugs and a cupcake. Stay, we begged her, but nothing could do.
On Wednesday, Pati Hertling and Thymaya Paine launched the Material Prize, sponsored by their recently debuted Material Vodka, according the inaugural award to performer Colin Self. Material, a new venture for Hertling and Paine, was invented to support artists, and the prize, inspired by the august artists-for-artists institution Foundation for Contemporary Arts, is the first realization of the vodka’s generous mission. Beginning with a mixer of cocktails by Arley Marks—notable for their gold-leaf-covered grape floating in a fizzy, gingery vodka soda that recalled Tobias Wong’s legendary gold pills (I wondered if they promised the same effect)—the intimate dinner, catered by Table Table, kicked off with a presentation of the itinerant artist’s work, beginning with his early days in Olympia, Washington, where he became interested in Riot Grrrl, then moving on to Chicago and then New York, where he has lived for five years.
Glowing beside his occasional collaborator Raul de Nieves, Self shared a clip of his recent opera The Fool, which premiered last fall at ISSUE Project Room. The work featured a colorful, Ozesque set with dancers and musicians alternating between classical music and down-tempo electronica, with Self center stage in one scene playing a wailing, bedridden fool surrounded by performers in inflatable, Violet Beauregard–size suits. By turns busy and somber, elegant and hilarious, Self’s opera, like much of his art, remains true to his interest in feminist and collaborative spirits, as Hertling noted, offering “a mystical allegorical journey performed by a group of friends in their quest to unite themselves with the other.” Self intends to use his prize money to pay his collaborators for his next work.
At one end of the table, with Material girls Michael Clark, K8 Hardy, Stuart Comer, Adrienne Edwards, and Stefan Kalmár, our talk turned to the fate of Artists Space, soon to be exiled from its Greene Street space by its bullying, Trump-lite landlord, Zar Properties, for upstairs renovation of somebody-you-probably-wouldn’t-like’s penthouse. Construction has delayed Cameron Rowland’s exhibition to January 2016 and left the space unusable. Kalmár, the nonprofit’s director, noted that this isn’t the first time Artists Space has been pushed around by a landlord, but he intends—with the help of pro bono legal advice and artist-friends past and present—to fight. Good: We need it. Even if it increasingly seems that Manhattan doesn’t deserve it.