AT THE END OF MAO II (1991), Don DeLillo’s prescient yet strangely underappreciated novel of art, terrorism, and mass hysteria, a New York photographer named Brita turns up in Beirut’s southern suburbs to photograph a shadowy militia leader called Abu Rashid. It’s the later stages of the civil war, and Brita is on assignment, winding her way through destroyed buildings and a stubbornly vibrant street life. “Her driver is a man about sixty who pronounces the second b in bomb,” writes DeLillo. “He has used the word about eleven times and she waits for it now, softly repeating it after him. The bomb. The bombing. People in Lebanon must talk about nothing but Lebanon and in Beirut it is clearly all Beirut.”
This passage pushed into the forefront of my brain two weeks ago and has stayed there ever since. The bomb. The bombing. As it happened, on November 12, I was late for the opening of Home Works 7, the most recent iteration of an event featuring talks, lectures, performances, debates, exhibitions, film programs, and more, which the pioneering arts organization Ashkal Alwan has been holding every few years since 2002. It was a Thursday evening, and the two main exhibitions—one an earthy study of bodies and materials called “On Water, Rosemary, and Mercury,” curated by Ashkal Alwan’s founding director, Christine Tohme; the other, media-savvy and cerebral, titled “What Hope Looks Like After Hope (On Constructive Alienation)” and assembled by Alexandria-based curator Bassam El Baroni—weren’t quite ready. A performance by Brian William Rogers and Yasmine Dubois Ziai, which would never overcome its technical difficulties, was delayed by an hour. The energy in the old furniture factory that Ashkal Alwan calls home was more agitated than festive.
Why? Two explosions had just ripped through the mixed, densely populated district of Burj al-Barajneh, in the southern suburbs, right as commuters were coming home from work and families were gathering for dinner. As Tohme was welcoming the crowd and setting the news in context (two suicide bombings, a third thwarted, and a fourth escaped, all claimed by the Islamic State as a move against working-class Shiites and a message to Hezbollah regarding its support for Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war), her colleague Garine Aivazian told me twenty people had been killed. By the time I climbed up to the roof to see Marwan Rechmaoui’s Blazon—a magisterial new mapping of Beirut and “the war to come” through a vast collection of flags representing neighborhood affinities and divisions therein—and returned to the ground floor to check on the performance, dealer Saleh Barakat told me the number had risen to thirty. It reached above forty as I called it a night, the second b in bombing sounding louder and louder in my mind.
And the sad thing is—Home Works is always like this. There is always a disaster just passed, happening now, or about to occur. For previous editions, it was the outbreak of the second intifada; the invasion of Iraq; the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri; the 2006 war with Israel; and fighting in the streets between Hezbollah and rival forces, including Hariri’s political movement, Tayyar al-Mustaqbal. For that reason, and because the disturbances that characterize everyday life in Beirut have become so routine, Home Works tends to happen when it can and, among artists and other such intellectuals, when it needs to, or when the various conflicts in the area known euphemistically as “the situation” have become complicated enough to demand some articulation through questions, a gathering of friends, and a good two weeks of discussions anchored to works of art and discursive propositions that are often, and by necessity, more speculative than polished.
Of course this time around it wasn’t only Lebanon but the whole world that had turned upside down. The night after the explosions in Burj al-Barajneh, there were the Paris attacks, and then, a few days later, the hotel siege in Mali. Brussels was on lockdown. Russia announced (note, did not threaten but merely stated) that it was closing Lebanon’s airspace for military drills. By the time of the party marking the end of the event last Tuesday, Turkey had shot down a Russian jet over Syria (and then, as if it were some terrible video game, local rebels shot and killed the pilot as he was parachuting down to the ground). At that point a friend who had worked on at least five of the fifteen films screened for Home Works 7 asked me earnestly: “Are we basically celebrating one last time before the start of World War III?”
Left: Documenta 14 artistic director Adam Szymczyk. Right: Artists Natascha Sadr Haghighian and Setareh Shahbazi.
Amazingly, for all that, there were only two cancellations in the entire program. The local public was robust, and young, which may be because Ashkal Alwan has also become in the past five years an experimental art school, which in turn drew students from all across town. Among the visitors, there were few mercenaries in evidence. No one seemed to be shopping for a future show, or paying fealty to a patron (that was the month before). It was mostly a collection of familiar and/or fearless friends. In the latter camp were key members of Team Documenta 14: artistic director Adam Szymczyk and curators Paul B. Preciado and Pierre Bal-Blanc. Among the former, the curators Catherine David, Maria Lind, and Corinne Diserens; Achim Borchardt-Hume from Tate Modern; Giovanni Carmine from Kunsthalle St. Gallen; Tamara Corm from Pace; Aleya Hamza from Gypsum in Cairo; Antonia Carver from Art Dubai; and Farida Sultan from the Sultan Gallery in Kuwait.
The artist Hassan Khan was in town from Cairo. Francis Al˙s, showing The Silence of Ani, was visiting from Mexico City. The writer Stephen Wright flew in from a shell-shocked Paris. Mai Abu ElDahab, of Mophradat (Arabic for vocabulary, and the new name of the organization formerly known as the Young Arab Theater Fund) came for a few days from Brussels, as did the curators Samar Kedhy and Khadija El Bennaoui, from a museum in Marseilles and an art center in Ghent, respectively. The curator Koyo Kouoh was in Beirut because the organization she founded four years ago in Dakar, Raw Material Company, was getting ready to launch an event not unlike Home Works. “The art scene in Senegal isn’t as vibrant as it is here,” she told me thoughtfully, “but we have a long history of criticality,” a rare thing anywhere. How did it happen? “We had a poet as president”—Léopold Sédar Senghor, the founder of Négritude—“for over twenty years.”
After the first edition of Home Works, in 2002, Tohme wrote a kind of open letter about the intellectual figures whom the forum had called forth. “For long decades, we only translated into Arabic the books produced by the West that we deemed convenient,” it went. Only recently had they begun “to place the seriousness of ideas and preoccupations as the criteria for calling upon a certain intellectual, from the far ends of the earth, to come and present her/his work and ideas to us. It is to those few that we owe what we’ve accomplished today.” Home Works 7 felt like a reunion of them all. And as one artist, writer, filmmaker, and thinker after another grappled with what the hell had been happening to them in the past few years—in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon; in the face of money, markets, modernity, and capitalism run amok; in the name of feminism, labor, activism, and the sorry fate of the region’s archaeological heritage—Home Works 7 also felt like it was for us, whoever “us” may be.
On Friday, November 13, the artist and filmmaker Ahmad Ghossein delivered a terrific lecture-performance on illusion, delusion, and the loss of wonder, all told through the stories of a magician, a sculptor, and an architect. On Saturday, four activists who had been involved in a summer protest movement in Beirut debated one another with enough cogency to give hope for the future. At the back of the room, Szymczyk weighed the merits of making some kind of Beirut-centric statement of solidarity on Documenta’s blog. I couldn’t quite follow his logic (and at that point, I was naive enough to think that politicians in Europe and America wouldn’t conflate the wack jobs of ISIS with desperate Syrian refugees), so he put it in the simplest terms: “Wherever there is life, we should go there. But wherever there is death, we should just push it away.”
From there, I wandered into a lecture by the artist Matthew Poole, just as he was saying: “What does any of this have to do with art? I mean, what the hell are we doing here when bombs are going off and people are being killed and we’re involved in this luxurious, bourgeois act?” He paused; he continued. “Art that’s not art is bourgeois, is ideologically violent. But when art is art…” And indeed, that was the thought to complete for those two weeks.
On Sunday, November 15, the artist Ali Cherri paired up with archaeologist Sam Hardy for a powerful discussion of ruins, museums, the destruction of Palmyra, and the roaring trade in stolen antiquities. Later that afternoon, outside the theater Dawar al-Shams, I ran into Frie Leysen, the Brussels-based curator of the performance program for Home Works 7. She’s an old hand in Beirut, having organized the fifth edition of the festival Meeting Points, back in 2007. “It’s much quieter this time,” she said. “Meeting Points was nine cities. This is only one. But it’s good. The performances are full.” What’s happening in the world is a mess, she added. “The night of the attack we were fully booked but the theater was only half full.” Leysen furrowed her brow. “When something like that that happens, what do you do? You don’t go out.”
But throughout their history, Beirutis do go out, especially when times are this tough. The city generates a particular intensity, which often drives people crazy with the sense of life being lived in an extremely full but terribly fragile way, jostled all the time by corruption, dysfunction, and the barest of contradictions. It is also a tiny city with an enormous ego, and the contemporary art scene is the same. It exerts an influence in the region and the world that is totally disproportionate to its size.
Still, it’s always hard to know how to judge the forum. With the palpable exception of Tarek Abou El-Fetouh’s contribution in 2013, the exhibitions are never very good, or coherent, as exhibitions. This time was no different, though there were flashes of brilliance in projects taken one by one (Rechmaoui on the roof; Abbas Akhavan and Saba Innab in the Beirut Art Center). There were no famous names or scandals on the level of a keynote lecture by Jacques Rancičre (still hot in 2005) or a Foucault-quoting member of parliament associated with Hezbollah (still sexy in 2010). For the most part, Ashkal Alwan organized a challenging program of knotty ideas and unknown names. The strongest moments tended to be spoken—in Ghossein’s performance; in a lecture by Tony Chakar (a work-in-progress still searching for a conclusion) proposing the richness and diversity of religious iconography and mystical texts as the start of an adequate response to a phenomenon like ISIS; in another lecture by the writer and activist Nahla Chahal on returning the notion of dignity to political discourse; and in another lecture still, by the Istanbul-based writer Suna Kafadar, who linked poetry to politics in a beautiful text about forms being drained of their meanings, a recurring theme.
Left: Dealer Aleya Hamza with Ashkal Alwan's Mohammed Abdallah. Right: Curator Frie Leysen.
The wildest moments, meanwhile, tended to be danced—most notably in the last performance, Marlene Monteiro Freitas’s Of Ivory and Flesh (Statues Also Suffer), which was arguably the weirdest and most intense piece of choreography for live bodies that I have ever seen onstage. Consider, first, that Monteiro Freitas is a virtuoso in at least six ways (I recognized her immediately from a Boris Charmatz performance for Home Works two years ago), and then imagine a collision of all this: a stage set like a boxing ring; the authoritarian atmosphere of Ismail Kadare’s novel The Palace of Dreams (1981); a bombastic Omar Souleyman track (“Warni Warni”) on repeat; a male dancer drenched in sweat, drool, and smeared makeup, plowing into the audience, looking for a little tenderness; and everything inspired by Alain Resnais’s film with Chris Marker, Statues Also Die (1953), which was banned for decades in France. Two nights in a row, the crowd went nuts, and I mean up on their feet, arms in the air, screaming their admiration nuts. Then the four principal dancers, including Monteiro Freitas, showed up for the closing party and kept it going until the early morning hours.
A few days later, I met the novelist Elias Khoury for breakfast. He had been expansive and charismatic on a panel I had moderated for Home Works 7, and I was curious to hear more about the rifts he had mentioned, which had cracked through the art scene decades earlier, when Khoury was running an experimental theater, Masrah Beirut, and codirecting an event known as the Ayloul Festival, a precursor to Ashkal Alwan. The story he tells is one of sadness and loss, but also frustration over what he sees as political neutrality and complicity with the ruling class. I looked out at the sea, which was absurdly blue and still for the start of winter. Years ago, the journalist Samir Kassir, who was killed by another bomb, another bombing, wrote that Beirut’s “playfulness and love of show and spectacle” never failed “to conceal its inner seriousness.” I remembered a talk by the Syrian architect Khaled Malas, which raised a number of tricky questions about how the language of art can function as political action in a war zone. “Sadly I am romantic enough to believe in art still,” Malas said. Aren’t we all, to our endless hope and peril.
“THE HISTORY OF AUSTRALIA’S relationship with the Aboriginals is a history of wrong decisions,” Vernon Ah Kee told the crowd at Brisbane’s Griffith University Art Gallery last Thursday. “There were opportunities to go another way, but the government at the time repeatedly chose brutality.” The artist compared the experience of being indigenous in today’s Australia to having thousands of little cuts all over your body, painful but not lethal. Ah Kee stood in the crossfire of two sets of his canvases, one showing the bound figures of the oppressed, the other the snarling faces of their oppressors. The space between was mediated by one of Ah Kee’s text works, restaging a quote from James Baldwin: “[I]t is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
“I paint less politically loaded things too,” Ah Kee added, cracking a small smile. “When you get down to it, I make work about my family and my family’s history and the historical events that contributed to it. But as an indigenous man, for me to paint my family members is already understood as a political act.” Ah Kee’s work was part of “Brutal Truths,” an exhibition that also included a seminal installation by Gordon Bennett, who passed away last year. The son of one of the “Stolen Generation”—in perhaps the ghastliest of the Australian government’s “wrong decisions,” up through the 1960s indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and raised “white”—the artist railed against institutionalized racism, through provocations from his “white” persona of “John Citizen” or Bennett’s gut-wrenching sketches, some of which were on display at Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art, for a show acerbically called “Be Polite.”
When compared with the conversation—or lack thereof—around American First Nations (oh, yeah, Happy Thanksgiving, United States!), the art of the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures would seem to enjoy a privileged visibility, and not only within Asia Pacific. “In Australia, it’s the Aboriginal art everyone’s after. That’s what gets shown in Documenta and Istanbul,” artist (and, with Ah Kee, fellow proppaNOW member) Richard Bell told me. In his ten-minute film Broken English, 2009, Bell canvasses the streets of downtown Brisbane, sticking his mic in the pink faces of the city’s unsuspecting public to ask them about the contributions of their indigenous neighbors. “Well, you know… culture?” a brunette offers hesitantly. Her blonde friend checks Bell’s reaction before nodding along. When asked whether land should be returned to its original owners, a third woman replies, “Yes, of course!” before qualifying: “To some of them.”
As selective reconciliation is not an option, Queensland’s cultural institutions have their work cut out for them. Their key tool is the Asia Pacific Triennial, the crowning gem of the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, otherwise known as QAGOMA. (“I keep thinking they’re saying ‘Glaucoma,’ ” Met curator Maia Nuku confessed. I heard “Gorgona.”) “When the APT first started, you didn’t have other institutions in the region showing this kind of work,” TarraWarra Museum of Art director Victoria Lynn recalled. “This is what set the APT apart.”
To maintain this primacy, QAGOMA employs multiple strategies, from establishing art-historical trajectories for Aboriginal and Torres Strait visual practices (see the current survey “Everywhen, Everywhere”) to the programmatic integration of indigenous artists into the collection. Now in its eighth iteration, the APT provides a public platform for these efforts, while also giving the museum a chance to expand its holdings. The majority of works on display this year (I was told 70 percent) were accompanied by acquisition notices, a healthy sign for a hungry institution, even though, as one of the museum’s curators confided, “Sometimes it’s just cheaper to buy the work than to try to send it back.”
“I guess museum biennials don’t have to stress so much about a theme,” observed Jochen Volz, one of the curators of the upcoming Săo Paolo Bienal. Even if APT8 did not have a unifying title or curator (the museum’s entire staff contributes), there was certainly an agenda. In addition to a craft- and performance-heavy central exhibition, side projects indulged the APT’s penchant for the underdog. Several large galleries in QAG were dedicated to narrative scroll paintings from South Asia, while the head of QAGOMA’s Australian Cinémathčque, curator José de Silva, contributed two film programs, “Pop Islam” and “Filipino Indie.” The latter, it turns out, is just as unlikely as the former. As the program’s cocurator Yason Bernal pointed out, in the Phillipines, “We have the world’s slowest Wi-Fi.” Bernal links this with a reinforced “notion of the real,” untainted by Internet streams, but perhaps it also explains the marathon-caliber attention span needed for Lav Diaz’s sumptuous films. (From What Is Before , screened Saturday night as part of APT8 Live, totaled 338 minutes, while other works in the program—Death in the Land of Encantos  and Evolution of a Filipino Family —racked up 540 and 654 minutes, respectively.) Endurance wasn’t just limited to the cinemas; that Saturday, Melati Suryodarmo spent twelve straight hours smashing charcoal briquettes with a rolling pin in a re-creation of her performance from 2012 I’m a Ghost in My Own House.
Like the coal dust, there was something about the triennial’s indiscriminately celebratory tone that stuck in one’s throat. One of the uncontested showstoppers was Rosanna Raymond’s SaVAge K’lub, 2010–, a Pacific-accented reimagining of the colonialist gentleman’s club. Inside the extravagantly outfitted lounge (the stuff of Gauguin’s teenage dreams), performers sang or danced or just got naked, reveling in the kind of unfettered sexuality and strength emblemized by Raymond’s opening-night attire: a colonial frock with a critical swath of fabric missing down the back, so as to give the crowd a full view of her bare body underneath.
Cross-dressing—in terms of gender, culture, power, or even species—coursed through the triennial, starting with the opening-day performance of Justin Shoulder and Bhenji Ra’s Ex Nilalang: Incarnations, which animated figures from Filipino folklore. Ra swooned into a handheld mirror as the mermaid “Super Sireyna,” while Shoulder shuffled around the museum foyer, festooned as a crepe-papered creature that looked like the product of a three-way among an old school boombox, a velociraptor, and a slutty pińata. Upstairs, Ming Wong’s videos and photographs followed four individuals within Yogyakarta’s transgender community who had found empowerment in the slippages of their self-presentation, while Hetain Patel indulged in his own strain of power drag, donning a Spiderman suit for his two-channel video The Leap. One channel shows the costumed artist executing a powerful jump across his living room; the other flips the angle to show his family members, looking on in dismay. Haider Ali Jan literally turns the subjects of his photographs into cartoons, superimposing loosely rendered caricatures over his Lahore street scenes, while Anida Yoeu Ali channels Lewis Carroll with her ongoing “Buddhist Bug” series, which sees the artist trolling the urban environments of Cambodia dressed as a giant orange caterpillar.
It almost felt like the exhibition itself was in drag, confusing content, voguing, and voguing-as-content (or content-as-voguing?). The day before the opening, APT8 artists and organizers gathered for a traditional blessing and a barbecue on the lawn, which all felt quite genuine. The next night, however, laid on the spectacle, as a staggering fourteen thousand visitors flocked to the museum, driving the total first weekend attendance to thirty-two thousand. Dignitaries like QAGOMA director Chris Saines, Queensland’s premier and state minister of the arts, Annastacia Palaszczuk, and Australia’s minister of the arts Mitch Fifield all dutifully commenced speeches with warm words of gratitude and acknowledgment to the elders whose lands the museum now occupies.
Left: Curators Daina Warren, Julie Nagam, and Michelle LaVallee. Right: Pataka director Reuben Friend and Creative New Zealand’s Ana Sciascia.
Fifield claimed that credit should also go to the taxpayers, but he neglected to mention the Australia Council for the Arts, the formal body that sees that those tax dollars actually make it to the artists. Palaszczuk was quick to correct Fifield’s omission, but it had not gone unnoticed. Earlier this spring, in an attempt to fund a new “innovation-oriented” funding initiative, Fifield’s predecessor had yanked nearly $75 million from the council, with $23 million in cuts for 2015–16. With the shift in administration, installing Fifield as the incoming minister of the arts, $5.75 million was returned the day before APT8’s grand opening. While widely welcomed as a conciliatory gesture, it came after the council had already undergone restructuring, shedding beloved programs and staff. “It’s been a bittersweet week,” a staffer admitted.
As part of its support for APT8, the council oversaw the second year of its International Visitors Program (IVP), which sidesteps the logistical obstacles of exporting works by directly importing curators like Volz, Nuku, Hendrik Folkerts, Diana Campbell Betancourt, and Venus Lau. This year, the council also launched the First Nations Curators Exchange, which convened delegates from Canada, New Zealand, and Australia for a weeklong program of strategy sessions and collective brainstorming. The program marked the first such collaboration between the council and its Kiwi counterpart, Creative New Zealand. As Auckland Art Gallery’s Nigel Borrell explained over a Malaysian feast Saturday night, “Even in New Zealand, we’re not very up to date with what’s going on in Australia. Except for Megan,” he grinned, motioning to his colleague, Megan Tamati-Quennell. “She’s a Māori specialist, so she gets invited everywhere.”
Left: Curators Guillaume Soulard, Emmanuel Kasarhérou, and José De Silva. Right: QAGOMA curator Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow with SaVAge K’lub’s Maryann Talia Pau.
The director of the Tarnanthi Festival, Nici Cumpston, shared how the Art Gallery of South Australia had allowed direct interventions into their colonial art hanging, while Tamati-Quennell spoke compellingly about the need to also recognize outside artists working contemporaneously with Māori traditions, and not simply focus on the Māori’s take on European modernism. If the goal were to trade notes, consider that mission accomplished. However, both the First Nation delegates and the IVP curators were confounded by the divide between the two initiatives. “The program’s heart is in the right place, but it still feels a little like ghettoization,” one delegate sighed. “The exchange is just in its first year,” Australia Council’s Tara Kita assured us. “This is the pilot of a program we’re going to be expanding in the future.” That is, if there aren’t more surprise budget cuts?
That evening, all scenes converged at the IMA for the institution’s fortieth anniversary party. Too noodled to partake, I slipped beside IVP curators Brian Clark and Abdellah Karroum as they waited for margheritas at the portable pizza oven parked out front. Inside, IMA directors Johan Lundh and Aileen Burns held court with curator Vivian Ziherl near some sort of alcoholic slushie dispenser set up at the front desk. “Purple’s the best,” a new friend advised. “They’re out of purple,” her companion pouted. She screwed up her face, “Red then?”
What can I say? Some traditions just don’t translate.
WITH BLOCKBUSTER BIENNIALS increasingly wedded to the galleries underwriting them, the term “biennial art”—the European second cousin of “commercial” art—no longer holds the same currency. When it comes to events off the beaten track, however, exhibitions often build credibility through following “biennial art’s” favorite strategy: Find a fresh wound from recent history, and wiggle one’s finger around in it, preferably via video installations that “challenge dominant modes of perception” and “invert expectations.”
Ariani Darmawan’s 2008 short film Sugiharti Halim manages to do both while wickedly satirizing the genre as a whole. The work revisits a moment in 1965, when the anti-Communist push of the Suharto regime saw the country’s ethnic Chinese population coerced into taking Indonesian-sounding names. Darmawan’s eponymous protagonist has been saddled with the phonetically challenged word for “wealthy” as her first name. Bemoaning her situation, she addresses not the biennial audience—unseen, but presumed interested until proven jaded—but rather a series of dispassionate first dates, who are shown toying with their noodles or staring at their straws as Halim enacts the popular tropes of the genre, at one point even producing an archival photo of her father and holding it out for inspection. Her monologue is finally interrupted by her last suitor, who questions the use of getting angry about the past. It is Halim’s turn to stare at her noodles.
Darmawan’s film was screened as part of this year’s Jakarta Biennale, which opened Saturday, November 14, in a warehouse not far from the city’s Tebet district. As Indonesia publicly grapples with the fiftieth anniversary of one of the century’s most brutal massacres, the exhibition reaffirms its commitment to the present with the title Mayu Kena, Mundur Kena (“Neither Forward nor Back”). The curator Charles Esche recruited six of his colleagues from across Indonesia—Riksa Afiaty, Irma Chantily, Putra Hidayatullah, Anwar “Jimpe” Rachman, Asep Topan, and Benny Wicaksono—to help flesh out three intertwined motifs: city and history, social behavior, and water (a particularly loaded topic in Indonesia, where water purification is the scythe to gentrification’s Grim Reaper). The team made site visits to outposts around the country, recording their findings for the biennial catalogue. While Esche insisted on denying any hierarchies among the curators, Rachman cheekily suggested otherwise, writing: “Maybe we are the shady trees that have yet to bear fruit while Charles is a lush green tree with dangling, ripe produce.”
Left: Artist Richard Bell. Right: Artists Bron Zelani and Dwi “Ube” Wicaksono Suryasumirat.
Speaking of produce, the Jakarta Biennale signaled another important shift by trading its parking-lot venue (traffic being the bane of the city’s existence) for Gudang Sarinah, a warehouse of the Sarinah Department Store, which stocks handcrafted souvenirs and textiles made by women across the country. “We created our own little economy here too,” recounted artist Zeyno Pekünlü, who had already clocked three weeks on site. “You could see the fruit carts slowly start to catch on that we were here. Now they’re all parked at the entrance.” Pekünlü had come early to train in beksi, an art of self-defense. “When I first got this invitation, I thought about what I wanted to learn from Indonesia. In Turkey, judges look the other way for men who commit honor killings, but then throw down harsh sentences to Turkish women who attempt to defend themselves.” The artist edited footage of her training sessions to create Pretty Furious Women, a trailer for a fictional B-movie, advertised by movie posters plastered around the exhibition space. “Did you paint these or were they commissioned?” I asked. “Commissioned, of course!” Pekünlü laughed. “Look at my nose in that one!”
Overall, the biennial bristles with acts of resistance, from a recreation of Richard Bell’s Aboriginal Embassy and Bik Van der Pol’s ode to the Surabaya riverside communities who refuse to be forced from their homes to the archival photos dissolving in the whirlpool of Oscar Muńoz’s mesmerizing Ciclope, 2014, to Tita Salina’s sea-beast, an island made entirely of floating waste. Yee I-Lann mined the social repercussions of the Malaysian folk figure of the kuntilanak, the witchlike, “failed”—ie, childless—woman, while the Myanmar-based artist Kolatt offered a lithe little plea for tolerance with Apple, 2015, a six-minute film demonstrating a variety of ways to eat an apple, all with the same result. “At first glance, I thought this exhibition was really tough, but now I’m beginning to see how it is actually quite tender,” theorist Nikos Papastergiadis said admiringly.
Left: Artists Dan Perjovschi and Farid Rakun. Right: CCA Singapore's Vera May, artist Yee I-Lann, and Anca Rujoiu
As is now de rigeur, the biennial was ushered in by parallel programs, including a conference investigating Indonesia’s water and sanitation issues; “Skartefak,” organized by the newly established Jakarta Ska Foundation; and “Keep the Field,” a collaboration between a group of Polish artists (led by Ujazdowski Castle curator Marianna Dobkowska) and the Jatiwangi Art Factory, an initiative based in a West Javanese village once known for its ceramics but now struggling to establish new industries. At the biennial opening on Saturday afternoon, artist Marta Frank used the town’s famous clay to make decorative soap, which she fashioned into formidable bricks. “This way people are forced into sharing,” she beamed. While I was marveling at the heft, artist Arie Syarifuddin pressed a thimble-sized Ziploc bag in my hand. Inside was a mottled brown lozenge that looked sure to interrupt one’s grip on reality. Riding a conspiratorial surge of adrenaline, I goaded him for more instructions. “You just eat it,” he laughed. “It’s a cookie made from the clay in Jatiwangi. It’s edible.” Okay, but not, like, edible…?
As the evening picked up, White Shoes & The Couples Company serenaded a spirited crowd six thousand strong. Amid the artists and Indonesia hipsters, I could pick out international curators Eungie Joo, Ekaterina Degot, Ute Meta Bauer, Ruth Noack, Susanne Pfeffer, and Mami Kataoka, alongside local legend, collector Melani Setiawan, one of the scene’s most dedicated patrons. (Setiawan is in the process of publishing her forty-year archive, including some 700,000 photos of Indonesian artists at every stage of their careers.) Someone covertly offered me a warm beer, which, for a moment I mistook for some kind of local specialty, before it was explained that it had just overheated while being smuggled in. (Indonesia has recently cracked down on the sale of alcohol.) “It’s all very festive, especially considering there’s no alcohol,” artist Peter Robinson mused approvingly. “In Australia, people only show up to art openings for the food and drinks,” Bell shrugged. It seems wedding-crashing is more Indonesia’s speed. Gibing the popular tradition of trading sparsely-stuffed (if not outright empty) gift envelopes for access to a wedding buffet, Wiyoga Muhardanto staked out a spot right outside the biennial’s entrance and set up a nuptial tent too low to the ground to enter.
Left: Artist Robert Kusmirowski and Ujazdowski Castle curator Marianna Dobkowska at the Jakarta Biennale. Right: *Artists Budi Santoso, Setu Legi, and Ari Aminuddin at the Jakarta Biennale
Not to be discouraged, revelers eventually migrated to ruangrupa, the city’s freeform art space and collective, which in its fifteen years has built its own empire comprising gallery space, an archive, magazines, festivals, and even a radio station. It’s also a preeminent party spot, where Esche and his curators were up until the wee hours, libations courtesy of “this white guy on an ojek who drives around delivering beer.” Sunday night followed with a more public celebration at “Superbad!” a monthly concert series partially masterminded by ruangrupa’s Indra Ameng at the Jaya Pub, an expat bar with strong Cracker Barrel–on-(more)meth vibes. “It looks like a David Lynch film in here,” Köken Ergun observed, eyeing the stylized portraits of Einstein, Kafka, and Humphrey Bogart, alongside a poster bragging “I’m not a racist, I hate everyone.” The evening’s headliner was Arrington De Dionyso, a painter and musician whose self-taught repertoire ranged from Tuvan throat singing to wrangling sounds from what looked like a didgeridoo made out of PVC pipes. “My avant-garde is bigger than his avant-garde,” Papastergiadis demurred. But whose Uber was closer?
Monday morning would see competing biennial symposia in Jakarta and Yogyakarta, or, as it’s more commonly known, Jogja. Earlier this month, Java’s plucky second capital had launched the thirteenth edition of Biennale Jogja, marking its third collaborative outing with the Equator Festival, a program that plots out a thematic global itinerary, taking a closer look at Indonesia’s relationships with countries along the route. Having already made symbolic pitstops in India and the Arabian Peninsula, this year’s edition focused on Nigeria. As a theme, the two artist-curators, Jogja’s Wok the Rock and Lagos-based Jude Anogwih, selected “Hacking Conflict” (“hacking” here in the Buzzfeed-y sense of finding MacGyveresque workarounds for life’s little conundrums, not terrorizing Target shoppers).
Left: Dealer Michael Janssen and Bazaar Art Jakarta director Leo Silitonga at the Jakarta Biennale. Right: Artist Peter Robinson
Upon landing, Biennale Jogja’s Adelina Luft picked me up on her motorbike for a tour of the sites, starting with the Black Market Museum, which was set up in an abandoned house just down the street from the main venue at Jogja’s National Museum. Conceived by artist Olenrewaju Tejuoso and created with help from Angki Purbandono and the Prison Art Programs, the makeshift museum was filled with repurposed detritus, including a González-Torres-like pile of little plastic baggies, whose contents—dirt, tree bark, folded candy wrappers—intentionally looked narcotic. I thought back to that cookie.
Over at the National Museum, the façade had been blocked off by Ace House Collective’s National Committee for the Purification of Art, an objectively terrifying faux bureau replete with control booths, waiting areas, and curtained-off stalls. Visitors had to queue up to hand over passports and submit to ritual cleanings of their eyes and ears. Sure, it was just a metaphor, but I fled all the same. Inside, Joned Suryatmoko’s piece had a visually-impaired tour guide lead blindfolded visitors through the exhibition. Even without the impediments, I got the distinct impression I was missing something. Most of the display was dedicated to props or costumes—from Punkasila’s black patched jumpsuits to Emeka Udemba’s clan hoods, tailored from West African wax print fabrics—left over from the performances, artist’s talks, concerts, and workshops animating the spaces daily. Rather than reinforce national distinctions, the exhibition was structured to foster an environment of collective creativity, inviting the Nigerian artists in residence —Udemba, Ndidi Dike, and Victor Ehikhamenor, among them—to make collaborative work with local talents. Luft told me that many of these visiting artists “found a lot of similarities in terms of climate, landscape, food, and general mentality.” These moments of overlap crystallized in “Changing Cities, Shifting Spaces,” a parallel video workshop orchestrated as an extension of Anogwih’s activities with Video Art Network Lagos, in collaboration with artist Wimo Ambala Bayang and the Jogja-based collective Ruang MES 56. The films played on loop upstairs at the National Museum, but next year, with support from KFW Stiftung, they will travel to Lagos, where they will be screened as part of the city’s Videonale.
“Translation puts a text into movement, which is the most beautiful thing you can do,” curator Nicolas Bourriaud told us bright and early Tuesday morning at the Taman Budaya cultural center. Bourriaud’s keynote kicked off Jogja’s Biennale Forum with a frank assessment of object-oriented ontology and its beef with relational aesthetics. Bourriaud was hesitant to accord OOO too much credit. (“I would like to agree with much of their thinking, but they do not account for language, which is a mistake. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, in the same year DNA was discovered, Lacan theorized that the unconscious takes the form of language.”) But the curator did admit that relational aesthetics as he defined it in the 1990s no longer applies. “There are more machines on the Internet than human beings. What’s more, these robots and algorithms can communicate with one another without the presence of humans. Human beings are reduced to the status of personal data, to be used by corporations as the motor of today’s economy.” In this sense, object-oriented ontology’s terms mimic those of capitalism: “Humans are easier to control after they have been reduced to objects.”
After the lecture, Biennale Jogja director Alia Swastika and the curator of its last edition, Agung Hunijatnika, convened on stage with Bourriaud, artist Antariksa, and Equator Symposium curator Enti Supryanto. Antariksa led the charge, lambasting “the penetration of Western philosophy as a new kind of colonization” and venting his frustrations that existing trends in Indonesia were retroactively understood as “relational aesthetics.” Bourriaud seemed game to the challenge: “Let’s not replace one ethnocentrism with another,” he chided. “A theory is not a discovery. It’s a way of telling things.” He then added: “The only condition for a dialogue is the end of paranoia. Just bring whatever you have on the table. That’s it.”
That night, Bourriaud led by example, laying out all he had on the table as DJ at an impromptu party. “I think it was my most significant contribution to the Indonesian art scene so far,” the curator joked. No objections here. After all, wasn’t he just talking about how putting something in motion is the most beautiful thing you can do?
THE FIRST PERSON I met in Washington, DC, last Sunday night was Eric Holder, former attorney general of the United States. He had just arrived at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, where he would present Aretha Franklin with one of five Portrait of a Nation prizes during the museum’s first American Portrait Gala. The event, which raised a healthy $1.74 million for the museum’s exhibition program, also attracted Holder’s replacement, Loretta Lynch, as well as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
“No posting!” Justice Sotomayor warned, after posing for my camera. Presumably, she had to avoid any suggestion of partisanship. In the nation’s capital, even a nonpolitical fund-raiser is going to attract more people engaged in politics or government than the arts. This was no exception.
Among the gala’s five hundred guests were at least one sitting senator (Blumenthal, of Connecticut), a proactive congressman (John Lewis, representative from Georgia and a leading figure in the civil rights movement), and some past and present ambassadors. If there were a few identifiable Republicans in the crowd, this was overwhelmingly a house of Dems. That might explain why the black-tie evening felt informal rather than forced. It also helped that the gala’s founding chairs, philanthropists Wayne and Catherine Reynolds, are an agreeable, optimistic pair who make friends of everyone.
Left: Philanthropists Wayne Reynolds and Catherine Reynolds. Right: Artist Maya Lin and Daniel Wolf.
Maya Lin was the lone visual artist among the honorees, but it was heartening to see one honored as a national treasure, rather than denounced, as Lin was in 1982, for her now celebrated Vietnam Veterans Memorial off the Washington Mall. Her design signaled the first battle of the decadelong culture wars, which seem almost quaint compared with the global terrorism of today.
A solo performance by Aretha was reason enough for many in the crowd to be there, particularly Steve Hamp, chair of the NPG’s board of commissioners, as well as MSNBC political analyst Michael Eric Dyson and his wife Marcia, who were all in the singer’s posse from Detroit, their hometown. Naturally, I was interested when Mrs. Dyson told me that her husband sometimes wrote about art. “Google him!” she said. As an art person, I was also curious about the museum’s collection, which I hadn’t seen before.
Holder hadn’t seen it either, even though he was accustomed to being in the museum during its regular hours, when it attracts an impressive 1.3 million visitors a year. “I often come here for lunch,” he said. “This museum has a very good restaurant.” The collection, however, is a bit strange.
It has official portraits of significant figures in American life dating back to Pocahontas and up to former marine corporal Kyle Carpenter, at twenty-six the youngest of the evening’s honorees. It has a tiny 3-D-printed figure of Maya Lin by Karin Sander. And it has a glamorous, well-known image of fashion designer Carolina Herrera, another honoree, taken in 1979 by Robert Mapplethorpe—the same Robert Mapplethorpe who was vilified in Washington, as well as in Cincinnati, during the culture wars of the ’90s. (Happily, he’ll be the subject of a major historical exhibition opening in March, copresented by LACMA and the Getty.)
“I met Robert in Mustique and instantly we became friends,” the Venezuelan-born Herrera recalled. In the ’70s, the private island in the Grenadines was a favorite of the jet set—and a hunting ground for the career-conscious young photographer. Though Mapplethorpe shot most portraits in his studio, he did Herrera’s at the old Mayflower Hotel, where she was then living with her husband. “Reinaldo had to hold the lights so Robert could take the picture,” Herrera said, laughing, while her award’s presenter, film director and Empire producer Lee Daniels, listened in. “Carolina is beauty, grace, and fashion,” he said. (They’re friends too.) “I love it,” she said of the portrait. “It’s my favorite. And I’m very happy it’s here.”
I asked curator Dorothy Moss why the museum didn’t commission portraits by contemporary artists that would equal its purchases of works by Andy Warhol, Alice Neel, Annie Leibovitz, or Alex Katz. “That’s an interesting idea,” said Moss. “I’d really like to pursue it.” NPG director Kim Sajet didn’t think artists today would be interested in such commissions, but then wondered aloud if Kerry James Marshall would be willing to paint someone. Maybe, I thought, Aretha, who is represented in the collection only by a print, albeit an iconic one from 1968 that Milton Glaser created for Eye, a short-lived magazine that, at this point, would be a prize artifact itself. Sajet then pointed to a small self-portrait that Patti Smith drew in 1974, giving herself a long, wraithlike figure and large nose. I would call it a caricature. “I think it’s interesting to see how she thought of herself when she was starting out,” Sajet said. Point taken.
On the way into dinner, I met Carpenter, who is as long on personal charm as his dress uniform was replete with decorations. While serving in Afghanistan, Carpenter was nearly torn apart when he threw himself on a grenade to save the other members of his platoon. The shiny medals on his uniform—including the Congressional Medal of Honor—testified to his heroism, if not to his three years of surgeries and rehabilitation, though the museum’s photograph of Carpenter (by Mike McGregor) makes some of his scars visible.
Now he’s a junior at the University of South Carolina, majoring in international relations. I asked if he had political ambitions or preferred diplomatic service. “I don’t know yet,” he said. “Maybe all of the above. I already did my research abroad!” he joked, before moving off to shake the hand of baseball great Hank Aaron, the evening’s other honoree, who was schmoozing with PBS NewsHour co-anchors Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, the gala’s emcees.
With the event coming just two days after the terrorist attacks in Paris, and three after a bomb killed more civilians in Beirut, Sajet began the dinner speeches with a moment of silence for the people of Lebanon and France. (The previous evening, Lin told me, Gérard Araud, the French ambassador in Washington, was to have hosted a dinner for the honorees and presenters at his home. The dinner went forward, awkwardly, she said, while the ambassador stayed in his private quarters.)
Despite the pall that the attacks cast on the proceedings, Ifill and Woodruff, known for their sober analysis of current events, introduced each honoree and presenter with lighthearted warmth. I was seated at the art table with Lin, her husband, collector and dealer Daniel Wolf, and their daughter India, who was nearly as proud of her first Oscar de la Renta gown as she was of her mother. (Her parents’ own philanthropy includes their ongoing conversion of an abandoned jail in Yonkers into artist studios and exhibition spaces.)
Left: National Portrait Gallery curator Dorothy Moss. Right: Medal of Honor winner Corporal Kyle Carpenter, USMC.
Earlier in the day, I’d seen Lin’s floor-crawling, wall-climbing evocation of Chesapeake Bay—in green marbles—at the newly reopened Renwick Gallery, DC’s first museum, originally the Corcoran. “I looked at that room and I thought, ‘Barnacles!’” she said. With the family was architect David Adjaye, who had recently returned from the opening of the Aďshti Foundation in Beirut. “It was tense at times,” he said, happy for a change of subject to his design for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, now nearing completion on the Mall. “It’s beautiful,” Lin said. “The best thing to happen to the Mall in years.” Tonight, however, he was Lin’s “trophy carrier,” as he characterized his nonspeaking role as award presenter. (All of the awards, mirror-polished stainless steel abstractions that suggest a human profile, were designed by a Washington homeboy, Barton Rubenstein).
The main course concluded, it was finally time for Aretha. In another nod to the attacks, the seventy-three-year-old Empress of Soul opened her set with a singalong of “Amazing Grace,” accompanying herself on the piano and appearing before projections of her image in years past. “Respect” and “Think” came next. People were respectful, but when she launched into “Chain of Fools,” the entire room got to its feet to dance and shout.
If only that gospel spirit could stay with us through the next election. Yeah, think, think think! Let your mind go. Let yourself be free.
UNDER A SLIVER OF MOON on a warm November night, a sampan on Aberdeen harbor ferried prominent members of Hong Kong’s art world to the city’s iconic floating restaurant, Jumbo Kingdom, for Asia Art Archive’s fifteenth anniversary fund-raiser.
Opened in the mid-1970s, the gaudy, brightly lit barge resembles a Chinese imperial palace; it’s cherished by locals in the way that many tourist landmarks are—from a distance. “I can’t believe I’ve never been here before,” I heard often as delighted old-money Hong Kongers climbed up the gilded staircase to the entrance.
Claire Hsu and her “dream team” at AAA had dedicated eight months to planning the gala, and it certainly showed. The invitations promised an “action-packed evening” in aid of a good cause, namely, ensuring the archive can continue its important work of documenting Asia’s recent art history.
As we sipped fresh lime and vodka cocktails, Antony Gormley, in town for the launch of his public art project Event Horizon, attracted much admiration, as did Adrian Cheng, whose K11 Art Foundation is the lead partner of Gormley’s project in Hong Kong. Doryun Chong talked about the need for continuity at M+ following director Lars Nittve’s impending departure in January. “Four years until the building is not that long,” said the embattled museum’s chief curator. “There’s a lot of work to do.” Artists Wu Tsang and Boychild, in residence at the smart nonprofit Spring Workshop, arrived with curator Christina Li, who wondered if her upcoming performance, involving hot chocolate and a public scrying with artists Milena Bonilla and Luisa Ungar, might be a little out there even for Spring’s usual audience.
Though the evening’s tone was merry, it was imperative, said Hsu in her welcome speech, to acknowledge the tragic events that had happened just hours before in Paris. The room, alive with chatter, fell into a respectful hush. Hsu went on to thank all those who helped the archive become a vital resource for Asian contemporary art. “How did we get here?” she asked. “Well, an idea, lots of hard work, and a galaxy of friends and supporters.”
The venue was packed, with 160 guests seated tightly at round tables that were named after the planets. “The whole community is here,” said Ingrid Chu, the archive’s curator of public programs, beaming as she looked around the room at patrons enjoying a traditional Cantonese dinner of roasted meats, wonton soup, steamed fish, and lucky long-life noodles.
Before the auction, Michael Friedman appeared via video to perform a brilliant song he’d made for the occasion, with lyrics composed of quotes from people pivotal to AAA’s success, whom he interviewed before writing the piece. The song made gentle fun of the archive’s sometimes obscure role (“We all agree it’s important, but no one’s quite sure what they do”) while lauding Hsu as both “a prophet in the desert” and a “Ming vase.” It hit lightly on big questions such as Hong Kong’s political future and the city’s position as a conduit for art in Asia, and invoked AAA’s search for a permanent home in this jungle of notoriously high rents.
Toward that optimistic end, eighty-six works had been donated for the auction, whose silent component, online at Paddle8, ended up rather too silent. Twenty-six of the lots were auctioned live, however, by the talented Francois Curiel, head of Christie’s Asia Pacific. The first was the elegant Fifteen Sheets of White Paper by Song Dong, a past resident at the archive. The creases on each sheet of paper mark 365 days of a calendar year (or 366 per leap year). The bidding was lively, with the piece selling to a determined buyer on the phone. Despite Sir David Tang’s efforts to shush everyone (and Lucy Tang’s efforts to shush her husband), the room continued to buzz amid the bids.
During the auction’s intermission, Ming Wong playfully sashayed to the stage in a blue qipao and beehive hairdo, a mask disguising his face. A man at our table groaned when the artist began lip-synching, gamely but imperfectly, a French version of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Mis. The sale continued, with Curiel returning dressed in one of the artist-designed Pye sweatshirts we all received as gifts under our seats—surprise!
Sculptures by Liu Wei and Zhang Xiaogang fetched the most, at $115,000 each. In all, the evening raised $1.7 million for the esteemed organization, and once the numbers were in, the Bollinger was brought out, nice and cold.
FRIDAY NIGHT I spent at Cafe Figaro—a Parisian-inspired street cafe in Los Feliz—commiserating with somber French citizens speaking in hushed voices over the clink of glasses. Their grief was still on my mind as I headed the following night to the Box for a rare performance by veteran choreographer and artist Simone Forti. The eighty-year-old legend performed a dance of simple movements, shivering a flashlight in her hand as she swirled and crawled across the concrete floors of the gallery. Behind her played the quiet susurrus of the river in a projected video. Forti’s finger caressed the ground, then she stood and cast flickering hand shadows with her flashlight.
“There’s been a shooting and terrorists and that kind of brings it home,” she said with a slow shift of her body. “I noticed a hole in a window and through the pane you see half-drunk glasses of wine. It could easily be me.” Shining the flashlight across the audience, “It could have easily been us.”
“When it’s home, when it’s home, when is home. It’s close to home and it could be LA tomorrow.”
The performance ended to a standing ovation. Inevitably, the rest of the weekend was tinted, at least for me, by the cosmic pessimism that Forti had eloquently expressed. I left and made my way to Fahrenheit, the nonprofit space begun by curator Martha Kirszenbaum, and the gallery of François Ghebaly, both French citizens. Both had events planned, the launch of CARLA at Fahrenheit and an opening with Mitchell Syrop at Ghebaly, but earlier that day, CARLA and Fahrenheit sent out an e-mail to their mailing lists: “Fahrenheit will stay open until 10 PM tonight as a place of commemoration, tolerance, and resistance. Please join us for the launch of Carla magazine and to prove that we are alive and will fight madness and obscurantism.”
“After the attacks,” said Elizabeth Forney, executive director of the French Los Angeles Exchange (FLAX), “none of us wanted to be alone.” Trying not to step on Syrop’s small metal sculptures across the floor and under the love stories of Lady Jaye & Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and Dorothy Iannone & Dieter Roth at Fahrenheit, the crowd drank cocktails but the scatter of conversation led to sad and hard conversations about politics: terrorism and murder, white supremacy, religion, and race. The community real and welcome, the talk bracing and necessary.
The following night, I set out to Hollywood for LAXART’s annual auction. The curiously shaped gallery, converted from a former music studio, found space on every conceivable wall and crevasse to display the work donated by artists from Liz Glynn and Glenn Ligon to Amanda Ross-Ho and Thomas Lawson. Mary Weatherford’s Hawthorne, 2015, seemed to be causing the most hunger among collectors. This is the first big event with LAXART’s new deputy director Catherine Taft, back in Los Angeles after a crucial stint helping to reopen the Whitney Museum. We met in the closed-off street between the gallery and a building just across that was set up as a lounge for the live auction of twenty-one works. She seemed especially cheered by LAXART’s community support (with over $100,000 in ticket sales alone). “We’re lucky to be eating cupcakes on the street,” she said. And we were.
Left: Artists Mario Yabarra Jr. and Karla Diaz with LAXART director Lauri Firstenberg. Right: Artist John Outterbridge. (Photos: LAXART)
I left as the live auction began, heading deeper into Hollywood to catch Nikolas Gambaroff’s opening at Overduin & Co. Amid the marbled paintings and furniture, two rough bronze masks of crude faces lay on the ground, making a loud clanging noise each time someone in the large crowd accidentally kicked one across the concrete floor. At the front of the gallery, the two masks, digitally animated, shift against a black screen. With quivering eyes and expressive lips (both creepy and cartoonishly funny), the masks sang the Association’s 1966 “Cherish.” I watched the video through twice and left with these velveteen voices and their California pop following me into the cold night:
Perish is the word that more than applies
To the hope in my heart each time I realize
That I am not gonna be the one to share your dreams
That I am not gonna be the one to share your schemes
That I am not gonna be the one to share what
Seems to be the life that you could
Cherish as much as I do yours.
“SOME OF THE OTHER FAIRS need to step it up,” artist Hugo McCloud declared as we stood outside of the brightly lit Lingotto Oval on the opening night of the twenty-second Artissima. Formerly a skating ring built for the 2006 Winter Olympics, the pavilion is nowadays oval in name alone. Artissima director Sarah Cosulich Canarutto, whom I had run into earlier at the plush VIP Lounge styling itself as an “Opium Den,” took me up to a suspended observatory kitted with design furniture, where the jury members for the different prizes convened. (Rumor has it that it was designed for the director to sleep in.) From that elevated vantage, we could see at a glance the neat rows of fair booths on each side of the two central Janus-like sections, looking forward and back with curated solo presentations of young emerging artists (Present Future) and historical avant-garde figures (Back to the Future).
Artissima is the curators’ fair par excellence. “Curators are involved at every level—the juries, the selectors, the people participating in the walkie-talkies,” critic and Per4m coordinator Simone Menegoi assured me. His cocurators, Chris Sharp and Sophie Goltz, concurred. Sharp had just had a public manicure session with artist Julie Béna; I eyed his polished nails enviously. Nail Tang, named after the Parisian Galerie Joseph Tang representing Béna, was one of twelve works showcased as part of Per4m, which prides itself on being “an actual section of the fair” as opposed to a collateral program of events. You wouldn’t necessarily know the difference, Menegoi conceded, as nearly all performances take place in a designated part of the fair at an assigned time. But they are in principle for sale like any other works. (I hated to ask how many actually sold.)
Since practically everything at the fair—except for the main gallery section, perhaps—appears to have been “curated,” not least the eclectically oriental Opium Den, I half expected OwenCorp’s Michčle Lamy, who I spotted sitting in the VIP lounge surrounded by her retinue, to tell me she was responsible for some of the finer catering on offer, like the delectable green apple sorbet I was about to tuck into. “My input,” she said, pointing with her bejeweled fingers to a young woman kneeling by the table, “is that I gave birth to that girl.” Her daughter, artist Scarlett Rouge (surely a stage name?), had designed the fetching knitted rugs for the Opium Den—enough to make Edward Said turn in his grave.
With no magic carpet to spirit us away from the fair, McCloud, his dealer, and I had to wait for a cab to take us to Fondazione 107 for a sneak preview of the New York–based artist’s show opening the following evening in one of the repurposed, out-of-the-way warehouses that Turin has in abundant supply. Rouge, who moved to Turin with her partner a year ago, gave me a lift back to the city center. A wrong turn set us adrift in some eerily empty industrial zones, but we still made it to Bar Cavour, facing the baroque facade of Palazzo Carignano, before everyone else. Strains of what turned out to be Darren Bader’s Proposta per le 9 Sinfonie emanated from a vacant nobiliary apartment overlooking the piazza, whose bare rooms were each filled with the rousing sounds of a different Beethoven symphony.
The extended OwenCorp family, sporting gorgeous Rick Owens–designed creations, eventually joined us for a light supper of Piedmontese specialities washed down with champagne, ceaselessly replenished by Bar Cavour’s assiduous staff. We lingered in the elegant mirrored interior whose refinement no VIP lounge could possibly emulate until it was time to head to the Artissima bash at the Circolo dei Lettori in yet another monumental palazzo. For all its faded opulence and some decent music, the rammed yet somewhat sedate party—where everyone I spoke to seemed to have stayed “for just half an hour”—did not seem to warrant the effort it took to get inside.
The next morning, we started bright and early with a visit to the much-loved but fusty GAM Collection, followed by that of the outlying Castello di Rivoli with its sweeping views of the Alps. Francesco Bonami’s two-part “Tutttovero” group show—effusive in its very spelling—was spread over both venues, bridging two of the city’s most important public art institutions, dedicated to modern and contemporary art respectively. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, who has been tasked with coordinating their programs, is only due to take up her position in January 2016, but at the crowded opening of Rachel Rose’s prize exhibition, the returning director of Castello di Rivoli gave the impression of being already in charge.
The winner of last year’s Illy Present Future Prize is certainly having a moment. (She won for her video A Minute Ago, brought by the prescient Parisian gallery High Art.) Unlike Cosulich Canarutto, understandably eager to claim the artist as an Artissima discovery, Rose appeared keen to play it down. “It all happened kind of at once,” she said, alluding to the Frieze Artist Award as well as the Serpentine and the Whitney solo shows, the last of which had opened only three days before. For her prize exhibition at Castello di Rivoli, she wanted “something small and intimate,” and that’s exactly what it was. The solo exhibition consisted of a single video installation, Interiors, projected against a lunette-like gray backdrop matching the shape of the semicircular space fitted with a cream-colored carpet (“the colour of Cosmic Latte,” according to the press release).
Back at the fair, I joined a sizable group of visitors for the first of the oversubscribed and occasionally quite entertaining walkie-talkies, in this instance pairing Documenta Kassel’s Pierre Bal-Blanc with Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo of the eponymous private art foundation, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year. If Artissima employs many a curator (some fifty of them, in fact, for this edition alone), it also gives collectors more visibility. This year, curators were invited to team up with a collector of their choice and to take a few works or booths that spoke to them as the starting point for an itinerant conversation ŕ deux.
The walkie-talkies, however entertaining, are not what makes a fair exciting, as far as Martin McGeown is concerned. The codirector of Cabinet Gallery was at Artissima to show Pierre Klossowski’s erotic large-scale drawings, among the standout solo presentations in the Back to the Future section. Forty (or was it 60?) percent of the works on view at the fair struck McGeown as “inconsequential.” Be that as it may, the remaining 60 (or 40) had much to hold one’s attention, from videos and documentation of Michael Smith’s performances at Ellen de Bruijne Projects and Dan Gunn, and Japanese artist Chu Enoki’s camp self-portraits in White Rainbow’s thoughtful display to Alina Chaiderov’s twin sculptures in Galerie Antoine Levi’s spare but surprising installation (those curious enough to walk behind a deceptively plain, painted closet discovered its shelves were packed full of real bananas), which deservedly won this year’s Illy Present Future Prize.
The Bal-Blanc–Re Rebaudengo pair sat across the table of honor at the wedding-style reception—complete with a marquis, a (birthday) cake, and speeches—hosted by the collector at her villa that evening. Aside from Stedelijk director Beatrix Ruf, Serpentine director Hans Ulrich Obrist, Art Basel director Marc Spiegler, McGeown, and Christov-Bakargiev, the table counted four artists, quickly pronounced “great”: Rose, Adrián Villar Rojas, Ryan Gander, and Ed Atkins, there to plan his solo show at Castello di Rivoli next year. Gander happened to be in town to show work he had made with his six-year-old daughter, who is already “good at making bad paintings,” as the proud father put it.
I missed my chance to see Villar Rojas’s rock garden at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo by night, as Obrist urged us to do in his speech, since the installation is lit with natural light alone. (For his own part, Obrist, the cofounder of the Brutally Early Club, was planning to catch a 5 AM concert programmed in Turin’s Club to Club festival, running concurrently with Artissima.) Instead, I joined Artissima curators Menegoi, Eva Fabbris, and dealer Norma Mangione, en route to the Mad Dog speakeasy, whose doors would only open once the magical phrase “Norma is drunk” was pronounced. What is it with fairs and speakeasies? You can’t have one without the other.
EARLIER THIS YEAR, after getting grilled over delays on his latest project, The Revenant, filmmaker Alejandro G. Ińárritu reasoned: “Nobody will go to a movie because the guys were on schedule and on budget. Mission and ambition should never be compromised.”
If you took Ińárritu’s advocacy for taking one’s time with a project and multiplied it by, say, forty years, you would have James Turrell’s Roden Crater. The artist has been working since the early 1970s to convert an extinct cinder volcano in the Painted Desert into “a controlled environment for the experiencing and contemplation of light.” While over thirty-five million cubic feet of ash and earth has been dug out so far, the crater’s network of tunnels and viewing platforms are still at least five years from completion. Last week, the project got a fresh push thanks to a revamped website and the announcement that the Guggenheim’s Yvette Lee had been brought on board as Roden Crater’s executive director. (Well that and, um, Drake.)
Ińárritu and Turrell were brought together last Saturday as the honorees of LACMA’s fifth Art+Film Gala, an annual event that seeks to cement the institution’s commitment to film. One of this year’s gala attendees, actor and ideal man Joshua Jackson, may have said it best: “I don’t think you could put a dividing line between the two mediums. So much of what happens in there”—motioning toward the museum—“informs what we do in the movies, and vice versa.”
LACMA has been steadily helping others make this connection through genre-bending exhibitions by artists and filmmakers like Agnčs Varda, Tim Burton, Stanley Kubrick, and masterful cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. Up next is a solo exhibition by Diana Thater, an underrecognized pioneer in new-media art. “It’s the largest show by a woman LACMA has ever had,” curator Christine Y. Kim proudly told me, before conceding that this was partially due to the sheer scale of Thater’s room-swallowing installations. “As far as LACMA’s record, we still have some work to do,” Kim admitted. So does Thater. “For each exhibition, I want the piece to be the most updated it can be, so as not to fetishize the technology,” Thater explained. “This means every work has to be made in a way that can be constantly upgraded.”
Speaking of one-upping, this year’s Art+Film Gala marked the fifth year the event had been chaired by Eva Chow and Leonardo DiCaprio and sponsored by Gucci, which has picked up some momentum of its own courtesy of newly christened creative director Alessandro Michele. Cocktail hour was dedicated to Gucci-spotting, from the floor-length florals on Katherine Ross and Chow, to Salma Hayek’s Miss Kitty–meets–Hello Kitty bustier dress, to Dakota Johnson’s self-described “summertime Wednesday Adams look.” Moschino’s Jeremy Scott and Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci were on hand too, but Michele may as well have been the evening’s third honoree. With the addition of an Inez&Vinoodh photobooth—“We’re doing that!” patron Alia Al-Senussi exclaimed, tugging at Abdullah Al-Turki’s hand—the event could have just as easily been called the Art+Film+Fashion Gala. “It’s the West Coast’s Met Gala,” one distinguished-ish guest informed her companion, repeating an increasingly popular catchphrase.
Even as it blurs what boundaries remain between art and entertainment, LACMA has solidified its core group of supporters, ranging from celebrity regulars Reese Witherspoon, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Amber Valletta to collectors Eugenio López, Elaine Wynn, and Benedikt Taschen to dealers Shaun Caley Regen, Almine Rech, and Michael Kohn, to LA wonders like ForYourArt’s Bettina Korek. Already accustomed to the glitterati, artists including Tacita Dean, Thomas Demand, and Sam Durant stuck close to the bars, while previous Art+Film honorees Barbara Kruger and John Baldessari held court in the couch area. The smoking zones (not necessarily limited to cigarettes—this is California) featured mushroom circles of younger artists like Alex Israel, Nicole Miller, Ed Fornieles, and Liz Glynn, whose “Myth of Singularity”—eight sculptures produced during her 2013 performance series [de]-lusions of Grandeur—is on view through May.
At the close of cocktails, the six hundred guests were ushered into a grand tent, where long tables were laden with grilled paddle cactus, empanadas, and mezcal-marinated hanger steak prepared by Patina chef Joachim Splichal. Bottles of Casamigos were stationed at intervals along each table, averaging about one fifth for every six people. There is a reason tequila is not the go-to beverage of galas. As if the presence of an aggressively pregnant Kim Kardashian West (arriving on the arm of Naomi Campbell, no less) hadn’t been disorienting enough, the tequila ensured that conversations got sloppy fast. Enthusiastic Jurassic Park/Roden Crater comparisons aside, around the room you could see the crowd getting visibly tipsier, with more than a few “situations” being “handled” as discreetly as one can in a room full of photographers. “I’m pretty sure there was a woman sitting under our table earlier,” artist Elliott Hundley mused. LACMA curator Jarrett Gregory nodded: “There was.”
Unintentional entertainment aside, the focus of the evening remained its honorees. After introductory remarks by Michael Govan and Chow, singer-songwriter, producer, and sound track maker extraordinaire T-Bone Burnett introduced Turrell. “James wasn’t just inspired by the projection, but by the beam of light,” he told the audience. “In James’s hands, the sky is not blue, the color is what he wants you to see.”
Turrell was more playful. “I remember it being said that New York was the city of culture, and Los Angeles was the city of entertainment. I was early on in my career criticized by Clement Greenberg because my work was theatrical. I asked, ‘And… what’s the criticism?’ ” Lauding the transformation he had witnessed in the LA scene (and lamenting that he had moved away before he could take part in it), the artist left the stage with the triumphal—if wince-worthy—affirmation: “I am no longer LACMA-intolerant.”
After DiCaprio declared Turrell’s Perceptual Cell “the most existential observer experience I have had,” Ińárritu followed with a few words of his own about Turrell. “We, as filmmakers, use light to reveal our stories. But for Mr. Turrell, light is the revelation itself, and that is sublime.”
It was Ińárritu’s turn to be revealing, delivering a speech potent enough to cut through the tequila haze. He introduced himself as from “the Rome of North America,” Mexico City. “For the last fourteen years, I have been living in Los Angeles—along with more than two million Mexicans—and I have witnessed how the LACMA museum, since Michael Govan and his team arrived, has changed the cultural dynamics of this city.”
Pleasantries out of the way, he cut to the chase: “We are the only creatures on planet Earth that want to see ourselves in the mirror. Because we know we are the same, but we are different, we need to share. We need to see ourselves projected in other members of our species to, in turn, understand ourselves. Cinema is that mirror. It is a bridge between the others and us. Unfortunately, there are currently people proposing we build walls instead of bridges. I must confess that I debated with myself, if I should bring up this uncomfortable subject tonight. But in light of the constant and relentless xenophobic comments that have been expressed recently against my Mexican fellows, it is inevitable.”
Namechecking Donald Trump’s SNL appearance scheduled for that same night, the director continued: “Words have real power. And similar words in the past have both created and triggered enormous suffering for millions of humans beings, especially throughout the last century. If we continue to allow these words to water seeds of hate, and spread inferior thoughts and unwholesome emotions around the world to every human being, not only will millions of Mexicans and Latin American immigrants be in danger, but immigrants around the world now suffering will share the same dangerous fate.”
“There is no human being who, as a result of desiring to build a better life, should be named or declared ‘illegal,’ and be dispossessed or considered disposable,” Ińárritu concluded, suggesting substituting the term “Undocumented Dreamers.”
“By naming them that, we can instead start a real and human conversation for a solution, with the most precious, forgotten, and distinguished emotion a human being can have: compassion.”
It was a tough act to follow. Headliner Sam Smith elected not to, as a sudden cold prevented him from performing. “That’s the cool thing about LA,” Govan assured a crowd that included Usher, Psy, Argentinean singer-songwriter Mia Maestro, Jared Leto (he sings), Paltrow (apparently she does too), and of course, Burnett. “I made a call around 5 PM to T-Bone Burnett and said, ‘Sam’s sick. What are we going to do?’ and T-Bone said, ‘I’m going to call Joe Walsh.’ ”
To save some of you a Google, Walsh is a virtuoso guitarist best known for his work with the Eagles. While the Gucci crowds looked baffled (“I had to explain to my wife who the Eagles were,” a young producer confided, mourning the $10,000 splashed out on their tickets), I did notice some fists pumping at the older money tables. “This is so much better than the other acts they’ve had!” the oldest white guy at our table bellowed, as others started to eye the exit, their iPhones, or both. While Walsh might not have been a Bond-bard, he proved a consummate entertainer, interjecting humorous asides into his performance. He annotated lines from “Life’s Been Good to Me” with chirpy affirmations—“that happened,” “that part’s true”—before addending “My Maserati does one-eighty-five / I lost my license, now I don’t drive,” with “That’s not all true, I just lost my wallet.”
By the time the waitstaff brought out platters of churros, most of the tables had emptied, the Casamigos cleared. I passed Catherine Opie on the way out and she raised a bottle in salute. Over her shoulder I noticed a rogue Noah Purifoy statue, temporarily borrowed from the late artist’s Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculptures—speaking of massive art-undertakings in the desert…—for “Junk Dada,” Purifoy’s powerful retrospective on view upstairs. Titled Ode to Frank Gehry, the piece sat in front of the entrance to the museum’s Gehry exhibition. It looked like it could use a drink.
PEOPLE WHO THINK movie stars and models bring glamour to the art scene have it backwards. The art world is seductive enough without calling in air support.
Witness the weeklong start of the fall gala season in New York. On Sunday, November 1, Francesco Vezzoli kicked off Performa 15 as this year’s Anita Ekberg. Recall that in 2009, the late Italian screen goddess was a silent, sometimes somnolent, witness to Vezzoli’s Pirandellian opener for the performance biennial’s third season.
This time out, the artist followed a gala dinner at the Four Seasons by appearing in the pulpit of Saint Bartholomew’s Church as a silent witness to Fortuna Desperata, his stately collaboration with American Ballet Theatre/Bolshoi star David Hallberg with costumes by Prada design director Fabio Zambernardi. “He likes doing costumes,” Miuccia Prada said. “I don’t.”
During cocktails, Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg, who wore threeASFOUR for the occasion and had chosen the Renaissance as the theme of her biennial’s sixth edition, described her programming strategy as “100 percent risk and 100 percent trust.” Nevertheless, the dinner’s 189 guests totaled a considerably smaller number than attended last year’s plate-throwing extravaganza in Brooklyn. That may have been because ticket prices nearly had doubled, raising around $400,000 for Performa and inspiring the Four Seasons to serve a dinner leached of color and flavor. It sent some diners, including artist Jesper Just and actress-model Dree Hemingway (yes, one of those Hemingways) to the nearest bistro for a burger after the first of the two thirty-minute performances that followed.
By that time, Mrs. Prada and Zambernardi had joined Elton John, k.d. Lang, Laurie Anderson, Julian Schnabel, Jeff Koons, Brice Marden, Karl Lagerfeld, Anna Wintour, and many more at a memorial for onetime Artforum and Interview editor Ingrid Sischy at the Museum of Modern Art. No matter. There are plenty of famous faces to go around this town, and Katy Perry, Rachel Feinstein, Victoria Hopper, Inez Van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin, Stacy Engman, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, Toby Devan Lewis, Robert Soros, and an actor portraying artist Ryan Gander as a grizzled, middle-aged man with homemade key chains to sell and sad stories to tell were some of those who filed into the church, only to be faced by a nearly naked Adonis—I mean, Hallberg.
Because he has been sidelined by a foot injury for over a year, and is likely to be absent from the ballet for another, Hallberg’s presence was an invent by itself. The fifteenth-century choreography of the courtship dance didn’t strain his expressive body. It was, Vezzoli had told me, “the movement of seduction before it became Cirque du Soleil.” He did not understate the case.
Monday night, the Jewish Museum lit up for “Unorthodox,” a cross-generational, and truly international, group exhibition curated by Jens Hoffmann and installed, some thought, as if it were an art fair. “I like the vibe,” said collector Marty Eisenberg. “It’s like a great Independent fair. I mean that in a good way,” he added.
Opening-night spectators careened around figurative ceramics by eighty-one-year-old Alice Mackler and, making his art debut, novelist William T. Vollmann, but there were winners everywhere, in every medium, in such dizzying array that it seemed impossible for even the globetrotting Hoffmann to have visited studios on so many continents. “Simple,” he said. “The iPhone camera makes it possible to keep track.”
Instagram told me that Kim and Kanye were at the CFDA awards dinner, and that Studio Museum director Thelma Golden and artist Ross Bleckner were watching President Obama speak at a performance of Hamilton for a Democratic Party fund-raiser. With forty surrounding blocks closed to traffic until his motorcade passed, I set out on foot to reach Gavin Brown’s house in Harlem in time for the opening of a pop-up show by Rirkrit Tiravanija. (The new location of Brown’s flagship gallery, a few streets away, is still under construction.) Fortunately, it was a lovely evening for a walk.
Tiravanija had scattered tires that he had cast in bronze in Chiang Mai, Thailand, across the first-floor exhibition space, which was now tiled in copper that gleamed in the light from the video projected on a super-large screen at the far end of the room. In the film, the tires catch fire and generate frightening, thunderous sounds as they roll. Upstairs, Tiravanija was serving pork stew to other gallery artists (Joan Jonas, Uri Aran, Jennifer Bornstein), friends, and his dog, Harry, while recalling a political demonstration in Thailand, where citizens set fire to piles of tires.
Meanwhile, the week was only just heating up. On Tuesday night, when Anna Deveare Smith brought a powerful dose of documentary theater to the New York Public Library, MoMA opened “Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015.” This sprawling, extraordinarily un-MoMA-like show marks the series’ thirtieth anniversary with work by nineteen artists of the post-Internet generation. The emphasis here was on the appropriation and dissemination of digital images as zines, sculpture, videos, posters, and, almost as an afterthought, actual photographs. Perhaps the dispersal theme was what compelled first-nighters away from the galleries and into the sculpture garden. Unless, that is, they were escaping the deafening sound of horrible music that MoMA always plays at openings. Does anyone really believe that people in museums at night would rather be at a corporate nightclub?
Things were quieter the following evening, when SculptureCenter held its annual gala in the Rainbow Room atop 30 Rock. This was quite a step up, both literally and metaphorically, from the Center’s more informal benefits on the ground near Times Square. “I know!” said collector Jill Kraus. “SculptureCenter… Rainbow Room. Isn’t that an oxymoron?”
Alas, due to a recent makeover, the room is no longer the romantic, Deco palace of yore. Though views of New York from its sixty-fifth-floor windows were breathtaking, its famous, rotating dance floor was obliterated by a patterned gray carpet. “This looks like a Holiday Inn in New Jersey,” said poet John Giorno. “It looks like a Masonic Temple,” said artist Paul Chan. It’s a good bet that neither had ever been in either place. In fact, most of the two hundred or so guests were having their first experience of this landmark. “They kicked me out the last time I tried to get in,” boasted Liam Gillick. On tap to toast honoree Philippe Parreno, he was now properly dressedwith a dark jacket over his black T-shirt. “I don’t know why I love you, but I love you,” he said, in his toast to Parreno, and concluded with a quote from French soccer star Eric Cantona: “Be proud of what you’ve achieved, because a life built on memories alone isn’t much of a life.”
Over the next two days, the galas and auctions held off long enough for the galleries to shore up the memory bank with the mortar of art. Barbara Gladstone filled her Twenty-First Street gallery with a museum’s worth of kinetic sculptures by Jean Tinguely. (“Why not?” she asked.) For her solo debut at Metro Pictures, Camille Henrot delivered several retro-futurist, talking wall-phone sculptures in Martha Stewart colors. Lifting the receivers produced some sixty hours of recorded monologues to dramatize bullying, terror, angst, and grief. “They’re all emergency hotlines,” Henrot said, at least outwardly calm.
To go with her trippy, striped, and flying-curve canvases from the 1980s on display at David Zwirner Gallery, Bridget Riley produced four new ones of black and white triangles on diagonal grids that appear as if they were undulating across the surface. “Do go into the black-and-white room,” said the mischievous doyenne of British Op, just as I was regaining my balance from having done just that. “They feed each other,” she said, as if her paintings only talked among themselves.
There was quite a hubbub at 303 Gallery, where people didn’t just stand around looking at the Mary Heilmann paintings hung, sink-or-swim style, up and down the walls. They sat on the art—that is, on the painted wood, Heilmann club chairs in the middle of the room. “Quite a mob scene, huh?” Heilmann said happily, pushed to a wall by the crowd. “There’s something about Mary,” noted dealer Lisa Spellman, during a boisterous dinner at Lafayette, where Heilmann was touted by 145 of her best friends, including actor-director Joe Mantello, singer Jenni Muldaur, a full copse of artists, and curator Lydia Yee, who is organizing the Heilmann retrospective opening in June at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.
Friday night’s openings were up and downtown, east and west. At Sean Kelly, I found Joseph Kosuth aglow in an arcade of what appeared to be every neon text piece he had made since 1965, when the radical conceptualist was first to use that material for art. His post-Minimalist pal Keith Sonnier was busy autographing posters and books at Michele Maccarone, an industrial environment that clarified his latest drawings in neon as seducers of both light and space. And at Matthew Marks, Brice Marden stunned a big-league crowd of artists, museum directors, and collectors by revisiting his early monochromes and adding everything he’s learned about painting since then, including a drippy fringe. A nine-panel green painting was particularly beautiful. “It’s just layers and layers and layers of terre verte,” he said. Just?
Layers and layers of oils from many helping hands make Liza Lou’s woven-bead monochromes look as if they had dark and light stripes. On Saturday morning, she told a group previewing “Liza Lou: Color Field and Solid Gray” at the Neuberger Museum that the beads in each painting were actually all the same gray, white, green, or oxblood. It was the sweat of human labor that made them look like Agnes Martins. “I love her work,” the artist said, in a rare personal appearance on this coast, having returned from ten years of working with thirty Zulu weavers in Durban, South Africa. She needed five hundred volunteers from Purchase, New York, to produce the massive 1,400-square-foot, needlelike carpet of two million glass beads that is the show’s main event. “The bead,” she said, “is an agent of color.”
And the artist is the agent of enlightenment. “I want to play in the shadows,” Mark Bradford told Thelma Golden that afternoon, during a lively conversation that preceded the opening of his new show, “Be Strong Boquan,” at Hauser & Wirth. The title is a line from a searing new black-screen video that Bradford made with a text he wrote after listening to stand-up comedians like Eddie Murphy turn racial, homophobic, and sexist slurs into laugh tracks. “I wanted to know how that happens,” said the onetime hairdresser and disco queen. Asked what would come next, he replied, “Just go back in the studio and turn on the lights.”
The evening was a grab bag of style and events. While dealer Alex Logsdail celebrated his thirtieth birthday in TriBeCa at China Blue, Peter Saul redressed Old Master paintings—Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa and Hyacinthe Rigaud’s portrait of Louis XIV were two—with pointed grotesquerie at Mary Boone in Chelsea. Jim Lambie dropped all kinds of things—painted books, painted potato sacks, painted shoes—at Anton Kern, and followed up his opening by DJing at Highlands, a Scottish bar in the West Village.
Andrew Kreps opened a supercool group exhibition that makes material and conceptual sense of works by such wildly different artists as Lucas Blalock, Jimmy DeSana, Liz Magor, and John Outterbridge. Next door, Kaufmann Repetto was debuting The Guardians, a startling new video by Adrian Paci set in an Albanian Catholic cemetery that itself was left to die by the now-deceased communist regime. Old New York was on tap for the dinner both galleries hosted in the Lillie Langtry Room of Keens Steakhouse. At one time, it must have been the smoking room. The ceiling decor was a frieze of white pipes with handles so long and thin that it felt as if we were inside the rib cage of a whale. “Jonah!” said dealer Mike Egan. “Pinocchio!” Kaufmann exclaimed. Whichever, it was a meat-eaters sort of night.
That was good preparation for “Dash Snow: Freeze Means Run,” the exhibition that Peter Brant opened on Sunday afternoon at his Greenwich, Connecticut estate. It brought, with a couple of hundred scenesters, obvious pleasure to Snow’s grandmother, Christophe de Menil. It also gave Jeffrey Deitch a chance to reminisce about “Nest,” the 2007 all-nighter that Dan Colen pulled with Snow and his family amid hundreds of shredded phone books in the dealer’s Grand Street gallery.
Colen was one among five friends who curated the retrospective, which has content, to quote the signage, “that may be unsuitable for children.” That would be the video on the ceiling of a dark room documenting the performance of volunteers paid to jerk off on the New York Post. The newspapers are also in the show, as are 150 Polaroids that Hanna Liden selected from nine thousand. “I’m exhausted,” she said. Nate Lowman and Blair Hansen did the rest, bringing a clarity to Snow’s anarchic work that wasn’t evident before his 2009 death by overdose.
The understated Barbara Gladstone killed it again that afternoon by opening her third exhibition space in Manhattan—the whole of a historic East Sixty-Fourth Street townhouse built for and by the architect Edward Durell Stone—with a show of large-scale drawings by Balthus’s lesser-known brother, Pierre Klossowski. The family resemblance extends to their art, though the women in the latter’s pictures tend to be his own age.
Sunday was not a day of rest. That night, Dia held its fall gala at Artbeam, a two-story warehouse soon to be razed for yet another glass tower to blot out the Chelsea sky. The installation of a Robert Ryman retrospective in the foundation’s West Twenty-Second space was the reason for the shift of venue. That was okay; Ryman was the evening’s honoree. I’m not sure the 450 attendees—or their egos of the many artists among them—would have fit in the other place, anyway.
Dia director Jessica Morgan clearly has been working hard to bring new life to the foundation. (Some guests came from as far away as Seoul and Athens.) After Will Ryman gave a very personal tribute to his father, the droll Roni Horn came on to illuminate the ailing Ryman’s influence by admitting it was difficult to speak about him. “He resists language more powerfully than any artist I know,” she said. “His work makes language unnecessary.”
Jeff Koons, on the other hand, can never say enough. During Monday morning’s private preview of his new “Gazing Ball” paintings at Gagosian’s Twenty-First Street space, he was attentive to press and collectors alike. On the walls were hand-painted (not printed) copies of famous paintings by Manet, Courbet, Picasso, Klimt, and the like—“our cultural DNA,” he said—to which he had attached blue gazing balls on shelves. “It’s all about wanting to participate in a community,” he said.
I believed him. But I was also reminded of something Tony Shafrazi said at Maccarone’s Chinatown loft during her dinner for Sonnier. Speaking of art today, he said, “Either it’s a bull’s-eye or it’s bull-shit!”
And there lies its beauty. You decide.
MONDAYS ARE SLOW FOR CONGRESS. The so-called bed-check votes that kick off the week for the world’s greatest deliberative body keep senators and representatives grounded in Washington, DC, deciding new names for post offices and confirming benign appointments. Otherwise, Senator Tom Udall might have graced one of the biggest parties the National Mall’s ever seen—a party that took place in Lower Manhattan.
That left Jill Cooper Udall, a board member for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, without a date for the museum’s fortieth anniversary gala at 4 World Trade Center. So she asked Iris Weinshall, Senator Chuck Schumer’s wife, to join her. “This is how Senate spouses spend their Monday nights,” Weinshall said, greeting friends on 4WTC’s sixty-eighth floor.
Maybe so, but it’s not the way that Smithsonian Institution museums usually throw down. For its fortieth birthday, the Hirshhorn named forty artists as special honorees, each of whom has played a special role in the museum’s history. Most of these artists, and four hundred guests, showed up to celebrate. The gala—which was the single biggest fund-raising event in the museum’s history, garnering nearly $1.6 million—brought together a biennial’s worth of artists for a dinner party.
Paula Cooper’s table was the first to get rowdy; she and Mark di Suvero spent most of the proceedings howling at jokes between the two of them. By the time that David Skorton, the newly installed secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, got up to deliver a speech on the importance of the arts, the suits had lost the room, but no one seemed to mind.
“Sometimes you honor one or two artists during these events,” said Jason Moran, the pianist and artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center. “But to gather a bunch of people together, and Martin Puryear walks into the conversation? It’s like, ‘Okay, Theaster Gates, you’ve got to shut the fuck up because Martin Puryear’s here.’ ”
Moran was kidding; if anyone hushed the crowd, it was Gates, who blended performance into his duties as party emcee. Accompanied by the Black Monks of Mississippi, Gates led a spiritual roll call, shouting out the names of artist honorees. “Brother Gilliam! Brother Gilliam!”—for Sam Gilliam, one of a few DC artists on the roster. “Shirin! Shirin! Shirin! Shirin!”—for Shirin Neshat, over and over, building the room into applause. “Brother Lawrence! Turn the page! Turn the motherfucking page!”—for Lawrence Weiner, a star in a room full of them.
Left: Jack Macrae and artist Theaster Gates. Right: Artist Shirin Neshat.
“I’ve been working that rotunda,” said Mark Bradford, referring to the Hirshhorn—225 miles away in DC—where he is preparing for a major installation next year. Bradford is one of the artists that the Hirshhorn’s director, Melissa Chiu, and chief curator, Stéphane Aquin, have pulled into the museum’s orbit over the past year (Chiu’s first at the Hirshhorn). His show is an example of the programming that Chiu holds up to critics back home who felt spurned by the Hirshhorn’s decision to celebrate in New York: Fund-raising in Manhattan supports art for DC. Other artists at the gala, like Charles Gaines, are new to the Hirshhorn fold.
“This is really new,” said Charles Gaines, whose work the Hirshhorn has only acquired in the last month. “Usually these kinds of events don’t interest me. But I had a chance to talk to people I hadn’t talked to in a decade.”
In the end, the gala honored both cities. Chiu announced that Joseph Kosuth would be giving a major work to the Hirshhorn to honor Aaron and Barbara Levine, DC-based collectors who have brought important Conceptual works from New York (and well beyond) to the capital. The two were aboard the Amtrak train that derailed in Philadelphia in May, and the gala celebrated their recovery as much as it did any artist’s work. Kosuth beamed (in his pensive way) about his relationship with the Levines, who are his biggest collectors, and with the Hirshhorn. “It looms in my history, and in my consciousness,” he said.
“I love DC,” said Gates, who is now a board member at the Hirshhorn, connected closely with the forthcoming Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and is planning for a solo show at the National Gallery of Art. “But there are some things I want for the Smithsonian,” he said. “It’s going to require subtle leadership. I want the Hirshhorn to be more brown. I want the African American museum to be smarter.”
This was familiar ground: cultural politics. But talk eventually gave way to drinks and laughter, as most of the top forty filed out with their Hirshhorn-shaped minicakes in hand. Few stayed longer than Gaines, who danced while other guests trickled over to the windows to take in the view of new towers rising in TriBeCa.
UNDER NORMAL CIRCUMSTANCES the Tokyo art world favors discretion over the spotlight. But it’s not every day that Takashi Murakami opens a show like “The 500 Arhats” at the Mori Art Museum, the artist’s first solo exhibition in Tokyo in fourteen years and the Japanese debut of his titular opus, a three-hundred-foot-long painting first shown in Qatar in 2012. Could an enduring global phenomenon like Murakami pull the same weight at home as he does abroad? we wondered. The stakes seemed high and the show galvanized an unusually ebullient art week that happened to begin with the second edition of the annual Terrada Art Awards.
The awards—organized by a reputable warehouse seeking to become a reputable art incubator—took place the Wednesday before last on the sleek Tennozu Island, a former Edo-era battery post in Tokyo Bay. “I like short speeches,” promised Terrada CEO Yoshihisa Nakano at a boutique ceremony featuring petits fours, giving thanks and promptly raising his champagne with a sharp “Ganbei!” “Our work shines by itself; therefore, we will wear shades,” announced brother-sister artist duo Kentaro and Yuka Shimura of the SHIMURAbros before donning sunglasses and accepting the Ľ5 million grand prize. They weren’t the only ones doing their best to stand out in the crowd. “Do you think he’s handsome?” asked a staff member, pointing at actor Iseya Yusuke, there promoting his environmental-sustainability initiative, the Rebirth Project. Her colleague nodded in agreement.
At dinner on Thursday, dealer Shugo Satani, who was forced to move his gallery three times because of development projects—the latest related to the upcoming Olympic games—talked about his most recent setback, prompted by the discovery of an old Samurai house on the construction site. While he wades through bureaucratic red tape, collector Seiichi Yoshino has lent him a glass-walled space next to his own Capsule gallery in which to exhibit on Saturdays and Sundays—the appropriately named ShugoArts Weekend Gallery. I also caught up with dealer Atsuko Ninagawa, on her way to Art Taipei, and her husband, writer Andrew Maerkle, who told me about his current project with Koki Tanaka, the artist who represented Japan at the 2013 Venice Biennale, scheduled to launch in February at the Art Tower Mito complex.
The next afternoon I entered the Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills and made my way to the namesake museum on the fifty-third floor. Murakami’s massive exhibition was opening with more than thirty new works, his already-storied painting the lodestar. One of the largest in the world, it was made as a gesture of thanks to Qatar after the nation donated $100 million to Japan for disaster relief following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. According to curator Miki Akiko, the artist was reticent about exhibiting the work at every turn, but she persisted. “When, one month prior to the exhibition, he said ‘no’ again, he finally made me doubt too,” she shared with the audience, who giggled at the artist’s stage fright. Fumio Nanjo, the Mori’s director, meanwhile called it history in the making, comparing The 500 Arhats to Picasso’s Guernica.
The painting’s water-sanded surfaces are stunning, blending colorful billboard aesthetics, art-history references, self-portraits, peacocks and dragons, traditional Japanese iconography and mythological characters of Murakami’s own invention. Performers dressed as manga-Arhats danced around the guests. Building from a years-long dialogue with art historian Nobuo Tsuji, memorialized in their E’awase—an old Japanese tradition, like a sing-off with visuals—published in the magazine Geijutsu Shincho, Murakami’s Japanese artistic lineage seemed secured. As if embodying this achievement, the artist changed during the vernissage from a silver suit to an Arhat costume with a mask of his own face split in two.
From the opening we went to Ebisu, where we stopped at Japanese Ice Ouca to sample postprandial cherry blossom and soy ice cream before heading down the street to the afterparty. As Brad Plum of Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki explained, they had reserved the entirety of Ebisu Yokocho, a popular covered market now joyfully occupied by large groups of dancers, staff, and VIPs, feasting and showing off their costumes amid the stalls. After a quick pass through the crowd, I followed curator Tobias Berger of Hong Kong’s Central Police Station outside for some air, eventually settling in at the party’s karaoke room. There, collector Budi Tek crooned through Chinese tunes while art adviser Viola Raikhel-Bolot revived her phone with his charger. “I am literally attached to this man,” she said with a smile. After many sake-inspired Beatles songs, I made my way toward the exit, bumping into Gagosian’s Nick Simunovic at another stall on the way. He pointed me toward Yoshitomo Nara and Murakami—who by then had changed into a massive plush flower costume. We had a joyful photo session with thumbs-ups and serious noodle posing before I finally dragged myself into a taxi.
Saturday was more studious, as I did some gallery-hopping around Roppongi. At Ota Fine Arts, Chinese artist Chen Wei showed mesmerizing photographs of empty nightscapes intensified by electric light, while a group show at Hiromiyoshii Roppongi elegantly mixed antique terra-cotta figures with Styrofoam cups installed by Tom Friedman. In Ginza I dropped by Shiseido Gallery, where Tsuyoshi Ozawa showed a World War II–era illustrated narrative of a Japanese painter posted in Indonesia, and took a long look at Jiang-Hong Chen’s fluid landscapes at Galerie Taménaga. Blum & Poe’s Harajuku space featured Yoshitomo Nara’s pale waifs inhabiting round fiber canvases, while at Taka Ishii, Mario García Torres tackled the Anthropocene. And in case I hadn’t had my fill of Murakami, I swung by Kaikai Kiki to catch the artist’s Ensō series of circular brushstrokes depicting his spiritual quest after the Tōhoku quake.
For my final stop, I visited the studio of artist collective Chim ↑ Pom, located in a prewar house in Koenji, the epicenter of Japan’s punk scene. Member Ushiro Ryuta led me upstairs to survey some pictures on a table, where a taxidermied rodent, painted yellow to resemble the Pokémon character Pikachu, stared at me from beneath a glass box. “What started as some postclubbing fun came to full realization in 2011,” he said, describing the evolution of the group’s iconic Super Rats project, started in 2006. “After the earthquake it became a metaphor for Japanese strength and the potential for adaptation. Japanese, just like Tokyo’s rats, can grow resistant to chemicals.” Resistance matched with levity—what fertile ground for a vibrant art scene.
Left: Members of artist collective Chim ↑ Pom in their studio. Right: Tobias Berger, head of art for the Central Police Station Hong Kong, and advisor Marleen Molenaar.
Grimes performs at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. (Photo: Benjamin Lozovsky/BFA)
“IS THERE A MEMBERS’ area we can go to?” quoth two blandly handsome suits Wednesday at the bar of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s annual Young Collectors’ Council preparty gala (try saying it three times fast). At $350 per head to benefit the museum and sponsored by Christian Dior Couture, the naive might think we were already in exclusive territory, but I guess like any addiction the velvet-rope habit is about committing to going deep. While I was absorbed by my white linen napkin square (complimentary, like the champagne), a gaggle of plainclothed New York City Ballet dancers bustled past—they’d be performing the next night at the YCC gala’s dinner honoring Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Doris Salcedo, and On Kawara. But tonight was all about that producer from Canada who stole our hearts back in 2012 with a catchy tune about attempted assault: Grimes.
“See you on a dark night.” Modernist architecture makes for killer backdrops. The photo ops were plenty and everyone took advantage. Young collectors lined up to pose in front of one of Grimes’s drawings, helpfully installed with a camera kiosk to function as a memento factory. The nearby Alberto Burri paintings were dutifully ignored and obscured by the hairdos congregating in champagne-clutching packs. Dior shoulder bags and shoes were in full effect, but outfits skewed conservative, save a few dashing souls like professional matchmaker Amy van Doran and her friend Gabrielle Sirkin, or designer Lou Dallas and her companion, artist Andrew Lee Gonzalez. Asked what she collected, Sirkin said eighteenth-century engravings and contemporary street art, which sounds open-minded but I’d imagine makes for some harsh interior decorating. Other talent scouting the stage included A$AP Rocky and Dev Hynes. I chatted with Madeleine Mendell, a film student at Columbia with style for miles, before a triumphant thud through the PA indicated the start of the evening’s entertainment.
Left: Model Hanne Gaby Odiele, Harry Brant, Vlada Roslyakova, Julia Nobis, and Kätlin Aas. (Except where noted, all photos: Jackie Neudorf) Right: A$AP Rocky. (Photo: Benjamin Lozovsky/BFA)
And there she was: Standing at the spiral’s center, the self-described paranoid recluse had returned to the people shod in bedazzled Dior trainers, sprouting out of a rolled-down-to-the-waist fighter pilot suit getup (sequined, cuz why not) and finished with glow-in-the-dark bra straps and a pink-and-purple dye-do. Songs from Visions came first—you know them, of course, but these were rearranged into stomping club jams. The lows thumped and the highs tested the sound system’s feedback, preying on the only thing the acoustics at the Gugg really excel at: BASS. No treble, or at least not much.
A curious foil for an artist known for her voice, and few in the audience raised their own, or much of anything besides their phones. She got halfway through my #1—“Symphonia IX (My Wait Is U)”—before abruptly stopping, as if she had gotten bored. The finale was a visceral new track featuring Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes, but as the latter was nowhere in sight, Grimes screamed enough for the both of them. After the short set of eight songs (well, we knew she liked the number, anyway), I whipped around to find a pack of models including Julia Nobis, Hanne Gaby Odiele, and Kätlin Aas. Oh I do believe in spooks.
Later in the lounge, a holding pen converted from the museum’s Thannhauser Collection galleries, I didn’t spy the aforementioned suits (not exclusive enough?), so I tried to glean more info about this shadowy “council” of young bucks. I was introduced to the YCC’s cochair, who advised me to “follow Guggenheim and Grimes on social media.” Got it! Guggy curator Susan Thompson dished on recent acquisitions the council had made for the museum, including a Hito Steyerl video (smart), a Gerard & Kelly piece (um…), and a Kevin Beasley commission from the museum’s “Storylines” show. (Welcome home.)
The young and beautiful had evaporated by that point (11:30 PM), always a smart cue to leave, even—especially—if you don’t belong to either of those categories. On the way down the rotunda runway a frazzled and vulnerable-looking Raf Simons scuttled past as photographers flashed in his general direction. Godspeed Raf. Goodnight Grimes, and good luck Dior.
Left: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum curatorial assistant Ylinka Barotto, assistant curator for collections Lauren Hinkson, and assistant curator Susan Thompson. Right: Guggenheim Young Collectors Council cochair Anne Huntington.
ANDREA FRASER is the artist “On Our Mind” at the CCA Wattis Institute of Contemporary Art in San Francisco. Last year, Joan Jonas was on their mind, and next year they’ll be mulling over David Hammons. “It’s not retrospective. It’s not hagiography. It’s a unique opportunity to consider an artist’s work in depth with your peers,” explained Jacqueline Francis, an art historian at the California College of the Arts, as a waiter topped up her pink champagne last Friday. We were gathered for cocktails ahead of the Bay Area premiere of Fraser’s Men on the Line: Men Committed to Feminism, KPFK, 1972.
Earlier that day, Fraser was rehearsing across the street at the Brava Theater. “I’d like to look half-decent,” she hollered in the direction of the lighting technician, “because I’m not taking my clothes off in this piece.” The artist neighed like a horse, then trilled like a bird, and then huffed, “Ma mah, pa pah.” Fraser has been doing these kinds of warm-up exercises since she studied drama at Berkeley High School. She dropped to the floor and did a few push-ups. “Once, when I was about to perform Official Welcome, I wasn’t feeling Damien Hirst, so I did some push-ups. It did the trick. It brings energy to the shoulders,” she explained with a pump of her pecs.
Fraser was preparing to embody the voices of four men in a consciousness-raising session about gender identity and equality that was broadcast on Pacifica Radio in the early 1970s. In green Levis, a white shirt, gray pullover, and, true to the era, no bra, she explained, “My approach to my clothes onstage is that I wear things that I happen to own. I don’t want it to be a costume. I am not trying to suspend disbelief.” Fraser did a skyward stretch. “I hate the idea of characters,” she added. “I am performing fields and different positions in the field.”
Left: Art historians Julia Bryan-Wilson, Richard Meyer, and Karen Fiss. Right: Brian Deshazor, head of Pacifica Archive.
While Fraser’s work is underpinned by the social theory of Pierre Bourdieu, it is also grounded in personal feelings, a combination that contributes greatly to the power of her performances. “These men are my father, and my internal male selves,” she said. “I grew up in a lesbian-feminist household. My father wrote about men’s liberation and struggled to engage with the change around him.” Fraser’s cellphone rang. It was her father, calling from Hawaii. She hadn’t talked to him for a while, but now was not the time.
This would be the ninth performance of Men on the Line, which had been commissioned by Emi Fontana’s West of Rome as part of the Pacific Standard Time Festival in Los Angeles. Fraser started hunting for recordings that might inspire a work in the summer of 2011. Nothing came of her search until artist Suzanne Lacy pointed her toward Pacifica Radio’s archive, where she discovered the conversation, which she then transcribed, edited, and memorized.
A few hours later, a who’s who of San Francisco curators and art historians, a handful of collectors and dealers, and a mob of artists and students invaded the theater. Carmen de Monteflores, Fraser’s mother, sat stage left among a couple rows of family. The house lights dimmed and an announcer with a deep radio voice announced “Men on the Line.” Fraser took the spotlit seat from which she would perform all four parts for the next fifty minutes. The conversation moved through a nuanced discussion of men’s fear of the women’s movement and their hope that it would entail a general human liberation; their desire to shed their “brainwashing” and overcome residual “male chauvinist pig” behaviors, the femininity of feelings, the burden of the traditional male role, and the desire for an androgynous world. Fraser took on a series of masculine poses, which sometimes felt like an actor performing distinct people and occasionally like a schizophrenic in fervent debate with himself.
Laughs arose from moments when the naive idealism of the early ’70s met with today’s cynicism, such as when one man confidently declared that he was “largely cured of sexism” or that he enjoyed “a real feeling of glorious equality” with his third wife. Other chuckles came from the embarrassment involved in discussing intimacies in public (“I feel very guilty about my penis”) or from the ding of an insight (when men appear weak and vulnerable, they’re in need of Alka-Seltzer or “some kind of tonic to cure that indisposition”).
When the performance ended, the audience clapped for a very long time, then lingered, hoping that the artist would return for a bow or a few words. But this was not the theater. Art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson called it “an incredible work of acting and appropriation.” Leigh Markopoulos, head of curatorial practice at CCA, felt “extreme empathy toward these guys struggling to be better men. They weren’t assholes. Their chauvinism was inherited rather than inherent.”
Many in the room had lived through the era, but Suzanne Lacy had known two of the men personally. As a result, she was sure that her primary experience of the work was different from most present. “I’d love to do fifty interviews to understand how men and women of different ages received the piece,” she said. “I’ve done a lot of work that explores how young women perceive feminism and activism. This research—a kind of Part II—would complete Men on the Line for me.”
Andrea Fraser and family.
IN 1956, London’s Whitechapel Gallery hosted Pop art’s coming-out party, a twelve-part exhibition uniting artists, architects, designers, and musicians under the rubric “This Is Tomorrow.” Last year, Stockholm’s Tensta Kontshall, the Latvian Center for Contemporary Art in Riga, and the Zagreb-based curatorial collective WHW/What, How & for Whom (Ivet Ćurlin, Ana Dević, Nataša Ilić, and Sabina Sabolović) appropriated the title for a programming initiative that looks at what happens after the party’s over, institutionally speaking.
“We realized we were all facing the same questions of what it means to be a midsize institution that still wants to hold onto the political and social activism possible when you’re smaller,” Sabolović explained at a coffeehouse in Zagreb. “We wanted to think about ways to test the limits and possibilities of the institutional framework we have now.”
So far the program has used its threefold vantage to ruminate on whether, as Sabolović put it, “the uselessness of art can be thought of as useful.” The question came to the fore this time last fall, when WHW opened its group exhibition “Really Useful Knowledge” at Madrid’s Reina Sofía. As a counterbalance, the collective hosted Tania Bruguera’s open-source archive Arte Útil in Galerija Nova, the municipal gallery in Zagreb that WHW has run since 2003. “In some ways the projects were direct inverses,” Sabolović observed. “Arte Útil puts forward strict categorizations of what functions art can have, while ‘Really Useful Knowledge’ left everything open to debate. But that’s how that original Whitechapel exhibition was, opening itself up to different positions and disciplines.”
Last Tuesday, WHW unveiled the latest project in the series, David Maljković’s “A Retrospective by Appointment,” a multivenue exhibition strung along a central artery in the artist’s hometown of Zagreb. Here’s where a fourth question could be added to the three in the collective’s name: Why? Alongside Sanja Iveković, Maljković may currently be Croatia’s most prominent artist. His work can found in the collections of the Tate, the Centre Pompidou, the Stedelijk Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, whose recent rehang of the permanent collection lifts its title from one of his key works, Scenes for a New Heritage. One journalist approximated the number of his exhibitions at over 250, including biennials in Istanbul, Săo Paolo, Berlin, Paris, Konjic, Prague, Tirana, and, this year, Venice. “David is our golden fish,” artist Darko Fritz confirmed. “He more than deserves a major museum show.”
And yet Maljković has yet to have a significant exhibition in Zagreb, a town so devoted to its artists it built its contemporary art museum in the shape of a Julije Knifer painting. “No artist is ever loved in his hometown,” a dealer told me, but in Maljković’s case, it’s a little more complicated than that: Chosen to represent Croatia at the Fifty-Second Venice Biennale, the artist had his invitation yanked out from underneath him at the last moment by commissioner Zeljko Kipke and curator Branko Franceschi.
This is where the “Why?” comes in handy again. For starters, Maljković doesn’t make it easy. With each exhibition, the artist actively resists standard protocol, approaching the act of exhibition making as he would an artwork. For his 2011 midcareer survey at Vienna’s Secession, he opted to remove all content, showing only the support structures for each of the works “presented.” Even the poster was void of any information other than the word retrospective. For “A Retrospective by Appointment,” Maljković kept the content, but chose to play spatially with the idea of artistic progress, leading viewers on a march from the artist’s studio to the modest showroom of the Croatian Designers’ Association and, finally, to Galerija Nova.
“David is one of the most active Croatian artists abroad, but here most knowledge of his work is still based in rumors,” Sabolović lamented to the early birds who had descended on the artist’s studio a few hours before the evening’s official progression. They included inimitable Korčula-born collector Neda Young; dealers Georg Kargl, Andreas Gegner, Tom Heman, and Floor Wullems; artists Roman Urajnek and Radenko Milak; and the A-Team from Ljubljana’s Moderna Galerija, led by charismatic director Zdenka Badovinac.
Maljković had cleared out most of his belongings and used the remaining furniture to prop up a series of partition walls, festooned with a salon-style hanging. “For me the studio was the most difficult of the venues,” the artist explained, hesitantly at first. “It’s personal space, so there’s generally a lot of cleaning involved, but I also wasn’t interested in the romance of ‘the artist’s studio.’ ” In keeping with his rejection of chronological hierarchies, the selected works sampled liberally from his career, mixing a print from the New Representation, the installation shown in Venice, to the 2008–10 Retired Form collages and a sketch of snuggling cats the artist made at the tender age of eighteen.
Next we bundled up and headed to the Croatian Design Association’s gallery, which Maljković had filled with posters, publications, and photographs, all centered around one of the sleek gray tables the artist had designed with Konstantin Grcic for the recent Ljubljana Biennial. By the time we got to Galerija Nova, the crowd was spilling into the courtyard and the neighboring cake café. Granted, this was partially because much of the gallery space had been swallowed by a chest-high platform the artist had built specifically for the show. “This structure was David’s way of dealing with his frustrations with the space,” I heard Dević explain to Kontakt Collection curator Kathrin Rhomberg. “It makes me feel all out of proportion,” Rhomberg replied.
Someone told me they had seen Iveković, sending me on a futile attempt to spot her amid the throng. I did, however, run into a host of delightful others, from curators Morana Matković and Vladimir Vidmar to artists Fritz, Kristian Kožul, Helena Janečić, and Fokus Grupa. Ducking into the side gallery, I noticed that a wall-length bookshelf, usually brimming with a selection of self-printed wonders, had been emptied for the occasion. It hung with an understated grace beside a floor-to-ceiling photo of an installation the artist made in 1995 by relocating the contents of an elementary school classroom to an underpass. “I love how the bookshelves almost look like part of the show,” I ventured, admiring the modernist slant of their design. Moderna Galerija’s Igor Španjol shot me a look. “You do know David made them, right?” He motioned to a wall label I had assumed errant.
As the visitors kept pouring in, it was clear that whatever the reason for Maljković’s lack of exhibitions in Zagreb, it had no correlation with a lack of interest. Of course, it was not all unqualified praise. “Did you see his film about nothing?” grumbled graphic novelist Helena Klakočar. “They’re in there applauding it. An artist getting paid for nothing, when there are all these artists trying to say something. And now Marina Abramović is getting sued by some artist who said they thought of doing nothing first!” What could I say? This Is Today.
From Galerija Nova, the procession flowed back to the artist’s studio and then a celebratory dinner at Karijola, a beloved pizza place with an outside terrace and an attic wine bar. Process-ed out, I decided to join Young, Gegner, and Wullems for preprandial pumpkin soup and fresh mushrooms across Tesla Street at city staple Vinodol. We were wise to eat beforehand. By the time we arrived at Karijola, the pizzas looked fabulous but few between. While the Dalmatian wine was enthusiastically received, international guests were caught off guard at the indoor smoking. “I can feel it on my skin,” Wullems marveled.
We ducked out to the terrace in time to catch Andreja Kulunčić coming up the stairs. The artist was in town for the day, taking a breather from installing a show in Rijeka. The project, “Creative Strategies: Toolkit for a Joint Action,” had actually been developed for Galerija Nova as an offshoot of “This Is Tomorrow.” For the piece, Kulunčić combined her own experiences working within the country’s educational system with the social activism of the group Direct Democracy in Schools. “It’s been instructive to work with activists,” Kulunčić told me. “Their stance is, you’ll never be fully prepared, so you just have to move forward with what you have ready.” It sounded like solid advice.
Speaking of moving forward, as we contemplated options for the rest of the evening, Heman resurfaced, looking dapper in a suit (the only one at the party). “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you look so nice!” Gegner enthused. Heman rolled his eyes: “Yes, you have. I think I wore this every day at FIAC.” But as we had learned, sometimes you have to take the long route to appreciate what’s right in front of you.