ONE OF THE PERILS of political art is that it stays still as politics, trumpeted by the daily news, marches on. Laura Poitras, the Pulitzer- and Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker whose “9/11 Trilogy” culminated in CITIZENFOUR (2014), a fly-on-the-wall account of Edward Snowden’s disclosure of the National Security Agency’s family jewels, opened her first art exhibition, “Astro Noise,” at the Whitney Museum on February 5.
During “Surviving Total Surveillance,” a sold-out panel discussion held at the museum the day after the opening, Poitras said that she finds the straight news approach to covering the Snowden archive more “alien” to her than artists’ visual responses. She doesn’t like the “prioritization of the new” in journalism, she continued, being more interested in what material can make the biggest impact. This thought was foreshadowed in her gripping “Berlin Journal” from 2012–13, which details Snowden’s initial attempts to contact her and is excerpted in the show catalogue, Astro Noise: A Survival Guide: “There is a danger working with news events—they lose their meaning once public. I need to make sure everything has bigger social and human meaning.”
Since the panel, the US intelligence community has generated some news of its own, news that points up the need for activist work like Poitras’s even as it monopolizes any attention average citizens might have paid to the opening of “Astro Noise.” First, three days after “Surviving Total Surveillance,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, he of the under-oath lie that the NSA does not “wittingly” collect data on millions of Americans, announced in congressional testimony that US intelligence agencies “might use” (read: already are using) the nascent “Internet of Things” (e.g., your Web-enabled espresso machine) for surveillance purposes.
This notion, at once chilling and comical, calls to mind Philip K. Dick’s annotation to his 1953 short story “Colony”—“The ultimate in paranoia is not when everyone is against you, but when everything is against you. Instead of ‘My boss is plotting against me,’ it would be ‘My boss’s phone is plotting against me.’ ” Ironically, this is the attitude taken by the FBI in a far bigger story that broke on February 16: The security features of the Apple iPhone 5C have conspired to prevent the agency from brute-force cracking the password of the work-issued phone of Syed Farook, one of the San Bernardino shooters.
Despite the facts that (i) the FBI can already obtain from the wireless carrier (if not the NSA) all of the phone’s metadata regarding Farook’s communications; (ii) Apple has already provided the FBI with the phone’s iCloud backup data up to six weeks prior to the shooting; and (iii) Farook and his accomplice destroyed their personal cellphones and computer hard drives in advance of the attack, indicating they were well aware of digital forensics and making the likelihood of the agency finding anything of investigative value on the work-issued phone next to nil; as well as (iv) the remote possibility that this is a psy-op run by the FBI with Apple’s complicity, intended to tout the unbreakable security of iPhones to the rest of the world as a lure to malefactors, big businessmen, and world leaders, when all the while the NSA has the full exploit at the ready; despite all this, the FBI came to Apple with a court order based on the functionally medieval All Writs Act of 1789 and to the American public with hat in hand, playing the poor, put-upon public servant just trying to do its job on one, just one, little case that happens to involve Islamist terrorists on US soil (dead terrorists, but hey, they might be planning more attacks from beyond the grave).
Left: The audience at “Surviving Total Surveillance.” Right: Laura Poitras speaks at “Surviving Total Surveillance.” (Photos: Andrew Kist)
As novel, specific, and limited the FBI’s order seems at first glance, it is just the latest strike in the government’s decades-long war against encryption of digital voice communications and Internet-connected computers. For a pocket history of the “Crypto Wars” of the 1990s, when these issues first came into view for millions of Americans, look up the Clipper Chip and the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA). (Steven Levy’s 2001 book Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government—Saving Privacy in the Digital Age is a good primer.) The FBI has been strategically waiting for a case that would push the right emotional buttons in the American public to help them achieve their goals in this area. A terrorist attack inside the homeland provides the perfect cover, as it did for the rapid passage of the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001.
In fact, the FBI already has a number of other similar locked iPhone cases moving through the courts. On February 23, the Wall Street Journal reported that a newly unsealed court document indicated that the FBI was seeking to unlock “about a dozen” other iPhones, also using the All Writs Act as a legal wedge. Because none of these other phones was used in terrorism cases, you never heard about them. This gives the lie to FBI director James Comey’s repeated assertions that the Farook order is only about one phone. The case is about setting a precedent. Cyrus Vance, Jr., New York County district attorney, has already said to the press that he has “155 to 160” locked iPhones waiting for the conclusion of this case. There’s little doubt that the Chinese and Russian governments are also closely monitoring its progress. Apple’s refusal to build the same back door for them would hold little water if they’d already done so for the FBI.
This is not about one phone. Indeed, it is not even about breaking encryption. The FBI is compelling Apple to write a different version of its operating system (iOS) that would disable three security features preventing people or machines from guessing another user’s password: one, ten wrong guesses in a row, the phone wipes its data; two, during those ten guesses, the system creates increasingly long delays between each try; three, the phone does not allow a computer to make the guesses, only human fingers. The FBI wants these features removed so they can guess the password by brute force using a fast computer, trying every possible four- or six-digit permutation until they unlock the phone. Independent cryptographers, software developers, and computer security experts—people who actually understand the principles of digital security—are nearly unanimous in their opposition to the FBI’s order. Even former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden, who never met a data exploit he didn’t like, has come out on the side of Apple. (This is so unlikely that it almost lends support to the psy-op theory.)
Supporters of the FBI have reached for myriad physical analogies for the situation (houses, safes, etc.) and can’t grasp why the idea of Apple writing this iOS just once for Farook’s phone and destroying it is untenable. Their arguments misunderstand the fundamental differences between physical and digital security. “The virtual world is not like the physical world,” Erik Neuenschwander, Apple’s manager of user privacy, stated in his declaration in support of Apple’s motion to vacate the FBI’s order, issued on February 25. “When you destroy something in the physical world, the effort to recreate it is roughly equivalent to the effort required to create it in the first place. When you create something in the virtual world, the process of creating an exact and perfect copy is as easy as a computer key stroke.” In other words, even if the FBI swore on the Bible that it will never ask Apple to build this exploit ever again, it most certainly will (it already is), as will state and local law enforcement agencies. Hence Apple’s engineers would either have to retain the documentation and rebuild a new version for every order, or they would do what anyone else who is constantly asked for something would do: They would store it.
Needless to say, there would be few other pieces of software in the world more interesting to criminals, terrorists, malevolent hackers, spies, and foreign intelligence services. Apple is good at security, but so is the NSA, and yet Snowden, a contractor, liberated thousands of their most sensitive documents. The recent hack of the US government’s Office of Personnel Management, in which foreign actors absconded with the personal data of twenty-two million current and former US government employees, also makes the idea of storing such software unacceptably dangerous. Even if Apple were able to prevent any leak or theft of the alternate iOS, defense lawyers in criminal cases prosecuted using evidence obtained in this manner would be entitled to compel discovery of the iOS from Apple, not only the software itself but all of the methodology involved in its creation. From there, it will proliferate around the globe with the “ease of a key stroke.” Finally, unbreakable encryption software is already widely available and has been for decades; Apple does not have a monopoly. Sophisticated criminals and terrorists are already using it and will no doubt switch en masse if the FBI prevails in the Farook case, so the only people who would be negatively affected by this precedent are dumb criminals/terrorists and millions of innocent iPhone users around the world.
Apple is no saint when it comes to the commercial exploitation of personal data, though it is marginally better than Google and Facebook as it is primarily a hardware company, making actual products instead of packaging its users’ data as products. But it is doing the right thing in this case, while the FBI is being blatantly disingenuous. We never would have arrived at this impasse if the FBI had not instructed San Bernardino county officials to change the phone’s iCloud password, preventing one last automatic backup that could have revealed any data from the six weeks prior to the shooting. After publicly releasing its order, the FBI arranged for a local attorney to represent the victims’ families in a push to whip up public sentiment against Apple. When pressed, Comey even admitted that the FBI seeks to apply the precedent set in this case to others. It would of course be comforting to believe the government’s pure intentions, but look at the record: J. Edgar Hoover and his blackmail files; COINTELPRO and other domestic intelligence abuses that led to the Church Committee reforms; the fabricated rationale for the Iraq War; the machinations surrounding the CIA torture report; warrantless mass surveillance and other unconstitutional domestic snooping programs revealed by Snowden; Clapper’s perjury in congressional testimony; and on and on.
Poitras, a US citizen, is herself under effective exile in Berlin due to constant harassment and intrusive searches by US customs officials every time she returns to her native country. Some of her sources for CITIZENFOUR, including NSA whistleblower William Binney, found it necessary to imply that the intelligence community would have them killed for what they had disclosed. “He [Snowden] also said that he would never commit suicide,” Poitras wrote in her “Berlin Journal,” which recalls Winston Smith’s clandestine diary even as she describes rereading 1984. “What kind of fucking world is this that everyone in my film says this to me?” It is a world in which many hundreds of people will line up outside a major museum to see an oppositional, activist exhibition like “Astro Noise,” approximately half of whom (if we’re to believe current polling on the issue) are sympathetic to the FBI in the Farook case. This is the type of cognitive dissonance that the “Snowden effect” has instilled in the general public.
One of the components of “Astro Noise” is Bed Down Location, a darkened room with a large mattress-like cushion on the floor, encouraging viewers to lie down and observe projections of the night sky over Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, jurisdictions where US drones often fly overhead in pursuit of “targeted killings.” After passing through another segment of the show, Disposition Matrix, viewers enter a final room where two screens show, respectively, heat spectrum imagery of the viewers’ bodies as they lay on the cushion and a ticker of all of the viewers’ wireless devices, identified by MAC address, time, and location. This last reveal is intended to instill in viewers both a sense of fear and of complicity in the surveillance apparatus. As I walked into the final room and saw the screens, I was momentarily distracted by noticing Snowden’s father, Lon Snowden, among the crowd. Just then, a young couple saw the screens and the woman exclaimed joyously, “That’s us!” The thrill of recognition was not in response to the cleverness of the reveal or the message of the show; it was the same digital narcissism that keeps social media afloat and stops more people from grasping the implications of our current predicament and the part they play in it.
If you want to prevent and not merely survive total surveillance, do what you can to support Apple in this case, regardless of what you may think of it as a company. While it sounds counterintuitive in the post-9/11 era, law enforcement is not supposed to be easy. What keeps free societies from becoming totalitarian societies is precisely how many limits the state places on its law enforcement agencies. It’s a sad state of affairs when we’re dependent on the richest corporation in the country to school us on American civics and constitutional law, but that’s where we’re at. From the conclusion of Apple’s motion to vacate brief: “Examples abound of society opting not to pay the price for increased and more efficient enforcement of criminal laws. For example, society does not tolerate violations of the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, even though more criminals would be convicted if the government could compel their confessions. Nor does society tolerate violations of the Fourth Amendment, even though the government could more easily obtain critical evidence if given free rein to conduct warrantless searches and seizures. At every level of our legal system—from the Constitution, to our statutes, common law, rules, and even the Department of Justice’s own policies—society has acted to preserve certain rights at the expense of burdening law enforcement’s interest in investigating crimes and bringing criminals to justice.”
IT’S 2016 and people still talk about the Internet like it has a mind of its own. Discussions that depict “the digital” as historical agent or, worse, a space unto itself, are a cottage industry. For the art set, these exchanges run the gamut from crowd-pleasing canards about Instagram’s disruption of the art market to full-length books (by Melanie Bühler, Phoebe Stubbs, and most recently Lauren Cornell and Ed Halter) on digital art and its “post-Internet” fate.
The New Museum and Rhizome recently joined the fray with their inaugural Open Score, an annual symposium exploring the state of art and technology. The name honors the fiftieth anniversary of an eponymous work from “9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering,” a flashpoint in Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Klüver’s germinal Experiments in Art and Technology. Art and technology have always been imbricated, but today connectivity is ubiquitous and “software is eating the world,” at least according to one venture capitalist.
Four panels packed in a who’s who of digitally inclined theory and practice. New Museum director Lisa Phillips, whose introductory remarks echoed the zero-sum script written by the Silicon Valley architects, cited “the infiltration of the digital into every facet of our lives.” (Such technodeterminism should be taken with a grain of salt. When you’re a cultural institution being crowded out by digital networks, hyperbole is your best friend.) If early art-tech collaborations had the veneer of autonomous experiments, now our network is dripping with politics. We may have jumped into a “democratic space,” but we brought capitalism with us. As Cornell and Halter explain in the introduction to their book Mass Effect, a recent crop of artists is the “first to respond to the Internet not as a new medium, but rather a true mass medium.” Digital networks demand an expansion beyond the medium-specificity to which art practices have long clung.
The initial panel, “Generation You,” was moderated by Andrew Durbin and featured artists Simon Denny, Juliana Huxtable, and Jacob Ciocci and poet Cathy Park Hong. How has social media influenced their obligation to self-brand? How do they navigate its pervasive commercial pressures? Ciocci was the first to cast doubt on the habitual and spectacular othering of social media. Technology, he offered, is “anything that organizes or takes apart reality.” It’s nothing new under the sun. Denny spoke next, unapologetically embracing social technologies. He began by recounting his research into the NSA slides leaked by Edward Snowden and how he used networks like LinkedIn and Behance to track down David Darchicourt, the illustrator behind the slides’ infamous “bad design.” For Denny, Darchicourt’s work was sublime, and his installation for the New Zealand pavilion in Venice placed Darchicourt in the Marciana Library alongside Titian and Tintoretto, creating a lineage of representations of the mastery of information from Renaissance humanism to the distributed networks of the present.
Wouldn’t you know it—information overload concerns poetry too. “Poets have been oversharing way before the Internet,” Hong suggested. But faced with a metastasizing archive, poetry has, paradoxically, simplified. Hong observed that poetry on the Internet has become less “difficult” and more efficient, reduced to “content” that is often epiphanic or confessional. She took a cynical view, aligning this poetry with the software ideal “user-friendly”: “[Gertrude] Stein would have very few Tumblr followers.”
When we reflect on the messy constellation of technologies known as “the Internet,” time is a vector, a trail, a trajectory, and only a partial host for memory. Absent that, it is servers that may or may not be connected. The backlash is in full swing. Huxtable spoke of the difficulty of reconciling her critical relationship to social networks with her feeling that they are “necessary” and “omnipresent.” Huxtable argued that a historicization of the Web’s contents might challenge illusions of its democratic nature. The Google “archive” began at a certain point in time, Huxtable noted: The Internet is not simply an atemporal mass. The panel continually returned to the Internet’s inherent plurality, reacting to its monolithic metaphorical status.
Digital platforms may improve accessibility, but how do their designs impact criticism proper? For the second panel, “Liking and Critiquing,” Halter spoke with four practitioners of art criticism (loosely considered). Hypertext is the new normal, and writers must now confront their feudal relationship to platform owners. In the span of a few years we went from “Google is making us stupid” to “Wages for Facebook!” Of course, the administrators of the networks to which we’re beholden—surprise!—didn’t set out to run charities. Some, like Kimberly Drew, who doesn’t consider herself a critic, are less bothered than others. As the founder of Black Contemporary Art, which is hosted by Tumblr and Instagram, Drew remains optimistic about the peculiar forms these platforms have borne. “Why does a listicle have to be such a bad thing?” she asked.
This perspective crosses generations. Jerry Saltz claimed he discovered his social-media voice almost by accident from an innocent Facebook comment about a Marlene Dumas show. But now his love of pure opinion and palpable disdain for the “grip of a mandarin jargon that was taught in academia” aligns with the casual many-to-many voice of online discussion. Drew and Saltz have a point: Some days it can seem like the main argument of an expertly composed article could be better handled by the business end of a Facebook thread.
For many critics, social media is more agile than the measured claims of a monographic essay, able to host both the polite comments at the opening and the gossip spilled afterward at the nearby bar. But Brian Droitcour and Laura McLean-Ferris wondered about the impact on sustained, rigorous discourse. For McLean-Ferris, the online transparency of an art critic’s “IRL” social ties can make objectivity difficult. New forms of digitally mediated art criticism are merely additive, Droitcour argued. Their voice is closer to speech than text. Droitcour’s perspective is unique: His Yelp reviews of arts institutions exist alongside his contributions to Art in America, where he is an editor. “So much of art criticism is just affirming these power structures that already exist,” which Droitcour says is analogous to how our desire to share our experiences online affirms the existence of massive social platforms.
The final panel, “The Future of Internet Art,” asked how Net-art practices have evolved with the mainstreaming of the Internet. Rhizome artistic director Michael Connor began by interrogating the form’s rarely acknowledged (often Californian) ideologies. “Net art grew out of a pure frustration with mass media,” artist Constant Dullaart reminded us. For a while, there was a glimmer of freedom from corporate control. But Net art, a genre predicated on confused metaphors about digital technology, is correcting for the damage. Post-Snowden, of course, it’s impossible to think of “cyberspace” as an autonomous, deinstitutionalized Wild West. (Dullaart called today’s social-media platforms “neo-imperialist.”)
Triple Canopy director Peter Russo considered how his “provisional institution” navigates online power structures: “A minor browser update can debilitate an entire project.” But Triple Canopy’s expensive, artisanally spun custom publication platform isn’t available to all. Most artists use out-of-the-box products. Artist Shawné Michaelain Holloway reflected on her medium’s blank canvas, the empty browser. “This is where I work,” she explained. “Where can I gain power, but also, what kind of powers are imposed upon me?” In spite of certain drawbacks, both Holloway and Colin Self, whose projects use consumer Web products to offer DIY services to an LGBT community, have made these platforms a tool of emancipation.
So what happens when humans exchange information faster than ever before? Open Score captured the paradox of digital art practices in 2016: We want to retain the specialness of our virtual materials while acknowledging their ascension of the commercial-media food chain. Thankfully, artists are actively reimagining this bundle of affect we call the Internet, and the rising tide of technodeterminism may now be receding. Just in time, too: Observers have begun to interrogate our narrow frames for Internet culture. In Mass Effect, Cornell and Halter wonder about their book’s usefulness in twenty years: “[W]ill the concept of a specific mode of art engaged with the Internet have, by then, become meaningless?” Perhaps we’re already there.
ACROSS THE STREET from sunset tourists posing for snaps in front of Chris Burden’s Urban Light, jumping distance from chopped-up sections of the Berlin Wall, the first-floor windows of an International Style two-story building read over and over again, I WILL NOT MAKE ANY MORE BORING ART.
An exercise cooked up in 1971 for a class at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, the words adorn these windows but also currently a hallway downtown at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and are available on pencils as merch across the street at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a marketing tie-in for a retrospective five years ago for one of Los Angeles’s most iconic artists (who also designed LACMA’s logo): the white-bearded godfather, longtime professor, and jokester Conceptualist John Baldessari, here the debut artist for his German art dealers’, Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers, brand-new space on Wilshire Boulevard.
“It’s for the artists,” said a joyful Magers Tuesday night. “Barbara Kruger suggested it and John didn’t have a gallery in LA anymore. It all went from there.” Founded in 1983, the Sprüth Magers operation’s Los Angeles digs add to galleries already in Berlin and London, an office in Cologne, and a planned outpost opening in Hong Kong in May.
Row after row of fluorescent light bounces off paper-white walls and polished concrete floors. A heavy cement column here and there pokes through from Pereira and Associates’ 1971 design, clad in bright paint that leavens the place’s solidity. Surrounded by windows on all sides, a couple of walls lined the space to make room for the pictures. Baldessari’s paintings lightly deconstruct stock photos and add a line or two of unrelated narrative in a white bar that runs along the bottom: “Yeah I know me too.” “Some other way, I’ll figure it out.” “Maybe that is the simplest way to explain it.” In a second-floor office a Rosemarie Trockel knitwork banner—“Made in Western Germany,” it said—hung behind the eighty-four-year-old Baldessari, who sat receiving former students and contemporaries come to pay their respects. “I’m very pleased to be here,” he said, “I don’t have too many good shows left in me. I’m glad this one is here.”
Outside, a line had formed, or rather two. A “general public” queue circled the courtyard and stretched all the way to the street a few hundred people deep. Another VIP line ran from the entrance, but even this cut-through began to accumulate and run long to Wilshire. I heard more than a few curators, collectors, artists, and patrons exclaim some version of “I’m not fucking waiting in line.” Baldessari’s last opening in 2012 at the since retired Margo Leavin Gallery had been a modest, almost family affair, still certainly crowded but nothing like this. The professionals were plumb aghast at how wildly popular gallery openings had become in Los Angeles.
Left: Artists Larry Johnson and Allan Ruppersberg. Right: LA MoCA chief curator Helen Molesworth and Susan Dackerman.
The hundreds in line and milling with drinks in the courtyard were shoed away at 8 PM as the gallery turned off the lights. For another hundred and more, the night continued on at a steakhouse on the first-floor of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, table after table filled with familiar faces, all the museum curators, many of our most important artists, almost like a gala but more in between the gentle exuberance of a wedding and one of those cheesy Hollywood paintings where James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and Jim Morrison all drink together. Except under the soft light of the restaurant it was Allen Ruppersberg chatting with Larry Johnson, Eli Broad passing by Maurice Marciano. Wolfgang Puck slinging his arm around Udo Kier, Joseph Kosuth brushing against Catherine Opie, Sidney Felsen sitting a few seats away from Irving Blum a few seats away from Paul Schimmel, Barbara Kruger leaning in closer to hear Ann Goldstein.
Around 11, many of the diners checked out of the hotel and drove to the afterparty up in the Hollywood Hills manse of collector and juice-magnate Eugenio López Alonso. Past Maurizio Cattelan’s stacked skeletons and Donald Judd’s stacked gold boxes and a Warhol Jackie O, Baldessari quietly sat on the living room sofa alongside longtime dealer Marian Goodman as the party raged past them and into the garden. Beyond the glass wall, revelers milled around a giant flat green elephant by Jeff Koons and the still cyan waters of the pool. The heat wave didn’t inspire anyone to leap in, but the warm night and the cool pool surely added to the reasons Berliners might open a gallery in the middle of winter in a sultry Los Angeles.
Maybe that’s the simplest way to explain it.
SMILE. DON’T SAY CHEESE. SAY PUNK’S NOT DEAD.
“I don’t know,” Kim Gordon replies, “it might have died last night.” It’s a joke, you think. But maybe she’s talking about the in-exile Saint Laurent fall 2016 fashion show that took place the night prior at the Palladium in Hollywood, an odd coupling even in Los Angeles.
Visitors love to write off our peculiar cityscape with offhand references to Baudrillard’s hyperreality. But you were born here. Star Wagons and velvet ropes are as natural to you as aloe vera plants and buildings fringed with ice cream stucco. How does Los Angeles not play itself? You are, after all, standing in a re-creation of a punk record shop hosted by Gordon and sponsored by Gagosian. It’s a fittingly self-conscious project for an art-book fair that, since landing on the West Coast at least, has stressed punk and sex as ciphers for authenticity.
The temperature is at an all-time high and the price of gas is at an all-time low. An ideal alchemy for tripping the Los Angeles art archipelago, were you not struck with a fever right as the fourth annual LA Art Book Fair flung open its doors last Thursday night. You frontload the weekend, stopping first at LaRosa Social Club, a co-branded popup interactive art-bar situation situated in a project space called The Project Space just a few blocks from the new Hauser Wirth & Schimmel compound. Everything from the artist-designed cocktail napkins (NO CHARGE WITH DRINK PURCHASE) to the limited-edition artist wines to the VIP wristbands collude in a Mission School nightclub vibe. “In LA,” says curator Aaron Rose, “you have the freedom to show art and experience art outside of the white-cube paradigm.” The digs are slick but the faces are friendly and the drinks are cheap and you are running late for the opening of the fair. “The art world and entertainment industry have a… complicated relationship,” Rose adds. For better or worse we are getting over it.
“Put your fucking camera down and feel me!” CHRISTEENE screams at the phalanx of iPhone screens separating her from the crowd. The Geffen is packed as the first wave of eager consumers descends on over 250 exhibitors, ranging from megagalleries with special projects (Gagosian’s aforementioned record shop, David Zwirner’s Jason Rhoades reissues) to independent presses and even independenter individual artists and bookmakers setting up shop in the crowded zine section.
You go outside for some air and catch some more CHRISTEENE. Dressed (to use the term loosely) in a pink glittery jockstrap, smeared with dirt, humping the air, and screaming into the microphone about art that makes her pussy wet, CHRISTEENE represents all that is right with this harried event. “Everyone in that box over there, I want to fuck,” she says. “Without the shit in that building, the world is no good.” On the way to the opening of Rob Pruitt’s Flea Market, you run into a gauntlet of friends and nonfriends huddled outside various Little Tokyo storefronts, awaiting their post-fair ramen. (This is an unofficial tradition for many fairgoers, and a good one.) A gallery director whips out her phone. “I’m going to show you three things on Instagram,” she says, “and I want you to tell me which one to go to.” One is the flea, one is the art bar, and the other is a dog meme. You point her to LaRosa, which by now has been kicked up a notch with DJ Sets from Dean Spunt of No Age and artist Chris Johanson.
It takes longer to park near the flea market than it did to drive there, but no matter. If the fair’s size overwhelms, Pruitt’s dusty warehouse extravaganza, put on in collaboration with LAND, short-circuits the eye by sheer range of offerings. You, you who have neon-limned bone marrow, are overwhelmed by the spread—from books, clothes, records, and general flea-market fare to editions of work in museum collections, actual trash, and studio refuse as merchandise. Dean Valentine fingers the goods. How’s business going? “Compared to what?” artist Sarah Rara asks. Fair enough.
The night ends at a strange house thirty minutes north in the hills of Eaton Canyon. Your partner-in-crime blasts trucker songs in the car to keep the mood up. In Los Angeles, soundtracking your itinerary is paramount, lest you give into the urge to simply drive home. The backyard is covered in string lights and heart-shaped Mylar balloons. The host is wearing a gorilla costume. The living room has been papier-mâché’d into a hot-box love cave, where artists Kate Hall and Rachelle Sawatsky are doing a sexy reading that turns into an all-gender topless dance party. A whisper of pink peeks up from the eastern horizon when you finally stumble back to the car.
“What I love about LA is how everything that’s beautiful is marred by something shitty,” declares writer, editor, app developer, and pop singer Claire L. Evans. It’s Friday afternoon. Your fever is only getting thicker, but you make it a point to catch Evans and Martine Syms in conversation at the fair. The talk spools out from an effort by the participants to categorize themselves. Syms reveals her “conceptual entrepreneur” epithet was jokingly inspired by one of Sol LeWitt’s paragraphs, “but my feelings toward the name have changed. Everyone’s an entrepreneur now.”
On Saturday, Camille Henrot holds forth on the relationship between fatigue and knowledge in her new book Elephant Child. Lost fairgoers pop in and out of the Geffen’s tiny reading room. “The world is being transformed into a square” Henrot says “I want to escape the white box and cater to no space.” Is a book a kind of escape from the white cube? “Sometimes making books is a way to avoid studio visits.”
You swing by François Ghebaly for a Channa Horwitz opening, catching the tail end of Hannah Black reading from Dark Pool Party next door at LACA. “I love LA,” Black says outside. “It’s only my third time. Every time I’m just trying to figure out what the hell is going on.” You try to make plans with a gentleman friend, an actor, but he’s working a party in Beverly Hills. A rich woman is throwing a birthday party for her husband, he tells you. His job, should he choose to accept it, is picking up one hundred burgers from In-and-Out. He is being handsomely paid. You go to bed at a mostly reasonable hour.
The LA Marathon makes for a sparse Sunday crowd, and most exhibitors have caught whatever is going around. The fever dream is over. Kim Gordon’s Body/Head plays to the Little Tokyo sunset. Rachel Mason closes out Pruitt’s flea with a cameo by Future Clown. You recall the words of the immortal CHRISTEENE: “There’s still a lot of strange people in this town, and that’s cause for celebration.”
BETWEEN SEPTEMBER 2010 and February 2011, Christchurch—New Zealand’s second-largest city—was hit by a series of earthquakes. The first, in the early hours of September 4, registered at 7.1, and caused plenty of infrastructural and property damage. But it was a shallower, 6.3 quake on February 22 that devastated the city: 185 people were killed; 115 of them in a single, multistory building that “pancaked.” There was widespread damage to homes, workplaces, and city assets like hospitals and schools; underground sewer and water systems were destroyed; and there was a massive amount of “liquefaction”—in which silt bubbled out of the ground, making whole neighborhoods uninhabitable.
The earthquakes are New Zealand’s Katrina, and the fallout has been eerily similar. Many people upped and left. Of those who stayed, many had to battle insane levels of bureaucracy to get their insurance payouts. There have been nightmarish stories about families living in garages or cars, as well as increased mental health issues. And yet the grim irony for the rest of New Zealand is that, from an economic perspective, the disaster has been a boon. The cost of the rebuild is estimated at $26.5 billion, and has been essential in protecting the country from the worst consequences of the global financial crisis.
The reopening of the Christchurch Art Gallery (CAG), then, after its five-year closure, was less about what it had on the walls than the fact it was open at all. After both the September and February quakes, the CAG had become the city’s Civil Defense Headquarters. It did, however, suffer damage below ground, and was closed for remedial work and strengthening—a drawn-out process that kept pushing its opening date back.
Jenny Harper, one of New Zealand’s most stoic and highly regarded museum directors, has headed the CAG since 2006. She had, in the earthquake years, also served as the Commissioner for New Zealand’s participation in the 2011 and 2013 Venice Biennales. Her team at the CAG had also managed to run a program of sorts while the building was closed, using temporary spaces around the city and producing a widely read blog and magazine.
But there’s no replacement for having a home base. At the reopening, Harper and her colleague Blair Jackson greeted every one of the guests as they came through the doors, often with a warm embrace. The relief was theirs to finally have their institution back, but everyone shared the elation. That’s because the New Zealand art world as a whole needs a healthy, functioning Christchurch; as the South Island’s biggest city, it is an essential part of the country’s art ecology. The number of people who’d made the trip highlighted the significance of the occasion. Among the gathered were senior artists like Billy Apple; museum directors like Simon Rees and Elizabeth Caldwell; curators including Christina Barton, Aaron Lister, and Zara Stanhope; dealers Olivia McCleavey, Sarah Hopkinson, and Hamish McKay; and collectors Jim and Mary Barr and Rob and Sue Gardiner.
Harper’s opening speech was affirmative and fearless. In her voice you could hear the kind of “take-no-prisoners” exuberance that has been a characteristic feature of her reign, hardened by years of dealing with engineers and government bureaucrats, as well as occasional media criticism—most recently from former curator Neil Roberts, who had flayed the CAG for taking one of its “Old Masters,” The Dutch Funeral, 1872, by Petrus van der Velden, out of its gilt frame. Harper couldn’t resist a dig at Roberts in return (she was absolutely right to defend it too—it is a marvelous piece of curating). She was followed by Christchurch’s mayor, Lianne Dalziel, who was also in a good mood, not just because the CAG was open but because she’d recently concluded a long-running insurance dispute for the city, netting it $420.5 million to get on with the rebuild.
The CAG is the city’s flagship art venue, but it’s just one player in Christchurch’s art scene. Alternative spaces like The Physics Room have bravely battled on since the quakes, and the Centre of Contemporary Art (CoCA) has just reopened with a new director, Paula Orrell. The Ilam School of Fine Arts is set to be reenergized with the appointment of curator and writer Aaron Kreisler as Head of School, and prominent artists like Steve Carr to the faculty. And the Scape Public Art Biennial has turned Christchurch into one of New Zealand’s best places to encounter outdoor sculpture.
Earlier that day, I’d taken the chance to see whether contemporary art and architecture really were becoming major forces in the city’s recovery. The local journalist Beck Eleven picked me up from the airport and took me first to the city’s most famous landmark—its central Cathedral, all but destroyed in the February quake. We then swung by its semipermanent replacement, the so-called “Cardboard Cathedral” by Shigeru Ban. Every so often on our drive, we were confronted with residual works from Scape, including pieces by Christchurch-based Julia Morison, and the Auckland/Berlin-based artist Judy Millar. We stopped by the Avon River to see one of the city’s most recent public artworks, Antony Gormley’s STAY, and rounded things off by clambering up a narrow flight of stairs onto the roof of the building that houses The Physics Room. There, we were able to commune with one of Christchurch’s most iconic works: Comin’ Down, a massive self-portrait by Ronnie Van Hout with one finger pointing into the air in a gesture of ambiguous defiance.
Sculpture, it seems, is becoming the signature art form of the recovery. The CAG had also put its high-profile contemporary pieces on display for the reopening—works that highlighted Harper’s connection to the Venice Biennale. On the ground floor was Michael Parekowhai’s On First Looking at Chapman’s Homer—a full-size grand piano topped by a bull, which was part of his Venice exhibition in 2011. Hovering above the gallery’s marble staircase was Bill Culbert’s light work Bebop, from his 2013 Venice installation. Upstairs, there was also a major new wall painting by Simon Morris. The crowd though, seemed unhurried about seeing the exhibitions on the night, choosing instead to lay into the excellent local beer and wine that kept flowing in the atrium. This was anchored by a strange sense of relief at the fact that—finally—we could come back whenever we liked to look at the art.
In the end, about thirty partygoers migrated toward The Physics Room and regrouped at Smash Palace—an outdoor bar named after one of New Zealand’s most famous films. It was a warm night, and many of us proceeded to get absolutely wrecked in the evening air, eventually staggering home to one of the central city’s only hotels, a charmless Ibis. The drab accommodation couldn’t dampen the evening’s mood though, best summed up by Martin Creed’s work on the outside of the CAG. Comparatively unnoticeable at dusk when we arrived for the opening, it was glowing in bright neon as we left. EVERYTHING, Creed’s well-known proclamation spelled out, IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT.
If only it were so simple. Just a week later, Christchurch suffered its worst shake in years—a 5.7 quake which, though causing limited damage, reminded everyone just how fragile and precarious this city’s recovery really is.
ON MONDAY, at Narcissa, the aptly-named restaurant for the fashion-forward at the Standard Hotel East, the indefatigable, infamous Purple editor-in-chief Olivier Zahm explained his party philosophy, which in its arch-fury reminded me of Houellebecq, six years his senior: “The world outside had its own rules, and those rules were not human.” Perhaps it’s just that they both have that particularly French air of being the toad who gets the princess, only to make their first royal decree about free love.
Delicacies must be eaten in moderation, especially French men. But if fashion dinners during New York Fashion Week are in themselves gastronomic holidays, then the Purple dinner is the one that always leaves me feeling sated. Perhaps because there’s no force-feeding. Culturally speaking. “I hate seated dinner! You sit next to people—You don’t give shit!” Zahm finished, triumphant, and flitted off to eat with someone else.
Four days prior, at Madison Square Garden, Kanye West dropped the song “Real Friends”: Lookin’ for all my real friends / How many of us? How many of us are real friends? The guests didn’t seem to share the rapper’s preening paranoia. People happily self-selected, seated themselves, and sexed up for photographs. The scene was ripe for squad-stalking, perhaps because so many people gamely invited themselves, as is the perennial spirit of the Purple dinner. Call it… laissez-faire.
“This is the first year I didn’t crash,” relayed six artists, one gallery owner, and two people who have the kind of careers that only sound plausible when you’re stoned in Silver Lake. (“I’m in the culture industry,” said a girl without blinking, so I didn’t blink either.) If I were to gander who didn’t crash, it’s everyone I recognized from their offshore weddings profiled in Vogue: Alessandra Brawn and Jon Neidich (married “at a family friend’s historic villa in Tuscany”), photographer Rachel Chandler and Tom Guinness (who enjoyed a “shamanic wedding, at Tom’s sister’s house, Damsels Farm”), and Sofia Sanchez Barrenechea and Alexandre de Betak’s (trooped to Patagonia). As a friend likes to say: “Too bad you can’t Google, Who is Derek Blasberg?” Blasberg confidently wore a bandanna around his neck, which I note only because I’m not sure how else one could wear it.
On the other hand, doesn’t Rita Ackermann just look like she deserves to be famous? You can’t buy her brand of dew, like frost on a summer morning. She has the done-down look of the 1990s from which she came, the era that deserves to coincide with the coinage of “It Girl,” a metallurgical feat no less dazzling for being the bright idea of a brat-packer. Ackermanns’s look is eerily reminiscent of a Purple editorial from Winter ’98—the year Zahm founded the magazine with Elein Fleiss—cheekily selling Bernadette of Bernadette Corporation’s “latest ideas” in makeup: “Violet and Black lip gloss, pink eyebrows… pre-Raphaelite tresses.” Elfin! Ditto for the brightly blonde, kind-eyed/hearted PR dynamo Gina Nanni, who I hadn’t seen since Miami, when I was seated between her and husband Glenn O’Brien, who, though not in attendance (“flu”), also works the platinum angle from inward-out now that I think about it.
“I’m on, um, relational aesthetics”—to quote actress Hari Nef right before she went off the record. The great grand-daughter of Diana Vreeland was also in attendance, and one of the Rolling Stone scions in a Carhartt, plus a Schnabel. “That’s either Sting’s daughter or Mick’s daughter,” someone whispered behind me of Alexandra Richards, three or four hours later, right before everyone followed Paul Sevigny to Paul’s Baby Grand. (And by everyone I mean everyone who was talking about their hours-old The Life of Pablo bootlegs “from the VIP section at Madison Square Garden” at Paul’s the night of the Richardson party. Another self-advertised intellectual-cum–sex magazine founded in ’97–’98 for those who know where Lispenard Street is, basically.)
But back to following the gaggle, which I always have to reflexively catch myself from assuming is a model horde: Langley Fox, who draws, looked fresh as a daisy in a floppy brimmed hat and wild printed stretch pants, and promptly returned to her seat upstairs with Lili Sumner. And Ellen von Unwerth, in an equally splashy pink polka-dot button-up! The photographer of “feminist erotica” later table-hopped to winkingly tell the artists Alex Da Corte and Sam McKinniss—who happen to be best friends, and ended up seated with me—that they’re too attractive to be taken seriously as artists. “That’s a problem I didn’t know I had, frankly,” McKinniss replied, laughing. It’s a problem that, if the women and gays at their dinners are any indication, Purple exists to debunk.
All the problems at the Purple dinner seemed to be fixed by sitting on a lap. Well, almost: “I don’t have any immediate connections here. I’m just waiting for my wife. She’s over there in a rather sensual area,” said the only person the entire night I caught standing alone, a little lost, sans squad. I recognized him slightly, maybe from his wife’s Instagram account. I complimented him on her looks while trying to simultaneously herd six to ten of my closest friends and acquaintances to a table so we could eat. “Yes, it’s fun to have an attractive wife,” he said, seriously. I must have looked at him queerly, but only because I hadn’t heard the word “fun” all week.
But he was right. There was something airy and easy about the whole thing. Not keeping to the moody blues of winter at all. Maybe it was just the insouciant casualness of this dinner vis-à-vis fashion week, best summed up by Georgia Ford—whose mother wrote E.T.— as she signaled for the waiter to carry over a chair for McKinniss: “What is this, the Dazed dinner?”
The seating arrangements had narratives all their own, due I suppose to “those two great considerations, the practical and the mystical”—to needlessly quote Conrad. The mise-en-scène, if you will: McKinniss came to dinner from his studio, where he’d just finished a portrait of a young Drew Barrymore in E.T. Which, though he doesn’t want me to say so, is being swooped up by Marc Jacobs, who (when he was a long-haired lad) starred in an Iceberg Jeans campaign, which was true of the other half of our table when Zahm art-directed the 2015 spring campaign: artist Jeanette Hayes, Vogue sex columnist Karley Sciortino, Ford and her boyfriend, the musician Donald Cumming. Nef headed the table. I’d caught Nef—New York’s It Model, don’t you think?—on Valentine’s Day coming from a “chat with Marc.” She was again in her fashion-week uniform of a giant white fur coat, which looked très chic, transcending as only fur can a coloration not unlike that of city snow. Perhaps I’m just complimenting Marc for always having his finger on, well, a pulse, or for, um, fingering the squad to which I was adjacent. Like I was the only one who hadn’t been invited to join Raya, the “dating app for famous people.” Nef and Hayes comforted me, claiming that they only get DMs asking “to collaborate.”
But it was a fashion dinner. So dinner disintegrated before the food could be served, and talk was whisked away by waiters who wanted to flip all the tables in their section, hungry only for another gratuity. I ended up sucking down cigarettes in the Standard’s courtyard, which abuts the restaurant. Dinner and dessert. “Aurel asked me this thing yesterday,” said artist Lucien Smith to those milling about, referring to the artist Aurel Schmidt, after he and Ford, twenty-five, established that they met in a “knife fight” ten years ago in LA. “Don’t you want a legacy? Don’t you want people to know who you are? Don’t you want a wife and a car and a house?”
But everyone shrugged. Knowing you don’t want to meet anyone on Raya is different from knowing what you want.
IF I HAD PAID more heed to the US government’s strident security alerts about Bangladesh, I might have been more concerned about the dead, decaying body lying at my feet. Thankfully, any fears proved unwarranted for travelers on the latest stop of the art-world’s global itinerary. In this case, the mutilated carcass, aka Lost and Found, 2012, was Pakistani artist Huma Mulji’s submission to the group show “Mining Warm Data,” a feature of the third biennial Dhaka Art Summit. Stitched together from decomposing animal hides, Mulji’s man invoked the brutalized bodies that are too-frequently discovered in Pakistan’s sewage system.
Despite (indeed, because of) its often gory offerings, Dhaka’s Summit comes bearing peace and knowledge. A four-day extravaganza, it occupied the five-story national Shilpakala Academy of Fine and Performing Arts, much of which had been temporarily refashioned to suit the needs of 2016’s Summit. The institution’s premises were speedily remodeled—with governmental blessing—by the event’s patrons, Rajeeb and Nadia Samdani, just months before the mega-exhibition marched in. Then, chief curator Diana Campbell Betancourt orchestrated its takeover with military precision: This year she chose “South Asia” as the Summit’s focus, featuring over three hundred artists, curators, and critics from across the region (diasporic drifters included), 65 percent of whom were Bangladeshi. For Bangladesh is now a “South Asian” player in its own right. Independent after its 1971 separation from Pakistan, its economic expansion is beginning to outpace some of its neighbors.
Everyone remained unscathed as we climbed the Summit’s art-laden peaks. Unfortunately, artworks weren’t always so lucky: Chinese ambassador Ma Mingqiang ordered Indian artist Ritu Sarin and Tibetan artist Tenzing Sonam to eradicate their Last Words, which comprises the letters of five Tibetans who immolated themselves to protest political oppression. The result: White paper was pulled across picture-frames, like shrouds.
But the Summit didn’t always pivot on death and disaster. The VIP party at the Samdani’s residence, on the second night, was a splashy affair, with Saffronart’s Dinesh Vazirani reputedly dancing into the swimming pool at 2:30 AM. “I can’t believe I missed the main event. I’d gone home like a good boy,” wailed my informer at breakfast. I felt the same—until a friend from Bombay forwarded me the video on WhatsApp. (How’s that for “Mining Warm Data”?)
Back at the Summit, I had more serious investigating to do. Unlike your usual biennial exhibition, the Summit is not a citywide display, and unlike an art fair, nothing is for sale. This year’s main show was divided by Betancourt into seventeen solo projects: Who wouldn’t like the gilded, textile-influenced sculptures of Lynda Benglis and Shakuntala Kulkarni’s installation of bamboo dresses?
The Summit also featured six specially curated exhibitions: Beth Citron, Amara Antilla, and Sabih Ahmed worked with Betancourt on “Rewind,” showcasing abstract art produced in South Asia before 1980. (Textile “paintings” by Indian artist Monika Correa and deep-hued tapestries by Rashid Chowdhury, Bangladeshi art’s granddaddy, looked great.) On the same floor, curator Daniel Baumann organized the Samdani Art Award, showcasing works by thirteen shortlisted Bangladeshi artists. The winner, Dhaka-based Rasel Chowdhury, was announced on opening night. His Railway Longings consists of photos documenting the railways lines along the 112-mile journey from Jamalpur (Chowdhury’s hometown) to Dhaka. The railway used to be the only way to travel between the two points, but it is now falling into disuse. Covering the terrain by foot, Chowdhury’s trek was a touching evocation of the passage of time. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s latest hire, Shanay Jhaveri, was in charge of a film series that featured a continuous screening of Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilization, the 1972 Merchant & Ivory documentary of Bengali novelist Nirad Chaudhuri.
But it was Tate curator Nada Raza’s exhibition, “The Missing One,” that won my heart, bringing together sci-fi, spirituality, and South Asian identity in a carefully orchestrated symphony of blue-painted rooms. Placed next to “Mining Warm Data,” it provided the perfect contrast to the former’s more harrowing exhibits. Here, Firoz Mahmud’s photographic portraits were dedicated to middle-class Bangla families. Posing in all their finery, they sported green goggles made by Mahmud. “They are gazing at their glorious futures,” the artist quipped (ironically?). Ogling at the Summit along with me were 138,000 other attendees, including 2,500 schoolchildren. “Everyone is a VIP, everyone is invited. It’s free!” said Betancourt beaming.
“But some are more VIP than others,” winked a friend on our way to the Samdanis’ residence for another private party. An affable gent and a silvery shimmer greeted us at the door: The first was our host, Rajeeb Samdani, the second, a steely sculpture by Rana Begum. It looked like the bars of a prison, but glinted turquoise as I turned away. Documenta 14 artistic director Adam Szymczyk, looked intense, while Hans Ulrich Obrist and Frances Morris, the newly appointed director of Tate Modern, beamed beneficently. Selfie anyone? MoMA curators Stuart Comer and Cara Manes were accompanied by MoMA fellow Rattanamol Johal, busy making notes. Dealer Amrita Jhaveri dazzled in red, and her pal, the designer-collector Poonam Bhagat, sported a crimson-dress and… were those golden bird-cages instead of shoes on her feet? Collector Kiran Nadar reigned in vivid vermilion, while performance artist Nikhil Chopra—who’d co-curated the Summit’s “Performance Pavilion”—whispered “secrets” in my ear.
The Lahore Biennale Foundation’s core team, programs director Nour Aslam and chairman Osman Waheed, were more tight-lipped: “No, no, I can’t tell you the name of the curator for our 2017 Biennale,” said Aslam. “Have a glass, Nour?” I implored. Others were employing their research skills to better effect. Meena Hewett of Harvard’s South Asia Institute dubbed the Summit a “uniquely revealing window.” Dealer Prateek Raja from Kolkata’s Experimenter enthused: “The energy is palpable. Hopefully the Summit will bring these conversations to fruition.” Cornell University’s Iftikhar Dadi was more measured: “That it’s located in Bangladesh, and not in the Indian giant, also means that perspectives from across South Asia are showcased more equitably.” “Yes, yes,” I agreed, disloyally. (Confession: I am a Person of Indian Origin.)
And so the different South Asias met, mingled, and occasionally merged at the Summit’s heady altitude—but the convocation also acknowledged ruptures. Bangladesh was born of two partitions: the first being the 1947 division of India from Pakistan, the second its liberation from the latter. Both resulted in bloodbaths. “If we’d stayed with Pakistan, we would have nothing,” said Rajeeb Samdani firmly. Nonetheless, nationalism is a fragile thing. “Bangladeshis are torn between whether to identify as Muslim, Bengali, or Bangladeshi,” Betancourt explained. Exploring these identities was the Summit’s overarching agenda, where repetitive abstract shapes, inspired by Islamic geometry, seemed to float before us in many of the artworks. As viewers walked into Haroon Mirza’s room-sized charcoal-gray box, The National Apavilion of Then and Now, 2011, we huddled in the dark. Suddenly, white lights came on, forming a circular pattern on the ceiling. The walk-in installation started to squeal. “Help!” yelled a small boy. “Hurray!” whooped his sister.
By day four I felt energized by the Summit’s aesthetic heights—but also slightly stir-crazy. For our own safety, the Summit was largely confined to one building. Moreover, when we did leave (for parties, or to return to our hotels) snarling traffic jams had us sitting in buses for hours. At the scheduled architectural tour—we visited Louis Kahn’s Modernist Miracle, aka the 1982 National Parliament House, with passports in hand—I felt discomfited by its colossal concrete grandeur. Were we to be trapped in its stark Brutalist demarcations of light and shadow? And there it hit me: If the capital’s national narrative felt contrived, that’s because it is. Bangladesh is a nation under construction, and, until the Summit, the cultural heavy-lifting had been done without help from India and Pakistan. Yet despite our past sins, us “other South Asians” were generously invited to the Samdanis’ Bangladeshi bash. “We don’t insist the art world include Bangladeshi art in their shows. Just consider us.” Nadia Samdani gently suggested. Who could resist?
Left: Mahnaz Fancy, editor of Caravan magazine, and collector Lekha Poddar, cofounder of Devi Art Foundation. Right: Artists Nikhil Chopra and Atish Saha.
THIRTEEN MUST BE A LUCKY NUMBER for Zona Maco. Or maybe it took twelve years for Mexico City’s primary art fair to graduate from an undisciplined, provincial tradeshow to the worldly, sophisticated bazaar that it was last week. I don’t know what sold between February 3 and 7, but the layout made it possible to have a focused experience of art, despite the airport-concourse environment of the Centro Banamex.
Maco founder Zelika Garcia’s new artistic director, Daniel Garza-Usabiaga, must be at least partly responsible for the uptick in quality throughout. (Newcomers included the mighty Gagosian, as well as Jack Tilton, Lia Rumma, and Blain|Southern.) That said, the sense of endless possibility in the air also may have been spillover from the superb architecture, museums, restaurants, and the sheer energy of the streets in Mexico City.
People in the art world are such creatures of habit that some aspects of fair week were the same as anywhere. Those arriving on Monday, February 1 headed either to Gagosian’s dinner at Pujol or to the Hotel Condesa, where co-owner Moises Micha hosted a dinner with dealer Paul Kasmin for the multinational curators, architects, and artists in town. “This is my first time here!” said the almost giddy Chilean artist Iván Navarro. “I love it.”
What’s not to like? Okay, rush-hour traffic is incredibly bad. But Mexican time is so elastic that one could have a cocktail in the hotel restaurant, run up to the rooftop terrace for Yoko Ono’s (very brief) appearance to advance her opening at the Museum of Tolerance, hob nob with artists like Pedro Reyes, curators Patrick Charpenel, Abaseh Mirvali, and Pablo León de la Barra, and still make it back downstairs before dinner was served.
Reyes wasn’t just partying. He was also collecting signatures for a petition objecting to a new classroom building erected by the national university. Its blank whiteness is impinging on Espacio Escultórico, an enormous circle of sixty-four, prismatic monoliths surrounded by an acre of jungle protected by UNESCO. Made in 1979 by a group of seven artists, it alludes to the Cuicuilco pyramid—the first in Mesoamerica. Though sadly neglected, it’s probably the most important piece of Land Art in Mexico. “It’s four times the size of Spiral Jetty,” Reyes said. He showed me pictures. It looks amazing. Surely that intrusive building could go somewhere else?
Socially speaking, this was the calmest evening of a week that offered two art fairs, an art-book fair, gallery dinners, lunches, brunches, afterparties, VIP trips to Guadalajara and Puerto Escondido, exclusive entrée to private homes designed by the great modernist architect Luis Barragán, and enthralling shows in the museums.
On Tuesday, though dealers were still installing their booths, Sotheby’s Lulu Creel and Tatiana Peralta held their annual Maco lunch at Gaby Camara’s Contramar, the seafood restaurant in Roma Norte that is the Distrito Federal’s art-world commissary. Inside, Barbara Gladstone, José Kuri and Mónica Manzutto, Adam Lindemann, posses from David Zwirner, and other blue-chip dealers all shared tuna tostados and guacamole with suited-up collectors and advisors from all around. “People told me not to bring anything expensive,” said Lindemann, whose Venus Over Manhattan Gallery was making its Maco debut. “But I didn’t listen, and brought Calders. They’re worth millions! So we’ll see.”
It was such a beautiful day, I sat outside at “the kids’ table,” as Labor’s Pamela Echeverria put it, with dealers Fernando Mesta and Nils Stærk. “I’m really nervous,” said Mesta, who was opening a new show at his House of Gaga while setting up at Maco. Tuesday of fair week is traditionally the night for gallery-hopping, and nearly every dealer in Mexico City was feeling the same pinch.
So was I. It was hard to choose where to go first in a sprawling city divided by nearly impassable rivers of that rush-hour traffic. It cut short my five-gallery tour, beginning with the Josef Strau opening at Gaga, where Marina Rosenfeld performed on a rented piano—the others in the gallery were artworks. Before we could hit Proyectos Monclova (Fred Sandback) or Proyectos Paralelo (Johanna Calle), we were snagged by the gridlock along Reforma. It forced us to skip the venerable OMR, which was not just opening a show by Jorge Méndez Blake but also debuting a big, new location in Roma.
I was lucky to find the crumbling old mansion near the historic center of town where dealer José García Torres had installed a show by the Swiss artist Yves Scherer—one of three different spaces that the former Proyectos Monclova director inaugurated between fairs. The adventure began on a broken sidewalk, continued into a decrepit garage where two paintings hung—the only clue that I was in an art space—and where a guard insisted that I sign not a waiver (in case of injury) but a guestbook, before entering a dimly lit atrium that was open to the stars. (It was too dark to know if that was deliberate or if the roof was missing.)
A threadbare pink carpet led up a grand, sweeping staircase to a fully lit gallery the size of a ballroom. There were holes in the floor and collaged paintings on the peeling walls. Birdsong floated out of a blackened side room installed with palm trees and rotating colored lights. Another installation of found objects was crammed into a closet. The rest of the building, which García Torres hopes to make the permanent location for his new gallery, was vacant. “This one building could be an entire gallery district all by itself,” marveled Mousse’s Stefano Cernuschi, the one other person at the opening with me.
At Labor, Echeverria was escorting collectors around a Calderlike solo show by Canadian-born New Yorker Terence Gower, who based the guitar-pick shapes of his monumental mobile on the free-association process of psychoanalysis—and thoughtfully added a couch (by Mies van der Rohe) to boot. At Kurimanzutto (our next stop), the burbling crowd sipping margaritas in the back garden first had to negotiate a group show organized by curator, critic, and artist Guillermo Santamarina.
“He’s our hero,” said Damián Ortega, who compelled his former teacher at Esmerelda, the DF’s leading art school, to don a pair of janitor’s white overalls, pick up a broom, and keep sweeping away the flurries of Styrofoam “snow” that fell on the floor whenever spectators climbed through a Styrofoam cave that Ortega made for the show. (It also included pots of peyote buttons by Abraham Cruzvillegas and a wall full of album covers modified by Dr Lakra.) “Guillermo mentored our whole generation of artists,” explained Gabriel Orozco, who was breaking from a two-year sabbatical in Japan to attend the opening. “He was the first punk in Mexico,” Ortega added. “And the only one.”
After the charming discovery of Basel-based, Mexican artist Rodrigo Hernández in the gallery’s project space, I left with Karma gallerist and publisher Brendan Dugan—another first-timer at Maco—and arrived over an hour late (actually right on time) for a dinner at Rosetta that Gladstone was hosting for clients. One of them was another Maco virgin (from Los Angeles), the upbeat Maurice Marciano, who was only a bit hobbled from injuries sustained in a car crash last year.
Who wouldn’t want to be at Rosetta? It’s the evening counterpart to Contramar and prized for cuisine that proved a little too refined for LACMA curator Jarrett Gregory, who balked at the fried beetles on nasturtiums. “It’s crunchy!” offered one diner, swallowing hard. I passed—there were many courses to go. About halfway through, a plugged-in mariachi band appeared. Much to the joy of home-towners who jumped up to dance, it was led by vocalist Rosa Ruiz, reputedly one of the country’s best. “Isn’t this great?” asked Gladstone. It was rousing, I will say that.
Next morning, Zona Maco opened to the smattering of advisors and collectors who were not sleeping off hangovers. They included Marciano and AIDS activist Aileen Getty, who were very efficient. With Marciano Collection manager Jamie Goldblatt leading, they somehow visited three different museums and then sped through the fair before lunch. Frankly, there was enough going on to warrant a slow pace, but it didn’t take long to see that Garza had repositioned a number of gallery stands to accommodate the newbies, and given large, central locations to smaller operations like that of Josée Bienvenu, who brought a couple of her artists for extra bounce.
Actually, there was fine material all around, from the conceptual to the visceral. There was also a noticeably increased collector presence from abroad. Aside from the LA contingent, there were gringos from Texas, among them Howard Rachofsky and Alden Pinnell of Dallas, and a silver-haired financier from Houston who is on the Museo Tamayo’s International Council and goes by the name Sir Mark Fehrs Haukohl.
Between runs at the major spaces—Kurimanzutto, Tilton, and Regen Projects were especially good—I spent most of the early hours touring the fourteen solo projects of Zona Maco Sur with the section’s bearded returning curators, Kunsthalle Lissabon codirectors Luís Silva and João Mourão.
This was fun, partly because the pair chose “Rhythm is a Dancer” as their theme. The idea, they said, came from Space-Girl Dance, a hilarious video made in Mexico City for the 1968 Olympics, starring a dewy young Raquel Welch. “It’s rhythm as metaphor,” Silva said of the pair’s exhibition. He didn’t need to explain, but the section was also distinguished by its overarching internationalism.
Mexican artists Mario García Torres and Tania Candiani were showing with Tokyo’s Taka Ishii and São Paulo’s Vermelho, respectively. At London’s Gallery Nosco, Guadalajaran Javier Rodríguez had printed every single frame of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1962 film The Eclipse, and put them together as a takeaway stack. (I got one with Monica Vitti’s hands.) The French artist Xavier Veilhan made his constructivist installation for Stockholm’s Andréhn-Schiptjenko in Mexico, and the impish Bjørn Melhus, a German citizen, told his life story in Cindy Sherman-like color head shots for New York’s Y Gallery.
Left: Artist Terence Gower and dealer Pamela Echeverria. Right: Collector Sir Mark Fehrs Kaukohl and Museo Tamayo director Juan Andrés Gaitán.
The Sur sector made other new wrinkles in the social fabric. DF’s Karen Huber showed paintings and self-portraits by trans artist Manuel Solano, who is blind from HIV. At GAM, Miguel Monroy worked out ways a fairgoer could steal artworks without detection. (Perhaps the thief who took Echeverria’s new laptop from her stand had seen his installation first.)
But the artists who really stole the show were Santiago Sierra and Yoshua Okón. “You have to see this!” said the former dealer Massimo Audiello, who led me to the Parque Galería stand in the Humberto Moro–curated New Proposals section. There, on a bathroom-tile platform, laborers were adding a silvery mosaic to the base of a toilet. This was not just a Duchampian flip of the exploitation bird to Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man. This toilet took the unmistakable girdle shape of Slim’s aluminum-clad laughing stock, the Museo Soumaya. “It’s good, right?” said Audiello, who just completed his first film, poetically titled Bitch.
After a long, boisterous evening over more experimental food with Mesta and Echeverria’s hundred or so guests at Pop-up Cala, a one-night restaurant that Camara created next door to Contramar to celebrate her new establishment in San Francisco, the morning brought the opening of the upstart Material Art Fair. First, though, VIPs were bused to a generous brunch at Gilardi house, one of the best designed by Barragán.
Next came Casa Barragán, the architect’s own magnificent home, viewable only by appointment. This time, it offered “Fetishistic Barragán,” an exhibition organized by former Tamayo curator Willy Kautz with modern and contemporary works from FEMSA, a corporate collection in Monterey whose owners insist on anonymity. The house is already so perfectly in balance that I was afraid to go in, but I was pleasantly surprised to find Kautz’s show unobtrusive and sensitive to its surroundings.
He led a tour that began with the only painting by Frida Kahlo that does not feature her own face or body, only a dress. Also leading tours were Zwirner associate Eugenia Braniff and Charpenel, whom FEMSA has hired to create a two-year program of exhibitions and events in the house. All I can say is, it’s off to a propitious start. Also illuminating was a show next door at Archivo, an exhibition space owned by Museo Soumaya architect Fernando Romero and his wife, Soumaya Slim. Here, de la Barra had drawn from several historical archives to present evidence of the starkly original, Ricardo Legorreta–designed (and Barragán-influenced) Camino Real Hotel, where most VIPs and dealers were staying and where its former black and white contours have been transformed into a fiesta of hot pink and cadmium yellow.
I could have retired to my room at that point, but Material was now underway. This truly alternative fair has moved to a new location in every one of its three years. This year, bigger and badder than ever, it was in an upper floor of Expo Reforma, where I had my first decent espresso of the week. A few minutes later, cofounder Brett Schulz told me that the barista was actually the fair’s architect, Willy Gonzalez, whose firm (APRDELESP) erected a maze for sixty-four exhibitors (including collectives and nonprofits) from North and South America.
Left: Material Art Fair cofounder Brett Schultz and architect Willy Gonzalez. Right: Index Art Book Fair cofounder Frances Horn.
“The idea,” Schulz said, “was to treat the convention center as a vacant lot, where we built a building in a building.” There was such pandemonium around us that I retreated to the excellent bookshop after visiting just three booths—the eponymous José García , mx, Chris Sharp’s Lulu, and Parallel Oaxaca—all good.
I needed strength to check out the opening of the Index Art Book Fair at Eugenio López Alonso’s Museo Jumex—a fantastic (and unexpected) fair with goodies everywhere—and still make it to the evening’s annual benefit gala at the Tamayo. It was the first for director Juan Gaitán, who came into the job last year. “This was totally improvised at the last Miami Basel,” he said, with a nod to the 280 guests carousing in a tent behind the museum. Unfortunately, this was the one night of the week when the temperature dropped thirty degrees, an icy experience. Diners took breaks inside the museum, where the Berlin-based sculptor Nairy Baghramian had made perhaps her best exhibition to date.
The one heater in the tent was near the table where I sat with Danh Vō, Kunsthalle Basel director Elena Filipovic, and Heinz Peter Knes, whose photographs were also on view in the museum, beside a terrific Leon Golub retrospective. The heater attracted people from other tables, including Gabriel Orozco and entrepreneur Rodrigo Peñafiel, who showed off Orozco’s new line of jewelry—limited-edition silver and gold rings that were on many a collector’s wish list. “It just sort of happened,” Orozco said.
Despite the cold, no one was in a hurry to move off to other parties. (There are always more parties.) One can indulge in only so much art fair. But as the American Sikh actor and jeweler Waris Ahluwalia discovered in an unfortunate run-in with airport security, the city of mañana can be very hard to leave.
Left: Harald Szeemann pictured in a slide during “Exhibition History as Contemporary Art History.” (Photo: Eva Diaz) Right: Matthew Ritchie speaking at “Diagram Aesthetics in the Twentieth Century: Histories and Theories.” Photo: Jessica van Brakle.
THE LAST TIME I went to a College Art Association conference I didn’t attend a single panel. Instead I shopped a book proposal around in meetings with editors at CAA’s vast onsite book fair. At that time I couldn’t stomach (afford) renewing my membership and paying the steep registration fees. Currently the entrance fees total $490 if you signed up at the conference ($380 if you had your act together and registered in early January); attending a single two-and-a-half-hour panel costs $50. Tack on transportation and a night or two of a hotel, and CAA will set you back a cool grand. But it’s a funny pay-to-play kind of democracy—just about everyone shells out, no matter if they are chairing a panel, speaking at one, or just listening in. Technically you’re even supposed to pay to get into the book fair, though lurking is easy if you have a few bites from publishers.
Little wonder that networking is a word you hear with icky frequency at CAA. With the conference costing most folks a chunk of their annual take-home pay, the overall networkyness is somewhat understandable. This year there were 208 panels—that’s around one thousand twenty-minute talks one could attend over four days—yet many people at CAA have only half their heads on the content of the sessions, often showing up only to put together a book deal or land a job. This also might explain why people stampede in and out of panel sessions and rarely stay for the Q&As; overscheduling and economic precarity are twin engines of anxiety at CAA.
I’m not the only one who has noticed the disparity between what CAA offers as an ideal (a cornucopia-like schedule of about fifteen panels during each time slot, covering new research in the fields of art history and contemporary art practice), and what it delivers (the ground-zero demonstration of how there are not enough research-driven jobs in higher education for recent MFA and PhD graduates). DeWitt Godfrey, current CAA president, made the frightening economics of the field the focus of his convening address last Wednesday night for the 104th conference, in Washington, DC. Godfrey pointed out the 30 percent drop in CAA membership since 2010, and the 25 percent drop in conference attendance between 2013–15, linking these reductions to steep cuts in travel funding and research grants at colleges and universities, and—surprise!—to the growth of a poorly paid adjunct population who cannot afford to participate.
Artist Tania Bruguera made job hunting a focus of her keynote address following Godfrey’s remarks, announcing that she was hiring a program coordinator for an institute for art and activism based in her home, and would conduct an interview right then. After calling an audience member to the stage, the interview was conducted before the thousands gathered for the convocation. No pressure. But as a conceit, the interview allowed Bruguera to cleverly tell a story about changes in Cuban society, and to emphasize the potential of art as cultural research over its marketization.
A few lungfuls of fresh air could be had in the hundred-yard walk between the two conference hotels, and strategies for swift movement between sessions in the labyrinthine Marriott conference center devised. Due to a threat of snow most attendees seemed sensibly dressed, however CAA is not a Louboutin kinda place. Prada maybe; Rockport more like. A man in a tie or a woman in heels: good chance you’re looking at a job hunter.
Bustling amid the crowds one is aware that CAA is a feast in which you might miss the best courses no matter how well you plan. Two of the most buzzy panels were scheduled during the same slot: “Diagram Aesthetics in the Twentieth Century: Histories and Theories” (chaired by Natilee Harren, with art historians Astrit Schmidt-Burkhardt, T’ai L. Smith, Trevor Stark, Benjamin Meyer-Krahmer, and artist Matthew Ritchie) and “Making a Killing: Art, Capital, and Value in the Twenty-first Century” (chaired by Tom McDonough with D. Jacob Rabinowitz, Jordana Moore Saggese, Martin Zeilinger, and Peter Mörtenböck). Friday morning also had several coincident panels: I thought “Spool to Spool: Audio Tape as Historical Evidence” sounded intriguing, though it meant jilting “Institutionalizing Socially Engaged Art in the Twenty-first Century,” “Formalism Before Clement Greenberg—Part 1,” and the blandly titled “Surface and Significance,” which focused on artists such as Doris Salcedo and Erin Shirreff.
Left: John Tain of the Getty Research Institute and Judith Rodenbeck of University of California, Riverside. Right: Soyoung Yoon speaking at “Spool to Spool: Audio Tape as Historical Evidence.” (Photos: Eva Diaz)
Luckily “Spool to Spool” was an absorbing choice. Soyoung Yoon of the New School presented a fascinating analysis of 1960s French cinema verité and its relationship to audio recording. Jean Rouch’s 1960 film Chronicle of a Summer employed the newly invented NAGRA portable audio recorder, and clip-on mics allowed for a radical mobility for filmed subjects—Rouch termed it pédovision—in which a walking camera followed a peripatetic subject. One might compare this to the kind of choreography of the street theorized by Situationists as a dérive. Though contemporaneous film critics like Edgar Marin lauded verité’s emphasis on the close-up as a sign of the authenticity of speech as it unfolded through thinking silences and the long take, pédovision was purposefully incomplete, produced only in editing as camera operators had little idea what the filmed subject was saying when the camera followed or anticipated his or her movements through the city.
On the same panel Claire Daigle of the San Francisco Art Institute gave a lovely, meandering talk about her hunt for a tape of a lecture by David Wilson, founder of Los Angeles’s Museum of Jurassic Technology. Predictably, her search was fraught with uncanny coincidences, mnemonic gaps, and “referential illusions” (Roland Barthes’s words) that characterize the MJT’s collection of mysterious histories. Comparing the obsolescence of audio tapes to the struggle between experience and the decay of forgetting, Daigle, like Proust, sees remembering as a feat of imagining in which a kind of ecstatic truth can emerge. Unfortunately I had to bail on the rest the session before Jennie Hirsh delivered her talk on Dario Robleto. Bummer.
Julian Myers-Szupinska, professor at California College of the Arts, injected a healthy dose of skepticism to “Exhibition History as Contemporary Art History,” chaired by John Tain of the Getty Research Institute and featuring curators Lynne Cooke of the National Gallery and Glenn Phillips of the GRI. Myers-Szupinska needled his panelists about an “auteur theory of curating” that posits the history of exhibitions as a “parainstitutional discourse” to art history. Though an exhibition, as a “form made up of forms,” can be a useful critical lever for understanding what Myers-Szupinska called the “art history of the group,” exhibition histories are often phobic about the study of actual artworks and avoid the specificity of a single artwork by aggregating lots of them in the study of curated shows.
Within minutes of my departure on Saturday I was told how wonderful the conference app, the one I hadn’t downloaded, was for sorting out all the time conflicts. Tant pis. But better news: For the next conference CAA is radically revising its submission process. In the future panels can be assembled as a group beforehand, and conversely papers can be submitted untethered to a topic. The current system of a call for session topics going out, and then session chairs picking four or five papers, encourages a “write to the topic” process that can feel forced. The much-needed change of shortening panel sessions to one-and-a-half hours is also in the works. CAA will never be small, but there’s progress perhaps toward stopping the mad dashes.
SO YOU WANT TO RELIEVE contemporary art of the market’s polluting influence?
Come to Aguascalientes!
You want to develop a critical language anchored by history but not shackled to its weight?
Come to Aguascalientes!
You want to open one of the world’s biggest art museums in the middle of nowhere?
Aguascalientes is where you must go.
That’s where a bunch of odd bedfellows—art historians, curators, and politicians—made their way on January 30, when Carlos Lozano de la Torre, governor of Aguascalientes, joined other high-ranking Mexican officials in the state capital, also called Aguascalientes, to cut the ribbon on MECA, or Macro Espacio para la Cultura y las Artes. This event—major for the city—took place beyond the global art world, which knows zip about it.
Well, listen up, artsters! MECA is an institution with a future…and not much else, at least as yet. It has no collection, no curators, no program, no corporate sponsorship, and no private patronage. It does have a whopping 64,500 square feet of column-free exhibition space, a state-of-the-art conservation lab, and a lot of potential for any Kiefers, Serras, Barneys, and Hirsts out there who think on a monumental scale. Meanwhile, for the next six months it can boast “Fireworks over Mexico,” a magnificent site-specific exhibition by that Arte Povera agent of the evocative found object, Jannis Kounellis.
Left: View of “Fireworks over Mexico.” (Photo: Manolis Baboussis) Right: Cultural Institute of Aguascalientes director Dulce Maria Rivas and art historian Doris von Drathen.
On MECA’s chilly opening night, the eighty-year-old artist, who lives in Rome and speaks no Spanish or English, patiently sat onstage, under a starry sky, for ninety minutes of self-congratulatory speechifying by the governor, his first lady, the federal culture minister, the state cultural institute director, and I’m not sure who else. (I don’t speak Spanish either.)
With an actual display of fireworks, guards opened the doors to the museum and five hundred or so shivering VIPs poured into the cavernous glass and red brick lobby. After some serious tequila sipping, they were herded into the exhibition to polkas performed live by the entire Symphony Orchestra of Aguascalientes.
The show, a metaphor for secular resurrection, is simultaneously true to Kounellis and to the history of Aguascalientes, a high-desert state in north-central Mexico that takes the shape of puckered lips. Until de la Torre took over, it was so uninviting that even the drug lords snubbed it. That made the state the safest in Mexico, but safe for what? Once the thriving nerve center of a national passenger rail system dismantled in the 1990s, the capital city now contained little more than a hot-spring-fed spa or two, a baroque cathedral, a small museum dedicated to the native political cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada, and, most appropriate, the National Museum of Death.
Governor de la Torre’s master plan for returning the region to prosperity attracted Nissan Motors, which built its two largest plants outside of Japan in Aguascalientes. Daimler-Benz came next, soon to be joined by the largest beer distributor in Mexico. The clever, seemingly incorruptible governor then funneled hefty tax money paid by these companies into a vast arts complex, with a university, art school, symphony hall, and museum, each converted from Dia:Beacon–size factory buildings that were formerly devoted to the repair and maintenance of railroad cars.
The governor’s wife, Blanca Rivera Rió, has a Ph.D. in art history. To inaugurate the museum with a splash of international cachet, she consulted the Mexico City–based dealer Hilario Galguera, whose gallery roster includes Kounellis and Hirst. With Kounellis on board, Galguera then asked the Italian art historian Bruno Corà to organize a high-level symposium for the opening weekend. Though deliberately scheduled to precede Zona Maco in Mexico City, a forty-five-minute flight away, early arrivals to the fair mostly opted for organized festivities in Guadalajara.
That left the symposium’s fourteen participants—curators like Nicolas Bourriaud, Marie-Laure Bernadac, and Guillermo Santamarina and historians José Springer, Doris von Drathen, and Thomas Crow—to float the art boat at the stiff, opening-night dinner. Galguera gallery artists Benjamin Torres, Daniel Lezama, and the American expat James Brown had a table pretty much to themselves.
After more interminable political speeches by the governor and his wife, Galguera rose to deliver an impassioned appreciation of Kounellis and the works he created for his exhibition. Made with cast-off materials gathered locally over the previous three weeks, they include a mortuary of forty-eight battered and paint-peeled wooden armoires—the railcar repairmen’s old lockers—set horizontally to resemble coffins raised above the polished concrete floor on beds of shale. Twelve wooden folding chairs surround a table, with a centerpiece consisting of a black derby and a pair of black gloves on a carefully folded black coat. Taking up another room is a jungle of rusted rebar that Kounellis installed as fallen crosses that form an iron fence.
Galguera’s speech praised the show as a tribute to both Aguascalientes and Mexico. That got him an ovation, and provided a warmth that the political grandstanding could not. “It’s not very funny,” Kounellis said of his work, with his wife, Michelle, translating. “But it is substantial!”
That was funny.
At midnight, when dessert was served, the art group left, the better to prepare for the rigors of the symposium, titled “The Drama of Form,” that began early the following morning. I was surprised to see a full house—about three hundred people, notebooks at the ready, sporting earpieces for simultaneous translations in three languages. Many were students and professors from the art school a few yards away. For them, such an international gathering in so isolated a place was amazing. For the rest of us, to spend a weekend immersed in an investigation into the language of art well apart from its commercial or speculative value was also, for these times, unusual.
Lengthy disquisitions by Corà, artist Jose Jimenez, and Bernadac on the sad state of contemporary art compared to the excitements of the 1970s and before—long before—were followed by a snooze-worthy extended lecture on Kant and genius by José Luis Barrios Lara, who seemed to forget that this forum was supposed to be about the drama of art. Up next, thank God, was Father Friedhelm Mennekes, a Jesuit priest from Cologne who became a curator almost by chance, when James Lee Byars challenged him to take out the altar of his church, Saint Peter’s, and replace it with a circular white sculpture between white plinths inscribed with symbolic letters. “You are the altar,” Byars told him. It changed the priest’s life. (That quoted line, however, would make him the butt of backstabbing jokes from his fellow panelists. “To speak about art is to kill the art,” he said.)
Left: MUAC/UNAM curator Patricia Sloane and art historian José Luis Barrios. Right: Father Friedhelm Mennekes.
Nonetheless, Father Mennekes was the first of the day to realize that a thirty-minute talk about visual artworks not present would benefit from slide illustrations, and it made a difference. His presentation of works by Byars, Gary Hill, Barbara Kruger, and Rosemarie Trockel that he risked his job to commission for his church in the ’80s was fascinating and amusing. He closed with a story about the making of a more recent exhibition by Kounellis in Mexico City’s deconsecrated Saint Augustine church, an experience that Mennekes described with all the wonder one wants from art of any age. “Without art, you can’t access the real spirituality of our day,” he said. “Contemporary spirituality cannot live without art.” A wise man.
With the program now running an hour and a half late, participants were forced to nosh on pork sandwiches in the green room backstage. By now it was clear that the two camps present—academics and hands-on curators—were somewhat at odds. Married to their texts, the academics generally thumbed their noses at slide shows, which were obviously useful to everyone else.
The historians seemed to hold the curators suspect, as if they weren’t qualified to speak on the subject, which remained vague, though Crow’s illustrated speech about the “intellectual and moral stake of art” and its distribution in our consumerist society was clarifying. The art world, he proposed, has absorbed the agency that poetry and music used to have in our culture. That was interesting. And true. I was learning a lot, particularly about the egos of academics at war with each other. I hoped for more fireworks at a roundtable that would conclude the conference the following day.
Dinner that night was a poolside pizza party at a hundred-acre ranch outside of town owned by Mexican architect Humberto Artigas (son of the famed modernist architect Francisco Artigas) and his wife, Luz. The couple collects paintings of horses, antique carriages and saddles, and actual horses too. (“I feel like I’m in a narco video,” said Carpe Diem publisher Alexandra Brown.) A white horse was chewing on hay in a stable behind the patio, where the somewhat dazed group of academics partook of thin-crusted pies baked in a wood-burning oven by the table. One had a ham-and-pineapple topping, a Mexican specialty. “It’s actually delicious,” Crow said, digging in. The Artigases age their own tequila in barrels they keep in their custom-fitted bar. It helped those who indulged ward off the desert chill.
Stephen Bann, a lovely Britisher who would speak wonderfully of the classical form’s staying power in contemporary art turned into merchandise, passed the time with Bernadac, a curator formerly attached to the Pompidou and then the Louvre. She is obsessed with the Spanish bullfighter José Tomás, reportedly the best in the world. He would perform what was expected to be his last run at the bulls in Mexico City the following day, and she was going. What got her into bullfighting? “Picasso!” she replied.
Day Two proceeded on schedule, as did lunch by the garden at the fanciest hotel in town. Our hosts were Galguera and Dulce Maria Rivas, director of the Aguascalientes cultural institute and de facto director of MECA. We were still puzzling out Santamarina’s emotional speech about the fate of artists today. “What was he talking about?” Corà whispered. “He says, ‘I’m an artist, I’m a teacher, I’m a museum director, I’m a curator.’ What did that have to do with the drama of form?” Well, everything, actually.
Next came Bourriaud, who was fired last year as director of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris by the sort of politicians who cut the ribbon on MECA, and is now doing for the city of Montpellier, France what he did for Paris when he cofounded the Palais de Tokyo. He spoke of “post-medium” artists he has championed, like Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe, who have made exhibitions themselves a medium with their own logic and purpose. Quoting Parreno, he defined an exhibition as “a film without a camera.” Quoting Huyghe, he seemed to agree with the idea of an exhibition as “a place to exhibit someone to something,” not the other way around.
That upset the historian Adachiara Zevi, who sticks to more traditional definitions. “Nicolas invents terms for things that have always existed as if they were new,” she said with contempt. “Adachiara is right,” Michelle Kounellis decided. “What the Italians have to give is history. They are rooted in ideology—that’s crucial!” But, Bourriaud observed, with approval, “Artists today don’t know where they’re going.”
The arguments continued. In her talk about parallels in the work of John Cage and Jochen Gerz, von Drathen characterized their purpose as “making life more interesting than art.” What about life in a symposium? Italian critic Marco Vallora castigated nearly all of his fellow panelists, particularly Father Mennekes as an altar. He called Damien Hirst’s bejeweled skull “a banality covered with diamonds,” while Kounellis, he said, “makes us feel the voice of silence.”
What I felt was that what people love most about contemporary art isn’t silence but talking about it. The conversation will never die—or be contained in the language of the two-page manifesto that Corà intends to distill from the weekend’s speeches. “I want to come up with a way to talk about art that puts the humanity back into it,” he said. “So much of what is written about art is not about art.”
After the inconclusive roundtable, Dulce Maria Rivas gave each panelist an actual medal and a certificate of service. Really! Next morning, when the whole group boarded a plane for Mexico City, Corà pronounced the forum a success.
Bourriaud’s parting words were different. “Never count on anything going the way it’s supposed to,” he said.
Left: Artist Dayanita Singh at KNMA. Right: Françoise Gardies with artist Joël Andrianomearisoa and Swiss Ambassador Linus von Castelmur. (Photo: Patrice Sour)
WE WERE CHAMPAGNE SOCIALISTS, sipping bubbly in an abandoned building, wandering through fictionalized fossils, curated cobwebs, light, dust, resin, residue. “What it did is make us all complicit,” said artist Rohini Devasher about Asim Waqif’s site-specific installation Autolysis, held at One Style Mile, the first of a row of heritage buildings with a view of the thirteenth-century QUTB Minar (the tallest brick minaret in the world), turned into contemporary restaurants and nightclubs. The opening party the Monday before last and the massive artwork’s debut, presented by Nature Morte, anticipated the rest of the week: It held up a mirror, reminding us that here beauty and glamour cannot be had without an eye to the rubble around us.
“Everything nowadays is about dystopia,” shrugged theater director Zuleikha Chaudhari. This sense of impending environmental doom as Delhi’s pollution levels escalate beyond “hazardous,” of distrust in a saffron government, of terror and its semantics, of falling technologies and too much speed, was ever present amid the false walls of the eighth India Art Fair and the events that spun off it. The unusually wide aisles at the NSIC Exhibition Grounds seemed built for an easy exit.
The fair opened on Thursday to a slew of VIPs, including MoMA’s chief curator of performance, Stuart Comer, the Japan Society’s Amy Poster, patron Yola Noujaim, and Osman Waheed of the Lahore Biennale Foundation, as the business of buying peacefully merged with the clink of glasses and conversation. Twenty-eight galleries from Delhi joined fifty-two from elsewhere around the world, and while many of the well-known Bombay galleries chose to visit but not have booths, nonprofits such as the Nepal Art Council, Sri Lanka’s Theertha, and commercial galleries like Sabrina Amrani (Spain) and Edel Assanti (UK) showed for the first time, bringing subtlety and conceptual rigor. Also tucked into the neat white blocks were five special projects by solo artists, including Ram Rahman’s intriguing photographs of Brutalist architecture from modernist India and Delfina Foundation’s Politics of Food project, in which architect and artist duo Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe cook an edible map of the British Empire. In a city like Delhi, whose center has shifted from Shahjahanabad to the colonial Connaught Place, and which is still moving away from the quietude of bungalow life toward the tonier south, art that helps us locate this multiplicity is important. The fair became a microcosm of the city, where capital exists right beside its own dissent.
The sense of loss—of collective amnesia and a rawness ripe for revolution (or at least a new wash of paint)—permeated one of the week’s most promising shows. “This Night Bitten Dawn,” curated by Salima Hashmi, daughter of acclaimed Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, opened on Friday at 24 Jor Bagh, a dilapidated house owned by architect Mohit Gujral and entrepreneur and art patron Feroze Gujral, on one of the prime roads of Delhi’s most affluent neighborhoods. Inspired by Faiz’s poem “Dawn of Freedom,” the exhibition interprets the 1947 postcolonial partition between India and Pakistan through a less radical, more nostalgic lens than expected. “Emotional,” “moving,” “old-fashioned,” I heard on the staircases, through the cracked walls and the glassless windows. The disjunct between the fiction of a white cube and the reality of decay mimicked the political fiction of nationhood and the reality of division. But for a moment the evening felt communal, small-worldly, united in its brokenness. From Nissar and Amal Allana of the old Alkazi family to established artists such as Anita Dube and Bharti Kher, curators like Tate Modern’s Nada Raza, and younger thinkers such as Shanay Jhaveri and Srinivas Aditya Mopidevi, the lot teemed with a sense of legacy and regeneration.
Left: Shanay Jhaveri, assistant curator of South AsianaArt at the Metropolitan Museum. Right: Artist Subodh Gupta amid Krishna Reddy's sculptures.
In some ways, the last ten days of January are like a big Indian wedding in which the Gujral House, 24 Jor Bagh, is the house party culminating in happiness and hangovers. Our evenings together began with Martand Khosla’s architectural installations at Nature Morte, followed by Sarnath Banerjee and Guiseppe Stampone’s honest and elegant show at the Italian Embassy Cultural Centre. Later in the week we saw large-scale solos in diverse settings: Sudarshan Shetty amid the high-profile terra-cotta walls of the National Gallery of Modern Art in Lutyen’s Delhi, Sheela Gowda at Gallery SKE’s colonial building in the city’s center, Shilpa Gupta’s delicate meditations on borders, in a residential neighborhood at Vadehra Art Gallery, and Himmat Shah and Dayanita Singh’s stunning exhibitions at the mall-set Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. Here, anything is possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if I were invited to a show in a breast pocket or on top of a fort.
We were all in it together as we jumped into a variety of vehicles—from chauffeured to rickshaw—toward the Swiss Embassy on Nyaya Marg for the afterparty (theme: “Sentimental”). The black invitation read, in bold white letters, A RENDEZ-VOUS WITH THE NIGHT TO CONJURE UP THE UNFORGETTABLE AND THE UNCONSOLABLE THAT THE DAY HAS LEFT BEHIND. The building, completed in 1963, reflects a Nehru-era idea of a nonallied internationalism, its modernist structure simultaneously compact and sprawling. The pool, cut into the central foyer in a long vertical sliver, had black balloons floating in it, and bunches held up by string and helium, sporting the words AIR DE DELHI. Madagascar-born artist Joël Andrianomearisoa, who conceived the project, said that places are inherently sentimental, that “Delhi just has to explore its own desires and passions through some abstract materiality, like the air.” Still, when the balloons were set free on a strobe-lit sweaty audience dancing to Beyoncé and Katy Perry later in the night, they bounced off heads and hearts without criticality or concern. 1980s pop quickly gave way to EDM, and we resigned ourselves to the future. A library of perfumes carried scents from one side of the room to the other. A video projected phrases such as “The Progress of Love” and “I’m Yours” above us as black ties and blazers queued for fondue.
“I was never one for sentiment, rather very strong emotions,” said Raqs Media Collective’s Shuddhabrata Sengupta. “I am sentimental about tea and coffee, but emotional about people and ideas.” Toward the wee hours I said goodbye to art historian William Dalrymple, who told me that tulips had originated in Asia before the Dutch had carried them away. I can’t remember how that conversation started, but with the moon visible despite the air de Delhi, it had a sparkle of the many untold histories to which we had been made privy.
Left: At the Sentimental Swiss Party. Right: Salima Hashmi, curator of “This Night Bitten Dawn.”
COMING HOT ON THE HEELS of Mercury’s retrograde, here we are with three art fairs—out of the frying pan and into the fire! Los Angeles is, after all, known for spontaneously combusting every few months or so.
I arrived at the first one, Art Los Angeles Contemporary at Santa Monica’s Barker Hangar, on Thursday night after the usual crosstown crawl that is demanded to get to most anywhere. One does not just book it to an art fair here—one crawls (crawl worm!). ALAC, one letter away from goosing you for insurance, is in its seventh year and this time around featured seventy-four galleries and nine independent publishers to tempt a collector base that is generally acknowledged as not quite yet existing here. This is a city that has always had plenty of artists, despite what the New York Times’ breathless articles about a newly discovered creative paradise would lead one to believe, but not always the institutional infrastructure and patrons’ support to care for them.
There was a strong contingent from across other waters—Düsseldorf’s Kadel Willborn brought all Barbara Kasten photographs, Rome-based Monitor showed mysterious ink-on-canvas works by Ian Tweedy and lovely collages by Tomaso de Luca, and Galerie Christian Lethert from Cologne presented just-so minimal watercolor and chalk drawings on paper, by Henrik Eiben—but the LA galleries were on their home turf and had ample evidence of the health of contemporary art in this town regardless of collector cash. 1301PE’s Uta Barth photographs of blinds or white-wall corners dangled somewhere between the hallowed and the clinical; Marc Selwyn busted out beautiful drawings by Cameron, Lee Mullican, and Marcia Hafif; and VSF’s Esther Kim Varet threw down with Joshua Nathanson’s iPad drawing–derived acrylic canvases and an Amy Yao red bow rising above the sea. Lots of shiny surfaces abounded, and prettiness put on its best face. Then again, there were rumblings from the international crowd about fewer sales than years before, along with grumblings of disorganization. We won’t even discuss the restroom situation.
Collectors like the Rubells and Horts made rounds, as did designer Bernhard Willhelm and his date Colby Keller, currently on a cross-country art-porn tour titled, appropriately, “Colby Does America.” Later there were also reps from the Santa Monica Fire Department, perhaps on duty as conservators of the wooden JPW3 smoke-emitting shack installed in the chain-link-fenced front courtyard of the fair. A dude slithering out of the tent dubbed it “trippy” and I was in California at last. Alison O’Daniel’s opening-night performance utilizing the Compton-based Centennial High School’s marching band, organized by the gallery JOAN, was invigorating even if I wasn’t under the bleachers making out with someone I’d dump an hour later. I followed the musicians as they wound through the aisles of the fair—most others did too, because what else does one do with a marching band but follow along? Later that night, David Kordansky, Bureau, Standard (Oslo), and Christian Andersen hosted an afterparty at El Carmen; there was a strong Nordic contingent but locals played well with them, including artists Chadwick Rantanen and Calvin Marcus, dealer François Ghebaly, Hammer curator Jamillah James, and CalArts dean Thomas Lawson, who was an early arrival, early exit. Good night, Major Thom.
At a morning caviar breakfast hosted by Pancake Epidemic (above the IHOP near LACMA), there was supposed to be a release for a Camille Henrot book, though there was no sight of Henrot or a book but plenty of Converse product, recycled denim, and a Petra Cortright painting above the iMacs. The space is an initiative by StreetVirus creative director Darren Romanelli, who showed me a “Felix the Cat” room in their teenboy fantasy offices and other things in that vein. After a tour of the Frank Gehry retrospective at LACMA with assistant curator Lauren Bergman, I slunk off back to the fair for a talk with another LACMA curator, Rita Gonzalez, along with artists Carter Mull and Kathryn Andrews and editor Jonathan Griffin, addressing how artists are expected by outsiders to live up to the clichés of Hollywood and its imagemaking industry. Private planes took off at regular intervals from the Santa Monica Airport mere feet from our panelists as they discussed the model of the “California Caveman” for artists who wish to “drop out of the global dialogue of art and retreat into retromodernist handicraft” (Mull), explained how artists here “don’t have to wage war against positions” (Griffin), and declared that “you don’t have to be a rebel in paradise” (Gonzalez).
I missed the Depart Foundation’s Marc Horowitz book signing at a McDonald’s on Wilshire Boulevard, and how many chances does one get to gather the well-heeled into the dispensaries of poor nutrition foisted on working-class people? Instead I vamoosed to ARTBandini—ArturoBandini’s weekend expansion from a stucco box in the backyard of a nondescript building in the Cypress Park/Mount Washington area of Northeast Los Angeles to a whole courtyard fair behind said building, complete with free opening-night tattoos for the masochists among us, courtesy of artist Alex Becerra and his needle. This was the fair you could smoke weed at (finally), although the fire department’s appearance (hello again!) was, I overheard, related to someone collapsing. Other highlights included a tiny Noah Davis painting of a girl splayed out among pillows and smears of yellow paint and a Ritz cracker painted silver with an embroidered cube on its center. I believe the latter transcends authorship.
Peeling away from the backyard barbecue vibe, I headed downtown to producer-composer James Ferraro’s performance at Chateau Shatto. There Whitney Biennial curators Mia Locks and Christopher Lew—along with artists Ann Hirsch, Amalia Ulman, Laura Owens, Julien Ceccaldi, and “Made in LA” curator Aram Moshayedi—took in four cellists in black SWAT-lite gear with POLICE emblazoned on their caps, sleeves, and backs playing accompaniment for “Burning Prius ® Extraction: movement 3-5,” an electronic track made from sampling glitches of the car’s CPU algorithms. An automated voice cut in and out and Prius instruction manual pages rapidly flashed on the wall behind the performers in “a schizophasic salad of a sustained American twilight,” according to our hosts. For once, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Meanwhile, another meltdown took place in quiet San Marino as Alex Israel’s crew held their post–Huntington Library and Gardens dinner afterparty and Rihanna made an appearance, doing karaoke to Mary J. Blige’s “Not Gon’ Cry.” Failure to follow the money leads to failure to see Rihanna. Remember that, if nothing else.
Fairs are generally the most veni, vidi, vici of all the art events; everything starts and ends with brass tacks and bare numbers, no phenomenological liftoff allowed—unless your name is Paramount Ranch. For the third year, Agoura Hills, nestled between Malibu and the San Fernando Valley, became a hot spot for the gathering of contemporary art’s tribes. Paramount was less booths and more a menagerie of objects, artists, and pets squatting a Wild West mise-en-scène courtesy of a preserved Paramount Studios set.
Does it work? It doesn’t have to—this was its final year. Max Brand drawings were hung by New York and Düsseldorf’s Off Vendome, Chuck Nanney’s sculptures were plunked down and a long wraparound photographic print taped to the wall with pink masking tape at Los Angeles–based Jenny’s booth, which according to the Jenny (Borland) herself was because installations at the aged Ranch had to be noninvasive. Freddy Krueger wandered around for a performance by Puppies Puppies, scaring children and getting adults’ phones all hot and bothered. I later met the guy under the disguise, a nice boy.
Step up to Susan Cianciolo drawings at Bridget Donahue, have a gander at Danny McDonald’s demented sculptures at Maccarone, or slow your get-along to take in Maggie Lee’s TVs with delicate beaded headphone cords brought by Real Fine Arts. Melbourne’s Centre for Style run by artist Matthew Linde had an install of collages and sculptures by Chloe Maratta, one half of the best poet duo with a drum pad around these parts: Odwalla 88. Linde testified that Kim Gordon had wandered up and declared Maratta’s pieces “cool.” Another scoop: John Kelsey and Gordon? Intrigue abounds. For the most part that was the scene at the ranch—passing tacit approval on all and sundry, friends glowing with pride for their friends’ work, or just happy to be out in the sun and stoned on edibles under the benevolent gaze of a green Paul McCarthy butt plug, I mean, tree (which, whatever it was, you had to go behind it for the kundalini yoga sessions).
MoCA director Philippe Vergne browsed the tables of rocks and crystals for sale, which had, according to an anonymous source, caused some rancor about how much real estate they were taking up in the Mess Hall. While there were no cowboy collaboration T-shirts this year, there was a cowboy on horseback who descended a hill like a vanilla daydream in a hard-core porno. Horseback riding and crystal shopping at the fair, and me without my parasol or cash to buy a little piece of centeredness. Conservatively, I’d estimate a quarter of people were toting freshly born babies while another quarter led adorable dogs around on leashes. The rest of us were from New York with nothing to love except ourselves.
Saturday night there were openings: Calvin Marcus and Evan Holloway at David Kordansky, Laure Prouvost at Fahrenheit/Flax Foundation, and Seth Price at 356 S. Mission Rd, among others. I ran into fellow weekenders from New York, Sofia Leiby and Joshua Abelow, at Kordansky around the Miracle Mile and then bounced back downtown for Price’s show “Wrok Fmaily Freidns,” featuring a certain men-at-work aesthetic of paintings thrown up on fences strewn with orange construction netting. Taking up one whole wall were three large fabric works backlit and printed with astoundingly sharp close-ups of human skin as captured by camera technology that can devote gigabytes to recording even an inch of flesh in thousands of photographs. The only problem is that, after taking more photographs in a session than most cameras are designed to take in their lifetime, the lenses break. How many innocent machines died in the making of these works, Seth? “Four or five.” An acceptable loss. Jordan Wolfson declared the pieces “super” and said they’d “work in a domestic setting and a museum one.” A two-in-one product, it’s the Neutrogena contemporary.
An artist who wishes to not be named called this year’s Paramount Ranch the “Last Hurrah Shit Show,” but that seemed more apropos to the bottlenecking line to get into the Ranch afterparty, down the street from the Price opening. The door person was intransigent, but Paramount organizer and dealer Alex Freedman waved me in, pulling her hair at the bratty crowd of kids who filed into a corner of the enormous hangar to sway in a poor man’s Berghain adjacent to the freight train tracks. DJ Wof (pronounced woof!) was responsible for the clicks and bass, and Freedman admitted that in this “economic era the model of a two-day art fair and all the money to execute it doesn’t make sense,” adding, in light of the fact that this was the last year of Paramount, “I hate administrative work, I just like artists.” Girl, I feel you. Suddenly it was 3 AM and I was sitting on a log outside the rave talking about Norwegian cultural funding and the tyranny of democracy, clearly a sign that it was time to go home.
Did the weekend of fairs, shows, talks, and subsidiary events ever cohere or add up to a grander whole? No, but that’s this fractured town all over. Both LA’s curses and its charms manifest in the arts: The metropolis can’t be unified, and it can’t quite live up to the images it propels to the rest of the world. But then, the refusal to meet powerful expectations is always a great fuck you—it turns out there is the black and blue among all those colors.