Unkenny Valley

San Diego, California
07.29.16

The forty-seventh edition of the San Diego Comic-Con International. (Photo: Jody Culkin)


THE SAN DIEGO COMIC-CON INTERNATIONAL—or “Comic-Con,” the biggest convention of its kind in North America—hosted a record 167,000 attendees in 2015. This year, they apparently broke records again, with an estimated 175,000 people swarming the massive, sunny San Diego Convention Center, a flurry of professionals and fans parading against its wide, stunning views of the water. I was one of those people. For talismanic protection against the “Bronies” (look it up), I wore a necklace made by Gary Panter. “Unkenny” (or uncanny), it proclaims, a reference to George Herriman’s classic comic Krazy Kat.

The joy, and also the fear, of navigating Comic-Con is the sheer democracy of its offerings: The range and scale is enormous. One sees this on the teeming convention floor with its hundreds of exhibitors, from the major movie studios to individuals who sell tiny handmade felt animals. And one sees this in the programming, which presents outsized events packed with thousands, like “Women of Marvel,” or esoteric panels like “Ball-Jointed Dolls Collectors Group.” (“Doll creators, owners, and enthusiasts discuss the world of ball-jointed resin dolls.”) It has become a clichť to note that Comic-Con, which began in 1970, is not really about the comics anymore—now that so much focus is on television, film, novelty toys, video games, cosplay, and the stuff of fantasy culture in general. But I went there for the comics. And there was a lot going on.

Left: Artists Gilbert Hernandez and Daniel Clowes. (Photo: Fantagraphics) Right: Spider-Men. (Photo: Hillary Chute)


The Comic-Con version of “it’s not about the comics anymore” is that it’s still hugely about comics, just not singularly so. As cartoonist Daniel Clowes told me, “I feel like we have a much bigger audience than we used to, but so does everybody else. Now there are so many comics it would literally be impossible to know about every comic coming out, even in a given two weeks.” Clowes, who created the classic graphic novel of teenage girl friendship, Ghost World (1997), was at Comic-Con for the first time in fifteen years, promoting his new sci-fi-inflected graphic novel, Patience.

Comic-Con 2016 was a big year for independent publishers of artists like Clowes, such as Seattle’s Fantagraphics and Montreal’s Drawn & Quarterly. Or California-based Image Comics, which has a more mainstream genre aesthetic, but was founded in the early 1990s with the mission to produce “creator-owned properties”—comics for which the artists would not have to give up copyright to characters. (Image may best be known right now for The Walking Dead, the source for the popular TV show, and Saga, which the handsome young man sitting next to me on the plane to San Diego described as “Alice in Wonderland meets Star Wars on acid.”) That copyright is even still an issue to be debated shows how fractured the world of comics is—a fracture that an enormous umbrella event like Comic-Con, with the huge presence of commercial companies like Marvel and DC, can’t help but underscore. Fantagraphics, which publishes Dame Darcy, Ed Piskor, Jacques Tardi, and Robert Crumb, among others— and Drawn & Quarterly, which puts out Lynda Barry, Adrian Tomine, Shigeru Mizuki, and Julie Doucet (who I covered for Artforum in 2014), are publishers of auteurs, people who both write and draw the comics they create. Many comics companies, including Image, which largely employs teams to create its titles, however experimental the content, as in Saga, are not auteur-driven.

On Friday night, at the Eisner Awards (basically the Oscars of the comics industry), the best-known auteurist publishers, Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly, conspicuously cleaned up. Bill Griffith, creator of the syndicated, enduring alt-hit Zippy the Pinhead, won in the category “Best Writer/Artist” for his graphic memoir Invisible Ink. Accepting the award on his behalf, Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth took the moment on stage to ask if the Eisners’ committee would consider changing the category to “Cartoonist”— which was met with loud applause and cheering. We can think of the art of the cartoonist, currently flourishing, as inhering in the capacity to create a world—narrative, aesthetic, graphic—through marks, in both words and images.

Artists Derf, Lynda Barry, and Matt Groening. (Photo: Jody Culkin)


Artists whose work exists in boundary spaces—especially spaces between the conventional categories of fine and commercial art—got a lot of love at Comic-Con. Lisa Hanawalt, a special guest of the convention, just published Hot Dog Taste Test, a truly hard-to-classify book that combines—in full color with her loose, fanciful line—stories, food reporting, doodles, wacky lists, and illustrations of animal-people. Hanawalt, thirty-three, is also the producer and designer of the acclaimed animated comedy BoJack Horseman, which stars an alcoholic washed-up TV star who also happens to be a horse. At the Eisners, Lynda Barry, the cartoonist, novelist, playwright, former exhibiting painter, radio commentator, spoken-word artist, and tenured professor of Interdisciplinary Creativity at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, was inducted into the Hall of Fame. (So was her college buddy, The Simpsons’s Matt Groening, who, when it was his turn to accept the honor, ascended the stage to announce, “My influence is Lynda Barry.”) Barry, who got her start in book publishing in the late 1970s when New York’s Printed Matter bought her Xeroxed comics to sell at their store, used to exhibit her paintings in galleries before her dealer told her to stop admitting to anyone that she watched TV while she painted. “Rich people,” Barry told me in 2008, “need [art] to be this sort of deep experience, and they’re sort of buying the talisman of the experience.”

Barry’s title as a professor of Interdisciplinary Creativity sounds too good to be true, but it’s an apt designation for a cartoonist, and also for someone whose central artistic pursuit for over thirty-five years has been about the nature of images across media. Barry’s recent “activity books,” What It Is, Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book, and Syllabus—which weave dense, brightly colored collage, narrative comics, and expressionistic drawing into philosophies of memory, pedagogy, and storytelling—are groundbreaking: Richly graphic, and moving, they invent a hybrid genre that generates from within the comics universe but totally transcends known categories. They’re artists’ books on a different scale. At the SRO “Drawn & Quarterly: After 25” panel on Saturday, publisher Peggy Burns recalled that while she was thrilled to sign Barry, she was relieved not to be the house production manager.

Outside the San Diego Comic-Con International. (Photo: Jody Culkin)


Sunday I caught up with Clowes, who was signing books all weekend. People have tattoos of his characters, particularly of Enid, the intellectual punk teenager from Ghost World. Taking a break from the convention floor, we found a little shaded area on an outdoor terrace overlooking the ocean that seemed meant for stroller parking. We sat on the concrete, Clowes with a hot dog and me with my first Frito Pie. (The food inside the Convention Center is gross.) Clowes, who was recently the subject of a major traveling retrospective, “The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist,” told me that he felt he didn’t fit into either the world of Comic-Con or the fine art world. Yet Clowes was inspired by a sort of fusion of the above: the early Jack Kirby Marvel comics “that are actually really beautiful and crazy and strange… the Pop art intensity of it is still really appealing to me.” As Clowes—a Pratt alumnus who pilloried art school in one of the funniest comic strips of all time, “Art School Confidential” (1991)—explained, “I feel a lot of the time like my personality is more like a collector than an artist.”

He enjoyed seeing the curated collection of his comics pages on the wall, despite the fact that he created them for print. The often-uneasy translation of something meant for print to a wall is one reason many cartoonists feel uncomfortable about the recent surge of interest from galleries and museums. But looking at his own show, the craft and labor that comics demand when done best was evident in the display of the originals. Clowes admired the density of his work, and what he called the “little pockets of intensity” that seeing comics on the wall made evident. “I wanted the show to get across how much stuff you have to be able to do to do the full-on kind of comics.”

Hillary Chute

Artist Lisa Hanawalt. (Photo: Jody Culkin)


What’s the Occasion?

New York
07.28.16

Isabel Lewis “Occasion” at Dia:Chelsea on June 25, 2016. (All photos: Don Stahl)


EROTIC SOCIABILITY was in the air that evening, or at least that’s what we were told. The occasion for any and all frisson, real or imagined, was one of artist Isabel Lewis’s “occasions” held at Dia:Chelsea on the Friday of 4th of July weekend.

Dia, as decorated by Lewis, certainly looked ready to put out. The front gates of the building were all open to the street, and the walls were completely bare. Modern white couches and concrete-topped bar tables placed throughout the space gave the audience places to sit and stand, floor-to-ceiling installations of air plants gave them something to Instagram, and the periodic waft of pungent, earthy scents designed by Norwegian “smell researcher” Sissel Tolaas gave the distinct impression that we might be in an upscale Chelsea boutique.

In other words: I wasn’t feeling it.

As distinct from a Happening or a performance, Lewis’s branded occasions appear to be part DJ’d dance party, part public lecture, part participatory performance—an exploration of the spaces in between genres, which unfortunately has become the mark of these neither/nor art-world productions that seek to please rather than master (i.e., neither party nor performance; neither dance nor lecture). And what’s hipper than a certain haziness of intention or form? The night I attended, guests sipped from cans of Brooklyn Summer Ale and boxes of water, nibbled vegan spring rolls and tiny bites of cake as Lewis spun music from a laptop, interrupting the flow of the night to speak in a meandering and off-the-cuff manner on subjects related to socializing. Lewis, it became clear, had organized a social event as a discourse on the dynamics of a social event—a neither unpleasant nor difficult concept, but it was perhaps less a work of art than an exercise in self-consciousness-raising.

Isabel Lewis “Occasion” at Dia:Chelsea on June 25, 2016. (All photos: Don Stahl)


Early in the evening, microphone in hand, Lewis invited a nice-looking gentleman to speak with her about an exchange they’d had, bringing it out into the open for all of us to hear. They spoke about how they’d felt drawn to each other. He’d liked her hair, he said, and wanted to know more about her show. “You affect me and my senses,” Lewis explained of the chemistry that can happen between two strangers. “You’re entering my body in some way.” Alas, their dialogue hinged on the erotics of social intercourse, so of course it remained all talk. (Those who know Lewis as the brilliant and brave dancer who once penetrated the notorious Ann Liv Young live on stage with a dildo might be shocked at how tame Lewis’s own artistic predilections are.)

Funny that the inspiration for this part of the evening was the least socially inspiring of all events: a book, in this case, Roslyn Wallach Bologh’s Love or Greatness: Max Weber and Masculine Thinking, A Feminist Inquiry, in which the author proposes that the feminist model for erotic love should be based on sociability, rather than (as Weber would have it) on coercion. (Confession: I Googled that.) Still on the mic, Lewis talked to us about how we are all beings in social relation to one another, how we must move forward with the ways in which we think and interact, though little was spoken about who this “we” is and how exactly we’re failing—at least, the seemingly open and interested folks here in this audience. Soon, she put the music back on and went around the room, hugging friends and colleagues warmly, chatting and mingling with the crowd, and welcoming people into the space until it was time to talk more.

Left and right: Isabel Lewis “Occasion” at Dia:Chelsea on June 25, 2016. (All photos: Don Stahl)


“Do you have a soul?” Lewis asked a bespectacled man sitting on one of the couches. “I’m not sure what a soul is,” he replied. So began the next phase of the conversation meant to turn partygoers’ attentions inward. Lewis invited her friend Brooke to expound upon the soul according to Aristotle and Plato. From there, the evening leapt to a lesson in Kizomba, an Angolan dance for which partners press against each other—“heart chakra to heart chakra”—and move to the rhythm. Dave, the Kizomba teacher Lewis described as “a very special person,” made sure we knew that the dance is “not sexual.” Lewis continued to swerve between subjects such as the Protestant Reformation and love as an emancipatory space, punctuating her thoughts with remixes of Britney Spears and Rihanna and etcetera and etcetera.

I stuck around Dia for two and a half hours, watching people converse, dance, eat, drink, and do as people do while I waited for the performance to take off, or for things to jell, or for all to come into some kind of sharp focus. It didn’t, though the crowd seemed to be enjoying themselves anyhow. Nice to know that here in New York, not even a slight performance can spoil a good party.

Jennifer Krasinski

Out of Seasons

New York
07.27.16

The Four Seasons during the press preview for the Wright auction. (All photos: Matthew Carlson)


ANOTHER NEW YORK ICON BITES THE DUST—or in this case is auctioned off—as Gotham is made over for the convenience of global capital, entitled frat-type party people, and conspicuous consumers eager for the next buzzy “spot.” I am used to mourning the chic midcentury NY of my fantasies. This one is especially tragic, as even this yard sale is beyond my price point.

I attended the press preview last week for the auction, by Wright, of everything in the Four Seasons Restaurant not landmarked, down to the pots and pans in the kitchen. The art is long gone: Le Tricorne, the Picasso stage curtain heralding one’s passage between the Grill and the Pool Room, is now in the NY Historical Society. The Pollocks and Miros, also gone. Of course, the place itself is a work of art. (Check out the merch online at www.wright20.com.)

Lore on this Philip Johnson–designed masterwork has been well covered by architecture and food mavens and trend reporters: the high-end schmoozers preening at “power lunch”; the $40 baked potato (olive oil included); the reverent Jackie sightings; Johnson’s favorite lunch table; Sophia Loren jumping in the Pool; and more recently, selfie takers and revelers.

I arrived early to take in the scene, before remarks by Wright directors, renowned foodie Mimi Sheraton, and the co-owners of this modern shrine where movers, shakers, and suck-ups were known to hobnob and feed.

A gentleman in a black hat caught my eye. He had an ironic expression. Looking for coffee.

“Are you here to bid or to cover—or both?”

He paused: “Maybe an ashtray—preferably cracked!”

Delighted, I fastened onto this promising yenta.

My seventyish instant buddy and I sat on a sleek Philip Johnson banquette (pair estimate: $2,000–$3,000) with our coffees and a view of the Pool (smaller than I expected). Furniture, fixtures, and every item (except the landmarked Pool) were tagged by the auction house.

“When you think an ashtray…”—his coffee buzz was kicking in—“with the banning. Talk about a relic! When did the Nazis ban smoking? Whoops—Oh no, ‘not Nazi’—people will think it’s a reference to Philip…” I hit the jackpot with this one, a design and urban planning veteran who knew all the principals from way back.

Left and right: The Four Seasons during the press preview for the Wright auction.


“I won’t say your name,” I promised, taking out my notebook.

“You can make it up! No one uses their real names.” He is a media veteran as well.

He confided: “In the inmost of Philip’s heart…” Pause. “There was always a cold spot—for a Jew. You can put that.” I was scribbling furiously.

He mimicked spitting on the floor. “Since you’re a Yiddisher, you understand I could say we spit on the memory of Stalin, on Walter O’Malley”—who moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn. “I’m thinking of really evil people.”

“Haman!” I offered the villain Jews traditionally boo on Purim.

“You can say I’m someone who had been in interior design back when they called it interior decorating, if you know what I mean. Feel my arm.” He flexed. “Because I installed! Back when we used tools…” We surveyed the aggressively chic dining room, ground zero for midcentury FOMO. My interlocutor seemed to know all the design machers haunting the place. Gossip de rigueur for this power-lunch spot where such tidbits were the plat du jour: “Let me tell you about a Jewish girl from West End Avenue who aspired to Park Ave…”

Ada Louise Huxtable—Jewish! Ah, the married name,” I amended my list.

“One of her first jobs under Johnson was doing silverware, before she ascended to the Times. She was a habituť here. This is just background.” We took in the airy Pool Room: Expansive yet soothing, one felt swaddled in validation just for being there. The floor-to-ceiling windows seemed to float far above the schleppers on the street. Yet we were cushily grounded on the sleek banquette.

“Now they’re hungry for ‘content’ but they don’t pay—you write something a little unique and they all put it online without paying…” He gave me shpilkes about my own lot. But I’m used to questioning my life choices whenever I find myself in a swanky joint on the Upper East Side.

“When Paul Goldberger was a groveling person at the Times…”—where my charming informant did time as well. “Johnson recommended him. He was always beholden to Johnson because of the lunches… In 1979, Johnson was on the cover of Time. The AT&T building,” he chuckled. “This building was designed from the top down—the ‘Chippendale’—the lobby sucked! You had to move around that sculpture, people in coitus. Johnson’s partner”—John Burgee—“was the talent.”

“Some people come to admire, some come to spit on the floor,” he intoned, taking in this mise-en-scŤne for power players of yore. “The guy is dead. Fuck ’em. It’s a nostalgic piece. As the design critic for TV news, they trotted me out to do the obits because the bimbos at the network had no history. I was like the specter from The Seventh Seal. Funerals.”

And here we were at another funeral. For a restaurant.

He exchanged a quick greeting with Goldberger. “I panned his book on Frank Gehry, nťe Goldberg. Goldberger’s a bit of a suck-up—the review got a lot of traction. People love that. Goldberger and Gehry were both indebted to Johnson for all the dinners here.”

(“Dinners turned his head? A nice piece of furniture maybe…” I considered.)

Left: Food critic Mimi Sheraton. Right: Four Seasons co-owner Julian Niccolini.


Food critic Mimi Sheraton took the podium, with droll anecdotes from James Beard’s special panel to develop the Four Seasons’s pathbreaking menu (“American with Continental Touches”): “They put goat on the menu so people would feel better about ordering steak.”

The Wright founder and president sounded like a fancy undertaker: “Everything not subject to landmark restriction is for sale. Sale is one form of preservation, perhaps not the ideal form. We’re also seeking homes in museums, etc.”

He eulogized: “The Grill Room, home of the ‘power lunch,’ Philip Johnson’s banquette where he ate lunch every day will be a special lot in the sale. The Huxtable-designed tableware and the cotton-candy machine, which ‘brought childlike magic to the meal…’ ”

Co-owner Alex von Bidder regaled us with the aura of power-lunchers past: “Every president but Nixon ate here. Princess Di sat at Table 32.”

He praised architect Phyllis Lambert, “daughter of the developer [Samuel Bronfman],” glossed the maven. Lambert recommended Mies for the Seagram building. Johnson, Mies’s assistant for that project, designed the “total work of art” now getting liquidated by the auctioneers.

We learn: In 1959, rhe Four Seasons was the priciest restaurant project ever: $4.5 million. Built in the same year, the Guggenheim cost a mere $3 mil.

A choked-up Julian Niccolini, Four Seasons co-owner, said simply: “Please bid. Take a part of New York home with you.”

“I want to know what’s the cheapest item.” My chatty source corrected himself: “Least expensive.”

Bidding began at $100 (Bread Plates, set of twelve) and went to $10,000 (to start) for a group of Mies furniture. Priced to move!

The yenta was just getting started on Ada: “She had an Achilles’ heel: vanity. She left her papers to the Getty because they flew her out for bullshit panels.”

Left: Four Seasons co-owner Alex von Bidder. Right: A double boiler.


If these Mies chairs could talk, they would divulge the choreography of career that took place in this cathedral of modernness, where Status was measured and stroked by the pros. If Morris Lapidus was the kosher-style midcentury architect of joy, sending up pretension with tongue-in-cheek for the hoi polloi at play, Johnson was the aristocratic Master of power, repression, and Monuments. This dismemberment of his Art by the marketplace is an awesome modern vanitas to witness. And an all too familiar spectacle in New York these days. Change that used to occur over a period of years now happens every two minutes.

Another yenta, a “film producer who was in finance,” had glommed on to us and was dropping juicy dish about finance, the film industry, and NYC’s current dismal conditions for young creatives, thanks to developers like current Seagram owner Aby Rosen. “Housing is so expensive they take a day job and in three years they stop making art.” He was crumpled and his soccer-dad attire incongruous in the posh space, which really does feel like a modern work of art: “All the money for these ugly new buildings comes from Russia, China, and Germany. All the rich people housing. The Chinese money gets Canadian citizenship…”

“I thought Canada was getting tough on immigration.”

“You can’t get tough on money.”

We were glued in a gossip huddle while everyone had dispersed for a last gawk at the designer goodies for sale.

“You’re an animal lover,” said Yenta #1. “A lot of people pissing here, leaving their marks, seeing and being seen, lifting their legs on Table 32. Something about the air here! There’s no art—nothing with a signature. What’s really here are the echoes of the gossip.”

The crumpled film guy took his leave.

“Do you know him?” I asked my informant.

“No! I thought you did! He’s really pathological, dropping all that info and he has no idea who we are.”

We had made our way into the Grill Room where tableware tagged by Wright was displayed in vitrines along the wall: the elegant chain-metal “curtains” gently shuddering up the floor-to-ceiling windows. The spikey Mad Men–esque Richard Lippold stalactites menaced over the bar. It was poignant: another “timeless” icon of NYC glamour soon to be erased by greedy developers marketing “buzz.” Well, as Yeats put it:

All things fall and are built again

And those that build them again are gay.

Sorry to see this stunning space go. The irony wasn’t lost on me: Perhaps the most fitting tribute to a modern masterpiece is to obliterate history and bring in the new. Modernism ain’t for wimps!

Rhonda Lieberman

Brexit Wounds

Liverpool
07.19.16

Left: Artists Oliver Laric and Lucy Beech with Tanya Leighton's Simon Gowing at FACT. Right: Tate Director Nicholas Serota with Liverpool Biennial director Sally Tallant outside Cains Brewery. (Except where noted, all photos: Kate Sutton)


WHEN THE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY Lancashire patron Henry Blundell found himself flummoxed by a newly acquired sculpture of a sleeping hermaphrodite, he simply indulged in a little sculptural reassignment surgery to produce the sleeping Venus he desired. For a collector of antiquities, he was, peculiarly, not precious about the past.

While Blundell’s tastes may smack of small-mindedness, Lancashire’s neighboring city of Liverpool—now home to his collection—prides itself on its own flexible appropriation of global history. In an age of rapidly spiking nationalism, the city is emphatically multicultural. Its strong Neoclassical affiliations coincide with the oldest Chinatown district in Europe, while Liverpool-based shipping companies helped facilitate the international flows of human traffic—voluntary and otherwise—that fuel the annual, Caribbean-accented carnival of cultural diversity, Brouhaha Festival. While always spirited, this year’s festivities burned all the brighter in the shadow of Brexit.

“Liverpool is a city built on migration,” Liverpool Biennial director Sally Tallant told the crowd at the press preview for the Ninth Liverpool Biennial, which opened on July 9, a day before Brouhaha. “We’re reliant on the opportunities to work with international artists from all over the world and the possibilities migration opens up. We need to find ways to make sure that ground is not lost, and the world doesn’t become a smaller place.”

Left: Artists Jumana Manna and Koenraad Dedobbeleer at Tate Liverpool. Right: Cubitt's Dimity Nicholls, Iniva director Melanie Keen, and Liverpool Biennial's Julie Lomax.


This edition of the biennial was built around “episodes” rather than a central theme, but, in a nod to Liverpool’s proud blend of lineages, the branded green tote bags all posed the same question: WHERE ARE YOU FROM? This diversity of experience was also reflected in the exhibition’s “Curatorial Faculty,” eleven curators strong (not counting the cameo from Istanbul Biennial’s ÷zkan CangŁven, there to test-run a curatorial exchange program). Making the most of a pedestrian-friendly city (jaywalking is the preferred mode of transport), the biennial scattered across greater Liverpool, even commandeering mobile venues like custom-designed Arriva buses, a passing ferry, and an ice cream truck. The last had been reprogrammed by artists Elena Narbutaitė, Kevin Rice, and DES to replace its usual jingle with an eerie thrumming sound. After watching the truck cruise by several venues, I finally spotted it parked outside the Oratory and made my move. Introducing myself to the driver as an accredited member of the press, I asked him how people were responding to the sound and whether it had begun messing with his head. “Well, I wouldn’t say that, love…” he started, clearly nervous. Wrong truck.

Seizing on the potential of the episodic structure, each venue had its own narrative arcs, though often played out with a recurring cast of artists. One of the biennial’s most cohesive presentations was “Ancient Greece,” masterminded by artist Koenraad Dedobbeleer, who paired selections from Blundell’s collection of classical (if occasionally tweaked) sculptures with a series of fresh commissions by Jumana Manna, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Andreas Angelidakis, and Betty Woodman (who also contributed a knockout public fountain in front of the city’s Liver Building). At ABC Cinema, a choreographed viewing experience cloaked the entire space in darkness for the length of Fabien Girard and RaphaŽl Siboni’s all-female film 1922–The Uncomputable, the latest installment in the ongoing series “The Unmanned,” which tracks the inherent failures of technology from the vantage point of a future where the earth is already lost. (They set this at 7242, which, judging by current headlines, frankly seems generous.) Over at the Cains Brewery, works sprouted throughout Angelidakis’s Collider, a spiraling vortex-like structure in the center of the warehouse space. Another corner of the room was colonized by contraptions by brothers Ramin and Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian. Their whimsical assemblages doubled as secret vessels for far more valuable works by other artists, which had been smuggled into the country sans papiers. How will they get them back to Dubai? The men traded glances. “I guess the same way?” Rahmanian ventured.

Left: Artists Hesam Rahmanian and Ramin Haerizadeh at Cains Brewery. Right: Artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan.


In those halcyon days just prior to Pokemon Go, visitors could be spotted dashing tablet-first through the former brewery, chasing after some virtual beast, courtesy of Ian Cheng’s Emissary Forks for You. The augmented-reality program prompted users to play master and servant with a digital hound named Shiba Emissary, who, as it turns out, catches you, the user, rather than the other way around. Cheng had a second installation in Chinatown, where his 2015 digital simulation Someone’s Thinking of You was broadcast from a flat-screen mounted along the CCTV monitors at the Hondo Chinese supermarket. Mr. Hondo was apparently something of a Godfather figure in Chinatown, Cheng confided. “He told me people don’t just come to him for groceries; they come when they have a problem that needs solving.” I tried to imagine how someone with a nebulous “problem” might find consolation in Cheng’s nebulously sinister gospel of entropy instead.

Resolution (or lack thereof) underlined the biennial commissions at FACT. Lucy Beech’s quiet stunner of a film, Pharmakon, tracks the dubious treatments of a woman suffering from a mysterious malady, under the care of a steely-serene vlogger, who “manages pain into product.” “Let’s be alone together,” this would-be healer purrs, hooking her disciples on her personally branded water. The sense of isolation resonated in the accompanying survey of works by Krzysztof Wodiczko, including headgear that simulates the symptoms of PTSD, and heartbreaking testimonials on the emotional toll of war.

Liverpool has been developing in leaps and bounds over the past fifteen years, but the city still bears the scars of recent traumas. This is particularly evident in the area of Liverpool 8—also known as Toxteth—home to the Turner Prize–winning architectural collective Assemble’s Granby Workshop. In the 1980s, the neighborhood had been the site of widely covered riots, as residents took a stand against the systemic racism in Merseyside police’s treatment of young black men, an abundantly abused “stop-and-frisk” policy being the final straw. Thatcher’s disastrous attempts to “revitalize” the area included the compulsory buyouts—“It’s a British thing,” artist Alisa Baremboym shrugged—of entire blocks. Brave holdouts may have eventually prevented these plans from going forward, but Thatcher bit back with a policy of “managed decline.” Now stunning Victorian houses sit vacant, their windows shuttered with steel screens. “It’s like, you can see in, but you can’t live there,” Baremboym observed. Intrigued, she obtained one of these screens to veil the sculpture she created for an empty lot a few blocks down from the Granby Workshop. If you pressed your nose to the screen, you could make out a softly shimmering biomorphic form inside.

Left: Michael Portnoy's Relational Stalinism: The Musical. (Photo: Robert Battersby) Right: Photographer Dave Sinclair with artist Koki Tanaka and Biennial curator Dominic Willsdon.


Political action took another shape at Open Eye Gallery, where artist Koki Tanaka restaged the city’s historic 1985 protest, when upward of thirty thousand students took to the streets to protest the exploitative Youth Training Scheme. (Imagine mandatory internships…) Tanaka interviewed protest veterans together with the new generation of their children, many of whom joined in the reenactment. “There were at least ten thousand in the city center,” I was told by photographer Dave Sinclair, who chronicled the event in his book Liverpool in the 1980s, and whose negatives Tanaka had included in his display. “I was a Liverpool fan at the time, and the stadium holds ten thousand, so I know what I’m talking about.”

Throughout the opening weekend, temporary communities formed around performances by Dennis McNulty and Michael Portnoy, as well as a secret project involving colored pencils and a nondisclosure agreement. Originally plotted as a kind of progressive theater at Rotterdam’s Witte de With, Portnoy’s Relational Stalinism: The Musical reveled in an elasticity both physical and semantic, his performers spinning mesmerizing half-truths out of seemingly incomprehensible combinations of words, gestures, slogans, synchronized blinking, and Skype calls to Citibank. The speed-of-light scripts were sprinkled with satirical digs at overly ambitious press releases while openly checking the art world’s reluctance to embrace theater the way it has choreography. “If your disgust for being in a theater becomes too unbearable, in the blackouts you can imagine you are walking from one cool gray room to the next in a contemporary arts institution,” Portnoy teased the audience. Those who appeared too engaged in their own thoughts were singled out of their seats and treated to private performances (presumably corrective in nature).

Left: Tate Liverpool director and Biennial curator Francesco Manacorda. Right: Curators Kathleen Soriano, Sarah Fisher, and Lewis Biggs.


Friday night found me synthesizing it all over a dinner Edouard Malingue Gallery hosted for the charming Indonesian collective Tromarama, who had settled their solo show directly in the apartment of a good-natured Liverpudlian. Videos peeked out from kitchen counters or shoe cupboards, while a lenticular print projected the pixelated image of a couch through the living-room window, creating the impression that viewers were looking out at the world from inside the television. For lack of space in the flat, cocktails were held at the Carpathia, the rooftop bar in the building owned by the White Star Line—the proprietors of the Titanic, but also one of the main engines (literally) of emigration in the late nineteenth century, when they introduced the affordable “passenger class.” Named after the steamship that rescued Titanic’s survivors, the Carpathia features comparable decor to the doomed ship, but its drawing rooms are now filled with bachelorette parties balancing strawberry daiquiris on toothpick heels.

It was from the balconies of this building that the flustered White Star administrators once read off the names of the drowned. Fitting then, that—two or three drinks in—we used it to discuss the crash of other titans, as America, Britain, and Europe all continued to compete for the title of biggest shit show. “I went from an area that was majority Remain to an area where more than 70 percent of the population voted Leave,” sighed Lewis Biggs, former director of the Liverpool Biennial, now of the Folkestone Triennale. “Creating a public for politics is the same as creating a public for art. Liverpool has one, but Folkestone needs one.” Blame it on my cynicism (maybe I should have ordered a strawberry daiquiri for myself), but something about his optimism reminded me of the line about managing pain into product. Do we know another way to heal these days?

Kate Sutton

Afterparty for the 5th Moscow International Biennale for Young Art. (All photos: Arielle Bier)


LEAVE/REMAIN. TERROR/PEACE. As I boarded my plane to Moscow from Berlin a fortnight ago, these and other divisions echoed from flat-screens in the departure halls as post-Brexit fallout and ISIS bombings in Istanbul hit the news circuits. I checked my phone: Social media was aflame. Six degrees of separation become more like one, and the intimacy of personal experience more fragile.

Conjuring Gogol’s animate nose as a protective angel, I decided to embrace the melodrama, keep calm, and carry on. Fresh perspective was on the horizon as I stepped offline and into a new city to visit the Fifth Moscow International Biennale for Young Art and the future site of the new V-A-C museum for contemporary art.

Dinner that first, balmy night was on the classy rooftop terrace of Bar Strelka, hosted by the director of the V-A-C Foundation, Teresa Iarocci Mavica. The site is part of a creative cluster in the converted “Red October” chocolate factories, and the spectacular view over the Moskva River offered a full frontal view of the golden-domed Cathedral of Christ the Savior (aka the Pussy Riot church).

“You know it’s new, right?” said Viktoria Mikhelson, V-A-C Live project manager and the institution’s namesake. “Stalin destroyed the original Orthodox Church and the Soviets turned it into a public pool for forty years. That’s just a replica of the nineteenth-century church, built in the ’90s, and now they have all these rentable event spaces in the basement for massive corporate events.”

Left: Artist David Quayola with Biennale commissioner Ekaterina Kibovskaya. Right: V-A-C LIVE project managers Viktoria Mikhelson and Greta Mavica with artist Anastasia Potemkina.


The sacred continued to mix with the profane the next morning, as we began tours of the biennial and its satellites. Portuguese curator Jo„o Laia had organized the group show “HYPERCONNECTED” at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA), divided into thematic floors. Adrien Missika’s video of Darvaza, the burning natural gas crater in Turkmenistan; embracing mythical figures on silver-painted wall plates by Rodrigo Hernandez; and the network of natural raw materials like ocher, rubber, and hemp fiber by Iza Tarasewicz added supernatural dimensions to an otherwise tech-heavy exhibition.

At the National Centre for Contemporary Arts (NCCA), Italian curators Silvia Franceschini and Valeria Mancinelli had organized “Time of Reasonable Doubts,” full of archival material and references to academic research tackling topics of race and colonial history in America by Louis Henderson; visualization of war in Baghdad by Urok Shirhan, comparing footage shot by Paul Chan to that of the artist’s father; and a fascinating, albeit dogmatic, film by Emanuel Almborg about Soviet/Marxist pedagogical experiments with deaf and blind children learning to communicate. Time was clearly located in each instance in this anachronistic but smart exhibition—a gathering of young artists with old souls.

The main exhibition, “Deep Inside,” was held in an abandoned textile factory complex called Trekhgornaya Manufaktura further upriver. Chic restaurants, bars, and clubs nestled amid the crumbling red brick buildings, filled day and night with glamorous patrons and bodyguards. “The area reminds me of the 798 arts district in Beijing,” remarked critic Hettie Judah. Empty Soviet-era factories stood ripe for development. As biennial artists milled about, we lunched at the aptly named restaurant Touchť and ordered extra espressos, doubling down for the long night ahead.

Left: Artist Alvaro Urbano. Right: Artists Pakui Hardware (Neringa Cerniauskaite and Ugnius Gelguda) with curator Joao Laia.


The opening was set for 7 PM, and construction workers and artists were submerged in the install until the last possible moment. “These are artists who put their creative juices on the line,” said the show’s curator, Nadim Samman. Surprising how a little lubrication goes a long way. I took this as my cue to begin the journey, deep inside.

Visitors were greeted with Departure for All by British artist Martin John Callanan—a real-time flight-information screen of every departure around the world. Further on, a floating prototype of a sound wave hosted a swarm of live, genetically modified silkworms by Ecuadoran artist Paul Rosero Contreras. I came across Verena Friedrich, inundated by the crowds, trying to reset her mechanical contraption designed to prolong the lifespan of a soap bubble. “I wanted to make this exhibition about circuit boards and organs, the deep space between molecules, and see what happens when you stick binary code in dirt,” Samman explained. “The figure of the engineer looms large in Russian cultural history. Constructivists such as Alexsandr Rodchenko claimed to be artist-engineers. There was something liberating about this idea in the early twentieth century. Stalin himself decreed that artists are the engineers of human souls.”

Between Ethernet cables and digital screens, I bumped into Spanish artist Alvaro Urbano, whose piece was a hole bashed in the fresh drywall with a wooded landscape built behind using local plant matter. Worker ants and beetles that had come along for the ride hurriedly rebuilt their nests. “I brought it all from the woods near Putin’s house,” he divulged.

In the main hall, I met Brazilian artist Juliana Cerquerira Leite, cowinner with Marguerite Humeau of the Furla Prize for best work—Humeau for her blow-up fighter jet and Leite for her freeze-frame body casts. Humeau was in Paris for the opening of her show at the Palais du Tokyo, while Leite spent two weeks on site making standing, connected casts of her nude form in detail by dripping tinted plaster in yellow, orange, and pink on her Vaselined body. A special room was built for privacy. “It felt vulnerable,” she admitted, “but this is very much a feminist piece.”

Left: Teresa Iarocci Mavica, director of the V-A-C Foundation, with architect Antonio Belvedere. Right: Dealers Marina Gogova of Artwin Gallery and Alexander Levy.


Rave culture is still alive and well in Russia, and the afterparty at a nearby factory full of laser lights and droning music seemed like a polite version of seedier tales from the Muscovite underground. But as soon as the open bar of Jameson whiskey dried up, the crowds died out. The core crew of artists and organizers carried on to Heineken Bar in the center of town, dancing for hours past the 3 AM sunrise to a DJ set by Evian Christ and Hardrive’s house music hit “Deep Inside” on repeat.

The next day we were slated for a tour of the site of the new V-A-C museum, dedicated to promoting young Russian art and due to open in 2019. Director Mavica moved to Moscow from Naples in 1989 and saw the dearth of institutions dedicated to contemporary art. “This is the land of the avant-garde, but there were no exhibitions, people didn’t have access to the work.” For Mavica, who helped bring the first exhibition of Pop art with Warhol, Basquiat, and Wesselmann to the city in 2003, the new institution is no small charge. “Art history is infinitely big, but you have to start somewhere.”

Lead architect Antonio Belvedere, partner of the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, gracefully guided the way, describing the design process in poetic language. “It’s the assembling of the sacred and the profane that gives you the civic. That’s the contamination of ideas that makes the space function.”

We retreated to DOM12 for a family-style dinner. The garden became the gossip zone as artists smoked and compared notes on tourist sites. Julius von Bismark and Helga Wretman gushed about the Russian space-program exhibition and seeing Laika the dog’s spacecraft, while dealer Alexander Levy and artist Fabian Knecht debated visiting Lenin’s preserved body in the Mausoleum at the Red Square. “It’s the best artwork you’ll see in town!” exclaimed one of the locals. A few vodka shots later, everyone was back on the dance floor, but this time it felt more like a wholesome wedding party. I dipped out in the middle of the Scorpions’ “Wind of Change” as the room burst into a sing-along.

Arielle Bier

Left: Artists Murat Adash and ZoŽ Claire Miller. Right: June Crespo, Diogo Evangelista, Matteo Consoni, Rodrigo Hernandez, Joao Laia, Adrien Missika, and Sarah SchŲnfeld.