Lucky Charms

Glen Helfand at the opening of SITE Santa Fe's biennial

Santa Fe, NM

Left: Artist Piero Golia with SITE Santa Fe curator Lance Fung. Right: Mongolian chef Chow Ke Tu performing the honorary blessing for Shi Qing's contribution. (Photos: Carole Devillers)

There are many touristy stereotypes concerning Santa Fe, New Mexico, a UNESCO-certified “Creative City.” (For one thing, as I discovered, it’s the sort of burg where housekeeping leaves a smudging stick of sage on the pillow in lieu of a mint.) Similar bromides accompany SITE Santa Fe’s international biennial, typically known for entertaining novel curatorial conceits. Last weekend’s opening of the biennial’s seventh edition, optimistically titled “Lucky Number Seven,” found high concept hitting the high desert. Curated by former dealer Lance Fung, the show was conceived as a loose set of ephemeral “site-inspired” commissions by twenty-two emerging artists. Participating artists were recommended by an advisory team of eighteen international curators and institutions, each of whom proposed three to five artists who, once vetted by Fung, were set loose in a severe, geometric space designed by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

Since none of the work had been shown before, the exhibition’s gambit relies on a measure of luck—not to mention trust in the curatorial partners and the artists themselves, who spent a good chunk of time in Santa Fe working on their projects. (In a nod to the surprise factor, the “Lucky” logo is a stylized fortune cookie.) Of course, the success or failure of opening-weekend festivities also relies on chance; who knows which, if any, of the tiers of receptions, meals, and exhibition tours will go smoothly? This being Santa Fe, events were marked by a relaxed pace, warm breezes, and generally friendly demeanors—though given the city's compact art community, one didn’t have to go far to find skeptics. “I feel like I need to do research before seeing this show,” a local told me.

Usual biennial suspects were refreshingly absent. This was no “Grand Tour” affair (though there were reportedly two “Gagosian girls” in town for Friday’s gala dinner). Few present were familiar with the young, unrepresented artists in the show, and there weren’t many recognizable art folk milling about, save Fung—whose face pops up on brochures and in every local publication—and brassy local Judy Chicago, who was hard to miss at Thursday’s press preview, where she chatted with Bulgarian SITE artist Luchezar Boyadjiev (who, like Chicago, wore dark glasses in the galleries). “We were in a show in Japan together,” Chicago proudly announced.

Left: Artists Judy Chicago, Luchezar Boyadjiev, and Nadine Robinson. Right: Artists Nick Mangan and Ahmet Ögüt. (Photos: Glen Helfand)

Early Thursday, Fung delivered an energetic speech to the press and assembled dignitaries, describing his show as one about “creating community” and “developing a family” of artists by spending time together on-site. The social events seemed conceived with similar spirit. The Friday-night gala, immediately following a champagne preview, took place in a tent decorated with swaths of red fabric and orblike Japanese lanterns. The Asian-style meal was christened with a Mongolian ancestral blessing, during which a long table of donors and political officials were offered ritual morsels of lamb and shot glasses containing a clear, unidentifiable liquid. It was a piece by Mongolian artist Shi Qing, whose contribution to the exhibition involved staging dinners of cross-cultural cuisine in local restaurants (regional food playing a large role in facilitating southwestern identity). Here, sitting through the performance was a lot like waiting to say grace—plenty of us just wanted to eat.

During dinner, few seemed willing to pass any sort of judgment on the show, and before long the event morphed into a more public, second-tier afterparty headlined by the Los Angeles–based band Dengue Fever. The band’s mix of a Cambodian vocalist and Southern California–style rock somehow struck many as “Doors-y” and even lured George King, the director of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, onto the dance floor.

The next day, various groups of SITE visitors were herded into shuttle buses for a tour of the off-site “Lucky” works installed in trees, parking lots, museums, and vacant buildings around town. Some out-of-towners also had the opportunity to see a number of Richard Tuttle and Gerhard Richter works and an outdoor Olafur Eliasson sculpture (the one on the cover of his Taschen monograph) at the home of collectors Mickey and Jeanne Klein, where the glass-box architecture, high-design furniture, and New Mexican vistas were equally breathtaking. Soon after, there was an afternoon reception for sculptor Susan York at the Lannan Foundation’s digs in the former Laura Carpenter gallery space. There I spotted a tan, trim Lucy Lippard sprint by, as I compared notes on the Klein collection with artist Roy McMakin, who’d just opened a handsome show at James Kelly Contemporary. Previous SITE curator Klaus Ottmann, out with dealer Leslie Tonkonow, was perfectly content to be without responsibilities.

Left: Curator Klaus Ottmann, artist Susan York, and dealer Leslie Tonkonow. (Photo: Glen Helfand) Right: Ferran Barenblit, director of Centro de Arte Santa Mónica, and artist Marti Anson. (Photo: Carole Devillers)

Late that afternoon, there was a nearly sold-out panel discussion with artists and curators in the auditorium of the local Dance Institute. Everyone was on good behavior until the Q&A, when William Wells of Townhouse Gallery in Cairo, one of the advising institutions, publicly questioned a rejected proposal by Egyptian artist Wael Shawky that involved appropriating Native American tribal rituals. SITE’s director Laura Heon capably responded, noting the local tensions around the issue, but artist Rose Simpson, a local representative in the exhibition (collaborating with family members Eliza Naranjo Morse and Nora Naranjo Morse), gave a more impassioned retort, acknowledging the deceptive “authenticity” of Santa Fe culture. Soon after, a stream of people noisily descended the bleachers and drove to a barbecue held in the old event tent, which, since the previous night’s dinner, had been accented with gingham tablecloths and wagon wheels suspended from the ceiling. The tangy, meaty meal, however, didn’t quite mollify the hungry masses—food ran out quickly, and reportedly a fistfight erupted over the limited seating.

A warm New Mexico night, and probably a few margaritas, went a long way toward healing any potential wounds, and Sunday’s farewell brunch on an outdoor patio was infused with a sunny, familial vibe. LA-based Italian artist Piero Golia, whose participatory leap-into-the-void installation, Manifest Destiny, is among the biennial’s iconoclastic highlights, wistfully summed up the experience of the artists: “I feel like it’s the end of summer camp.” Looks like someone got lucky.

Left: Helen Molesworth, curator of contemporary art at the Harvard Art Museums; artist Roy McMakin; and Michael Jacobs. Right: Dealer Miguel Abreu with artist Scott Lyall. (Photos: Glen Helfand)