Rhine Shrine


Left: “Make Your Own Life” Artist Stephen Prina. Right: Curator Bennett Simpson.

At the Friday night opening of “Make Your Own Life: Artists In and Out of Cologne,” one room of the Philadelphia ICA had been transformed into a plush listening lounge and was pumping out the sounds of the city. In the early going Linda, long-serving matriarch of the gallery’s guards, put on a hot slab of techno (“my favorite,” she said) and strutted with me. Curator Bennett Simpson conceived the record-lined room, and the show as a whole, in 2004, a few months before he hopped ICAs—Philadelphia to Boston. But despite the pull of the music, there was a fair amount of elbow room at the reception, suggesting that a dense though effortlessly discursive essay on Cologne tracing its collaborative experiments in identity through twenty years of work by German, American, and English artists doesn’t capture the hearts of the city’s students in quite the way that buzzy crowd pleasers (Yoshitomo Nara, say) have in the recent past. A shame, because the show was a blast.

Simpson seemed to be having fun nonetheless, effusive and approachable. Once I’d revealed my identity as a writer he lingered on a recent journalistic abuse. “Did you see the Wall Street Journal today?” Simpson asked me, referring to a breathless story about the current liquidity of Martin Kippenberger and Kai Althoff in resale. “They quoted me in service of something I would never want to say.” (He had spoken extensively of the artists’ virtues, only to see his words serve as tacit endorsement of an accelerated market.) “It was horrifying. This show is not about the market.” Indeed, the German picture on view here, of relentless resistance, would not jibe for that morning’s Journal readers.

Touring the show, I noted first Stephan Dillemuth and Nils Norman’s Friesenwall 120 Ruined, an almost life-size model of their legendary alternative space, collapsed and in tatters. Twelve artists contributed to the piece. “Friesenwall 120 began as a social space, then it became more of a hang-out situation, then it was an archive. Then it was a historical space,” Dillemuth offered, exactingly. “In a way it is a template of ’90s new creative curating.” A pause. “Now we show it as a failed project.” New York dealer Carol Greene and I enjoyed the work’s cutout puddles of cork and incidental dabs of glitter, finding it in many ways to be a more satisfying and relevant resurrection than the Peace Tower at the Whitney Biennial (another exercise in archaeology and remodeling) and one that made for a more effective centerpiece.

The show does flag here and there, but only because the fullness and authenticity of mood seems to render some individual pieces less than vital. Others are so perfectly present that they function even in abbreviated form: Stephen Prina’s Galerie Max Hetzler has been rehung for the fifth time in fifteen years at about a fifth of its full size, and has lost none of its punch. The artist and I goofed for a while, talking about tenured life at Harvard and how happy he is in Cambridge. I mentioned that a friend told me he had passed away. “I think that’s Steven Parrino. It happens every now and then,” he shrugged. “It hasn’t affected my auction prices.”

A buffet for ninety on long tables in an echoing garret of the museum stuck so promptly to its 8:00 PM start that by the time I had corralled my companion and ambled upstairs, we had missed not only speeches from the ICA brass but also the nicest bits of a gigantic salmon. Most guests were on dessert; some were getting ready to leave. Indeed there wasn’t much to the affair, until Simpson rose to deliver some stirring words about the two-year germination of the show. “I learned about curating,” he said, visibly emotional. “I learned about you. I learned about myself. Thank you.”

Afterwards, attendees gravitated towards the White Dog Café, a homey restaurant and bar around the corner. I sat down at a round table with several of the artists who had ditched the dinner early, including Norman, Dillemuth, and Merlin Carpenter. Despite generational and geographical differences, the friends often spoke as a chorus, delighted to arrive at irreverent conclusions. “You are not taking my picture. The Artforum diary is like the fucking National Enquirer,” exclaimed Carpenter, to titters at the table. “You don’t want to take our picture,” Dillemuth added, looking up from his own digital camera. “You want to take theirs.” He waved his hands towards the dense herd marching down the middle of the street towards the bar, led by Simpson, photographer Christopher Williams, and critic Diedrich Diedrichson. There were roars of laughter . . . and Dillemuth quietly snapped a picture.

William Pym