Getting Real


Left: Pompidou curator Christine Macel. (Photo: Dawn Chan) Right: Artist Anri Sala.

DRUNKEN ELK SAVED FROM APPLE TREE, read a recent Swedish newspaper headline. The elk, as it turned out, had gotten sloshed on fermented apples. Meanwhile, it was on account of vodka that I headed to Stockholm, where several dozen curators, artists, and journalists converged this past Friday to attend Absolut’s award ceremony and gala dinner honoring artist Anri Sala. The passengers on my flight to Arlanda airport, on disembarking, found themselves face to face with a group of screaming girls who’d gathered (as one explained to me) to greet Eurovision-winning pop duo Jedward, rumored to be arriving in several hours.

And that’s when the mood hit. A grim sort of mood—a Seventh Seal mood—that returned again and again over the next few days. Was it the shock of finding oneself in the midst of long shadows by midafternoon, and then in wool-coat weather at night? Or was it the sight of a roughed-up magpie loping across a street, or the dazed prostitute, naked below the waist, who walked in broad daylight between two lanes of cars?

Maybe it was because the Berlin-based Albanian artist Sala doesn’t shy away from making taut, somber videos, which were screened throughout the weekend. When you’re watching, for instance, 1365 Days without Red—Sala’s dramatization of Sarajevo residents avoiding sniper fire during the city’s four-year-long siege—it’s hard to feel good about the gluttonous sound of complimentary popcorn being crunched to bits inside your maw.

Left: Artist Saâdane Afif. Right: Artist Olaf Nicolai with dealer Harry Scrymgeour. (Photos: Dawn Chan)

Anyone else will tell you that the weekend in question was as enjoyable as they come. It was full, too, of side trips, like a journey to Ulla von Brandenburg and Malin Pettersson Öberg’s opening at Bonniers Konsthall, or a visit to Klara Lidén’s ongoing solo show at the Moderna Museet. Artist Carl Michael von Hauswolff noted that the weekend had a sort of “family” vibe. It was easy to see why. Absolut had allowed Sala to bring along a bunch of his own pals; Pompidou curator Christine Macel, who’d chaired the jury, invited a few of her people as well. At the small but convivial farewell dinner at Cafe Saturnus (a coda to the weekend’s festivities), two friends of Sala turned up—an idealistic Albanian opposition-party activist and his lawyer girlfriend. It was clear that, for once, a good portion of those assembled were there not because of their art-world prominence but simply because they were loved. At one point Macel even abandoned her key lime pie to treat an old friend of hers—a delightful lady originally from Madagascar—to a shoulder rub; the charming Pompidou curator surprised everyone with the revelation that she had studied shiatsu with “un maître Chinois.” “It’s good for stressed-out artists,” she explained.

Needless to say, the weekend’s headline event—a seated black-tie dinner—was bound to be a little less casual. And yet, “the thing about black tie in the art world,” commented Anthony Haden-Guest, as we entered the marble-floored venue, “is that it’s anything but.” The event was held in Absolut’s brand headquarters, a high-ceilinged, mezzanine-surrounded space lined with ferns and stocked with decidedly anticorporate decor: A skull sat atop the antique dresser in the bathroom. In the kitchen, a pair of antlers had been mounted to the wall; graffiti and paint drips lined the stairwell.

The evening began with an obligatory cocktail hour, during which Bonniers Konsthall director Sara Arrhenius caught up with interdisciplinarian Ronald Jones. Artist Nico Dockx chatted with Niklas Svennung, director at Chantal Crousel, while Romero Britto made the rounds in his magenta-sequined Dolce & Gabbana jacket: “I’m the only one dressed like this!” Carsten Höller and Saâdane Afif popped in and out of sight amid the crowd.

Then everyone found their appointed seats, surveying the lay of the land. To my immediate north was Harry Scrymgeour, representing VeneKlasen/Werner gallery (and Scotland) with aplomb. To my south, the equally gracious Berliner Mr. Matthias Arens, of Quality magazine. To my west, jazz standards, blasting forth from an enthused live band. To my east, veal cheeks.

Left: Artist Romero Britto. Right: Curator Power Ekroth, artist Nico Dockx, and dealer Niklas Svennung. (Photos: Dawn Chan)

Three people seated in the middle of the room looked a lot like Anri; they turned out, in fact, to be his father, mother, and sister. Sala pčre, it seems, now grapples with a house full of his son’s drawings as a budding artist: “Thousands and thousands of drawings,” he lamented. (Several dealers’ ears must have perked up at that.) After spending a full day enduring a grueling marathon of interviews, Anri himself seemed happy, though a bit tired of speaking: He wryly hoped that he could look forward to a “silent reception of the prize.” Indeed, during the moment of truth, he and Macel both kept their speeches short and sweet.

By that point, I’d more or less concluded that my disconsolate mood was all my own, until a man of some years sat down beside Anri’s mother and introduced himself. He tried to explain how moved he’d been by her appearance in Sala’s video Intervista, which includes found footage of a young Mrs. Sala as an idealistic communist activist. The video also shows Mrs. Sala, years later, watching her former self. “We thought we’d change the world,” she says at one point, “and little by little we lost everything.”

“You are a good woman—” said the man to Mrs. Sala. And then, without warning, he stopped speaking. Tears began streaming down his face.

Isn’t this all so surreal? I asked artist Olaf Nicolai, who stood beside me near the bar. By surreal, I meant the man who wept, and the skull in the bathroom, and maybe even the vodka jelly cubes we’d had for dessert. Nicolai disagreed. “The problem with the art world is that we call everything surreal,” he said. “No. It’s real. All this is real.”

Dawn Chan