Sex Drive

Kate Sutton on “Sexuality and Transcendence” at the PinchukArtCentre in Kiev


Left: PinchukArtCentre artistic manager Björn Geldhof with artists Jan Fabre and Jeff Koons and collector Victor Pinchuk. (Photo: Sergei Illin) Right: Shala Monroque, Garage CCC cofounder Dasha Zhukova, and Naomi Campbell. (Photo: Victor Boyko)

OF THE MANY OBSTACLES on the path to transcendence, volcanic ash may not be the most obvious. That said, escalating travel hassles drastically reduced attendance for last week’s art-world-takes-Eastern-Europe tour between a Mark Rothko opening at the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow and a group exhibition, “Sexuality and Transcendence,” at the PinchukArtCentre in Kiev. Following a week of distressed Facebook status messages, many jet-setters reconsidered the merits of flying to Moscow for a dinner party (even a really good one). It wasn’t so much flying in that was the problem. “Let’s face it,” occasional Muscovite Maria Baibakova observed. “No one wants to get stuck in Russia.”

Thankfully, the reduced crowds worked to the advantage of the Wednesday night Rothko opening. The show was sumptuously hung, taking full advantage of the Garage’s recent renovation. With a total of fourteen paintings (including two murals) spanning Rothko’s career, the exhibition represents the largest private holding of the artist’s work (and apparently the second largest overall, after the Smithsonian’s National Gallery).

As art adviser Sandy Heller walked me through the story of each painting, Pace Gallery’s Marc Glimcher cut in with a grin, “Whatever he was saying, let me pick up from there.” Noticing art historian and AbEx scholar Irving Sandler standing nearby, Glimcher immediately reconsidered; “I might try to steal the show from Sandy, but I’m not about to talk about these paintings within earshot of Irving.”

While elegantly executed, the opening had been slightly dampened by news that the hostess of the evening, Dasha Zhukova, was stuck in London. Accordingly, the planned dinner at Spaso House, the US ambassador’s residence, was canceled, though ambassador John Beyrle did put in an early appearance.

Left: Ambassador John Beyrle. (Photo: Victor Boyko) Right: Collectors Lietta and Dakis Joannou with curator Eckhard Schneider. (Photo: Sergei Illin)

Proving volcanoes aren’t entirely merciless, Eyjafjallajökull relented enough for some surprise arrivals: first Naomi Campbell with Vlad Doronin; then the Garage’s international director, Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst; and finally Zhukova herself, who had been given clearance to fly at only 1 o’clock that afternoon. An impromptu dinner was arranged at Nedalny Vostok, whipping the press girls into a frenzy of phone calls and last-minute invitations.

Originally scheduled for Thursday night, Zhukova and Campbell’s five-thousand-Euro-a-head charity auction/fashion show was bumped to May out of concern that choice guests wouldn’t make it. Those who had made the trip clearly found a way to entertain themselves that evening, as Friday’s 10 AM flight to Kiev—fully booked a few days earlier with members of the migrating art crowd—was more or less deserted. Evidently, Moscow’s particular brand of hospitality had inspired rebookings for later flights (a suspicion confirmed by the bleary-eyed late arrivals at the PinchukArtCentre’s evening opening).

Somewhat scandal-worn from protests against the Sergey Bratkov exhibition last January, Kiev had braced itself for the worst with this new show. Despite the provocative title—affectionately redubbed “Sex and Trans”—the exhibition was remarkably dry. Spatially conceived as “nineteen solo exhibitions,” “S&T” featured never-before-exhibited (but still familiar) offerings by a lineup including Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Paul McCarthy, and Jeff Koons. As I heard curator Eckhard Schneider explain to collector Dakis Joannou, Koons is the “quarterback” of the exhibition, which itself spun out of the artist’s observation that “sexuality is a tremendous vehicle for transcendence.”

Left: Art advisor Sandy Heller with Sotheby's Loic Gouzer. (Photo: Victor Boyko) Right: Artists Ingar Dragset and Michael Elmgreen. (Photo: Sergei Illin)

Not to say that the show was without sex; there were plenty of dirty paperback thrills to be found in Richard Prince’s “Nurse” paintings (appearing here amid a medicine-cabinet display of nurse hats and a nurse-hat “chair”). There were also Boris Mikhailov’s miscreant self-portraits with a dildo and Jan Fabre’s naughty schoolboy drawings, which flanked his Fountain of the World as a Young Artist, a prone, realistic wax figure with an impressive erection ejaculating amid a pile of tombstones. As I surveyed the scene, Fabre leaned in over my shoulder: “That’s me when I was twenty-one, you know,” he said. I opted to take him at his word. Meanwhile, beside me, a Ukrainian woman giggled to her friend, “I thought at first this was a performance!”

With more than half of the nineteen participating artists volcanoed out, the lavish afterparty was nixed in favor of a much more intimate reception at Victor Pinchuk’s apartment in the city. Instead of taking the stage, Ukrainian pop-oddity Jamala took to the corner of the living room, commanding the space with her powerful vocal cords.

Next to me, Pace’s James Lindon looked on with wide-eyed wonder, whispering, “She’s like Lady Gaga meets Amy Winehouse meets a Disney character.” As if on cue, the singer burst into a groaning, writhing, stomping, moaning protest: “I’m not Gaga, I’m not Amy, I’m Jamala . . .”

Left: Art historian Irving Sandler and Lucy Freeman Sandler in front of a Cindy Sherman mural. Right: Artists Lev Evzovitch, Vladimir Fridkes, and Tatiana Arzamasova of AES+F in front of their Feast of Trimalchio at the Bessarabsky Rynok marketplace. (Photos: Kate Sutton)

Pinchuk led the clapping in one song (sheepishly grinning when he missed a beat) and was one of the first on the floor when Jamila broke out an old Soviet chanson number. I took the slow song as my cue and ducked out for a champagne refill alongside fellow revelers including Koons, Joannou, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, Lisson’s Nicholas Logsdail, Haunch of Venison’s Harry Blain, Sotheby’s Loic Gouzer, collector Oleg Baybakov, and the Pace crew. You know, just your typical evening in Kiev . . .

By the time we were kindly encouraged to leave (pictures of Koon’s balloon dog served as departing party favors), we found buses waiting downstairs to take us to a club. (“DecaDance. Original,” Glimcher mused.) Thus began a night of confusing cab rides, confusing pop songs, and countless bottles of champagne. At one point, a small herd huddled outside, waiting for their drivers to take them to yet another club. As the first car pulled up, one dealer stopped abruptly: “Wait! Did anyone actually get that bill?”

The next day, Pinchuk, a consistently thoughtful host, organized a hangover brunch of sorts at his country house, featuring Ukrainian dishes served by women in Old Rus’ attire. I stuck to coffee, and headed instead to the Bessarabsky Rynok, an indoor marketplace directly across from the PinchukArtCentre, where AES+F were inaugurating the newest installation of a ninety-yard banner, part of the Feast of Trimalchio project that premiered last summer in Venice. The work imagines a five-star resort and a cast of characters engaged in an indifferent sort of hedonism; it struck an amusing resonance within Kiev’s marketplace, where it caused quite a lot of excitement among the fruit vendors. Apparently the path to transcendence doesn’t always require jet-setting.

Left: Jamala. Right: Lisson Gallery's Patricia Pratas and Nicholas Logsdail. (Photos: Kate Sutton)

Left: Collector Oleg Baybakov with Jeff Koons. Right: Lyuba. (Photos: Kate Sutton)