ARRIVING IN NICE, I boarded a Tesla driven by a chauffeur who looked like a young Isabelle Huppert wearing a silk pantsuit and a five-hundred-dollar Hermès Kelly bracelet, named for Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco. This principality, the second smallest (after the Vatican) and second most densely populated (after Macau) sovereign state in the world—3/4 square mile holding forty thousand people—was our destination. After thirty minutes of whipping past palm trees lining an immaculate coast road, we finally reached a snarl of Italian sports cars, scaffoldings, and high-rises, upon which my driver announced: “Welcome to Monaco: We are under construction!”
The occasion for my visit was a confluence of activities timed with the debut of artmonte-carlo—yes, another fair, this one organized by Art Genève at the Grimaldi Forum in the center of town (not that everywhere isn’t essentially the center of town). While my hotel was technically in Beausoleil, France, the other side of the street was Monaco, and Wednesday night it only took about five minutes to traverse the country via two hundred ancient steps leading down to 11 Columbia gallery, opposite the Forum.
Fresh off dual museum shows in Los Angeles, a Robert Mapplethorpe opening was winding down and wandering up the block to a local institution called Cafe Sass for a dinner hosted by Franco Noero. The ruby-tinted Riviera brasserie has a blown up black-and-white photo of the owner with Lady Gaga by the bathrooms, and French lounge singers reminiscent of inebriated aunts doing Top 40 covers from Adele’s “Hello” to Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” by the piano up front. I sat down with a crew that had come fifty paces from the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco (NMNM): curator Cristiano Raimundi; Ayr’s Alessandro Bava, who was finishing the exhibition design for a Francesco Vezzoli exhibition opening the following night; and Vezzoli’s squad of assistants (the artist relayed by text that he was nursing a back injury in the hotel). Occupying two building on opposite ends of town, the museum’s Villa Sauber is directly between Cafe Sass and artmonte-carlo. The nation is like a dollhouse.
As dinner turned to dancing, it became apparent that the foreign businessmen and local ladies in sequin dresses had been looking for one another all evening. I was introduced to someone described as a princess of former Yugoslavia, and I noticed how very much intact is the monarchy of Monaco: Above the bar, just as in every establishment, there is a faded portrait of the crown prince and princess, prominently placed like a picture of Ataturk.
Thursday afternoon the Monaco art scene converged on the Babylonian-chic home of collectors Anne and Pierre Nouvion in Cap D’Ail to celebrate the fair, scheduled to open the following day. The out-of-towners arrived: Pinault Foundation’s Caroline Bourgeois, Air de Paris’s Florence Bonnefous, Lulu’s Chris Sharp, Galerie Gmurzynska’s Mitchell Anderson. Polite conversation plinked in the modern sitting rooms and by the jade infinity pool and on the lawn overlooking the Mediterranean. As the day’s heat settled we returned to town to visit the home of London-based Italian collector Nicoletta Fiorucci, who had just finished renovating an apartment in the landmarked Trocadero building into what, for now, is mostly being used as an ad hoc gallery to restage a Riccardo Paratore show. Titled “Simulacrum Next Door,” some chambers are built with the artist’s purplish, distressed Barcelona furniture knockoffs, into which are etched intimate snippets of text messages. Lilies sprout from mirrors as surreal wall adornments. And in keeping with a salon style, small works from Fiorucci’s collection have been placed throughout other rooms: Morandi drawings, a Bernadette Corporation print bearing the monogram BC, and, tucked into a closet, a Sylvie Fleury shopping bag that reads CHANEL: 31, RUE CHAMBON. An international array of well-heeled Monegasque friends toured the show, or paused on the veranda for a serene view of the sea. A dachshund responded excitably to the popping of a bottle of Ruinart. There was speculation that he might be addicted.
artmonte-carlo opened on Friday. You might not call a fair “site-specific,” but galleries certainly customized their selections with blingy offerings fit for this city of gold. At Almine Rech, the same Fleury Chanel shopping bag, and a rainbow John Giorno: PREFER CRYING IN A LIMO TO LAUGHING ON A BUS; around the corner at Art Concept : Paris, an almost twenty-foot-long limo by Adam McEwen printed to a kitchen sponge, and a gold-plated sapling by Michel Blazy. There was a grid of thirty books coated in gold by Peter Wuthrich at Christian Stein Milano / Casamadre Napoli and a gleaming Jacob Kassay painting at Cortesi Gallery. In the downstairs salon, nearly equal real estate was given to nonprofit and artist-run spaces. The winning stand came from this section: Mexico City’s Lulu, with a solo presentation by Brooklyn-based Parisian painter Victoria Roth, whose quasi-abstract drawings appear both furry and intestinal.
The Vezzoli show had previewed the day before. The galleries are hung with portraits of Marlene Dietrich, faux works in the style of masters like Modigliani, Matisse, Magritte, Bacon. That night the artist was present for a durational performance in which he channeled the diva, corseted into a black velvet Prada gown, seated in the back of the cinema in an upstairs gallery, watching films of her, as her, for nearly six hours as a never-ending queue peeked into the room to join in watching or for photos.
This was one of many performances unfolding as part of Monaco’s inaugural Nuit Blanche—organized by Jörg Heiser with Cristina Ricupero and Leonardo Bigazzi—on Larvotto Beach, on the Boulevard Princesse Grace, and elsewhere throughout the city. A cast of Tino Sehgal interpreters roamed the Japanese Garden as Doug Aitken orchestrated the skywriting of a mystic spiral overhead. “It’s strange,” Aitken said after, as we took seats at a beach bar in the sand with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Suad Garayeva of YARAT Contemporary Art Space in Baku, and the cast of characters who had been ping-ponging around villas all week. “Yesterday I was in Detroit, getting a tour of destruction by an art student, and now we’re here.” As if on cue, the next performance began, by Christian Waldvogel, in which a very expensive toy stationed on a platform in the bay, a helicopter, was blasted with water and lights as it struggled to take off, casting an incandescent spray into the air until it broke free and disappeared into the sky.
The following evening was the capstone of an opulent week, in which Prada feted the exhibition with a lavish cocktail party at the museum. Midway through the evening, outside the pink and seashell belle epoque palace, the lights dimmed and the music cut. A figure appeared from a balcony: the unmistakable visage of Fassbinder muse Barbara Sukowa. Glassy and haunted, like a Vezzoli adoration of a woman such as she, the actress indifferently draped herself from the windows as she sang four songs by Dietrich in German. The entire party was rapt, or you might say the entire nation: After all, the guest of honor was Princess Caroline herself, modern and unassuming, watching this decadent little opera.