Starry Night

Linda Yablonsky on Francesco Vezzoli's Guggenheim performance

New York

Left: Artist Francesco Vezzoli with designer Miuccia Prada. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky) Right: The performance of Right You Are (If You Think You Are).

The risks and the benefits of social engineering by a Conceptual artist went on furiously naked display last Saturday night, when upwards of eight hundred invited guests assembled outside the Guggenheim for Francesco Vezzoli’s staged reading of Luigi Pirandello’s 1917 play Right You Are (If You Think You Are). Suffice it to say that everyone thought exactly that, uniting in one big hissy fit to greet the opening of Performa 07, RoseLee Goldberg’s performance-art biennial, which clearly entered its terrible twos just as the evening began.

Veteran art-world scenemakers like Calvin Tomkins and Dodie Kazanjian, Cindy Sherman and David Byrne, Stephanie French, Donna De Salvo, and Lauren Taschen waited outside with the hoi polloi for an hour past the scheduled 10 PM start time, while personae grata like Brooke Shields, Uma Thurman, Thelma Golden, Isaac Julien, Marina Abramovic, and Klaus Biesenbach were ushered into the check-in area beyond the velvet ropes. Some people, denied a chair on the rotunda floor, skulked out just after the doors opened; others waited till intermission; and a few, like Salman Rushdie and Laurie Anderson, napped almost throughout.

“This is such a New York moment,” I heard Whitney curator Chrissie Iles say as Mary-Kate Olsen, wearing a long white robe with red embroidery, took a seat in front of Lou Reed and Anderson, across the aisle from Marion Cotillard, the movies’ most recent Edith Piaf, who was seated beside Hollywood superagent Beth Swofford, who rubbed elbows with New Museum director Lisa Phillips and arts patron Anne Bass. Dealer Marian Goodman had a front-row seat near Lauren Hutton, Helen Marden, and Shields, ahead of Maureen Dowd. I had to look up at all the regular people on the ramps to reassure myself, at least temporarily, that I was indeed at the wackiest art museum ever, and not back at Studio 54 circa 1977.

Left: Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky) Right: Dealer Marian Goodman and Vogue's Eve MacSweeney. (Photo: David Velasco)

Actually, I don’t have the stamina for dropping all the names relevant to this Pirandellian nightmare, whose fate was probably sealed when the museum gave Vezzoli and a video crew led by Doug Aitken’s right hand, Daniel Desure, a mere five hours to install a circular stage and a multiscreen live projection system. This while rehearsing the marquee cast of Ellen Burstyn, Natalie Portman, David Strathairn, Elaine Stritch, Dianne Wiest, Peter Sarsgaard, Little Miss Sunshine star Abigail Breslin, and Marcus Carl Franklin, currently appearing as a young Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There. That film also features Cate Blanchett, who was the big draw here as well, not that anyone present would admit it. (Her entrance came so late in the evening that those who decamped early never saw her anyway.)

Selected not for their acting skills, which were not much in evidence, but for their celebrity (the rickety construction of fame being the nominal subject of the play), the actors gamely took seats facing one another on a shiny black gazebo set dead center in the rotunda and began to read the script, cold. Seldom has an art audience’s tolerance for experiment been so severely tested. The sound was so bad, the actors so detached, and the reading so tedious, we could make out very little and eventually cared even less.

“It has been truly a great success,” Pirandello wrote to his wife following the play’s 1917 Italian premiere. “Not for the applause, but for the astonishment, the bafflement, the exasperation, and the dismay I caused the audience. You don’t know how much I enjoyed it.” Vezzoli, on the other hand, spent most of the performance “vomiting in the bathroom,” later pronouncing the event “a magnificent failure.” He had that just about right. Then again, perhaps he brought the play the audience it had always deserved.

Left: Brooke Shields. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Anita Ekberg, Cate Blanchett, and Dianne Wiest. (Photo: Paula Court)

All was certainly not lost. Unbeknownst to those of us seated under the bright lights near the stage, the disenchanted exiting the museum were directed to join the overflow crowd in the basement theater, where they caught every word and nuance of the show from live images of the actors projected on a grid of eight screens, while getting a good gander at Blanchett, her face swathed in tulle and the rest of her extravagantly attired in a drop-dead John Galliano trench coat and gown from Dior Couture, who sat onstage watching until it was time for her mother of an entrance.

“The whole thing was an inversion,” said architect Charles Renfro (of Diller Scofidio + Renfro), who had fled the rotunda. “The space of the museum, usually about visual art, became a backstage space, and the theater the real visual presentation venue. Small reward,” he added, “for a piece that wasn’t so great to begin with.”

But he didn’t see what I saw. Seated on a hot-pink, lip-shaped Dalí couch was no less platinum an eminence than Anita Ekberg, looking less like the sex goddess of La Dolce Vita than Divine of Pink Flamingos. I could hardly take my eyes off her, partly because she was more visible than the actors nattering onstage but also because there was more going on in her ravaged face than in the play. (It involves a group of provincials obsessed with a mysterious neighbor whose identity is up for grabs.) As the embodiment of the price of fame, the former Miss Sweden got through the performance by fanning herself, snoozing, sipping a drink, and talking out loud to a handler.

Left: RoseLee Goldberg, David Byrne, and Cindy Sherman. Right: Whitney Museum chief curator Donna De Salvo. (Photos: David Velasco)

“I am not a theater director, and I was not trying to make a statement in that sense,” Vezzoli said later. “I was just trying to turn the whole rotunda into a stage.” That was only clear during the grand finale, when Blanchett, making an entrance with even more melodramatic flair than Gloria Swanson at the end of Sunset Blvd., descended to the stage from the top tier of the museum amid flashing strobes and the camera crew preceding her. “I am whoever you believe me to be,” she thundered to the dolts wanting a piece of her onstage. “Are you happy now?” And then she disappeared.

All the same, during Miuccia Prada’s after-party at Bemelman’s Bar in the Carlyle Hotel, Brooke Shields was more enamored of the separate applause that Stritch had earned with her lagging departure from the arena. “Anyone can make an entrance,” Shields squealed as Stritch passed by. “There’s a woman who knows how to make an exit!” That didn’t make me want to go home, not with Ekberg sitting at the bar alone. “I hate parties!” she confessed, and I found myself wishing for the first time in thirty years that my mother were still alive so I could tell her where I was. Just then, Danilo, the celebrity hairdresser, came by to say good-night and Ekberg’s hand flew to her long blond extensions. “Don’t worry,” Danilo told her. “You can keep the hair.”

Left: New Museum trustee Laura Skoler and Uma Thurman. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Anita Ekberg.

Left: Artist Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed. Right: Artist Isaac Julien. (Photos: David Velasco)

Left: Producer Mike Skinner and artist Adam Pendleton. Right: Art Production Fund's Yvonne Force-Villareal and Doreen Remen with Renee Rockefeller. (Photos: David Velasco)

Left: A view of Right You Are (If You Think You Are). Right: Anita Ekberg. (Photos: Linda Yablonsky)

Left: Actor Ronald Guttman with Amy Guttman. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Elaine Stritch. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky)

Left: Artist Marina Abramovic. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Artist Paolo Canevari. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky)

Left: Salon 94 owner Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn with Coco Rohatyn. Right: Grace Dunham and artist Laurie Simmons. (Photos: David Velasco)

Left: CIRCA creative director Fabiola Beracasa. Right: Nessia Pope with Gagosian director Louise Neri. (Photos: David Velasco)