Weekend Update


Left: “The New Normal” curators Guo Xi, Wenfei Wang, Yang Zi, and Alvin Li. (Except where noted, all photos: Alexandra Pechman) Right: Eli Osheyack. (Photo: Dre Romero)

THE WEEKEND BEFORE the fifth edition of Art Basel in Hong Kong, a rivalry of sorts peaked between the Beijing and Shanghai art scenes. Expecting to divert the art world en route to Hong Kong, amid lifted visa requirements to allow visitors to the mainland for seventy-two hours, both cities packed the weekend with openings. Shanghai, with its meteoric rise in the art world, has worked hard to eclipse Beijing’s status as the country’s art capital. This year, Beijing pushed back, inaugurating Gallery Weekend Beijing, a spinoff of the Berlin edition helmed by Thomas Eller, who reached out to a mere forty thousand special guests.

The first day began with a handful of openings—fourteen galleries total, plus a few museums, were chosen to participate. Most events took place at 798 Art District, the massive decommissioned military factory that plays equal host to some of China’s best galleries and tourist traps selling CHAIRMAN MEOW cat T-shirts. Still, it’s the place to be: Urs Meile’s new space kicked off the weekend with a performance by Cheng Ran, and Platform China also moved from Caochangdi, the nearby arts district, in late 2015. “We want people to know what the real galleries are,” Platform China director Sun Ning told me. “There’s a lot of rubbish. 798 can be kind of a mess, but we know who’s good.”

To that end, the weekend saw a number of shows organized by young China-based curators, a stark contrast to the international prestige-mania characteristic of Shanghai. At Long March Space, Robin Peckham put together “Marching in Circles,” a show dealing with the chaos of art-world oversaturation, and at Galleria Continua, Colin Chinnery curated Zhuang Hui’s work on the Qilian Mountain range. “I’m working to make ends meet!” Chinnery said at the opening, sarcastically.

Left: Dealer Lu Jingjing and curator Yao Mengxi. Right: Linyao Kiki Liu and Thomas Eller.

Tiffany Xu of Cheng Art caught the show and weighed the competitive vibes. (She inaugurates her new art space soon.) “We like galleries to compete,” she said. “Then you can be someone. Or maybe you’ll be forgotten.”

“In Beijing, most radical spaces really are commercial galleries,” said Beijing Commune’s Lu Jingjing, when I stopped by to see their new show, curated by Yao Mengxi. “You do shows that you won’t sell. It’s a competition, but it’s from your peers.” (In that vein, galleries competed quite literally: A Best Exhibition prize would be awarded by a jury assembled by the Gallery Weekend.)

“Have you graduated yet?” Michael Xufu Huang of M.Woods greeted UCCA director Philip Tinari, who is studying at Oxford, at the opening of their new show later that evening. “I’m graduating,” Huang added, with a smile.

The exhibition title, “The New Normal,” refers to Chinese government doublespeak to explain the flatlining of Chinese growth, while the Chinese name “State of Exception”—clearly it has less of a ring in English—alludes to the term given to emergency orders that have become normalized in China. The show was originally set to feature only Chinese artists, but as of a few months ago, almost one-third of participants are foreign, though global political tides clearly made the topic more urgent. “You can’t talk about globalization in China without including international artists,” curator Alvin Li said.

Left: ADL's Rouzbeh Akhbari and Felix Kalmenson. Right: Dealer Sun Ning.

“Beijing has been waiting for something to put us on the international calendar,” said Billy Tang of Magician Space later on at the official Gallery Weekend Beijing gala dinner. “It’s super smart that they’re tapping into the momentum,” he said, adding cautiously, “to bring the crowds back.”

Crowds there were. The overbooked event (nearly four hundred people RSVPed) had a last-minute change of venue to Art Factory, right inside 798. Over the weekend, dealers from Blain|Southern and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, as well as Pilar Corrias and Esther Schipper, among others, made the trip. From Săo Paulo, Daniel and Alexandre Roesler made their first trip to Mainland China since 2003, en route to Art Basel.

I asked MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach what he thought of the Beijing edition of Gallery Weekend, versus the Berlin edition, and he accidentally responded in German. “It’s total déjŕ vu,” he offered as an excuse.

On Saturday there was plenty else to see around the city for those who didn’t want to be boxed into 798, from a project by Lu Pingyuan at JNBY, a high-end mall, to the Shen Xin performance at the small alternative space Salt Projects, Yuan Fuca and Liya Han’s newish spot on a historic hutong. I opted to go to Caochangdi, where Ink Studio opened a show of Tai Xiangzhou paintings.

Left: Collin Chinnery and Zhuang Hui. Right: Artist Cui Jie and UCCA director Philip Tinari.

“Five years ago, no one would have considered Shanghai important to Chinese art,” said gallery director Craig Yee. “Now Beijing is doing this Berlin personality,” he added.

“It’s not because of me!” a nearby Eller replied.

The weekend, like a lot of things in China, came together quickly and at the last minute: The first newsletter didn’t go out until January. Eller first visited Beijing in 2006 and noticed some key similarities to Berlin: “You’re close to power and you’re close to artists,” he said, noting both cities really have no significant art fairs. “So you put your money with the galleries.”

After the Ink opening, I headed to the VIP dinner at Green T. House, JinR’s palatial restaurant-cum-spa on the outskirts of Beijing, decked out with pond-size bathtubs, a collection of caged birds, and a massive garden and reflecting pool. A song from the sound track to Arrival played in the hangar-size dining room on repeat.

Sunday’s big draw was Linyao Kiki Liu’s Si Shang Art Museum, with openings of ADL’s Tides of Sand and Steel and a show of recent acquisitions. The appointment-only private museum, complete with an on-site hotel, lies past the Beijing international airport—practically in a different province—but it didn’t stop anyone from making the trek. Liu’s mom personally poured the champagne.

Left: Cheng Ran performance. Right: Cheng Art's Tiffany Xu.

ADL’s was yet another exhibition that dealt with the anxiety of place as globalization renders each one more like the other—or nonexistent. The research-driven artist collective began documenting the desertification of places such as Ningxia and Hebei provinces during a residency with the museum.

A few fairgoers noted Beijing’s smoggy skies as a strange counterpoint—China’s premier vowed recently to make the skies blue again. “It was so blue. Almost APEC blue. I thought they put blue dye in the sky,” said Anna-Victoria Eschbach of publishing platform Tria. They had just released a book object from Lin Ke, the artist who seems to be everywhere after relocating from Hangzhou to Beijing a few years ago. “You do still have to move to Beijing to be an artist,” Randian editor Daniel Szehin Ho noted.

The weekend capped off with another edition of Serious Adult Dance Party at Lantern Club hosted by Liu and Biesenbach—a reiteration of the Shanghai Art Week fete at the now-closed Shelter (and, reportedly, the most successful night in the infamous club’s history). The dance part was more restrained—people still had to make flights to Art Basel. But it’s clear that Beijing wants to be taken seriously.

Alexandra Pechman

Real Surreal


Left: Artist Raja’a Khalid. Right: Art Dubai fair director Myrna Ayad. (All photos: Rahel Aima)

“IT’S SOMEWHERE BETWEEN a craft fair and gun show. Doesn’t it feel that way?” an artist observed, watching VIPs gamely shuffling to lackluster beats at the after party for Art Dubai’s Tuesday preview. The cash bar left many reminiscing about the heady nights, just a few fairs ago, of free-flowing libations and late, late fetes on the beach.

Several attendees were heard wishing the DJ would play some Arabic “or at least Turkish” music. People from the region wanted to actually dance. As for those parachuting in from farther away (their numbers were up), were they not in Dubai precisely to carouse, with those self-consciously orientalized wrist twirls, on a man-made island, surrounded by ersatz canals and the kind of bling I once heard a collector memorably describe as “pussy and Ferrari art”?

I had just arrived from The Room: Cooking Liberty, a gastronomic performance by Beirut-based collective Atfal Ahdath. Inspired by professional spinach-hater Salvador Dalí’s 1973 cookbook Les Dîners de Gala, the twelve multisensory courses unfolded over three acts (“Glass,” “Shell,” and “Egg”), bookended by potent arak- and cognac-based cocktails. In one, there was nothing to eat, only a giant conch shell daubed with “Dalí’s perfume.” Walls were draped in red velvet, tables lined with electric candelabras, and the ceiling fluttered with thousands of peacock feathers. Surrealish more than surrealist, it was good fun nonetheless.

Left: Artists Vivek Vilasini and Mohammed Kazem. Right: Curator and writer Tirdad Zolghadr, curator Wassan Al-Khudhairi, and Art Papers editor Victoria Camblin.

Middle Eastern surrealism has been enjoying something of a resurgence in the past two years, with the Sharjah Art Foundation’s recent conference and Cairo exhibition “When Art Becomes Liberty: The Egyptian Surrealists (1938–1965)” and Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath’s well-received multicity show “Art Et Liberté: Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938–1948).” And why not? It’s not like things are getting any less absurd, either regionally or abroad. (One of the vitrines in the display antechamber of the dinner included a taxidermy Chinese pheasant, its bouffant golden coif an unpleasant reminder of Muslim Ban 2.0, which would go on to be struck down later that night.)

Bardouil and Fellrath’s steadying hand could also be felt in the halls, which boasted far less decorative art than usual. Risks were few with the notable exception of Iranian galleries such as Tehran’s Dastan’s Basement, which gave its booth over to artist Fereydoun Ave for a curated installation. Perhaps that was to be expected following a few difficult years as the fair struggled to recover from the twin blows of the rouble crashing and Art Basel’s purchase of ART HK. They needn’t have worried, with galleries in the contemporary sector reporting brisk sales, and even the usually sluggish modern sector doing well, bolstered perhaps by new fair director Myrna Ayad’s inaugural three-day modern-art symposium.

Left: Curator Reem Fadda, curator Eungie Joo, and artist Shadi Habib Allah. Right: Dealers Kourosh Nouri and Nadine Knotzer of Carbon 12 in Dubai.

A casualty of the fair’s new direction is the experimental Marker sector. The curated section focused on a different geography each time, providing visitors with the rare opportunity to engage art from places including Central Asia, West Africa, or the Philippines. The influence of international director Pablo del Val was felt in the galleries from the 2015 focus region of Latin America, which had some of the fair’s strongest booths. Particularly exciting were D21 Proyectos de Arte from Santiago and Piero Atchugarry Gallery from Pueblo Garzón, whose striking monochromatic presentation brought together Pablo Atchugarry’s marble sculptures and Yuken Teruya’s delicately fractal trees in shopping bags. Also notable was Dubai gallery Carbon 12, with delicious ceramics from Monika Grabuschnigg that managed to surprise despite the gilded candy-colored phallic warheads and a suite of drawings from this edition’s much-buzzed discovery, Amba Sayal-Bennett. No one could believe she’s only twenty-six; if there’s anything this city loves, it’s youth. At Isabelle van den Eynde, another local gallery, a seven-foot suspended rope sculpture, finished by Emirati conceptualist Hassan Sharif’s assistants after Sharif’s death last fall, served as a poignant memorial to the artist, who was beloved as the father of the UAE’s contemporary art scene.

“Where is the contemporary in this? Nobody loves themselves in this city,” artist Raja’a Khalid remarked at the massive Alserkal Avenue gala dinner the following night. She was feeling the love: Everyone agreed her warehouse commission featuring five personal trainers working out in multihour displays of performative masculinity was the arts district’s unequivocal highlight. This year, we were there to celebrate the inauguration of Concrete, OMA’s first building in Dubai. All translucent moveable panels and rough-textured walls, the building is stunning in its unexpected humility and is currently home to a worthy exhibition of Syrian portraiture organized by Rasha Salti and Mouna Atassi. “It’s not networking, it’s collaboration!” I overheard among the beautifully dressed guests mingling over canapés and juice. “I don’t feel the need to network anymore.”

Left: Curators Aya Mousawi and Simon Sakhai of the Moving Museum and Delfina Foundation director Aaron Cezar. Right: Curators Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath.

Dinner was charmingly served family-style, and with a blessed rapidity that was roundly appreciated during this week of lingering dinners and lunches. Seated opposite me was John Martin, Art Dubai’s boyishly affable founder, and talk turned to inflated attendance figures and why the zoned arts cluster model shared by Alserkal Avenue and Gillman Barracks is doing so well in Dubai but floundering in Singapore. I wondered how things were going back in the VIP lounge, where I had just left an intriguing conversation on “Lebanese Lite.” A curator explained it as the Arabic equivalent of Translatlantic English, but the term lent itself well to the “Sharjah Beirutennial,” as a local artist dubbed it. We had just watched the unveiling of the $100,000 Abraaj Group Art Prize winner Rana Begum’s installation on a floating island across from the VIP lounge. The geometric arrangement of colored Plexiglas morphed rewardingly depending on your position and the quality of light. Smaller maquette versions were available at the Third Line’s booth, in a move that felt a little gift shop.

Curator and critic Murtaza Vali found himself seated next to MinRASY Projects director Rana Sadik, who enthusiastically showed him a paparazzi shot she had taken of his “Vetements for Balenciaga” long kurta and sweatpants combo at the Sharjah Biennial. “I’m on trend!” he later crowed, repeating it softly to himself, with no small modicum of wonder. Maybe it was his kurta, or maybe it was the desi mood that seemed to have spread among galleries, which included shows from Lala Rukh, Rashid Rana, Vikram Divecha, and Sudarshan Shetty. The UAE’s art scene has historically privileged Arab and Iranian art, but with inaugural editions of the Lahore and Karachi biennials and the Kathmandu Triennale soon joining the Kochi Biennial and Dhaka Art Summit, things are beginning to shift. “Dhaka is my favorite place to go skinny dipping,” Delfina Foundation’s Aaron Cezar exclaimed the next day, in between practicing his lines for Iván Argote and Pauline Bastard’s Born to Collect game-show performance, which pitted collectors against one another and seemed, from what I was able to catch, enormously fun.

Left: Writer and filmmaker Emmanuel Balogun, artist Albrecht Pischel, Sharjah Art Foundation’s deputy director Reem Al-Shadid and curator Ryan Inouye, and MoMA’s Atheel Elmalik. Right: Anthropologist and writer Uzma Z. Rizvi and Abraaj Group Art Prize curator Omar Berrada.

Highlights at Alserkal included the lovely, hushed intimacy of Rukh’s watery vistas at Grey Noise and Sara Rahbar’s stygian bronze sculptures of contorted limbs at Carbon 12, while at Lawrie Shabibi, Mounir Fatmi crossed more than just the color line in a video work that included the artist blacking himself up with shoe polish. Palms included. I wondered whether the artist had ever met a black person before. Frederick Douglass and Moten would pop up again at a lunch for the Artissima fair the next day. “This idea that we’re going to create a mass movement out of nothing, or that a show is going to be a paradigm shift?” mused a young curator. “It’s not realistic. Douglass’s fugitive narrative is proof that the commodity speaks but we don’t need more theory, we need new ways of thinking. Theory will just trap us in terms again.”

Over in the theory tent (Hans Ulrich Obrist was conspicuous in his absence), I caught a fantastic Global Art Forum panel from Dubai Airports CEO Paul Griffiths, who teased out synergies between conducting an airport and playing a concert organ. Especially memorable were the clips of his disembodied, sock-clad feet, pedaling as if he were not subject to gravity.

Always a reliable visual tl;dr, the GAF cushions this year were emblazoned with the € and Ą symbols in a nod to Rem Koolhaas’s YES regime. They were updated with the ₹, or Indian rupee, and the Saudi Riyal because, as GAF commissioner Shumon Basar explained, “Times have changed and you need a sequel.”

Left: Dealers Mark Prime and Priya Jhaveri of Jhaveri Contemporary. Right: Brownbook editor Rashid bin Shabib, publisher Lars Müller, architect Fatma al-Sahlawi, and Kayoko Imamura.

Yes, times have certainly changed, but as I took a boat ride back to the fair—the canals are functional! Who knew!—one afternoon, I had trouble articulating why. At lunch, a senior curator remarked that the fair’s nonprofit and educational programs seemed to have dissipated and “it feels like it doesn’t have a personality anymore. With [former Art Dubai director Antonia Carver], you really felt her presence; Myrna hasn’t really made friends.”

And yes, despite the same people being here—all those friends we made along the way—there’s something that feels impersonal about this edition. For a long time, Art Dubai’s nonprofit programming anchored the city’s art scene, which made for an exciting few weeks in March and little else (at least on a more critical, discursive level). Now, it feels as if it’s passed that baton to Alserkal Avenue to focus on becoming a successful commercial fair again, as if it decided to finally put on its game face, look directly into the camera, and say, “I’m not here to make friends; I’m here to win.” I think that’s great.

Rahel Aima

Left: Global Art Forum comissioner Shumon Basar. Right: Dealer Thibault Geffrin of The Third Line in Dubai.

March in Time


Left: Mohammed Abdallah of Ashkal Alwan and Sharjah Biennial 13 curator Christine Tohme. Right: Raqs Media Collective performing The Necessity of Infinity. (All photos: Gökcan Demirkazik)

THE DIRECT FLIGHT from Istanbul released predominantly Euro-American passengers at the Dubai airport, where they were gently ushered to interterminal shuttle trains by Southeast Asian DXB employees—all amid glossy ads for residential developments featuring traditionally dressed nuclear Emirati families. This image stayed with me not least because the developer and self-described “provider of premium lifestyles” in question, Emaar, was the Platinum Sponsor of the Sharjah Biennial 13, but also because the scene made the correlation between ethnicity and socioeconomic status, and their connection to mobility and leisure, all the more explicit.

I arrived in Sharjah, the neighboring emirate, two hours later, just in time for the “Interlocutors Conversation,” which served as an introduction to the geographic dispersion of Tamawuj (literally meaning “rising and falling in waves” or “fluctuation” in Arabic), the current edition of the biennial, across five cities. Each interlocutor––that is, section curators not wanting to call themselves “curators”––spoke for one of the four other cities: Kader Attia for Dakar, Zeynep Öz for Istanbul, Lara Khaldi for Ramallah, and Christine Tohmé for Beirut. But the real subject of the panel was the age-old question of what institutions are for––this time, aptly laden with natural and poetic metaphors such as Attia’s “field of emotions” and Öz’s “latent seeds.”

In the Q&A, one audience member rather clumsily pointed out the elephant in the room by saying certain Gulf Labor Coalition members were still not able to enter the UAE; in response, Tohmé thanked her for bringing up this crucial topic and passionately added that she was “against obliteration of any movement,” noting that she did everything in her capacity to bring artists with travel difficulties to Sharjah––to resounding applause.

Left: Curator Kat Anderson, artist and writer Noor Abuarafeh, curator Cynthia Silveira, and curator Enam Gwebongo. Right: Director of Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen Giovanni Carmine, artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, and curator and critic Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez.

Now that this rather delicate issue was voiced and addressed, March Meeting comfortably settled into the luxuriant yet often ironic poetry of (particularly Beirut-style) performances that either dealt with history in a speculative fashion or clinically deconstructed a historic or contemporary phenomenon. First was The Necessity of Infinity, a poignant new commission by Raqs Media Collective that unraveled as an imaginary dialogue on subjectivity and the universe between the tenth-century Persian scholars Ibn-Sina and Al-Biruni. At the end, we formed long lines to be seated for a different kind of performance—a “lunch performance” by Cooking Sections—in which all of the courses featured some sort of ingredient, such as sea asparagus or cassava, conducive to fighting against desertification. The Lebanese journalist sitting next to me seemed genuinely confused between bouts of foodstagramming, and with each course, made a point of asking Cooking Sections’ Daniel Fernández Pascual: “But do people really eat this in real life? How did you know it would work?”

At the biennial’s thirteenth edition, regional powerhouses were well represented by the likes of Mathaf director Laura Barlow and the Istanbul Biennial’s Bige Örer, as well as progressive European institutions such as the Van Abbemuseum, with its director Charles Esche; however, others, especially North Americans, were notably absent during the opening days, perhaps due to the concurrent Garage Triennial of Russian Art. In Mureijah Square’s village of white cubes, the talk of the town––including its shipment to Sharjah––was Monika Sosnowska’s seventeen-thousand-pound Constructivist steel Façade, 2013, which competed with another behemoth: Marina Castillo Deball’s similarly massive but more delicate Hypothesis of a Tree, 2016, made of bamboo and countless rubbings on Japanese paper. In the same gallery, Metahaven’s video on the possibility of “digital clouds” being dimensional frontiers, Information Skies, 2016, was singled out as the public favorite. Barış Doğrusöz and Lamia Joreige’s horizontally inclined, conceptually crisp propositions and Khalil Rabah’s Broodthaers-inspired Palestine After Palestine: New Sites for the Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind Departments, 2017, also made lasting impressions. That evening we were whisked off to Al Hamriyah, forty minutes away from downtown Sharjah, to see works at the newly built Al Hamriyah Studios. After an all-too-brief stay, crowds overdosing on art enthusiastically flocked to a cozy dinner on cushions by the Gulf.

On Sunday, I got a chance to explore other parts of the biennial at Calligraphy Square, the Flying Saucer, and the Planetarium. The first of these was especially strong, with its blend of new and older medium-defying work that questioned limits and politics of perception, including pieces by Lawrence Abu Hamdan, İnci Eviner, and Nida Sinnokrot, next to reflective, water-themed gems of paintings by Tamara Al Samarraei and the late Ali Jabri. Later in the evening, London-based Arts Territory curator Katarzyna Sobucka rescued me and my lost friends, and we finally made it to the screening of Ahmad Elghoneimy’s cryptic Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You at the unlikely Al Hamra Cinema, the mecca of local Bollywood lovers.

Left: Curator Eungie Joo and Reem Shadid of Sharjah Art Foundation. Right: Joe Namy’s Libretto-o-o: A Curtain Design in the Bright Sunshine Heavy with Love, 2017.

The highlight of the following day was undoubtedly Abu Hamdan’s lecture-performance Bird Watching, which expanded on the subject matter of his sound installation at the Calligraphy Square—the Saydnaya Prison in Syria—to a full house, and left many heavy-hearted and teary-eyed with its brilliant intertwining of silence and violence. The collective mood of the biennial posse drastically shifted once everyone headed to Dubai for the closing party, with a brief layover at Alserkal Avenue for openings at Green Art Gallery and Grey Noise, as well as new Alserkal Avenue commissions. A long and narrow road with huge meticulously lit palm trees took us to a villa on a presumably man-made island, where Emaar is developing luxury condos. Under thumping beats, Kenan Darwich of Berlin-based Fehras Publishing Practices admitted that he was relieved to be able to “let it go” and drink in an open space, while I heard Galeri Nev’s Lesli Jebahar, a fellow Istanbulite, complain about the lack of breeze and yearn for the Bosphorus. The night ended promptly at 2 AM, not long after the bar began charging 50 dirhams (approximately 14 USD) for a can of Budweiser.

On Tuesday, I decided to make a second pilgrimage to the commission-studded Al Hamriyah Studios, which felt all the more deserted (pun intended) without the March Meeting crowd. Excepting a few indulgent works (Abdelkader Benchamma’s trompe l’oeil room), the art here spoke beautifully to an all-too-human desire to change one’s course of life for the better, not working against but with the world’s strange tamawuj. When I realized that I was the only visitor left in the building, I snapped out of the hypnosis invoked by the Otolith Group’s The Third Part of the Third Measure, 2017, about queer African American minimalist composer Julius Eastman. The driver beamed at me as I hurried to the shuttle, full of fear of being stranded in the desert. Just as my panic was leaving, the engine stalled. He got out and left the door open without saying anything. This time I smiled and, thinking back on the day’s works, said to myself: “Bring it on.”

Gökcan Demirkazik

Spread the Love

New York

Left: Whitney Biennial curators Christopher Lew and Mia Locks. Right: Puppies Puppies. (Except where noted, all photos: Linda Yablonsky)

DESPITE AN AGGRESSIVE ATTACK on the arts from the current White House, our museums remain sanctuaries of civilization. Wednesday night’s opening of the Whitney Biennial proved that. Unexpectedly, it also unfolded as a model of democracy—and difference.

After seventy-eight attempts by Whitney Museum curators to survey recent art made in America, this was the first to see its (usually giant) opening postponed by a blizzard. It also marked the first biennial in the museum’s two-year-old Meatpacking District building. And it was the first—maybe ever—to win just about universal approval.

Traditionally, the Whitney’s signature show is cause for complaint. People doubt that the art on view is art. Or they find it boring, or white-male-privileged, overly beholden to market forces, or irrelevant. Not this time.

Left: Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg. Right: Novelist A.M. Homes with artist Celeste Dupuy-Spencer and novelist Scott Spencer.

As organized by curators Christopher Lew and Mia Locks, the 2017 edition doesn’t give curmudgeons nearly enough to satisfy their need to hate. That’s all about assuming a superiority of knowledge or taste. These days, the perpetually destabilizing world of alternative facts has reduced many in the art world to grabbing at straws.

Isn’t art supposed to upset the applecart? This biennial rights it. That’s unusual.

There’s no gender or generational imbalance here. On Wednesday night, the thorny entanglements of blue-chip galleries and museum trustees didn’t come up. Nevertheless, faces in the crowd did not reflect the show’s racial diversity. Most were white. That said, the evening did not have the taint of insider privilege either. Indeed, most of the usual art-world attendees appeared to have stayed home. I spotted the Eisenbergs, the Horts, and Beth Swofford, but most first-line collectors were absent, as were a host of big-name dealers.

Perhaps that was because the top dogs were treated to a Sotheby’s-sponsored preview on Monday. More probably, many people couldn’t amend their calendars after the snowstorm forced the canceling of Tuesday’s invitational opening; canceled flights kept away out-of-towners.

Left: Curator Valerie Smith and artist Jon Kessler. Right: Artists Lucy Raven and Tala Madani with dealer Pilar Corrias.

This was not a bad thing. The hastily combined guest lists for Tuesday and Wednesday resulted in a more even-keeled, demographic spread than it otherwise might have been. By itself, that made for a stronger statement of community—a welcome development in the face of brutal opposition from the White House. The following day, the Trump administration announced its intention to defund not just art but nearly everything in American life except war.

Leave it to the nerve-working but maybe brilliant Jordan Wolfson to make the point with his VR entry to the exhibition, where he enacts a brutal hate crime with excessive violence and no emotion whatsoever. I didn’t have the stomach to watch all of it. Others in the crowd, like dealer Mike Egan, found it not only tolerable but fun.

All in all, the atmosphere at the Whitney was unusually congenial and lacking in rivalry or snobbery. Whitney director Adam Weinberg’s biggest worry on Wednesday seemed to be Pope L.’s large pink cube of misinformation, which is outfitted with dozens and dozens of slowly desiccating slices of baloney. No one is likely to say the exhibition is full of it. And, Weinberg said, “At least it doesn’t smell as bad as it did during installation. A good sign!”

Left: Artist Asad Raza. Right: Artist Jordan Wolfson and dealer Jeffrey Deitch.

Despite, or because of, a certain emphasis on three-dimensionality—particularly Samara Golden’s show-stopping realization of the high-rise disease that developers are spreading throughout New York—painters were quick to compliment other painters.

“I like how aggressive they are,” primo biennial artist Dana Schutz said of KAYA, aka Kerstin Brätsch and Debo Eilers, whose collaborative project is devoted to reframing the painted canvas—in this case by hanging it behind resin shower curtains and attaching it to hardware ripped from their shared studio bathroom. In the adjacent space, fart-happy paintings by Tala Madani made for a delicious synchronicity, but Brätsch was quick to enthuse about the paintings of Henry Taylor, and not just because of their topicality. “I love the way they’re painted,” she said.

That was nice. In fact, everyone was pleasant, gracious, interested, excited. Even in a good exhibition, one expects a little grumbling. Not that selective, opening-night crowds are ever all that critical. Maybe they were just relieved that no Russians interfered. And that they could let the artist who calls himself Puppies Puppies speak for them. He, or perhaps an actor, held the torch for free expression, standing throughout all five hours of the opening, dressed as the Statue of Liberty.

Anicka Yi’s Fantastic Voyage, a 3-D video into the biological swamp, was a big favorite, mobbed by friends and admirers, as were Jon Kessler’s techno-smart sculptures, visual essays on the refugee crisis and a planet of quickly disappearing species, including the human. Louise Lawler, soon to be the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, took a special interest in Lyle Ashton Harris’s multiscreen personal photo diary and was curious about the annotated paintings Frances Stark had made of musician Ian F. Svenonius’s 2015 book Censorship Now!!, which speaks to the dark moment we’re in. Dealer Gavin Brown, eschewing conversation, read every single word on the spot.

Left: Artists John Riepenhoff and Frances Stark. Right: Bobby Jesus on a Jessi Reaves ottoman.

Ironically, though Svenonius railed against a creeping loss of humanity, this gallery became one of the opening’s primary social spaces, possibly because the huge ottoman by Jessi Reaves in the center of the room invited much hanging out. Reaves wasn’t the only one to make sculpture of furniture. Kaari Upson’s sexualized couches also made a play for attention, though they didn’t provide people reeling from Wolfson’s nearby video any chance to sit down and recover.

For that, they had Reaves, whose functional furniture-sculptures dotted the show. But they couldn’t beat the oxygenating pause offered by Asad Raza, whose indoor arboretum of young potted trees will flower during the exhibition at the same time Pope L.’s meat dries. “Afterward, I want to make a public garden somewhere,” Raza said, delighted by their popularity among the guests. Just goes to show: If you want to keep art alive, bring live art.

And load it with old-fashioned content, as Lew and Locks did. “We wanted to give the artists a chance to push back,” Locks said. And they do. Even with (mostly digital) weak spots, their ragtag biennial is a well-lighted path to a world we’d like to see—clear-headed, familial, vital, sensitive to our “postironic” moment, and indifferent to fashion.

Ultimately, this biennial somehow makes sense of the senseless time in which we live. And that is a notable achievement.

Linda Yablonsky

Left: Dealers Bridget Donahue and Ash L'Ange with artist Allison Katz. Right: Dealer Sarah Watson, artist Kaari Upson, and dealer Mike Egan

Rainbow Connection


Left: Serpentine Gallery CEO Yana Peel, Moderna galerija's Zdenka Badovinac, Serpentine artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist, Garage director Anton Belov, and Stedelijk Museum director Beatrix Ruf. Right: Artist Taus Makhacheva with Anya Dyulgerova. (Except where noted, all photos: Kate Sutton)

A SALTSHAKER, A BRACELET, and a romantic folklorist painting of a prophetic bird walk onto a wooden stage: That’s the premise of Taus Makhacheva’s Way of an Object, 2013, a marionette show featuring replicas of three items from Dagestan’s Gamzatova Fine Arts Museum engaging in museological debates as they bemoan their fate as passive exponents wrenched from their original contexts. While the traditional Avar “horned” salt box and Kubachi wedding bangle mourn the loss of their specific cultural use-value, the miniature Viktor Vasnetsov painting whines that it’s the one who should really be complaining, having ended up exiled to Dagestan, as part of a late 1920s push to redistribute museum holdings from Moscow to other Soviet republics, all in the name of forging a unified cultural landscape for the world’s largest country.

It didn’t take. To this day, culturally speaking, the country now known as the Russian Federation still maintains at best an unwieldy grasp on its sweeping territory—home to nearly two hundred nationalities and one hundred distinct languages. So far, the most substantial efforts at expanding artistic representations of Russia have been made by the National Center for Contemporary Art, which maintains outposts in locales such as Kaliningrad, Vladikavkaz, and Yekaterinburg, the last being arguably the most internationally minded. (Its Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art is set to open its fourth edition this September, with a show curated by Museu Serralves director Joăo Ribas.)

Left: Artist Antonina Baever (“Genda Fluid”) with Ural Biennial curator Joăo Ribas. Right: Garage curator Yulia Aksenova with Triennial curator Tanya Volkova.

But the NCCA has been on shaky ground in the wake of a series of scandals that left the organization subsumed last summer by ROSIZO, a Kremlin-friendly bureaucratic behemoth of an exposition company. The Moscow Biennale hangs in a similarly nebulous state. Its seventh edition—to be curated by institutional salve Yuko Hasegawa—was confirmed only in late January, just a day after the organizers of the Russian Pavilion in Venice broke an increasingly awkward silence, at long last unveiling plans to present the mildly baffling combination of Grisha Bruskin, Recycle, and Sasha Pirogova.

Enter the Garage Triennial. Unlike the Moscow Biennale—or its precocious little sister, the Moscow International Biennale for Young Art—this museum-based exhibition models itself after the Whitney Biennial, sending a team of six curators on site visits around a country that spans eleven time zones. (And you thought America was hard to see.) As Garage director Anton Belov tells it, the idea spun out of conversation with the museum’s chief curator, Kate Fowle, who was contemplating a trip to Vladivostok, not realizing it was a nine-hour flight.

Of course, like any ambitious undertaking, there were a few qualms. In the spirit of inclusiveness, the six curators—Katya Inozemtseva, Snejana Krasteva, Andrey Misiano, Ilmira Bolotyan, Sasha Obukhova, and Tanya Volkova—originally formed a list of 120 artists, almost double the final roster. “Kate Fowle took one look at this first list, and asked, ‘And where exactly do you plan to put all of that work?’” Belov recalled, grinning.

Left: Garage patron Roman Abramovich with founder Dasha Zhukova. (Photo: Nikolay Zverev) Right: Artist Ugo Rondinone with his installation outside the Garage. (Photo: Serge Outrush)

The pruning process required some excruciating, sometimes inscrutable decisions. For instance, while Moscow is irritatingly well-represented (with some token “Siberians”—Evgeny Antufiev, for instance—having long since relocated to the capital), there was scant mention of the country’s Second City, Saint Petersburg. “The thing is,” newly minted Garage curator Valentin Diaconov reasoned, “Saint Petersburg already has its own scene, its own infrastructure and institutions and functioning galleries. I think when the curators were trying to determine what types of artists might benefit most, it just didn’t make sense to give those slots to Petersburg artists.”

So why didn’t they trim the Moscow offerings? After all, everyone loves Pavel Pepperstein, but to give such a well-represented figure a massive wall seemed a little excessive. Diaconov just shrugged with his trademark tact, but another insider put it more bluntly: “I’m not even sure any of the curators bothered to visit Saint Petersburg.” That would certainly give a different spin to the triennial’s tagline: “The country, as you’ve never seen it.”

Another conflict arose over whether to include Crimea. “Technically it’s part of the Russian border,” Obukhova stated, carefully and firmly, at the press preview. During the research process, the curator had traveled there personally, carrying on discussions with the otherwise orphaned art community. While no Crimean artists were officially included, some of those conversations will be brought to Moscow in April as part of a special seminar on what is to be done with Crimea. It was an unexpectedly elegant solution to a truly messy problem.

Left: Artists Sergey Poteryaev and Andrey Syailev. Right: Artist Olga Chernysheva and writer Boris Groys.

Slightly less elegant was the triennial’s cluttered hang. The bilevel space was broken down into thematic groupings by individual curators, from “Master Figures” to “Personal Mythologies” to “Street Morphology,” which included street-art commissions by artists such as Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai and Kirill Kto in the surrounding Gorky Park. Of these subchapters, Misiano’s “Fidelity to Place” was a standout, including: Makhacheva’s marionettes; Sergey Poteryaev’s playfully ahistorical collages of the Ural village of Staraya Utka (Old Duck); Aslan Gaisumov’s recovered house numbers from his partially destroyed hometown of Grozny; and Vladimir Seleznyov’s charming Metropolis. Nizhny Tagil, 2016, an immersive installation that filled a room with emptied milk cartons, sardine cans, shoe boxes, and other trash that the artist gathered around his Ural hometown. When the lights dimmed, masterfully applied glow-in-the-dark paint transformed this scattered garbage into a surprisingly cohesive cityscape.

Downstairs, Krasteva’s “Common Language” section kicked off with several “schools” by the crowd-pleasing Krasnodar-based ZIP Group. Each institution was consigned to its own wooden structure: the School of Aromatherapy and Luscious Painting offered visitors a chance to “paint” a mountain landscape with air fresheners, and the School of Minimalism and Cleanliness suspended solid-colored towels like monochrome banners. Meanwhile, the School of Futurism and Martial Arts reassigned classical Constructivist poses’ fresh political applications as “protest aerobics,” coining moves like the “baton block” or “barbwire squats.”

Upstairs, the Vladivostok-based artist collective 33+1 also constructed a separate structure to block off their collective display. “Originally I offered to have 33+1 do the entire triennial,” artist Pasha Shugurov told me. “But the curators only gave us this small space. Maybe next time . . . ” He guided me around the crowded installation, rattling off unknown artists until we came to a large mottled canvas affixed with a death certificate. “It’s titled The Last Painting,” Shugurov explained. “The artist threw himself from the tallest skyscraper in Yekaterinburg and landed on the canvas.” The story seemed a little too horrific to be true—though the American in me skipped straight to the potential biohazard part—when the cool twinkle in Shugurov’s eye suggested that the “33+1” of the collective’s name might be more like “33-in-1”: Shugurov.

Left: Artist Aslan Gaisumov. Right: Artists Dmitry Gutov, Yuri Albert, Vladimir Dubossarsky, and Pavel Aksenov.

With all this—and a full program of film screenings to boot—it was easy to forget that the triennial wasn’t Garage’s only offering this spring. The museum’s main foyer was consumed by The Tail Wags the Comet, a hulking new, multilevel installation by the extraordinary Ira Korina, who, along with Makhacheva, is on tap for this year’s main project at the Venice Biennale. Upstairs, a group show delved into the institution’s impressive archives, while, outside, the Garage’s Rem Koolhaas–designed facade was crowned with an Ugo Rondinone rainbow. As part of the museum’s extensive inclusivity program, children from nine cities across the country had responded with fifteen hundred pictures of their own rainbows, which were hung on a wall in front of the museum’s entrance. During the press conference, Belov stressed the importance of the rainbow as a symbol of all things “happy” and “joyful.” Somehow, it took me a full half-hour to remember that “happy” had another synonym more closely associated with the rainbow.

In the run-up to the triennial, Russia’s social-media set fretted over the possibility of too much Moscow representation. But the Thursday-evening opening was true overkill, with cameos by almost all the city’s principal figures from several decades. Besides the sixty-plus triennial participants jostling for cocktails were artists including Dmitry Gutov, Yuri Albert, Olga Chernysheva, Vladimir Dubossarsky, Sergey Bratkov, the Blue Noses, Sasha “Palto” Petrelli, Gosha Ostretsov, Lyudmila Konstantinova, Olga Bozhko, Valery Chtak, Misha Most, and EliKuka. Garage founder Dasha Zhukova and Roman Abramovich kept to the café, where they were surrounded by friends and well-wishers. Meanwhile, prodigal provocateur Marat Guelman was back from Montenegro, where he had retreated following some high-profile adventures in Perm. Other known rabble-rousers Andrey Erofeev and Dmitry Khankin traded notes upstairs, while rising curatorial powers Katia Krupennikova, Alisa Bagdonaite, Daria Parkhomenko, Anastasia Shavlokhova, and Ekaterina Perventseva scoured the grounds for new names. Fledging gallerist Mariana Guber-Gogova and her twin, Madina Gogova, culture minister of the Republic of Karachaevo-Circassia, showed up in support of Artwin Gallery artist Anya Titova, while XL gallery veterans Elena Selina and Serge Khiprun poked around Korina’s multiple spaces. Dealers Sadie Coles and Eva Presenhuber were on hand for Rondinone, while international curators Zdenka Badovinac, Sally Tallant, Maria Lind, Beatrix Ruf, and Boris Groys flew in for the Garage’s advisory board, convening the next day.

Left: Curator Dasha Parkhomenko, MEL Studio's Fedya Dubinnikov, and Triennial curator Katya Inozemtseva at Garage. Right: Artwin Gallery's Mariana Guber-Gogova and Madina Gogova.

In the interest of furthering international exchange, the Garage Museum had devised travel grants for curators. The program was highly competitive. More than 130 applicants vied for ten slots; at least three recipients chose to delay their travel, slightly undercutting the brunch in their honor planned for the following morning. Perhaps this was for the best. As happens with a scale of this event in Moscow, things got more and more “festive.” With the Marriott Grand signing on as a sponsor, agreeing to host all the artists, curators, board members, visiting critics, and assorted guests, all roads—no matter how convoluted—eventually led to the same hotel lobby.

While I never made it past the lobby that night, many who did crammed into a hotel room on the third floor to celebrate triennial artist Mayana Nasybullova’s birthday. In line for coffee at the curator brunch the following day, Nasybullova showed me cell-phone footage of the scene, where artists Olya Kroytor and Sveta Shuvaeva bounced on a bed beside Korina, Diaconov, and assorted members of Chto Delat. Every other available space was occupied by artists from all corners of the country. When the room reached capacity, the party spilled down to the pool and hot tub, with several artists seemingly forgetting their speed dates with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Ruf, scheduled for bright and brutally early the next morning.

Also in line for coffee, Poteryaev peered over my shoulder at the video and nodded approvingly: “This is the real triennial.” We then swiped forward to some pseudo-elicit shots of artists in hotel bathrobes, requisite jacuzzi pics, and an epic bout of couch-wrestling. The country, as we’ve never seen it.

Kate Sutton

Left: Triennial curator Andrei Misiano with curator Viktor Misiano. Right: Artists Sveta Shuvaeva, Ira Korina, and Olga Chernysheva.

Good Humor

Manila, Philippines

Left: Bellas Artes's Efren Madlangsakay and Bellas Artes Projects and Dhaka Art Summit's Diana Cambell Betancourt with architect/curator Aurelien Lemonier on Not Vital's chapel in Bataan. Right: Art Fair Philippines cofounder Trickie C. Lopa. (All photos: Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva)

I HAVE YET TO FIND a taxi driver who thinks wrong of president Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte since his election last May. His approval ratings regularly exceed 80 percent, despite the controversial hero’s burial he organized for former dictator Ferdinand Marcos last November, or the indiscriminate slaughtering of suspected drug dealers and users—including children. His war on drugs amounts to more than seven thousand shot dead so far (more than during the martial-law period, artists tell me), reinforcing the “doing what it takes” attitude gaining popularity worldwide. And yet the economy seems pleased, and the Philippines is now posting one of the fastest growth rates in the world, at 6 percent. This bodes well for the art market, too, I thought as I flew into Clark International Airport. I arrived a day prior to the opening of the successful fifth edition of Art Fair Philippines (now taking over four car-park floors) to first drive to Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar in Bataan, by the South China sea, a peaceful prelude to my visit the next day to metro Manila.

“Sometimes we’ll have drinks and dinner in different houses,” Diana Campbell Betancourt nonchalantly shared, with a large smile and a sway of her hand, while showing us an eclectic collection of houses, peculiarly displayed as if in an entertainment park, including the nineteenth-century national hero José Rizal’s ancestral home, a reconstruction of the hotel Oriente, and tribal wooden homes on stilts, among many others—forty and growing. “Jose Acuzar doesn’t collect art, but he collects houses,” Campbell Betancourt explained of the Filipino real-estate developer. She works with Acuzar’s daughter Jam in developing a residency program, an exhibition space, and a contemporary art sculpture park up on the hill, as part of the Bellas Artes foundation, started in 2013. And so curator Aurélien Lemonier and I followed her at sunset in a four-wheel-drive car to the first structure of the park: a Not Vital chapel close to completion, from the stairs of which we enjoyed the view and wine in plastic cups while contemplating the region’s grim history (in 1942, approximately seventy-five thousand Filipinos and Americans marched to Japanese prison camps, known as the Bataan death march).

Left: Artist Carlos Celdran. Right: Artists Angela Velasco Shaw and Ashley Bickerton.

The next day, we were joined by curator Gridthiya Gaweewong and researcher “Waew” Kasamaponn Saengsuratham, and on we went for the slow drive to Manila. I arrived at the fair just in time for the vernissage. As usual, the crowds from the most Latino country in Asia showed much enthusiasm for art and fun. I ran into artists Angela Velasco Shaw and Ashley Bickerton. “We were so crazy that they had to peel us off the walls!” Bickerton exclaimed, reminiscing of their student life at CalArts. More artists joined us on the new top-floor terrace—Buboy Cańafranca, MMYu, Isabel R. Santos, Nona Garcia, and Kawayan de Guia.

On Thursday, Eva McGovern Basa was launching the No Chaos No Party book at the new private club Manila House—a hefty, colorful volume presenting the work of twenty-eight Manila-based artists. I swung by to see artist Wawi Navarroza, spotted socialite Tessa Prieto-Valdes, and talked to dealer Matthias Arndt, before going to the exhibition of Mexico-based artist Carlos Amorales, curated by Campbell Betancourt, followed by a seated dinner, organized by Jam Acuzar at the just-inaugurated Bellas Artes Outpost at Karrivin Plaza, above the Drawing Room gallery. Banana leaves were set on two long tables, on which rice, fish, meat, and other fare awaited guests. The list included artists James Nares and Maria Taniguchi, collector Marcel Crespo, curators Ute Meta Bauer, Tobias Berger, and Cosmin Costinas, and Ayala Museum director Mariles Gustilo. I had wanted to go to the Green Papaya Art Projects benefit for artist Ferdz Valencia, who suffered a stroke last December, but my traffic app projected a discouraging hour-long ride. Most of us moved on to the party at nearby club 20/20. “Are you a mermaid?” asked organizers Superstarlet_xxx and Anton Belardo as the basement space fell into a trance with a passionate drum session by Chiko Hernandez.

Left: Superstarlet_xxx, artist Anton Belardo, and Kikay Punch. Right: Filmmaker and artist Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

On Friday, collector Anton Ramos threw a discreet lunch for writer Sarah Thornton, who was in town for one of her captivating talks later that day at the fair—exquisite as always. “We are here as 100 percent tourists,” joked artist Leung Chi Wo Warren, enjoying his first time in Manila. “Your films have changed my life,” a member of the audience gasped during Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul’s talk, minutes before his excellent solo-exhibition opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design that afternoon. “I make films about simple things,” said Apichatpong. “My boyfriend, my dogs, my trees, the things I would be sad if they disappeared from my life.” I ran into Lani Maestro, who, with Manuel Ocampo, will represent the Philippines at the Venice Biennale, before driving with Poklong Anading and MMYu to 1335 Mabini for the opening of three shows: Carlos Celdran’s performative intervention regarding the Catholic Church’s opposition to the Reproductive Health Bill, for which he’s pending a year-long jail sentence for blasphemy; a group show by Junyee, Gus Albor, and Tengal Drilon on Filipino current affairs, specifically the new presidency and recent killings; and a solo exhibition by Kiri Dalena, featuring a shattered-glass installation and a video—also a reference to the growing number of people killed under the current administration.

“Let’s have a beer then,” said dealer Birgit Zimmermann after the opening, as we couldn’t find a taxi to take us back to Makati for drinks organized by Silverlens gallery. “Let’s go to the ugliest girly bar you’ve ever seen,” Zimmermann laughed. It wasn’t ugly, but it certainly was entertaining. “Please have a sense of humor,” advised Celdran, who, while awaiting his jail sentence, still runs his famous tours of the old Manila. Art-world visitors joined tourists in a witty and theatrical World War II historical walk on Saturday morning, taking in the damage and the resilience that the Philippines still exudes today. From crying to laughing and back—what else can we do?

Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva

Left: Art Basel Asia director Adeline Ooi, writer Sarah Thornton, and Alexandra A. Seno, head of strategic development Asia Art Archive. Right: Art Fair Philippines cofounder Lisa Periquet and dealer Isa Lorenzo.