Left: Performer Verka Serdyuchka. Right: Collector Viktor Pinchuk with artist Jeff Koons. (Photos: Brian Droitcour)


WLADIMIR KLITSCHKO, the curator of Ukraine’s contribution to the 53rd Venice Biennale, couldn’t attend his own opening Thursday night, as he was preparing for a June 20 heavyweight title match. His brother, Vitali, did drop by, however, and the presence of one almost seven-foot, two-hundred-and-fifty pound boxer was enough to satisfy everyone. Artist Ilya Chichkan had decided to involve Wladimir—in name only, of course—to avoid curatorial interference in his collaboration with Japanese artist Mihara Yasuhiro, which turned Palazzo Papadopoli, site of the Ukrainian event, into a creepy fun house of drones, dim Christmas lights, and disembodied automatons, haunted by an elfin model on roller skates. In the palazzo’s garden, patron Viktor Pinchuk entertained leaders of the Moscow and Kiev art worlds and received brief visits from Jeff Koons and Naomi Campbell. The party climaxed with a performance by Verka Serdyuchka, a robust transvestite whose numbers—all klezmer-inflected tunes over leaden techno beats—included “Everything Will Be Good” and “I’m All, Like, Dolce & Gabbana.”

Outside russophone lands, Serdyuchka is best known for her 2007 second-place performance at Eurovision, a competition that, to the chagrin of pop fans from the G7, is increasingly dominated by newcomers from the East. So there was a wicked dissonance to seeing Serdyuchka live in the context of this highbrow Eurovision, where the West continues to reign despite the ever-growing ranks of third- and second-worlders. Many commented on the inclusiveness of Daniel Birnbaum’s “Making Worlds,” even if most of the included were already fluent in the Euro-American language of messily spectacular installation. One of the exceptions was Anawana Haloba’s pushcart laden with boxes, each of which was labeled with the name of an internationally valued commodity but in fact held candy. “I don’t care for sweets,” an Englishman complained.

Left: Members of Jackson Pollock Bar. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Naomi Campbell. (Photo: Brian Droitcour)


As I walked through the Arsenale on Thursday afternoon, I saw more and more of the handsome red-and-black totes advertising the first-ever UAE pavilion. At that exhibition, the artworks proper were upstaged by world’s-fair-type displays: scale models of proposed arts districts in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and video interviews with local players about the tourism infrastructure. “People keep asking me if I was forced to show that stuff,” Tirdad Zolghadr, the pavilion’s curator, said while on a cigarette break. “Actually, I had to fight to show it.”

Inside was a placard with his name next to one for the pavilion’s commissioner, Dr. Lamees Hamdan. But during the “press conference,” their places were occupied by a much better-looking pair who conversed inaudibly as a prerecorded theater piece by performance group Jackson Pollock Bar played over the speakers. An Arab woman’s voice seemed to be defending the UAE pavilion’s right to exist against attacks from one Mr. Smith, but I could barely hear it over the commotion caused by the arrival of an Emirati aristocrat. “Who’s that sheikh?” I asked an attendant. “I don’t know,” she shrugged. “There are lots of them.”

Their distinctive white headgear dotted the crowd outside, a mass headed for the vernissage of ADACH Platform, an initiative of the Abu Dhabi cultural authority. The UAE capital politely went rogue and sponsored its own collateral show curated by Catherine David. The line for the shuttle across the narrow waterway to the Arsenale Novissimo was long. I spotted a forlorn dinghy with a little red sign for the Russian-organized “Unconditional Love,” which was located a few hundred yards west of the ADACH show, so I went there before walking down the embankment.

Left: Swiss Institute director Gianni Jetzer, UAE pavilion curator Tirdad Zolghadr, and 303 Gallery's Barbara Corti. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Artist Ilya Chichkan. (Photo: Brian Droitcour)


“Unconditional Love” has works by a dozen artists from almost as many countries, but it was all garnish for a new piece by AES+F, who outdid their appearance in the 2007 Russian pavilion by expanding their animated glamour shots to three channels on nine big screens, arranged in a panoramic circle. But even if it had been viewable from a single vantage point, I doubt it would have been any easier to follow. I recall a cruise ship, a pagoda, calisthenics, foot massages, a black man chucking a spear, and Asians in Indian headdresses shooting arrows until a tsunami killed them all and a flying saucer crashed in its wake.

By the time I reached the ADACH Platform, dozens of guests were already sacking the buffet. I trailed the (another?) sheikh’s entourage through David’s exhibition, which, like the UAE pavilion, was a meditation on urban development, only here it was filtered through the lens of critical documentary, a time-tested biennial tactic. Zolghadr’s project, on the other hand, struck that elusive balance between difference and relevance—an equilibrium that struck me as important on Friday as I looked at some of the less-visited national exhibitions. Dismayed, perhaps, by apathetic reactions to the kitsch painting at its 2007 debut, the Georgian pavilion conformed and displayed two stylishly somber videos by Koka Ramishvili. The defiant Azeris showed paintings by Tahir Salahov, a venerable socialist realist. “They exhibited my work at the Soviet pavilion in 1962,” Salahov said at a garden party hosted by Russia’s honorary consul in Venice. “But they didn’t tell me. People came up to me in the street in Moscow to congratulate me, and I wondered, ‘What for?’”

Left: Ullens Center owner Guy Ullens. (Photo: Ryan McNamara) Right: Artist Alexander Ponomarev. (Photo: Brian Droitcour)


The same event had much talk of the concurrent birthday celebration for GCCC founder Dasha Zhukova aboard Roman Abramovich’s yacht. One Russian artist was boasting that he had not only attended a breakfast aboard Abramovich’s boat, he had even taken a shit in the toilet. The rest had to settle for an up-close view of another impregnable vessel, Alexander Ponomarev’s semisubmerged submarine anchored opposite François Pinault’s Palazzo Grassi exhibition space. The work of the “marine artist” (his press release’s words) was a goofy, three-dimensional counterpoint to the usual canal art—banners with platitudes, like I AM NOT HERE. —PATRICK MIMRAN or I WILL NOT MAKE ANY MORE BORING ART. —JOHN BALDESSARI. Incidentally, in the Q&A session following Baldessari’s conversation with Birnbaum in the Teatro Piccolo Arsenale, a woman asked the artist to specify what sort of art he considered boring. After a prolonged pause, he replied: “If I remember it, it’s not boring.” A dubious guideline in Venice, where the competition for a scrap of the audience’s memory is brutal and the methods used to win it often have little to do with art. But who knows? Perhaps Baldessari is a connoisseur of banquets, bellinis, and Ukrainian boxers. “Art is rice and watermelon,” said the Thai pavilion’s ad.

Brian Droitcour

It’s Reigning Men

Venice
06.05.09

Left: Venice Biennale curator Daniel Birnbaum. Right: Artist Steve McQueen. (All photos: Ryan McNamara)


I ARRIVED IN VENICE late Monday night for Daniel Birnbaum’s Biennale and boarded what felt like the last vaporetto from Ferrovia. Destination: San Zaccharia and a predictably cramped and overpriced hotel. Leafing through my 2007 tourist guide for directions, I noticed a then-speculative news brief in the “Dorsoduro” chapter titled “Pinault in the Punta?” I briefly considered the tediously lubricious undertones. It seemed a bit tasteless on the book’s part, until I realized I was thinking in Spanish slang, not Italian. Still, François Pinault is indeed “in the Punta” this year, meaning the Punta della Dogana, which Tadao Ando has overhauled to accommodate the collector’s swelling art collection. My newfound faith in the guide’s prescience was only tempered by my skepticism over its current usefulness. Thankfully, change is anathema to Venice.

Bumming around the Giardini on Tuesday, the day before the first invitational preview, I found that few of the pavilions were accessible or even finished. (Some weren’t quite done by Wednesday, either. On Thursday, it seemed Guyton\Walker added a whole new component to the lobby of the newly coined Palazzo delle Esposizioni. I’m only half-willing to commit to the pun here on “installation art.”) Pinault, flanked by cool curators Alison Gingeras and Francesco Bonami, was one of the very few enjoying a private stroll through the park. From all appearances, he got a kick out of his early walk-through of Elmgreen & Dragset’s already much-buzzed-about Danish and Nordic pavilions. The winsome and expensive-looking show, titled “The Collectors,” is something of a camp satire on the market and its protagonists. (A friend jovially recalled the Ab Fab episode in which Edina sublimates her fear of dying by buying a bunch of art.) Most of the rest of the buildings were blockaded by art handlers and press teams preparing for the onslaught. “Countries with populations of over seven million won’t let anyone in this early,” said Liam Gillick, the New York– and London-based British artist who’s incongruously representing the German pavilion. “It’s a symptom of some sort of postcolonial imperialist anxiety, I’m sure.”

Left: Artists Liam Gillick and John Baldessari. Right: Artists Ingar Dragset and Michael Elmgreen.


There wasn’t much more to see, so I walked across the bridge to the Accademia for a preview of Renzo Piano’s new additions to the Fondazione Vedova, then moved on to a buffet dinner hosted by art pranksters Piero Golia and Fabian Marta at the Spazio Culturale Svizzero, followed by a Galleria Continua afterparty at the popular pile Palazzo Pisani Moretta. The vibe was a bit weddingish, with well-heeled older Italian women grinding to Motown and disco classics. All told, a relatively low-key night.

I headed back to the Giardini at 10 AM the next day, when the first round of “professional previews” commenced. There seemed to be far fewer visitors this year—or at least recognizable ones. “I’ve only seen four people I want to avoid since I arrived,” noted curator Bob Nickas. Perhaps it’s true that, as one New York dealer buoyantly put it, “The recession has made VIP VIP again.” One heard more Italian on the boulevards, saw fewer Americans at events. Naomi Campbell was indeed in town (attending a Cipriani luncheon under the banner “MoCA New” with Eli Broad and museum trustee John Baldessari), but she seemed less ubiquitous than 2007. Didn’t see her once around the Giardini—not even for a photo op.

Left: Artist Bruce Nauman. Right: Dealers Eva Presenhuber and Esther Schipper with Liam Gillick.


Unlike the last edition, when Tracey Emin, Sophie Calle, and Isa Genzken ruled three of the major pavilions, this year marks the return of the alpha male. The larger nations have all given the reins to men, a situation hardly leavened by the various collateral events. (One exception might be the new UAE pavilion, which is fronted by the stylish young photographer Lamya Gargash.) Gillick tackled the ever-difficult Albert Speer–designed German pavilion with IKEA modernism suffused with Theory. There was something to do with his cat and R. Kelly’s “Sex in the Kitchen,” though I didn’t quite catch the details. (“Some have complained about the choice,” Süddeutsche Zeitung critic Holger Liebs noted later, “but Gillick’s perhaps more German than the Germans.”) Gillick said that after much contemplation he’d decided to “embrace weakness” and leave the pavilion itself untouched. Across the path, Claude Lévêque did precisely the opposite with the French pavilion, disguising the architectural flourishes with stark, mute walls and transforming the Belle Époque building into an ambivalent, eschatological allegory (blowing black flags, claustrophobic prison bars, air conditioning turned up to a bitter chill). “I hated the Rococo architecture,” sneered the refreshingly thuggish-looking Lévêque, standing before his sparkly silver walls. His curator, Christian Bernard, was more upbeat: “Lévêque sought to seize the pavilion in a single gesture.”

Meanwhile, Bruce Nauman’s American pavilion around the corner sticks out like a sore thumb—aesthetically coarse in Nauman’s usual charming way and filled largely with heady (and hand-y) sculptures and videos from the mid-1990s. (Two attendant off-site projects were more tantalizing, though it seemed few had made it to see them.) To some, though, it was an unexpected selection of pieces. “You’ll have to ask Carlos,” Nauman shrugged, deferring to the American-pavilion curator Carlos Basualdo when pressed to discuss the show. “He chose the works.”

Left: Artist Claude Lévêque. Right: Dealer Jay Jopling.


The two apparent favorites—certainly the slickest—were Steve McQueen’s moody film Giardini for the British pavilion and the Danish and Nordic pavilions. (Sturtevant went against the grain as usual and picked Lévêque.) In what some considered an almost fascistic act of bureaucratic procedure, the Brits required prospective viewers to commit to prescheduled time slots. As we stood loitering outside the adjacent German pavilion, I reassured Michael Craig-Martin that it was a mere thirty minutes. “Half an hour?” he asked, blooming into exaggerated outrage. “That’s a lifetime.”

At the center of it all is Birnbaum’s smartly textured exhibition, “Making Worlds,” at the Padiglione Italia. (Some found the focus on globalism a bit too polite. “‘Making Friends’ is more like it,” one critic was overheard to say.) “I’ve done it before, so I knew what I was up against,” he noted, referring to his stint in 2003 as cocurator, with Bonami, of the then Italian Pavilion. The initial stretch, which featured three younger artists, could be considered something of a risk, though each carried a certain imprimatur. Guyton\Walker (Artforum covers), Tomás Saraceno (Walker solo show), and Nathalie Djurberg (Fondazione Prada beloved) form a chain leading into the pavilion’s heart. Beyond, there’s a melancholic atmosphere, with the show hosting a bevy of artists who didn’t live to reap their just rewards: Öyvind Fahlström, Gordon Matta-Clark, Blinky Palermo, André Cadere—the last of the bunch used to sneak his colorful sticks into exhibitions, guerrilla-style; now, postmortem, he’s there officially. Cruel irony.

Left: Artist Michelangelo Pistoletto. Right: Studio Museum director Thelma Golden with New Museum director Lisa Phillips.


The Elmgreen and Dragset dinner was about to begin in the extravagant Palazzo Contarini Polignac, again on the Accademia. According to the seating labels, Tate Modern curator Stuart Comer was to sit between Kim Cattrall and “Mr. Sturtevant,” though neither guest was able to attend. (Apparently, James Franco was sick with the flu in New York; Michael Stipe had to bail, too, which cleared up a few seats.) We entertained ourselves by rehearsing their prospective conversation. Would Sturtevant ask Cattrall to fake an orgasm? There was no trouble filling the seats. I couldn’t make out all the faces at the other end of the two l-o-o-ng tables, but there were more than a few of the usual troublemakers among those I could see: artists Maurizio Cattelan and Terence Koh; curators Paul Schimmel and Massimiliano Gioni; Yvonne Force-Villareal and Doreen Remen; dealers Victoria Miro, Emmanuel Perrotin, and Massimo De Carlo; Beatrice Trussardi of the Fondazione Trussardi; and, of course, the Rubells. “It looks like a Buñuel film,” said MAMbo curator Andrea Villani, peering down one of the candlelit tables. “I can’t believe so many people showed up for our wedding,” Michael Elmgreen announced, camping it up. Everyone left in good spirits, speed-walking first to the McQueen party at (again) Pisani Moretta before taking water taxis to a vaguely debauched affair at the Bauer hosted by Koh, Stefano Tonchi, and David Maupin. Everyone knew they would see each other again at the next party. I left without saying good-bye.

David Velasco

Left: Dealer Stefania Bortolami and Whitney curator Shamim Momin. Right: Artist Michael Craig-Martin.


Vital Signs

London
06.01.09

Left: Artist Tracey Emin. Right: A view of Tracey Emin's show at White Cube. (All photos: Lynne Gentle)


MASON’S YARD IN SAINT JAMES’S was the place to be in London on Thursday night for Tracey Emin’s “Those Who Suffer Love” at White Cube, and Abraham Cruzvillegas around the corner at Thomas Dane Gallery. Economic green shoots of recovery or not, the evening provided just the high-spirited fuel injection London needed to remind itself of its indomitable upper lip and famously plucky style.

The weather was superb, the designer shades were big, the heels were death-defying, and there were mountains of décolletage as far as the eye could see—coincidence, perhaps, but I suspected homage to endowed and proud Ms. T. Emin. A steady succession of glossy, purring motors dispatched oiled and dapper Euro-men sporting size 0 arm candy. Everyone was groomed and dressed to the nines—a rare spectacle in London, where the drizzle often defeats even the most determined sartorial efforts. Vaguely familiar-looking model types pushed past aggressive bouncers while the paparazzi circled the building, unsure whom to point their cameras at first.

Celebrity interior designer Nicky Haslam, finally working “a look” befitting both his age and his enthusiasm for fashion, duly paused for some snaps. Inside, copies of One Thousand Drawings, Emin’s new limited-edition book of drawings and monoprints, were flying off the shelf faster than punters could part with their £225.

Where Emin’s work was once shocking and self-consciously “obscene,” it now seems almost quaint; its poetry has outshone its shock value. The exhibition, comprising neon, animation, sculpture, and works on paper, was beautifully hung, and even the animation of a woman (certainly the artist) masturbating felt almost PG-13.

Left: Designer and DJ Pam Hogg (right). Right: Saatchi Gallery director Nigel Hurst.


The scene at Thomas Dane Gallery around the corner was sedate and well mannered. Mexican artist Abraham Cruzvillegas’s exhibition featured a two-screen video work of interviews with his parents, a set of drawn musical scores, and a group of sculptures. While the “assemblages” (as they were termed) could have enjoyed a bit more breathing space, overall it’s a visually tactile show, one that incorporates a cornucopia of detritus and found objects, including scrap plywood interwoven with huge aloe vera leaves and even a string of fresh limes.

By contrast, the breathing space over at the new Saatchi Gallery on the ever-trendy Kings Road was so fresh, vast, and gorgeous, it threatened to outstrip the art within. “Abstract America: New Painting and Sculpture,” an exhibition featuring works by thirty-three young American artists, apparently attracted some fifteen hundred guests that night––but it was hard to tell––the space is so huge, even that staggering number of people didn’t make a crowd.

More afterthought than afterparty, the on-site reception for the artists was something of an anticlimax after the dazzle of the gallery. Though the food was delicious and the champagne free-flowing, the small room we were ushered into was airless and unburdened by art-world heavyweights, or even many artists. Meanwhile, back at White Cube HQ, Jay Jopling hosted a celebratory dinner. Few artists could have pulled a more impressive lineup of guests. As fashion and art go hand in hand these days—Emin herself is rarely caught out underdressed—designers were de rigueur and included the iconic Vivienne Westwood, jeweler Theo Fennell, Betty Jackson, and model Natalia Vodianova, as well as fashion designer–cum-DJ and Emin gal pal Pam Hogg. Catering was masterminded by fashionable foodie Mark Hix, featuring his singular take on classic British dining––beef followed by posh jelly (Jello) and fruit.

Left: Nicky Haslam. Right: Sir Norman Rosenthal (right) with his daughter.


Capping off the night was a postdinner party hosted by the artist at “her place,” though anyone hoping for a nosy glimpse of le vrai lit d’Emin was in for disappointment, as the party was in her (bedless) studio. Awaiting the arrival of the rest of the mob, I had a look around the space, where canvases were casually placed here and there on the floor, and caterers were bringing out boards laden with cheeses, biscuits, and platter upon platter of oh-so-seasonal chilled asparagus. And speaking of asparagus––every designer-clad woman coming through the door could have hidden behind a single spear.

With still no trace of Emin, guests were getting impatient, and I feared the artist was in danger of becoming one of those Gatsby-esque hosts who fail to attend her own party. But I needn’t have worried. When the hostess finally swept in and hit the dance floor, the party ramped up. The Bee Gees were stayin’ alive on the decks, and the guests followed suit. If the unsinkable Emin has been suffering love, I’m pleased to report she’s showing signs of a positive recovery.

Home of the Brave

New York
05.30.09

Left: Lisa Kirk's maison des cartes. Right: Outside “The Shop” at e-flux. (All photos: Michael Wilson)


“THIS IS A GOOD PLACE TO DRINK BEER.” “Yeah, they already trashed the place.” As the overheard exchange suggests, the Lower East Side digs of online enterprise e-flux are among the least fussed over in the city. So, already gussied up in “cocktail attire” for MoMA’s annual Party in the Garden, I felt a little overdressed for the Tuesday-evening opening of Raster Noton’s “The Shop.” But since the intimate space was already full to capacity (about sixty souls) when I arrived at a minute past the event’s advertised 7 PM start, fading into the background seemed likely to prove impossible. Trusting the crowd to be more decorous drinkers than their conversation might imply, I squeezed into the former laundry and edged my way toward the back. There, an active sound system suggested the presence of Carsten Nicolai and Olaf Bender, founders of the German record label and scheduled special performers.

Given Raster Noton’s reputation for pushing electronica of the most rigorous and antispectacular variety, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover a pair of sleek laptops “performing” entirely without human intervention. “I love noise!” enthused a neighbor, but the unmanned machines’ output was hardly the blaring mess that the word ordinarily denotes. Pursuing “minimal, modular, and concrete approaches to the structure of sound,” Nicolai and Bender’s plugged-in stand-ins produced something measured and often rather subtle, even hushed. At one point, I worried that my cell phone was producing interference, but the unsettling crackle emanating from the closest speaker proved to be all part of the minimal plan. Only later did the programmers themselves step up, intensifying the music to a more club-friendly pulse. Downstairs, the cold flicker of a sound-responsive neon tube illuminated an archive of tastefully designed CDs and publications—the “Shop” of the installation’s title. Naturally, none of it was for sale.

Left: Artist Lisa Kirk and Invisible-Exports's Benjamin Tischer. Right: Performer Susan London.


At a “Sunset Ribbon-Cutting Ceremony” marking the launch of Lisa Kirk’s maison des cartes at the Brooklyn Navy Yard the following evening, almost everything had its price. Following a convoluted set of directions—and a trail of yellow balloons—my companion and I eventually found our way to a modest shack seemingly grafted onto the side of one of the Yard's array of crumbling warehouses. A reworking of the artist’s “House of Cards” project, the humble abode (assembled from fifty-two salvaged components) was being hawked as a “timeshare of the future,” with investors promised the dubious pleasure of spending a week sleeping in an improvised hammock and showering in rainwater in exchange for their hard-earned. “Noel bought the tub, the shower, and a weekend in July,” announced Susan London, Kirk’s on-site “sales specialist,” fielding inquiries from behind a folding table set up on the property’s bare, rubble-strewn “athletic field.” “There are a few weeks left, though,” London continued, brightly, “and we offer an interest-free installment plan for easy payment. Would you like a tour?”

Among the prospective residents who had gathered among the Yard’s rusting pickup trucks and disused hangars for a walk-through were Risa Needleman and Benjamin Tischer of Invisible-Exports (the gallery that played host to the original house) and artists Elizabeth Neel and Uri Aran. Most seemed captivated by the improvised lair that, according to an accompanying portfolio, came complete with “clubhouse” (a stark arrangement of breeze blocks), “beach” (where the rubble met the river), and a prime location in an up-and-coming hood. Given the state of the economy, the idea of a move began to seem almost reasonable—it’s a renter’s market, after all. As the golden evening light began to fade, Kirk and her team gathered at the maison’s front door for a celebratory toast. And though the impact of a miniature bottle of champagne caused the building to wobble alarmingly, its future—or at least its next twelve months—felt secure.

Shanghaila Shanghailorum

Shanghai
05.27.09

Left: Artists Liu Wei and Yang Fudong. Right: Artist Qiu Zhijie (right).


PERHAPS BECAUSE DANIEL BIRNBAUM’S VENICE looms just around the corner, the pithy first sentence (borrowed from Borges) of his Chronology tended to linger over a weekend of openings in Shanghai: “I tend to return—eternally—to the Eternal Return.” For a chastened but ever-secure Chinese art scene in late spring, an opening of new (if somehow already familiar) work by Yang Fudong at Zendai MoMA seemed like a pretty good excuse for a get-together. The Post-Sense Sensibility gang flew down from Beijing; recent graduates and young faculty of Yang’s alma mater, the China Academy of Art, trained it in from Hangzhou; a few stragglers who had stuck around Hong Kong postfair, myself included, flocked north from the Pearl River Delta to the Yangtze River Delta. There was nothing new about any of these movements or any of the interactions that ensued, and that was precisely the point.

The rounds began on Saturday evening with the opening of “Blackboard” at ShanghART. Hangzhou artist Chen Xiaoyun (whose career has mirrored Yang’s in odd ways, from their shared off-campus student digs in Hangzhou to the locations of their New York galleries, Christian Haye’s The Project and Marian Goodman, on opposite sides of Fifty-seventh Street) had organized one of those heartening attempts at all-together-now solidarity that would be laughed out of London but still works in Shanghai, distributing identical blackboards to a slate of thirty-odd artists along with a ¥300 materials fee. The concept may have been juvenile, but for longtime followers of the Post-Sense generation (which of course also includes Yang), this year celebrating a decade since their original basement show, it was a chance to see the old crowd and its newer acolytes at their best and worst selves.

Chen Wenbo, who strayed from meaty installations to airbrushed paintings of CDs and car keys sometime after Hu Jintao came to power, carved on his the phrase YI DAN SHENGYI (“strictly business,” roughly) in gold-foil traditional characters, and curator Fu Xiaodong hung it high above an arch like a plaque wishing prosperity to some kitschy Chinatown restaurant. Liu Wei predictably cut from his a maquette cluster that looked more or less like his dog-chew cities, having first packed it between layers of foam in a wooden crate. Chu Yun, feeling conceptual, threw his away and bought a slightly smaller one to replace it. And Qiu Zhijie, ever the pedagogue, let his be used for a week at a time by two markets, a sports school, and a police station, posting photos of the resulting accidental manifestos on the reclaimed board, along with a written explanation for anyone unable to figure out the already didactic display. Perhaps it was Lu Chunsheng’s that best set the stage for the next day’s events with a single, mistily chalked sentence: “Why is it that every kid who’s just started studying art feels like nothing is quite real?”

Left: Artist Chen Xiaoyun. Right: Artists Shi Yong and Wu Shanzhuan.


I got through quarantine and to the hotel by midnight and shuffled to meet the regular crowd at an all-night snack and beer joint on a street of stinky tofu. The Hangzhou kids had gone elsewhere, leaving Lu Jie and Shi Yong to comb beer suds from Conceptualist godfather Wu Shanzhuan’s beard as the bumbling master argued for the umpteenth time why the academy in Hangzhou (alma mater of most everyone in the room) was the best in China. Local strongman Xu Zhen, who always pays, just laughed and gave his standard I-never-went-to-a-real-art-school retort. I left shortly after arriving, passing a toqued chef lounging on a motorbike, playing with his girlfriend’s hair, and otherwise looking like he’d stepped out of a Yang Fudong film.

The following afternoon, I hopped a cab out to Big Thumb Plaza in deepest Pudong, where the Zendai MoMA sits on the second floor of a strip mall, nestled between a Papa John’s and a Catholic church. (Banker expats call the area “Pu-Jersey.”) Inside the galleries, these surroundings faded as viewers bore witness to a show that instantly announced itself as Significant. Nine screens showed short, arrestingly beautiful black-and-white films of two or three minutes each, exactly as we have come to expect from their maker: an inexplicable fight scene in a colonial mansion; a man leading a woman to a tryst in a sunflower patch; a vintage car hurriedly unloaded.

But Yang Fudong had taken his recital of Yang Fudong–ness a step further, stringing together the nine or ten takes that went into each of these scenes, so that what looked like a loop was in reality a sequence of all-but-identical variations. And then of course it was also still a loop. Split among the nine projections, there were 180 minutes of footage—more than enough for the feature film everyone has been urging him to make all these years. Curators Yuko Hasegawa and Zhang Yaxuan were heard at the conference earlier that day waxing over the power of nine 35-mm projectors clicking away simultaneously, but to corrupt the title of one of the manifesto essays of the Post-Sense Sensibility generation, “the important thing was not the scene.” This was about something else—time creatively subverted, style hardened into routine, then sublimated into sensibility.

Left: Critic Wang Nanming (left) and artist Zhou Tiehai (right). Right: Pace Beijing's Charlie Spalding and Boers-Li Gallery's Waling Boers.


Downstairs on the terrace overlooking the strip mall, speeches were made, babies were coddled, awkward conversations were averted with the eternal and, for once, irrefutable excuse, “I just want to have a look at the show first.” The inside crowd grabbed their catalogues and meal tickets, headed first to the museum owner’s clubhouse for a buffet, then to a rooftop in the French Concession for a drink, then back to the same snack street they’d visited the night before. As it was a few years ago, is now, and probably will be for some time to come.

Philip Tinari

Flu Season

Hong Kong
05.24.09

Left: Artist Qiu Anxiong, collector Uli Sigg, and Arrow Space founder Pauline J. Yao. Right: ART HK director Magnus Renfrew with Lisson's Nicholas Logdail. (All photos: Samantha Culp)


JUST A WEEK BEFORE THE OPENING of ART HK 09, hundreds of international travelers were quarantined at the Wanchai Metropark Hotel—a stone’s throw from the Convention Center hosting the fair—and most passengers landing at HKG were having their temperatures screened by hazmat-suited officials. Luckily, the specter of swine flu didn’t faze most players in an Asian art market stricken with its own ailments. The hordes descended on the city as planned, perhaps reassured by a statement from ART HK promising “hand sanitizers at the entrance and at strategic points within the fair.” Or maybe, as one Beijing artist joked, people were just hoping to get quarantined at the five-star Grand Hyatt.

At the vernissage, the mood was cautiously buoyant; the fair’s unofficial motto of “better than last year” seemed to hold up at first glance. Near the entrance, new additions Gagosian, Lisson, and White Cube were working big and splashy looks (with Lisson showing wall-to-wall Julian Opie), while farther back, usual Beijing suspects such as Boers-Li, Galleria Continua, Urs Meile, Red Gate, and ShanghART mixed with a host of pan-Asian galleries like Kukje, Tomio Koyama, and Eslite, each of which showed consistently polished work. Prominent collectors and local visitors all nodded their heads approvingly and tossed about buzzwords like quality, professional, and potential. The only complaints were about the white walls (plastic instead of wood) and the white wine (undrinkable).

Better alcohol was on offer at Gagosian’s opening-night afterparty at the Pawn, which sadly seemed a victim of its own exclusivity. The historic Wanchai pawnshop-turned-lounge actually had elbow room at midnight—all the better, perhaps, for the dedicated few dancing to the’80s playlist put together by the gallery’s Nadia Chan. (Though Gagosian opened a local office last year, there’s still no word on when they’ll launch an actual gallery.) At a slightly livelier Pawn party hosted by Schuebbe Projects the following night, a few attendees offered their early assessments of the fair. Beijing/Lucerne dealer Urs Meile remarked that ART HK’s ambition to become the Art Basel of the East is not out of reach. He compared Hong Kong to Switzerland (“Same population, very practical people, forced to become very international because they are so small”) and also explained why it’s a good contrast to Beijing: “Beijing is hell––interesting hell, but hell.” Of course, art sold in China is also burdened with a 34 percent luxury tax––one advantage that tax-free Hong Kong holds.

Left: Osage Gallery director Agnes Lin, marketing manager Anne Chan, and gallery manager Carmen Ho. Right: Artist Cui Xiuwen with dealer Johnson Chang.


A highlight of the fair’s programs was the Asia Art Archive’s “Backroom Conversations,” a series of screenings and panels that aimed to give an intellectual counterweight to the market madness. The afternoon premiere of the AAA’s new documentary, From Jean-Paul Sartre to Teresa Teng: Contemporary Cantonese Art in the 1980s, was standing-room-only, and even Sir David Tang (founder of Shanghai Tang and the China Club, art collector, and general cultural pundit) was in attendance. In her introduction, AAA chair and art historian Jane Debevoise discussed the “complex and important reasons” that Guangdong is overlooked in art-history books. It’s a topic close to the hearts of the Hong Kong artists, curators, writers, and dealers who have also felt left out of the narrative (and/or bubble) of Chinese contemporary art. When Sir David in effect called Hong Kong artists lazy for relying on the government to support an arts scene while the ’80s Guangdong artists created their own, an irate woman shouted him down, telling him he didn’t know anything about Hong Kong art.

The state of Chinese contemporary art was clearly on everyone’s minds, and it was specifically explored in another panel, “China Focus: Reinvesting in Contemporary Chinese Art.” Moderated by dealer Johnson Chang, critic Hu Fang, artist Qiu Anxiong, collector Uli Sigg, curator Pauline J. Yao, and Artforum’s own Phil Tinari, the group weighed in, agreeing on certain points: Everything is in flux, artists will be tested, and Mainland criticality has to step it up. In a more combative panel later that evening, the London debate forum Intelligence Squared made its Asian debut with the polemical topic “Finders, Not Keepers! Cultural Treasures Belong in Their Country of Origin.” Inspired by the recent YSL auction debacles regarding the Old Summer Palace bronze animal heads, several distinguished men with British accents (including Sir David, again) spoke for and against the motion, which was moderated by CNN anchor and Twitter enthusiast Kristie Lu Stout. In the end, the audience voted 110 for, 247 against; apparently, people like the Elgin Marbles just where they are.

Left: Katherine Don of RedBox Studio with Tang Contemporary's Josef Ng. Right: (Clockwise from left) Pauline J. Yao, artist Michael Lin, Garanti Gallery's Vasif Kortun, artist and San Art codirector Tuan Andrew Nguyen, artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Long March Space's Zoe Butt.


As the fair plunged into the weekend, visitors were lured farther afield by various openings: Li Qing at Hanart TZ, Yan Lei and MC Yan at Tang Contemporary, and two interrelated shows at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery: photographs by Dinh Q. Lê at the Soho space, and, at the gallery’s annex in the Chai Wan Industrial district, a group show of young Vietnamese artists curated by Lê and Zoe Butt. The latter’s warehouse after party stretched late into Saturday night, mixing young Hong Kong artists like Lee Kit, Chow Chun Fai, and Warren Leung Chi Wo and his wife, Sara Wong Chi Hang, who compared the annex space with the sizes of their own studios with artists Rirkrit Tiravanija and Michael Lin.

By Sunday evening, the fair was all but over––except for those who were staying for the opening of the Louis Vuitton exhibition, “A Passion for Creation,” opening at the Hong Kong Museum of Art several days later. News circulated about big purchases of works by Damien Hirst, Opie, and Gilbert & George, but most galleries went home with few sales. Robin Peckham of Boers-Li Gallery twittered a glum summary of the scene: “Art HK winners: major Western galleries, local Hong Kong galleries. Big losers: major mainland galleries.”

Samantha Culp

Left: Banners at ART HK 09. Right: Gagosian's Nadia Chan and Nick Simunovic.