Trompe Lit

New York

Left: Oulipian Anne F. Garréta. Right: The panel of Oulipians. (All photos: Dawn Chan)

IF THIS WERE A TEXT generated by the OuLiPo, or Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature), which, founded in France in 1960 by novelist-poet Raymond Queneau and engineer-mathematician François Le Lionnais, dedicated itself to the playful pursuit of constrained writing (e.g., a novel that eschews the letter e or a palindromic poem), I might have bound myself to the rule that I name the participants of Wednesday’s group reading at the New School only once. This, it turns out, happens to be a not entirely arbitrary conceit, because while Yale associate French professor Jean-Jacques Poucel’s affectionate introduction was otherwise informative, it failed to clearly identify the six individuals seated, panel-style, onstage at Tishman Auditorium.

So, here they are, for the record (they will be assigned nicknames for the duration): Marcel Bénabou, Hervé Le Tellier, and Jacques Roubaud made up the Frenchmen, who, in not necessarily corresponding order, will be referred to as Frenchman A, B, and C. Then there was Ian Monk (the Brit); Daniel Levin Becker (the Boy Wonder); and Anne F. Garréta (Dr. Strangelove), whose uncanny resemblance to Peter Sellers’s Nazi rocket scientist in hairstyle, eyeglasses, and facial structure was mildly disturbing.

As noted by poet and memoirist Honor Moore (the Host), the six readers are Oulipians for eternity. One of the tenets of OuLiPo is that, once elected to the society, you remain a member in good standing even after death. You can only resign by committing suicide with the specific purpose of resigning from OuLiPo. Some of the more famous inert Oulipians include Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, and Marcel Duchamp. The most prominent living American member, novelist Harry Mathews, was on the bill but sadly absent.

Left: Yale associate French professor Jean-Jacques Poucel with professor Peter Consenstein. Right: Oulipian Ian Monk.

As I entered the hall, the crowd was getting seated to the strains of the appropriately perverse Serge Gainsbourg. The Host soon ascended the stage and called the reading the start of a “once-in-a-lifetime week” (further OuLiPo events were scheduled around New York in the days to come) and read fulsome endorsement of the society by John Ashbery. She recounted a multiyear e-mail correspondence she’d had with the prominent American Oulipian, the constraint being that they had to address each other with names beginning with the letters H and M (which, of course, were already the initials of their real names). As they passed missives starting “Hunka Munka,” “Her Majesty,” “Henry Mancini,” etc., the Host was indoctrinated into the ways of OuLiPo, which the novelist called “a sect.”

She then introduced the associate French professor, who explained that the OuLiPo’s “arbitrarily conceived constraints” must be “verifiable,” or perceptible, and that oral readings of the work made this more difficult. “The nature of tonight’s reading is to be tricked,” he said, and this seemed in line with OuLiPo’s general air of literary pranksterism. With that, the Brit, who functioned as a sort of moderator throughout, announced that the group would begin with a “collective reading” of an iconic text by the prominent American Oulipian: a series of cheeky variations on “To be, or not to be” (e.g., “Antonymy—Nothing and something: this was an answer”), of which my favorite has always been, “Another point of view—Hamlet, quit stalling!”

The Boy Wonder, a recent Yale graduate and the youngest member of OuLiPo by far, read a 160-word story that he “wrote for a 160-word story contest.” It was clever and brief. The Brit followed with “Iris,” a bawdy tale of a bar hookup and sloppy copulation that had an i in every word. During the remarkably detailed (considering the constraint) sex scene, the oldest Frenchman held his head in his hands in apparent embarrassment. Frenchman C then read a story that had been translated into English by the Brit in which every sentence began, “I was thinking . . . ” Another Frenchman (A or B; I’m not sure) read from the well-known Oulipian text Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, in French. A number of audience members chuckled knowingly after the first few lines. Sophisticates. The Brit then read the same story in English, which begins with a Borges epigraph about how tiresome it is to write long books when ideas can be orally expressed in a fraction of the time. The piece, unsurprisingly, is something of a manifesto for literary minimalism.

Left: Oulipian Marcel Bénabou. Right: Oulipian Jacques Roubaud.

One of the Frenchman (not C), read an amusing, hyperliteral deconstruction of the standard epistolary opener “I received your last letter.” The Boy Wonder, uniting OuLiPo’s twin passions for literature and math, followed with a series of microstories whose subjects were determined by the prime factors of their word counts. This was one of the less “verifiable” offerings, but impressive nonetheless. Frenchman C read fragments of a novel about various couples and their couplings, each scene capped by the Brit, who read the last few lines of every segment. C’s thick accent caused him to mispronounce vowels—clitoris had a long i; penis a short e—but his story did contain the priceless lines “He muttered a Georges Bataille quote into her ear” and “She noticed that the Chlamydiae he had given her were not decorative plants.”

Dr. Strangelove, saying, “Let’s be serious for a bit,” read a long, memoiristic fragment about how books proliferate, colonize, and overwhelm her life, which ended with a series of Oulipian constraints intended to limit the amount of books in the world and, hence, in her apartment. The Brit concluded with a “serious limerick sequence,” which “chopped and butchered” the rhythm and rhyme scheme of the form into a flowing series about a romance gone bad. Then, unceremoniously, it was over. The audience was invited to the stage to have their books signed by the authors. For a group as gnomic and experimental as the OuLiPo, some Q&A elaboration would have been welcome, but perhaps this lack was the event’s overarching constraint.

Andrew Hultkrans

Cos Célèbre

New York

Left: The judges for the Cosplay costume contest (Renee at center). Right: Joe Earle, vice president and director of the Japan Society Gallery. (All photos: Brian Droitcour)

AS HISTORY HAS IT, cosplay, or costume play, was invented by American Trekkies and refined by Harajuku girls. The trend was a liberating one for subcultures across the board as nerds realized that they, too, could be dandies. While it’s not unusual, so to speak, to encounter middle-aged Klingons, the Japanese-accented strand of cosplay is dominated by teenagers who for one reason or another are drawn to fantasy worlds where the heroes’ costumes are as tight as in American comics but the boundaries of gender are looser.

Last Saturday, the Japan Society opened its doors to cosplayers in conjunction with “Krazy!,” an exhibition about comics that originated at the Vancouver Art Gallery and arrived in New York in a truncated, Japan-centric form. The kids bounded around the society’s elegant lobby, loudly rehashing the gossip of previous cosplay conventions and exchanging compliments on accessories like red contact lenses. (“My uncle is an optometrist!”) Pretending to be someone else brings its own brand of adrenaline, here amplified by the free-flowing Coke offered to wash down the complimentary Cheetos and Doritos. Gallery director Joe Earle seemed flustered by the underage chaos, though he had gamely dressed up as a half-boy, half-puppet villain from the action saga Naruto. I chatted with Renee, who sported the shiny turquoise jumpsuit of Giorno Giovanna, a Japanese man with an Italian woman’s name who jumps erratically between historical periods and countries in the series JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. At twenty-three, Renee said she felt like an old-timer and was beginning to tire of cosplay gatherings because of the “obese thirteen-year-old girls who dress like boys and make out with each other.”

Left: Kirby. Right: Sephiroth, nemesis of Cloud Strife in Final Fantasy.

Shortly thereafter, I learned that Renee was a member of Team USA at last August’s World Cosplay Summit in Japan, and as such had been tapped to judge the costume contest here, along with the two delegates who will represent America at this summer’s meeting. (“All girls,” complained a samurai behind me, as they took their seats onstage.) Contestants and spectators assembled in the auditorium, and Reni, a singer in a baby-blue French-maid dress and bunny ears, warmed them up. Her Japanese songs were peppered with simple English sentences. (“My favorite thing to eat is strawberry shortcake.”) Then the “cosplay parade” began. Contestants walked across the stage and posed in the middle. Many would crook their elbows and flash a sideways peace sign. The seventy-some contenders were primarily action figures with cardboard swords (Cloud Strife, a warrior from the Final Fantasy gaming franchise, was a popular guise for cosplayers of both sexes) and shy girls in racy getups—most frequently Misa, a character from a supernatural noir series called Death Note, who favors short hemlines and lacy stockings. My favorite was the girl who came as Kirby, the cute-but-lethal pink bubble from the eponymous Nintendo game. She made a spherical tunic, and when she crouched, her slight body vanished into it, leaving nothing but bubble. The crowd went wild. The judges, however, privileged a more refined aesthetic. First prize went to a high school senior headed to the Fashion Institute of Technology (the alma mater, incidentally, of two of the three judges). She sewed her pink hoop dress in homage to Black Butler’s Ciel Phantomhive, a twelve-year-old nobleman in Victorian London who attends courtly functions in drag.

Afterward, in the lobby, the judges posed for photos with fans and signed autographs. As I approached them, I heard cries of “Yaoi, yaoi,” the word for PG-13 homoerotica. A sturdy girl in a tie, sports jacket, and pageboy wig lunged at a similarly attired boy. Just before they locked lips, I turned to Renee, whose jaw tightened into a grimace. “I’m so, so sorry,” she said.

Left: Goku from Dragonball. Right: Luigi and Mario.

Light Meal

Washington, DC

Left: Dealer Sandra Gering with artist Leo Villareal. Right: A view of Multiverse. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

GORGEOUS THOUGH THEY WERE, the cherry blossoms that literally burst into bloom last Thursday were not what brought a swarm of New York art moths to the newly kindled flame of Washington, DC. I speak not of the Obamas’ fire but of the candlepower of Multiverse, an LED light sculpture by Leo Villareal newly installed in the National Gallery of Art.

“This is the first time I’ve been to Washington that hasn’t been for a demonstration,” said artist and Obama campaign booster Susan Jennings, on the arm of her husband, painter Alexander Ross. They were one of the several art couples (Sean and Michelle Landers, curators Cay Sophie Rabinowitz and Christian Rattemeyer, Sotheby’s Tobias Meyer and consultant Mark Fletcher) arriving for the dinner christening the Villareal work, commissioned by the museum to enliven the underground corridor connecting the institution’s east and west wings. “It’s tremendously popular,” said curator Molly Donovan of the two-hundred-foot-long configuration of forty-one thousand LED nodes that Villareal has programmed to dim, brighten, and create random patterns on one wall of the hallway and its lowered ceiling—never appearing the same way twice. “Two guys come over from the Justice Department every day,” Donovan reported. “They go down there just to clear their minds and cleanse their souls.”

Left: Dealer Leigh Conner. Right: Artist Rachel Feinstein with Sotheby's Tobias Meyer and art consultant Mark Fletcher.

Good to know our feds have found a sweet spot where they can wrestle their demons in public, though I doubt this is part of the new transparency. Actually, I think Villareal meant the project, three years in the making, to be more luminous than enlightening. “I made it so you see sound and hear shapes,” he said. It’s trippy, all right, but also serene, just like the soiree in his honor. It isn’t often the National Gallery touts a single work of contemporary art with any fanfare. Then again, it isn’t often that a single work costs around two million dollars. The piece was paid for by philanthropists Victoria and Roger Sant, as well as West Virginia senator Jay Rockefeller and his wife, Sharon Percy, CEO of Washington’s public-television station and the person Donovan credits most for getting the Villareal commission approved. On loan from Conner Contemporary Art, Villareal’s Washington gallery, it will be on view until November, though Donovan said there were no plans to replace it with something else. Pointing to an installation of nine hivelike mounds of stepped slate by Andy Goldsworthy installed in a project space just beyond the building lobby, she said, “That was another dead space until the Goldsworthy commission, and now the museum owns it, so who knows?”

A Washington friend who attended the event with me called the buffet lavish by the usual DC standards. And the crowd, she said, was much better dressed. That was because most of this fashion-conscious bunch came from New York and has been well trained by Art Production Fund directors Yvonne Force (Mrs. Leo Villareal) and Doreen Remen to be sanguine and stylish at all times. Set behind a hedge of potted plants that camouflaged the museum cafeteria behind it, with a string quartet playing throughout dinner, guests found their own seats at tables strewn with a generous outlay of white tulips that I wished had secreted hidden microphones. (This whole event was almost defiantly white.) Saint Louis Contemporary Art Museum director Paul Ha recalled how he gave Villareal his first New York solo show ten years ago, when Ha was director of White Columns. Retired P.S. 1 founder Alanna Heiss, still reeling from the imbroglio that followed her announced eviction of the Film-Makers' Cooperative from the Clocktower home of her new project, Art International Radio, swore she was letting the group stay. And Miami collector Mera Rubell tipped us off to the opening of her new restaurant in the Morris Lapidus–designed hotel that she and Don Rubell own and operate just south of the Capitol. (Who knew?)

Senator Jay Rockefeller, Sharon Rockefeller, and curator Molly Donovan. Right: Collector Aaron Fleischman.

Helen Marden, wearing a conspicuous squid bracelet, sat down with artists Lisa Yuskavage, Sarah Sze, John Currin, and Rachel Feinstein. Tony Oursler buddied up with Hirshhorn Museum acting director and chief curator Kerry Brougher and his wife, Nora Halpern, not far from the artist’s racehorse-breeder father, while Villareal’s mother held down another table with her family members at one end and dealer Leigh Conner and Washington/New York/Miami collector and megalawyer Aaron Fleischman at the other. “This is the best party we’ve ever had here,” Fleischman said, heading for the moving walkways running back and forth within the twinkly Multiverse tunnel that took us to the dessert tables on the other side. What they usually get is far more boring, he noted, all Supreme Court judges and lobbyists at a formal, sit-down, black-tie dinner. And the DJ isn’t usually composer James Healy, a sometime Villareal collaborator who created a live mix of “early techno,” as Force put it.

“I’m hoping to light the Washington Monument International Klein Blue,” said Brougher, who will be overseeing an Yves Klein retrospective at the Hirshhorn next year. Sounds doable, I thought. Just check out the Empire State Building: a new color for every occasion, red for Valentine’s Day, lavender for Gay Pride Day, white for Easter. Not so easy to accomplish in Washington. The red tape involved in defending our nation’s patriotic symbols from an attack of spectacle is pretty thick. Didn’t all hell break loose when filmmakers had an alien spaceship land at the indifferent white obelisk in 1951 for The Day the Earth Stood Still? “I’m hopeful, though,” Brougher said. “Now that the freedom-fries thing has died down, we might be able to push it through.”

Linda Yablonsky

Left: Hirshhorn Museum acting director and chief curator Kerry Brougher with artist Tony Oursler. Right: Saint Louis Contemporary Art Museum director Paul Ha.

The Gulf Between


Left: Architect Rem Koolhaas. Right: Hans Ulrich Obrist, codirector of exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery (right), addresses the crowd at the announcement for the Abraaj Capital Art Prize. (Except where noted, all photos: David Velasco)

THE END OF BLING. Damien Hirst’s glittering death’s-head flashed on the screen. DUBAI EXPATS GIVE NEW MEANING TO LONG-STAY CAR PARK came a headline. Then, a quote from Anna Wintour: I DON’T THINK ANYONE IS GOING TO WANT TO LOOK OVERLY FLASHY, OVERLY GLITZY, TOO DUBAI. “The media is all too eager to document ‘the end of Dubai,’” Rem Koolhaas said to the audience. “It’s as if we need the reassurance of Dubai’s demise to restore our own confidence.”

It was late Monday afternoon in the Emirate of Sharjah, and about a hundred of us were sitting in a darkened room at Dar Al Nadwa trying to catch the tail end of the first day of the March Meetings. Koolhaas had followed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi overseer Thomas Krens, capping off a tag team of Gulf cultural attachés/apologists who were no less convincing for being on the local payroll. As Koolhaas continued, a curator leaned over. “All he does is critique the critics. Look, he’s bashing Mike Davis again.”

It was the day before the preview of the third Art Dubai fair and two days before the official opening of the ninth Sharjah Biennial—though “official” timelines shifted depending on the person; each tier of participants seemed to have its own itinerary, institutionalizing a certain status anxiety. At the same time that this particular crowd of journalists, locals, and art tourists sat straining to hear Krens and Koolhaas, another group of art caravanners had pitched their tents at the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, where a series of Global Art Forum panels had also commenced that day. (The series continued later that week in Dubai.) The wide view was impossible: One simply had to choose. “March Meeting” had a more revolutionary ring (not surprising, given the occasionally aimless bombast of the biennial’s artistic director, Jack Persekian); “Global Art Forum” sounded positively nerdy by comparison. But Hans Ulrich Obrist was over there, and Krens and Koolhaas were here. I’d have preferred the former, but extenuating circumstances intervened. What’s your poison?

Left: A sign for the Sharjah Biennial. Right: Sharjah Biennial artistic director Jack Persekian.

Sharjah’s heritage district was picturesque, to be sure. “There’s an actual street culture. I prefer it to Dubai,” noted artist Jane Wilson. “Too bad you can’t have an art gala here—no alcohol, no hashish.” One could almost forgive the biennial its T.G.I. Friday’s–style signage. “You can do Sharjah in four hours,” one gallery director advised. “You could do it in less, but then you probably wouldn’t like it very much.” Many I spoke with apparently did it in less. Sometimes-meandering videos and installations in dishabille made for a hard trek.

There was much worth considering, though. Many praised Lamia Joreige’s ambitious nine-room video installation inspired by Francis Bacon triptychs and Jalal Toufic’s concept of the “overturn.” Obrist and Tate Modern curator Stuart Comer fell for Haris Epaminonda’s terse, deceptively simple Polaroids of found images. Other standout works included pieces by Sharif Waked (a play on the genre of “living martyr” videos), Lamya Gargash (representing this year’s new UAE pavilion in Venice), a rediscovered Robert MacPherson, Basma al-Sharif, and Lara Favaretto (her white cube made from confetti, not her insipid car-wash installations outside). Much of the rest, though, was either pretentious or too literal, either decontextualized or straining to project a context. “When was the last time you saw a biennial in which you really loved more than a few pieces?” Obrist asked innocently.

That night, I took the forty-five-minute taxi ride south to Dubai; it was the first of many trips between the two emirates. (At roughly seventy-five dirhams, or twenty US dollars, one didn’t think much of traveling between the two.) If the media had visions of a failed Dubai, the art world dreamed of a sybaritic (and well-funded) social laboratory in the sands. It found as much in the Jumeirah Beach hotel complex hosting the fair—a gilded echo chamber on the shores of the Gulf. We’d all read about Dubai in the papers and witnessed the ebullient Sheikh Zayed road from our cars on the way in; for many of us, Art Dubai offered little more than cultural window-shopping. We strained to locate metaphors to give some sense of our surroundings. “It’s the third in a trinity—Venice, Las Vegas, Dubai,” asserted dealer Max Protetch. “Dubai is Las Vegas, Abu Dhabi is Beverly Hills, and Sharjah is . . . Santa Monica,” espoused writer Bob Colacello. “It’s like a city designed by children!” argued an enthusiastic Jake Chapman. (It’s perhaps worth noting that Chapman was the only to claim he’d want to live there.)

Left: Artists Jane Wilson and Jake Chapman. Right: Shelter's Rashid bin Shabib with Third Line director Claudia Cellini.

The fair was familiar enough territory. I’m sure that the Flying Wallendas could recognize the inside of the big top no matter which city they were in. Impeccable installation, a decent mix of international galleries, superior graphic design—it all had a certain glean and promise. But what of the work? Much Écriture Orientale, textiles, florid arabesques, shiny, gaudy things: items you would imagine a European or American dealer would think a Dubai collector would want. “Is this ‘knowing your audience’ or mere condescension?” one expert pointedly asked. Anish Kapoor’s mirrored, geometric platter was there at Lisson (always a big draw, the piece made the cover of Gulf News); Protetch brought a $2.5 million Matisse. Sfeir-Semler gallery (of Beirut and Hamburg) showed smart photographs by Akram Zaatari and some revelatory works on paper by inimitable Cairo-based artist Anna Boghiguian. L&M Arts classed it up with Yves Klein tables and David Hammons Kool-Aid paintings. Cairo nonprofit Townhouse, whose stand was sponsored by the fair but which had no money for shipping, showed attractive drawings by Egyptian artist Amal Kenawy borrowed from one of her commercial galleries. The Third Line and Emmanuel Perrotin each put paintings by Iranian art star Farhad Moshiri front and center, while both Salon 94 and Galerie Krinzinger brought agreeable works by another Iranian-born (though New York–based) artist, Laleh Khorramian.

Some of the work even found buyers. The Sheikha of Dubai apparently thought Ma Jun’s garishly painted Buick at Michael Schultz worth the $114,000 price tag. Two women in hijabs inquired about Kate Eric’s ornate painting at Frey Norris; they were disappointed to hear that it had sold early. “We flew all the way to Dubai to meet a very nice collector from Miami,” gallery proprietor Raman Frey joked. Saudi gallery Athr, showing in a fair for the first time, by Thursday had reported nearly selling out its rather crowded stand. Others were less satisfied. “Marc Spiegler’s come by my booth more times than John Martin,” one prominent New York dealer reported, comparing the respective directors of Art Basel and Art Dubai. “John had better bring me some Emiratis, or I won’t be coming back next year.”

Left: Venice Biennale curator Daniel Birnbaum (left). Right: Writer Bob Colacello (left).

“All the right faces in all the right places,” noted one curator, and indeed Jumeirah hosted a dizzy mix. Museum directors Glenn Lowry, Joseph Thompson, and Lisa Phillips (en route from Oman—don’t ask) had made the pilgrimage, as had curators Catherine David, Richard Flood, Frances Morris, and Jessica Morgan and collector Maja Hoffmann. Mari Spirito of 303 Gallery had come from Istanbul, where days earlier she had dodged tear gas while protesting the fifth World Water Forum. Yto Barrada was spreading word of Cinémathèque de Tanger, an art-house movie theater she is spearheading in Morocco.

It struck me that the bulk of the cultural advocates I met were women: Barrada was one; David, artistic director for the ADACH platform in Venice, another. And then there were Bidoun magazine’s Lisa Farjam and Negar Azimi, dealers Sunny Rahbar and Claudia Cellini (of the Third Line), Isabelle van den Eynde (of B21), Sylvia Kouvali (of Rodeo), Andrée Sfeir-Semler, Lamia Joreige of the Beirut Art Center, Bayan al-Barak Kanoo and Mayssa Fattouh of Al Riwaq in Bahrain, and Christine Tohmé of the Ashkal Alwan in Beirut, to name but a few.

Much of the social action took place on a large patio on the beach adjacent to the Global Art Forum’s massive, air-conditioned tent. Dotting the asphalted deck were ramadas furnished with rugs and cushions, on which guests smoked and lounged in the day’s heat.

“Who is that?” asked Boghiguian, wagging her finger at Venice Biennale curator Daniel Birnbaum. Someone explained.

“He looks very virile,” she announced.

Left: Dealer Chantal Croussel. (Photo: Stuart Comer) Right: Artist Anna Boghiguian.

On Wednesday, another round of panels (Birnbaum and Obrist on curating; a discussion on collecting where Sharjah’s Sultan al-Qassemi noted, “The difference between the Middle East and Europe is that art collecting is not yet institutionalized or acceptable. You should see the looks my mother gives me when I bring even abstract paintings back home”). In the evening, I set off for the Bidoun Lounge to catch Rabih Mroué’s lecture-performance The Inhabitants of Images, an intriguing if overlong piece in three acts. I decided to skip the promisingly solipsistic evening discussion “The Art of the Party,” a conversation between soiree wallahs Jérôme Sans, Colacello, and Simon de Pury. “There’s no foil on that panel,” a friend noted. “It’s all effervescence.”

I did, however, make it to Sans’s postpanel event “The Party as Performance,” an overhyped meet-and-greet at 360 Degrees, a bilevel plein air deck resting above the Gulf waters. Tied to the railings, some sad-looking balloons blew about in the breeze. Le Baron DJs Benjamin Moreau and Samuel Boutruche played a modishly eclectic set (not their first of the week). People drank and got drunk. A pair of balloons came undone and wrapped themselves around a pylon, looking, to our sordid eyes, a bit like male naughty bits. Belligerent guests pointed and guffawed. It could have been a winter night in Dubai or a spring night in Cancun or a summer night on a rooftop in Manhattan. Puffed up like a sail a stone's-throw away sat the infamous seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel (where Klaus Biesenbach and Alanna Heiss attended a more decadent afterparty later in the night; they’re made of hardier stuff than you or I). We settled in and found ways to pass the time until 2 AM, when Le Baron piped up over the loudspeakers.

“Bye-bye,” their voices carried above the din. “Dubai-bai.”

David Velasco

Left: Le Baron's Samuel Boutruche and Benjamin Moreau. Right: Setting up at L&M Arts.

State of Grace


Left: Collector François Pinault and Daria “Dasha” Zhukova, founder of the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture. Right: Curator Caroline Bourgeois. (Photos: The Garage CCC, Moscow)

LAST THURSDAY, Moscow’s Garage Center for Contemporary Culture at long last reopened with a survey of works from François Pinault’s collection. According to curator Caroline Bourgeois, the exhibition’s title, “A Certain State of the World?,” was punctuated long before the economic crisis; nevertheless, over the past few months, this question mark has presided over the Garage’s activity––or, more fittingly, inactivity, as the space has remained closed since its much-feted Ilya and Emilia Kabakov retrospective last September. In the time since, the Moscow art world has occupied itself by inventing more and more outlandish conspiracy theories (implicating the Chelsea football team, rumored to be distracting Garage sponsor Roman Abramovich, and the Jewish Community Center, which was said to be plotting to take over the building) and speculation as to whether the Garage would ever reopen at all increased with the Pinault show’s delays.

Rumors were effectively laid to rest at the opening, which came with the announcement that the Garage will also host the Moscow Biennale in September. Those still casting doubt on the center’s credibility were stunned by the solid and thoughtful exhibition, which offered works by stars like Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, and Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, as well as by younger artists such as Adel Abdessemed, Pierre Huyghe, Cao Fei, and Francis Alÿs. (The works by thirty-three artists accounted for only about 5 percent of Pinault’s megacollection.) Many of the artists—including Koons, Sherman, Abdessemed, and Johan Grimonprez—were on hand to witness their works’ installation in the historic Melnikov Garage, formerly one of the city’s largest bus stations and now an oversize art playground under the direction of twenty-seven-year old Daria “Dasha” Zhukova.

Left: Artist Jeff Koons with François Pinault. (Photo: The Garage CCC, Moscow) Right: Artist Adel Abdessemed with David Zwirner's Ales Ortuzar. (Photo: Kate Sutton)

While one of the principal subdivisions of the exhibition was titled “The Society of the Spectacle,” the show––and, more surprisingly, its opening––was notable for its restraint. Stilettoed socialites, a few accompanied by artists and the usual suspects, streamed through the roughly ninety-thousand-square-foot space, sipping champagne and smiling politely for the cameras in front of Subodh Gupta’s Very Hungry God (which itself seemed more subdued than during its previous installation outside the Palazzo Grassi in Venice). Abramovich, Zhukova’s partner, made a token appearance, as did several other power players, but the frenzied oligarch spotting of last September was confined to one or two journalists and the few dealers who were still able to afford the ticket. Gone was the atmosphere of excess that had permeated the Kabakov opening. Also absent were a number of the Moscow art world’s central figures, including representatives from four of the so-called Big Five galleries, among them Aidan Salakhova and XL Gallery’s Elena Selina.

The exhibition’s opening was followed by a symposium, which featured an eagerly anticipated, invite-only conversation with Koons. Openly adored by the Moscow masses, Koons nevertheless left the packed audience scratching their heads at his messages of “total acceptance” and “objective art.” More than a few of the participating artists could be heard grumbling about the second part of the symposium, which featured Openspace editor Ekaterina Degot in discussion with Bourgeois and (for lack of better phrasing) “all the other artists.” While the majority of the two-hour conversation might have been lost in translation (with French, English, and Russian batted back and forth over a crackling sound system), it certainly had its moments. In particular, Francesco Vezzoli charmed the audience when he drew a comparison between his use of celebrity and Koons’s Michael Jackson works; the dapper Italian found it important to add, “I personally do not like to claim that I have integrity.”

Left: Olympia Scarry with artist Francesco Vezzoli. (Photo: The Garage CCC, Moscow) Right: Fabienne Leclerc of Insitu Gallery with artist Subodh Gupta. (Photo: Kate Sutton)

Integrity and credibility were something of a theme for the weekend, as the art center looked to establish its reputation in the international circuit. While dinners hosted by Christie’s and Haunch of Venison offered a chance to unwind, the generally subdued tone of the exhibition and its events indicated that Moscow is ready to host exhibitions of this caliber and that it can do so without the gilded excess that seems to have become synonymous with the city. Those who might lament this change of atmosphere can take heart, however: The Garage’s rumored summer exhibitions of David Lynch and Christian Louboutin promise there is still a place for heady extravagance.

Kate Sutton

Left: Artist Loris Gréaud. (Photo: Kate Sutton) Right: Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, international coordinator for the GCCC Moscow. (Photo: The Garage CCC, Moscow).

Drawing a Crowd

San Francisco

Left: Collector Mimi Haas, artist William Kentridge, and Anne Stanwix. Right: Dealer Marian Goodman and curator Okwui Enwezor. (Except where noted, all photos: Drew Altizer Photography)

A VISIBLE PRESENCE in his drawings and animations, William Kentridge is a sturdy, balding, dadlike guy, a sort of character actor for whom a pratfall comes as easily as a political or artistic statement. He seemed uncannily familiar, dressed in dark pants and a rumpled white dress shirt, when he took to the podium last Friday during the press preview for “William Kentridge: Five Themes,” his survey exhibition at SF MoMA. After thanking the museum, curators, and collaborators, he revealed his theatrical personality to a couple dozen journalists and delegates from forthcoming exhibition tour stops––MoMA’s Klaus Biesenbach, Michael Auping of the Fort Worth Museum––with his South African lilt and the broad arm gestures of an orchestra conductor.

His hearty disposition was in sharp contrast to the remarks given by the show’s lanky, bespectacled curators, Mark Rosenthal, of the Norton Museum of Art, and SF MoMA’s Rudolf Frieling. They noted Kentridge’s “complex practice,” which, all things considered, must have as much to do with the content of his work as with the large number of projectors in the galleries. (“I’ve gotten a few more gray hairs with this one,” Frieling told me later.) Dealer Marian Goodman, wearing a pink scarf over a purple sweater, watched from the back of the room with an inscrutable expression.

Others, however, were more visibly moved. A few minutes later, I took a quick look at the slickly installed show and caught critics and museum staff smiling broadly at the multichannel projections that combine skillful animations with frequent self-portraits, particularly in Kentridge’s new energetic video sketches (and forthcoming stage designs) for the Metropolitan Opera’s 2010 presentation of Shostakovich’s The Nose. When I returned that evening for the Director’s Circle reception, even art historian Kaja Silverman seemed tickled as she watched The Magic Flute animations projected on ornate scale-model prosceniums.

Left: Norton Museum of Art curator Mark Rosenthal (left). Right: Matthew Marks director Sabrina Buell, Ratio 3 director Chris Perez, Crown Point Press's Valerie Wade, and SF MoMA's Steve Dye. (Photo: Glen Helfand)

When the reception bars finally opened, conversation turned to Kerry James Marshall’s recently unveiled lobby murals, coloring-book-style compositions dealing with early American presidents and the slave trade. A half dozen people asked me what I thought of them; their own answers were invariably ambivalent. I ran into a dealer who seemed dismayed by the crowd. “Everyone here is over sixty,” he scoffed. Behind him I noticed a harp on a stage, a hint of the lackluster party music to come.

The Director’s Circle crowd, however, wouldn’t be hearing it, as they were on a tight schedule with a mere ninety minutes to heed remarks, wander through the installations, and socialize before dinner was served in a banquet room at the neighboring W Hotel. Finances were on everyone’s minds, as the meal for nearly one hundred guests was sponsored by Christie’s and Chuck Schwab, the financier and self-proclaimed “happy chairman of the board,” who provided opening dinner remarks. Fittingly, the menu was comfort food: meat and potatoes well accented with fried shallots and gorgonzola. There was a polite but hardly electric buzz in the room—even one of the servers called it a “decaf crowd”—so it was nice to hear the rumor that the artist was gunning for an afterparty.

A fraction of the dinner guests took over a North Beach hole-in-the-wall, where a Cuban band tucked into a tiny niche of a stage got the crowd dancing. A few curators brought a spirited presence to the floor––Frieling, Biesenbach, Gary Garrels, and Trevor Smith (of the Peabody Essex Museum) all capably cut the rug. Kentridge and his wife, Anne Stanwix, smoothly twirled through the group, expressing their hearty nimbleness as they worked the room.

Glen Helfand

Left: Artist Lynn Hershman (right). Right: Okwui Enwezor with MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach.