Left: The Museum of Islamic Art. Right: Architect I. M. Pei. (Except where noted, all photos: Carol Kino)
ON THE SURFACE, the opening of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, seemed to be all about intellectual content. “It’s not about flash and glitz, it’s about seriousness and engagement,” commented Roger Mandle, the executive director of the Qatar Museums Authority, when the museum first opened to the press last Saturday morning. “The goal of the QMA is to invest in our country’s most valuable resource, its people,” propounded Her Excellency Sheikha Al-Mayassa Bint Hamad Al-Thani, chairperson of the QMA board, looking quite photogenic in her abaya. (As well as being one of the emir’s childrenhe has twenty-seven, the Christian Science Monitor saysshe is also a graduate of Duke University.)
Judging from the museum itself, which has obviously been carefully thought out—from its glorious I. M. Pei–designed building to its jewel-like collection of Islamic art—it is easy to buy the idea that Qatar is on its way to establishing itself as the Middle East’s center of gravitas.
But there was also a decidedly zany aspect to the weekend’s proceedings. It seems that when you do anything involving the royal family of Qatar, the event is likely to be ultralavish, laden with security precautions, incredibly well meaning, and—last but not least—horribly disorganized. Although the speeches and fireworks went off like clockwork, every other aspect of the proceedings seemed to be in a perpetual state of flux, with plans being made, scrapped, and reconceived up to the last possible moment. “All the events that have the royals keep changing,” a local journalist complained. “There are a lot of capable people in Doha. Maybe they’re just not working for the royal family at the museum.”
One of the most curious aspects of the opening was that the fourth estate was consistently afforded first-class treatment. Journalists were ferried to the opening ceremonies by dhow (a traditional wooden Arab sailing vessel) “because they thought people would enjoy it,” said Miranda Carroll, the former communications chief of the Hammer Museum, who now works for the MIA. As our boats sailed to the man-made island the museum calls home, we lounged languidly on cushions, attended by scores of security forces and two turbaned attendants, who plied us with sweet tea and bitter Arabian coffee. When we docked, the emir let us use his own personal open-air elevator, a miraculous contraption that begins looking out across the water to the royal palace and then rotates 180 degrees on the way up, so that the passenger ends up facing the museum.
Meanwhile, common dignitaries—like Sir Norman Rosenthal, former director of the Royal Academy, and Philippe de Montebello, who is reportedly being wooed by the QMA for some undisclosed position—arrived via bus and had to walk in on their own two feet.
A fraction of the guests had been invited to celebrate the evening inside the museum with the emir’s own entourage. Rosenthal and His Eminence of the Met were not among them. Like the rest of us, they had to make do with an open-air party room outside, furnished with Persian rugs, tented areas, and red velvet banquettes laid out on the sand, from where we watched the proceedings by closed-circuit television. Waitresses sporting bobbed, Louise Brooks–style wigs passed around Coca-Colas and fresh mango and orange juice. There were sumptuous foods, and in the middle was a huge dessert table with chocolate fountains, which had to be turned off when a breeze picked up and they began spattering the guests.
Rumor had it that Nicole Kidman was checked into the local Sheraton and a Hollywood couple with six children was shacked up at the Sharq Village and Spa—clearly Brad and Angelina. But when push came to shove, the “celebs” could be counted on one hand: Jay Jopling, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Ronnie Wood, and a young blonde, presumably Wood’s twenty-something girlfriend, Ekaterina Ivanova. They spent much of the evening huddled together in the corner of a stuffy tent. (Maybe they were hiding from the renegade chocolate fountains.) But the best action was to be had in spotting the many major museum powers in attendance: Serfiraz Ergun of the Sabanci, Henri Loyrette of the Louvre, Sir Nicholas Serota of the Tate, Mark Jones of the V&A, and not just one Metropolitan director, but two—Thomas Campbell, whom de Montebello jovially referred to as “the usurper.”
“Have you ever seen all of them in one place before?” a friend marveled. It was sort of like being in a room with the heads of the Five Families, except there were more like twenty.
Then, on the video screen, someone singled out Robert De Niro at the emir’s celebration. Why on earth was he there, when the heads of the world’s major museums were outside?
The next day, at another press conference, the mystery was revealed: Qatar had just formed a partnership with the Tribeca Film Festival, which thenceforth would also operate a “world-class” program in Doha. The sheikha explained that she got the idea for the project during her postcollege internship for the festival in New York; something to keep in mind, perhaps, for companies interviewing royal interns.
Left: Dealer Jay Jopling and musician Ronnie Wood. Right: Artist Damien Hirst.
IN RECENT MONTHS, beginning with the ShContemporary fair and the Shanghai Biennial in September, a veritable swarm of international art cognoscenti has passed through the city. In October, the eArts Festival brought Christian Marclay and musician Elliott Sharp to Shanghai, while the opening of ShanghArt gallery’s “Involved” drew the likes of Luc Tuymans and Knut Åsdam. Just last week, James Cohan’s Shanghai outpost presented its third exhibition, giving the space over to Folkert de Jong’s jolly, Styrofoam-sculpted simians. But perhaps no one was more anticipated than Yoko Ono, whose first solo exhibition in China, a retrospective of her instructional works titled simply “FLY,” opened last Saturday at the Ke Center for the Contemporary Arts.
“We’ve been discussing this exhibition almost since we opened the space, nearly two years ago,” Biljana Ciric, the curator of the privately run nonprofit, noted at the opening. The exhibition was co-organized by Gunnar Kvaran, director of the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo, where “FLY” originated, but it was Ono who conceived and curated the show. Describing her arrival in the city’s hypermodern Pudong airport, Ono exclaimed, “I felt like Marco Polo must have felt when he first came to China.” Not only was this Ono’s first solo exhibition in the country, it was also her first time visiting Mainland China. Ono, like many Japanese, was educated in the Chinese classics, and she admitted that she learned her life strategies from Sun Tzu’s Art of War. She closed the press conference by painting her Chinese name not on the paper prepared for it but on a nearby window curtain.
The following day, a twenty-person viewing limit left hundreds of would-be admirers stranded outside the museum, stampeding the artist’s Ex It, a series of wooden caskets, which had been installed in front of the entrance. Overhead, a promotional video blasted John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” A drizzle steadily grew. At the rear of the crowd, ShanghArt director Lorenz Helbling and artist Zhou Tiehai shook their heads at the hopeless, rain-soaked queue and opted to head off early for the dinner. As the shower gave way to a downpour, the museum’s doors swung open and the wet masses funneled into the already overcrowded exhibition. “A typical Shanghai scene,” needled one local standing above the hordes on a platform built into the gallery.
While hundreds participated in the artist’s famous Conceptual-art tutorials, which included works such as the 1966 Blue Room Event and the more recent Wish Tree, Ono herself was performing upstairs in the museum’s lounge area, “bringing new meaning to the term ‘disco dancing,’” as artist Rutherford Chang observed. Around 9 PM, her dance for the masses gave way to a more exclusive dinner at the recently opened Kee Club, a Hong Kong nightlife classic recently transplanted to Shanghai’s Dunhill mansions complex, a spectacular courtyard in the center of the city.
The comparatively sober dinner was attended by Helbling and Zhou, the photography duo known as Birdhead, artist Zhang Huan, Shanghai Gallery of Art director David Chan, dealer Meg Maggio, and Ono’s attentive staff. After dessert, Ono descended to the postdinner cocktail party for a final photo op before heading back to her hotel to sleep off the jet lag, leaving the dwindling crowd to soak up her blessings of universal love, and the pouring rain.
NEW YORK is the city of the future.
You heard it here first. Unless, that is, you happened to be one of the fabulously dolled-up folks who braved the heavy rain (and a little economic free fall) last Saturday to attend the Metal Ball, the Performa fund-raising gala held at Cedar Lake in Chelsea. The “city of the future” declaration was made by RoseLee Goldberg, the art historian and Performa’s founding director. The live art biennial will have its third iteration next November, and the theme is “Futurism.” This fact half accounts for Goldberg’s claim; the other half is a sort of defiance in the face of reality.
“I’m not moving to Dubai. And I’m not moving to Shanghai or Berlin,” she announced at the ball. “New Yorkers are survivors. I came to New York in the ’70s, when New York was bankrupt and there were fifteen-foot piles of garbage on the sidewalk. We’re going to be fine.”
These are strange times for artists in New York. On the one hand, there is fierce joy over Barack Obama’s impending presidency, in terms of what it could mean both for the country and for themselves. (An arts plank, including health care for artists!) On the other, of course, there is the worsening economic crisis, which puts a bit of a damper on the shiny/happy shtick.
I’m not sure what to say about the happy, but the Metal Ball, which was “inspired by” the Bauhaus’s 1929 Metallic Festival, took care of the shiny, in DIY fashion. The dress code was metallic attire, variously interpreted by the star-studded art crowd, which included everyone from David Byrne, Cindy Sherman, Glenn Ligon, and Francesco Vezzoli to MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach and New Museum director Lisa Phillips. Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright and Studio Museum director Thelma Golden went topical, sporting bejeweled Obama shirts; designer Zac Posen donned a mask of chain mail; and artist Cory Arcangel chose the metaphoric route, dressing down in a concert hoodie for the metal band Trivium.
Less creative attendees were invited to visit Issey Miyake’s flagship store, the temporary home for Performa’s Metal Shop. (Art and fashion—how did they ever get along without each other?) Others made use of fanciful accessories handcrafted by the on-site “Emergency Sewing Project.” These included artist Isaac Julien, the night’s honoree along with philanthropist Toby Devan Lewis. Each received a unique present from Adam Pendleton (whose Revival was one of Performa 07’s commissions), and the usual bubbly tributes that abound at such gala-cum-lovefests.
Amid the talk of “creative people shining in tough times” came more sober analysis of what lies ahead. “It’s going to be very tough for everyone,” said Salon 94 owner Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn. “Artists are going to go back to having second jobs—the way it used to be.”
Try third and fourth jobs: This was the response of several choreographers at the ball. As Performa evolves, it is attempting to draw in artists from dance as well as the visual arts, leading to some fascinating cultural clashes. Though the resulting art occasionally bears similarities, the two worlds don’t often see eye to eye.
“You hear about the economy impacting those parts of the art world,” said Sonya Robbins, of the performance duo robbinschilds, after someone mentioned the somberness at the recent auctions. “It’s hard to see a direct comparison in the dance world.” Her partner, Layla Childs, put it a bit more pointedly: “We’re already living a subsistence existence.”
Robbinschilds gave one of the several brief performances sprinkled throughout the evening, along with the Stumblebum Brass Band’s welcoming music and a collaboration between Jesper Just and the enchanting theremin expert Dorit Chrysler. Dressed in shiny green-blue tights and skimpy duct-tape tops, their faces covered in metallic paint, robbinschilds attempted to lead the crowd in a “two steps backward” Prop 8 dance. The performance was fabulous—streamlined and funny and strange. The participation, not so much; robbinschilds, apparently feeling generous, gave the crowd a B for effort. More effective in getting people involved was Zach Rockhill’s low-tech “ride” in which participants, flanked by fantastical Oskar Schlemmer creation look-alikes, were pushed through a small paper-enclosed chute. Unlike our present economic woes, there was light at the end of the gauzy tunnel: showers of silver paper, honking, and the flash of cameras, of course.
Left: robbinschilds performs. Right: Curator Nick Hallett.
ART IS NEVER MORE FUN than when money doesn’t matter to it. Artists live to work, not model. Dealers stop fawning over investors who can’t tell a Basquiat from a Baechler. Auction houses see red. Collectors who buy art because they can’t live without it gloat as if their turn has come. And every opening seems like the last.
The high-rollers who showed up to receive Larry Gagosian’s blessing just the weekend before, during his Gramercy Hotel dinner for Richard Prince, only to hear rock impresario–turned-roastmaster Ron Delsener slag them, had disappeared by last Thursday’s postauction openings in Chelsea. Perhaps it was the pouring rain, but ever since Election Night—when New York became a town where everyone knows everyone (and likes them!)—streets that had been clogged with art tourists have been populated mainly by those who care to own them.
A smattering of interested parties shook off their umbrellas at Casey Kaplan’s reception for Julia Schmidt, a sweet-faced young woman from Leipzig whose lovely photo-based paintings manage to recall Luc Tuymans, Gerhard Richter, and Giorgio Morandi all at once. My companion liked the vagina paintings best. Schmidt looked puzzled. “Oh,” she said then. “You mean the caverns!” Just what I said.
At 303 Gallery, Serbian-turned-British painter Djordje Ozbolt was learning to endure his first solo show in New York the hard way, gripping a beer and attempting to speak cheerfully to all comers. “Is that a Paul Smith?” I asked of the colorfully striped pig in one of Ozbolt’s storybook landscapes. “Someone else mentioned that,” the sincere Ozbolt said. “Maybe it was subliminal.” I examined the Russian-icon-style portraits in the back. Family members? “Background characters from old-master paintings,” came the reply.
At Marianne Boesky, Barnaby Furnas was blinking back the horde lining up to see what he had been up to since his late Jesus phase. Abraham Lincoln, for one thing. “That’s my painting,” said tennis hero–turned-collector John McEnroe, examining a small portrait of the Obama idol. Meanwhile, John Currin orated his story of heroism from the day before, when he saved a woman from a mugging by three thugs on a dark SoHo street.
An even larger crowd rushed the back office at Bortolami Gallery for Aaron Young’s first show there, possibly because the walls were empty. I’m not counting the clever bronzes cast from broken police barriers inside the door. Or the blacklight room where guests had to put a quarter in a machine to see Young’s irradiated paintings of mushroom clouds.
Left: Dealer Stefania Bortolami. Right: Bortolami's Meredith Darrow and artist Aaron Young.
Young was in the back office, too, where artists Hanna Liden, Dan Colen, Hope Atherton, Nate Lowman, and Todd Eberle were huddled around the desks. “Please be nice?” Young said. I have no idea why. But let no one say that Stefania Bortolami is not a risk-taker. She rented the whole of Il Bordello, the unfortunately named and completely untried new diner on Twenty-third Street and Tenth, to toast Young’s atom-bomb peep show. “Even if the food is bad, we’ll still have a good time,” Bortolami said. “The bar is open.”
Friday night, Cindy Sherman and Metro Pictures showed everyone how it's done—to turn yet another art party into a unique event. Sherman’s life-size portraits of middle-aged women desperate to keep time from wreaking havoc with their faces capture the disparity between self-image and public image with chilling accuracy, and fearlessly enough to let herself show through. “Cindy’s social commentary is merciless,” observed the writer Lynne Tillman. “And beautiful.”
We watched the paparazzi lunge for Salman Rushdie, as novelist A. M. Homes looked on and Sherman artist buddies Laurie Simmons, Louise Lawler, and Sarah Charlesworth added some seasoned glamour of their own, as did Mera Rubell and her recently frosted bob. In a tailored black tuxedo and low-cut white blouse, Sherman seemed oddly monochromatic. “I didn’t want anyone to confuse me with the pictures,” she said, pointing to her furbelowed, patent-leather high-heeled sandals. “Right now, it’s all about the shoes.”
As for the show, it will either make plastic surgery extremely outré or cause a run on it. “It’s great to see Cindy’s pictures in the same room with some of her best subjects,” said director John Waters. “Especially since they seem to be the last to know it.”
Dinner was uptown at Per Se, in the Time Warner Building. This establishment, where Wall Street’s deer and antelope play, is known as the most expensive restaurant in New York. (Chef Thomas Keller, who created the French Laundry, the best restaurant in California, charged fifteen hundred dollars per person one recent evening for a special twenty-course menu.) And this was the week the art market tanked, along with the rest of the global economy.
Up on the fourth floor, overlooking Columbus Circle on a crystal-clear, sparkling night, Sherman’s guests were treated to champagne and hors d’oeuvres that included tiny grilled-cheese-and-bacon sandwiches and popcorn drizzled with truffle butter, served in paper cups.
After some time in the bar, we began to wonder where the dinner would be. At such places, where the private-club/living-room atmosphere dictates tables spaced well apart, one expects stiff, formal settings. But all we found were a couple of café tables and a cheese buffet. Then came the whispers: You have to see the kitchen. Go straight to the kitchen. It’s amazing.
After wending our way through the plush, carpeted dining room and down a narrow, bare hall, we found the bright, subway-tiled kitchen—and lo! There was the party. The cooks were all at their stations serving that scrumptious Keller food, a mouthful at a time: chowing down on smoked-salmon cones, short ribs and mash served on porcelain spoons, skewered chicken, plenty of caviar, and a magnificent raw bar laden with oysters, shrimp, lobster claws, king crab, and fresh crabmeat. One by one, the crowd trickled in: critics (Peter Schjeldahl, Calvin Tomkins, Dodie Kazanjian, Jerry Saltz), curators (the Public Art Fund’s Rochelle Steiner, the Whitney’s Donna De Salvo, the Studio Museum’s Thelma Golden, the Goss-Michael Foundation’s Aphrodite Gonou, the Ellipse Foundation’s Manuel Gonzalez), collectors (Jane Holzer, Peter Brant and Stephanie Seymour, Michael and Eileen Cohen, Melva Bucksbaum and Raymond Learsy, all of the Rubells), art advisers Curt Marcus and Kim Heirston, Aspen dealer Richard Edwards and New York dealer Tony Shafrazi, Metro artists Robert Longo and Isaac Julien, producers Vincent and Shelly Dunn Fremont, actor/writer Eric Bogosian . . . all old friends and colleagues—Friends of Cindy. Just folks.
What a great idea for a party. “We’re glad you all came,” said Metro co-owner Helen Winer. “Try everything!” said Janelle Reiring, her business partner. There were no toasts, no bothering with small talk at big tables where intimacy is never possible. This was closer to dropping in for dinner at Cindy’s house. “You have redefined fabulous!” enthused Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs. Sherman couldn’t stop smiling. “I was here for a party once,” she said. “It was so much fun it seemed like the right thing to do.”
I’ll say. What this party cost was anyone’s guess, and everyone tried to—a hundred thousand dollars was the average estimate. Whatever it was, it was too casual to be decadent—after all, we ate standing up in the kitchen—and it was also worth every penny, especially to celebrate a great artist in peak form.
“This is the end,” Saltz predicted over the dessert table, in the rear, where an array of homemade cookies, petits fours, donut holes, and bowls of Eskimo bars awaited eager hands. “It’s going to be a long while before we’ll see anything like this again,” he said. But I don’t know. Christmas is coming—and with money’s escape from the scene, the art world seems giddy with possibility.
LAST TUESDAY EVENING in Milan, the Neoclassical Villa Reale became the sumptuous backdrop for a retrospective of Tino Sehgal’s living sculptures, set in motion among gesturing Canova marbles and an impressive assortment of nineteenth-century masterworks. Organized by the nomadic Trussardi Foundation and curated by Massimiliano Gioni, the selection of eight “situations” is billed as the “most ambitious and complete” assemblage of Sehgal’s “deproduced” objects, all but one of which were first presented in other contexts. Once home to Napoleon and the king of Naples, the palace’s cavernous salons were inhabited by seventy anachronistic specters, most of them posing, in typical Sehgalian fashion, as guards.
Arriving on the late side, I rushed around to see all the works, which would disappear Cinderella-like at an appointed hour. If it weren’t for the crowd blocking the door to one room, I would have tripped over the woman writhing on the floor in Instead of allowing some thing to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things, a piece that apparently comprises an anthology of gestures borrowed from videos by Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham. In this context, she resembled more than anything the paintings of female nudes and the white marble Venus by Pompeo Marchesi, reclining on a divan.
Just outside of the room where Selling Out was in progress, I encountered Graham himself, who was in Milan for the opening of his new pavilion, Sagitarian Girls, at Galleria Francesca Minini. Pushed into a corner by an attentive crowd, nubile young female and male guards took turns sinuously stripping out of their uniforms and then putting them back on against a cold backdrop of richly colored marble and brilliantly buffed parquet floors. In a long glass case along the adjacent corridor, a lineup of Medardo Rosso’s waxy sculptures seemed to be shifting shapes in solidarity. But it was the stylish Italian spectators—strictly prohibited by the artist, as usual, from photographing the fleeting vignettes—that made for the most fascinating subjects.
For This is so contemporary—which famously debuted at the German pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale—the original players were recruited to perform again, flitting around a room whose very uncontemporary artworks had been removed so as not to confuse the crowd. The work’s rehashing here only emphasized how well suited the scenario was to its original white-cube space, where the long line to get in provided much of the drama. (In addition to cramped legs, bitter grumbling, etc.) As I entered the room knowing full well what the silly guards would do, I found myself flinching as they hopped and lunged around me lilting the insipid phrase “This is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary!” It’s difficult to convey the full sense of the tableaux vivants. At best, a picture would just show a middle-aged guard with hands raised in imitation of a bird in flight—which, well, may be a decent summary of the experience. An image of the spectators’ perplexed expressions might be equally evocative.
Kiss, the only other piece that I had witnessed previously, was lovely here—resonating as it did with a sensuous statue of an embracing Amor and Psyche in a nearby corridor. The work’s repetitive quality was suited to the opulent ballroom in which it was staged, which was missing only chairs along the periphery for vying dance partners.
A motley group of guards milling around in the final rooms clearly signaled that they were the “interpreters” of the show’s single premiere, This is critique, in which interlocutors are encouraged to engage in discussion about the exhibition (recalling Sehgal’s interactive piece on the art market in the 2005 Venice pavilion). For better or worse, Sehgal promises that this is the last time his collaborators will be disguised as museum guards; one presumes that docents are still fair game. A local schoolteacher approached me and implored, “If you are a critic, then you must say critical things about the artist’s work!” Performance anxiety ensued. Luckily, at that moment Gioni came by to announce that the museum was closed, cutting me off before I could open my mouth.
Left: Dealer Francesca Minini and artist Lorenzo Scotto di Luzio. Right: Artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss.
An intimate dinner party followed at the chic Trussardi alla Scala, just opposite the city’s famous opera house. An onslaught of artful and delicious dishes, each one better than the last, was delivered on little plates: crème fraîche cannoli tipped with caviar, foie gras sautéed in beer, mozzarella with tomato gelatin, polenta with cheese and white truffle sauce, apple cream with tonka beans, and pumpkin risotto to match the sleek space’s warm color. Gioni’s partner, Cecilia Alemani, in Italy this fall to work on Artissima and the “Italics” show at Venice’s Palazzo Grassi, showed up looking stunning in black with gold-trimmed pumps, while the understated and charming collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo attended with her son Emilio, who sported a cheerful plaid blazer, accenting his spiky red hair.
The “interpreters” of the exhibition seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, amiably chatting about the side effects of the undertaking. Philosopher and musician Andrea Labanca said they were given four-point improvisational guidelines during the intensive discussions with Sehgal leading up to the show, but the man from This Occupation noted coyly that he had been ordered not to give details. In addition to reuniting the performers from Venice, the exhibition also happily brought together former local acquaintances. Trussardi production manager Barbara Roncari said she was pleasantly surprised to run into her favorite high school teacher, who was one of the guards in the new piece. Meanwhile, the thirty-two-year-old artist himself, dressed casually in cool Berliner fashion, was served a specially prepared individual menu by his own personal waiter. For all his attention to the immaterial, Sehgal obviously does not leave the finer things in life up to chance.
Left: Amor and Psyche. Right: Interpreter Andrea Labanca, Trussardi's Barbara Roncari, and Massimo De Carlo's Elena Tavecchia.
THAT EVERYONE WOULD SOON TIRE of those baggy exhibitions and themes, those endless fairs and “satellite projects,” was predictable. That their attitude would shift right around when the market did was predictable too. What was hard to foresee was that the market shift would produce a tidal wave bringing an electoral landslide for Barack Obama and then a dopamine flood overcoming the art world, significantly softening the economic blow. Some new words one heard at the second Torino Triennale (known as T2, like Judgment Day) and the fifteenth Artissima fair were manageable, sustainable, and realistic, and the relief with which even dealers exhaled them seemed surprisingly genuine, if inextricable from a heady moment.
I got the election news obliquely, in brief dispatches. I had voted Tuesday morning; flown out late that afternoon on Air France, and learned of the winner, around 7 AM Paris time, from an onboard announcement; caught glimpses of confetti on TV monitors at Charles de Gaulle; scanned front pages of day-old newspapers, expecting, with the confusion of temporal displacement, that they would register news that was actually still breaking; and found that, on landing in Turin, I could only drop my bags at the hotel before heading to the Promotrice delle Belle Arti, one of three triennial venues, for the press conference.
White House details quickly percolated into that Neoclassical palazzo. The people there, few American, at least by birth, compared numbers, fact-checked on iPhones, tilted screens displaying mostly blue maps toward one another. Dopamine levels remained high despite the tone of the surrounding show, called “50 Moons of Saturn,” which pulls works into orbit around that mythically melancholic rock. Perhaps sensing the dissonance, Daniel Birnbaum, the show’s curator, reminded the audience that first morning: “Melancholy is not depression; it’s about transformation, and the world is right now transforming rather radically . . . it’s very much about creativity and producing new things.” (The show itself is a transmutation of Birnbaum’s first book, written with Anders Olsson and recently translated into English: As a Weasel Sucks Eggs: An Essay on Melancholy and Cannibalism.)
Left: Dealer Chantal Crousel with collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. Right: Dealer Alexander Gray.
The Promotrice held the most focused of the three presentations. There were flaming Wade Guytons; weird Gert and Uwe Tobiases; Jordan Wolfson’s film Untitled False Document, a conceptual feedback loop. The next venue on the tour was the Fondazione Sandretto, owned by compact Turin collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo and featuring for the triennial a Paul Chan minisurvey, not particularly fresh for many visitors but probably more so for local audiences (it was apparently the artist’s first such show in Italy). Sandretto Re Rebaudengo happily talked with guests despite a voice hoarse, she strained out, “from shouting ‘Obama!’”
By the third venue, the grand Castello di Rivoli (which held, in addition to a group show, the triennial’s other big solo project, a light installation by Olafur Eliasson), the wall texts were beginning to jumble: “subjective experience,” “cultural identity,” “religion,” “personal history and historical memory.” “Constructed” and “reworked.” “Wittgenstein” and “Lacan.” On reading that “the attempt to restore meaning to a fluctuating existence is concretized in the objectivized presence of the works exhibited,” I decided to pack up.
It was Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo who had the party that night. There were official opening receptions at the triennial venues, but many people skipped those for quick cosmetic reparations in hotel rooms, showing up at the collector’s palazzo and spilling through a foyer decorated with Maurizio Cattelans, into a side room with Matthew Barneys and a Fiona Tan, and into a sala da pranzo with Allan McCollums. The Vanity Fair photographers were as pushy as ever. “Check out the pool downstairs,” Paul Chan side-mouthed to me. I did; it was triangular. Dinner for three hundred followed under the tent in the garden. It was molto Italiano: many courses, perhaps cooked, in part, by the hostess’s mother (who has apparently helped out at such events before). But the gathering was for extended relations too; a government figure, for example, brought two women, one blonde and one brunette, neither his wife, their tanned skin richly made up, and their style running more to spike heels than to mink stoles.
Left: Artist Piero Golia; Charlotte Laubard, director of the CAPC Museum of Contemporary Art, Bordeaux; and Artissima director Andrea Bellini. Right: Domus director Flavio Albanese.
The next morning, the triennial gave way to Artissima, which is not to say melancholy gave way to cannibalism (an activity often associated with art fairs). The fair, in fact, was so well selected and relaxed that it hardly resembled the blind consumptive beast we have come to expect in recent years. Often noted was the “curation,” not “direction,” of Andrea Bellini, then in his second year of organizing the event, and perhaps, he mentioned, his second to last. (Domus director Flavio Albanese speculated that Bellini might move on to a post at the Castello di Rivoli.) In addition to gallery booths (128 of them, a downsize from last year’s 131, which itself had been a significant downsize from the prior year’s 172), the fair had some small, curated projects, including a section devoted to young Italian artists without gallery representation; a retrospective of photographs by Paolo Mussat Sartor, documentarian of artists (most significantly those of Turin’s homegrown movement, arte povera); and an exhibition of work by young artists, such as Carter Mull, Stephen G. Rhodes, and Sara Barker, whose dealers were all invited to participate at a discount.
Bellini strolled the aisles in his blue suit and a tie by Jack Emerson, local kingpin of menswear. He mentioned that the fair, when it had around two hundred galleries, “was shit” and that the city representatives had come to him saying, “We don’t care about money; make it good, make it a cultural event.” The curatorial and more outwardly commercial forces work together in the fair, Bellini argued, as they have throughout art for centuries. “Giotto was a superstar,” he said. “Like the Jeff Koons of his time. He was a motherfucker—all those girls!”
Left: Dealer James Fuentes. Right: Artists Carter Mull and Mateo Tannatt.
But what about the dealers. “Usually,” claimed Francesco Stocchi, “they won’t talk to you if it’s sell, sell, sell. They’re, like, curators? Not today. But now?” Those in booths did seem happy to talk at length about their artists, when not twirling their pens or spacing out. Alexander Gray, in from New York, said that he welcomed the more relaxed pace and that people were in fact still buying. “This is the future,” he said. “The niche fair. No more developing, no more speculation.” The fair was in rich dialogue with Turin’s established art collectors, who, one visitor noted, were known for supporting “difficult work” (and for returning on the last day to haggle). Nascent New York dealer James Fuentes had come, he said, to establish roots in the fertile area rather than to sell out his booth. “Meet just one collector and it’s worth the trip.”
One gallery worker, pointing to the white walls, which were a good deal higher this year, noted: “Andrea wanted to build an art city,” and it seemed he had. I imagine the walls are actually high enough to dam the flood.