The title of this year’s Manifesta, “100 Miles in 100 Days,” seemed more logistical caveat than curatorial mandate. The impressive exhibition, which, along with parallel events, includes more than four hundred artists, is a veritable endurance marathon. This is the first time the roving biennial has been based in more than one city: the Italian towns of Rovereto, Trento, and Bolzano-Bozen. Perhaps the director, Hedwig Fijen, wanted to make up for the cancellation of the 2006 edition, scheduled for Nicosia, Cyprus, which was abandoned because of political discord among the curators and local organizers. But although the Alpine region of Trentino-Alto Adige looks picturesque and idyllic—lederhosen and hiking boots seemed practically de rigueur—it has also seen its share of political turbulence, with relations between the ethnic Germans and Italians still tense. The schizophrenic province, also referred to as Südtirol (South Tyrol), was part of Austria-Hungary until its annexation by Italy in 1919, and roughly half the population still speaks German in spite of an intensive relocation and “Italianization” program carried out by Mussolini with the help of Hitler, which was cut short by World War II.
Arriving in Trento last Wednesday night on the train from Rome, I headed straight for the local art-world hangout, the Green Tower restaurant, where I dined with Los Angeles collective My Barbarian, in town for their performance at the Galleria Civica di Trento. They described trying to organize a workshop with local volunteers around the theme of the left-wing extremist Red Brigades, which had been founded by local university student Renato Curcio; they were told it was not allowed. Barbarian Alexandro Segade said that when they tried to discuss regional politics in a workshop, they were shocked at the passionately divisive reactions. The unveiling earlier that evening of the bronze Family Monument—portraying the typical Trentino family as chosen in a contest during Gillian Wearing’s eponymous 2007 exhibition—was attended by protesters in white masks claiming to represent the “invisible families” that had been statistically disregarded by the competition. Barbarian Jade Gordon commented that the posture of the family, with the wife kneeling next to the husband, was tellingly sexist.
Coming from notoriously chaotic southern Italy, I expected impeccable organization up north. But the reality was perhaps the biennial’s most striking (or at least frustrating) lesson. When I finally arrived in Rovereto the next morning—after narrowly missing the train and being rescued by Manifesta employee Roberto Lunelli—the press representative explained, “There are twice as many people here as we anticipated.” In the courtyard of the sprawling Manifattura Tabacchi—a recently decommissioned tobacco factory and one of three sites of curator Adam Budak’s exhibition “Principle Hope”—I fortified myself with a gelato from artist Tim Etchells’s Art Flavours cart. A TV crew interviewed Budak beneath giant black balloons, part of an outdoor lounge installation. At the back was a spectacular facade of vivid flames, the entrance to Ragnar Kjartansson’s Schumann Machine, in which the Icelandic artist donned a tux and sang an ironic rendition of the composer’s Dichterliebe.
On the ground floor, at Copy-Right No Copy-Right, by Italian collective Alterazioni Video, a long queue led to a computer station where participants could make copies of music and films of their choice as an act of protest against intellectual-property laws. In the mazelike exhibition upstairs, I came across The Caregivers, by Libia Castro and Olafur Olafsson, a compelling video opera about eastern-European female domestic workers in Italy, which effectively depicted the pressing issue of immigration in Europe.
Daunted by the logistics of moving around Rovereto alone, I considered jumping aboard Christian Philipp Müller’s surreal Carrgo Largo float, which passed by seemingly unmanned near the train station as I headed toward the former cocoa factory ex-Peterlini. Here the centerpiece was Knut Asdam’s Oblique, a masterful video in which passengers travel together on a train through a meditative urban landscape. Exhausted by a visit to the must-see exhibitions at nearby MART—the surveys “Eurasia” and “Contemporary Germany,” with paintings by Germans Tim Eitel, David Schnell, and Matthias Weischer—I hitched a ride back to Trento with two people getting into their car. (They turned out to be Greek curator Daphne Vitali and her father, Carlo.)
After a much-needed prosecco pit stop in the packed courtyard of the Palazzo delle Poste, I braved “The Soul (or, Much Trouble in the Transportation of Souls),” yet another labyrinthine exhibition. The standout here was Following Room, by American artist Beth Campbell: an arrangement of identically furnished cubicles with glass dividers. Less effective comments on collective identity were five mock didactic “museums,” such as the “Museum of European Normality.” Pausing on the staircase, 303 Gallery’s Mari Spirito, on sabbatical in Europe for the summer, stopped and sighed, “I think there should be a law limiting the percentage of video allowed in a show.”
The best demonstration of the problems surrounding European integration was simply getting around. On a Manifesta shuttle to Bolzano on Friday, a row ensued when the Italian driver stubbornly insisted on following a written itinerary that was contrary to the official press schedule. The scene devolved into a comedy of the absurd when, to everyone’s bemusement, he stopped the bus in the middle of a roundabout to ask road workers for directions. We all agreed that this was evidence of the worst characteristics of the two local cultures: Teutonic rigidity and Italian disorganization.
The cavernous ex-Alumix, on the outskirts of Bolzano, showcased “The Rest of Now,” an evocative, lively exhibition curated by Raqs Media Collective dedicated to the beauty and artifacts of obsolescence. Zilvinas Kempinas’s Skylight Tower embodying projected light in negative with shimmering videotape strips hanging from the central skylight, while Jorge Otero-Pailos’s The Ethics of Dust transferred the accumulations of pollution on the wall to a facade of latex casts, preserving the residue of time as archaeological artifact.
By the time we reached the ghostly Fortezza/Franzensfeste, the Habsburg defense structure on the Austrian-Italian border where Hitler and Mussolini sealed their pact, I was wandering like a zombie from room to room, in no state to appreciate the ephemeral sound texts emanating in three different languages from the empty spaces. At that moment, the ominous, isolated fort itself seemed the most eloquent physical symbol of the randomness of political borders and national identity.
Left: Artist Ragnar Kjartansson. Right: 303 Gallery director Mari Spirito, curator Konstantinos Dagritzikos, and artist Beth Campbell.
“Kehinde. Wiley. The World. Stage. Africa. Lagos. Dakar,” proclaimed an echoey DJ via all-weather speakers bolted above the entrance to the Studio Museum in Harlem on Wednesday night. Noising up the crowd, another palpitating Afrobeat rhythm unfurled, and despite the onus of July heat waves in Manhattan, nobody wanted to wait to have a good time.
This section of Wiley’s ongoing “World Stage” project is also his first solo exhibition at the museum, as well as a homecoming of sorts to the place where, as an artist-in-residence in 2001, the painter honed his current style: gigantic oil-on-canvas portraits of young black men in poses derived from classical forms, with richly patterned backgrounds in bright hues and flamboyant curlicues harking back to everything from the Arts and Crafts movement to indigenous textiles of all stripes. Fans sated themselves in the gallery space with noses an inch from the paintings’ immaculate surfaces, or with prolonged hand-on-chin stares at six feet, or from a perch on the museum’s unusual balcony. The mood in the gallery rested somewhere between quietly reverential and familial; security guards couldn’t have been more relaxed as guests glided about in a mellow slipstream, and dealer Jeffrey Deitch and Deitch director Nicola Vassell negotiated sales and whispered in each other’s ears at the nucleus of the gallery space. The thrills began in an adjacent air-conditioned vinyl marquee that stretched the length of the museum, erected for the evening with two open bars, and liberally sprinkled with placards advertising an African rum distillery, the evening’s designated intoxicator. Museum director Thelma Golden snacked on popcorn while some downtown fashion dorks meandered about looking lost, out of the spotlight for the night. A live DJ went from playing full Fela Kuti sides to incendiary hip-hop classics, and a considerable dance floor took shape. A New York Times photographer seemed to suffer paroxysms of puppy love for several guests, not least Vasell, who led him on a merry dance all night long. It was hard to fault the nakedness of his feelings in such a crowd.
Left: Dealer Jeffrey Deitch, Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman, and Andy Cohen. Right: Artists Varda Caivano and Chris Ofili.
This is the nature of the Wiley experience: Since 2001, the thirty-one-year-old painter has built a lucrative practice through consistency, both in work executed and in celebration done properly. I have harbored warm feelings for him for years, since a Sunday-night fish fry—Wiley and actor David Alan Grier’s Atlantic catches—that remains the only sincere fun I’ve experienced at Art Basel Miami Beach, though I have been ambivalent toward the formulism, market friendliness, and respectability of the artist’s neo-Duveen classicism for almost as long. Veteran Chicago dealer Rhona Hoffman wouldn’t abide my discreet misgivings as I commented on the artist’s travel schedule and vivacious social presence en route to Deitch’s lavish dinner for a few hundred at the Alhambra Ballroom, around the corner from the museum. “Kehinde is in the studio,” she told me, “working his butt off, all the time. He will not stop.” I commended her for her support, even though it was Jeffrey’s night to bank checks. “I’m getting India,” she said, referring to one of the countries soon to feature on Wiley’s “World Stage.” (Another is Brazil.)
Come speech time, between salad and salmon, Deitch deferred to Brian Keith Jackson, a writer whose excellent profile of Wiley featured in the otherwise frighteningly generic Giant magazine plopped on every place setting. The crowd quieted as Jackson spoke of coming full circle, of a leg of the artist’s journey completed that evening, and of the artist’s capacity to build bridges. It was noted that Wiley went to Nigeria eleven years ago to find the father who had left before his birth. Satisfied and rather moved, I turned to my neighbor, Studio Museum assistant curator Naomi Beckwith. “Not just bridging the gap but making the world whole,” she said, nodding. On my other flank, artist Rashawn Griffin, another former SMH artist-in-residence, and participant in this year’s Whitney Biennial, pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows in demure, tacit approval.
Left: Artist Rashawn Griffin. Right: Artists Tanea Richardson, Marcus Zilliox, and Peter Halley.
There followed a reflective lull, an ideal cue for the surprise entrance of the Houses of Ninja and Xtravaganza, whose pneumatic voguing routine was met by spontaneous and more-than-merited squeals, whistles, and calls for an encore (granted). Hoffman scurried around taking photographs, and an until-then-flinty Glenn O’Brien stood up from his seat and grinned from ear to ear. (“I haven’t seen them in twenty years,” he told me before climbing into a waiting car at night’s end.) The Houses’ MC threw “How YOU doing?” at the crowd as the dancers strutted from the ballroom. Criticism had felt pointless for a while. At that moment, we were all thriving.
Left: Artists Glenn Ligon, Karen Azoulay, and Muna El Fituri with curator Joseph Wollen. Right: Artist Kalup Linzy.
In recent years, the foreign-gallery opening in China has developed into a complex ritual with its own unique social lexicon. Who can forget Galleria Continua’s 798 debut back in 2005, leaving Beijing awash in prosciutto, pecorino, and Chen Zhen installations? Or Galerie Faurschou’s dinner last November for the absent but still-living Rauschenberg, whose work opened their Beijing space, under a rented tent and catered by the Chinese capital’s lone Michelin-certified chef? Pace Beijing originally scheduled its China debutante ball for the Day of the Aligning Eights (8-8-08), to coincide with that other, slightly bigger coming-out party: the Olympic opening ceremony.
Such was the deep background for James Cohan Gallery’s tasteful garden wedding to Shanghai. At the end of a lane buried in a prime patch of the tree-lined French Concession, in a house, once occupied by the Chinese military, painted with the requisite fading Maoist slogan above the door, two hundred or so gathered last Thursday evening to celebrate the opening of Cohan’s Shanghai satellite with a group show of gallery artists on the theme of “Mining Nature.” Shanghai and New York being closer than they once were, the crowd was full of more than a few Chelsea habitués: Cohan director Arthur Solway (now fully relocated to Shanghai), video collector extraordinaire Pam Kramlich (a Shanghai half-timer), Performa curator Defne Ayas (in Shanghai more or less full-time, teaching for NYU), Wallpaper writer Andrew Yang (the man on the ground for Shanghai’s new “100% Design” fair), and even New York Social Diary contributor Jeanne Lawrence (in Shanghai “indefinitely”). This is, of course, to say nothing of the jet-setting Chinese—dealer Lu Jie, artist Zhou Tiehai, novelist Mian Mian, to name just a few—who closed the cross-continental gap long ago. And in a moment one could liken to the tossing of the bouquet, Jay Jopling appeared with a retinue of White Cube directors and local consultant (and former Ullens Center deputy director) Colin Chinnery in tow, prompting speculation that he might be next.
Left: White Cube creative director Susan May and director Tim Marlow with curator Colin Chinnery. (Photo: Philip Tinari) Right: James Cohan director Arthur Solway (right) with a friend. (Photo: Defne Ayas)
The garden party ended after repeated nudges in the form of flickering lights. Then it was on to restaurant M on the Bund, the continental standby with a manager who looks and talks like Truman Capote. Cohan’s college buddy—a longtime Shanghai expat with gruff, fluent Mandarin—gave the toast, a vague homage to dreams dreamed and dreams realized. Conspicuously absent from the family-of-the-bride table was Shanghai artist Xu Zhen, who had a solo show with Cohan in New York in February. (He didn’t attend that opening either, owing to a legendary fear of flying.) The four tables worked their way through three courses, syncopated by the rhythm of smokers running off to the bar between services.
After dessert, Solway sat down at my table and waxed poetic about his decision to Go East. He had lived in New York since 1979, drawn there after his father, a Cleveland art dealer, took him for a weekend in the city instead of giving him a bar mitzvah. They saw a lot of exhibitions, visited “Teeny” Duchamp on Tenth Street, and even caught a live performance of Hair. “It was not unlike the feeling I had first coming to Shanghai,” back in the early years of this decade. Who guessed that the Age of Aquarius might resonate here, today?
Left: Writer Andrew Yang with Performa's Defne Ayas. Right: Dealer Angela Li and architect Patrice Butler. (Photos: Philip Tinari)
Left: Collector Neil Frankel with curator Alison Gingeras. Right: Dealer Gavin Brown and Rachel Roberts. (All photos: David Velasco)
On a lovely summer evening, what could be nicer than strolling to the West Village, looking at art, and hopefully not being too vibed out by the self-absorbed crowd? Curated by Alison Gingeras, “Pretty Ugly” is a supersize group show sprawling between Gavin Brown’s Enterprise and Maccarone, fortresses of coolness where, according to the press release, “the fluidity of ‘pretty’ and ‘ugly’ will be played with and almost posit ‘pretty ugly’ as a third term which might apply to a vast range of artists and works, thereby fusing the two galleries into a single exhibition.”
This viewer spotted three categories: “Gross,” “Kitschy,” and “Weird Body Parts.” Some works were all of the above. Indeed, among the gross were the exalted Viennese male cutters Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler (whose photos documented a mummy’s nasty doings with a dead chicken), a fresh, juicy placenta (by Corey McCorkle), and Bruce LaBruce’s equally vibrant Blow Job with Pig Blood. Karen Kilimnik’s early scrawl DEATH TO PIGS! looked comparatively jaunty in a fancy frame. A kitschy John Currin tableau titled Equality in the Workplace shows a business meeting between a smarmy “suit” and a lady coworker whose boobs droop out of her blouse and onto the table like fleshy Slinkies. Lots of Hans Bellmer (weird doll body parts). Otto Dix’s ugly Germans. A Joel-Peter Witkin bod-mod torso with scarified “wings” in a punishing corset. A stunning Alice Neel painting of a spastic-looking Religious Girl.
You know, jolie laide art. Like Sarah Jessica Parker. I couldn’t help but think of Gertrude Stein, who noticed how certain “irritating annoying” works of art can suddenly upgrade from “reject” to “classic”: “First all beauty in it is denied, then all beauty in it is accepted.” I paused before a “bust” composed of paint gobs, like a de Kooning sculpture with three red clown noses. “Early Paul McCarthy?” a cute artist-seeming guy chuckled appreciatively. (The work was by Glenn Brown, I later checked.)
Especially at Maccarone, the stuff was so poorly labeled it was like Art Jeopardy for the in-the-know. So user-unfriendly. I puzzled with newbies Roberta Smith and Jerry “I don’t know anything!” Saltz over a salon-style wall hung in a total jumble, crazy-makingly labeled by “rows.” We wanted to find out who did the fetching portrait of Michael Jackson and E.T. but couldn’t crack the code because most of the pieces were simply Untitled. Sheepishly, we discovered Michael Jackson and E.T. was one of the few exceptions, but attempting to extrapolate the unknown Untitleds from the forest of known Untitleds was like driving while attempting to read a map. Annoying and distracting (though not as dangerous).
In the gallery as luxury boutique, such user-unfriendly labeling sends the subtle message that information is for buyers only. It’s not “If you have to ask how much it is, you can’t afford it.” It’s “If you have to ask what it is, you don't belong here, you rube! Go hire a personal shopper—I mean, an art consultant!”
Left: Artists Brian Meola and Jack Pierson. Right: Artist Rob Pruitt.
On to the afterparty! “Hookerish” best described the sleek, cushy decor at Norwood, a members-only, Soho House–like (but cooler!) club targeting “tweedy, artistic types” willing to pay dues to frequent the Fourteenth Street townhouse that some Gawker commenter anointed “the Algonquin douche table.”
“Well, look at who’s here . . . ” I sat with David Rimanelli and Chivas Clem (whose “Pretty Ugly” piece was an homage to Ebony and Ivory “exotic” beauty: a regal African lady and Barbra Streisand, both working a tribal look.) We watched the crowd from the opening schmooze away, but now way more attractively lit: artists Currin (holding forth about James Bond), Rachel Feinstein, and Rob Pruitt; White Columns director Matthew Higgs; Interview editor Christopher Bollen. A droll Scottish guy—with a nice Jewish boyfriend—amused himself by trying on my Star of David necklace. Oy. The champagne flowed, literally, from those wide-mouthed, tippy glasses that always wind up dribbling down my arm. With a smile as abstract as the resin John McCracken plank in his gallery, Brown glided through the bar area, a wolf man in a crisp navy gingham shirt, meeting and not always greeting his guests: “He didn’t say hello to me!” I heard someone exclaim in the gloaming.
“Well, what do you expect from these people?” said another.
“But we were friends!”
Merce Cunningham, Beacon Event, 2008. Performance view, Dia:Beacon, Beacon, NY. (Photo: Anna Finke)
After the Friday-night premiere of Mark Morris’s interpretation of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet—in which, faithful to the recently unearthed pre-Stalinist score, the star-crossed lovers survive for a last dance—I followed the Hudson down from Bard to Beacon on Sunday to see the Merce Cunningham Dance Company perform amid Dia’s monumental Richard Serra Torqued Ellipses. It was my second “Event,” as these performances are billed, in a year (I saw another at the grounds of the Philip Johnson Glass House), and the fourth in a series at Dia, each held in a different gallery. Here the staging, with marley mats at either end of the hangerlike space, forced the dancers to run back and forth behind the sculptures, pausing, occasionally, for a surreptitious solo.
Inside each COR-TEN-steel hull, a single musician, with a set of instruments, mics, or turntables, sent music either to large speakers positioned opposite each stage, where it was mixed with the output of the other musicians, or to smaller speakers installed within each structure, effectively turning the sculptures themselves into enormous sounding boxes. The music, material composed according to an original Cage scheme (Cunningham and Cage were, of course, longtime partners as well as collaborators), followed only the dictum that it last, collectively, as long as the dance. According to the composer Newton Armstrong, one of the four musicians, the directives have become “basically an oral tradition.” Yet, he added, “when you do it, it feels like a Cage piece.” Stephen Moore, of the dance company’s “music committee,” explained that, with such an unscripted piece, “the big thing is who you pick to play; Cage always had a stable of amazing players.”
The dancers carried out Cunningham’s exacting choreography (older excerpts combined with new material designed with his three-dimensional-animation software, Danceforms) with athletic precision—only their sweat-drenched costumes hinted at the demands of performing like a machine (or avatar). Afterward, Jonah Bokaer, founder of performance space Chez Bushwick, citing his experience as a former Cunningham dancer, explained thateven as an audience member“I felt the performance in my body.”
Throughout the performance, the audience was free to wander the gallery space and enter the sculptures. Along the long wall, dancers appeared and disappeared behind the hulking forms, while the stages were virtually invisible from anywhere but the far ends of the space, where the gallery opened to the out-of-doors. It was impossible to get a totalizing view. I ran into artist and theorist Simon Leung, arriving along with Yvonne Rainer and Joan Jonas; he informed me that, for this very reason, he had secured tickets to both performances that day: On one viewing, “you can’t see the whole thing.” I spied Serra himself looking on from the far corner of the gallery space and, after the performance, thought I’d ask Cunningham whether Serra had played any role in the staging of the day’s events. Cunningham, surprised at the question, responded that he “hoped Dia told him we were performing here.”
As soon as I arrived at the Area Sacra di Largo Argentina in the sultry Roman evening and looked down into the ancient ruins, I experienced something like an LSD-induced time warp: Bedouin transvestites had taken over four ancient temples dating from the fourth century BC. “It is a discotheque!” exclaimed an Italian passerby as he looked upon the colorful, pulsating encampment below. His female companion said, “It is not possible!” But there it was: Eli Sudbrack’s assume vivid astro focus collective was making its debut in Rome. Flashing neon hieroglyphs adorned the walls of the Temple of Juturna, and a multicolor projection bathed the columns of the oldest temple, devoted to fertility goddess Feronia.
As I descended the steps into the sacred psychedelic ruins, Roman artist Ra Di Martino said, “Strangely enough, this is the first time I’ve been inside these temples.” Wearing a kitschy crucifix adorned with images of the Madonna, the Italian journalist and provocateur Roberto D’Agostino seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, joking around with curator Francesco Bonami in a streamer-lined corridor. Standing before a giant poster of a woman in red who was too-much-woman-to-be-a-woman—like a transgender Jocelyn Wildenstein with exaggerated red lips and formidable cleavage to match—Bonami later commented that it took more than a month to get permission to invade the archaeological site with contemporary art, which seemed fairly expeditious considering the nature of the intervention and the bureaucratic rigmarole typically required to get authorization for anything in Italy. However, it seemed particularly ironic that this exhibition would be permitted today, given the condemnations of gay culture by Gianni Alemanno, the recently elected neofascist mayor, along with his dismantling of the previous administration’s extensive cultural initiatives. But perhaps the key here was the influence of the exhibition’s corporate sponsor: Enel, Italy’s largest power company.
Once I arrived in the center of the pulsating wooden construction and donned my tribal gorilla mask, I caught the carnival spirit and abandoned myself to the sacrilege of it all. Wafting about like a butterfly in a long black-and-white caftan, Sudbrack mentioned that he “hoped people would start dancing soon.” The debauched squat was plastered with blowups of cross-dressers and decorated with bunches of balloons inscribed with the names of Italian women and transvestites. One of avaf’s partners in crime, French multimedia artist Christophe Hamaide-Pierson, described a visit by Enel’s representatives the day before: “It was weird, they had no problem with displaying the naked breasts; it was the fetishistic features of the transvestites’ faces they didn’t like. But since then, I have seen lots of women walking around here in Rome with badly done work!” He said that members of avaf had been living a nomadic life, traveling constantly for the past two years to set up their campy road show around the world.
The ruins of Largo Argentina were excavated in the 1930s thanks to Mussolini’s desire to revive the symbols of Rome’s status as caput mundi, but somehow that dream was never quite realized. Although it contains some of the oldest relics in Rome and was the site of Julius Caesar’s assassination (in 44 BC), the sunken piazza is now essentially a cat sanctuary, and literally hundreds of the feral creatures run free among the stubs of columns and sacrificial altars. But not one of them was in sight during last Thursday’s opening.
According to the curatorial statement, the artistic intention was to “respect the archaeological site but at the same time revitalize it by dragging it into the present”—no pun apparently intended. Speaking of which, the dearth of drag queens was curious; the attendees of the opening party, feeding enthusiastically from an incredibly long table running the entire length of the piazza, were less art world than young professionals of the Roman haute bourgeoisie. Given the storied comportment of the ancient Romans, who reportedly partook in frequent orgiastic bacchanalia, the Largo Argentina may be the most appropriate venue for an avaf installation yet. The place even features remnants of public toilets from the Roman Republic, in case anyone decided to take it that far. But alas, no one danced. And the only hallucinogenic vision was an optical illusion: the signature avaf light prisms made by the lenses in our masks.