Pearl Lam was having trouble with her staff—or at least she was making a show of it, shouting from the kitchen, slamming doors, appearing occasionally to sulk in the doorway. For Pearl, the magnetic art wallah behind Shanghai’s influential Contrasts galleries, the world is both her stage and her oyster. (The New York Times recently proclaimed her a “Shanghai Auntie Mame,” while the local Tatler made the “Arts Party Lady” the cover model for its September issue.) Known for her large and lively dinners (she hosted one each of my first four nights in China) as much as for her ebullient attitude toward art, she seemed to exemplify—or even, occasionally, constitute—the flash and heat of Shanghai’s often business-minded art scene. “Pearl is sui generis,” remarked Art Basel director Marc Spiegler later that week. “There is no one else like her.”
A group of us were having lunch on the twenty-first floor of the majestic 41 Hengshan Road, a luxury high-rise (built by Pearl’s mother, the developer Koo Siu-ying) that towers above the squat and verdant French Concession district. The bunch of us had been invited to stay in Pearl’s building, arriving the Sunday before last to take in Shanghai’s biennial and ShContemporary fair along with an exhausting list of openings and other activities (visits to see Yinka Shonibare at James Cohan, Michael Lin at the Shanghai Gallery or Art, and the gallery complex at Moganshan Road included). It would have been a real treat to stay in the penthouse, but Pearl’s astrologist, Linda Joyce, was already crashing there.
Left: Artist Wang Tiande. Right: Long March's Lu Jie and David Tung.
The itinerary was in a bit of disarray due to the postponement of the scheduled Iranian-art show (the work was held up in customs), so I ventured forth to explore other venues, including curator Biljana Ciric’s intriguing “Strategies from Within: An Exhibition of Vietnamese and Cambodian Contemporary Art Practices.” (How one longs, though, for a laconic title.) Afterward was dinner at Xian Qiang Fang, the elegant Chinese-opera restaurant that features as a setting in Yang Fudong’s famous film cycle Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, followed by an afterparty on the Bund for the Hou Hanru–curated Yang Jiechang retrospective at the Duolun Museum, though I left soon after arriving, still reeling from the fifteen-hour flight.
Wang Tiande’s opening at the main Contrasts space the next day was a media frenzy. Television crews interviewed attendees while Wang leaped from collectors to journalists to politicians (including Shanghai’s former mayor). Fifty tons of coal sat in a pile just beyond the anteroom. I asked Pearl whether the work was a nod to Walter De Maria. “No, no,” Pearl responded tetchily. “He doesn’t know De Maria or Kiefer or any of that Western nonsense. He knows Andy Warhol.”
Standing nearby, Wang perked up: “Ah! Andy Warhol.”
“Yes, Warhol,” Pearl continued. “But he’s really a traditional ink-brush artist trying to make his practice relevant within a contemporary context.” This seems a common theme in Chinese art. (Hanru similarly situates Yang Jiechang in his catalogue essay.) From what I gather, Wang’s arch solution was to reduce things to silhouette, burning pieces of parchment and photographing their ashes so that they look like distant mountain summits reflecting the pile of coal, which in turn resembles the shifting peaks and valleys of the Chinese art market, represented by a large animated graph hung from one wall.
Next stop was the biennial. Insipidly titled “Translocalmotion” (at least it’s brief) and vaguely concerned with themes of urbanization, the exhibition’s seventh edition was an unfocused hodgepodge featuring, among other things, a “History Briefing of Shanghai City,” several rooms given over to documentaries and a timeline of this fragmented metropolis. The most compelling work seemed to be in photography, such as Klaus Mettig’s panoramic landscapes from different international “hot spot” cities and Charles Yi Yong Lim’s Becheresque series of lighthouse photos—though even these felt stifled by the exhibition’s bland conceit. Mike Kelley’s “Kandor” installation was impressive at the Carnegie, but Pittsburgh must have gotten all the good stuff, as the works brought here (as part of the “Keynote” section of the exhibition) seemed shopworn and thin. Yue Minjun’s ubiquitous smiley faces continued to pop up everywhere—this time on the bodies of a row of facile, shimmering dinosaur sculptures. “This is what happens when you don’t have a history of modern art to fall back on,” said CCA Wattis director Jens Hoffmann, cynically eying his surroundings. At some point, while wandering between the gift shop and the obligatory Lawrence Weiner installation on the ground floor, I had the discomfiting feeling that I was lost in that Borgesian Chinese encyclopedia Foucault invokes at the beginning of The Order of Things; things just stopped making sense. It was hard to leave with anything but the dimmest view of contemporary art.
Later at lunch at Issimo, an elegant Italian restaurant in the JIA boutique hotel, Hong Kong–based collector Hallam Chow made an argument for the exhibition: “This edition’s great for the Shanghai people. They’ll love Jing Shijian’s train and Yin Xiuzhen’s flying machine. You have to consider who it’s for.” He then pointed out a young artist at the table who had recently made a splash in the local market with a painting sold directly from her studio. All those fussing about Damien Hirst’s lucrative publicity stunt of an auction should take note of China, where it’s not uncommon at all for even artists without galleries to take work directly to the block. Here, perhaps even more than New York and London, the market is king.
“This place is so capitalist!” affirmed dealer David Maupin, manning his booth at Tuesday’s VIP opening of the ShContemporary fair. Now in its second year, the fair actually seemed a more coherent exhibition than the biennial, and the large outdoor projects more ambitious and better installed. (Excepting perhaps a snafu regarding one of Wim Delvoye’s installations, a bevy of tattooed pigs that were deemed unsanitary, or perhaps simply too noxious, by officials.) Some dealers were said to sell out their booths, though with the roughly 35 percent sales tax it seemed that many were simply taking orders and saving the actual deals for home—or for tax-free Hong Kong. Set in the gilded, colonnaded halls of the Shanghai Exhibition Center (née the Palace of Sino-Soviet Friendship), the site is an ostentatious example of Stalinist architecture that, while incongruous to the flimsy white booths installed for the fair, seemed a welcome enough setting for commerce. “At least Stalin did something nice,” joked Long March gallery’s Lu Jie, whose selection of works by Zhan Wang and Lin Tianmiao was one of the standouts at the fair.
Back at Pearl’s for dinner, I spotted Ullens Center director Jérôme Sans, Frieze Art Fair director Matthew Slotover, and the Rubells, who seemed quite taken with their host’s garish-glam apartment. “We see you in all the best places,” Mera Rubell told a guest, before darting off to admire the decor. “This is just fabulous!” I sat next to Maria Elena, the urbane wife of ShContemporary director (and former Art Basel director) Lorenzo Rudolf. We dilated on simple matters, on travel and the difficulties of hosting in foreign countries, on her family in Switzerland and America’s increasingly isolationist policies. Then, for the first time in three days, we spoke of the US presidential election, of McCain and Obama and Palin, of the faltering economy, and I was struck by how far away it all sounded.
Left: Jeff Koons's New Hoover Convertibles Green, Green, Red, New Hoover Deluxe Shampoo Polishers, New Shelton Wet/Dry 5-Gallon, Displaced Tripledecker, 1981–87, installed at the Château de Versailles. (Photo: Jeff Koons, Laurentt Lecat/Éditions Xavier Barral) Right: Versailles president Jean-Jacques Aillagon, Jeff Koons, collector François Pinault, Jacques Chirac, and French minister of culture Christine Albanel. (Except where noted, all photos: Nicolas Trembley)
The other morning, a French TV talk show featured a spot on the Jeff Koons Versailles controversy. (Even in sophisticated France, few popular TV shows address contemporary art—except perhaps to criticize it.) “You either like it or you don’t,” one of the women said. “But you have to be impressed by the fact that the king of kitsch, the one who’s put vacuum cleaners behind glass and who married the ex–porn star Cicciolina, is showing at the château!” Rarely has an exhibition in France aroused so much public debate or such wide media coverage.
To summarize, the complaints are as follows. Reactionaries such as Édouard de Royère, one of the site’s key patrons, argue that “contemporary art fosters distraction and destruction of the perfect whole.” Others criticize the conflicts of interest, suggesting that Jean-Jacques Aillagon, ex-director of the Palazzo Grassi and now president of the Versailles foundation, is out to promote the collection of his former boss, François Pinault. The rest just want to know what all the fuss is about.
I reached Versailles Wednesday afternoon on the regional RER train. (I was probably the only one of the 150 invitees to have taken it, since, unlike the others, I don’t have a private chauffeur.) The atmosphere was unspoiled by the controversy, and except for a smallish group of protesters organized by the National Union of Writers of France, who picketed that morning, none of the announced demonstrations were actually held.
Left: Curator Laurent Le Bon. Right: Dealer Larry Gagosian (on right).
In the Royal Court, where one of Koons’s “Balloon Flowers” has the place of honor, the guests were greeted by Monsieur Aillagon, director Pierre Arizzoli-Clémentel, exhibition cocurator Laurent Le Bon (Elena Geuna was busy giving birth in Italy), and Koons and his wife, Justine.
The guest list comprised the crème de la crème: Jacques Chirac and his wife, Bernadette, whose presence set off a flurry of feverish flashes from accredited photographers; Christine Albanel, minister of culture and former president of the Versailles foundation; and major international contemporary art VIPs. It’s impossible to name them all, but it should go without saying that the big sponsors and art lenders were present, including, among others, Pinault, Dakis Joannou, Eli Broad, and Edgar de Picciotto. “This looks like a bar mitzvah,” said the lady next to me. I felt like I was at a simple reunion for a family of very nice millionaires.
Eventually, we made our way into the deserted château to view the piano nobile. This is Koons’s first institutional solo exhibition in France—in fact, he had never even been to Versailles before he was invited to exhibit there. (His only other exhibition in the country was eleven years ago at Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont.) The château show comprises seventeen sculptures (none of them new) installed individually outside and in the different rooms that make up the royal apartment of the king, the apartment of the queen, and the recently renovated Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors), in which was placed the glimmering Moon (Light Blue). We had seen images in the press kit, but the real-life juxtaposition of Koons and Versailles was simply incredible. As the guests filed in one behind the other, they oohed and aahed, laughing and exclaiming. Some preferred the pieces that seemed to melt into the decor such as Large Vase of Flowers or the bust Louis XIV. “That one was made to be here!” a woman said. Others were more partial to the culture shock of Chainlink Fence, for example. “The public’s not going to like those inflatable plastic beach rings on the fence,” Colombe Pringle, editor of Point de Vue, the weekly people’s almanac, whispered to me.
Left: Collectors Viktor Pinchuk and Elena Leonidivna Franchuk. (Photo: Luc Castel) Right: Artists Pierre and Gilles.
Some iconic pieces like Rabbit (exhibited in the Salon de l’Abondance) are, undoubtedly for insurance reasons, presented behind glass, recalling the works in the “New Hoover” series, one of which is the artist’s only piece in France’s national collections. As one guest noted, the transparent showcases reinforce the works’ precious, glossy aspect and provide a kind of “vintage” quality to the château.
Even the plaques, placed right on the floor, impress. Each one contains the work’s title and provenance. Collections named included the François Pinault Foundation (six works), Michael & B. Z. Schwartz Collection (one), Dakis Joannou Collection (two), Astrup Fearnley Collection (one), Wolfsburg Kunstmuseum (one), Peter Brant (one), and the Ludwig Collection (one). The more discreet lenders were simply listed as “Private Collection,” but when Ukrainian collector Viktor Pinchuk and his wife were deliberately photographed in front of one work, we thought it was probably a good bet it belonged to them.
Next, our group, composed of Larry Gagosian, Simon de Pury, Jeffrey Deitch, Stella McCartney, and others, was invited outside to the gardens where, in the midst of a splendid sunset, we admired Koons’s forty-foot-tall topiary Split-Rocker, plopped in the flowerbed of the Orangerie gardens. The Château’s head gardener had installed the work himself, and he seemed quite pleased with the result.
Left: Collector Monique Barbier-Müller. Right: Amy Cappellazzo, Christie's international cohead of postwar and contemporary art, and Lauren Taschen.
Next, three Disneyesque electric trains arrived to take us to the Grand Trianon. For the ride, I was seated next to Le Bon, who confided that the installation hadn’t been easy, since all the preparations had to be done when the museum was closed to the public. In addition, all the works had to be closely examined by a technical team to determine their precise size, mass, and the like. The construction of the wall holding Moon had been especially complex. Obviously, one couldn’t just drive nails into the walls of the château.
The immense table of comestibles set up in the Cotelle Gallery of the Trianon impressed and enchanted everyone—except for the vegetarians, who were offered nothing in lieu of the pâté de foie gras. Before the glazed nougat was served, Monsieur Aillagon raised his glass for a toast and then gave the floor to Koons. Visibly moved, Koons said that this was without a doubt the most important exhibition of his career, and he dedicated it to his mother, who had made the trip to be with him. The evening finished with a brief but exquisite display of fireworks over one of Lenôtre’s fountains. Xavier Veilhan—one of the only artists present and the next to be featured at Versailles—turned to me and said, “I definitely have my work cut out for me.” Around midnight, as the night was wearing down, minibuses arrived to pick up the guests and take them to their cars at the other end of the château. Unfortunately for me, there were no more trains at this late hour.
Left: Peaches. Right: Art Berlin Contemporary artistic director Ariane Beyn.
Fair was a four-letter word at last Thursday’s opening of Art Berlin Contemporary (ABC). Artistic director Ariane Beyn continually corrected those who called it a fair: “It is an exhibition,” she insisted—yet no one seemed to be listening. Standing around a Tom Burr installation, Cornelius Tittel, editor of German culture mag Monopol, and Alexander Schröder of Galerie Neu, one of ABC’s organizers, expressed cynicism about the difference, what with today’s dealers even selling directly out of the Venice Biennale.
Beyn had arranged works by seventy-four artists from forty-four Berlin galleries in the halls of a former postal train station in Kreuzberg, Berlin’s official alternative neighborhood. To compete with the mammoth space, it seemed that most of the (largely sculptural) works had to be big, like Georg Herold’s Deutsche Mutti, a yellow figure holding a phallic wooden stick. The emphasis on size seemed fitting, since the whole exhibition/fair was intended as something of a show of power against Art Forum Berlin, the city’s established art fair. (Galleries like Neu, Klosterfelde, and Max Hetzler have been organizing Berlin’s spring gallery weekend for a number of years, but this was a decidedly more ambitious enterprise.)
Left: Artist Uwe Kowski and Eigen + Art's Judy Lybke. Right: Artist Stella Hamberg.
There were high expectations for the vernissage, though the atmosphere had a familiar sensibility—or at least a familiar odor, what with the smoke from Grill Royal’s catering filling the hall. Standing next to Stella Hamberg’s giant sculpture Berserker—and directly in the way of the noxious cloud—dealer Judy Lybke must have smelled like one of those roasted salsiccia sausages by the end of the evening. Entertainment highlight Peaches turned out to be not such a highlight after all; maybe because arriving on the grounds in a stretch limo doesn’t qualify as a performance, not even in provincial Kreuzberg, or maybe because every Berliner has seen her at least twice already. As dealer Guido Baudach put it: “At least at Art Basel Miami Beach, she ran into the ocean naked.” Here she just did karaoke, singing relatively convincing covers of Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and Kate Bush’s “Babushka.”
There was much more excitement at the nightclub Kleine Nachtrevue, where Galerie Crone hosted a burlesque show in honor of Norbert Bisky’s exhibition featuring new paintings (mostly of pretty boys). Painter Amelie von Wulffen posed wildly for her personal photographer in the dense crowd, while Count Alexander von Schönburg and former Vanity Fair editor Ulf Poschardt fought over the few curry wursts handed out by the ladies behind the bar; apparently, they didn’t get enough of the salsicce at the fair. Later, around 11 PM, the ladies stepped onto the stage, leaving sausages and clothes behind as they performed an erotic blend of play and politics using IKEA toys. When a topless contortionist wiggled out of a suitcase, LA MoCA trustee Blake Byrne shouted, “She looks like Sarah Palin!” and almost left in fear. We left for other reasons—to try to catch the last bit of Richard Ruin’s performance at Kunst-Werke. But by the time we climbed the stairs to the art center’s rooftop stage, all we got to see was Martin Eder’s alter ego wiping the final beads of sweat from his chest.
Friday was reserved for gallery openings. With ABC being the third of four events this year competing to draw the jet-set crowd to Berlin, there was notably less buzz and fewer international collectors—for whom we all thought ABC had been invented. At a collegial opening at Tanya Leighton’s new gallery, Jeremy Deller showed photographs of allotment gardens in Münster. Paul McDevitt at Sommer & Kohl won the prize for most out-of-touch palette, both for his airbrush paintings recalling romantic posters from the 1980s and for his silver leather shoes. Michael Sailstorfer was in high form, chronicling exploding houses and flying trees. Much calmer were Vera Lutter’s camera obscura pictures of a flooded Venice, while at September, we caught the Frankurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s Peter Richter chatting with artist Dorothy Iannone about her first love.
The dinner party for Matt Mullican at Martin Klosterfelde’s apartment at first resembled parents’ night out. Artist Matthew Antezzo traded stories with guests about terrifying toddlers. Indeed, the star of the party was not Mullican, who had mounted a dense and excellent show, but his teenage twins, who with their attitude of “Oh God, another one of Dad’s boring art parties” and their great style (lots of black with plaid shirts) made for a fun antidote to the typical crowd. Guests fought over the duck with fig mustard and the orgasmic plums.
Next stop was Cookies, where galleries from Lindenstraße and Charlottenstraße were hosting their afterparty. At first, artist Marc Brandenburg had played his records to a packed house, but by 1 AM, he was chatting with Tageszeitung critic Brigitte Werneburg about suitable subjects for a hot flirt. (They couldn’t agree on any.) They should have made for the Glaspavillon on the old GDR boulevard Karl Marx Allee, where coquetry was in the air. Berlin Biennial curators Adam Szymczyk and Elena Filipovic were dancing closely, while Art Basel communications director Maike Cruse, Johann König, and Julieta Aranda were giving one another a little more breathing room on the floor. By Sunday morning, however, everyone was sober and back at the fair, though this time, the longest queue was not for access to the works but for the bouncing castle.
Left: Crone's Sónia Pires and artist Norbert Bisky. Right: A burlesque performance at Kleine Nachtrevue.
Neither fire nor wind nor rain can keep the intrepid gallerygoer from diving into a new exhibition season. On Wednesday night, even piracy came to the table, as Tim Nye brought seventy hearties to toast the indefatigable New Imagist Joe Zucker at a dinner for “Plunder from 1977 to 2008,” his show of square-rigger paintings at NYEHAUS in the quaint National Arts Club on Gramercy Park.
Skull-and-bones flags adorned two long tables in the Tiffany-glass-adorned parlor rooms, where artists Richard Artschwager and Jacqueline Humphries, Whitney Museum curator Donna DeSalvo, and board member Beth Rudin DeWoody rubbed elbows with LA dealer Tom Solomon, Detroit dealer Susanne Hilberry, and Carnegie Museum director Richard Armstrong, whose appointment to the top job at the Guggenheim had leaked only that day. “I start in December,” he said, delighted by the murmurs of approval from everyone in the room.
“This is the perfect show for me,” Nye told me at dinner, commenting on its what’s-old-is-new-sensibility and how Zucker’s way with materials—“waves” of gauze on canvas—keeps refreshing the notion of painting without dating either him or it. Swilling glasses of plain water, Nye then confessed he had given up drinking for learning to cook. “It’s surprisingly restful,” he said.
Thursday night’s openings in Chelsea, on the other hand, were almost electrifying. (If only!) Just as I was exiting Roe Ethridge’s packed show of going-them-one-better genre photos at Andrew Kreps, word came that an electric fire in a closet in the building housing the gallery Kravets Wehby had caused the evacuation of all the structure's tenants. That forced everyone from the openings for Christian Marclay at Paula Cooper, Nathan Carter at Casey Kaplan, and the Ryan Gander and Peggy Preheim shows at Tanya Bonakdar out into the darkened street. Some entertained themselves by stumbling down to Yvon Lambert and literally stepping into “Shit,” Andres Serrano’s latest answer to his Piss Christ, enshrined in a side room. I thought the new photographs looked a little like bejeweled mud patties posing at the bottom of aquariums, but I was in the minority. No other person in the crowd even bothered to look.
I don’t know what they talked about at Serrano’s Bowery Hotel dinner, but Cooper’s soiree for Marclay went on as scheduled, even though half of those scarfing up paella at La Nacional, including some of the several curators present—Jennifer Blessing, Trevor Schoonmaker, Chrissie Iles, Christopher Eamon—never got in to see the show. “Now you don’t have to worry whether or not you liked it,” Marclay said, letting everyone off the hook. “We can talk about someone else.”
Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin was the hands-down winner, not just that night but all weekend. I didn’t hear much talk about art, but maybe the season, like much of the gallery scene, is too young yet—but kind of beautiful. At least, it looked that way later, at the new Standard Hotel in the meatpacking district, where collector Peter Brant’s Interview magazine was kicking off New York’s Fashion Week with a blowout on the eighteenth floor. The building straddles the elevated Highline railway, soon to be a pedestrian mall; Thursday night, it was still a construction site, with particularly dramatic lighting. Though the windows were in and the views spectacular, many people standing under the open ductwork didn't dare step near the edge, for fear of falling. Of course, that didn't stop anyone from drinking, dancing, or ogling. But every now and then, between air-kisses, I heard hisses. Guess why? The mention of Palin's name.
By Saturday night, art-world e-mails about Palin’s looming disastership were bouncing all over the art-world Internet. The very skies over New York sobbed, as rain from Hurricane Gustav drenched the streets, causing the cancellation of the annual Creative Time/Deitch Projects Art Parade and keeping many enthusiasts home.
James Cohan’s opening for Xu Zhen, Folkert de Jong, and Martha Colburn was strangely quiet. Xu, I was told, only travels by slow boats from China. (He didn’t bother.) De Jong and Colburn, a New York artist the gallery had to go to Art Basel to discover, showed up after I was there. Oh, well. Martha Rosler was on hand for her new show at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, where you had to put a quarter in a turnstile to get in. (“Anybody need change?” offered Jay Gorney, jingling his pockets.)
More of the old guard was at Mary Boone, where her onetime mentor, Klaus Kertess, had organized a winning mix of painting, post-Minimal sculpture, and assemblage by young and old: Adam McEwen, recent Yalie Michael Edward Smith, Cy Twombly, Al Taylor, Barry Le Va, Keith Sonnier, Jason Tomme, and Robert Rauschenberg. Dinner at 5 Ninth was quite a jovial affair, perhaps because it kept everyone—Cecily Brown, Will Cotton, Pat Steir, Billy Sullivan, Maureen Gallace, and Aaron Young—warm and dry and relatively safe from politics, if not one another.
Left: Museum director Richard Armstrong, designer Britta Le Va, and curator Manuel Gonzalez. Right: Artist Keith Tyson. (Photo: Ryan McNamara)
Sunday dawned clear and bright for a minifestival of gallery openings on the Lower East Side. Despite creeping gentrification by YWPs (young white professionals), the small galleries, clothing shops, and bars tucked between Chinese restaurants and old synagogues has left this neighborhood with its traditional cultural-soup character intact. Liberated from bad weather and slickness, even at Lehman Maupin’s Big Brother space, it was easy to stop and have languorous conversations with artists Cheryl Donegan and Alix Pearlstein at Lisa Cooley, amusing to see how many Brazilian artworks curator Fernanda Arruda could pack into tiny Eleven Rivington without crowding, frustrating to find Reena Spaulings closed till “later,” and fun to find out, at RENTAL, that Robert Longo’s studio had spawned a whole new generation of artists who aren’t just clones.
By sunset, it was time for refueling in Long Island City. At Sculpture Center, the courtyard gravel that Ugo Rondinone had spray-painted with yellow Day-Glo for his two-person show with Scotsman Martin Boyce seemed to have a magnetic pull: It drew everyone attending the reception (Clarissa Dalrymple, Laura Hoptmann, Andrew Hamilton, Michele Maccarone, John Giorno) outside.
I teamed up with artist Andrew Lord and fellow scribes Lynne Tillman and Martha Schwendener to wait for the arrival of the seven handmade riverboats that graffiti artist Swoon was sailing down the Hudson and up the East River to Deitch Studios. A Providence-based marching brass band of bare-chested, tattooed, and goth players joined members of Swoon’s Brooklyn crew to keep the energy up until the first boat, a tootling steamship, appeared under the 59th Street Bridge with the artist standing on deck like George Washington crossing the Delaware. “This is all Swoon’s world,” said Jeffrey Deitch, pointing to the large-scale installation of energetically recycled and painted goods inside the warehouse. Her compatriot Dzine contributed tricked-up pedicabs, a bicycle, and a muscle car. “It’s like the ’60s all over again,” Lord said, smiling at the band of “ghost” cyclists, who perhaps are also a part of Swoon’s change-the-world-by-street-art crew. “It’s a Happening.” Or evidence that you never need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Not when a patron, or disciples, will do.
Zurich’s gallery districts are ordered according to their own idiosyncratic hierarchy, though the division is somewhat comparable to other cities. (There are still “uptown” galleries and “downtown” ones.) The younger dealers and offbeat spaces have moved to the red-light district behind the train station, global players like Hauser & Wirth and Eva Presenhuber have their headquarters in the Löwenbräu building on Limmatstrasse, and the city center hosts more “classic” galleries. (As everywhere, exceptions confirm the rule.) The scattered layout makes for three days of season openings, which kicked off on Wednesday with the galleries around the notorious Langstrasse, where I followed word-of-mouth recommendations (and flocks of hipsters) to various spots not on the official gallery map.
Zurich’s vibrant array of “off-the-map” spaces constitute a significant portion of the burgeoning Swiss art scene. One of those that is still off the map but now successfully on the radar is artist-cum-dealer Jean-Claude Freymond-Guth, who founded the nonprofit space Les Complices while still in art school. Freymond-Guth has reopened his gallery in a new space with a compelling video installation by Elodie Pong, featuring stuffed birds discussing the global economy. The space was still packed when it turned dark, which in Zurich is about 10 PM, and the crowd was so vivacious that the dealer apparently postponed his dinner plans to stay and cavort. Later, Freymond-Guth noted that he thought that Presenhuber, too, had started out as an artist. Aha! On the street, I bumped into a beaming but hurried Marc Spiegler, who was rushing from Freymond-Guth to Ryan McLaughlin’s opening at Groeflin Maag. He excused his haste by explaining that he’d had a late start, as he couldn’t bear leaving the hospital and his recently born child. He wouldn’t give the baby’s name, however. “I don’t want my offspring to be spoiled by the art world just yet.” Who can blame him?
Left: Dealer Jean-Claude Freymond-Guth with artist Elodie Pong. Right: Standard Oslo's Eivind Furnesvik with Gavin Brown's Alex Zachary.
Friday night featured less running but more pushing as I navigated the crowds clogging the staircase of the Löwenbräu building. In Tadeusz Kantor’s posthumous Gesamtkunstwerk-like exhibition at the Migros Museum, I ran across Felicity Lunn, still director of Kunstverein Freiburg (she announced her resignation in March, citing the institution’s dramatic financial restrictions), in conversation with Frank Schmidt, curator of the Museum Frieder Burda in Baden-Baden. Schmidt filled me in on his current plans: a show with German rock legend Udo Lindenberg—apparently a dedicated figurative painter. Live and learn. Next door, Peter Kilchmann celebrated his gallery’s fifteenth anniversary with a group show and a solo exhibition of Los Angeles–based painter Raffi Kalenderian. On the stairs to the top floor, I bumped into Hauser & Wirth’s Roger Tatley, who made the climb on crutches. “Surf accident,” he explained.
“Derek Jarman: Brutal Beauty” at the Kunsthalle Zürich was among the evening’s highlights. The homage to the late artist and filmmaker was curated by Isaac Julien and originally conceived for London’s Serpentine Gallery. I was not the only person surprised to encounter Jarman’s abstract paintings from the 1980s or the only one to learn that Jarman saw himself more as an artist than a filmmaker. The show commenced with Julien’s own portrait of Jarman, a double projection featuring material from his new film, Derek (2008), starring Tilda Swinton, and ended with Jarman’s beautiful yet harrowing Blue (1993), which features a blue-screen projection (in homage to Yves Klein) and sound track in which Jarman talks about AIDS and the experience of going blind.
Left: Dany Boler, Joelle Allet, and Kunsthalle St. Gallen director Giovanni Carmine. Right: Art Basel director Marc Spiegler and Phaidon's Michele Robecchi at Gallery Bob van Orsouw.
But the evening wasn’t meant to be one of contemplation. “It’s fantastic how many people come together here—all these openings in one house!” Julien frolicked. “See you at the party downstairs.” Soon thereafter, however, Julien and I found ourselves fleeing the crowds in the Löwenbräu courtyard in favor of the private dinner hosted by Presenhuber for artists Mark Handforth and Josh Smith, each of whom had opened a solo show in one of the gallery’s two venues. It is indeed a privilege to wait seated for one’s food instead of standing in a sixty-foot-long line. And the company—which included the Modern Institute’s Andrew Hamilton, Gavin Brown’s Alex Zachary, and Basel-based critic-curator Daniel Baumann—wasn’t bad, either. (I was even more grateful for the invitation when I later compared notes with Tatley, who had attended the Löwenbräu party. Apparently, a drunken local fell out of the elevator that doubles as a vodka bar and then ran off with Tatley’s crutches.) I caught the rest of a live sound performance by artists Luke Fowler, Lee Patterson, and Tomas Korber before being driven back home to Basel in the illustrious company of the Kunsthalle Basel’s past and current presidents, Peter Handschin and Martin Hatebur, as well as Christine Binswanger, a partner at Herzog & de Meuron.
On Saturday I skipped Zurich’s uptown receptions in favor of Mark Wallinger’s opening at the Aargauer Kunsthaus in Aarau, the inaugural exhibition organized by the space’s new director, Madeleine Schuppli, and another highlight of this arty weekend. The dinner was held on the museum’s rooftop, where I had the great pleasure to sit at a beer table with Wallinger, his family, and our mutual friends the always-jovial artist couple Suzanne Treister and Richard Grayson. Facing a magnificent view of the mountains at dusk, Wallinger enthusiastically proclaimed that the roof had the feeling of a flying carpet.
Left: Artist Mike Kelley. Right: A Royal/T maid serves espresso martinis. (Photo: Basil Childers)
No sooner did I get in the door to the Royal/T Gallery in Culver City last week than I was accosted by a gelato-wielding young woman in a housekeeper’s uniform—brown dress with frilly white slip showing, topped with frilly white apron and collar. Smiling sweetly, she asked what flavor I preferred.
Royal/T is a gallery with multiple personalities, among which are a bar, a teahouse, and a retail shop. Collector Susan Hancock opened it early this year, moving from New York to Los Angeles at the suggestion of Tim Blum and Jeff Poe, whose gallery is down the road from the space in Culver City. I was there for the opening of “All of This Is Melting Away,” an exhibition named for a Jim Hodges text collage hanging just inside the door. This in itself was not unusual. But I felt ever so slightly disoriented by the regressively costumed receptionist.
“This is a maid café and a gallery,” the woman said, gesturing toward three other women in French-maid costumes scooping gelato out of a mobile ice-cream freezer brought in to go with the exhibition’s “melting” theme.
“Culver City is like Mayberry,” the jolly Hancock told me, adding that the ten-thousand-square-foot Royal/T was the first maid café in the US. (A second, Bar C, has just opened in Little Tokyo near MoCA’s Geffen Contemporary.) In case you are as ignorant of this phenomenon as I, maid cafés (meido kissas) are an outgrowth of “cosplay,” the performance-art part of the cutesy-poo, sexually deviant otaku culture imported from Japan. (Cosplayers act out their favorite manga characters. In LA, apparently, a Lolita-style nymphette is one of them.)
Looking around, I saw café tables and a bar to the left, beside a Plexiglas, hospital-style gift shop selling editioned toys by a passel of Japanese popsters. I turned to the exposed-brick wall on the right, where there stood three more display rooms that included a white fiberglass Yoshitomo Nara dog, some black glass sperm by Fred Wilson, a Tracey Emin JUST LOVE ME neon sign, a phallic Franz West, and a tabletop installation by Beth Campbell of fake potted orchids laid out in a grid on a “magic” carpet. The piece was new, made when Hancock requested such a carpet and Campbell complied, even though she does not take requests.
None of the art on the floor was for sale. That is because all of it belongs to Hancock. The works were selected for the show, or rather the shop—I mean the salon-de-thé—by Jay Sanders, more often found working as director of the Greene Naftali Gallery in New York. “I thought it would be nice to try something like this,” he said, looking around for familiar faces. On this dull, late-summer evening, there were, at that point, only a few: dealer Lisa Overduin, artist Paul Sietsema, and Campbell. “But,” he added with enthusiasm, “I got to book this great DJ to come from Tokyo.” He was speaking of Masaya Nakahara, a noise-music veteran who was to jam later that night at a club called the Echo with LA art luminaries Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, who were making an exceedingly rare local appearance together.
The downside of keeping up with art in LA is the driving. Getting to the Echo, which lies on the east side of Silver Lake in Echo Park, is something like driving to the Hamptons on a summer weekend in New York. There’s a lot of traffic, and when you finally get there, you start to suspect it was not worth the trip. But according to Sanders, “the boys” wanted to play in a proper music venue, not a gallery, so the Echo squeezed them in after the evening’s main event, a three-piece band called Xiu Xiu whose interminable set alternated between extremely harsh and beautifully delicate sounds.
The artists had been scheduled to go on at 10 PM. At midnight, they began setting up the stage: Kelley laid out a big baby blanket to cushion his amp and various noisemaking dolls; Nakahara set up a table crammed with wires, tape players, mixers, and portable hard drives; and McCarthy brought a guitar, some brown paper tubes (through which to blow), and electronic effects boxes he had bought only that day and never tried before. Had they rehearsed? “We try not to,” McCarthy said. “But we did have dinner together last night.”
At 12:30, a small crowd of devotees young enough to be Kelley and McCarthy’s grandchildren—former students, I guessed—pushed toward the stage, and the performance began with sounds so inhuman I can only compare them to a night in the jungle when every animal alive is either mating or feasting. For added effect, every now and then Nakahara, rolling his eyes back under their lids, would shriek into his microphone. In fact, sonic surprises abounded, and for all the wild sound, the performance was quite visual, thanks to the various props. So what if you couldn’t dance to it? You could liberate your mind to it, and isn’t that the proper pursuit of art—or at least a good reason to chase it into the night?