The Gulf Between

Dubai
03.27.09

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“He looks very virile,” she announced.

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


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

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

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

David Velasco

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


State of Grace

Moscow
03.24.09

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Kate Sutton

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


Drawing a Crowd

San Francisco
03.21.09

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Glen Helfand

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


Show Boat

New York
03.18.09

Left: Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi. Right: The Lieb House.


TWO MONTHS AGO, when architect Frederic Schwartz learned that the Lieb House—one of Pritzker Prize–winning architect Robert Venturi’s earliest buildings and an icon of postmodernism—was slated for demolition by developers, his reflexive response took the form of a question: “How much?” Too much for him alone, it turned out. But with the help of Venturi’s son, Jim, he tracked down a couple of Venturi aficionados who eagerly accepted an unusual proposal: The house would be lifted off its original beachfront lot in Barnegat Light, New Jersey, where it had stood for exactly forty years, and floated by barge up to the new owner’s property in Glen Cove on the North Shore of Long Island. There it would sit beside the buyer’s other prize architectural possession: another Venturi house, this one from 1987.

Last Thursday night, three generations of house owners gathered together amid Lieb House blueprints hung from the narrow confines of Steven Holl’s Storefront for Art and Architecture (where the decision to mount an exhibition on the house had been made “just ten days ago,” according to Storefront director Joseph Grima). The homeowners reminisced about their days living in Barnegat Light and showered encomiums on Denise Scott Brown (Venturi’s wife and partner in the firm) and Venturi himself who, at eighty-three, was making a rare public appearance. Two of the owners fell in love with Venturi’s work only after they had purchased homes by the architect. “I had no idea it was a Venturi house,” recalled Sheila Ellman of the Barnegat Light property. “All these people came knocking on the door to see it. They said, ‘You didn’t know what this was?’” “Robert Venturi?” she remembered exclaiming. “I love him!” Dermatologist Debra Sarnoff and her plastic-surgeon husband, Robert Gotkin, the Lieb House’s newest owners, had never heard of the Venturis when they purchased their “boat-shaped” home in Glen Cove. They’ve since become collectors of the architect’s home furnishings. While Sarnoff refused to divulge just how many first editions of Learning from Las Vegas she now owns, she wasn’t shy about showcasing her newly acquired Venturi-speak, describing Lieb House as “a modest little shack—it doesn’t even look like a ‘decorated shed.’” Sarnoff wasn’t the only one riffing on the Venturi canon. When the younger Venturi presented the senior architect with his plan to move Lieb House into an unfamiliar context, Venturi invoked his own manifesto from 1966: “Let’s do it; I’m all for ‘complexity and contradiction.’”

Early the next morning, everyone convened again, this time at the South Street Seaport, to watch the house coast up the East River en route to its destination. Gotkin and Sarnoff, impeccably dressed at 7 AM, courted the news cameras as the bleary-eyed crowd of architects and buffs nursed coffees and awaited the signal that the barge was near. When word came, everyone rushed outside and into the particularly cold March air, straining to find the house through scopes and digital cameras. “I’m just going to trust my own eyes,” asserted Scott Brown, dismissing a coin-operated telescope installed at the pier’s edge. “Look at the nine,” Venturi quietly exclaimed when the house, and its Pop-art-inspired, five-foot-high number 9, came into view. The crowd grew hushed. While there was something absurd about the juxtaposition of the little house bobbing up and down beside the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan, Scott Brown found pedagogical value in the spectacle. “How does a little thing like that trump its whole environment?” she asked. “It’s a wonderful lesson in scale.” As the migrant building sped by and the crowd hustled from one end of the pier to the other to watch the house and its tugboat disappear under the Brooklyn and Williamsburg bridges, the new owners, who had planned a party to celebrate its arrival at Glen Cove, were already checking their watches. “It went by in a flash,” observed Gotkin. “Now we have to rush home to receive it!”

On a Haunch

London
03.16.09

Left: Artist Rebecca Warren with Bianca Jagger. Right: Artist Polly Morgan with Jude Law. (All photos: Ana Finel Honigman)


LAST MONDAY, following a short flight from Berlin, I stopped by the Serpentine’s preview for Rebecca Warren’s first survey in a UK public gallery. I’ve long been skeptical of the hype surrounding her untidy and ambiguously referential sculptures (which critics often seem to ascribe with feminist meaning), so I was excited to see how her exhibition stacked up.

Something about the work still seemed half-baked to me, but at least the crowd was hot. The Tate’s eminent Sir Nicholas Serota, artists Tracey Emin, Glenn Brown, and Mat Collishaw, musician Alison Goldfrapp, and Bianca Jagger made their way around Warren’s rough-hewn masses of abstract or vaguely figurative clay and bronze forms. Some were on plinths; others were positioned on the floor. The rest were in loosely assembled vitrines in which she combined her unglazed lumps with plush toys and neon lights. A gruff Juergen Teller wandered around with dealer Sadie Coles, eventually pausing to contemplate a beetroot-hued tartan print Warren had painted on a bulbous mound of clay. Meredith Ostrom, the fresh-faced and affable actress who played Nico in Factory Girl, caught me up on the details of her own upcoming exhibition. As we studied an especially elaborate composition involving miniature clay beer bottles, a skull with snakes in its eyes, a neon bulb, and a well-loved stuffed blue bunny, she dilated on art’s potential to inspire underprivileged third-world children.

Having had my fill of rough reality, I decamped early . . . ish. Enough time, anyway, to get a proper rest before the show I was sure would be great. The next night, I made my way to Haunch of Venison for the opening of their new Burlington Gardens space, in the grand building formerly occupied by the Royal Academy, which they were christening with a group show titled “Mythologies.” I was thrilled to be greeted at the entrance by John Isaac’s gleaming gold orb on a weathered plinth; the totemic ball was almost hypnotic, pulling me up the stairs toward the main exhibition space.

Left: Dealer Sadie Coles with artist Juergen Teller. Right: ICA artistic director Ekow Eshun.


Once upstairs, I had a nice chat with Jude Law about his sister Natasha’s upcoming show at the Eleven gallery, in collaboration with artist Daisy de Villeneuve. The exhibition is apparently a rogue’s gallery of composite portraits of the pair’s “worst female friends.” “My sister is the most nontoxic person I know,” Law dutifully noted as we studied Polly Morgan’s life-size wooden coffin stuffed with taxidermied chicks.

Leaving Law, I bumped into writer Louisa Buck, whose arm was in a serious surgical sling. She told me that she needed to have a torn tendon stitched up after an accident skating. I strangely assumed she meant “skateboarding,” but she disabused me. “What a nightmare, me as a middle-aged skateboarder,” she said. “I’d get demolished.”

Perusing the remaining twinkling and opulent objects, I came across “Mythologies” artist Tim Noble’s interpretation of Daniele Buetti’s glittering surfaces dotted with pinpricks exposing points of white light from the light box underneath. “It’s all about cocaine,” Noble suggested dryly before we stopped to admire a text message on his phone that Isabella Blow had sent him not long before she passed away. “We should try to call her,” he suggested as we watched Nancy Kienholz correct an off-kilter crucifix, one of seventy-six in a collaborative installation she made with her late husband, Ed. But phone calls to the dead are a bit macabre, even for Noble, and instead we joined the rest of the lively party en route to the Groucho Club.

Ana Finel Honigman

Left: Artist Nancy Kienholz. Right: Haunch of Venison director Harry Blain with Bodil Blain.


Family Circus

Los Angeles
03.12.09

Left: Artists Andrea Bowers and Catherine Opie. Right: The convention-center entrance. (All photos: Lauren O'Neill-Butler)


NEARLY TWELVE THOUSAND PEOPLE were naturalized a fortnight ago at the Los Angeles Convention Center; meanwhile, four thousand were sequestered nearby in the dimly lit lecture rooms, present for the College Art Association’s annual conference. It was easy to get lost in the shuffle: Descending the escalators, I spotted ecstatic new citizens holding tiny American flags and frazzled art historians in casual-smart garb prowling the floors and pushing their way out into the upper-seventies heat, where vendors hawked picture frames, certificate holders, and street meat. The latter group wore name tags around their necks (some with official ribbons), and chest gawking was a popular activity.

Most conference-goers seemed to be lodging at downtown hotels, many at Fredric Jameson’s favorite, the Bonaventure. A good number seemed also to be there without cars and dined at nearby chain restaurants like a throng of Rotarians (the ESPN sports club seemed a common spot), while buses shuttled them to and from destinations. Over two hundred sessions were offered, from the obligatory panel on Felix Gonzalez-Torres to “My So-Called Second Life.” There were also tours, film screenings, and receptions at night, if one didn’t get her fill during the eight-hour days at the convention center, while satellite talks at USC, MoCA, and the MAK center turned the conference into a citywide event.

I arrived on Wednesday, in time for “The Aesthetics of Counterculture,” a panel organized by Adam Jay Lerner, the new director of the MCA Denver, and the University of Colorado’s Elissa Auther. After Amy E. Azzarito’s illuminating talk on the Libre commune, I stuck around for a paper on West Coast light shows by Simon Fraser University’s Robin Oppenheimer. “If you got ’em, smoke ’em—sorry I can’t provide,” she quipped to start, and I was beginning to think the experience would turn out pleasurable after all. I was quickly proved wrong: Although this panel veered away from art objects as such, it included typical CAA highs and lows, with the lows (abstruse language; too slowly or, worse, too quickly delivered papers) bringing to mind grueling graduate school seminars.

Left: Artists Stanya Kahn and Drew Heitzler. Right: Art historian Irving Sandler.


It makes sense that CAA, like any academic conference, replicates educational structures: Sessions, like classes, are held at intervals: 9:30 to 12:00, 12:30 to 2:00, and 2:30 to 5:00. Those fond of endurance art might stick around all day; after a few hours I was ready to go. Thursday proved to be the most salient, at any rate, not only for the thousands becoming citizens in the West Hall but also for the 450 eager minds packed into what was clearly the blockbuster session: “What is Contemporary Art History?” Following a round of intriguing opening remarks, the panelists, all from California schools––Pamela M. Lee, Richard Meyer, Grant Kester, and Miwon Kwon––mostly preferred to discuss (what else?) teaching, primarily the professionalization of their students, courses, and dissertation topics. It wasn’t long before I wondered what might be transpiring next door at “Attention Must Be Paid,” featuring artists Sharon Lockhart and Lynn Hershman-Leeson, but exiting this session, amid the many people parked in the aisles, proved to be more difficult than the usual touch-and-go act one learns to develop at the conference.

Serving as a response to CAA in general, and perhaps that didactic session in particular, was Our Literal Speed’s version of a paper, which they delivered on Friday. “Timid and opportunistic, our generation of critics and historians have bred an aversion to experiment,” offering instead, they noted, “minor texts” and “minor ideas.” Switching between two speakers, OLS fervently and yet vaguely argued that contemporary art historians continually attempt to achieve the “first-est with the most-est.” This thought resonated nicely with a talk between Andrea Bowers and Catherine Opie on Saturday, during a day of free panels organized by the Feminist Art Project. When asked about her students, Bowers mentioned that she was more interested in a “familial model of health” than metaphorically killing the generation before or creating competition––a novel idea, to be sure.

Fleeing downtown, I finally went to look at some art, but not before stopping at the CAA book fair, where I discovered the latest catalogues and art journals, all at slash-and-burn rates, the sellers looking to get the hell out of Dodge. That night, Circus Gallery opened “Put On,” a group exhibition featuring some of the artists who had participated in the CAA panel “The De-Centered Practice,” including X-TRA’s Shana Lutker, Paper Monument’s Dushko Petrovich, and artists Drew Heitzler and Tyler Coburn. Outside, in the crepuscular light, I didn’t see too many familiar faces from the conference halls. Beers were slurped, cigarettes were smoked, and we thought, as one artist put it, “CAA? What’s that?”

Lauren O’Neill-Butler

Left: Art historians Noah Chasin and Hannah Feldman. Right: A view of the panel “The Aesthetics of Counterculture.”