Left: “Eclipse” curator Magnus af Petersens. Right: A view of the Moderna Museet. (All photos: Kyle Bentley)
People were growing impatient, waiting to deplane at Stockholm-Arlanda as a faded red carpet was being unrolled, laboriously, across the tarmac. The preview of the Moderna Museet’s exhibition “Eclipse: Art in a Dark Age” would soon be starting, and I should have been on my way to the hotel, but I was still in seat 14B. Outside rippled an American flag. Two snipers were positioned on the roof of Terminal Five. Eventually a reedy man descended the portable staircase, and the passenger seated next to me whispered, “It’s the what’s he called? Like the president of the UN. That Korean guy.” It was then, on the Thursday morning before last, while United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon was shaking hands and being photographed, that it became apparent that the museum’s fiftieth anniversary and the opening of “Eclipse” would be, in terms of civic to-do, overshadowed by a UN-sponsored conference on Iraq.
This seemed to support the show’s point. That weekend’s strong bureaucratic presence—hotels were filled, police deployed, central streets closed regularly (apparently whenever Condoleezza Rice was coming through)—served as a felicitous backdrop to the picture that exhibition curator Magnus af Petersens sought to paint. “Today,” he said, when I finally did arrive, “there is a general air of didacticism, with the right pushing the ‘war on terror,’ the left ‘political correctness.’” In the catalogue, he quotes Toni Burlap, the fictional third “curator” of the 2006 Whitney Biennial, quoting the show’s actual curators, Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne: “The opposite of ‘right’ is not ‘left,’ but ‘wrong.’ Since the world seems to be moving inextricably to the right . . . to be wrong is to be the opposition.”
Left: Robyn (right) with a fan. Right: Moderna Museet director Lars Nittve with Victoria, crown princess of Sweden, and David Elliott, former director of the Moderna Museet.
So visitors are shown nine artists who, in making fictive work “free of didactic claims,” are so “wrong” they are right. An equivocal dissonance rings throughout, darkness here meaning both the didacticism obscuring some romantic past (which is bad) and an unknown into which the artists bravely “venture” (which is good). But more confusing is the show’s insistence that the artists undertake such a journey at all, when actually most seem interested in working within a set of worldly givens. “It was primarily about the language,” artist Lucas Ajemian said.
The opening that night included a series of musical performances, the first of which was by “prog-rock” band Fläsket Brinner (whose name translates roughly as “The Pork Is Burning”). The group are apparently favorites of Moderna director Lars Nittve but found their biggest fan in the older gentleman dancing enthusiastically by himself in neon-green socks and a white suit screenprinted with, it seemed, self-portraits as Andy Warhol in drag. Better received by the younger guests was Swedish club darling, and Moderna board member, Robyn. Her catchy pop, tuned so perfectly as to occasionally cloy (maybe it’s cultural; think ABBA), electrified the museum and received such a fervent response that if, unlike the flamboyant Fläsket Brinner fan, you didn’t feel like dancing onstage with Robyn herself, then you got lost in the crush.
Lucas Ajemian and his brother Jason both closed out Thursday night (by instigating, and then winning, a break-dancing battle at an afterparty in Östermalm for the art academy) and opened Friday evening, by performing their work Out of Nowhere/From Beyond in the airy church next to the museum. Consisting of a backward version of the Black Sabbath song “Into the Void” conducted by Jason, sung by Lucas, and played by an orchestra of young local musicians, the performance took place that weekend a number of times, each yielding favorable responses but, regrettably, no satanic messages.
“Artist, friends, and—I haven’t checked you all, but I think—ladies and gentleman,” began the jovial Nittve, the first speaker of many during the subsequent dinner celebrating the museum’s anniversary. Victoria, crown princess of Sweden, appeared in white on the large flat-screen TVs displaying live feeds, while Nittve thanked the guests for enduring the traffic and “fighting Condoleezza Rice,” which got a hearty laugh. Soon came the evening’s central event: an auction benefiting the museum (a rare event in Sweden, where the lack of tax deductions renders the value of donating moot). Marie Douglas-David, the perky president of the American Friends of the Moderna Museet, which organized the event (and has raised sixty-five million dollars for the museum over the past few years), introduced the proceedings. Then Hans Dyhlén, the auctioneer, stepped behind the podium sporting an orange tie, handkerchief, and circular glasses. “It’s your turn to let the crocodiles yawn,” he announced. “Open your purses!”
Next up in the string of museum well-wishers was Pontus Bonnier, of the Swedish publishing, collecting, and philanthropizing family. Bonnier had already helped finance the museum’s acquisition of a Josiah McElheny glass installation and Mike Nelson’s “Eclipse” contribution, AMNESIAC SHRINE or Double Coop Displacement—a labyrinthine chicken-coop-like structure whose parts are presented as sculptural “reconstructions” of the patchy memories of the Amnesiacs, a fictional biker gang of Gulf War veterans. “A quite scary thing,” Bonnier called it. He had also funded the new Pontus Hultén Study Room on the museum’s lower level. Designed by Renzo Piano, the space houses a computer whose system is linked to thirty mechanized panels, on which hang works from the seven hundred donated by the late Hultén, the storied curator and first director of the Moderna, on condition of their being not hidden in storage but made publicly “accessible.”
Left: Artist Dana Schutz with dealer Zach Feuer. Right: Artist Nathalie Djurberg with curator Power Ekroth.
Now, Bonnier announced, his family had one final “birthday gift” for the museum. At that, a young girl threw back the heavy fabric from the large object she had been holding, and Picasso’s last portrait of his second wife, Jacqueline, was revealed to the guests. Gasps and applause sounded throughout the room, while an astonished Nittve raised two thumbs high and swigged from a nearby wine bottle. “A complete, total surprise,” he gushed.
On Saturday, an artists’ talk was held in the museum auditorium. Ellen Gallagher discussed her collages in terms of “physicality” and the “inability to ascribe identity.” Dana Schutz spoke of using fiction as a “framework” in order to “to get information from the paintings but also to find limitations.” Tom McCarthy, primarily a novelist (who for “Eclipse” has subjected assorted texts to a Burroughs-like cut-up and is relaying the resulting pastiche over local radio), closed the talk by smoothing the distinction between “theory and intuition.” He noted that, for Heidegger, language is not something used to describe or interpret the world but “an event, a kind of tsunami that comes over you and overwhelms you and kind of ravishes you and makes you—brings you—into the world.” He mentioned the philosopher’s usage of Hölderlin’s line “Soon we will be song,” and this seemed to make people happy. “That’s where we’re going,” he said, “toward song.”
Left: Brad Pitt. (Photo: James Harris) Right: The Approach's Emma Robertson with Art Basel codirector Marc Spiegler and the Approach's Jake Miller. (Except where noted, all photos: Sarah Thornton)
“Roman Abramovich is a blessing for the art world,” said one high roller over drinks in the lobby of the Swissôtel in Basel after a long day at the fair. Whether or not the Russian oligarch bought a handful of Giacomettis off the Krugier stand didn’t seem to matter. The billionaire brought buzz. According to the Grand Cru grapevine, Abramovich, who is known to have an appetite for Lucian Freud, missed the opportunity to purify twelve million dollars on the artist’s Girl in Attic Doorway as, by the time the newcomer got back to Bill Acquavella with a decision, the classy uptown dealer had already sold it to someone else.
Business transactions at the fair were good and steady, quiet and sophisticated, but some likened the experience to routine conjugal activity—a marked contrast to the rousing, impulsive interactions of the past couple years. “Sales were not accompanied by fireworks as much as by deep discussion,” as one dealer put it. Perhaps the mood had to do with the dearth of Americans, whose passion for shopping always gives the fair extra verve? A New York dealer, who had offloaded nearly everything at his stand, explained the success: “It proves that the European market is solid, and doom-and-gloomers don’t understand our new world.”
Indeed, some art-world players were exceedingly relaxed. At 11:45 AM on Tuesday, less than an hour after the fair began, collector Peter Brant, dealers Alberto Mugrabi and Tony Shafrazi, and actor Owen Wilson could be seen playing liar’s poker at a round table in the corner of the Regen Projects stand. (Apparently, Shafrazi finished four hundred dollars up, but Wilson won the game.) Shaun Caley Regen and her team were so busy making sales that one staff member later exclaimed, “I wondered what they were doing!”
Left: Shala Monroque with dealer Larry Gagosian. Right: Pinchuk Art Centre president and artistic director Peter Doroshenko.
Across the aisle at Victoria Miro, I found the cheery artistic duo Elmgreen and Dragset, who will have the unusual pleasure of curating two pavilions at the next Venice Biennale—the Nordic pavilion because Dragset hails from Norway and the Danish because Elmgreen comes from Copenhagen. The pair (an ex-couple) were here to inspect the installation of their Crash . . . Boom . . . Bang!, 2008, a tower of toppled crates out of which spilled what looked like a Hirst spot painting and a Koons silver rabbit. The Rubells, Americans who never miss Basel, scooped up the work with characteristic alacrity.
As I traipsed from stand to stand, I repeatedly missed Brad Pitt. At the 303 Gallery booth, the Hollywood heartthrob apparently expressed appreciation for Collier Schorr and Doug Aitken. “He didn’t buy anything, but he kissed me,” said the gallery’s proprietor, Lisa Spellman. “To be honest, that was better than a sale.” Massimo De Carlo’s baroque ’n’ roll corner location featured John Armleder and Rudolf Stingel bas-reliefs to either side of a large, round Maurizio Cattelan rug. Apparently, Pitt had been here, too, but this time took the plunge on a Stingel (although not the one hanging in the booth, which had already been acquired by a prestigious European collector).
In the high-design, greatly expanded VIP room, I bumped into Peter Doroshenko, the artistic director of the Pinchuk Art Centre, who refused to confirm any rumors about recent acquisitions. Encountering the Ukrainian-American curator reminded me that some of the biggest spenders (like his boss, Victor Pinchuk, or Steve Cohen and François Pinault) were on the phone rather than in the room, so to speak. Doroshenko’s explanation was matter-of-fact: “Victor has educated himself to another level so that he doesn’t have to be everywhere. He isn’t trophy hunting; he values forging relationships with artists.”
Left: New Museum senior curator Laura Hoptman with dealer Paula Cooper. Right: Fondation Beyeler director Sam Keller with Art Basel's Isabela Mora and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, codirector of exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery.
Downstairs, among the blue-chip galleries, Matthew Marks’s Ellsworth Kelly mini-retrospective (partly in honor of the artist’s eighty-fifth birthday) and Helly Nahmad’s special exhibition of Joan Miró paintings all made in the summer of 1936 were the most rigorous offerings, but Galerie Karsten Greve’s 1958 Cy Twombly (asking price: $20 million) and Marlborough’s beautiful, unusually minimal 1970 Bacon triptych, Three Studies of Human Body (asking price: $80 million), were the subject of more chatter.
The ground-floor galleries seemed to be competing to see who had the best closet. These small spaces formerly known for storage were converted, in the words of Gagosian’s John Good, into “tight little master rooms.” Gagosian had two Picassos and two Warhols in their large walk-in. Werner had a luscious Picabia and a few sweet Peter Doigs, while L&M won marks for subcultural credibility by displaying, among other things, David Hammons’s predominantly pink Untitled (Kool-Aid), 2006.
In terms of intimate viewing, however, no one could beat the Fondation Beyeler stand, where the personable Sam Keller held court. In a chapel-like side room with a lowered ceiling, dim light, gray walls, and a built-in hardwood bench, visitors could meditate—or perhaps pray for art-acquisition guidance—in the presence of Mark Rothko’s life-affirming Red (Orange), 1968.
Left: Artists Ingar Dragset and Michael Elmgreen. Right: Artist Ellsworth Kelly.
It reminded me of something I overheard at Art Unlimited, the part of the fair that features mansion-size sculptures and installations. “It’s time for belief and transcendence again,” said New Museum curator Laura Hoptman to the gracious Paula Cooper. I wish I had asked Los Angeles–based artist Morgan Fisher for comment, as he was as garrulous and forthright as his installation, The Door and Window Paintings, was splendidly subtle and restrained. The yin-yang combination of artist and work was satisfying: “The paintings are their own curators. Here’s some writing. Boy, do I love to write.” Then he added: “Some people wish I didn’t.”
No one in Basel could have missed the endearing and ubiquitous Malcolm McLaren, whose compilation of twenty-one cut-up old adult films (of people “desiring, wanting, wishing, and imagining having sex”) was on view in a cabin outpost of Art Basel Projects. When I asked the Svengali-turned-artist about its price and whether art was more lucrative than pop music nowadays, McLaren quipped wickedly, “I don’t know if it is up for sale, but it is definitely up.”
This year, there were thirty-one Art Statements booths dedicated to one-person shows by less established artists, two of which were awarded Baloise prizes by a jury one dealer described as consisting of “German curators I’ve never heard of and Gary Garrels.” The winners were Duncan Campbell’s poetic half-hour half-documentary Bernadette, presented by Hotel (of London), and Tris Vonna-Michell’s Finding Chopin, hosted by T293 (of Naples). I managed to track down Garrels, who will join SF MoMA as senior curator of painting and sculpture in September and who explained convincingly: “The winners are the opposite of the flashy showmanship that is so prevalent. They have countervailing voices that add richness and diversity to the fair.”
No trip to Art Basel is complete without at least one late-night foray to the kunsthalle. There, it was good to see Marc Spiegler, codirector of the fair (along with Annette Schönholzer), in a blue pinstripe suit and pointy white running shoes, pressing the flesh with the younger crowd that make this festive venue their nightly home. The opening forty-eight hours of his first fair were over, and there was reason to celebrate. I asked him whether he had a metaphor for his comfort zone. He laughed: “I feel like the Godfather at a family reunion.”
Left: PaceWildenstein's Marc Glimcher. Right: Venice Biennale curator Daniel Birnbaum with dealer Daniel Buchholz.
“Darling, I can’t go around changing these dates with CEOs, artists, collectors, and curators. It’s too much drama. Can you arrive earlier?” Such was the dialogue that ran rampant throughout last weekend’s loosely organized itinerary of art events in Zurich—a prequel to the Basel hurricane and a high-category storm in its own right that rained openings, tours of collectors’ homes, and VIP dinners on the assembled dignitaries. “Some people fit in four dinners in an evening,” someone noted—but not me. Who’s that hungry? Though I did feel as though I had some catching up to do by the time I arrived Friday night, already quite late in the proceedings for this nonstop crowd.
Zurich’s renowned institutions and galleries, facilitators of the important (and aggressive) Swiss market, were as efficient as always. The Rubells affirmed that it’s more interesting to visit Zurich’s galleries pre-Basel, especially those in the “red-light district,” because that’s where it’s really happening.
That night, Puma (recently purchased by PPR, the company controlled by luxury-goods magnate François Pinault), in association with the Serpentine Gallery, presented a can’t-miss evening in honor of artist John Armleder, who had curated the trendy company’s “Reality Bag,” a leather handbag featuring a logo in the shape of a brain. “It’s like a portable museum,” said Puma CEO Jochen Zeitz, presumably because it’s made by artists. Hosted by Visionaire’s Cecila Dean and curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the dinner, organized by Glamour Engineering’s Michelle Nicol, was held in the storage room of one of Trudie Goetz’s designer stores. (Goetz owns all of the city’s hippest fashion shops.) I was seated between an avid Armleder collector and the enthusiastic Dianne Brill, one of New York’s “Queens of the Night” in the 1980s (another was Susanne Bartsch), who knows nothing about art. (She now devotes her energy to cosmetics.) We spent most of our time discussing pheasant hunting in Sologne, an activity Brill also particularly enjoys. All the Zurich locals said they were fleeing Basel after the opening of the fair to avoid the European Football Championship, which kicks off in earnest on Saturday. It’s always been difficult finding a hotel room during Art Basel, but now it’s mission impossible. “We’re going to Saint Tropez,” my other neighbor told me.
Many artists, like John Tremblay (no relation) and Philippe Decrauzat, who also collaborated on pieces for Puma, were out until late into the night, first at the home of dealer Andrea Caratsch, who presented new works by Armleder, then at the club Saint Germain, where hundreds of liters of champagne had already been poured by the time we arrived.
On Saturday, there were openings all over town, and everyone eventually headed to the former Löwenbräu brewery that houses numerous galleries and the Migros Museum (which installed works from its collection in a display framework presented by Markus Schinwald in a prior exhibition). The evening’s highlight was Hauser & Wirth’s opening of two exhibitions—one for Louise Bourgeois and another featuring works from the collection of Helga and Walther Lauffs. Many works from the collection had been sold at Sotheby’s, and portions were presented at David Zwirner and Zwirner & Wirth in New York in May. Helga Lauffs told me that she was happy to sell the collection, which she had assembled with her husband and the discerning Paul Wember, former director of the Krefeld Museum, since many of the works were going to museums that could take proper care of them. She also said that she would continue to collect, this time with one of her grandchildren, and that she planned to devote her attention to young artists. The exhibition presented numerous museum-quality works, including incredible Serras, Christos, and an Yves Klein Anthropometrie from 1960, the only one, according to Zwirner, that depicts both the artist and his wife. For dinner, the gallery had reserved the entire first floor of the Kronenhalle, the city’s culinary hot spot, whose elegant, wainscoted rooms are peppered with Giacomettis and Picassos. Hauser & Wirth’s Roger Tatley placed me at a table with art advisers such as Patricia Marshall, South American collectors, the representative of Ikepod watches, and the Rubells. One eager speculator popped the question: “What do you think of Indian art?” to which everyone responded, “We don’t know yet, we just don’t know.”
Sunday morning, the Kunsthalle Zürich rented a bus for a field trip for collectors. Rosa de la Cruz, Thomas Grässlin, and art-world personalities like Suzan Geiz and Daniel Birnbaum jumped aboard. The first stop was the home of Uli Sigg, the former Swiss ambassador to China who later became one of the most prominent collectors of Chinese art. Perched on a hill beside a small private lake, his house is filled from top to bottom—from the kitchen to the bathroom—with works from his favored country. (Lucerne collectors in general are known to have a penchant for Chinese art.) Gallerist Urs Meile, who lives near Sigg, gave us a tour of his property, including a visit to the sculpture-filled garden. After a light lunch, the kunsthalle’s director, Beatrix Ruf, welcomed us to Lucerne’s Jean Nouvel–designed Kunstmuseum, which houses works from the collection of newspaper publisher Michael Ringier. Included in the conceptually daring, very black-and-white hanging were works by artists ranging from Cady Noland to Fischli & Weiss to Trisha Donnelly. Sitting on the terrace for yet another light lunch, I spoke with Hu Fang, artistic director of Guangzhou’s Vitamin Creative Space, who told me he was planning to present a different side of Chinese art. From the story Westerners like to tell, you’d think there was only one.
That evening, at a dinner and party held at collector Maja Hoffmann’s magnificent lakefront abode (designed by Marcel Breuer), the chatter had already moved past Zurich and on to Basel. According to some, there were still a few snags with the installation. Art Basel Projects, a series of large-scale works by four artists curated by Cay Sophie Rabinowitz (who resigned as Art Basel codirector in late April) was originally intended to premiere in Hall E but has since been relocated to Hall 1, where the works have been juxtaposed with those from the Art Unlimited section. Overheard: “The Carl Andre and Monica Bonvicini are a bit strange together,” and, “There’s a lot of chrome and brushed aluminum work by the likes of Takashi Murakami and Roxy Paine. There are many Chinese people in blue outfits. Wait, is Murakami Chinese?”
Anyway, during dinner, Hoffmann announced a new building at the kunsthalle, facilitated by her own Luma Foundation and a small team of big-time collectors. Everyone grew excitable, listening for further details, until a group of Spanish musicians arrived to provide a sound track to the confusion. If things continue at this pace, we’ll all be exhausted by Basel.
On my way to the press conference last Friday afternoon for the opening of the new Museion in Bolzano, Italy, it was abnormally difficult to circumnavigate the drunken men in lederhosen and Alpini hats munching on speck. The local prosciutto is so ubiquitous that I quickly learned in the region’s two principal languages (German and Italian) how to ask for food without it. I would like to think they were celebrating the beautiful new building for the museum of modern and contemporary art overlooking the Talvera River in the city’s center, but in fact they were enjoying the carnivorous bacchanal known as Speckfest.
Past the proud revelers extolling their favorite meat in Piazza Walther, the central square, and farther down the quiet Via Dante, lined with Alpine trees, stood the new, starkly modernist Museion. Workers carrying shovels and boxes hurried about busily. “As you can see, we’re still working, but we’ll be done by 10:59 AM tomorrow—in time for the 11 AM opening,” joked Corinne Diserens, the Museion’s director, halfway through the protracted press conference, which was conducted haltingly in three languages. (German and English seemed to dominate, to the ruffled chagrin of a few Italian journalists.) Diserens was flanked by the president of the Museion, local vintner Alois Lageder, who looked the part of the aging playboy with his yacht tan and inexhaustible good cheer, and one of the building’s three architects, Bertram Vandreike, who sat looking stiff and bureaucratic in his gray suit.
That evening, a bus shuttled a handful of journalists to Lageder’s countryside villa in the shadow of the Dolomites for an ostensibly unofficial concert and dinner. Composer Johannes Maria Staud conducted the jarring and beautiful musical program in what appeared to be an old wine cellar, complete with bowed beams and candles casting spooky shadows along the walls. The one-two punch of Lageder’s wine and the two-hour-plus concert sent more than a few guests into a sort of torpor.
I awoke to the shuffling of the wooden chairs as the crowd flocked to the sushi and more Lageder wine out on the ground-floor terrace, where our host had flown his two favorite Japanese chefs (and a gaggle of traditionally clad female servers) in from Tokyo for the occasion. At the sushi dinner held on the villa’s fourth floor, in candlelit rooms filled with stressed frescoes and gloomy ancient paintings, there was little talk of the Museion. However, a few of the artists present were happy to eulogize Rudolf Stingel as the hometown boy made good, noting his teenage success as a traditional South Tyrolean dancer of the knee-slapping, lederhosen-wearing variety.
The next morning, I rolled out of the creaking cot a local friend had secured for me in the principal’s office of a Catholic school and ran to catch the scheduled walk-through, getting my first glance at the Museion’s collection. Letizia Ragaglia, one of the exhibition’s energetic curators, led a handful of foreign journalists on a twenty-minute jaunt through the exhibition, which, despite its bloodless title (“Peripheral Vision and Collective Body”), appeared thoughtful and complex—if only a tad like an overstuffed strudel. (A Richard Prince joke painting was relegated to high above a doorway, while a Tacita Dean was stuck in the stairwell.) The museum prides itself on being an advocate for alternative positions, and one can roughly trace an experimental history from the early-twentieth-century avant-garde to the present. The collection includes everything from architecture (of which there were few examples, like Yona Friedman and Tatlin’s Tower) to dance and performance (of which there was plenty, from Bruce Nauman to Yvonne Rainer).
Left: Galerie Nikolaus Ruzicska's Tilman Treusch and artist Peter Kogler. Right: Explorer Reinhold Messner.
During the tour, Ragaglia stopped to point out a set of carefully arranged metal sheets on the floor made by the lesser-known arte povera artist Emilio Prini, noting the work’s delicacy and recalling how difficult it was to secure for the exhibition. As Ragaglia left to prepare for the opening, a bemused crowd ambled into the Museion. About a half dozen people stomped on the Prini in the five minutes I stood watching it, one woman marching straight across its unpolished surface with nary a look down.
After more briefings from regional officials discussing this year’s Manifesta 7 (which will be based in Bolzano), I set off for an adjoining building, where Portuguese artist Angela Ferreira and curator Jürgen Bock were giving an impromptu talk about her installation, one of many pieces purchased from the last Venice Biennale. Midway through, an Englishman slipped into our circle and began to prod Ferreira with questions about her project involving Jean Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale. (Three prototypes in Africa had been disassembled and sold on the auction block—the last one for around five million dollars.) Ferreira finally teased the name out of the Englishman, who turned out to be Nicholas Logsdail, founder of Lisson Gallery, at which everyone around me seemed to tense up a bit.
After a brief chat with him, he motioned to step away. Shaking my hand, he said, “Pleasure to have met you. I suppose if you’re successful, I’ll see you everywhere, and if you’re not, you’ll disappear.”
Left: Lisson's Nicholas Logsdail and writer Silvia Sgualdini. Right: A view of Lageder's villa.
Left: A still from the monument's film. Right: (From left to right) Bernd Neumann, Germany's minister of culture; Klaus Wowereit, mayor of Berlin; Linda Freimane, representative for the International Lesbian and Gay Association; Günter Dworek, representative for the LSVD; and Albert Eckert, member of the initiative for the memorial. (Photo: Daniel Boese)
Even in the hubbub of Berlin’s political life, such a queer mixture is seldom to be seen: Last Tuesday, the conservative minister of cultural affairs, Bernd Neumann, stood amid hundreds of gay men of all stripes. There were guys in bomber jackets and skinny jeans, in suits and kippahs, in brogues and a bow tie—even one with a neon-red Mohawk. A few lesbians were among the crowd. A special occasion, to be sure, for the culture minister that day had the honor and duty to inaugurate Germany’s national memorial for homosexual victims of National Socialism—a monument, it should be noted, that his party had frequently opposed, as it also does gay marriage. But other high-profile politicians, among them Berlin’s lively mayor (and gay icon), Klaus Wowereit, were on hand.
The memorial sits on the edge of Berlin’s biggest park, Tiergarten, within view of the Brandenburg Gate, Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and the new, terror-proof American Embassy. It consists of a concrete stele, thirteen feet high, with a small window through which viewer’s can watch a looped video, shot by Robby Müller (Wim Wenders’s cinematographer) and directed by Dogme 95 cofounder Thomas Vinterberg, of two men kissing. The memorial was designed by Elmgreen and Dragset, who submitted their proposal to two consecutive competitions (the first open, the second invite only) and beat out fellow artists like Wolfgang Tillmans for the commission.
The unveiling was not without its tensions. The ministry of culture’s invitations to the unveiling did not depict the kiss, which angered the artists, who voiced their frustration a week earlier in an interview (which, full disclosure, I published in Zitty). “The kiss is central to the memorial,” Michael Elmgreen said. “We would have liked to show it on the invitation. But the minister made clear that this was not desirable.” His partner, Ingar Dragset, added, “So the memorial is more relevant than ever, when the kiss poses a problem even for the minister. Not to show the kiss was his personal decision.” At Tuesday’s ceremony, however, Neumann praised the work, saying, “This memorial is a sign against intolerance. It has sparked important debates and marks Germany’s mature culture of remembrance.” He even praised the video itself, which “directly links the memory of victims with the situation of gays and lesbians today.” But when Neumann approached the stele to be the first person to see the kiss, the artists did not accompany him. Neither did they pose for pictures with the politicians. “Politicians come and go. We stay,” Elmgreen joked from the sidelines.
So why all the fuss? Elmgreen elaborated: “You can grant us homosexuals all rights: marriage, adoption, inheritance. But as long as people are grossed out when they see us kiss, something is missing.” In his frustration, Elmgreen overlooked that it was Neumann who made the memorial possible: A year ago, the minister negotiated an agreement after the artists’ initial proposal had met with criticism. “Women have been forgotten once more,” said Alice Schwarzer, Germany’s most notorious feminist and publisher of the magazine Emma. She called Elmgreen and Dragset’s work kitschy and phallic, and her protestations led to many discussions and petitions. With Neumann’s help and blessing, the artists decided to change the video every two years, with an open call for submissions for other depictions of homosexual love.
Mayor Wowereit’s first words were directed toward representatives of the Jewish community and of the Sinti and Roma, reminding the assembled, “There can be no hierarchy of victims.” But this particular memorial has arrived too late, he added. No gay survivors of the concentration camps were present at the ceremony; the last-known survivor, Pierre Seel, died in 2005. Günter Dworek, representative of LSVD, the German lesbian and gay association, read excerpts of Seel’s testimonials. As a seventeen-year-old boy, Seel was arrested in Alsace and tortured by the Gestapo. In a camp he was forced to witness the execution of his boyfriend. All early-summer festivity and political banter came to a halt as Seel related the horrendous details: “Music was playing . . . Wagner and some military tunes. They stripped him and placed a bucket on his head, then let loose the German shepherds, who tore him to pieces in front of our eyes.”
Dworek’s testimony also reminded us that the gay victims were sent back to prison after being liberated from the camps, to serve the remainder of their sentences for committing “homosexual acts.” The Nazi law criminalizing homosexual love remained in place until 1969 in West Germany, and fifty thousand men were sentenced during the four decades it was in place. One of them was at the ceremony; he hassled Wowereit for a picture and an autograph.
Finally, Albert Eckert, who fought for the memorial for sixteen years, performed the dedication: “It is for all the people who find us scandalous and repulsive. If they are bothered by the memorial, all the better!” Neumann watched the video for two minutes.
Later that night, the artists celebrated with friends and Eckert at Basso, a bar in Kreuzberg. The party was laid-back, and one could see immediately why the Danish-Norwegian duo call Berlin’s gay scene the best in the world. Let’s hope that their monument to a traumatic past helps affirm that gay people today no longer have to live up to others’ expectations. And if anyone’s bothered, all the better.
Last Friday afternoon, after a short flight to Granada, I followed a tour through the summer house that Federico García Lorca’s family bought in 1925. Laura García Lorca de los Rios, dressed in tailored black linen, evoked the memory of her uncle by way of a recollection of footsteps on a rocky path—the sound of Lorca and his friends as they would return to the house after an evening in town. The lively group would usually wander back around 2 AM, and Lorca would head straight to his desk to write. He would wake for lunch, then begin writing again as the rest of the house settled into a siesta. The images lingered as Laura plainly explained that we were standing inside the house that the poet was taken from before he was shot, in 1936, shortly after Francisco Franco came to power.
Opened to the public in 1995 as Huerta de San Vicente, the house has played host to a series of musical, theatrical, and literary events, but Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s “Everstill/siempretodavía” (title text and its gothic typeface care of Douglas Gordon) marks the first time the site has housed work by contemporary visual artists. Obrist introduced his project, the latest in his ongoing series of exhibitions presented in homes, as “a kind of laboratorium in which the house is inhabited by artists.” Following shows in the Nietzsche House in 1992, Sir John Soane’s former residence in 1999, and the Luis Barragán House in 2003, the Huerta de San Vicente project is meant, according to its omnipresent curator, to reconnect literature to art: “Contemporary art has so many connections with music, with fashion, with architecture, but with literature, it’s much rarer.”
Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s Blue Carpet, installed in the wood-floored salon to the left of the house’s front door, provides an antidote to contemporary art’s alleged illiteracy. The artist’s plush indigo carpet, edged by stacks of books by her “reading heroes,” pays tribute not only to Lorca but also to Joseph Conrad, Jean Echenoz, and Tristan Tzara, among others.
Upstairs, in Lorca’s bedroom, Gilbert & George’s In Bed with Lorca, a photograph of the pair lying side by side in the poet’s single bed, hangs above his original desk and typewriter. Somehow the work doesn’t seem to approach Lorca in the same way as Rivane Neuenschwander’s Orange and Lemon alphabet or Bestué and Vives’s charming miniature marionette theater, Story of the Lovelorn Scorpion. So I asked Obrist and Laura what the response to the image, not to mention the show, has been in Spain. “Euphoria!” Obrist cried. And Laura concurred. “We had an incredible response. In Spain, I haven’t seen anything like it since maybe when the Guggenheim in Bilbao opened.” The Spanish media has fully embraced the Gilbert & George image. El País ran the photograph on the front page when the first stage of Everstill/siempretodavía officially opened last fall, and, according to Laura, “literally every person in Spain was talking about the project.”
Shortly after 8 PM, we gathered at the Alhambra Palace Hotel, a grand venue overlooking the historic town center. A buffet of Spanish tapas was set up in the hotel’s glass terrace, where a small crowd gathered for Trisha Donnelly’s performance, part of the exhibition’s live program. I’d heard that Donnelly’s work was to involve the evening’s cocktail, and I asked Isabel García Lorca and Gloria García Lorca, Laura’s sisters, whether they had heard the same. “She wants us to drink,” Isabel concluded. Overall, she said, she admires Obrist’s exhibition: “The sensitivity of the artists is the most outstanding. There’s a generosity about the works that’s very moving.” Writer Frederic Tuten, due to read his story about Lorca as part of the performance program the following afternoon, was happy for the occasion: “When I was coming into the world, writers and artists and poets all knew each other. We all knew each other, and we all went dancing together.”
A little after 9 PM, Donnelly quietly asked individuals to move into the theater. Once inside the darkness of the Alhambra-inspired ballroom, Donnelly directed our attention to a series of images projected onto a screen set up on the stage. “Watch this, not me.” Her performance was in English, while many in the audience were Spanish speakers, so there was audible confusion when the artist spoke about the phenomenon of the double vortex. The murmurs quieted when one viewer stage-whispered a translation. Donnelly then approached her audience with a long braided whip, likening the dynamics of the double vortex to the crack of the tapered rope—a convergence of material, space, and sound. She ultimately signaled the end of her performance by saying, “It’s OK. I thought everyone was coming out for a drink.”
For dinner, a small group walked past the rich rust-colored walls of the Alhambra to La Mimbre. Obrist and Donnelly arrived late to the cozy restaurant, to applause from the assembled guests. Both seemed happy and shared the news that they had convinced the hotel to run the sound and images of Donnelly’s work until a wedding reception the following evening. Sitting down next to me, Obrist and Donnelly revealed a few more details on the performance: The sound in Donnelly’s piece belongs to “11/11/11—the Armistice, the sound of peace.”
As we wandered outside after dinner, artist Marc Vives, one half of Bestué and Vives, told me that he felt that the project in the Lorca house was “very scary.” “In Spain, you grow up with Lorca, you are in awe, and then you are asked to make a work in his house, in his bedroom—it is a big responsibility. For foreigners, it is much easier.” Very soon after that, Donnelly slipped into a taxi, and Obrist excused himself to work on a text. It was almost 2 AM in Granada. Time to start writing.