Shanghai Express

Shanghai
07.18.08

Left: Artist Xu Zhen with Long March's Lu Jie. Right: Collector Jeanne Lawrence, dealer James Cohan, and collector Pamela Kramlich. (Photos: Philip Tinari)


In recent years, the foreign-gallery opening in China has developed into a complex ritual with its own unique social lexicon. Who can forget Galleria Continua’s 798 debut back in 2005, leaving Beijing awash in prosciutto, pecorino, and Chen Zhen installations? Or Galerie Faurschou’s dinner last November for the absent but still-living Rauschenberg, whose work opened their Beijing space, under a rented tent and catered by the Chinese capital’s lone Michelin-certified chef? Pace Beijing originally scheduled its China debutante ball for the Day of the Aligning Eights (8-8-08), to coincide with that other, slightly bigger coming-out party: the Olympic opening ceremony.

Such was the deep background for James Cohan Gallery’s tasteful garden wedding to Shanghai. At the end of a lane buried in a prime patch of the tree-lined French Concession, in a house, once occupied by the Chinese military, painted with the requisite fading Maoist slogan above the door, two hundred or so gathered last Thursday evening to celebrate the opening of Cohan’s Shanghai satellite with a group show of gallery artists on the theme of “Mining Nature.” Shanghai and New York being closer than they once were, the crowd was full of more than a few Chelsea habitués: Cohan director Arthur Solway (now fully relocated to Shanghai), video collector extraordinaire Pam Kramlich (a Shanghai half-timer), Performa curator Defne Ayas (in Shanghai more or less full-time, teaching for NYU), Wallpaper writer Andrew Yang (the man on the ground for Shanghai’s new “100% Design” fair), and even New York Social Diary contributor Jeanne Lawrence (in Shanghai “indefinitely”). This is, of course, to say nothing of the jet-setting Chinese—dealer Lu Jie, artist Zhou Tiehai, novelist Mian Mian, to name just a few—who closed the cross-continental gap long ago. And in a moment one could liken to the tossing of the bouquet, Jay Jopling appeared with a retinue of White Cube directors and local consultant (and former Ullens Center deputy director) Colin Chinnery in tow, prompting speculation that he might be next.

Left: White Cube creative director Susan May and director Tim Marlow with curator Colin Chinnery. (Photo: Philip Tinari) Right: James Cohan director Arthur Solway (right) with a friend. (Photo: Defne Ayas)


The garden party ended after repeated nudges in the form of flickering lights. Then it was on to restaurant M on the Bund, the continental standby with a manager who looks and talks like Truman Capote. Cohan’s college buddy—a longtime Shanghai expat with gruff, fluent Mandarin—gave the toast, a vague homage to dreams dreamed and dreams realized. Conspicuously absent from the family-of-the-bride table was Shanghai artist Xu Zhen, who had a solo show with Cohan in New York in February. (He didn’t attend that opening either, owing to a legendary fear of flying.) The four tables worked their way through three courses, syncopated by the rhythm of smokers running off to the bar between services.

After dessert, Solway sat down at my table and waxed poetic about his decision to Go East. He had lived in New York since 1979, drawn there after his father, a Cleveland art dealer, took him for a weekend in the city instead of giving him a bar mitzvah. They saw a lot of exhibitions, visited “Teeny” Duchamp on Tenth Street, and even caught a live performance of Hair. “It was not unlike the feeling I had first coming to Shanghai,” back in the early years of this decade. Who guessed that the Age of Aquarius might resonate here, today?

Left: Writer Andrew Yang with Performa's Defne Ayas. Right: Dealer Angela Li and architect Patrice Butler. (Photos: Philip Tinari)


Philip Tinari

Gross Worth

New York
07.15.08

Left: Collector Neil Frankel with curator Alison Gingeras. Right: Dealer Gavin Brown and Rachel Roberts. (All photos: David Velasco)


On a lovely summer evening, what could be nicer than strolling to the West Village, looking at art, and hopefully not being too vibed out by the self-absorbed crowd? Curated by Alison Gingeras, “Pretty Ugly” is a supersize group show sprawling between Gavin Brown’s Enterprise and Maccarone, fortresses of coolness where, according to the press release, “the fluidity of ‘pretty’ and ‘ugly’ will be played with and almost posit ‘pretty ugly’ as a third term which might apply to a vast range of artists and works, thereby fusing the two galleries into a single exhibition.”

This viewer spotted three categories: “Gross,” “Kitschy,” and “Weird Body Parts.” Some works were all of the above. Indeed, among the gross were the exalted Viennese male cutters Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler (whose photos documented a mummy’s nasty doings with a dead chicken), a fresh, juicy placenta (by Corey McCorkle), and Bruce LaBruce’s equally vibrant Blow Job with Pig Blood. Karen Kilimnik’s early scrawl DEATH TO PIGS! looked comparatively jaunty in a fancy frame. A kitschy John Currin tableau titled Equality in the Workplace shows a business meeting between a smarmy “suit” and a lady coworker whose boobs droop out of her blouse and onto the table like fleshy Slinkies. Lots of Hans Bellmer (weird doll body parts). Otto Dix’s ugly Germans. A Joel-Peter Witkin bod-mod torso with scarified “wings” in a punishing corset. A stunning Alice Neel painting of a spastic-looking Religious Girl.

Left: Artists John Currin and Rachel Feinstein. Right: Dealer Michele Maccarone with artist Ryan McKenna.


You know, jolie laide art. Like Sarah Jessica Parker. I couldn’t help but think of Gertrude Stein, who noticed how certain “irritating annoying” works of art can suddenly upgrade from “reject” to “classic”: “First all beauty in it is denied, then all beauty in it is accepted.” I paused before a “bust” composed of paint gobs, like a de Kooning sculpture with three red clown noses. “Early Paul McCarthy?” a cute artist-seeming guy chuckled appreciatively. (The work was by Glenn Brown, I later checked.)

Especially at Maccarone, the stuff was so poorly labeled it was like Art Jeopardy for the in-the-know. So user-unfriendly. I puzzled with newbies Roberta Smith and Jerry “I don’t know anything!” Saltz over a salon-style wall hung in a total jumble, crazy-makingly labeled by “rows.” We wanted to find out who did the fetching portrait of Michael Jackson and E.T. but couldn’t crack the code because most of the pieces were simply Untitled. Sheepishly, we discovered Michael Jackson and E.T. was one of the few exceptions, but attempting to extrapolate the unknown Untitleds from the forest of known Untitleds was like driving while attempting to read a map. Annoying and distracting (though not as dangerous).

In the gallery as luxury boutique, such user-unfriendly labeling sends the subtle message that information is for buyers only. It’s not “If you have to ask how much it is, you can’t afford it.” It’s “If you have to ask what it is, you don't belong here, you rube! Go hire a personal shopper—I mean, an art consultant!”

Left: Artists Brian Meola and Jack Pierson. Right: Artist Rob Pruitt.


On to the afterparty! “Hookerish” best described the sleek, cushy decor at Norwood, a members-only, Soho House–like (but cooler!) club targeting “tweedy, artistic types” willing to pay dues to frequent the Fourteenth Street townhouse that some Gawker commenter anointed “the Algonquin douche table.”

“Well, look at who’s here . . . ” I sat with David Rimanelli and Chivas Clem (whose “Pretty Ugly” piece was an homage to Ebony and Ivory “exotic” beauty: a regal African lady and Barbra Streisand, both working a tribal look.) We watched the crowd from the opening schmooze away, but now way more attractively lit: artists Currin (holding forth about James Bond), Rachel Feinstein, and Rob Pruitt; White Columns director Matthew Higgs; Interview editor Christopher Bollen. A droll Scottish guy—with a nice Jewish boyfriend—amused himself by trying on my Star of David necklace. Oy. The champagne flowed, literally, from those wide-mouthed, tippy glasses that always wind up dribbling down my arm. With a smile as abstract as the resin John McCracken plank in his gallery, Brown glided through the bar area, a wolf man in a crisp navy gingham shirt, meeting and not always greeting his guests: “He didn’t say hello to me!” I heard someone exclaim in the gloaming.

“Well, what do you expect from these people?” said another.

“But we were friends!”

Rhonda Lieberman

Left: Artist Chuck Close. Right: Artist Rita Ackermann and Marika Nuss.


Country Dance

Beacon, NY
07.12.08

Merce Cunningham, Beacon Event, 2008. Performance view, Dia:Beacon, Beacon, NY. (Photo: Anna Finke)


After the Friday-night premiere of Mark Morris’s interpretation of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet—in which, faithful to the recently unearthed pre-Stalinist score, the star-crossed lovers survive for a last dance—I followed the Hudson down from Bard to Beacon on Sunday to see the Merce Cunningham Dance Company perform amid Dia’s monumental Richard Serra Torqued Ellipses. It was my second “Event,” as these performances are billed, in a year (I saw another at the grounds of the Philip Johnson Glass House), and the fourth in a series at Dia, each held in a different gallery. Here the staging, with marley mats at either end of the hangerlike space, forced the dancers to run back and forth behind the sculptures, pausing, occasionally, for a surreptitious solo.

Inside each COR-TEN-steel hull, a single musician, with a set of instruments, mics, or turntables, sent music either to large speakers positioned opposite each stage, where it was mixed with the output of the other musicians, or to smaller speakers installed within each structure, effectively turning the sculptures themselves into enormous sounding boxes. The music, material composed according to an original Cage scheme (Cunningham and Cage were, of course, longtime partners as well as collaborators), followed only the dictum that it last, collectively, as long as the dance. According to the composer Newton Armstrong, one of the four musicians, the directives have become “basically an oral tradition.” Yet, he added, “when you do it, it feels like a Cage piece.” Stephen Moore, of the dance company’s “music committee,” explained that, with such an unscripted piece, “the big thing is who you pick to play; Cage always had a stable of amazing players.”

The dancers carried out Cunningham’s exacting choreography (older excerpts combined with new material designed with his three-dimensional-animation software, Danceforms) with athletic precision—only their sweat-drenched costumes hinted at the demands of performing like a machine (or avatar). Afterward, Jonah Bokaer, founder of performance space Chez Bushwick, citing his experience as a former Cunningham dancer, explained that—even as an audience member—“I felt the performance in my body.”

Throughout the performance, the audience was free to wander the gallery space and enter the sculptures. Along the long wall, dancers appeared and disappeared behind the hulking forms, while the stages were virtually invisible from anywhere but the far ends of the space, where the gallery opened to the out-of-doors. It was impossible to get a totalizing view. I ran into artist and theorist Simon Leung, arriving along with Yvonne Rainer and Joan Jonas; he informed me that, for this very reason, he had secured tickets to both performances that day: On one viewing, “you can’t see the whole thing.” I spied Serra himself looking on from the far corner of the gallery space and, after the performance, thought I’d ask Cunningham whether Serra had played any role in the staging of the day’s events. Cunningham, surprised at the question, responded that he “hoped Dia told him we were performing here.”

Roman Holiday

Rome
07.10.08

Left: A view of the Largo Argentina. Right: assume vivid astro focus's Eli Sudbrack. (Photo: Cathryn Drake)


As soon as I arrived at the Area Sacra di Largo Argentina in the sultry Roman evening and looked down into the ancient ruins, I experienced something like an LSD-induced time warp: Bedouin transvestites had taken over four ancient temples dating from the fourth century BC. “It is a discotheque!” exclaimed an Italian passerby as he looked upon the colorful, pulsating encampment below. His female companion said, “It is not possible!” But there it was: Eli Sudbrack’s assume vivid astro focus collective was making its debut in Rome. Flashing neon hieroglyphs adorned the walls of the Temple of Juturna, and a multicolor projection bathed the columns of the oldest temple, devoted to fertility goddess Feronia.

As I descended the steps into the sacred psychedelic ruins, Roman artist Ra Di Martino said, “Strangely enough, this is the first time I’ve been inside these temples.” Wearing a kitschy crucifix adorned with images of the Madonna, the Italian journalist and provocateur Roberto D’Agostino seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, joking around with curator Francesco Bonami in a streamer-lined corridor. Standing before a giant poster of a woman in red who was too-much-woman-to-be-a-woman—like a transgender Jocelyn Wildenstein with exaggerated red lips and formidable cleavage to match—Bonami later commented that it took more than a month to get permission to invade the archaeological site with contemporary art, which seemed fairly expeditious considering the nature of the intervention and the bureaucratic rigmarole typically required to get authorization for anything in Italy. However, it seemed particularly ironic that this exhibition would be permitted today, given the condemnations of gay culture by Gianni Alemanno, the recently elected neofascist mayor, along with his dismantling of the previous administration’s extensive cultural initiatives. But perhaps the key here was the influence of the exhibition’s corporate sponsor: Enel, Italy’s largest power company.

Left: Curator Francesco Bonami. Right: Artist Christophe Hamaide-Pierson. (Photos: Cathryn Drake)


Once I arrived in the center of the pulsating wooden construction and donned my tribal gorilla mask, I caught the carnival spirit and abandoned myself to the sacrilege of it all. Wafting about like a butterfly in a long black-and-white caftan, Sudbrack mentioned that he “hoped people would start dancing soon.” The debauched squat was plastered with blowups of cross-dressers and decorated with bunches of balloons inscribed with the names of Italian women and transvestites. One of avaf’s partners in crime, French multimedia artist Christophe Hamaide-Pierson, described a visit by Enel’s representatives the day before: “It was weird, they had no problem with displaying the naked breasts; it was the fetishistic features of the transvestites’ faces they didn’t like. But since then, I have seen lots of women walking around here in Rome with badly done work!” He said that members of avaf had been living a nomadic life, traveling constantly for the past two years to set up their campy road show around the world.

The ruins of Largo Argentina were excavated in the 1930s thanks to Mussolini’s desire to revive the symbols of Rome’s status as caput mundi, but somehow that dream was never quite realized. Although it contains some of the oldest relics in Rome and was the site of Julius Caesar’s assassination (in 44 BC), the sunken piazza is now essentially a cat sanctuary, and literally hundreds of the feral creatures run free among the stubs of columns and sacrificial altars. But not one of them was in sight during last Thursday’s opening.

According to the curatorial statement, the artistic intention was to “respect the archaeological site but at the same time revitalize it by dragging it into the present”—no pun apparently intended. Speaking of which, the dearth of drag queens was curious; the attendees of the opening party, feeding enthusiastically from an incredibly long table running the entire length of the piazza, were less art world than young professionals of the Roman haute bourgeoisie. Given the storied comportment of the ancient Romans, who reportedly partook in frequent orgiastic bacchanalia, the Largo Argentina may be the most appropriate venue for an avaf installation yet. The place even features remnants of public toilets from the Roman Republic, in case anyone decided to take it that far. But alas, no one danced. And the only hallucinogenic vision was an optical illusion: the signature avaf light prisms made by the lenses in our masks.

Left: A view of the Largo Argentina. Right: Francesco Bonami with journalist Roberto D’Agostino. (Photo: Cathryn Drake)


Stone Circle

Calistoga, CA
07.07.08

Left: Dealer John Berggruen with collector Norah Stone. Right: A view of James Turrell's Stone Sky. (All photos: Drew Altizer)


Weekend weather reports predicted haze from a thousand Northern California forest fires, but the air was surprisingly clear the Saturday before last on the drive to the famous-for-the-waters town of Calistoga in Napa Valley. There was, however, a bit of static when we pulled up at the gate of Stonescape, the weekend getaway vineyard and art compound of collectors Norman and Norah Stone. Our arrival was followed by a guest-list discrepancy, an overzealous security guard, and a parking snafu, but thankfully the vibe softened once we boarded the shuttle bus, which a friendly driver maneuvered up the short, winding road to the property. “Don’t look down,” he facetiously warned—the pavement barely accommodated the vehicle. He dropped us off on the idyllic grounds: hillsides with rows of grapevines, a spiffed-up farmhouse, and, to the left, the arched entrance to what is called the “Art Cave.”

Sporting a vibrant pantsuit and a large gold necklace that splayed in a full half circle over her collar, Norah Stone stood at the unofficial bus stop, greeting us warmly before sending us on a tour of the cave with Thea Westreich Art Advisory rep Suzanne Modica. “You really must check out the Turrell,” Stone added, pointing to an infinity pool in which seemed to float a large white cube.

Modica lead us through the glass doors into a vaulted chamber of the cave, where we encountered Caged tool #1 (hammer drill), an appropriately titled sculpture by Monica Bonvicini, which was surrounded by Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Magazine Station n. 2, Receiving Station, a gauzy curtain in rainbow shades that serendipitously reminded us that it was gay-pride weekend in San Francisco. Though separate works, Modica noted that the sculptures were first displayed together at Basel, and so they remained linked. As she took us farther into the 5,750-square-foot space, the architectural achievement was apparent. Designed by Bade Stageberg Cox and constructed from scratch by experts in subterranean building, the Cave is the realization of the Stones’ desire to reenvision the common subterranean wine chamber as a white-walled gallery with few right angles and a ceiling that artfully (and bafflingly) integrates lighting and sound. “Norman was very concerned that it not be echoey,” Modica relayed. Indeed, we could barely hear another small group (comprising collectors and SF MoMA art conservators) nearby.

Left: Artist Jimmy Raskin with Thea Westreich's Suzanne Modica. Right: Architect Martin Cox with collector Norman Stone.


Farther on were a group of Mike Kelley sculptures and photographs, along with John Baldessari’s A Painting That Is Its Own Documentation, an early text work that gains new elements each time it’s exhibited. We then passed an arrangement of Serras, Judds, and an elaborate recent work by Keith Tyson. A bar was set up just outside, and I was poured a glass of the Stones’ own AZS Cabernet—actually quite delicious. (Norman later announced that only fifty-six cases were produced that year.) Numerous black-clad servers offered one flavorful appetizer after another as we toured the property’s renovated 1887 old farmhouse. It’s modest in scale, though ennobled by some stellar examples of midcentury Scandinavian furniture, Campana Brothers chairs, a guest room filled with Cady Nolands, and a Sherrie LevineWalker Evans” by the bathroom.

The grounds featured some spare, inventive landscaping, and the gradual arrival of other guests strolling through made the place look like a California update of Last Year at Marienbad. From the perspective of the farmhouse, I could see a bikini-clad woman—the Stones’ yoga instructor—standing at the edge of the Turrell pool. “There are disposable bathing suits in the changing rooms,” Modica noted, adding that sunset is the best viewing time. But that was at least an hour away, leaving ample time to imagine the social anxiety of swimming with a high-powered culture set—dealer John Berggruen, SF MoMA director Neil Benezra, Gagosian’s Andy Avini, and former Dwell editor Allison Arieff among them.

Left: Ava Benezra, SF MoMA director Neal Benezra, LA MoCA director Jeremy Strick, and Wendy Strick. Right: SF MoMA trustee Michael Wilsey and Bobbie Wilsey.


While chatting with LACMA curator Leslie Jones, who is organizing a forthcoming Baldessari retrospective, we were gently alerted that dinner was served—an impressive buffet of burgers (beef, turkey, rock shrimp, black bean) and summer salads. As we ate, Norman and Norah passed a microphone back and forth to tell their guests (perhaps a hundred of us in all) of the arduous experience of building the cave—storms, potential collapse, brave workers—and to remind us that we really shouldn’t miss the Turrell. “The water’s ninety degrees,” Norman announced.

Pleasantly sated at dusk, I ambled down to the compact men’s changing room, which was filled with elder collectors in various states of undress. (“I think they enjoy putting us in awkward situations,” one of them deadpanned.) I donned a paper swimsuit—snug and slightly waxy—and dove into the warm water. Entering Stone Sky requires some underwater maneuvering that one guest wittily likened to emulating Shelley Winters in The Poseidon Adventure. I surfaced inside what looked to be a large square sauna cross-bred with a planetarium laser-light show. There, I encountered Norman Stone, LA MoCA director Jeremy Strick (who had toted his eyeglasses in a waterproof Ziploc bag), photographer Marion Brenner, artists Jimmy Raskin and Deborah Cox, and a few other nearly naked folks whose names I didn’t catch. The shared experience of getting inside made for a surprisingly democratic social space, and we splashed, conversed, and quietly looked upward, losing ourselves in the work’s eye-tickling color cycles and the warm Napa Valley night.

Glen Helfand

Left: Power Plant director Gregory Burke with Norah Stone. Right: 1301PE director Amy Divila with Matthew Linnell.


Talk of the Town

New York
07.06.08

Left: A Prior's Andrea Wiarda and artist Nico Dockx. Right: Artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. (All photos: David Velasco)


Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go Out and Do Something Less Boring Instead? The run-on title of the cult British children’s TV show was a beautiful paradox: Watch this, but don’t. Think of it as practice versus theory. Unfortunately for the makers of the teatime staple, its signature injunction was all too tempting, tending to curtail any further, uh, discourse. “The New York Conversations,” a recent series of talks convened both to launch e-flux’s new premises on Essex Street and to provide conceptual fodder for a forthcoming issue of Belgian art journal A Prior, was similar in its apparent determination to inspire via negative example. And it worked; I was out the door with a whole hour left on the clock.

Perhaps I missed some crucial initial question—it’s true that I arrived five minutes late for the Saturday-evening session following a convoluted subway journey to the Lower East Side—but what the discussion was actually for or about was never made entirely clear. As I arrived, wedging myself into the tiny fluorescent-lit storefront (seemingly a derelict launderette), chef and participant Rirkrit Tiravanija was complaining about his self-imposed exclusion from some crucial earlier stage of the dialogue—“I didn’t expect to stay in the kitchen so long.” But whether or not this was the kind of meeting at which a talking stick was passed around or votes were taken remained ambiguous. Additionally presided over by artists Nico Dockx and Anton Vidokle (e-flux’s founder), this was the final installment in a three-day sequence of two-hour lunchtime and dinnertime lock-ins, and the mood was earnest.

The organizers had prefaced their meet with a set of rules for conversation cribbed from Peter Burke’s 1993 book The Art of Conversation in Early Modern Europe, including “Avoid too excessive pedantic or technical speech (like direct interrogation, the use of imperatives and short answers such as ‘Yes’ and above all ‘No’)” and “Adapt your conversation to the people you are conversing with.” Sage advice that was consistently ignored as the dozen or so glum faces around the luridly patterned conference table made your correspondent feel like a student in the wrong classroom or, worse still, the teacher’s lounge. That I was standing (seating was limited to a strip of chairs arranged along one side of the action) and boiling (thanks to one esteemed co-participant planted in front of the fan) didn’t help.

Gradually, very gradually, workable ideas emerged—but was it ever heavy going. “Immaterial labor is so exhausting,” quipped Vidokle, to the quietest of laughter. Incrementally, the discussion creaked around to a comparison of different models of art writing and a critique of “modalities of engagement” (what was that about technical speech again?), the potentially alienating aspects of being a “content provider” (tell me about it), “the difficulty of talking about practice,” and “moving beyond representation.” Apparently, artist Liam Gillick (you just knew he’d be involved in this, didn’t you?) had “rejected the notion of freedom” in an earlier discussion (cheers, Liam), but when Tiravanija’s sous-chefs finally rolled out the snacks around nine o’clock, allowing the official participants to stuff their stony faces while the rest of us could only, in the words of one, “perform communality,” I was forced to make my escape. After all, there might have been something good on TV.