Thursday morning, on the elevator ride up to the eleventh floor of midtown’s Merchandise Mart tower for the preview of Volta NY, one prominent art dealer offered her appraisal of Pulse, another of the nine satellite fairs orbiting this year’s Armory Show. “It’s too pretty,” she claimed. “Not enough grit.”
Fairs can’t get a break these days. Either they’re untamable, Babylonian beasts or pat, familiar beats—cynical snapshots of the market or traveling circus museums. At least they seem to be making money, dire forecasts of a correction appearing, on the surface at least, to be premature. “This is the best Armory Show ever!” enthused Darren Flook, of London gallery Hotel, at one of the week’s many dinners.
Many dealers expressed similar ardency at Volta, the Basel-based fair whose inaugural New York edition was organized by Amanda Coulson and Christian Viveros-Fauné. The fair, which mandated that each gallery exhibit the work of only one artist or collective, was easy enough to navigate. This didn’t necessarily ensure better art, but at least there was a measure of civility to the affair. At Copenhagen’s V1 Gallery, former photojournalist Peter Funch presented uncanny color photographs of pedestrians taken at various New York street corners—a bit like Bill Cunningham’s photo essays interpreted by Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Around the bend, art collective International Festival was throwing a party (replete with confetti, smoke machine, and an open bar) at Fruit and Flower Deli. Are there any occasions left for sobriety? Deli co-owner Rodrigo Mallea Lira produced another of the artists’ works, a receipt for three thousand dollars, equivalent to one month’s rent at their Stanton Street location. “The artists are paying our rent for a year. It’s about the love between an artist and their dealer,” he noted. “You can buy the receipt for six thousand dollars.”
Left: Kavi Gupta Gallery's Kristen VanDeventer with photographer Melanie Schiff. Right: Volta curator Christian Viveros-Fauné. (Photos: Brian Sholis)
Further downtown at Pulse, the art may indeed have been pretty, but the fair’s new digs at Pier 40 were gloomy at best—spacious, true, but about as inviting as a parking garage. Still, a few welcome faces flecked the crowd. Photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya held court at Envoy, standing kitty-corner from his new video project Subject-Object proof #2, and described his favorite fair attendee thus far: a cross-dressing Russian billionaire carrying a stuffed poodle escorted by an ex-KGB officer in full uniform. Dealer Edward Winkleman later clarified that the former was one of Pulse’s sponsors, Malgorzata Romanska—“perhaps the best performance-art piece in a decade . . . if it is one.” At Winkleman, Yevgeniy Fiks had a winsome installation featuring a series of earnest letters from various corporations responding to the artist’s donation of a book, Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, to their corporate libraries. (From Wendy’s, on declining the gift: “We . . . appreciate your thoughtfulness and have included a coupon for you to enjoy during your next visit . . .”)
Over at USM Modular Furniture in SoHo, DAP was hosting the launch of Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s series of slim artist-interview transcripts. Delayed by traffic, we missed architect Enrique Walker interviewing Obrist but arrived just in time to catch the start of Obrist’s talk with artist Paul Chan. Thankfully, late was also fashionable; waves of curators (including MoMA’s Barbara London, Roxana Marcoci, and Klaus Biesenbach) followed in our wake. Björk was already there, looking at home with socked feet propped up on the seat in front of her (the only empty chair in the house). Chan’s an unassuming but articulate speaker, leaping handily from Hegel to Adorno to Valéry. Pointing to Henry Darger, Chan argued that “escape is a legitimate form of engagement” and then, a bit later, spoke against the “terrible connectedness” of our times. The talk’s message, such that there was one, seemed to be: “Get lost.” Sound advice, given the weekend’s seemingly inexorable busyness. Afterward, artist Olafur Eliasson leaped up to give a surprise toast to Obrist. “I just want to thank Hans for all of his dedication to . . .” A champagne cork popped prematurely. Eliasson quickly finished, the other corks followed suit, and the party commenced.
Left: Artist Matthew Buckingham. Right: Performa director RoseLee Goldberg with curator Okwui Enwezor.
Sometimes the fairs sound less like cafeteria politics than street fighting. “If anyone asks me about the market, I’m going to head-butt them,” boasted David Kordansky at an intimate dinner hosted by London galleries Stuart Shave and the Approach in an austere Chelsea loft. Food was small dishes prepared by the apartment’s owner, a young disciple of celebrity chef Mark Hix: seafood-and-mashed-potato stew, pumpkin risotto. Plenty of artists and dealers were present: Collier Schorr, David Altmejd, and Ricky Swallow joined 303 Gallery’s Lisa Spellman, Mari Spirito, and Barbara Corti, along with curator Clarissa Dalrymple, art consultant Rob Teeters, and others. Anticipating a busy weekend, I retired early.
Friday was all gray skies and blusters, a far cry from spring. Following a turbulent jaunt on a water taxi—during which Creative Time presented a film by Matthew Buckingham—I walked over to Harris Lieberman to catch the beginning of Thomas Zipp’s opening. Zipp wasn’t around, apparently off recuperating from the setup of his giant, canted wooden missiles before the dinner in his honor at Tribeca’s Blau Gans. Around the corner at Maccarone, a massive crowd navigated Nate Lowman and Dan Colen’s installation, a sprawling slacker paradise. Apparently, the artists hadn’t quite finished the work. Lowman pointed to a long chain of chrome wheels: “Those are supposed to be standing, but we didn’t want to kill anyone. It’s not like we’re Richard Serra or Christo.” The show itself is something of a reprise of Lowman’s manic installation at Peres Projects during the Athens Biennial last September. As is often the case, though, it wasn’t all about the art. “I’m here to party!” hollered a young gallery lackey, while the Champs’ golden tune “Tequila” blared from one of the works: a cream 1972 Jaguar XJ6 with California plates zealously cluttered with videos, wires, and ephemera. They’re less Warhol’s children than Richard Prince’s, retooling the joke paintings into ebullient joke installations.
It seemed as though every dealer in town was there. Buried deep in the West Village, Maccarone is essentially international waters. Javier Peres was present, of course, but so were Tim Blum, David Zwirner, Anton Kern, Andrew Kreps, Jeffrey Deitch, Carol Greene, Gagosian’s Sam Orlofsky, Gladstone’s Maxime Falkenstein, and Massimo De Carlo—to name a few. An astute friend noted that the dealers simply smell Peres’s involvement and think money. Soon the Rubell clan arrived, followed by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, and the scene began to skew toward the absurd.
Left: Marianne Boesky's Annie Rana and Elisabeth Ivers at the Dark Fair. Right: Swiss Institute director Gianni Jetzer with assistant curator Piper Marshall and Ray.
Looking to augment the absurd with a taste of the surreal, I set off with a few friends to the Swiss Institute for the inaugural Dark Fair. Institute director Gianni Jetzer played bouncer, holding back a swarm of devoted art fans wrapping well around the block. Since most forms of electric and natural light were prohibited, the gallery upstairs was decked out with candles and black light, giving it the vibe of one of those caliginous chill-out rooms obligatory at raves in the ’90s. A massage circle wouldn’t have seemed out of place. Instead, wandering the aisles, I found Spencer Sweeney dressed up as a ghost selling forty-dollar dildo candles at Gavin Brown’s “booth” and two Sue de Beer zoetropes (props from her video The Quickening) going for a few grand each at Marianne Boesky. Something for everyone, a friend enthused.
Afterward, we departed for the Rusty Knot, the freshly minted nautical-themed lounge featuring windows facing the Hudson—and the West Side Highway—where Lowman and Colen’s dinner was winding down to the afterparty. The revelry continued on to Agathe Snow’s capacious third-floor walk-up on the Lower East Side. Amid the derelict, beautiful space, Snow and the usual suspects lounged on the floor and danced ecstatically, while a small stereo played a song lifted from an old Kenneth Anger film. Strangely, there was no furniture—or belongings of any kind, really—to get in the way. A friend noted that the building had been sold to developers and that Snow and the other tenants were being evicted: the latest victims of the neighborhood’s gentrification. Although I’d never been there before, I was flooded with a sudden, momentary mourning for the party, for a scene I never knew.
Armory Show week in New York got off to a deceptively heady start on Tuesday night with a party that Sotheby’s Tobias Meyer and art consultant Mark Fletcher threw in their assume vivid astro focus–enhanced apartment sixty-six floors above Columbus Circle. Spirits were high as guests floated through the living room like the dancers in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1930 film Madam Satan, much of which takes place at a cocktail party in a blimp drifting over Central Park. In the movie, lightning strikes, forcing everyone to parachute into the Central Park Reservoir. Painters Lisa Yuskavage and Matvey Levenstein replayed that act in slightly less dramatic fashion by bailing early, ostensibly to avoid the mesclun-and-goulash dinner—and not Yuskavage’s former dealer, Marianne Boesky, who was deep in conversation with Friedrich Petzel on the other side of the room.
In fact, the number of gallerists chowing down in such unusually friendly fashion gave the entire soiree a slightly unbecoming wholesomeness. There was Barbara Gladstone with Team’s Jose Freire, Tomasso Corvi-Mora with Cornelia Grassi, Stefania Bortolami and Javier Peres. Jeffrey Deitch came by, as did Frieze Fair codirector Amanda Sharp, who, though not a dealer, sure is helping to sell a bunch of art. After a while, though, the dealers gave way to a phalanx of night-owl artists: Slater Bradley, Adam McEwen, Terence Koh, Jessica Craig-Martin, John Currin and Rachel Feinstein, Ashley Bickerton, and of course avaf’s Eli Sudbrack, dressed up in Navajo/Carioca duds. (Don’t we love those who still bother to make an effort?) “This is the suavest crowd I’ve ever seen,” Bickerton said, following Koh into a bathroom. “Nothing but freaks!”
I found Studio Museum director Thelma Golden by the floor-to-ceiling windows looking east over midtown Manhattan, telling Francesco Vezzoli about her sudden marriage in January to London’s sustainable-fashion designer Duro Olowu. “Basically, we eloped,” she said. There was some talk of the Whitney Biennial performances at the Park Avenue Armory, and how good it felt to visit museums late at night. “Sometimes I think we should just stay open till midnight,” Golden said, sounding wistful. “Is it true Gavin Brown is opening a nightclub?” Vezzoli asked.
Left: Artist Mary Heilmann. Right: Filmmaker John Waters. (Photos: Linda Yablonsky)
That would be a logical next step from the owner of the soon-to-be-defunct bar Passerby. Brown certainly could have brought some pizzazz to the Armory Show’s VIP preview on Wednesday, when I spotted a number of dealers sitting in their booths, staring out at the aisles and hoping new clients would notice them. Out here on the river, hard by New Jersey, the pier felt more like a trading post than usual. Perhaps it’s assuming the personality of the enthusiastic new owner, Merchandise Mart Properties of Chicago, which also runs Art Chicago and the Volta and NEXT fairs, among other trade shows. Paul Morris, an Armory Show cofounder who is now the fair's vice president, was busy taking Dolce and Gabbana for a tour (he must sniff out a new sponsor around every corner), so I slipped into the VIP Lounge to meet Chris Kennedy, who was more or less born into the Mart (once owned by his grandfather, Joseph Kennedy) and who looks very much like his father, Robert F. Kennedy. “Art fairs are the future of retail,” he said flat out. The reason? Because they’re so social. Kennedy’s right.
An art fair isn’t just about the flow of money. It’s about schmoozing. Art fairs are the high school dances of the international set. Photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders spoke of his new HBO documentary about prominent black Americans—what timing!—and, in the VIP room, I met Peter Rosenthal, one of the founders of First Creative Bank, a new entity designed expressly to serve the “creative economy.” Still, this Armory, which once admitted only the freshest works, may be the least challenging in recent memory. I heard one artist call it a fair that “only a decorator could love.” More than one passerby compared it—unfavorably—with the current Biennial. Alienated by the hodgepodge, I longed for a little curatorial muscle, some celebrity outrage, a soupçon of sensuality. “Let me ask you something,” Kennedy said. “Why isn’t there more political art?”
A fair question. At Pier 94, you would never know that this was an election year, that there are new eruptions of violence in Iraq, that homes are being foreclosed, that the Chinese are killing Tibetans, or even that the US dollar is sinking. (Remember when art was sold in dollars?) In this context, the focus of the few single-artist booths (Jenny Holzer at Cheim & Read, Eleanor Antin at Ronald Feldman, Annette Lemieux at Paul Kasmin, Martin Creed at Hauser & Wirth), some of which wore politics on their sleeves, came as a major relief. Still, by the end of the day, the Armory aisles were veritable schmoozefests and the dealers were going home happy. “Art fairs shouldn’t run more than a day and a half,” dealer Rachel Lehmann whispered later.
In the last five minutes, I found collectors Don and Mera Rubell with Takashi Murakami, who makes no distinction between art and commerce, in Victoria Miro’s booth, admiring an unusual iron sculpture of a Japanese warrior by Grayson Perry, of all people. It came in an edition of five, with two left unsold. Strangely, Murakami seemed to be wondering whether he could afford one. The Rubells work faster. “Let’s just get it,” said Don to Mera, while speaking into a cell phone, though perhaps he was talking about something else.
Left: Armory Show executive director Katelijne De Backer. (Photo: Brian Sholis) Right: Artist Jenny Holzer with Sir Norman Rosenthal. (Photo: David Velasco)
Twenty minutes later, I found them already seated at the dinner Andrew Kreps and Anton Kern were hosting at Malatesta on Washington Street. Outside, film agent and collector Beth Swofford was re-creating for anyone who would listen the scene she had made the night before to get a last-minute room at the Mercer Hotel. “Not this story again!” moaned Gavin Brown. “Let her tell it!” hollered CCS Bard Hessel Museum director Tom Eccles, who must have flown uptown soon after to Iwan Wirth’s bubbling party for painter Mary Heilmann at the dealer’s multistory pad above Zwirner & Wirth. There I found Eccles in the stairwell, planting a kiss on Martin Creed’s cheek.
John Waters left early, but Rufus Wainwright came late, showing up with another heartthrob, Jörn Weisbrodt, Robert Wilson’s right-hand man. Wirth’s decorator, Ricky Clifton—“the Billy Baldwin of the art world,” quipped Vezzoli, for whom Heilmann is a new diva—gave personal tours of the house. “That Chinese table was Marlon Brando’s, those urns were Barbra Streisand’s, that moose head was Warren Beatty’s,” he said. Upstairs, in the bedroom, Heilmann was meeting some of her collectors for the first time. “I know you have something of mine, I’m just not sure what,” she told Omaha entrepreneur Phil Schrager. “I have three works by you,” he told her. “Oh,” she said. “You are a good man!” For this good woman, these days, they’re not so hard to find.
Left: Merchandise Mart properties President Christopher Kennedy. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky) Right: Artist Robert Barry with dealer Yvon Lambert. (Photo: David Velasco)
On Easter Sunday, for the final Whitney Biennial performance at the Park Avenue Armory, bewigged artists Rita Ackermann (frizzy blond bob) and Agathe Snow (Orange Crush Afro) hosted a much-buzzed-about “gypsy-themed feast, in which . . . the guests themselves become materials in the work of art.” Titled Abat-Jour, the piece “refers to bajour,” explained the Whitney website, “the traditional gypsy confidence game. Using barter and chance as central themes, Ackermann and Snow explore issues related to gender, community, and celebration.” Softly humming Cher’s classic ditty “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves,” I entered the Armory ready for fortune-telling, swindling, and, as advertised, vintage Dom Pérignon. You know, an art-world dinner.
In case you haven’t been, the Armory is a paragon of the American Aesthetic Movement and a veritable moose Treblinka loaded with mounted game, arcane club rooms, memorial plaques, busts and oil portraits of military types, lavish paneling, Tiffany flourishes, and, on two of the top floors, a women’s shelter (!). On the bottom two, behind peek-a-boo blackout curtains, a Biennial art piece was installed in each room. Most seemed to be plugged-in gadgets of some sort.
Reached through these anachronistic halls, the mise-en-scène of the dinner was Fellini-esque: a lo-o-ong table dramatically beached in the middle of the Drill Hall, a vaulted, cavernous space the size of a football field. Along with the champagne glasses, the bar area started to overflow with the art-slash-fashion “community,” as the hostesses and their helpers cavorted giddily in gypsyish frocks and head scarves, hugged guests, and posed for pictures.
Left: C&M Media's Angela Mariani with Art Production Fund cofounder Yvonne Force Villareal. Right: Jessica Weiner and Danielle Weiner with Art Production Fund cofounder Doreen Remen.
You know, sometimes you just don’t feel like chatting. But the great thing about these events is that everyone there is a pro: They wouldn’t show up to such a thing if they weren’t willing to work, so they’re always ready to meet you halfway in the chat department. I adjusted my social autopilot and scanned the room: the Three as Four guy, a wee Bob Dylan gadding about in a cape; Björk, cute and tiny in a not-flattering vintage-y silvery dress; the Soy Bomb guy, Michael Portnoy, in a dandyish suit; Biennial curators Henriette Huldisch and Shamim Momin. Jeffrey Deitch, always dapper, with his signature cat-that-ate-the-canary expression, surveyed the scene approvingly. Cynthia Rowley admitted she was nervous. (“We’re expected to perform?” she asked.) Artist Rob Pruitt had news: He had ridden a mitzvah tank from Grand Street to Saint Mark’s Place doing shots for Purim last week with the Lubavitchers (“They were cute!”). On her way in, Yvonne Force Villareal looked gypsy glam in a fur jacket and head scarf, purposefully schlepping some bags.
The “feast,” food-wise, was kinda gross (to this vegetarian) but mercifully sporadic (pig rolls, sweets, tasteless cocktail pumpernickel with spread I later found out was chicken fat and aioli. Blech). There was an open bottle of Dom Pérignon at every place setting. A whimsical centerpiece of Hummel-esque and crafty tchotchkes was scattered along the length of the table. When I saw an esteemed colleague glide by coolly eying which ones to pocket, I quickly slipped a crude ceramic ornament into my purse, signed: HOME SWEET HOME, LOVE BERNARD.
Manic facilitators in Rhoda Morgenstern head scarves periodically rushed around the feasters. Wildly emoting, they waved cue cards: LOOK AROUND YOU!, YELL!, CHANGE SEATS!, and, finally (inspiring my favorite image of the evening—Yvonne Force standing on the table in her fur, kerchief, and best hostess smile, hollering), GET THE HELL OUT! People were tipsy enough to oblige—the “interactive” part—but it felt contrived. If art is the constant process of emptying stuff out, mused my inner geek, it is nevertheless possible to experience bogus absurdity. Beyond the random seating (each guest drew a card deeming them a SWAN, a DOLPHIN, or a SHE-WOLF and was placed accordingly), if this was supposed to be about “bartering and chance” and “issues related to gender, community, and celebration,” then maybe that was the swindle? One smarty-pants observed: “It all seems like some sort of cynical comment on Rirkrit Tiravanija's dinners. I wonder if buzz and no content is simply the donnée these days. Curse you Warhol.” I was disappointed there was no tea-leaf reading. But on the plus side, my pockets weren’t picked!
Left: Designer Cynthia Rowley. Right: Rivington Arms's Melissa Bent, artist Marina Rosenfeld, and Ange from Three as Four.
A view of Ikue Mori's performance at the Japan Society. (All photos: Tom DiMauro)
In 1977, Ikue Mori moved from Tokyo to New York. She was in her early twenties, spoke no English, knew no one, and was due back—she’d promised her mother—in three months. Wandering around the Lower East Side, she met a guitarist, Arto Lindsay, and a keyboardist, Robin Crutchfield. While her mother waited in Toyko, Mori and her new friends formed the epochal No Wave act DNA; within a year, her abstruse, sculptural playing—her bandmates taught her drum parts via pantomime and diagram—had made her a downtown goddess. The Brian Eno–curated No Wave document No New York followed; so did a cameo in the infamous Basquiat vehicle Downtown 81. In ’82, the band dissolved, but Mori stayed in the city.
Their math may be fuzzy, but by any measure, the Japan Society’s “Ikue Mori: Celebrating 30 Years of Life, Love, and Music in NYC” was a long time coming. In 2006, Mori found herself on a Japan Society stage, as part of composer John Zorn’s “Tzadik Label Music Series.” She marveled at her luck and seemingly far-fetched trajectory. In the audience was Yoko Shioya, the society’s artistic director; hearing her, Shioya decided she could come further still, and so—after years of solo and collaborative performances downtown, after a decade of forays into dance and installation art in places as far-flung as Tate Modern and as close to home as the Kitchen—the Zorn-curated Mori tribute was born.
A two-night affair in the minimal confines of the Japan Society’s Forty-seventh Street building, the festival was designed with a contemporary bent—no DNA, no early-’80s metal machine music. Instead, Zorn chose only ongoing endeavors: Friday showcased Mori’s burgeoning animation project, inspired by Balinese temples and scored by the gamelan ensemble Bhima Swarga, and a world premiere of Mori’s newest collaboration with the Japanese avant-pop collective Hikashu’s Makigami Koichi, a vocal-improv artist and stage director.
I held out for Saturday, drawn to the program for its promised US debut of Mori’s live sound track to two of Maya Deren’s silent films (Witch’s Cradle, starring Duchamp, and the sublime At Land), originally commissioned by Tate Modern. Also scheduled were Phantom Orchard, Mori’s project with the harpist Zeena Parkins, and Mephista, her all-female improv trio. Not coincidentally, the Japan Society presented both nights as installments in their current season’s theme: New York Woman.
A view of Ikue Mori's performance at the Japan Society.
Phantom Orchard has to be one of a very few acts to be considered for both a Prix Ars Electronica and inclusion in the annual New York noise gathering No Fun Fest. But this high-art/low-art tweak is a Mori signature, going back to her send-ups of Japanese court music in service of DNA’s raucous non-songs. Halfway through their set on Saturday, she and Parkins—whose atonal, growling harp might be another new-music joke—brought the percussionist Cyro Baptista onstage. As the crowd looked on intently, Baptista unveiled a clown car’s worth of instruments that resembled nothing so much as trash: a saw blade, two deflated spheres that looked like melting bowling balls, and half an NBA championship trophy (played with a bell). On the screen behind the deadpan trio, a kaleidoscopic animation eventually resolved itself into a familiar silhouette: Behold, the New York City cockroach.
Mori’s Maya Deren piece had a ghost of the same high/low feint, a tongue-in-cheek re-creation of long-gone low culture—the nickelodeon, the silent film, the piano player. Mori emerged in black, bowed, and sat down at a laptop. Witch’s Cradle, one of Deren’s more overtly claustrophobic films, lingers over thumping hearts, stray appendages, yards of rope; Mori’s score took as its basis the metronomic pulse of the body Deren plumbs in such depth, using it as a ground from which to take intricate flight.
But it was the second Deren film she showed, At Land, that was as close to a summa as the artist might cop to. At Land depicts Deren, in its opening shot, washing up out of the ocean and onto the shore. Right before the end of the reel—before Deren takes off running down the beach toward the water and the horizon, leaving an unbroken line of footprints behind her—the projection flickered, then died. Mori shrugged, and the show went on.
Afterward, I ran into Suzanne Fiol, artistic director at the Brooklyn new-music venue Issue Project Room. “At the end, she goes back into the water, right?” Fiol asked. Deren might, but Mori—not yet.
Last Tuesday morning, during the Art Dubai press conference, I was thinking about the night before, when the New York air would have been cool and heavy, the US dollar worth a record fraction of the euro, and I had been in a cab doing 100 on Sheikh Zayed Road, where it was 77 degrees at 9 PM and money seemed to grow on hydroponic trees. Virgin, Canon, Crown Plaza, and the Metroplex streaked by. The Mall of the Emirates (“the world’s first shopping resort”) and the rising Burj Dubai (“the world’s tallest tower”) did the same amid light-box billboards of sheikhs and perfume and floodlit buildings with South Asian construction workers inside. We drove into Dubai Internet City, then Dubai Media City, two of the city’s industry-organized neighborhoods. So now sitting outside the fair halls in the Jumeirah Madinat, a resort “styled to resemble an ancient Arabian citadel” (with a souk, two “boutique” hotels, and courtyard summerhouses), I couldn’t help but think that all this added up to nothing but a franchise, something like Dubai Art City.
Just another Pfizer or IBM stationed in this magical city in the desert, I thought, as teacups clinked and cameras flashed while fair codirector John Martin (a London-based dealer) and education director Savita Apte (an art historian and Sotheby’s consultant) seated themselves with fellow speaker Frederic Sicre, executive director of Abraaj Capital, the private equity firm partnered with the fair. What followed was a hard sell. Artists are entrepreneurs. The fair is a gateway between “the East and the West.” Sicre spoke of Abraaj’s deepening interests in a region spanning the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia that the company has labeled, he shared proudly, MENASA. (The original acronym, SAMENA, was scrapped when it was revealed to translate in Arabic as “fat lady.”) Sicre noted: “Where the Western economies seem to be going through a few difficulties, emerging markets,” like those of MENASA, “are really the call of the day.”
Left: British Museum curator Venetia Porter. Right: Sheikh Mohammed, ruler of Dubai, with dealer Kamel Mennour.
The subsequent question-and-answer session had just begun when an excited press agent interrupted: His Highness Sheikh Majid bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai’s culture minister, had arrived. Audience members clamored for a photo op, and then a beaming Martin led the sheikh through the maze of booths—the former pointing to this or that object, the latter occasionally exchanging words with dealers and artists—as photographers and journalists maintained a tight ring around them, some shuffling backward to snap pictures and bumping into sculptures that dealers scrambled to guard.
“It’s called Flying Carpets,” artist Alex Flemming said to the sheikh about his airplane-shaped Oriental rugs hanging in the Bolsa de Arte booth: “What do you think?” The sheikh: “I think I could fly away on it.” The crowd chuckled nervously. A journalist noted that Contrasts Gallery was organizing a fair in Hong Kong to open this spring and passed him her business card. He accepted it without looking down. Having made its way through the Credit Suisse exhibition—titled, predictably, “Art and Entrepreneurship”—and out the main entrance, the crowd took more photos at Wim Delvoye’s outdoor installation of a rusty rickshaw. Then it ended as quickly as it had begun: The sheikh and his companions stepped into a taupe Hummer and disappeared around the bend.
The fair had three significant projects apart from the main halls: the Pakistani-pavilion exhibition, “Desperately Seeking Paradise”; the Art Park, a video lounge (organized by the editors of Bidoun and curators Tirdad Zolghadr and Nav Haq) housed in the parking garage below the main fair; and the Global Art Forum, a series of lectures in a tent on the Arabian Gulf beach. Of the works in “Desperately Seeking Paradise,” Huma Mulji’s Arabian Delight, a taxidermic camel from Pakistan stuffed into a black suitcase with a palm-tree pattern on its interior, stood out most (which is perhaps why the government ordered its removal). Mohammed Ali Talpur’s drawing-in-space, a cube of various Plexiglas planes painted with black lines, looked good but not as strong as his fine ink-on-paper works exhibited in the Green Cardamom booth. Soon after I had begun to explore the Art Park, my phone vibrated with an incoming message: COME TO THE FRONT NOW.
Left: Artist Ai Weiwei with dealer Christine Koenig. Right: Artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Serpentine codirector of exhibitions and programs.
The mass had again congealed on the red carpet at the entrance, their obscene lenses focused on two parked Hummers and any man wearing a kandura. A group of robed gentlemen dispersed as a third car pulled up and Sheikh Mohammed, ruler of Dubai, stepped out to be greeted by Martin. Another chaotic tour ensued. “Beautiful,” the sheikh said of Reena Kallat’s picture of a young girl composed of rubber stamps; “I like the movement,” he said of Sung-Tae Park’s wire wall sculptures of horses (a predictable choice, perhaps, given his much-publicized equestrian hobbies). He ran his hand along Valay Shende’s Gun of Counter-Revolution, a nickel-plated sculpture of a firearm whose two barrels point in opposite directions, and along the artist’s nearby gold-plated motorcycle. A pretty journalist stopped the sheikh at the top of the escalator to the Art Park and asked: “Do you like contemporary art?” He laughed and stepped onto the descending stairway. On entering the video lounge, he looked back: “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”
The next morning, bleary-eyed from the lively patron’s preview and the rooftop afterparty sponsored by London gallery Albion, the press-junket participants were driven to the building of fair shareholder Dubai International Finance Center for two talks: one by Anders Petterson, of ArtTactic, a market-research company, the other by Louise T. Blouin MacBain, founder of the eponymous media empire. “It’s not actually the work itself, it’s who’s supporting it,” Petterson said and passed around a spreadsheet on the Indian art market, a “heatmap” meant to provide a “snap-shot of the current psychology in the market,” with the summative headline “Optimists Outweigh Pessimists.” For her part, MacBain took the microphone in hand and stepped away from the podium: “I must say that it’s so wonderful to go and experience start-ups, especially in these regions, we need it so much. Dubai needs it. The Middle East needs it. We need to discover the art.” She conceded, about her new website, MyArtinfo (“a Facebook with artists”), created to help ease the discrepancy between “local governments” and “global issues,” that “poor people, they have to have a computer to get onto the Internet, and that’s a big challenge,” and, of people in refugee camps, “feeding them” takes priority.
Left: Artist Huma Mulji with Arabian Delight. Right: The Museum of Modern Arab Art's Wassan al-Khudhairi with the Third Line's Claudia Cellini.
This convoluted scenario—in which art is likened at once to entrepreneurship, to luxury, to the great social solvent—was cut through by Lawrence Weiner during his Global Art Forum talk with British Museum curator Venetia Porter, whose exhibition “Word into Art,” which features two word sculptures by Weiner, was being hosted by the DIFC. Porter’s show follows the use of calligraphy in Middle Eastern art (hewing to no country’s specific history) from its religious beginnings through “abstraction.” Porter saw “calligraphy,” whereas Weiner saw “typefonts.” Porter saw her exhibition as an objective “presentation,” whereas Weiner saw it as a “framed environment” fostering exoticism. Porter saw the art as a window onto a Middle Eastern sensibility, one deeply rooted in Islam, whereas Weiner posited art as a “material fact” about “passing on relationships of human beings to objects.” The language is beside the point.
Porter: “I’m trying to tell a story.”
Weiner: “They’re not characters in a story.”
It went like this until it ended with no common ground charted.
That night was a party at the house of Claudia Cellini, one of the three founders of Dubai gallery Third Line. The popping corks sounded particularly loud, perhaps because they signaled the violation of the daylong dry period mandated for the Prophet’s birthday. I spoke with Bidoun’s Lisa Farjam and art historian Murtaza Vali about the South Asian labor system in Dubai and with Tehran-based artists Shirin Aliabadi and Farhad Moshiri (the first Middle Eastern artist to sell at auction for more than one million dollars) about the Internet firewalls in their city. Charlie Koolhaas and Art Asia Pacific editor H. G. Masters chatted in the driveway. Weiner stopped by, and Hans-Ulrich Obrist headed to the bar. We stayed up late and ate curry in the back and all seemed well in this new Gulf town as English words floated out on shisha smoke into the night.
Left: Artists Shirin Aliabadi and Farhad Moshiri. (Photo: Kyle Bentley) Right: Bidoun's Negar Azimi with critic Shumon Basar.
Left: A view of Doris Salcedo's pavilion at Inhotim Park. Right: UCLA Hammer Museum curator Gary Garrels (center) with Inhotim founder Bernardo Paz (right). (Photos: Bruno Magalhães)
Picture one thousand people crowding a dilapidated country road in the midst of a record-shattering tropical storm and you will have some idea of the mise-en-scène for last weekend’s celebrations at Brazil’s Inhotim Contemporary Art Center. There are no shortage of reasons to fly to Belo Horizonte, the sadly overgrown capital of Minas Gerais, one of the country’s twenty-six states, and then spend another hour driving to Bernardo Paz’s eighty-seven-square-acre Shangri-la, but this was an occasion more special than most: the introduction of two new pavilions to the park’s already impressive repertoire, one dedicated to the work of Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo, the other to that of the Brazilian painter Adriana Varejão.
If you’re throwing a party for the Brazilian elite, here is how, as a seasoned event planner explained to me, you estimate your congregation. Take the number of people who bother to RSVP, then throw in another half so you can stock the right amount of caipirinha ingredients. Brazilians are notoriously commitment-phobic, so you can only count on them coming once they’ve shown up.
And show up they did. As the epic storm rocked the procession of hired taxis, buses, and minivans, the guests—dressed down to communicate affluent ease with scientific sartorial precision—were treated to the natural performance of falling trees and overflowing rivers. On reaching Inhotim’s entrance, most resigned themselves to donning the white hooded rain ponchos being distributed by park employees. First stop, the elegantly designed restroom—yes, even the restrooms were eye-catching. Inside, a young woman stared at the lineup of uniformly dressed women reflected in the mirror and exclaimed, in casual Portuguese, “We look like the Ku Klux Klan!” Here, some four thousand miles south of where such a reference might ruin an evening—or at least ruffle a feather—the remark went unnoticed.
How do you spot VIPs when everyone’s dressed in white plastic bags with holes? The cross-dresser Patrício Bisso, an Argentine-born actor who made his career in Brazil, once survived a challenging television assignment. Told to scout for Rio de Janeiro celebrities during a carnival parade, Bisso, an outsider, proceeded to stick the microphone in people’s faces, asking point-blank, “Are you somebody?” Not even Bisso would dare be so cheeky with Salcedo, who at that moment looked prepped for an appointment with her dentist. The famously press-shy Colombian grimaced through the opening of her pavilion—an austere edifice that houses her lyric steel and plasterboard installation, Neither, itself a reference to the architecture of concentration camps, seen once before at London’s White Cube gallery—then quickly retired.
Varejão, far more congenial, bore the brunt of the celebration, playing host to an unwieldy hodgepodge of dealers, curators, journalists, and friends from three continents. Varejão’s pavilion houses three new works, including Celacanto Provoca Maremoto (Coelacanth Provokes a Tidal Wave), which evokes the manner in which tiles are replaced in old baroque panels. Thus far, thanks to its artful marriage of architecture, landscaping, and painting, her pavilion is the most breathtaking of Inhotim’s many shrines to contemporary art. Varejão is married to Paz, Inhotim’s soft-spoken bwana, though to obviate suspicions of curatorial nepotism, it should be noted that they met when both were married to other people and Paz invited the talented young artist to survey the park for her site-specific works. The result of that first meeting, their sunny, gorgeous two-year-old Catarina, was also present.
Having amassed an impressive collection of post-1960s works by artists such as Matthew Barney, Hélio Oiticica, Cildo Meireles, and Tunga, Paz has planted them in gardens laid by famed landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx, far from the madding crowds of the art world’s nervous centers. The park’s proprietor, whose passions are financed by a fortune made in mining and metallurgy, doesn’t want to be called a collector, “because it reminds me of accumulation.” How does he want to be remembered, now that Inhotim has attracted more than 140,000 visitors in its third year, evolving into a nonprofit foundation with ambitions ranging from biological research to education to tourism and the performing arts? “Can you call me a conceiver?” That would be like calling Peggy Guggenheim a socialite with taste. As he continues to lavish commissions on artists like Doug Aitken, Janet Cardiff, and Pipilotti Rist, it’s easy to understand that Bernardo, as he prefers to be called, enjoys, for the moment anyway, being the primary curator of his reputation.