This year, a record number of international guests descended on the Lyon Biennial, the ninth edition, titled “00s—The History of a Decade That Has Not Yet Been Named.” Fulfilling their reputation for playful conceits, curators Stéphanie Moisdon and Hans-Ulrich Obrist hatched a ludic concept, framing the event as one enormous game. To spice things up, they asked forty-nine “players,” mostly international curators (of which I was one), to answer the following question: “In your opinion, who is the essential artist of this decade?” They then undertook to present the work of the selected artists. A second circle of players—comprising fourteen artists—was invited to select additional artists for a supplementary section of the exhibition; Saâdane Afif, for example, used the opportunity to present roughly forty artists from Nantes’s Zoo Gallery.
The major daily French feuilletons (typically out of step with international trends) were not amused by the format and roundly trashed the concept, claiming that it lacked “poetry” (Le Monde’s coverage was titled “Une Biennale sans Foi ni Choix” [“A Biennial Without Faith or Choices”].) The focus on critics and curators was deemed utterly inappropriate. Harald Szeemann must be rolling in his grave.
Left: Artists Una Szeemann (selected by Yves Aupetitallot) and Bohdan Stehlik. Right: Performance by Annie Vigier and Franck Apertet (selected by Pierre Bal-Blanc).
I arrived Monday afternoon at La Sucrière (one of the four biennial sites). My first stop was my own selection, an installation by Christian Holstad that, among other things, makes reference to Lyon’s flourishing sex trade. The city is notorious for the prostitutes who work out of minivans parked around the biennial site and who were, of course, forced by police to relocate during the exhibition to avoid making the area appear too seedy. In a gesture of solidarity, Holstad installed a minivan of the style used by the prostitutes in the building’s forecourt. This worried the PR department to no end, and the artist had to keep things “low key” to avoid upsetting the mayor, who opened the biennial along with Christine Albanel, the new minister of culture, and a gaggle of sixty uncomfortable-looking individuals dressed like the court of Versailles. Their presence was a peculiar addition to the otherwise spirited mix.
They appeared baffled by the choreography of Annie Vigier and Franck Apertet (selected by Pierre Bal-Blanc), which consisted of male dancers sticking their heads between the legs of their female counterparts (and vice versa), and seemed similarly bewildered by the striptease of one muscular chap, “a combination Larry Bell, Dan Graham, and Dan Flavin,” according to its creator, Tino Sehgal (selected, natch, by Jens Hoffman). The look on their faces when they encountered the young woman peeing herself (Norma Jeane, selected by Giovanni Carmine) is indescribable. It was hardly a surprise that these works were open only to “mature” audiences, though it did seem strange that Eric Troncy, on selecting artist David Hamilton, deemed it necessary to place similar visitor restrictions on Hamilton’s photos of young, nude girls. But these were minor irritations compared with the larger political actions against Erick Beltrán. Selected by Houston-based curator Gilbert Vicario, Beltrán contributed a critique of advertising, rewriting slogans in the “hatespeak” of the street, e.g., LYON WHITE TRASH or BLACKS OUT. Local politicians were livid, and Michel Noir, the city's former mayor, requested the signs’ removal. Lyon’s artistic directors refused, but when threatened with legal action, they removed specific banners emblazoned with the slogans DIRTY JEWS and DEATH TO MUSLIMS, even while others remained on display and despite the fact that the work’s critical, hyperbolic nature would have been evident to a five-year-old.
That evening, we were invited to the opera to watch Jérôme Bel’s production of The Show Must Go On. (Bel had been invited by the second circle of players.) Having already seen it, I set off instead for the biennial’s epicenter, Brasserie Georges, an enormous Art Deco hall that hosted le tout Lyon and where the sauerkraut was as plentiful as water. Once sufficiently full, guests made their way to the new art school, where a large cocktail party was being hosted by Lyon’s greatest chefs. The symposium culminated with the presentation of the “Only Lyon” award: fourteen thousand dollars to be shared by the best curator-artist pairing.
The jury consisted of Suzanne Pagé of the Louis Vuitton Foundation; Gunnar Kvaran, director of Oslo’s Astrup Fearnley Museum; Artforum publisher Knight Landesman; Art Basel director Samuel Keller; Museum Ludwig director Kasper König; Silvia Karman Cubina, director of The Moore Space in Miami; and the artist Elaine Sturtevant. Seth Price (selected by Andrea Viliani) received the award for his video, which recycled footage from some of his earlier works, while second place (an M/M-designed chocolate lion, the symbol of Lyon) went to Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. Collector Rosa de la Cruz looked delighted and took photographs of everyone in attendance while the biennial theme song, a wobbly glockenspiel ditty written by Trisha Donnelly, played in the background.
Price also won magnums of champagne, and our tipsy posse went backstage to celebrate before repairing to the minuscule Look-Bar nearby. In fact, “miniscule” doesn’t even begin to describe it—to fit in, we literally had to pile on top of one another. (I was on top of curator Stefan Kalmar, who was on top of Tate curator Stuart Comer.)
The following evening there was yet another mixer at the Swiss Consulate in honor of Monsieur Obrist. This time, I avoided a second excursion to the Look-Bar and went to bed early, haunted by mingling feelings of relief and compunction.
All paths cross in the art world, I always say, but I exaggerate. Yet that was the (very) privileged case last Monday night, when five hundred invited guests from select walks of life converged on the Seventh Regiment Armory, on Park Avenue, to witness the roaring facture of Aaron Young’s monumental painting-by-biker, Greeting Card. The title refers to a poured Jackson Pollock painting that Young intended to reproduce. There was plenty of aggressive action involved, but it didn’t hold a candle to the vigorous displays of air kissing that surrounded it.
On arrival, I spotted Sigourney Weaver, Mary Boone, Rufus Wainwright, and Francesco Clemente, all in one glance. Marilyn Minter, Cynthia Rowley and husband Bill Powers, Dan Colen, and John Legend were all in the lobby, swept up in a bouquet of collective self-love. At its center was Yvonne Force Villareal (cofounder with Doreen Remen of the Art Production Fund, which organized this singular event), dressed in a bare-shouldered black number from her archive of vintage Gucci. Blocking the entrance to the cavernous Drill Hall, where Young’s painting would be made, a passel of paparazzi surrounded one of the project’s principal backers, menswear mover and shaker (and former Gucci designer) Tom Ford. Beside him, fenced within yet another corral of photographers, was the genial Usher, the pop star. Usher likes art, I heard. He might buy some. Actually, I thought, he might be some.
Cleared of the usual trade-show booths and carpeting, the Drill Hall—nearly a full square block with wrought iron–trussed eighty-foot ceilings in which, before the era of art-world skirmishes, tanks, jeeps, and troops would muster for our country's actual skirmishes—was glorious, looking like a nearly abandoned and slightly decrepit Grand Central Station, absent the stars painted on the vaulted ceiling. Most spectators filed onto iron-fenced mezzanines on the north and south sides of the hall, where they resembled caged POWs. The rest of us were shown to ghostly “bleachers” on the eastern end, actually concrete steps outfitted with rugged wrought-iron theater chairs, many missing their seats.
Left: Greeting Card stunt biker Que. (Photo: Brian Sholis) Right: Sigourney Weaver. (Photo: David Velasco)
On the floor below, covering an area about twice the size of a basketball court, was what an uninitiated viewer could easily have mistaken for an enormous black Carl Andre sculpture. In fact, that rectangle was made up of 288 plywood panels that assistants and student interns had spent three days slathering with several layers of fluorescent paint topped off with black acrylic.
After the audience was settled, a dozen stunt motorcycle riders entered from ten doors and, after a slow procession around the “canvas,” drove onto assigned quarters and began to spin their wheels. Within seconds, the smell of burning rubber filled our nostrils, and a veritable fog bank of smoke rose up to obscure the scene from view. A minute later, the smoke began to lift and the paint beneath the black began to reveal itself in reflective orange, pink, and yellow—the palette, more or less, of the Pollock that inspired Young—and when it was done, lo and behold, there was the biggest Brice Marden look-alike in the world.
The whole show seemed much ado about nothing, albeit a “nothing” with a rather unusual social flair. Just how social became pronounced after the performance, when the crowd descended like patrician nobles paying a state visit to the village below to view the painting close-up. “I think it's spectacular,” said Jeffrey Deitch, no slouch when it comes to spectacle. Around us, Rockefellers, Rothschilds, and Mortimers stood cheek by jowl with artists Cindy Sherman, Lisa Yuskavage, Sylvie Fleury, Jack Pierson, and Adam McEwen, as well as collectors Shelley and Phillip Aarons, Ninah and Michael Lynne, Barbara and Howard Morse, and Jane Holzer.
It was fascinating to see a buffet taco dinner weave together the likes of Matthew Higgs and Chloë Sevigny, in the armory’s Tiffany Room, where guests were forced to sit with complete strangers at two long tables covered in black cloth. The corporate lawyer beside me admitted he knew nothing about art but, as a loyal client of Tom Ford’s men’s store, felt he ought to come to this event because, he said, “I think I kind of paid for it.”
Ford himself said he was happy to do “anything for Yvonne.” I asked whether he had provided such beneficent support—the whole affair was catered by Spec Entertainment, the fantastically expensive party planners—because he was a motorcycle enthusiast at heart. “No, I ride horses,” he said. “They’re much more dangerous.” And would he buy one of the paintings that Young will configure from the tire-burned panels? “They better give me one,” he said. “Of course he'll get one,” Force Villareal said. “For Tom, anything.”
During dinner, Young strolled along the tables showing Polaroids of the performance, which looked more compelling in pictures than it did live. A few of the motorcycle riders in the buffet line, meanwhile, claimed to have improvised their entire performance while breathing in the fumes. “It was intense,” one said. “And I'd do it again in a minute.” As Sean Landers later said, quoting a T-shirt he had seen that day in Washington Square Park, “I'm kind of a big deal.”
Left: The John Carpenter Band in Performance (Career Ender). Right: Affair at the Jupiter c-founder and Small A Projects owner Laurel Gitlen. (All photos: Michael Wilson)
“We started an art fair because we hate art fairs.” Laurel Gitlen, director of Portland gallery Small A Projects and, with Stuart Horodner, cofounder of Affair at the Jupiter Hotel, demonstrates an acute awareness of the ever-broadening context in which this fair operates, and the resultant need for it to be just a little bit different. Gitlen admits that sales at the event, now in its fourth year, vary wildly (“Someone told me they’d taken in one hundred thousand dollars in one day last year—for a small gallery offering work for a couple of thousand dollars a pop, that’s huge”), but its status as a meeting point for people to share ideas and contacts is well established and was immediately apparent.
At the Affair’s opening last Friday, a modest but enthusiastic crowd filtered into the hotel’s central courtyard and embarked on a leisurely round of the forty galleries and organizations represented, each of which occupied a room in the low-lying building (more motel than hotel, hip refit notwithstanding). Most also made productive use of their diminutive bathrooms (several lightheartedly lining them with the gallery’s more risqué wares). Given the setting, it seemed appropriate that Portland gallery Motel was present, joined by a number of other locals including PDX Contemporary Art, Quality Pictures, Elizabeth Leach Gallery, and the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery at Reed College (the last showcasing a video installation conflating, by way of puppets, ancient Chinese folklore with the wit and wisdom of Sol LeWitt).
Left: Artists Zoe Crosher and Jessica Jackson Hutchins. Right: Artist Harrell Fletcher.
As the buzz not only of conversation but also of tattoo needles from the on-site parlor began to fill the space, I was introduced to artist Harrell Fletcher (Miranda July’s collaborator on the multiplatform Learning to Love You More project), and together we stopped by Atlanta-based publisher J&L Books’ room, where Leanne Shapton was busy painting her own versions of the covers of visitors’ favorite volumes. Peering over the balcony, I noticed that Miller & Shellabarger, an identically bearded artist duo attending with Chicago gallery Western Exhibitions, had already launched into their work Untitled (Pink Tube)—knitting, from opposite ends, a perpetually in-progress pastel scarf—and that John Cichon (with another Chicago gallery, 65Grand) was winding up for his turn as an ax-wielding “primitive.” Only intermittent lighting problems interrupted the flow. (“All we need is a mirror ball, and people’ll be diggin’ it,” enthused one gallerist as the spots died yet again, shortcircuited by the temperamental air conditioning.)
I spent some time talking music with former Pavement frontman (and Portland resident) Stephen Malkmus and his artist wife, Jessica Jackson Hutchins. Then, itinerant artist (and, according to her entirely accurate business card, “enthusiast”) Zoe Crosher and I headed for an after-party hosted by Elizabeth Leach at a nearby warehouse, temporary home to Hap Tivey’s large-scale light installation Building White/Eclipse. The party was an oddly subdued affair (perhaps the venue wasn’t nearby enough—last year’s official shindig was held at the fair itself), with a cash bar and muffled music causing many to wonder—installation aside—why here? Starting at 9:30 and ending before midnight, it seemed to be over in a flash.
Left: J&L Books's Jason Fulford. Right: Cooley Gallery director Stephanie Snyder with artist Greg MacNaughton.
Saturday evening’s gatherings were altogether more successful. Following the opening of Dana Dart-McLean and Corin Hewitt’s shows at Small A, a crew of faces (many of whom were beginning to assume a certain familiarity by this stage of the weekend) made their way to the expansive offices of Emmons Architects for a buffet dinner hosted by Cooley Gallery director Stephanie Snyder and the firm’s founder, Stuart Emmons. The speechmaking was enthusiastic but brief, the office a great place to poke around. “Is this what a fake boob feels like?” wondered Crosher, pausing to prod one of two giant inflatable globes guarding the entrance. Perhaps she should have asked Cichon, artist Deb Sokolow, Western Exhibitions director Scott Speh, and 65Grand director Bill Gross, all of whom headed afterward to the Magic Garden—a storied local strip club. Horodner later trumpeted Portland’s concentration of such establishments as one of its selling points, qualifying his remark in the case of one particular venue: “Union Jacks. I can’t go into Union Jacks. I don’t want to see my students performing!”
It was perhaps fortunate, then, that fair business kept Horodner away from the final weekend of TBA:07, a festival of time-based art produced by Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA). My experience of the citywide event was fairly restricted—I made the rounds mostly on closing Sunday—but was sufficient enough to reveal that the grand tradition of shedding clothes in the name of art persists. “Simple Actions and Aberrant Behaviors,” an excellent video program curated by Pablo de Ocampo at the Portland Art Museum, included Kalup Linzy’s instant classic Lollypop, in which two shirtless guys lip-synch the call-and-response oldie of the title, while Claude Wampler’s satisfyingly rock-’n’-roll Performance (Career Ender) at the Gerding Theater at the Armory saw the John Carpenter Band frontman take the stage (after a lengthy video preamble) in the briefest of brief silver shorts. The audience response to the latter was excited to the point of unruliness. Hissing at a few poor souls (apparently embedded performers) who left early, they raised lighters in the air, stadium-rock style, as the piece, and the weekend, roared to a close.
Left: Artists Dutes Miller and Stan Shellabarger. Right: Affair at the Jupiter cofounder Stuart Horodner.
If the city of Los Angeles has always been synonymous with sprawl, why should its art world be any different? Last weekend marked the second wave of notable gallery openings inaugurating the new season in this ever-burgeoning city. Already, back-to-school camaraderie was beginning to give way to combat-zone shell shock. On Friday, while young skaters swarmed around Barry McGee at REDCAT, I navigated my way through the orange, smoggy dusk to preternaturally scrubbed West Hollywood for Lari Pittman’s opening at Regen Projects.
Nearly everyone who walked into the gallery’s new space on Santa Monica Boulevard was agog at Shaun Caley Regen’s renovation of the former Cappellini boutique. Though the venue recently debuted Charles Ray’s sculpture Hinoki while still raw, Regen Projects associate director Stacy Bengtson Fertig said the staff considered this reception their official opening. Regen, in sunglasses, admitted she still had trouble finding the light switches.
Cutting gracefully across the newly polished epoxy floor, Pittman exuded a well-pressed cool with his sculptural, slicked-back hair and newscaster-white smile. The quintessential LA artist moved through the crowd of high-end collectors, curators, and museum directors—including Sylvia Chivaratanond, MoCA’s Paul Schimmel, and the Stedelijk’s Gijs van Tuyl—with the equanimity of someone who has seven of his slick, sprawling paintings going for what was rumored to be a quarter of a million dollars apiece.
As the gallery closed its doors, I walked (walking in LA!) with Mark Bradford, who would soon be leaving for his opening at the Whitney Museum, to Morton’s for the gallery dinner, an intimate affair of around 150 people. Inside the cavernous, open-plan restaurant, normally a hub of Hollywood power brokers, I sat at the long banquet table alongside a laid-back Dennis Szakacs, director of the Orange County Museum of Art, a coterie of OC collectors, and one of the Hammer Museum’s favorite artists, Elliott Hundley. The OC contingency debated the merits of private schools in Newport Beach over their steaks and sea bass, while Hundley cited Pittman, his former teacher at UCLA, as an important influence on his work. After I pointed out that he was a sculptor while Pittman was a painter, Hundley declared, tugging at his sleeve, “But Lari taught me how to look like a painter.”
After the meal, the crowd stood out front with their drinks, pot smoke wafting over the heads of white-haired collectors sliding into their luxury sedans. Regen Projects artist Raymond Pettibon held court before a group of assembled admirers, myself included. He spoke in a quiet, halting voice until one guy asked him if the band he was talking about was made up of artists. With punk-rock bile, he barked, “I don’t give a fuck about art,” before returning to his sotto voce monologue.
Left: Dealer Lauren Miller and artist Anthony Goicolea. Right: Artist Tatzu Nishi.
The following night, the scene was split again between downtown and the west side, with MoCA hosting a reception for Cosima von Bonin and the LA presentation of the Gordon Matta-Clark retrospective and Culver City’s La Cienaga strip offering a gaggle of new shows. My evening began at LAXART, where director Lauri Firstenberg reclined on a sofa with artist Michael Queenland, who had transferred his New York apartment, lock and stock, to Los Angeles for the exhibition. LAXART had apparently put out a call for furniture, as one woman told me that she thought her table looked great in the bedroom. She thanked me effusively when I told her it really tied the whole exhibition together.
Down the block at Sandroni.Rey, people popped in and out of the gallery’s parking-lot annex—a shipping container—like hustlers at a peep show. Peeking in, I discovered they were enjoying Anthony Goicolea’s thirty-minute video, which depicts, by what I could surmise, the Bergmanesque sexual fantasy of a gay Amish Nazi: All the silent, handsome boys march through the countryside and shear sheep while impeccably clad in haute couture.
Next door at Blum & Poe, at his first-ever US solo exhibition, Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi had hung his industrial chandelier comprising five streetlights. It poked down through the ceiling of the gallery and extended fifteen feet above the building. The familiar orange light cast by the sodium lamps gave the gallery’s rarefied air an oddly quotidian tinge.
After most of the crowd had wandered off to the Mandrake for drinks, I joined the Blum & Poe contingency at an Asian café in the nearby Helms Bakery building. Held on the restaurant’s patio, this dinner felt even more intimate, even taking into account the language split: Nishi and his fellow Japanese speakers on one side of the table and us Anglophones on the other. A grinning, bilingual Tim Blum bridged the divide. After dessert, I managed to ask Nishi, through a translator, how he liked the city. “Yeah, yeah,” he replied in his thickly accented English, “I looooove Los Angeles!”
“When we first told people we were doing a biennial, they thought it was one of Poka-Yio’s performances,” cocurator Xenia Kalpaktsoglou noted wearily outside a makeshift café in the quad of Gazi, the dramatic former gasworks playing host to the inaugural Athens Biennial. In her other capacity, Kalpaktsoglou directs Dakis Joannou’s Deste Foundation—currently hosting an impressive exhibition of work from Joannou’s collection, curated by Jeffrey Deitch—and some argued that she was the linchpin for Deutsche Bank’s crucial sponsorship of the $1.8 million biennial. But the Athens Biennial has more storied origins than those of its financing; the exhibition apparently began as a lark dreamed up between Kalpaktsoglou, artist Yio, and critic Augustine Zenakos during a late-night drinking session. The three curators-to-be pressed forward, despite their youth and Athens’s general indifference to contemporary art: “It was like walking into a casino with no money and just bluffing your way to the jackpot,” Kalpaktsoglou said.
Biennials have a habit of shrouding themselves in political pretenses. But Athens’s debut, the Sunday before last, proved—through almost no fault of its own—to be among the most timely in recent memory. In an act of rhetorical hubris, the arriviste curators had titled the show “Destroy Athens,” an appellation whose unfortunate prescience with regard to recent, more concrete dangers was not lost on the polis. (The summer’s fires—the worst in at least a century—had killed sixty-five people and laid waste to hundreds of miles of Greek countryside.) Adding to the drama, national elections were slated for the following weekend, and the ruling conservative New Democracy party seemed chary of anything that might upset its tenuous grip.
With only a vague sense of what was to come, I dropped headfirst into the fray, arriving early Saturday morning, crooked and exhausted from a transatlantic red-eye, and shuttled off to the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art, organizers of the weekend’s press junket. With the biennial in mind, the museum—famous for its collection of recherché Neolithic and Bronze Age marble figurines—had prepared an expansive exhibition of “anthropomorphic” video works. Tagged with the unfortunate title “Her(his)tory” (a neologism many mistakenly thought would concern feminism), the show comprises work by twenty-nine artists, ranging from the more familiar Bruce Nauman and Paul Chan to young Greek talents like Angelo Plessas and Yorgos Sapountzis. The vivacious curator, Marina Fokidis, pulled it all together with a clean and inspired hang, a technical challenge for any large video exhibition. It’s a quantum leap forward for a museum that, when asked if they’d previously hosted a contemporary exhibition, directed attention to last year’s Caravaggio show.
A few hours later came the day’s main event: the launch of the biennial’s “ReMap,” in which sixteen international dealers opened temporary galleries in Kerameikos, a deme notorious for its louche, crepuscular charms and formidable history. (Home to Plato’s academy and an ancient cemetery, Kerameikos shares a linguistic root with the word ceramics. You don’t get culture like this in New York.) Throughout rows of spavined and gutted buildings runs a small network of brothels and drug dealers, which facilitated numerous amusing collisions between junkies, hustlers, and crowds of well-to-do revelers sussing out hidden galleries and merchandise.
The grandest statement belonged to Peres Projects, which launched a remarkable, brightly lit twelve-thousand-square-foot outpost on Leonidou Street (which some friends favorably nicknamed Peres Hilton). A veritable museum of anarchic appropriations and installations, its show offered, among other things, a compelling sledgehammer work by David Adamo, Cady Noland–inspired retail racks by Nate Lowman, and a work by Peres staple Terence Koh. A copy of Praxiteles’s Hermes purchased from the Archaeological Museum and painted black, the piece—achieved with Koh’s characteristic mute flamboyance—functions as a sideways comment on provenance and originality. (The museum’s current Praxiteles exhibition largely comprises early copies of the master’s statues.)
After the openings, nearly everyone converged on the roof of the nearby Imperial Hotel for a glamorous party with a dazzling view of the Acropolis. Among the staggering Greek artists, dealers, and assorted glitterati, I encountered Iasson Tsakonas, the enterprising young real estate mogul who had supplied the architectural infrastructure of “ReMap.” Peres, a friend of Tsakonas, had instigated the project by asking to open a space in one of Tsakonas’s few dozen buildings in the neighborhood. It didn’t take long for other galleries, including Blow de la Barra, IBID Projects, Johann König, The Breeder, and Spencer Brownstone, to sign on.
Left: Dealer Javier Peres. Right: Artist Federico Herrara, dealer Pablo Leon de la Barra, and artist Carolina Caycedo.
Early Sunday afternoon, guests arrived by taxi at the Technopolis complex for a relatively tense press conference featuring the mayor, the curators, and a representative from Deutsche Bank. Although listed on the schedule, Georgios Voulgarakis, Greece’s culture minister, was nowhere in sight, apparently having been told not to show his face in public following his scandalous appearance on national news shows just days before. (Standing before the flagrant fires devastating the sacred forest around Olympia, Voulgarakis had reassured viewers that “only a few trees were burned.”) The biennial’s former director, Marieke Van Hal, was also absent, having been inexplicably sacked a month before the show’s opening.
Artist Kodwo Eshun, a member of the Otolith Group, offered his preemptive take during the Q&A: “‘Destroy Athens’ refers less to the real city than to Hellenism, which is just Orientalism in reverse. We seek the symbolic destruction of these codes.” With that, we all set off to measure for ourselves. The show itself is ambitious, but not quite revolutionary, with an engaging narrative that may be too tightly tethered to the very mythological structures it sets out to subvert. As a whole, exploring the gaswork’s industrial warrens was a pleasurable if vaguely familiar experience, with several especially noteworthy moments, including John Kleckner’s strange watercolor rendering of the Greek myth of Caenis/Caeneus, Mark Manders’s Kafkaesque project room, Georgia Sagri’s intimate in situ performance, and assume vivid astro focus’s utopic promenade segueing into the explosive destructive ambience of the fifth “chapter.”
Left: Artist Rita Ackermann with dealer Rebecca Camhi. Right: Artists Angelo Plessas and Yorgos Sapountzis.
From there, the exhibition really takes advantage of its derelict decor, devolving into a bewildering flurry of escalating bad-boy angst. Beginning with messy installations by Aidas Bareikis and Dutch collective Kimberly Clark, further environmental agitation is generated through projections by Olaf Breuning, John Bock, and Narve Hovdenakk, as well as two Koh works. Having built up steam, the exhibition, in its sixth chapter, yields a purgatorial denouement. In the austere white rooms that follow, disorder gives way to repetition (hundreds of Peter Dreher’s limpid oils of water glasses; Christian Marclay’s Boneyard, made from white casts of phone receivers), all culminating in Eleni Mylonas’s unsettling video of a dead lamb washing up on a rocky shore. It’s a pitiless trajectory, and the whole affair leaves one wound up and exhausted.
As the curators frequently reminded us, the biennial is broken up into six chapters, or “days.” “There’s no seventh day, because art never rests,” Zenakos said. And indeed, the art world’s schedule was relentless. Numerous well-known faces—critics Jerry Saltz and Cecilia Alemani; artists Lisa Ruyter, Olaf Nicolai, Olaf Breuning, and members of Paper Rad; curators Massimiliano Gioni, Christian Rattemeyer, and Ali Subotnick; future Art Basel codirector Cay Sophie Rabinowitz; and Tate Modern director Vicente Todolí—could be spotted navigating the show, some arriving from Istanbul, Vienna, or Shanghai, some en route to Lyon, Zurich, Berlin, or the States. During and after the official opening, visitors spilled over to Sardela across the street for a late seafood supper. In Athens, one often eats dinner after 10 PM, and even on Sundays, bars remain open until 5 AM. For many of us, exhaustion conceded to a stirring excitement as night progressed into morning, at the official after-party at Bios bar and other, less official destinations.
Left: IBID Projects's Vita Zaman and Magnus Edensvard. Right: Artist Mark Manders.
About halfway into a night of gallery openings last week, on the eve of the ShContemporary art fair’s vernissage, a power failure throughout 50 Moganshan Road left VIPs fresh from Pudong airport and Shanghai scenesters alike to commingle in the late summer drizzle. It was one of those moments that seems to manifest an unspoken collective angst percolating just below the surface of daily goings-on. Is it possible, one implicitly wondered, that the whole shimmering Chinese art scene could go dark without warning or apology?
Of course, the lights came right back on in the warehouses along the banks of the Suzhou Creek, and everyone returned to looking at mediocre works like Ji Wenyu’s sculptures of men in suits holding giant flowers (at Shanghart) and Shu Yong’s sculptures of tiny women held aloft by their giant breasts (at Eastlink). After an espresso with the Art Basel selection committee (my charges for the week in my capacity as that fair’s China adviser), I rode with collectors Tim and Ellen van Housen to the home of gallerist Pearl Lam, where a modest cocktail hour in honor of Sam Keller had morphed into one of her legendary dinners around the sixty-six-seat dining room table.
The buzz was deafening, as everyone wondered aloud: Would this be something to remember? Or would it live up, or down, to its Chinese nickname, shang dang—the first characters of the words “Shanghai” and “contemporary—which also happens to mean “to be deceived”? Dealers anticipated heavy trading, but collectors seemed shocked by the number of available rooms at the Portman Ritz-Carlton, the five-star hotel just across Nanjing Road from the fair.
The game of choice, in Pearl’s design-heavy parlor, involved heated speculation over the number of “real Chinese collectors,” as opposed to auction-prone speculators, with estimates ranging from ten to one hundred. Rumors of censors overruling dealers like Urs Meile, who had planned to present a new cycle of paintings by Wang Xingwei (one of which depicted a Chinese Hitler), flew across the table, above the white porcelain hand sculptures that held up the plates and place cards. Perhaps the biggest shock of the evening was that Lam, infamous for seating a dinner during last year’s Shanghai Biennale three hours late, was actually sticking to schedule. After finishing my third course, I headed out to catch the end of the party for Pierre Huber’s new student prize at the Glamour Bar, the Bund standby. From there, having opted out of the next leg with Keller and sex-and-drugs novelist Mian Mian, I went home curious what the fair itself would bring.
The following evening, our minibus pulled up to the Shanghai Exhibition Center, a 1955 Russian-neoclassical monument to Sino-Soviet friendship, just in time for the VIP preview. Gucci banners hung from the piers to the left and right of the central, steeple-topped entrance, and red carpets wound their way down the staircases and along the colonnades toward Yan’an Road. The requisite armies of flower-bearing, cheongsam-clad women tried not to look bored as the Italian organizers and Chinese officials made speeches to a grand piazza half-full of reporters. Inside, the initial reaction was one of pleasant surprise—the fair simply didn’t look as bad as fairs in China usually do. Gallerist Claes Nordenhake concluded graciously that “nice walls really count for a lot.” The halls even contained a few good pieces, like Rirkrit Tiravanija’s installation Free, in which fairgoers could claim a snappy tote bag emblazoned with the word FREE as long as they dumped some rice into it from a giant vitrine.
Left: Collectors Griet Dupont and Pamela Kramlich. Right: Dealer Huang Liaoyuan and collector Zhu Haibin.
I spotted Nick Simunovic, Gagosian’s newly arrived man in Shanghai, chatting up the son of the late Shanghai realist painter Chen Yifei. Organizers Pierre Huber and Zhou Tiehai greeted the throngs in front of a Phillips de Pury booth that made questionable history by showing highlights from its upcoming Frieze Art Fair–pegged sale of Howard Farber’s “China Avant-Garde” collection. Anything goes in China, some gallerists remarked, even an auction preview at an art fair.
Although ShContemporary was less of a failure than expected, visitors still contended with certain feelings of sickness—at times literally, given the nasty stomach virus floating around, though a fair share could be attributed to aesthetics and politics. Those Gucci banners, it turned out, were not the result of a savvy sponsorship agreement, but simply left over from an earlier exhibition. Deals were happening, and decent works were on view, but the sense of excitement at having arrived at yet another level of international seriousness—a feeling that has marked nearly every major Chinese art world gathering on this scale since 2000—was eerily absent. One particularly eerie absence involved this magazine, boxes of which had been sealed and stacked in the corner of the Artforum booth by censors from Shanghai Customs, who deemed a reproduction of Ai Weiwei’s photograph A Study in Perspective—Tiananmen, 1995–2003—which shows the artist unceremoniously giving the middle finger to the Tiananmen rostrum, and which appeared in my article on the artist in the summer issue—unfit for popular consumption.
Left: Dealer Zheng Lin and artist Jiang Zhi. Right: Artist Jin Feng and Shanghart Gallery's Lu Leiping.
Back in Beijing on Sunday night, a few hundred ShContemporary attendees reconvened for a party at the new home of Zhang Rui, a telecom giant and the backer of the Beijing Art Now Gallery, which was founded by rock-'n'-roll impresario–turned-dealer Huang Liaoyuan. The Chinese collectors—“real” and speculative alike—were out in full force: Yang Bin, the automotive magnate whose new climate-controlled warehouse features ten sets of moving track-mounted walls operated by remote control, stood on the veranda trading pleasantries and auction gossip with the Three Sisters Liu, a trio of collectors living between Beijing and Paris. Artists crouched in corners eating Chinese-fusion hors d’oeuvres from Le Quai, the restaurant attached to Zhang and Huang’s gallery.
At 7 PM, the doors swung open and everyone flooded the spiraling pseudo-Guggenheim foyer hung with Fang Lijun paintings, Damien Hirst prints, and a whole roster of works by younger artists, still unknown, who will surely grace the domestic auction catalogues and magazine covers of the season just begun. Pierre Huber and his roving bus of foreign collectors arrived just as darkness fell. Wired founder Ian Charles Stewart compared the whole mise-en-scène to Silicon Valley ca. 1996, when the first crew of techies, perplexed by all the new arrivals, realized that powerful forces beyond their control were underway. “And that,” he concluded, “is when the real money arrived.” At some point, while chatting with collectors Pamela Kramlich and Griet Dupont, I was struck by the absurdity of standing in the center of a Frank Lloyd Wright simulacrum in a McMansion development to the side of the Badaling Great Wall Expressway. I found myself strangely hoping that the power would fail again, for good, even, though all circuits appeared intact.