IF YOU IMAGINE the End of the World as a grand affair, with heavy rains, big crowds, unfinished business, and universal judgement, well, then Fabio Cavallucci, director of the new Centro Pecci per l’Arte Contemporanea in Prato, has definitely chosen the right theme for the inaugural exhibition of the Tuscan museum—closed for renovation since 2010 and reopening now with an 85,000-square-foot architectural extension by Dutch architect Maurice Nio.
“The End of the World” pre-previewed on Friday evening, but the grand opening program for the weekend—a busy one in Italy, with Art Verona, Collezione Maramotti in Reggio Emilia, and the Contemporary Art Day in twenty-four museums and over 1,000 venues—comprised three full days of happenings. And a series of odd events.
Two days before the vernissage, a portion of the museum’s ceiling collapsed on the electricians installing lights over Julian Charrière's piece, sending one of them to the hospital. (He survived, but no one could charge their phone inside Pecci for the next three days.) Despite this omen and a black, gloomy sky, the Italian art world flocked to Prato, and in the early afternoon I boarded a minivan with a handful of braves. First stop of the VIP program: Villa Celle, the seventeenth-century farm (and chapel, and sixty acres of park) that hosts the collection of Giuliano Gori, on the Tuscan hills, thirty minutes from Prato. A “musical door” by artist and composer Daniele Lombardi was unveiled, and our slippery path took us to site-specific pieces by Burri, Kiefer, Stefano Arienti, Robert Morris, Loris Cecchini, Michel Gerard, and Magdalena Abakanowicz.
Miranda Macphail, curator of Villa Celle’s collection, and the only one in proper country attire, had us all hike up a steep field to preview Hera Büyüktaşçıyan's installation, a mysterious semi-emerging skeleton, glimpse of a future post-Anthropocene archaeology. On that hill, our own immediate future seemed doomed, as rain began washing over the small elegant crowd dressed up for that night’s exclusive dinner. Macphail called it a day only when a pretty art wealth-management expert shakily declared she “just wanted to go back.”
By the time we returned to Pecci, to attend the conference that brought together the museum’s former directors, my fellow minivaners were sweaty, frizzy and covered in mud. In the new auditorium, Amnon Barzel (who launched the “first” Pecci in 1988), Antonella Soldaini, Bruno Corà, Daniel Soutif, Marco Bazzini, and Stefano Pezzato regaled the audience with anecdotes from twenty-eight years of Pecci’s history, and gave Fabio Cavallucci tips for his future management of the museum. But Cavallucci’s mandate expires in spring 2017, and unfortunately his first exhibition at Pecci is also very likely to be his last (hence, maybe, the apocalyptic subject). How a museum director can work brilliantly under such premises is an Italian mystery. This also explains the massive presence of many other museum directors, all checking on the new territory that, in the sibylline words of Irene Sanesi, president of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in Tuscany, “will go to whomever will have it.” (For now, Nuoro’s MAN director Lorenzo Giusti is the most accredited).
The Pecci’s loopy first floor that welcomed us for the exhibition preview that night was a museum in full last-minute, do-not-panic-ok-maybe-let’s-panic mode. The striking golden circular structure conceived by Maurice Nio as a spaceship with an antenna (project named “Sensing the Waves”) was boldly shining even under the Armageddon sky, but the interior was far from ready. Right outside the museum’s entrance, the bookshop’s delivery van sank into the parking’s pavement, and looked very much like an Elmgreen & Dragset installation. The rumbles of a thunderstorm blurred with the sounds of working drills, making the End of the World atmosphere quite palpable.
Inside though, Italian art aristocracy gathered among works by Thomas Hirschhorn, Adel Abdessemed, Marlene Dumas, Olafur Eliasson, Qiu Zhijie, Cai Guo-Qiang, Henrique Oliveira, Jimmie Durham, Carlos Garaicoa, Marcel Duchamp, Umberto Boccioni, Tadeusz Kantor, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Boris Mikhailov. Dinner tables were set in Robert Kusmirowski's heavenly all-white Quarantine, with an organ playing Hanne Darboven’s “Requiem.” Center stage was occupied by Tuscan powerhouses: the holy trinity of Galleria Continua, Lorenzo Fiaschi, Mario Cristiani, and Maurizio Rigillo with artist Carlos Garaicoa, and the new director of Palazzo Strozzi Arturo Galansino, who just opened his first (and controversial) Ai Weiwei exhibition. Close by, curator Sergio Risaliti, guilty of installing a giant bronze turtle by Jan Fabre in Piazza della Signoria (a huge scandal among conservative Florentines), was deep in conversation with former superintendent Cristina Acidini.
Mart director Gianfranco Maraniello hung out with old Neapolitan pals Andrea Viliani, director of MADRE, and dealer Alfonso Artiaco. By 10 PM, with abundant Tuscan wine but no food in sight, they were rehearsing lines from Totò e Peppino movies. Queen of their table was collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, not-so-secretly glowing after her latest achievement: the launch of the Italian Council, a much awaited agency for the support of Italian art: “I’m so happy to see that the ministry included our committee of private art foundations in the official announcement!”
Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s hometown of Turin was also represented by Christian Valsecchi, Secretary General of Fondazione Torino Musei, and the thirty-one-year-old Nicola Ricciardi, who is in charge of the OGR, Officine Grandi Riparazioni, a new 215,000-square-foot cultural hub that will open in fall 2017 with a program of time-based visual and performative arts—an operation in which Fondazione CRT invested a whopping €80 million. “It’s a complicated building. It’s got over 1500 windows!” Ricciardi joked.
The following morning, we were all back to the (still) unfinished Pecci for the press conference, under an unexpected sun. Dario Franceschini, the Minister of Culture, did not show up—no one complained, and we enjoyed the presence of younger artists instead: Camille Henrot, Ekaterina Vasilyeva, and Francesco Bertelè among them. That night I opted out of Pecci’s DJ set (which I later discovered was—of course—canceled because of the bad weather again) and blindly ventured in North Prato for the opening of Lottozero, a new space for contemporary textile design, brainchild of sisters curators Arianna and Tessa Moroder. When I left for a quiet dinner in Piazza Duomo with curator friends and dealer Guido Costa, a group of resilients laid down pillows for the Sleep Concert that would take place from midnight to 9 AM.
Sunday was the mass opening, with a mile-long line going around Pecci's spaceship: over twelve-thousand people eager to witness the End of the World. The last ones were admitted at 10 PM. In Prato it is clear that those who survive the many ends of the world are not the strongest, but the most patient.
AS THE ECONOMY of the European Union’s arguably mellowest nation falters there are murmurs of a “Departugal” on the horizon. Nevertheless, 2016 seems to be the year that Portugal sashayed onto the runway of contemporary art. In March, a pilot edition of the ArcoLisboa art fair took place at the Fábrica Nacional da Cordoaria in the capital’s Belém neighborhood, and last week the Museu Arte Arquitetura Tecnologia (MAAT) opened just a few meters up the Tagus river. Helmed by Portuguese curator Pedro Gadanho, who left a post at MoMA for this homecoming, the museum is housed in a pair of buildings: the recently renovated former Central Tejo power station, an industrial complex of bricks and smokestacks in the time-honored tradition of alternative spaces, and a low-lying, alabaster spaceship next door designed by British architect Amanda Levete’s office AL_A, linked to the local style by a neutral facade of ceramic tiles.
It’s hard not to think of pixels while navigating Lisbon’s twisty alleys—and not only because of the necessity of incessantly dipping one’s face into Google Maps. In the analog world, the ground is packed with well-trodden scales of stone like the belly of a buried boa constrictor; above, shiny slabs of china are emblazoned on every building. Portugal’s decorative identity is rooted in an analog form of digital repetition, which in the age of apps evokes the colossal manpower required to install the entire city long ago. Art, architecture, and technology here go hand-in-hand—all brought together by energy, literally, both in the history of MAAT’s site as well as its sponsor. The museum is owned by EDP Foundation, a charitable subsidiary of Energias de Portugal, one of the largest energy companies in Europe, though the Portuguese government’s namesake share was bought out by China Three Gorges in 2011 in accordance with Portugal’s privatization mandates.
Art-worlders began to arrive on Sunday morning en route to London’s Frieze Art Fair. This bonny city already choked by the privatization of citizens (tourists) was further stifled by the Lisbon Marathon. “We love nothing more than marathons!” declared perpetual enthusiast Hans Ulrich Obrist—whose own marathon at the Serpentine Galleries was scheduled for the following weekend—despite the fact that our Uber to the Gulbenkian Foundation was vexed by traffic and street closures. At MAAT, a team of workers perched on hydraulic lifts were furiously working to complete the building’s facade in advance of the opening that evening.
Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster led us through the sinuous white corridors down to the inaugural program’s keystone, Pynchon Park, her faithful, sculptural interpretation of an environment described in Thomas Pynchon’s little-known 21st Century Tales: “a huge white arena surrounded by ramps, covered with a net and full of balls and giant colored books with soft carpeted pages.” Geometric, fun, and dystopian, it’s a perfect Instagram setting. Every twenty-four minutes the lighting scheme cycles through an entire day, sunrise to sunset, with shadows cast through the green-net canopy overhead, a remnant of celestial order presiding over her cagelike leisure zone.
As the city’s own natural golden gloaming turned dark, guests began to arrive along a promenade irradiated by a burning, Tungsten glow installed along the riverbanks. It was a who’s who of Portuguese society—or so I was advised; the crowd was mostly illegible to me. I spotted Iberian luminary Chus Martínez deep in conversation and caught Ingo Niermann waxing poetic on the somehow quaint scene before us: “This is like pre-9/11, or just the 1990s. The art world was already global but it was still Western-centered and manageable. No rush between fairs and auctions. The Bilbao effect was still a fresh hope in city planning. Art was all about ‘building bridges,’ with collectors, corporations, and governments as its humble supplicants…”
As we were corralled from the new building and into the converted factory where dinner would be held, we entered a hall of gothic boilers and menacing piping that puts the Centre Pompidou to shame. “It’s like Berghain,” said David Toro of Dis, referring to the legendary Berlin nightclub. “This is the darkroom of dinners.” Indeed, the meal was not served here, but on a platform replete with Lucite chairs and stagey Edison bulbs suspended from several stories above. Over a bowl of “quinoto” (a neologism for quinoa risotto) oh so many acknowledgements were made by attendant leaders and dignitaries. António Mexia, CEO of EDP, joked about the last-minute, nearly finished state of the building that has just been unveiled: “It was on purpose, so it would be alive.”
More festive festivities were held on Tuesday as the museum’s debut week reached fever pitch. Over a caveman-scale chop of beef that night, (sometimes) Lisbon-based directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt shared an iPhone clip of a yellow Lamborghini turning donuts in the dusty courtyard of a nearby palace, evidence of the unique mix of history and lawlessness the city offers young artists. Everyone agreed that the museum’s commitment to showing work by contemporary Portuguese artists alongside international names was a good one, if still unfulfilled.
At the museum, Kuwaiti composer Fatima Al Qadiri warmed up the evening with a DJ set. By midnight the party was bound for Lux, a megaclub on the outskirts of town co-owned by John Malkovich (what?). That was about three hours too early, according to locals, and the party reportedly raged past dawn, abutting the final call for my flight to London, which allowed for an on time arrival at Regent’s Park, where a different sort of energy was swirling in a big white structure.
Left: Architect Rodrigo Ohtake and writer Ana Carolina Ralston at Z42. Right: Artists Lenora de Barros and Raul Mourão at Jacaranda.
IN A PACKED GALLERY AT JACARANDA, a new artist-run space in downtown Rio de Janeiro, Lenora de Barros kicked off a string of openings and parties surrounding the sixth edition of ArtRio with a performance in which she nailed paper letters forming the word silence to a wall. Her very loud action spells out the very absence of sound, a noisy and visual translation of the bizarre state of affairs in this city still in financial hangover from the Olympic Games. The sporting event that ended over a month ago left indelible marks in urban planning here, some of it now resembling scar tissue outlining glitzy postmodern contraptions already rotting under the sun, like Santiago Calatrava’s Museu do Amanhã.
So while some noise was made before the official VIP opening on a recent Wednesday, a gloomy silence dominated sales and the mood. The first days of spring in Rio came with cold gusts of wind, heavy clouds on the horizon and rounds of thunderous showers. Dealers idled at their stands waiting for collectors who wouldn’t show up in the smallest edition of ArtRio since its inception in 2011. The five warehouses it used to occupy along the oceanfront have now been reduced to three-and-a-half and most top-tier galleries from abroad—Gagosian, Pace, Hauser & Wirth, White Cube—aren’t to be seen. David Zwirner is the only superpower left, braving the turmoil, perhaps helped by the fact that Greg Lulay, a director at the gallery in New York, still has a seat in the event’s selection committee.
Left: Artist Brígida Baltar at the opening of her solo show at Nara Roesler. Right: Sergi Arbusà inside his installation at the Museu da República.
Max Perlingeiro, founding partner of Pinakotheke Cultural, a Brazilian blue-chip secondary market empire with branches in São Paulo and Rio, also sits on the board, but didn’t mind telling me upfront that this is not a fair for closing deals. “It’s more a vitrine,” he said, in his empty stand on opening day. Though the sun outside would come and go, temperatures inside the Píer Mauá soon rose with news of a scandal involving Graphos, a young gallery making its debut at the fair. In the first hours of the vernissage, a group of dealers denounced Graphos to the selection committee, alleging the gallery had brought a score of fake works to the event, among them pieces by Willys de Castro, Raymundo Colares, Ubi Bava, Antônio Maluf, and Maurício Nogueira Lima, all mainstays of Brazilian modernism and highly desired by collectors. Ricardo Duarte, the owner of the gallery, was forced to take down the works in question, an episode that dominated party banter around town.
At a cocktail on the rooftop of Caesar Park hotel on Ipanema beach, dealers and critics speculated on what could be real and what was fake. Brenda Valansi, director of ArtRio, showed up in an orange dress with a smile that would not leave her face for the rest of the evening. She told me the issue would be settled with a careful review of the documents related to each piece—but in a country where catalogues raisonnés are rare and signatures on authenticity certificates are sold and trafficked by money-hungry inheritors, will this lead to clearer answers?
Scandals aside, the week brought to light the best and the worst of a series of new art spaces in Rio. They go from the gritty warehouses once abandoned and now teeming with artists in the old port area of Santo Cristo to a castlelike mansion in Cosme Velho, near the Christ statue that looms over the city. A show at Átomos, a place that actually squats the first three floors of an abandoned building doubling as a parking lot and studio for artists Manoela Medeiros and Romain Dumesnil, was named after a verse in Caetano Veloso’s song “Baby,” something about living in South America’s greatest city. While he was talking about São Paulo when he wrote the classic, artists like Adriano Costa, Vivian Caccuri, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Carlos Vergara, and the collective Opavivará made it sound like an ironic homage to Rio with works discussing the hype and failure of the sexiest of Brazilian cities. Powerful curators like Jochen Volz, behind this year’s Bienal de São Paulo, and the Guggenheim’s Pablo León de la Barra browsed the good pieces on display.
In contrast, Z42, an artist residency and exhibition space that took over a mansion near Corcovado, had a silly selection of works hung alongside similarly ridiculous captions. If it were all a joke, what a piece of institutional critique it would have been. But it wasn’t. The house later filled up with the fashion crowd as Vogue magazine rented the basement for a party. Nearby, the Solar dos Acabaxis, another abandoned mansion, was made over to house yet another art space. They had a bash on opening night, making it clear that Rio still shines beyond the dark clouds hovering over Píer Mauá.
The six standing columns of Baalbek's Temple of Jupiter at night. (Except where noted, all photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)
CYNTHIA ZAVEN IS AN ARTIST, COMPOSER, AND PIANIST with wild curly hair and a steely demeanor. She is exceptionally talented and extremely busy, frustrating from a critic’s point of view. She teaches at a conservatory in Beirut, scores films, and travels constantly. She makes work when she wants to, when she has time. Her installations are slow, serious, and ephemeral. They can be captivating in the context of an exhibition but almost impossible to write about afterward. Zaven has no gallery, doesn’t sell, and seemingly feels no pressure to produce. She is adept at keeping the demands of the world at bay. We see each other often in passing—Hi! Bye!—but the last time I spent any time with her or her work was three years ago in Sarajevo. So when I heard that for a month this fall, Zaven was showing a twelve-channel sound installation in a site no less astounding than the two-thousand-year-old Temple of Bacchus, as part of “The Silent Echo,” the first exhibition of contemporary art ever to be staged among the vast Roman ruins of the ancient city of Baalbek, I pretty much dropped everything, moved scheduling mountains, and wrote a dozen apologetic emails on the two-hour-drive due east from Beirut.
Baalbek is one of the oldest cities in the world, steadily inhabited for some ten thousand years. Its history is a mille-feuille of Phoenician, Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine, Umayyad, Abbasid, Mamluk, Ottoman, Syrian, and Lebanese influences. Situated on a major fault line, it has witnessed three devastating earthquakes, causing a pileup of ruins to make Walter Benjamin swoon. The most dramatic are the temples of Jupiter, Mercury, Venus, and Bacchus. They are some of the largest, most ornate religious structures ever built, anywhere, by the Roman Empire, and they incorporate elements of earlier temples too. Newly reopened after a long restoration, Bacchus is the most intact of the four and, while larger than the Parthenon in Athens, also the most intimate. For Zaven’s Perpetuum Mobile, twelve tiny speakers are raised high on thin stands, arranged in a broad circle. A piano composition circles around them, second by second, note by note, clockwise—echoing off the ancient stones, mixing with the contemporary sounds of birdsong and gunfire—until it collapses into disorder and chaos, eventually finding itself again. In theory, no two permutations of the installation are the same. But they all induce a kind of vertigo through mechanical and epochal time, history in free fall.
One of the factors making the exhibition possible—alongside a symposium on iconoclasm at the Sursock Museum in late September and a theater workshop culminating in a public performance in Bacchus on October 15—is the fact that visitors have totally vanished from Baalbek since the war in Syria began five years ago. Tourism is stunted and the local economy is a wreck. Nearly four hundred thousand Syrian refugees have flowed into the Bekaa Valley. Some have paid a high price for rapidly built apartment buildings in the now-very-crowded outskirts of Baalbek. Others are living in tents, fields, roadside encampments. Ever since the hysterical fighters of the so-called Islamic State seized the ancient city of Palmyra and began committing unspeakable acts of cruelty, the Lebanese have developed a psychosomatic tick. Mention ISIS in a crowded room and you can be sure someone will blurt out: “You know they are planning to blow up Baalbek!”
What’s more, the city is now a staging ground for the war next door, the place from which fighters are going off to battle on behalf of Bashar al-Assad—departing in shifts, some returning, others not, all of them easily replaced by men who need the wages. The city has been a Hezbollah stronghold since the 1980s. Huge sun-blasted cutouts of Khomeini and Khamenei still loom over the road into town. So too a billboard of Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, declaring: “Enta kabousahoum, ya sayedi” (You are their nightmare, sir), referring, as always, to Israel without naming it.
“The Silent Echo,” organized by Karina El Helou and featuring the work of nine international artists treading the line between art and archeology, was a modest proposal for bringing visitors back. I wasn’t alone in my enthusiasm. The opening, on September 17, drew a sizable if also curiously mixed-up crowd. From Beirut and further afield came artists, writers, curators, designers, polyglot filmmakers, producers, brash and discreet collectors, lady patrons in their gala dinner dresses, jaded art-school students who have seen it all but still find wonder in new work, diplomats, ambassadors, politicians, their proxies, bodyguards, and convoys. Everyone arrived in the late afternoon and headed for the garden terrace of the Palmyra Hotel, a jewel of the nineteenth century.
The first person I ran into was, of course, Zaven, alongside her sister and the filmmaker Vatche Boulghourjian. She was making one last dash to the site. I followed her, but it was one of those openings adhering to protocol: speeches, ceremonies, rituals. I lost count of the speakers introducing “The Silent Echo” and wandered off. The big men (always) of the evening were the mayor of Baalbek (Hussein al-Lakkis), the regional governor (Bashir Khodr), the head of the local Russian Cultural Center (Naji al-Attar, who Helou met by chance, but who turned out to be her key into Baalbek), and the Lebanese culture minister (Roni Araiji, who recently sent two Beiruti bloggers to Paris and Rome as part of an ill-conceived PR stunt for a “virtual museum” of Lebanese modern art, meaning a website, a bad one at that, and an app that repeatedly crashed my phone, just saying).
Protocol as the radical chic of our day: All those men in suits, drivers and bodyguards, NGO staffers and multinational creative elites dressed to the nines, making a show of their interest in cultural heritage. Daylight faded from the ruins and we were stuck outside. A line of photographers jammed themselves in front of the speakers. Security guards blocked the way to Bacchus. No one could enter before the wazir (the minister). We had to scram until the wazir showed up, had a look, and left. Of course the wazir travels with an entourage, and on this particular evening, a big one. And it wasn’t even clear if the wazir was Araiji, specifically, or just abstractly men of good tailoring and political weight. I found relief in the good humor of the Istanbullu filmmaker Barış Doğrusöz, now living in Beirut, and Mustapha Yamout, aka Zico, one of the original founders of Ashkal Alwan, who helped with the technical aspects of “The Silent Echo.”
With the exception of Zaven’s installation in Bacchus and Ziad Antar’s sculptures in a space below, all of the works in “The Silent Echo” are in the long, narrow hallways of Baalbek’s archeological site museum. One vision of hell is that which finds a politician’s entourage squeezing into the black-box rooms of biennial-style video installations. I ducked, crawled, and squished through god knows how many limbs to ease myself into one of them, the room most popular with the group: Susan Hiller’s The Silent Movie. I hopped a few times to see white type on a black screen. No sound. Seriously? I returned the next morning to find a mesmerizing piece composed of endangered or extinct languages, lullabies, stories, and tales. But for the opening, a black hole. Fortuitously, this left ample space to discover Théo Mercier’s great limestone-encrusted sculptures, Paola Yacoub’s ruminative installation on the excavations in downtown Beirut in the 1990s, and Marwan Rechmaoui’s Pillars, a series of scaled-down hi-rise buildings sprouting rebar, so much more effective here than they were in last year’s Istanbul Biennial. The urban planner Amira Solh, another formidable woman with big curly hair who comes often to Baalbek, nodded and told me the hallway where we were standing was used in ancient times to walk animals from their stables to the temples for ritual slaughter.
If Zaven was my reason for Baalbek, for many others it was Ai Weiwei. He wasn’t in town for the opening but had been there months before, during a trip to Lebanon to work with Syrian refugees (an initiative not to everyone’s taste). Helou, who left Lebanon at seventeen and now lives in Paris, had tried several times to reach him. No answer. One day she checked his Instagram account and learned he was in Beirut. Ever enterprising, the Palmyra Hotel’s owner, Rima Husseini, invited him to Baalbek. He went, and sent word to Helou the next day. He was in. The work he chose to show? Foundation, made from the bases of some two-dozen stone columns taken from a traditional Chinese house. The weight? “Sixteen tons,” Helou told me. Getting the piece to Lebanon “was an indescribable nightmare,” she said. “I didn’t have the structure. I didn’t sleep.” It was lovely in the end.
By the time I made it to Zaven’s installation it was night and all the more haunting beneath a vast, inky, star-strewn sky.
TWO DAYS LATER, back in Beirut, the symposium on art and archeology followed. Hiller was in attendance—her 1987 three-channel slide projection, The Magic Lantern, was on view for a week in the Sursock Museum. With so many artists in the region (Yto Barrada, Ali Cherri, Iman Issa, Lamia Joreige, Walid Raad, Rayyane Tabet, Akram Zaatari) working on the historical, museological, and political aspects of archeology, the program seemed, at times, a little light. But it gave Helou the opportunity to share her ideas in a provocative way: “We didn’t want to do something political with the exhibition but we wanted to do something engaged.” She later made a finer distinction between the political and the poetic, all good (because debatable).
The archeologist Luc Bachelot gave a bewildering talk on the maxim “to build is to destroy,” ending with the question: “The world, what do we mean by it?” He was followed by Swiss curator Marc-Olivier Wahler, who could play an evil politician in a neo-noir film. He broke down the art-archeology complex into the three phases of a magic trick, like pulling a rabbit from a hat. Art was telling stories. Without them, “a vase is just a vase,” he said, “a stone is just a stone.” This went downhill from there. “Anyone can be an artist. Anyone can write a book. But can anyone tell a good story? That is the challenge. Anyone can be a curator,” he added, giving his grandmother as a prime example, a great curator when grocery shopping. From the audience, Solh, who is working on the Renzo Piano–designed archeology museum amid the Roman ruins of downtown Beirut, wanted to hear more on storytelling, because in Lebanon, archeology tends to be presented as relentlessly chronological to avoid the politics of history and who tells what.
But the speaker who pulled everything together and gave a talk equal to the verve and magic of Zaven’s work was Nigel Tallis of the British Museum. A specialist in Assyrian art, he pieced together a beautiful account from objects that have all been deliberately destroyed. Then he told a story of trying to puzzle out how the fragments of a relief fit together. The main piece showed a boatful of Phoenician warriors, charging forth. The match came to him suddenly. At the head of the ship, a woman with a baby in her arms. Warriors became refugees, fleeing for their lives. A chill ran down my spine. Tallis let a beat pass, and said quietly: “It was hard not to think of a more resonant piece.”
LAST TIME I SAW WARSAW, a decade ago, the Palace of Culture and Science was a colossal ruin with darkened windows, an unwanted reminder of the grim Communist past towering over the city center. Now restored and full of life—with three museums, a multiplex cinema, four theaters, a swimming pool, an accredited university, and an auditorium that has hosted Miss World—it keeps company with a slew of new high-rises. Stalin’s “gift” to Poland, a plump babushka version of the Empire State building, was the epicenter of the sixth Warsaw Gallery Weekend as well as the setting of the newly inaugurated Not Fair.
The weekend kicked off Thursday evening with an intimate reception at the historic palace that is the seat of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, in the fashionable Mokotowska district, presided over by the cultural organization’s enthusiastic new director, Krzysztof Olendzki. From there artist Maria Kulikovska and curators Rainald Schumacher and Nathalie Hoyos, and I moved on to see the exhibition “Public Spirits,” at the Centre for Contemporary Art, in the Ujazdów Castle, a former royal palace and military hospital surrounded by parks. Introduced by UuDam Tran Nguyen’s video of a joyful motorcycle ballet, Waltz of the Machine Equestrians, the ambitious show, curated by Meiya Cheng, touches on the poetic forces that coalesce societies.
After a divine dinner of beet-infused dumplings at the museum’s Qchnia Artystyczna (“Kitchen Art”), our gang headed to the sleek headquarters of the Zwierciadło Foundation for a party inaugurating the Jankilevitsch Collection exhibit “The Abstract Landscape,” featuring a selection of works by Polish artists of different generations including Bownik, Piotr Uklański, Wjciech Fangor, and Jerzy Nowosielski. The view from the penthouse of the city at night was itself a stunning abstract landscape, and participants from the Not Fair cheerfully chilled out. At the dessert table we bumped into performers Edka Jarzab and Helena Malewska, who offered insight into American artist Cara Benedetto’s participatory performance Anything Can’t Happen, programmed for the next night at Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art.
Left: Dealer Michał Woliński and artist Zuzanna Czebatul. Right: Michał Kaczyński, director of Raster gallery.
Collectively the shows around town offered a crash course on Polish art history, begun the next morning with an exuberant tour of the National Museum of Art. Documenta’s Monika Szewczyk and Marina Fokidis then led a group to the Propaganda gallery to view Adam Jastrzębski’s “Poison,” gorgeous swirling candy-colored compositions that reflect the unpredictable out-of-control permutations of natural growths, even those created by humans, based on mathematic calculations by the artist.
“Most of the galleries here started as nonprofit foundations, so it is a very different way of working from a pure business model,” gallery director Jacek Sosnowski explained. Thus we headed to the incubator of the Polish avant-garde, Foksal Gallery, founded in 1966 by an influential group of critics and artists including Edward Krasiński and Tadeusz Kantor in a former Marxist-Leninist library, where they succeeded in evading Communist censorship when Socialist Realism was the only sanctioned style. Curator Lech Stangret presented the fiftieth anniversary show, “Miejsce. A Place,” while recounting anecdotes about the history of the site.
After grabbing lunch with artist Stanisław Blatton and his daughter, writer Phoebe Blatton, at Kameralna—a legendary literary hangout frequented by Roman Polanski and Janusz Glowacki—I set out to find the Foksal Gallery Foundation, the commercial offshoot of the Foksal Gallery (of which Documenta director Adam Szymczyk was a cofounder): The names are confusing in terms of private versus public, and the institutions illustrate the recent transformation in the local market.
Many of Warsaw’s art galleries are tucked away in courtyards or upper floors, with little or no signage, and move frequently as shops are privileged over cultural institutions. I found the entrance to the Foksal Gallery Foundation behind a hair salon and came directly upon Artur Żmijewski’s “Collection”: a room animated by a series of black-and-white films following the faltering movements of people with MS. I sat and watched with Michal Cegłowski, one of the actors, while shadows of the projections washed over us. The gallery’s director, Andrzej Przywara, manages the Krasińki estate and former studio, in a 1960s apartment block, which a lucky few visited the next morning: “It was the best part of the whole weekend!” connoisseur Dessau later exclaimed.
After a cocktail that evening at the Xawery Dunikowski Museum of Sculpture, in honor of Ukrainian artist Kulikovska and her ephemeral self-portraits in soap, Homo Bulla, dealer Marta Kolakowska drove us to see Aleksandra Urban’s provocative popup show of lurid paintings and sculptures, “pfff,” displayed inside one of the little wooden cottages built for Finnish workers. Glowing in the dark among the trees like something out of Twin Peaks, it was a fitting introduction to the kickoff of the weekend-long “Endless Party,” directed by the Łódź film school professor Wojciech Puś, where we ended the night after an intimate dinner hosted by Trafo’s director, Mikołaj Sekutowicz, at the Miłość club.
Performance at the Endless Party. (Photo: Wojciech Puś)
We arrived for the party at a colonnaded space in the Palace of Culture illuminated entirely by floor-to-ceiling blue light beams to a performance featuring a group of skateboarders recruited from the streets, Leto Gallery’s Sebastian Gawłowski, and stylist Magdalena Wawrzynczak. “Three years ago when I met Magda she was a man named Peter, so she has another person inside and plays two characters in the film,” Puś said. It was being shot as a scene for the time-fusing Endless, a film by Puś based on the script of Last Year at Marienbad: “Once again I walk down these corridors, through these halls, these galleries, in this structure from another century, where endless corridors succeed silent, deserted corridors with a dimmed light.” The gender-blending narrative will incorporate two scenes from Paul B. Preciado’s memoir Testo Junkie; the atmosphere, however, evokes David Lynch’s Inland Empire, also filmed in Łódź.
All of Warsaw’s art galleries are young, and on Saturday I started at Raster, one of the first to open, only fifteen years ago, across the street from where the ninth Futurological Congress was being led by Julieta Aranda, Paolo Chiasera, and Mareike Dittmer, in the homeland of its textual inspiration, fictional character Ijon Tichy. On show were photos by Peter Puklus immortalizing his models as figures in an epic version of modern history, along with Rafał Bujnowski’s stark black-and-white paintings, in which the human figure is lost in a symbolic landscape of bare tree branches. Kasia Michalski, who opened a slick ground-floor space around the corner last year, was showing Rafał Dominik’s “After Humans, Before Robots,” a series of mixed-media works. At Lokal 30, the show “Gauguin Syndrome” comprised fantastic photographic collages by Filip Berendt, Ewa Juszkiewicz’s ghostly painted portrayals of disappeared artworks, and Katya Shodkovska’s video Julia, an interview with a young transgender prostitute who speaks matter-of-factly about the difficulties of life in Russia.
“I hate art fairs,” said Michał Woliński, director of the new Not Fair, voicing a common ambivalence over beer on the terrace of Piktogram, where he was exhibiting a group of marbleized paintings on cement by Zuzanna Czebatul. In fact, the Not Fair is not a fair. Warsaw Gallery Weekend is the only big contemporary art event in the city, and the Not Fair is a valiant attempt to inject a breath of fresh air into the nascent market. I asked Woliński if the works on show were actually for sale: “Yes, but everyone knows that the artworks in the Venice Biennale are for sale,” he replied. “And at the abc Berlin I was asked only once for a price.”
Left: Curators Daniel Muzyczuk and Adam Kleinman. Right: Artists Aleksandra Urban and Aleksandra Waliszewska.
Just as the roles of artist and curator are blurring, the art-fair model is developing its own identity crisis: It wants to be beautiful and intelligent, like a curated show, but really only fulfills its commercial role in the form of a salesroom proffering investment-worthy commodities. In any case, fairs in smaller markets cannot hope to compete with destination fairs like Art Basel and Frieze. Collectors go to those to get the pulse of the international art scene; other fairs do best to highlight their local contexts. And that is the strength of the gallery weekend, inspired by that of Berlin.
That afternoon I stopped by the Not Fair, which turned out to be an ensemble of shows by fourteen foreign and Polish galleries invited to engage a magnificent period hall of the Palace of Culture and Science. The dealers showing there were well aware of the lack of emphasis on sales. “It is like Art Basel’s Statements, but without the fair,” Jan Kaps said. “I am just happy for the opportunity to come and participate in the Warsaw art scene.” Artist Gizela Mickiewicz’s minimal folded constructions, shown by Warsaw’s Stereo gallery, seemed to be crawling across the marble floor, while Anouk Kruithof’s photographic details of clothes printed on translucent panels, shown by Rotterdam’s Cinnamon, melded magically into the space.
Following a tour at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art of the exhibition “Money to Burn”—about the transitional, post-Communist bling-obsessed 1990s in Poland, encapsulated nicely by Piotr Uklański’s framed dollar bill, Untitled (First dollar earned by Piotr, 30 August ’90, New York)—I walked with one of the curators, Magdalena Komornicka, back to the Palace of Culture and Science complex for the opening of “After the Rally,” at the Theater Studio Gallery. Along the way we were accompanied by drummers from the second demonstration of the day, the KOD (Committee in Defense of Democracy) protest against the newly elected conservative government’s unconstitutional firing of judges. The exhibition presented the documentation of mass protests, such as Tomáš Rafa’s films of the Maidan revolt and the battle of Sloviansk in the Ukraine, along with works of artists reacting to expressions of the “social body.” Yet it was a shadowy convocation next to the urgency of the masses gathered on the streets outside.
Later that night the VIP dinner, in a tent in the sculpture garden of the Królikarnia Palace, was more like a surreal picnic with small, strange dishes emerging erratically from behind white curtains. After an initial, hopeful crush, many decamped to restaurants, while Krzysztof Nowakowski, president of Friends of Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art, remedied the situation by smuggling in bottles of wine concealed in pockets inside his jacket. “He apologized for the quality,” joked writer Agata Araszkiewicz, a benefactor of the stash. “It is very Polish to find a creative solution,” added diplomat Klaudia Podsiadło.
When I arrived at Warsaw Central Station on the last day—back from a pilgrimage to Łódź to see “Notes from the Underground,” the Sztuki Museum’s delightful romp through revolutionary art and music under Communism—the Palace of Culture and Science was illuminated in purple, echoing its New York counterpart. So few remnants of Poland’s traumatic past remain, yet its shadows are palpable on the landscape, and Poles expect nothing so much as change. A few days later, the Catholic government would back down on its promise of a total abortion ban, after tens of thousands of women took to the streets to protest, all dressed in black.
WHAT’S AN ART FAIR GOOD FOR?
You might be tempted to say, “Art,” but that’s not always the case. The highest purpose of a fair is to generate bonding opportunities for people who make art go.
When the fair is Frieze and the city is London, they come in great number from across the globe, the trouble spots and the tranquil ones (if such places still exist). Paths cross constantly, whether by intention or chance. The more incestuous the fraternity, the greater its success.
On Tuesday night, for example, a line formed outside the gallery that Brussels- and Paris-based dealer Almine Rech was opening with an exhibition by Jeff Koons. The new space is on Grosvenor Hill, just steps from Gagosian, Koons’s primary dealer. Yet one of the first visitors to pay his respects was David Zwirner, the artist’s other dealer in New York, where Rech will soon open another venue with a show of Picassos and Calders. Its two curators are her husband, Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, the only legitimate grandson of you-know-who, and Sandy Rower, grandson of Alexander Calder.
May the circle be unbroken—that’s the fair week mojo.
Zwirner didn’t stay with Koons longer than it took to shake hands. The dealer had to get back to his Grafton Street outpost, where he was opening exhibitions by Neo Rauch and new collaborators Raymond Pettibon and Marcel Dzama. Gagosian had new paintings by Ed Ruscha.
The Koons and Ruscha shows were crowded with people shuttling between the two galleries. Rech had several Koons “Gazing Ball” paintings, plus two new stainless steel sculptures based on porcelain figurines of Degas ballerinas, but made so smooth and glossy that they looked as if they would liquefy at a glance. In fact, Koons said he had photographed the porcelain models underwater before making them tall and large. “The David’s not bad either,” he remarked, indicating his gazing ball–attuned appropriation of Jacques-Louis David’s Intervention of the Sabine Women. Personally, I wish he would return to contemporary subjects. “How were these paintings made?” asked French art blogger Judith Benhamou-Huet. Koons hesitated a moment. Wasn’t it obvious? “By hand,” he replied, gently.
The droll Ruscha, meanwhile, can still make word paintings that surprise. These were the color of a desert and juxtaposed the values of words like “mile” and “inch” through changes in scale. One canvas, however, had only arrows pointing in different directions. “They’re showing the way,” Ruscha said, breaking from a conversation with Hayward Gallery director Ralph Rugoff, curator of “The Infinite Mix,” a show of music-driven video art that many people, Rugoff included, told me was not to be missed.
But this night, the night before Frieze, belonged to the new. Dealer Bill Powers speed-walked me through Mayfair to Claridge’s, where Parisian dealer Kamel Mennour was opening a show of new work by Latifa Echakhch in a new, shoebox-size outlet on the opposite side of the hotel’s lobby from design dealer Patrick Seguin’s equally compact shop. Cognizant of a certain threat underlying the current American election, Echakhch had broken an oxidized, bronze liberty bell and scattered the pieces. “It’s a vintage bell,” she said. “I may have a smile on my face, but my heart is crying.”
We continued our walk. At the Pilar Corrias gallery, extended family associations gave added dimension to “Shitty Disco,” Tala Madani’s darkly feminine update on cave painting. By her side were Nathaniel Mellors, her artist husband, and her Los Angeles dealer, Mara McCarthy (daughter of Paul), as well as Bidoun editor Negar Azimi and MoMA curator Stuart Comer. On the way to dinner at Dickie Fitz, they stopped at Carroll/Fletcher to catch the closing minutes of a reception for Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, of New York and Ramallah, where there were small objects on tables and on the floor, which young artists now seem to prefer to walls.
At the urging of White Columns director Matthew Higgs, Powers departed for Tramps, where Peter Doig had organized a show of paintings by Denzil Forrester, soon to appear in New York. When the dinner for Madani turned out to be mainly truffle rice balls in no great supply, I taxied to the Kensington Palace Gardens home of Valeria Napoleone, a collector of art by women, who was hosting a heartier buffet for Jamian Juliano-Villani’s installation at Studio Voltaire. Among the guests was Anthea Hamilton, the lone Turner Prize finalist braving the market without gallery representation—no small feat during Frieze.
Fair organizers deserve praise for dispensing with weighty show catalogues—a waste of paper in this age of the JPEG—in favor of well-written journals put together by editors of Frieze magazine, which is celebrating its twenty-fifth year this week.
The weather in London also went against custom, when bright sunlight and clear autumn skies accompanied thousands of VIPs to the fair’s fourteenth edition and to its younger sibling, Frieze Masters, opening on Wednesday at opposite ends of Regents Park. Due to the miscalculation of an Uber driver, I started at the latter, and was instantly baffled.
Hauser & Wirth’s presentation of modern works by the likes of Philip Guston with medieval religious paintings was confusing. “We’re collaborating with Moretti Fine Art,” explained gallery director Marc Payot. But why? “It’s interesting,” he said. Collaboration here was common. Chicago’s Corbett vs. Dempsey and London’s Thomas Dane combined to show 1960s collages and paintings by American and British artists. Dominique Lévy and Marianne Boesky joined forces with Sprüth-Magers for an all-Frank Stella arrangement that included a “stripe” painting—his first—from the Whitney’s Stella retrospective. The secondary market sure is quick.
Zwirner’s spare installation of signal works by Blinky Palermo, On Kawara, and Donald Judd, among others, was especially suave. “The committee gave us the prize for best booth!” Zwirner said, proudly. The Helly Nahmad corner was even simpler. It had just three paintings—all late Picassos. I needed lunch.
After spinning back several hundred years to the illuminated manuscripts at Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books, I stood impatiently in the twenty-first century line at the understaffed and inefficient Locanda Locatelli, praying the sandwich supply wouldn’t run out. The line happened to form at the top of the aisle for Spotlight, the section reserved for neglected ’60s and ’70s art resuscitated by galleries that Menil Collection curator Toby Kamps selected for the fair. “It’s good this year, isn’t it?” he said. Any fair that features paintings by Joan Semmel (at Alexander Gray) is fine with me.
In this carpeted, relatively pleasant place, one could actually focus on art—whenever people didn’t distract. I found LACMA director Michael Govan and his wife Katharine Ross at the Michael Rosenfeld stand, studying fetishistic, black leather heads by Nancy Grossman. “We already have one,” he said. He seemed to want more.
Frieze Masters, in fact, seems to be catnip for museum professionals. Geneva’s Centre d’Art Contemporain director, Andrea Bellini, was in the photo booth that Bologna’s P420 Arte Contemporanea brought to its restaging of Franco Vaccari’s “Photomatic d’Italia” (1972–74). Fondation Beyeler director Sam Keller stopped in at Freymond-Guth to see the latex wall and window sculptures that the late Swiss artist Heidi Bucher made by literally skinning the rooms of her grandmother’s condemned house. And Art Institute of Chicago deputy director Ann Goldstein was examining every Spotlight booth with Wexner Center director Sherry Geldin, the woman who gave Goldstein her first job, in the early years of LA MoCA.
On their exit, they passed Hammer Museum curator Aram Moshayedi and National Portrait Gallery director Nicholas Cullinan, who was making tracks from the Frieze tent so quickly that no one had a chance to ask if the rumors circulating that pegged him to replace retiring Tate museums director Nicholas Serota were true—or if Whitechapel Gallery director Iwona Blazwick would get the nod.
The only person missing when I crossed the threshold into Frieze was Charon. All hell seemed to have broken loose, there was so much art and so many people buying it that I couldn’t help but wonder if a day would come when all of this would end up in a Xanadu well beyond Charles Foster Kane’s wildest dreams.
Basically, there are two kinds of dealers here: those that sell, and those that “place” work in select collections. I couldn’t tell if the galleries participating in a special section devoted to solo shows of the ’90s were doing either one, but it was fun to see what its curator Nicolas Trembley thought worth remembering of the time before the internet, before globalization, before Frieze, and before filthy lucre wiped out experimentation.
Galerie Neu’s Thilo Wermke and Alexander Schröder were standing by their Daniel Pflumm presentation and handing out little stickers. Stepping into the exact recreation of Wolfgang Tillmans’s first gallery show of photographs, at Daniel Buchholz’s Cologne space, in 1993, Tate Modern curator Mark Godfrey exclaimed, “I had no idea that the gallery was this small!” The photos featured plenty of people on Ecstasy. Remember Ecstasy? Remember exercise videos? At Mehdi Chouakri’s stand, Sylvie Fleury recreated her ’93 scatter of TV monitors playing the videos by such fitness gurus of the period as Jane Fonda and Raquel Welch. “That’s where I started finding sculptures in the old days,” Fleury said of the videos, “when the fashion world started making things that looked like art.”
Back in the aisles, Serpentine Gallery curator Hans Ulrich Obrist was handing out flyers for his “Miracle Marathon” this weekend. It focuses on magical thinking and turns on something he termed “fuckosophy.” I was intrigued. “It’s an urgent word, no?” he said.
At the Kurimanzutto booth, a jungle gym of a sculpture by Leonor Antunes hung like vines over the desk, where two bottles of champagne were on display—clear evidence that the Mexico City gallery had taken the Frieze stand prize, sponsored by Ruinart. “I’ve never won anything in my life before!” exclaimed an excited Mónica Manzutto. “Nothing! Never. This is great.”
This was the first Frieze I can remember where I spotted not a single carpetbagging celebrity, but I did see artists like Martin Boyce, Jim Lambie, and William Kentridge, some with work in the fair, others just looking. In the Focus section for young galleries at the far reaches of the tent, Ingar Dragset was studying the soft-penis paintings by Celia Hempton hung on thick walls she painted more abstractly at Southard Reid. And in a live performance, Darja Bajagić and Lloyd Corporation artists set up a faux internet café and teased fairgoers with luxury goods they couldn’t buy for all the money in the world.
Darkness fell, and it was on to Soho, where Laura Owens was showing an astonishing number of new and varied paintings at Sadie Coles HQ. “It took twelve art handlers to install the show,” reported Ryan Sullivan, one of many other artists in attendance, including Jordan Wolfson, Sam Falls, Magali Reus, Hillary Lloyd, Anthea Hamilton, and Helen Marten, who is definitely on a roll as a Turner Prize finalist with a concurrent solo show at the Serpentine.
Marten has mixed feelings about her sudden prominence. “If you win the Turner, you have to go on TV and speak!” she protested. “People think artists want the limelight, but it’s horrid.” I’m not sure Hamilton, who was beside her, agreed. Nonetheless, with curators like the Whitney’s Scott Rothkopf, Chisenhale Gallery director Polly Staple, and MoMA colleagues Laura Hoptman, David Platzker, and Comer joining dealers Carol Greene and Gavin Brown and Gisela Capitan, both artist got plenty of attention at the resolutely vegan, communal dinner at One Belgravia that Owens requested from chef Margot Henderson.
Matthew Higgs, an avatar of disco music from around the world—see his Instagram account—took to the decks with Andrew Hale to spin for dancers who wanted to stay up all night. (Apparently, quite few.)
For those without hangovers and not required to stay in the Frieze tents, Thursday was a good day for walking around town to look at art in galleries and museums. First, at the ICA, Sharjah Art Foundation president Hoor Al-Qasimi announced the artists and locations (Sharjah, Beirut, and online) and discussed the connective tissue of the thirteenth Sharjah Biennial, opening in March and curated by Ashkal Alwan director Christine Tohme. “Everything we do is an experiment,” Al-Qasimi told me, speaking of the unsettled conditions in her part of the world—or, actually, everywhere.
I strolled down the Strand to the Store, a vacant office building where I watched all ten videos in Rugoff’s show, coproduced by the Hayward (currently closed for rehabbing) and the Vinyl Factory. Among the films—every one a standout—were a new, holographic piece by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Bam Bam’s Dream, a partly animated documentary that Jeremy Deller and Cecilia Bengolea made for the current São Paulo Bienal. It follows a female daggering champion in Jamaica and is by turns ecstatic and horrifying.
The evening brought even more joy in dance—with Maureen Paley’s hubbub of an East End party for Maureen Gallace at St John Bread and Wine coming right on the tail of the premiere, at the Barbican, of three new works by choreographer Michael Clark. Set to the music of Erik Satie, Patti Smith, and David Bowie, with gorgeous lighting by Charles Atlas and perfect costumes by Stevie Stewart, this was the happiest experience of my week—one shared with a predominately art-world audience (think Sarah Lucas, Jarvis Cocker, Charles Asprey, and ICA director-elect Stefan Kalmár).
“No frills beauty,” said Tate Modern curator Catherine Wood. “I loved being in Michael’s theatrical darkness—such an antidote to two days of overexposure in the fair!”
Context is everything.