Peaches performs at the Yo! Sissy festival in Berlin. (All photos: Jason Harrell)
IF IN BERLIN the days have a tendency to bleed into one another forming a sort of haze—a gray one, to be precise, punctuated with rare bursts of sunshine—then the fabric of the nights is most definitely a fuzz of whirling dance-floor lights, glitter, make-up, and bodies of every and any and no gender in various states of undress. Amid the noise, the excitement, the inner violence of our daily exercises in being and creating, it can be easy to forget that we are living among a bevy of talented creatures. Yo! Sissy, the city’s premiere queer music festival, became the first event ambitious enough to unite them all, people who have often collaborated, bartended, DJ’d, binge-watched RuPaul’s Drag Race episodes, drank, snorted drugs, quarreled, laughed, cried, barfed, and slept together—but not necessarily all in the same place and at the same time. Spread over the last weekend in July, there were three different times and three different places where sonic and performative fabulosities of all crypto-perverse shadings could be shaken out and reveled in, reminding us—and our distinguished visitors—that despite (or because of) our occasional petty rivalries, our rampant inconsistencies, and our often blazing bouts of incoherency, Berlin is still the homeland of the twenty-first century avant-garde, and these are the people that make it so.
On Friday, I departed early from musician Ralf Thiessies’s Neukölln apartment, where most of Berlin’s legendary and difficult-to-remember weekends these days seem to begin—and end, for that matter (if they end at all). We made our way to Schwuz, one of Berlin’s oldest gay clubs, where we were greeted by Hungry (Johannes J. Jaruraak), the city’s most style-savvy drag terrorist, arriving just in time for the Hidden Cameras. The set was a welcome-home of sorts for Cameras mastermind Joel Gibb, who sat out the winter in Los Angeles, and featured the surprise debut of the Pet Shop Bears chorus—a back-up group of fur-chested bros who are also behind the beloved eponymous monthly disco soirée.
“I had my bag stolen today with my passport in it,” announced headliner JD Samson as she took the stage. “So if anyone wants to hang out, I’ll be here for a while.” With the cosmic fuckery prolonged further, sound problems prevented Samson and her band from launching into her set, leading her guitarist to take a stab at stand-up comedy. (“How many lesbians does it take to screw in a light bulb? ‘That’s not funny.’ ”) Once unglitched, Samson lit into an energetic electro-punk barrage that left the dancefloor scuffed and sweat-drenched.
For those favoring the summer outdoor music festival feel, Saturday’s noon-to-morn at Neue Heimat, with four stages to go between, was the clear centerpiece. Two of Berlin’s biggest pop talents—Snax and Dievondavon—were given unusual afternoon slots, though those who made it out were treated to a couple of the festival’s critical high points. Analog synth-pop mavericks Dievondavon launched the day to the buzz of a small but crazed fan base; their live shows are a rarity, as the two members, Thiessies and Fridolin Körner, live in different cities. “Ralf is such a great lyricist!” La JohnJoseph accurately observed; being a fine lyricist himself (his act, Alexander Geist, would perform the following night at SO36), he would know.
With his own hybrid and always-danceable fusion of disco, funk, and electro, Snax has been a staple of the Berlin music scene since moving here more than a decade ago. His dinnertime set in the garden of Neue Heimat featured new songs from his upcoming album, as well as faves like “Hat Trick” and “Honeymoon’s Over,” before slamming the dust-kicking crowd with the definitive disco track of the 2010s, “Up and Coming Children.”
Left: JD Samson. Right: Crystal Waters.
Most of the afternoon was devoted to hip-hop, reflecting queer(-friendly) musicians’ increasing preoccupation with the genre; mainstays and up-and-comers like Black Cracker, Ricashay, Cakes Da Killa, and Dai Burger played. Among them, TT the Artist was a revelation. Twerk-worthy beats, brilliant rhymes, and backing by two stars of the Berlin voguing scene—the handsome and elegant Ray Melody and his sister-in-step Bamby Melody of the House of Melody—all made for a grand performance. Peaches arrived just in time for TT’s set, enthusing, “I want to collaborate with her!”
The choice of Crystal Waters as Saturday’s headliner seemed a bit random programming-wise, but okay… For me, the long day’s journey into night reached its apotheosis with Ziúr, the new electro-core solo project of Mika Risiko, who also plays in the band Crime.
The third and final day was an all-night extravaganza at the legendary club SO36 where, according to legend, Kippenberger’s ghost can still be sensed through nostrils encrusted with bad Berlin speed. If Saturday’s theme was “bounce,” Sunday allowed for more layered programming, with melancholic entrées like Dan Bodan and Evvol interspersed with the international art-pop vanguard Alexander Geist, which was introduced by the delightfully obscene, never-sober drag hag Olympia Bukkakis as an “all-Catholic boy band.”
Finally—because a festival this sugary requires two cherries on top—the fest spewed its full froth with twin appearances by sisters in salacity, Christeene and Peaches. Christeene has come so far since I clumsily did the sound for her first performance in Berlin back in 2011 at PORK, the Sunday-night exercise in conceptual slumming overseen by the mythical and much missed Brian Tennessee Claflin, who passed away last summer. As she exposed her butthole to the cheering hundreds at SO36, I almost felt a twinge of regret that I now had to share her with so many people. Silly, because of course she was never my discovery to begin with, and now that I think about it, it’s amazing and wonderful that this conceptual drag extremist parody of American female pop stardom looks like she might have a chance of actually topping the very thing she embodies so trashily.
Peaches was a last-minute addition to the program, and what better choice to bring the festival to a close than the beloved expat priestess of punk and spunk. Like Snax, Peaches used the opportunity to try out some tunes from an upcoming album, before launching into a selection of her perennial favorites, diving into an ecstatic crowd, who backed her on the finale, “Fuck the Pain Away.” Like Gibb, Peaches seems to be spending most of her time in LA these days—fair enough, those Canadians got enough of the bone-chilling cold growing up—though if anything, her set at Yo! Sissy cemented the fact that Berlin is where she will always truly belong: a city where nearly every artist and musician you meet moonlights as a DJ, where the lines among the art, music, and nightlife worlds remain as blurred as our memories of what went down the morning after.
Left: Christeene. Right: TT the Artist with Ray Melody and Bamby Melody.
AS THE ESTABLISHED New York art world decamps to the Hamptons and beyond, crowds at the season’s concluding events tend to be smaller, noticeably younger, and, arguably, more carefree; when the carnival leaves town, the pressure’s off. What degree of rigor can one realistically demand when the dog days hit and any given destination is rated by the efficacy of its air-conditioning? The recent launch of Everything, a suite of public sculptures by Stockholm-born, New York–based artist Hanna Liden, organized by Art Production Fund, didn’t even have the luxury of an indoor location, so there was a pervading sense that whatever happened—or didn’t—was good enough.
Arriving at the work’s waterfront location in Hudson River Park (the other part of the work is in Ruth Wittenberg Plaza in the Village), I was confronted by a restless pack of minidressed women, all of them in the employ of the project’s cosmetics-firm sponsor, Kiehl’s, but scant others aside from the APF’s Doreen Remen, Yvonne Force Villareal, and Casey Fremont. Liden herself was conspicuous in black jeans and shirt; even the several toddlers in excited attendance looked dressier. Everything, an Oldenbergian order of titanic bagels (some of them stacked to form makeshift vases), is lighthearted and selfie-ready. A drizzle of black spray paint (intended as a tribute to urban grime) notwithstanding, it was already being embraced (and sat on, and mock-bitten) by passersby.
A few nights later, another not-for-profit institution, White Columns, presented its inaugural Summer Party, attracting an exponentially larger crowd. But while the gallery’s A/C was working just fine, the fact that the awkwardly proportioned space was partially carpeted, necessitating the removal of shoes, introduced its own species of discomfort. While some opted to stake a claim for the duration, choreographer Jen Rosenblit enrobed herself in one particularly decorative rug and paraded around in it.
An hour or two passed, during which I clocked artist, musician, and club owner Spencer Sweeney, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston director Bill Arning, MoMA chief curator Stuart Comer, Artist’s Institute director Jenny Jaskey, and dealer Jack Hanley. Finally, as the scrappy bar ran dry, Higgs seized his moment and took to the mic to announce a sequence of five five-minute readings. “If anyone wants to talk,” he suggested in a schoolmasterly tone, “they should go outside” (adding swiftly, as if to avoid sounding like too much of a buzzkill, “It’s a really lovely evening”). What followed was never less than captivating, even if sometimes in the manner of a car crash. Things really got going with Giovanna Olmos, a diminutive ball of verbal and physical energy not averse to standing on one leg shouting “OCTOPUSS! OCTOPUSS!” or jabbing her finger at various audience members while passing one of two all-too-familiar judgments: “LIKE!”; “UNLIKE!”
“And this is my second weasel poem, written yesterday.” Jocelyn Spaar, declaiming with great speed and variation from a gaudily plastic-clad phone, was equally unpredictable. She may have looked demure, and eschewed Olmos’s dada dance moves, but it was no easier to guess her next line, the words pouring out in an unceasing torrent, any stumbles or hesitations integrated into the flow. Following Spaar was the initially unassuming Felix Bernstein. Seated at a laptop, he read a few lines then burst without warning into loud, passionate, and frankly alarming song, finally storming off to looks of admiration from some quarters, bemusement from others. As we reeled, Higgs jumped in to call time: “That’s it!” And so it was.
Left: Séamus O Ciosain. Right: Galway International Arts Festival director Paul Fahy and playwrite Enda Walsh.
WE SAT ON A PINK-FLOWERED COMFORTER atop a single bed, surrounded by a panoply of little-girl kitsch. A disembodied voice told of the room’s former occupant, now disappeared, “inventing tales of Barbie punishing Sylvanian Bunny,” and fearing that “the little world I had created in my bedroom would crack to the beigeness of the rest of the house.” The installation, A Girl’s Bedroom, was Enda Walsh’s follow up to last year’s Room 303, both of which premiered at the Galway International Arts Festival, and both of which offered proof that reality may be most powerful when invented.
“I’m making a room a year until I die,” said artist Enda Walsh when I ran into him at Varvara Shavrova’s opening of “Borders” in The Shed, down on Galway’s docks. Any cheery ones, I wondered, remembering the bleakness of Room 303. “I don’t know, I never do—you’re asking the wrong person,” he said. “I’ll bring them all together one day in a big complex.” He will too. Last year’s Festival coup, Ballyturk, a play written and directed by Walsh, is set to tour the world in 2016.
Shavrova’s exhibition is based on films she made on the Chinese side of the border with Russia. “Yes, there were hairy moments and nefarious activities. I almost had my camera taken by the police. I pretended I didn’t speak any Russian.” Vivacious and engaging, Shavrova is, eclectically, from Moscow via Beijing and now lives in Ballycastle, Ireland. We wandered through Galway’s pretty lanes in gorgeous sunshine, fueled with the promise of time-inappropriate cocktails (it was only 4 PM) at The Festival Gallery. Does a raspberry bobbing in a glistening glass of Absolut count as food? Australian artist Patricia Piccinini’s sculptures hover on the brink of creepy and adorable, and you don’t need vodka to be beguiled by her creations.
Artist Jane Queally, gallery manager for the fortnight, was holding Offering, a puppet made from fox and feral possum fur. “It opens up the conversation, though I may get a bit tired of having my hand in there. Patricia talks about yoga, and knowing the body inside and out. It’s starting to feel almost like an extension of me.” People mugged for snaps beside The Lovers, a pair of scooters that have obviously fallen for one another, and The Long Awaited, a small boy nestled against an oddly attractive beast of a creature. It’s a show made for photo opportunities, but as with all openings, the fun has to pause for the speeches.
“Patricia is startling,” said artist Hughie O’Donoghue. He spoke about how it became difficult to distinguish some of the work from the audience. Looking around, I thought that was a little rude to the audience, until Séamus, son of Gallery of Photography director Tanya Kiang, posed beside The Coup, making a pair of adorable redheads, and I began to get his point. O’Donoghue cited Hieronymus Bosch, but the Chapman brothers, Ron Mueck, Duane Hanson, and Dorothy Cross were all mentioned about the place: Not that the work is derivative—it’s all wonderfully its own.
Later, over drinks at Neachtain’s, Galway’s legendary pub, before dinner at Artisan, O’Donoghue reckoned that the Festival and its program makes people think about their place in the world. “The art world is in a decadent phase,” he said. I agreed with him, showed the assembled company Victor—a new smartphone app to hail private jets like cabs—and drank more wine.
The next day Piccinini and I met to talk about the nature of love, French feminisms, and how we might come to treat the mutated offspring of the world that we’re changing around us. “Though what we do with that nature is only one layer of the work.” She has expressive brown eyes, thinks before she speaks, and evidently feels a strong affinity for her creature creations. She conjured an uncanny reality in the Galway sunshine. “I spent time in the anatomy lab. Everyone’s insides are as different as their outsides. The cliché that we’re all the same under the skin is simply not true.”
Left: Jen Coppinger and Macnas Director Noeline Kavanagh. Right: Gallery of Photography director Tanya Kiang.
This idea haunted me over the first few days of the Festival. There was the premiere of Amy Conroy’s play Luck Just Kissed You Hello: “My skin didn’t fit. What was inside didn’t match what was on the outside,” says the protagonist, Laura, now transgender and named Mark. And then there was Exhibit B, Brett Bailey’s live-art installation that was forced to close at London’s Barbican last year following security concerns over protests.
Bailey and many of the cast were at the Festival’s opening party, including Stella Odunlami, an artist and postcolonial studies student who bristled at the idea that the black actors in Exhibit B, which mimics the human zoos of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and tells the story of colonialism’s processes of dehumanization, are exploited. “Fear thieves off misinformation,” she said in her statement at the end of the show, which had left me reeling. Outside someone began to tell me that one’s reaction depended on one’s own postcolonial position, but I wasn’t ready for that. An intellectual response would come later, for now it was emotion.
Down the road, Martin Healy was putting the finishing touches to Terrain at the Galway Arts Centre. Made in white neon, Fata Morgana is a set of coordinates: 83°N 103°W. “Discovered” as a new landmass in the Arctic in 1906, it proved to be a mirage. “I like the idea of setting coordinates to nothing, of folly,” said Healy. His latest video work, Harvest, played upstairs. “I’m making plants speak. We’re in a tenuous position right now in terms of nature.” Oddly, given the difference in the form of their work, he and Piccinini have a great deal in common. Connections like these are part of the magic of Festivals, and Galway 2015 has been one of the best.
SUMMER IN NEW YORK CITY, no matter how heavy the weather, performs its possibilities to those who stick it out. The wealthy vanish, at least on the weekends, and the college students go home, or wherever. The tourists somehow stay in their designated areas, and for these few months, for those or other more charitable reasons, the city feels as though it’s got something of its character back.
“Pardon my shtick,” Wayne Koestenbaum grinned to a dozen of us gathered one warm July evening in the East Village for “Marking Marks,” a walk the poet-painter-critic was leading in homage to Frank O’Hara’s 1953 poem “Second Avenue.” We were just a few steps west of 441 East Ninth Street, where O’Hara lived in a second-floor apartment from 1959 to 1963, the years during which he was, according to some, in fullest possession of his poetic powers. “I revere Frank O’Hara,” Koestenbaum explained, “and this might be my favorite of his poems.” Koestenbaum himself is revered as a vigilante on behalf of the glittering intellect. If John Ashbery once described “Second Avenue” as “such a difficult pleasure,” that evening, Koestenbaum praised it as “a poem big enough to contain [O’Hara’s] consciousness and the city’s consciousness as well.”
We were handed sketch pads, water-soluble markers, and pencils, and Koestenbaum explained that this evening’s walk would be punctuated by his prompts. “We will be on the lookout for events,” he said, “responding with linguistic marks or nonlinguistic marks”meaning that our observations or ideas would be expressed within or without their sanctioned symbolic order. “Quantity, not quality,” Koestenbaum insisted. “We are working in the spirit of Frank O’Hara, who was always inspired.” Glancing at the graying sky, he added, “Let’s hope it doesn’t rain,” but thus far only the air conditioners seemed to be spitting on us.
Our first prompt: “Who should be on this street with us right now?” Koestenbaum asked. All us participants staked out room of our own on the sidewalk, making marks toward the missing. Taylor Mead came to mind, though he had lived further downtown, on Ludlow Street, for over three decades. I drew a shaky lineup of stick-figure cats in honor of the dozens of ferals he’d famously cared for in his tiny apartment. Other names too: Tally Brown, Ron Vawter, Ruth Maleczech.
Left and right: Wayne Koestenbaum and others make marks.
More prompts followed from Koestenbaum every few minutes:
“Find an event on the ground to respond to.”
“Bring to mind a shattered romance and make marks toward it.”
“Write something impermissible. Erase it, then reconstruct something from its erasure.”
“Are you guys in an art class?” two Hiltonesque blondes stopped to ask. I thought of how to explain, but decided I didn’t want to. “Yep,” I said. “Cool,” the taller one said. “I totally thought so.” And they walked away. “Population Generic,” I scribbled.
After working in our own sidewalk solitude, trying to mark the particular magic of the street and its grime, we all crossed Avenue A together into Tompkins Square Park, where Koestenbaum instructed us to walk as a group, looking for “omens that signify catalysts for our creative endeavors for the next year.”
“An oversize shirt,” one of the participants pointed to a man walking by. “There’s a toothbrush on the ground,” offered another, scribbling in his sketchpad. “It looks pretty clean too.” Koestenbaum pointed his pencil at a limp plastic bag, weighed down with what looked to be lunchtime garbage, hanging from the park’s iron fence. “Can I turn this into an omen,” he asked us, “or is it too disgusting?”
A rat running across our path. A good omen! A black sock in the dirt. Another one! Fireflies flickering in the descending dusk. The best omen! Someone said that a spray of purple blossoms was an omen because “it’s the time of night when purple disappears.”
“The disappearance of purple is a good thing,” Koestenbaum confirmed and made marks in his notepad.
Signs of our fortunes and futures were revealing themselves at a ravishing velocity, so much so that Koestenbaum announced, “I’m willing to go into the area of canned creativity.” Together, we walked toward a busking jazz quartet who’d been playing Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5” for well over fifteen minutes. Someone pointed to the female figure standing atop the Temperance Fountain, and we all looked up. Seconds later, we heard a loud clinking sound and looked down. A tap from a tap shoe lay on the ground.
Evidence of rhythms gone rogue, I wrote.
It was now time for an impromptu exhibition of our work. We tacked selections from our notepads onto the park fence, leaning in to admire each other’s marks. “Is there something about the arrangement of the work that’s an omen? Something about the v-ness of it?” Koestenbaum asked, and one of the participants raised his hand and said that he didn’t understand exactly what Koestenbaum meant by omen.
“An omen is a detail that we overinvest with meaning. We allow it predictive powers,” the writer explained, citing André Breton’s Nadja as an instance of an author “harvesting the city for signs on the trajectory of a visionary nature.” He paused for a moment, smiling. “People don’t talk credulously about omens anymore,” he said. Lesson: New Yorkers may rightly mourn the blanding of their city, but its possible witchcraft, its omens, have not vanished; it’s those who recognize and read them who are going, gone.
In his 2010 essay “Frank O’Hara’s Excitement,” Koestenbaum writes that “Second Avenue” expressed—nearly erupted—with “a longing for simultaneity,” a desire for the past and the present to hook up hotly in carnal, eternal immediacy:
Candidly. The past, the sensations of the past. Now!
O’Hara died on July 25, 1966, at the age of forty, having been hit by a dune buggy on Fire Island the day before. It is sad and strange to think that as of this July, one whose poems continue to pulse and enrapt with such tender force will have been gone from the world for nine years longer than he was in it.
As the sky continued to darken, Koestenbaum waved for the group to gather in a circle below a park lamp. Handing each of us a section from “Second Avenue,” he asked that we choose a line or phrase or word to read aloud, round robin. We bowed our heads over our papers, angling them toward the glowing lamplight. In this, an unintended gratitude pose to O’Hara’s excitement, we performed a “Second Avenue” cut-up, pasting together a poem of our own.
which has lines, cuts, drops, aspirates, trembles with horror
your distinction is merely a quill at the bottom of the sea.
and I am a nun trembling before the microphone
kisses on the medulla oblongata of an inky clarity!
You will say I am supernatural.
As we read, the rain began: a parting omen, perhaps to be read as tears if you felt maudlin, a shower if you felt unclean, relief if burdened by the closeness of the heat. Or perhaps, to pull one last line from O’Hara, to be read against the combusting nowness of such enchantment
as a gasp of laughter at desire, and disorder, and dying.
THE JOY-TO-ANXIETY RATIO around birthdays tends to be parabolic, with celebration less fraught the closer you are to either end of the spectrum—very young or very old. When you’re somewhere in the middle, however, there may be more to commemorate in theory, but in practice it feels like there’s just a whole lot more you hope no one brings up.
So it was with Documenta, which celebrated its sixtieth birthday on Sunday with an all-day, Kassel-wide festival mixing in a chamber orchestra; a panel discussion with founder Arnold Bode’s daughter, E. R. Nele; tours of past commissions by artists such as Walter De Maria, Giuseppe Penone, and Hito Steyerl; and an outdoor screening of Bruce Weber’s Let’s Get Lost (1988), a favorite of Documenta 14’s artistic director, Adam Szymczyk, who quixotically pitched the event as “an invitation to get lost together, alone.”
The notion of isolation within a community could have just as well applied to the egos at play during the weekend’s centerpiece, the symposium “Expanding Thought Collectives: documenta 1997–2017,” which convened six of the quinquennial’s artistic directors (Catherine David, Okwui Enwezor, Ruth Noack, Roger M. Buergel, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, and Szymczyk) in the pressure-cooker of an under-air-conditioned Documenta Halle for two days of PowerPoints, Q&A catfights, and ever more tenuous metaphors for the exhibition’s “modality” and/or “potentiality.” The program’s logo inadvertently foregrounded some of these tensions by covering the title in black-and-white vertical stripes, as if the “60 Years of Documenta” were imprisoned in its own legacy. Noack put it more bluntly: “It’s terrific, but it will destroy your life.”
Thursday night, early birds braved the fierce heat to hit the Fridericianum for a retrospective of Marcel Broodthaers put together by the museum’s director, Susanne Pfeffer. The show stretched through all three floors of the building, whose Neoclassical grandeur offered the perfect setting for institution-rumbling installations like The Museum of Modern Art: Department of Eagles.“It’s very generous,” curator Kasper König said to approving nods. “Pfeffer really has a feel for Broodthaers.” Around 8 PM, the sweat-spotted crowd shifted to the backyard for the first of many sausage-based buffets. Too hot to eat, I slipped into conversation with Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden director Johan Holten, artist Susanne M. Winterling, and n.b.k. curator Sophie Goltz, before following curators Candice Hopkins and Natasha Ginwala to a picnic table with Documenta 14 team members Hendrik Folkerts and Sepake Angiama. “Is this the Documenta table?” I asked. “In Kassel, they’re all Documenta tables,” Folkerts laughed.
By 9:30 AM the next morning, the already steamy Documenta Halle was packed with aspiring symposium-goers (after receiving more than eight hundred RSVPs, the organizers resorted to an uncomfortably literal green slip/pink slip system for determining who could get a seat.) The program launched with the German Federal Cultural Foundation’s Hortensia Völckers, who briefly registered her disappointment with Germany’s stance on Greece, before introducing moderator Dorothea von Hantelmann, the first ever Documenta visiting professor at the Kunsthochschule Kassel, and Oliver Marchart, whose keynote set the framework for the rest of the speakers: namely, that David’s Documenta 10 (1997) and Enwezor’s Documenta 11 (2002) marked a profound shift in how exhibitions operate, both on the ground and discursively.
David didn’t always think so. “I remember a few days before the opening, talking with Hortensia and wondering, what if we’ve made a grosse Scheisse—a big shit?” She was quick to explain the lack of artists from the Middle East (she feared tokenism) and the fact that the Chinese artists didn’t make her catalogue. She also recounted how she had originally intended to hold the exhibition in Tehran, only to be reprimanded with “Ms. David, you have a contract for making the exhibition in Kassel.” Having exorcised those lingering demons, David pivoted the panel toward “modernities without museums,” using China as a case study. After a few words from artist Wang Jianwei (who genially prefaced his talk with “Please excuse me if my presentation makes you a little sleepy—I am a conceptual artist”), artist, curator, and now dealer Lu Jie walked the audience through the Long March Project, which David had spun as a kind of substitute for a museum of modern art.
With that, Christov-Bakargiev leapt up: “It’s not true. There is a museum of modern art in China. It’s called NAMOC. I gave a lecture there last year and it’s a fabulous institution.” She then vouched for her own authority in the matter, as a longtime supporter of Long March Project “from the 1990s, if not earlier” (truly vanguard given that LMP, while conceived in 1998, wasn’t realized until 2002). Lu graciously clarified: “We don’t have a MoMA.” “But who wants MoMA?!” Christov-Bakargiev fired back.
Anyone who might have dozed off during Wang’s presentation was awake now. Symposium staffers may as well have been auditioning for Sophie’s Choice as they surveyed the hands rocketing up around the room. A mic went to Enwezor. “I don’t want to join the fray, as it were . . . ,” he began, then shifted the debate toward the “production and acquisition of discursive authority” that allows institutions like MoMA to “provincialize and allocate modernity.” Art historian Griselda Pollock countered that this authority was being misused to “rediscover” rather than “to point the finger at what rendered these things invisible in the first place.”
At this moment, art historian David Joselit took the mic in the museum’s defense: “I know it’s fashionable to bash MoMA right now, but I want to be clear that the museum was founded by three women, whose contributions are not honored by feminists because it’s not ‘art’ but ‘institution building.’ ” (To which Christov-Bakargiev replied, “It’s the least feminist thing to list women as participating in institutions. Margaret Thatcher was also a woman.”) Joselit was careful to highlight the expansiveness of MoMA’s early vision, referring to Alfred Barr’s maps. “Yes, MoMA has led in a certain kind of canon building, but to caricature MoMA in this way is to isolate responsibility for this canon.” It was back to Enwezor, who insisted that it was not a caricature, but rather an acknowledgment of the museum’s “selective recollections”: “Institutions are like organisms. They develop. They have bad habits. They shed those habits, then they acquire new ones.” The curator recalled a recent visit to MoMA’s permanent collection, where a Beauford Delaney now hangs in proximity to Picasso and Dubuffet. “I looked at the acquisition date and saw it was from 2012. This tells us about the institutional self-construction, as it covers up its tracks in order to be able to reinhabit itself.”
While Enwezor seemed to have eased the conversation down from its ledge, König, who until this point had been quietly making postcard collages at his seat, was not there to be soothed. “MoMA acts like the Vatican and the Kremlin all in one!” he bellowed. “The real problem is that the museum has gone corporate. What’s going on in Greece and Germany is also a fucking corporate machine. It doesn’t deal with emotions or real people.” As if the very mention of Greece had tripped a wire, von Hantelmann abruptly cut off further questions, directing the last word to David, who glumly summarized: “It’s not about morality. It’s about cultural policies and politics. We can’t think it changes the world to have one Pakistani artist in an exhibition.”
With that, the symposium broke for lunch, giving audience members an hour to recover from the Q&A whiplash. “We have a word for this in German,” a member of the Documenta team shared quietly on our way out of the Halle. “Elefantenrennen. An elephant race.” I grinned, assuming she meant a clash-of-the-Titans scenario. Looking it up later, I found it is actually applied to the frustrating experience of two slow-moving trucks trying to overtake each other on the highway, blocking all other traffic.
Another sausage buffet down, symposium-goers returned with the dewy glow of Käse sandwiches trapped in a Bahnhof display case. The stifling heat gradually liquefied all decorum. Across the aisle, I watched an old woman in a blue paisley housedress and flesh-colored slippers lean over to scold Documenta 14 curator Dieter Roelstraete—easily double her height—for distracting her as he fanned himself with his program. Over the next two and a half hours, the entire audience would melt into a sea of McGuyveresque fanning devices and Rorschach sweat spots, as on stage, the Enwezor-led Documenta 11 panel roped Raqs Media Collective’s Shuddhabrata Sengupta, cultural theorist Nikos Papastergiadis, and Documenta 11 cocurator Sarat Maharaj into a meditation on “Globalization from Below.” As Pollock had observed, “When we think of globalization, we keep fabricating a center”—namely, the English language. Enwezor and his colleagues argued that the “Post-Gutenberg pidginization” of the “Anglosphere”—“who is the true native speaker of English these days?”—should be fertile ground for generating new meanings. (Case in point: the flurry of mental imagery conjured when one speaker’s cadenced pronunciation of “peripheral” had us contemplating “what it means to be Perry Farrell in this day and age.”) As the presentations concluded, Enwezor forestalled any Q&A fireworks, announcing, “I’d like to borrow one of my friend and colleague Hans Ulrich’s favorite terms: coffee break. Shall we have one?”
The next morning, serendipity saw Kassel host a Self-Help Health Fair. All down the Friedrichsplatz, white tents were set up with CPR dolls and pamphlets on prostate examinations and how to self-diagnose your borderline personality disorder. That day’s symposium had a slightly trickier objective, covering the contested terrain of Documentas 12–14. The first panel was spiked from the start with some nondecaf confessions from Noack, who with Buergel had organized Documenta 12 in 1997. “This exhibition is only to be had at great personal cost. Some people end up with professional currency; some without health insurance. Discursive hegemony is not the same thing as institutional security.”
The curator also cleared up some misconceptions around what Pollock described as the “much-maligned” Documenta 12. (Indeed, while audience members shared fond remembrances of the exhibition in question, guest panelists spoke of liking it with the pronounced controversy courting of someone professing their preference for post–Voodoo Lounge Rolling Stones.) Noack pointed to the need to think of the Documenta exhibitions in terms of contemporaneity, not genealogy. “When you’re making an exhibition in 2007, some things are not as possible as when you are making it in 2002, or 2012.” Noack argued that Documenta 12 should be thought of not as a reactionary return to form but rather as the logical, progressive continuation of the fissures triggered by David’s and Enwezor’s thinking, questioning, “How can works from different parts of the world be displayed on equal footing?”
For his response, Joselit challenged the usage of words like visibility and surplus as automatic positives. Characterizing large-scale exhibitions as “sadistic on a certain level,” he discussed the need to quickly scan works of art, not just as a defense mechanism but as a mode of perception that allows you to identify where you’d like to zoom in. During the Q&A, Sengupta synthesized Noack’s and Joselit’s points via the business practice known as “flags of convenience,” in which naval ships of one nation register under a different national identity to ensure easy passage. “I think contemporary art gives too much importance to these flags sometimes, so that in these large exhibitions, the artist actually ends up enjoying a certain privacy.”
Privacy was of no concern for Christov-Bakargiev, who prefaced her hour-long ramble with the disclaimer that she can’t be expected to express herself linearly, as she thinks “ecologically,” followed by a live reading of her e-mail correspondence with planned panelist Karen Barad, who was unable to attend for personal reasons. The email focused mainly on encouraging Barad to speak at the curator’s upcoming Istanbul Biennial, promising logistics, lodging, and a fee of 800 euros, “or $1000.” “I felt guilty writing that, because I think it’s less,” she interjected.
Over the lunch break, an art historian had gleefully painted the Documenta psychodrama playing out on stage: “You have Catherine, the grand dame grandmother who can say whatever she wants. Okwui, the high-performing power dad. Carolyn, the crazy aunt . . . ” Christov-Bakargiev inhabited this role just as gleefully, peppering her presentation with outrageous insinuations, such as the idea that Documenta may be responsible for artist Mariam Ghani’s father’s becoming president of Afghanistan. (“We can’t say for sure, of course, but we did spend every day at his house when we were there.”) Audience tolerance faded as her talk soared well past the twenty-minute mark. After brushing off the first cues to curb her presentation, Christov-Bakargiev bristled at more aggressive attempts. When scrolling through a set of slides of Pierre Huyghe’s commission, she feistily snapped, “Because it seems we have no time to speak of Pierre, we will know nothing of Pierre. He speaks of no-knowledge zones, so that’s probably what he’d like anyway.”
Fellow panelists and Documenta 13 alums Tino Sehgal and Kristina Buch aimed for speed, while Pollock opted for a scripted conversation, which she handed to Christov-Bakargiev to read, essentially giving her own interview. “You had a wonderful project in 2007. Can you tell us more about that?” the curator read haltingly, and—having rediscovered the notion of time—repeatedly checked her watch, as Pollock expounded on speculative intersections among Charlotte Salomon, Hannah Arendt, and Donna Haraway.
When it was time for questions, the first came from Sehgal, who was “curious about the binary Griselda had presented.” “It’s called a dialectic,” Pollock corrected, prompting Christov-Bakargiev to jump in on her behalf: “Tino, we need to remember that Griselda has been writing for forty years. That means something. She’s speaking in the 1960s and ’70s manner of speaking.” (“I never thought I would ever feel sorry for Tino,” my companion whistled.) Once more, it was von Hantelmann to the rescue, announcing that she would allow just one more question from an elderly gentleman—later identified as Broodthaer’s former patron Isi Fiszman—who, having spent the better part of the conference shuffling in and out of seats in a bid to sit closer to König, asked, “Yes, you used the word matrixial. I just wanted to know if either Carolyn or Griselda have kids, and if not, what they know about motherhood?”
“2015, everybody . . . ” art historian Claire Bishop sighed.
Her comment made me realize how little contact the symposium had with the outside world. By setting the date range of 1997–2017, we could take Documenta’s prominence for granted, without having to contemplate its origins within the process of Germany’s postwar restructuring—a topic that had been bounced around liberal news outlets in response to the country’s tough public stance on Greece. (Though not only Greece. See also the video circulating of Angela Merkel’s cringe-inducing attempt to explain to a fourteen-year-old Palestinian girl facing deportation why her aspirations ranked lower than her classmates’.)
Hopes were high that the final presentation on Documenta 14, which now boasts a team twenty-nine strong, with offices in both Athens and Kassel, might change this. If the crowd had visibly thinned for Christov-Bakargiev’s aria, it was back to full capacity, with pink-slipped audience members squatting wherever there was space. When Szymczyk took the stage, however, it wasn’t for grandstanding. He spoke only as the narrator of a collaborative concert by artist Hiwa K and flamenco performer Carmen Amor. The artist, a trained flamenco guitarist, interspersed gripping vocal performances by Amor with autobiographical vignettes and films, referencing his journey on foot from his native town of Sulaimaniyya, Iraq, through Turkey and into Europe. When the performance ended, all three figures walked off stage.
For the first time all weekend, everyone was speechless.
A RUMBLE SHUDDERED across the sky and lightning set fire to palm trees as the hot wet spatter of a tropical storm washed over a startled Los Angeles this past weekend. It hardly seemed to discourage the hordes that capered across the city for a deluge of openings and performances. Dave Muller began the weekend early on Tuesday with the inauguration of a year’s worth of his legendary Three Day Weekends at Blum & Poe. Muller manned the turntables, spinning records so strange it felt like he invented them. “This one’s psychedelic reggae,” he said. Inside, posters from Muller’s collection angled in weird places, Ricky Swallow sculptures sat next to the bathroom sink, a green glow courtesy Julian Hoeber covered the office fluorescents, and poems by seventy-one-year-old poet Aram Saroyan were painted by Muller behind the DJ booth. CRICKETS CRICKETS CRICKETS . . . flowed down the window, over and over. “This is thrilling,” said Saroyan. “It’s my Los Angeles debut, and right at the top!”
I thought of the sweet chirps of crickets the following Saturday afternoon as I sat at the top of an embankment listening to raindrops splash into the surging Los Angeles River. Two women danced in men’s button-down shirts on the concrete lip over the water, part of HomeLA’s dress rehearsal at the Women’s Center for Creative Work. The dance troupe, run by Rebecca Bruno, performs only in homes, though today the domestic-ish space was WCCW’s home along the water. Artist Soyoung Shin reluctantly canceled her performance that involved climbing a flagpole, which she concluded was inadvisable in a lightning storm, opting instead for a consciousness-raising talk. Inside, Constance Strickland hollered and convulsed, emoting a mysterious domestic trauma, while in the kitchen a couple spun and fought while making cookies. For the finale, Samantha Mohr, in a diaphanous dress and roped to a drainage channel, gyrated like a spooky Ophelia near the water. “Seventy-five percent chance of rain,” one of the dancers told her beforehand. “But you look cute so you’ll be fine.” Midway through, a perplexed ranger warned the assembled crowd of a potential flash flood before heading back to his truck to watch the rest of the performance at a safe distance.
I headed south to a wet barbecue celebrating the opening of two group shows at François Ghebaly and Fahrenheit. Curator Jesse McKee walked me through his “Stopping the Sun in Its Course” at Ghebaly, which featured the druidic smear of paintings by Lucy Stein, three years’ worth of queer exuberance at English discos by Dick Jewell, and a blown-up comic by Walter Scott following his benighted avatar Wendy: “Palm Trees. Symbols of paradise.,” it read. “And Yet. The aspirational green foliage BETRAYED—by a history laid before us. Revealed in the dead hanging leaves—the decimated HUSKS of a private death made public. Just like my LIFE.”
This exuberant, muddy ball-gown of a show lifted its skirt for a French tickler as I set off down the hallway to “Faux Pas,” curated by Parisian alt-space Shanaynay, in residence at Fahrenheit. With a John Wesley bathing suit, flaccid knockoffs of Ettore Sottsass vases, and a giant pink mural of a silhouetted woman’s ass getting fingered, it felt like a lascivious grin, summed up by a lusty man in a Playboy cartoon by Eldon Dedini who announced, bottle of wine in hand and standing over a well-endowed naked lass, “We’ve had French. Let’s try Californian!”
Left: Artists Kate Costello and Jedidiah Caesar with writer Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer. Right: Dealer Jeff Poe.
Twenty minutes later I was in a gallery in Culver City, standing next to a lovely chiffon sheet of pastels and palms that stretched over the imposing two-by-four skeleton of a building, a bow-tied bartender placed in my hands a heavy ceramic goblet by Shoshi Kanokohata filled with a particularly stiff twist on the Zombie. This was all a part of “New Babylon,” curated by Michael Dopp, at Roberts & Tilton. The skeletal “house,” painted a bright blue (a shade called “Safe Harbor”) and designed by Joakim Dahlqvist, filled the gallery, and works by fourteen artists hung from its naked frame. I gulped my drink down quick and motored around the corner to glimpse a trio of solo shows by Victoria Fu, Kenneth Noland, and Kaz Oshiro at Honor Fraser and arrived just in time to miss a Ryan Gander performance at China Art Objects curated by Lauren Mackler/Public Fiction.
I left the rich umbers and mauves cracking the storm clouds of the sunset behind me and headed east toward La Brea to openings for Tala Madani at David Kordansky and “About Face,” curated by writer Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer and former dealer Kristina Kite, at Kayne Griffin Corcoran. Walking from one show to the other, collector Michael Austin raved about Madani, noting the timing of the Tehran-born artist’s exhibition so close to the signing of the accord with the Islamic Republic. Across the street, powerful ladies in funky colors populated both the walls and front courtyard. “This show is amazing,” painter Rebecca Morris told Lehrer-Graiwer. “All the artists are going crazy in there.” When asked if she was stressed out from the installation, Lehrer-Graiwer said, “Not at all. My cheeks are flushed from smiling so much.”
Left: Dealer David Kordansky and Tala Madani. Right: Dealer François Ghebaly.
Though I was tempted to join the fray at MoCA’s Step and Repeat or KCHUNG’s closing at perhspace or Joshua Petker’s opening at Ashes/Ashes, instead I rode the freeway to my last stop at Night Gallery, where hundreds of people surged under the shiny panels of a drop ceiling hanging above the summer party organized by the New Art Dealers Alliance. An installation of videos curated by Marc LeBlanc included a moving (and loud) trio of projections by artist James Richards. Nine years ago, the upstart art fair hosted a sunset party at the West Hollywood Standard to an invite-only crowd. This was almost the exact opposite of that starchy professional conclave: open, free, ecstatic, all sound-tracked by the crash and hum of underground acts organized by musician Tim Leanse. Night Gallery’s Davida Nemeroff summed up the evening as an “ambient rave.” Ted Byrnes of AQH virtuosically pounded his drum kit in cacophonous splendor. The crowd sat down to listen to the witchy allure of curator and musician Chiara Giovando, who layered her voice electronically under the syncopated strum of an acoustic guitar. Around midnight, the crowd began to thin, but Sam Rowell’s beautiful combination of sound and light came through the warehouse like electronic thunder. I left after the last act quit the stage, the pulse of dance music following my footsteps through the puddles into the hot wet Los Angeles night.