Left: The first room in “Supershow.” Middle: A ticket and the two CHF payment. Right: Bjørnsterne Christiansen.
Continuing my season of badly timed research trips, I showed up in Basel two weeks before the art fair. My lure was the soon-to-close “Supershow” at the Kunsthalle, produced by the Danish trio Superflex (Rasmus Nielsen, Jakob Fenger, and Bjørnsterne Christiansen). The gimmick was simple: Everyone gets paid two Swiss francs to enter the gallery.
It’s a token amount by anyone’s standards ($2), and buys you very little, particularly in Switzerland. (A cotton bag bearing the slogan “I was paid to go there,” costs six CHF.) Even so, I wanted to find out if this payoff would make a difference to the Kunsthalle’s regular clienteleand whether the cash would skew my critical judgment. The cashier dutifully handed over my two francs, sellotaped to the ticket, along with a pamphlet heaving with facts about the Kunsthalle.
The first room was empty except for some blue lettering on the wall that gave the dimensions of the space, its network facilities, person capacity, etc.in other words, the specifications given to help an artist plan a show there. The next room was empty except for some blue lettering on the wall with more specifications. So was the third, the fourth, and the fifth. Oh God. It was Yves Klein meets Michael Asher in a Rirkrit Tiravanija installation. Without noodles. We viewers were clearly being activated, once again.
In the midst of this existential queasiness I recalled the rumor that some of the visitors to this show were not actually visitors but an “embedded audience” masquerading as ordinary wide-eyed Kunsthalle wanderers. Primed by my recent brushes with this tendency in conceptual performance work by Tino Sehgal and Roman Ondak, I scanned the room and braced myself for interaction.
Having passed two sets of hip nattering couples en route, I sidled over to the second pair, who were sitting on the floor bathed in beautiful light. They had come to see the show several times, and by coincidence had met each other there twice (or so they said); they didn’t know anything about Superflex, but really enjoyed the emptiness of the gallery spaces. It all seemed a bit fishy. The guy had wanted to take advantage of the light by taking some pictures of a nude woman, but they had been stopped by Kunsthalle staff. Some teenagers playing frisbee had fared better.
Moving upstairs, I encountered an older guy taking notes. He too said he had been back to the show several times. He too seemed to know nothing about Superflex. He found the space enchanting, calm, full of possibility. A young woman, enthusiastic about the performative potential of the empty space, joined us. So did another bloke, who seemed to bear a Marxist grudge against the work. Now I was really suspicious: Nobody these daysleast of all in Baselrants openly about art’s complicity with the capitalist machine.
This subtle “embedded audience” are the unannounced but definite feature of “Supershow.” Jakob and Bjørn explain that each “avatar” ideally prods visitors into thinking about different types of surplus value (economic, aesthetic, social). They’re also a safety net, guaranteeing that some interaction will happen for all visitors. And I suspect that they also serve to put a friendly face on the work’s aspirations to soft institutional critique: The brochure contains a Haacke-style questionnaire amusingly geared towards the Basel context (eg. “How much is your art collection worth?”).
“Supershow” is a grand gesture, and in keeping with the group’s interest in economics, but I found it hard to be enthusiastic about paid entry plus Kunsthalle statistics plus a conversational encounter dependent on (rather than emerging from) the gallery frame. The sum all added up, and very smartly, but the show was ultimately a supercool affair that left me with no surplus value. Adam Szymczyk, the Kunsthalle’s astute young director, emailed me the next day with a reminder that Superflex aim to produce “tools” for specific situations (here: Basel’s passive and superconservative audience). So who knows what the long-term effects will be. Those of you going to the art fair, watch out for spontaneous acts of nude frisbee.
Left: Uta Meta Bauer, Waling Boers, and Michael Elmgreen. Middle: The Bergen Kunsthall's facade. Right: Eivind Furnesvik with an artwork by Elmgreen and Dragset.
After three consecutive flights—New York to Amsterdam to Oslo to Bergen—it was a bit dispiriting to see a baggage carousel (with one lonely, endlessly circling navy blue bag tagged for a nonexistent flight) in “The Welfare Show,” Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset’s new exhibition at the Kunsthall. For many years, this coveted May exhibition slot, which coincides with the Bergen International Festival, honored older artists. Beginning in 2003, when Bjarne Melgaard exhibited, the focus has been decidedly more contemporary. This year also marks the hundredth anniversary of the dissolution of Norway’s union with Sweden, so the provocatively titled exhibition—perhaps meant to complicate uncritical centennial celebrationsprompted hope for a “State of the Union”-style presentation.
Having weathered my bout of déjà vu at the baggage carousel, I went into another room, where the atmosphere was positively Beckettian. For the length of the exhibition this gallery will be empty save for twelve guards (from a rotating cast of thirty-six, noted Elmgreen) sitting silently in folding chairs around its perimeter. The small crowd at the opening, which consisted primarily of the artists, a few of their friends from Berlin, local museum officials, and a delegation brought in for the weekend by the Office of Contemporary Art (the Norwegian government’s visual arts booster club), was not keen on receiving the guards’ undivided attention; everyone exited almost as quickly as they entered. Elmgreen and Dragset also present a number of discrete sculptures and installations that comment obliquely on economic imbalances and welfare systems. The obliqueness is key: Dragset emphasized the pair’s disavowal of didacticism to several inquiring visitors (his parents among them). But “End Station,” their concurrent show at the Bohen Foundation in New York, which consists of a to-scale subway platform for a station that never existed, gains much of its subversive heat from its site-specificity, and the Bergen show, while exquisitely installed, feels like it could be presented anywhere with minimal alterations. (Indeed, it travels to the BAWAG Foundation in Vienna and the Power Plant in Toronto.)
Left: Bergen Kunsthall director Solveig Øvstebø speaks to the assembled crowd and the Crown Prince and Princess of Norway (at right hand edge of frame). Right: Ingar Dragset.
Inclement weather forced the cancellation of the ferryboat tour that was to serve as the after-party. Instead we all repaired to Bergen’s (apparently still active) Gentleman’s Club, a dark wood-paneled room lined with two rows of black-and-white half-length photo portraits of several generations of bearded Norwegians; one couldn’t help but imagine this as a homegrown version of Gerhard Richter’s 48 Portraits lineup. “A Gentleman’s Club is the perfect venue for Michael and Ingar,” noted Kunsthall director Solveig Øvstebø (with a smile) in her welcome statement. We settled down to a gargantuan shellfish spread. Members of the OCA cohort—artists, curators, critics, and gallery owners, mostly from Europe and chaperoned by gracious outgoing OCA director Uta Meta Bauer (who heads to MIT in the fall)chatted amiably about the relative levels of Finnish and Norwegian melancholy, cultural isolation, and private sponsorship of public art. Eivind Furnesvik, a Bergen native who now runs Standard (Oslo), a new gallery, told Norwegian jokes, which seem to derive their humor from the lack of a punch line. As Jennifer Higgie put it, “This is all a bit like school holiday, isn’t it?”
The metaphor holds only if you’re willing to ignore the forty-degrees-Farenheit temperature, the driving rain, and, the next afternoon, the gale-force winds. Our group toured the Kunstmuseum while the Crown Prince and Princess were down the block to cut a red ribbon and inaugurate “The Welfare Show.” Word came back that prison food—literally—was served to the Royals at the officials-only lunch. I smiled smugly at my tasty meal. Then the bill came. The total was 150 Kroner, which translates to roughly $25—for a bowl of soup and a piece of cake. Welcome to Norway. Where do I sign up for welfare?
Last Saturday afternoon, the thirty-eigth class of the Whitney Independent Study Program in Studio Art and the third class in the ISP’s Architecture and Urban Studies program held a “non-opening” for their end-of-year exhibition. A crowd made up mostly of the students and their friends attended the “non-event” (as the invite billed it), held in the basement of the ISP’s Lafayette Street space, and a sort of knowing camaraderie permeated the show (which had actually “opened” the day before). The program’s legacy of socially engaged practice certainly encourages a particular approach to artmaking, and the work betrayed a common understanding and shared ethic (sometimes described as “cultishness”) among the artists and architects, despite their different methods. As one student put it, the applicant pool is, well, “self-selective.” The fact that all the students, in all four of the program’s divisions (studio art, architecture and urban studies, curatorial studies, and critical studies) attend shared lectures probably doesn’t help nurture seeds of latent iconoclasm either. Ron Clark’s familiar diet of Marxism- and feminism-inflected poststructuralism remains synonymous with the ISP’s “agenda.”
While some of the work did indeed rehearse a rather hackneyed ‘80s criticality (one woman cut and pasted her abjected body into art-historical masterworks), there was a sense that some artists were moving beyond the particular brand of theory-informed practice the program was known for in its heyday. But the best of the Whitney work situated the history of those critical practices front and center. Mixing and matching avant-garde practices (conceptualism, institutional critique…), Sergio Torres’s piles of white-on-red canvases replicated banners from the 1917 Russian Revolutionperhaps a reference to ISP graduate George Baker’s comparison of the program with the revolutionary Moscow art school VKhUTEMAS? The program’s tradition of collaboration (think back to the ‘70s when many members of the downtown artists’ group Colab came straight out of the ISP) also remained alive and well: Indeed, one of the strongest (and perhaps most ambivalent) works in the show was produced by a group. Labeled simply “Collaborative Project,” it was a large digital wall display that showed the current time in Baghdad, succinctly accompanied by a plaque bearing the city’s name.
Across town in the Essex Street Market, “Jack,” featuring three emerging artists, was opening at the gallery/project space Cuchifritos. Located inside the sixty-year-old marketplace (an indoor bazaar offering everything from fresh produce to haircuts), the venue situated the work both within and against the context of daily life on the Lower East Side. Artist Gedi Sibony explained: “I appreciate that you have to walk through something real to get here,” gesturing toward a painted metal table with umbrella just outside the gallery entrance. The one-room show was dominated by Adam Cvijanovic’s fittingly (given the location) very Arcades Project panorama. Picturing the construction of a suburban housing development, the expansive and airy painting provided a context for Sibony and Ian Burns’s smaller sculptures, echoing their plywood and found building materials with delicately rendered two-by-fours. Riffing on “jack” themes“Jack of all trades, hijacked…”guest curator Christopher K. Ho explained his conception of an American masculinity that he saw as defining the work and the show. Co-curator Mari Spirito chimed in, “We liked the idea of naming our show a namea proper name." Strangely enough, Coronasthe antithesis of machowere being served. With all the brainstorming on machismo, why hadn’t anyone thought of Jack and Cokes?
Having witnessed the spaz bacchanal of New York’s regional Air Guitar Championship, I’d like to see a statistical graph of the relative fortunes of performance art and air guitar. My hunch is that factor analysis would reveal a strong negative correlation between the two. That is, as performance art declined into masturbatory irrelevance in the 1980s and ’90s, air guitara far more honest type of masturbatory irrelevancerose like David Lee Roth in midair split. Take the politics out of performance art, after all, and you’re left with untrammeled histrionics, potential nudity, and indiscriminate fluids (bodily or otherwise)and you can get all that from an air guitar competition.
In the music world, too, the constellations are aligning for air guitar. During the ’90s, the twin legacies of This Is Spinal Tap and postmodern irony took the cock out of rock and soured a generation on spandex, hairspray, and virtuosity, resulting in low-wattage bands like Pavement. Now a younger cohort, epitomized by The Darkness, have once again taken up the hammer of the gods. Check your irony at the door, they say: We’ve come to RAWK.
Perhaps this explains the lack of smirking Williamsburg hipsters in the packed, All-American audience, which radiates animal hunger and barely suppressed violence. Any pet delusions that Spinal Tap still holds cultural sway over kids these days are demolished by the opening (real) band, Waltham, and their metalloid, internally lit logo—a giant W with WALTHAM emblazoned across it in a font straight outta Albert Speer’s Haus of Dasein. Now this may not seem funny to you, but anyone who’s ever lived in the Boston area in the past twenty years will recall the name of the nondescript Massachusetts town and the incessant radio ad that made it infamous: “Jordan’s Furnitchah Wal-tham. . . left on Spitbrook, right on Daniel Webstah.” My cocktail blasts through my nose as the band kicks into their utterly sincere blend of Journey and Blink 182. Their second song is called “Fast Times at Waltham High,” and I wonder if I’m going to survive the evening with my wits and bladder intact.
Post-Waltham, the emcee introduces the judges (a Ben Folds tour veteran, a guy from a band called Satanicide, and two former air-guitar champs) and reads the rules. First round: sixty seconds of a contestant-chosen song. Second round: the same amount of a judge-picked song, ostensibly new to the contestants. The judging criteria are technical merit (convincing fretwork), stage presence, and “airness” (transcending simulation). The winner will be flown to Los Angeles for the US finals; the US winner will travel to the World Finals in, er, Finland.
The first-round contestants, around twenty of them, are a mixed bag: A vegan metalhead; a fellow named Assquatch who’s clearly never held a guitar; a tattooed bruiser with a T-shirt reading “I Fuck Like a Beast”; and a Shea Stadium hot-dog hocker who mimes to AC/DC, his bald pate sporting glued-on devil horns, one of which immediately, hilariously, falls off; etc. Most fail miserably, their musical selections predictable (Metallica, Ozzy, Van Halen), their pseudo-shredding no better than a fratboy’s.
Things pick up when the five finalists take the stage. These are: Face Melter, Shreddosaurus Rex, Bjorn to Rock, Jammin’ Jaybones, and a Bozo-haired geek named Ambrose, a professional clown in a gaudily feathered glam-rock outfit. The mystery music segment is played for the finalists, and they take their stab at improvised air glory. Face Melter, a tall, heavy-set oaf, miffs his chance, and last year’s world champ, a tiny Japanese woman, rewards him with a penis sketch on her judge’s scorecard. Leaving the stage, he blurts “Fuck YOU, Sonyk-Rok!”a sign of internecine squabbles in the air-guitar community. Shreddosaurus Rex, a short, packed metalhead in an Anthrax T-shirt, apparently knows the tune, executing a perfect “1-2-3-4” countdown in the one-measure pause in the music. This doesn’t help him with the crowd, though, which boos him with an intensity usually reserved for pro wrestling villains. Ambrose the clown is masterful in every way and is my personal pick for the LA finals, but he comes in a close second to Bjorn to Rock, a fresh-faced lad in an Evel Knievel-inspired get-up, who himself has come in second four years running. If he trumps the US competition, Bjorn will have to face real Scandinavians in the World Finals. Given the region’s land-speed-record-breaking Black Metal, my money’s on the Scandos.
Left: The Metropolis party at MoMA on Saturday night. Right: Aamu Song and Johan Olin. (Photos: Megan Doyle)
ICFF weekend, the contemporary-furniture equivalent of the Armory Show, chock full of eager-eyed designers and eagle-eyed press, officially opened with last Saturday night’s party at the Museum of Modern Art, apparently the hottest ticket in townalthough, in my humble opinion, not the best. Gaggles of well-dressed girls (and the occasional boy) were turned away while the city’s best-connected and PR-savviest were let through a security ringer that reminded me just a little too much of seventeen-year-old attempts at social jockeying.
Guests were encouraged to minglebut not smoke!in the usually serene sculpture garden, while a few blithely sipped champagne in front of Monet’s Water Lilies, the most contentiously placed piece of art in the whole museum, which on this evening acted as pretty wallpaper for the Riesling crowd. Metropolis magazine’s executive editor Martin Pedersen offered his thoughts on Taniguchi’s redesign, which was supposed to be ethereal (but ended up a little clunky). “As uber-public space for two thousand people,” he pointed out, the museum is “pretty good.” Asked for his impressions of this year’s ICFF, he found the Italian Salon del Mobile’s desertion of the Javits Center in favor of an alternative space on Piers 90 and 92 to have adversely affected the fair. “The aisles are a little too wide; they need density,” he explained. No one was quite sure what had happened to prompt Salon de Mobile’s pulling out, but the universal agreement was that this year’s Javits Center ICFF couldn’t hold a candle to recent years’. Indeed, I did find the fair, which I visited on Saturday, emptierand more disorientingthan I had anticipated.
After declining Bacardi shots from a bottle an intrepid editor had snatched from the closing bar, I headed downtown to the Center for Architecture for the opening of “Value Meal,” the prolific design writer Aric Chen’s first big curating gig (with Laetitia Wolff), and then ended up at the (ostensibly) star-studded Target event, which proved a raucous counterpart to the more decorous MoMA party. The chain had co-opted a SoHo parking lot and filled it with five showrooms outfitted in Target’s best designs. They must have been realistic, as word soon spread of an overly enthusiastic partygoer who mistook a non-working show bathroom for a real one. My sense of surrealism heightened, I chatted with avant-outre artist-designer Tobias Wong, whose black Kevlar rose recently graced the pages of The New York Times’s T style magazine.
Wong reminded us of the night before, when we’d attended the Dutch Village Design show of Design Academy Eindhoven’s student work. The academy, which has departments with names like “Man and Identity,” was showcasing top student work, some of which has been put into production under the watchful eyes of professors like Hella Jongerius. Tabatha Tucker, who runs the Stephen Weiss Studio and acted as hostess for the evening, pointed out the “industrial luxury of the space,” augmented by two students’ exhibition design, in which all the products were displayed on packing crates inlaid with mirrors. The most compelling pieces were a modified chain-link fence and a carved wood table manufactured with a C+C machine, an industrial woodcutting device that seems to always be just barely in vogue.
Left: The “Swedish By Design” booth at ICFF. (Photo: Gregory Carafelli) Right: Jeff Clarke and D. E. Sellers. (Photo: Megan Doyle)
Sunday night, exhausted, I dragged myself to an Umbra event at BED, a gimmicky club on West 27th where I found myself in bed (literally, for once) with one of my editors from The Architect’s Newspaper. Integrity intact, of course. Four kumquat martinis later (and gift pillow in hand), I cabbed (for the twentieth time in three days) with two writer friends down to AvroKo’s party at the Nolita restaurant Public, which the architecture firm designed, owns, and operatesa nice example of architects making (and then lying in) their beds.
There were so many cocktails I could well have forgotten to make it to the fair itself, but a few hours ambling through it on a sunny afternoon proved an interesting enough insight into the current state of the design world. Some highlights were the results of a collaboration between Bernhardt Design and the California Arts Center, a furniture line designed, manufactured, and marketed by CAC students, with the help of Bernhardt’s corporate power. The student work in general was a refreshing counterpart to some of the overly polished kitchens and carpeting systems we had to breeze past to avoid stylized boredom.
The nail in my coffin was Monday’s Metropolis party at Splashlight Studios. Architects, designers, and writers were rocking out on the outdoor terrace while bartenders mixed drinks through gigantic ice blocks that reminded usjust a little bitof our frat-tastic sophomore year. Come to think of itconsidering the rum shots, bedding editors, and plumbing mishapsso did the entire weekend.
Left: Michael Ashkin and Leslie Brack. (Photo: Ruth Root) Right: Unidentified bearded gallery goer; Cary Leibowitz; Fritz Karch.
Cary Leibowitz, the only artist who boasts he was “discovered on 'The Gong Show',” proved that he has survived his respectable gig in Christies’ Print Department with low self-esteem and sense of humor intact. Friends and well wishers flocked to his
opening last Thursday at Andrew Kreps. An inordinate number of them had large beards. (Don’t ask me why. I pondered most of the evening, “What was up with that?”)
Foregoing his usual pattern-on-pattern signature style, the artist formerly known as Candy Ass was a classy springtime vision sporting a solid tan suit, canary yellow shirt, blue gingham tie, and fabulous tan vintage loafers acquired from an old queen in Harlem selling his clothes on the street. “I think he had them since the ‘70s,” Leibowitz speculated.
The former Mr. Ass continues to inspire his fans with motivational pieces such as the diptychs “i’m sick of making art/get up you lazy bum” printed on cheerful rainbow-bled paper. An oblong “abstract” tableau states, on the left end, “those shoes are hideous,” and, on the right, “they go with my belt.” Several multiplesscarves, mittens, and hatsexplored the artist’s fascination with race and with machine-generated knits. They became wall pieces, as well as accessories, installed with Leibowitz’s endlessly inventive genius for display. Old-fashion golf-styled knit hats with pom poms, machine-knit “Goddam Mississippi,” spelled out “N I N A” on one wall (in an homage to Nina Simone); “gay colored” lavender knit “Abraham Lincoln” scarves formed an A (for Honest Abe?); and mittens honoring black female legislators such as Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan, and Oseola McCarty made me proud to be an honorary black woman (just kidding!).
The race- and fashion-conscious art was a crowd pleaser. Chatting with Fritz Karch (Leibowitz’s gentile doppelgänger, a fellow bearded style maven who is also frequently seen in plaid), the artist gestured at the pom pom hats, and explained, “I kinda sort of had a concept going here…” before trailing off and just wincing. Fritz admired the snappy colors.
At the after party at Bongo Fry Shack, everyone enjoyed a large variety of fried foods and congratulated the man of the hour. He was clearly relieved. Few artists manage to be so sophisticated, so funny, and so real at the same time.
Left: Artists Fritzh Welch and Rachel Lowther. Right: Artist Jessica Jackson Hutchins and musician Stephen Malkmus.
“Make It Now” at SculptureCenter presents new work from twenty-eight New York sculptors in its crumbly, Maya Lin-rehabbed factory space near the dead end of Purves Street in Long Island City. The curatorial premise as written was rather wafflywith so many different artists involved, all-purpose platitudes like “belief” and “politics” had to suffice (in the spirit of inclusiveness). But the three curators (Mary Ceruti, Anthony Huberman, and Franklin Sirmans) made good on their promise to bring together artists at different moments in their careers. The young and surging are well represented: For example, Gedi Sibony, an artist (one of four here) who is also in the nearby P.S.1 megasurvey “Greater New York 2005” and is clearly high on the hogonly the most sizzling can produce work that is so flagrantly unfinished for a widely seen show like this. Those whose careers are crestinglike Luis Gispert and Rachel Harrison, who have negotiated the museum system for a few years and are showing compact, signature pieces that reflect this factare also on hand, as are those artists, like Czech-born Klara Hobza, about whom no one really knew anything before showing up at the opening on Sunday. Hobza will finish her MFA degree at Columbia this month and, judging from the dealers’ universal enthusiasm for her large-scale video piece, she will make a very smooth transition to life after school.
The first hour of last Sunday’s opening was peaceful, with plenty of room to breathe and chat with the guards, including Angelo, my favorite. He was guarding Matthew Ronay’s Cum Like A Unicorn Hornspecifically, the delicate two-foot-long filament with dangling icicles connected to the wooden-cock-cum-grain-elevator that rises from Ronay’s calf-high landscape. In an act of unprovoked theatricality, Angelo mimed vigilance as visitors passed by the fragile and nearly invisible string; though it clearly did not come naturally to him, he was putting an awful lot into this cute routine. By halftime, however, the opening was complete pandemonium, so I went back to Ronay’s piece, curious about how my new friend was faring. The string had been broken in the stampede, but Angelo was still standing there. “I don’t know, man, I turned around for two seconds, you know. What can I do?” It’s not encouraging or particularly funny when a sculpture is damaged, but it was no one’s fault, and quickly fixed.
I have never seen so many babies at an art opening in my entire life; it was as if SculptureCenter had been teleported to Park Slope. Twins Ursula and Nanook were strapped to mom and dad, sculptors Rachel Lowther and Fritz Welch. Welch had an excellent piece in the show, a precariously stretched junk assemblage with highlights of color flaring through the muck of microphone stands, nooses, cans, and eggshell insulation, and I wanted to talk to him about the Throbbing Gristle logo he’d painted on the wall in what looked like vomit or curry. “It’s iodine,” was all he chose to tell me then, sensitive to the fact that newborns should probably only hear about Throbbing Gristle when in need of punishment. Janine Antoni’s six-month-old daughter was strapped to dad Paul Ramirez Jonas. And a very louche Stephen Malkmus had his newborn in a sling. Malkmus clearly did not want to hang, and his baby’s mother Jessica Jackson Hutchins’ anorexic and unpoetic papier-mâché faux Rodin was pretty tired too.
Left: The scene at SculptureCenter, with artist Peter Coffin (near left). Right: Artist Nancy Hwang.
Pretty girls with clipboards were trolling for the nebulous cause of Long Island City itself. The tourist board is really pushing for culture in L.I.C. these daysthey’ve just rolled out a swish nostalgic sort of Coney Island-boardwalk logo. It is an amazing place: quiet; not clean but by no means filthy; and still safe for activities that are increasingly ghettoized in Manhattan. Any kind of freedom is hard to come by in New York these days, and it summed up a nice, loose afternoon at SculptureCenter. With its Sunday-social curatorial style and its refreshingly unhysterical approach to presentation, this mellow mixer was well suited to both kinds of babies: The drooling ones riding around in Velcroed papooses and the recently delivered children of the New York art world.
Left: Boarding the Air Iceland plane. Middle: Ragnar Kjartansson. Right: Visitors attempt to orient themselves.
Ever fancied having a Lawrence Weiner tattooed on your bottom? The young Roman artist Micol Assaël has done just that, and it reads “sink or swim / your ass gets wet / there is no excuse.” I know this because both Assaël and Weiner were in Iceland for the opening of the Reykjavík Arts Festival and she asked him to authenticate the workwhich he duly did with a kiss. This marriage of trendy young artist and gray-bearded conceptualist reflects the festival as a whole, which contains a major exhibition of the late Swiss-German artist Dieter Roth and, complementing it, an extensive program of new works by Icelandic and international artists.
The festival has an impeccable pedigree. The Roth exhibit was curated by Björn Roth, Dieter’s son and an authentic Icelander (the artist lived in the country in the late '50s and early '60s), while Jessica Morgan, Tate Modern’s It-girl and the curator of shows such as “Time Zones,” put together the contemporary portion. Morgan was herself recommended by the Iceland-born art star Ólafur Elíasson, who features prominently in the festival. Other projects include a collaboration between Björk’s hubby Matthew Barney and Gabríela Fridriksdóttir (who represents Iceland in Venice this summer) alongside new commissions from the likes of Thomas Hirschhorn, John Bock, and the soaring young duo Allora and Calzadilla.
The New York PR firm Blue Medium is publicizing the event, and the opening was attended by a small but high-powered group of international art types, with the likes of Eva Presenhuber and Beatrix Ruf from Zurich alongside Vicente Todoli and Gregor Muir from London. Even before it opened, the festival had drawn Francesca von Habsburg, the socialite and art collector, who chose to use it as a platform for a performance she has commissioned from Christoph Schlingensief. This German impresario, responsible for the controversial staging of Parsifal at Bayreuth last year, mounted a piece of total theatre involving a lot of Teutonic shouting and a dwarf.
Many in Iceland credit Elíasson for creating the high profile that contemporary art currently enjoys in the country, and the result is a thriving culture of corporate sponsorship from which the festival is clearly benefiting. For example, a gallery run by the city’s power company, Reykjavík Energy, hosts part of the Roth exhibition. Meanwhile, a state-owned power company is in the news for its proposal to flood twenty-two square miles of virgin wilderness above Vatnajokull, Europe’s largest glacier, in order to create a hydroelectric plant to service an American aluminium factory. Björk’s mum recently went on a three-week hunger strike in protest, and one of Elíasson’s contributions to the festival is a photographic series depicting the disputed territory.
Another of the exhibition’s sponsors is Air Iceland, which made two planes available the day after the opening to ferry artists, curators, and media folk around the island. The festival is taking over not only Reykjavík art venues, but many others around the country, and this was clearly seen as the only way that time-starved VIPs would get a sense of the whole program. This approach was sensible, as some very good projects are being staged outside the cityincluding one by young Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson involving a delicious live tableau in a derelict house. But it was also, of course, an outrageous extravagance (matched only by von Habsburg, who apparently hired another plane the next day to fly around twenty of her own special guests).
The last stop for the festival planes was Heimaey, a small island that was the scene of a violent volcanic eruption in 1973. This was the location chosen for a work by the aforementioned Assaël, whose art is apocalyptic in tone, and who spent much of the flying tour trying to persuade her fellow travellers to eat from a bag of strange-looking mushrooms. Her work consisted of a daylight firework display above the volcano, during which she could be heard to shout: “Don’t be afraid! Look into the fire and see the devil and god kissing!” The jet-lagged VIPs could hardly have been more dazed if Assaël had been allowed to carry out her original proposalwhich involved burying a ton of TNT in the crater and waiting for the next eruption.
My favorite thing about the Armory Show this year was the zone of discomfort surrounding the Bellwether booth. It was a sturdy little pale-wood room stocked with clunky, brightly painted fake carbines, and sabers. Behind the counter stood artist Allison Smith, looking earnest and a little awkward, wearing a hat out of a Mathew Brady portrait and a homemade uniform of off-white cloth with brass buttons: A general’s pajamas? Smith’s work treats Americana with a combination of critique and fetishization, and while I’ve preferred other examplesher creepy Zouave doll at “Greater New York 2005,” for exampleI appreciated how out of place her armory at the Armory was, how unfashionable.
Turns out that project was a teaser for “The Muster,” held last Saturday under the aegis of the Public Art Fund on the usually closed-to-the-public Governor’s Island. Inspired by “the aesthetic and performative qualities of American Civil War reenactments,” as the announcement card put it, the event enjoined artist-participants to install tent stations on the demobilized military base’s former golf course. Each centered on a cause or activity, to be articulated during a “Declaration of Principles” under a big camp-meeting tent. Costumes were mandated for participants and suggested for the roughly 1,500 looky-loos, a detail that seemed to have encouraged many to bring their children.
The first installation I encountered, halfway down the fairway, was probably the best. Under a splayed agglomeration of stakes and fabric, half a dozen grumpy young women in repurposed nurse’s uniforms and crocheted white fishnets worked hand looms that collectively disgorged a giant American flag. Meanwhile a woman wearing an extravagantly deconstructed Stars and Stripes declaimed a combination of eighteenth-century exhortation and anti-corporatist, anti-globalization rhetoric. Designer and RISD professor Liz Collins had pitched her “Knitting Nation” tent perfectly, on a play/politics knife-edge; but most of the Muster fell into one camp or the other. There was an information booth for the conservation group called the Blue Ocean Institute; there was a trampoline; there was something called a “Failure Tent” where a woman in a donkey suit offered dunce caps to visitors; there was a place to make felt flags, partisan or otherwise.
A bugle cry rallied us to the big tent for the “Declaration of Principles.” The gently serious tone set by Smith’s introductory speech was immediately undermined by the first person named in the “roll call,” the bugler herself, who happened to be Smith’s teenage sister.
“Kathleen Smith, what are you fighting for?”
The younger Smith rolled her eyes to the sky, and said in the straight-from-the-Valley intonation that has become idiomatically American: “I’m fighting, for, the band? Like, marching bands have a long history, and I’m in a marching band, and, I’m sick of marching bands not getting the respect they deserve?”
This exchange elucidated the real conflict at hand: A Civil War of the Left: a house divided between those seeking action and those promoting their own half-considered position, political or otherwise. For every AIDS activist there was an acoustic guitar number by a woman with a vegetable steamer on her head.
For their contribution, photographer/video artist A. L. Steiner and painter Nicole Eisenmann had built a kind of masochism station featuring a high-backed wooden chair draped with black leather scourges for use on the willing. When Steiner took the stage, she looked deceptively normalexcept for the heavy flashlight she carried.
“Opposite Day is over,” she declared. “Let me ask you all something: Is this anger, or is this entertainment?”
People mumbled and stared at their feet; a couple of them offered, “Entertainment?”
This was the wrong answer. An ungentle correction culminated in Steiner’s calling the crowd “liars” and one man in particular a “motherfucker.” Smith, nearby, flinched visibly; I later learned that the authorities had asked that tents with “adult content” put up a sign to that effect, which had laid the groundwork for Steiner’s tirade.
Afterward I watched an old man approach Steiner. He was carrying his own lawn chair and wore a floppy blue fisherman’s hat.
“Excuse me, were you the one just up onstage there?”
“Yes, that was me.”
“You should be in jail. Using that kind of language in front of all these children. I think you’re disgusting.”
“Well thank you. Hey guys,” Steiner said to a bunch of passersby, “Hey guys, this guy thinks I’m disgusting.”
At this point I turned away and headed toward the Failure Tent, where the obliging woman in the donkey suit strapped a dunce’s cap under my chin and wrote F+ on my cheeks with grease paint.
Protesting Sotheby’s new anti-union contractor, picketing maintenance workers booed everyone entering the Contemporary Art evening auction on Tuesday night. I had to walk through the “boo” gauntlet (though the union had my sympathy). As did Tobias Meyer, the auctioneer, who I first spotted emerging from a towncar, in black tie with his maestro-like slicked-back hairdo. A sea of hearty booers parted for him to enter the building, quite fabulously. The scene couldn’t have been set more perfectlyreduced to this crass, classic conflict between Us and Them. Workers and owners. Artists and buyers. For all the confusion these days between Art and Shopping, the primal scene of the auction reminds us there’s a difference between art and commerce after all.
On the screen where one watches the bids zoom up in dollars, euros, and yenfor about three minutes max per piecethe veil is lifted and Art is exposed as pure exchange value. It was kind of racy. All the aesthetic and social foreplay was overboomand you watched one “money” shot after another as the merch flew out of the shop. Now it’s a numbers game, and you sit with the price list wondering whose will be bigger? Meyer kept it moving, scanning the room for bids, “Are we done?…Fair warning…Are we all done now?” With his British accent and stern, headmasterly bearing, each time the “hammer” price was achieved and he said, “Congratulations, Sir. May I have your paddle?” there was a subliminal spanking vibe to it all.
“It’s not like ‘Will it sell?’ It’s ‘Who will buy it?’ I like that!” chortled K., my comrade for the evening, a veteran artist who is more familiar with the former situation. Buzzed by the palpable prosperity, we scanned the crowd. Mostly men of a certain age, probably dealers. “Yes, Virginia, it’s really truethere are no cute guys with money,” she confirmed. Oh well. There was a smattering of ladies. Yvonne Force studiously followed the price sheet from the front row, with her glasses on, high strappy lizardy sandals and a lavender duster coat. Sotheby’s people buzzed around solicitously and efficiently as black-garbed sales priests, with the gravitas befitting big bucks. Though at about fifty-five million, this wasn’t a particularly blessed night, according to the Sotheby’s VP I chatted with afterward.
K. points out a couple of dealers in the crowd, “You know what they do. They look to see who has the money. Those dealers were acting like they were in church or something. On their best behavior. They were giving the auctioneer their rapt attention.” Jeffrey Deitch bought Jeff Koons’ Cake, 1995-97, for $3,040,000.
Artworks by forty-seven male artists were selling that evening, and only five womenfor less. K. rooted for the gals, since she wants her prices to go up, too. She was glad Agnes Martin broke a mil, but shrugged, “She is dead.” It’s good for business to be dead and/or male. “Girl, I’m gonna have a sex change,” she laughed, “a good investment.”
Here in the Sanctum Sanctorum of Capital, the artist’s presencemale or femaleis weirdly taboo: “You’re not even supposed to be there to witness this.” K. mentioned another veteran artist who only went once, too: “She never got such dirty looks from people. [Dealer] JT usually looks the other way. He really shot me a stinker! The artist is a straight up dog [in the auction house]!”
“There ought to be a law,” she went on, “You know how when you write a songlike Carole Kingyou get royalties? There ought to be a law in the visual arts, too. OR It’s just highway robbery. Think about that Liz. [Warhol’s red Liz went for $12.6 million.] Blum got it from the artist for nothing. He sits on it for forty years and gets millions! That’s wrong, Rhonda. That shit ain’t right!” she cracks up. “I mean, one percent, two percent, whatever it is. Why do musicians and writers get royalties but not artists? [Like in California’s Civil Code 986The Resale Royalty Actthat gives artists five percent of every sale.] Why isn’t there an outcry? Are we [artists] so kiss ass-ily complicit?” Now she’s really fired up. “Wouldn’t it be a great projectbut it would take the rest of your lifeto fake your own death and drive your prices up? There’s no way around it! That’s the way to re-emerge!”
“Thank you, sir,” Meyer was still going at it at the podium. “Congratulations. May I have your paddle, please?”
“COULD WE HAVE SOME QUIET IN HERE, PLEASE?” The commandingly loud voice belonged to Andrea Fraser, whose performance May I Help You? had been in more or less continual progress for four hours, ever since the new gallery Orchard, founded by artist Gareth James and eleven cohorts including Moyra Davey, Fraser, Christian Philipp-Müller, R. H. Quaytman, Karin Schneider, and Bennett Simpson, opened its doors to the public at 1:00pm on Wednesday, May 11. Originally devised in 1991 for a show at the late Colin de Land’s American Fine Arts, Fraser’s wickedly funny monologuein which she seems to alternately inhabit the persona of a skeptical visitor and a wayward tour guidewas also a perfect introduction to an untitled “exhibition-in-progress” at the modestly scaled and outwardly crumbling Lower East Side storefront. Confronting visitors as they walked in the door, Fraser appeared locked into a looping commentary that ranged from the dismissive to the eulogistic and from the immediately refutable to the oddly convincing. “THIS ISN’T ART,” she raged, “IT’S A PERVERSION OF ART! THIS ISN’T CULTURE!”
Seated at what he described to me as a “German beer garden table” at the rear of the space, James told me that the idea of a new gallery had been in the air since AFA closed last year. He’d half expected it would never to come to fruition, and certainly not so soon, but a chanced-upon rental and a willing team made for an accelerated schedule. “First it was ‘maybe by September,’ then ‘OK, we’ve got three weeks.’” Attempting to avoid both the bureaucratic headaches of nonprofit registration and the cut ’n’ thrust of the commercial scene, Orchard will finance itself via a delicate combination of sales and monetary contributions. Like its inaugural exhibition, the gallery’s financial plan has elements of risk and improvisation, but the organizers plainly wouldn’t have it any other way: James remains an admirer of de Land’s unconventional attitudes towards the business of art, maintaining an interest in a “non-advocative” curatorial model that incorporates space for disagreement.
This aim went some way towards explaining why, amongst the works by a roster of artists, including Louise Lawler, John Miller, Rebecca Quaytman, and Lawrence Weiner, on display in a consciously traditional hang, there were a number for which James professed nothing but disdain. Nevertheless, the atmospherea safe distance away from the unstoppable Fraser at leastwas amicable, and despite supposedly hoping to avoid an opening reception, James had laid out a few cases of Bud “just in case.” The afternoon was pleasantly warm, and visitors lounged contentedly outside, dipping into the show at irregular intervals. Cheyney Thompson plugged his Thursday night DJ set at a party for Richard Phillips as a buoyant Allan McCollum arrived to cast an eye over the clutch of his “Plaster Surrogates” on view inside. As his contribution to the show, Jeff Preiss was filming the distinctly relaxed action for posterity.
As I exited, Fraser was still going full tilt: “WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?” she roared, appearing to mean the artists in the show, but surely also targeting its audience. “Where do they get their money? What does this have to do with my experience?” If Orchard comes anywhere close to answering these perpetual teasers, it will have provided ample return on investment.
Left: Cerith Wyn Evans, Bojan Sarcevic, and Tino Sehgal. Right: Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Carsten Höller.
Why bother plying your wares at yet another art fair when you can simply fly your best customers in for a gallery visit? That was the novel idea behind BERLIN 2005. Twenty-one Berlin galleriesfrom Arndt & Partner to Galerie Barbara Weissinvited their favorite collectors and curators for a long weekend of openings, dinners, and parties in “the city where today's most unique art is created.”
Since Sunday was the sixtieth anniversary of VE Day, World War II was on many minds, yet the weekend’s art extravaganza recalled the 1948-49 Luftbrücke (airlift), bringing collectors instead of bread. “Berlin is short on buyers, so we were happy to fly in and help out,“ said one altruistic American, who also used the weekend to acquire real estate. ”Apartments are nothing compared to London and New York. No wonder so many artists are living here."
Indeed, artists abounded at all the gallery stops during Friday's tour, although Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset were no-shows at their installation in Klosterfelde's original location in the Mitte district, the Chelsea of Berlin. The gallerywhose front and back walls were torn down for the occasionhad been transformed into a private courtyard passage, sealed with an iron fence.
When I later found the duo a few streets away at Pony, offering everyone drinks on the house, they likened their intervention to an American gated community: “That’s the new Mitte,” said Ingar. At least we can still smoke.
Off to Esther Schipper's dinner at Maxwell's: I ended up sitting with Karsten Höller, just a few seats away from guest of honor Carsten Höller (the first Höller’s doppelgänger, or was it the other way round?), who'd flown in from Stockholm to do the inaugural show in Schipper's revamped, expanded space. Thomas Demand was on hand to unravel the mysteries of my new digital camera.
“I can't believe I can do everything with one finger!”
“How many fingers do you want to use?” he asked.
“Tenlike on the keyboard.”
As night turned into morning at Münz Club and Weekend, I kept thinking: Maybe critics use too many fingers. . . . The next evening’s gala dinner inside the Museum für Kommunication mixed visitors with locals like Thomas Scheibitz, Angela Bulloch, Jeppe Hein and Simon Starling. Janet Cardiff, Mona Hatoum and Arturo Herrara, like many former DAAD fellows, have turned into permanent Berlin residents. One or ten fingers, I must have been doing something right: Even Tino Sehgal posed for me.
I sat with arts benefactor Dr. Oetker, who bemoaned Berlin’s financial crisis, and Kasper König, who kept leaving to smoke with Isa Genzken. Cerith Wyn Evans wandered by wearing a diamond ring that did not quite fit on his pinky. (“An admirer,” he shrugged.) While John Bock shaped his napkin into body parts, mostly male, we discussed the tragic fate of Bunny, the rabbit star of one of his videos.
“I can't believe you ate him!” I winced. “I’m never working with you.”
“Well, I made a few paintings with his poo first.”
“But he had such presence on screen.”
“He was better on the plate.”
You think that was barbaric... The next day, neo-Nazis, who had unsuccessfully tried to ruin the May 8 celebrations with a march, managed to elude police guard and break into the gutted GDR parliament building, the Palast der Republik. That put an end to Lars Ramberg's tour of his site-specific installation, ZWEIFEL (Doubt, 2005).
After making my way through the police barricades, I met up with Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and headed over to Angela Bulloch's studio for Beelitzer asparagus. Die-hard music fans came to Bastard later for an invigorating concert by Red Krayola. I stood beside André Butzer, whose expression did not change once during the entire performance. What concentration!
Afterwards, Cerith wandered by, sans ring. “What happened?” “A temporary thing,” he smiled. Judging from the weekend’s many exchangesof art, contacts, and even apartmentscollectors and curators’ affairs with Berlin will have more longevity. Who knows? Maybe the art fair–with its UN-style internationalismwill soon seem as quaint as the phrase “multilateral action.”
Left: Left: Members of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City (YPC) performing with Harrison Chad (center) as Brundibar. Right: Tony Kushner and Maurice Sendak. (All photos: The Jewish Museum/John Aquino)
Fresh from a productive (weepy) session on the old analyst’s couch, I schlepped across Central Park to check out “Wild Things: The Art of Maurice Sendak,” at The Jewish Museum, fully braced for even more primal soup to be stirred up. The legendary auteur of characters such as Little Bear and Really Rosie, and the 1963 book Where the Wild Things Are (yes, inspired by his Jewish relatives in Brooklyn) has a hotline to my kishkes. And who knew these kiddie classics were actually generated from post-shtetl Jewish angst? Add a performance of Brundibar (1938), a Holocaust-era children’s opera recently revived by Sendak in collaboration with Tony Kushner, and I knew I’d soon dissolve further into emotional chopped liver.
A large stuffed Wild Thing cutely menaced the entrance of the show, near early relics of that sacred text. A picture window framed a reading area covered with green shag carpeting where Sendak books were strewn about in inviting disarray. I couldn’t resist cracking open Little Bear (my favorite), and doing some discreet post-therapy-session whimpering. Nearby, a sixty-something woman was lying on the floor, just like a kid, in sneakers, with her head on a flower-shape pillow, reading away. It was like a page from Sendak come to life, with bemused Wild Things dwarfing and peering down at her. It was easy to understand Sendak’s comment that he “doesn’t write books for children” but for himself, even though “they seem to unite with the strange world of children. If I write a book about a pig that’s talking–-you don’t put it next to a book by Philip Roth in a bookstore. Or maybe you would…?” That got a big laugh from the audience that turned out for that evening’s conversation between Sendak and Kushner, which seemed, like most Jewish Museum audiences, to be composed of people who could either be my aunt or my shrink. Plus, tonight, Hilton Als.
“You write for yourself,” mused Sendak, “Who cares whether you write another book? Only you care. It’s your ambition, etc. When I ask myself, ‘What am I doing on this Earth?’ ‘Oh yeah,’ I say, ‘I write books. I draw pictures.’”
“Do you really believe nobody’s waiting for your next book?” marveled Kushner, who clearly adores him. “With Madonna you wouldn’t have to wait long. She writes six a week!”
“She’s enormously gifted,” deadpanned Sendak.
The performance promised to be über-poignant: the children’s opera by Czech-Jewish composer Hans Krasa was “performed more than fifty times by the prisoners of the Terezin concentration camp during WWII.” And tonight by the Young People’s Chorus of NYC. I feared I was in for a maudlin time. Oy, forty minutes of singing young people and none of the Sendak sets that I’d hoped for. (The new book version is illustrated by Sendak and translated by Kushner.) But wonderful direction enlivened the sad storytwo children who need milk for their sick mother prevail against the local bully with the aid of friendly animalswith feisty performances by kids who were coached to emote with freakish conviction. And the adult “dog” deserves a nod for inspired barking. Considering the thing was originally performed at a “model” concentration campby doomed child performersto put a good face on what the Nazis were doing for groups like the Red Cross, was devastating to contemplate.
Sendak’s black humor was a relief: “I had to keep all these vendettas going,” he chuckled, “that’s what got me to [age] seventy-seven.” Now grey with a beard and cane, he resembled the roly-poly cook in The Night Kitchen, while the lean Kushner was as dapper as a bar mitzvah boy in a beautiful suitand just as obliging. Sendak’s fan since childhood and a friend/collaborator for the past ten years, Kushner played straight man, both drawing out his pal’s curmudgeonly shtick and pedagogically serving him up to the Jewish Museum crowd with their favorite questions:“Is there Jewishness in your work? What does it mean to you?”
“To be Jewish is to be depressedand if you’re not depressed, you better keep it to yourself!” Sendak shot back, to appreciative cackles from the crowd: “I’d tell my mother good newsshah!” He channeled his mother, superstitiously pointing upward: “He’s listening and he’s up to no good … and then you have FiddlerDreck!” It takes a brave man to diss Fiddler on the Roof in this room. Fiddler is the DNA of postwar American Jews: The feel-good shtetl version of “Father Knows Best.”
“I love Fiddler!” declared Kushner.
“OK, you don’t have perfect taste,” Sendak dryly pronounced, and went on about his Brooklyn childhood, which comes through his work and stories so palpably, I felt that I had lived it by the end of the evening: “Everything is bad,” the legendary author-illustrator reminisced. “When I’d be playing out late, my mother would shout ‘Children at the other end of the world have nothing to eat!’ I began to hate those children who had nothing to eatand I hated what my mother cooked, too!” The ‘30s were an era of “children’s nightmaresthe Lindbergh kidnappings.” Even rich gentiles weren’t safe. To protect young Maurice and his siblings from kidnappers, Sendak’s father slept in their room with a baseball bat. “Who’d want your kids?” cracked his uncle.
“And he’s the ugliest Wild Thing in the book!” crowed the artist, to applause from the crowd.
As I got up to leave, I overheard one lady say gravely to another: “This man is so scarred by his childhood…his parental upbringing…” Oy!
Low expectations have been at least partly responsible for some of my happiest experiences in art, and they didn't let me down on Saturday afternoon when I dropped into Parker's Box, in Williamsburg, for what the invitation had billed as a weekend “international art market.” I expected the sale of something, I guess, but all I found was a bunch of artists sitting around talking at an art fair that was nothing short of soulful. The artist-run gallery has survived on Williamsburg's Grand Street for five years. To celebrate, directors Alun Williams and Allyson Spellacy opened their doors to a funked-up fair lacking not only sales booths but also their own artists. “It's our birthday,” Williams said, “so we just invited guests.” At this parallel universe-fair, visiting artists represented their respective galleries, rather than the other way around. All were encouraged to make presentations specific to the occasion. Spontaneity ruled. I met new people, saw new things. I had my portrait taken. In other words, I had a blast.
Just inside the front door, a small television monitor displayed a video by Guy Richards Smit (Roebling Hall), while a family sat before a makeshift puppet theater waiting for the show to begin. A simple sign on the wall high above the stage identified the artist as “Pattie Lee Becker (Klaus von Nichtssagend).” Yet my eye was drawn to a corner crammed with stuffed bunny rabbits and framed snapshots of people caught in the instant when a camera flash makes them blink. The sign for this amusement said, “Joyce Pensato (Galerie Anne de Villepoix).” And Joyce was there, camera in hand. Across the room, Stefan Nikolaev (Galerie Michel Rein) stood by an easel full of posters advertising a “smokers-only” transatlantic flight on his “Gravy Plane,” an expression of freedom “for a world gone mad.”
I laughed. I felt bewildered. It was all very 112 Greene Street112 Greene being the freewheeling early ‘70s alternative space in SoHo (founded by Gordon Matta-Clark and Jeffrey Lew) that later became White Columns. But this was definitely not the ‘70s. There were nearly forty artists in this show, spread over three locations, including Lunarbase, down the street from Parker's Box, and Commune, a spacey beauty parlor next door. The elusive David Hammons was around, somewhere, as was Mike Ballou, Nayland Blake, and Ted Victoria. Other artists kept changing wigs and costumes and parading out in the street. This was Brooklyn.
On their wall, Prospect Heights housemates Oliver Herring (Max Protetch) and Peter Krashes (Derek Eller) had photo-documented their careers and were mapping connections between them, many they had only just discovered. Diana Cooper (Postmasters) tacked parts of a work-in-progress to another wall and sat at her table drawing and talking at once. Brian Maguire (Kerlin Gallery, Dublin) told stories about the remarkable lithographs he had made from drawings by mental patients with whom he works when he's not teaching at Ireland's National College of Art and Design. Hajoe Moderegger and Franziska Lamprecht, or eteam (Momenta Art), traced visitors’ portraits in projected light for later display on a website, and Artists Space kept a poker game going in the basement. Somehow it all felt upliftingand useful. At Commune, you could get your hair done and talk to Linda Ganjian (Eyewash Gallery) about her partly edible sculptures or to Philippe Meste (Le Cube Ensemble) about the shares he was selling in a store of frozen sperm, for which he also seemed to be accepting donations. (There might have been a language barrier here.)
So let the Chelsea galleries bring out big guns like Jasper Johns, Richard Prince, and Gregory Crewdson to entertain collectors in town for the spring auctions. That's fine. Parker's Box offered a genuine alternative to their increasingly homogenized sheen, trading high stakes for high spirits and collectibility for down home community. And that was even finer.
I accompanied Michele Maccarone to the Julie Mehretu drawings show at. . . what’s no longer the Project, on West 57th Street. One consequence of the ugly legal battle between Swiss businessman and mega-collector Jean-Pierre Lehmann and dealer Christian Hayean internecine quarrel over some Mehretu paintings that Lehmann had wanted but didn’t getwas that the young dealer had to relinquish the name of the maverick gallery he founded in Harlem in 1998, and thereafter expanded with a Los Angeles branch in 2001. So he’s dubbed the “new” enterprise Projectile; a prominent “X” partially obscures the letters “ct,” but there’s no doubt that a cheeky rechristening hasn’t altered Haye’s program. “Projectile vomiting on Lehmann,” I suggested. “Whenever Americans hear that word, they think projectile vomiting,” Haye replied. “Europeans tend to think of missiles.” The mood at the gallery seemed a bit schizo, at once buoyant and freaked out. Haye, still obviously very unnerved by ending up the loser in “l’affaire Lehmann”to the tune of $1.7 millionis looking to the future. He beamed throughout the opening and party, but privately confessed to feeling fried; the lawsuit continues. He mentioned that he and Maccarone are planning a jointly owned space in Los Angeles called MC (“For Michele and Christian,” Maccarone interjected), where they will show artists from their own stables and also dooh dear“projects” with others. (Haye’s West Coast gallery is now defunct, another casualty of the Lehmann imbroglio.) Christopher Mason’s recent article on this mess in New York magazine was criticized by some art-world insiders for what they saw as grotesque bias in Lehmann’s favor. Aside from Mehretu herself, Stefania Bortolami was the only person who testified for Haye during the trial. “It’s ridiculous,” she told me. “Poor, poor billionaire Jean-Pierre Lehmann didn’t get all the Mehretus he wantedlike the one that’s now at MoMAand Christian, who is one of the very few black dealers in the entire art world, and one whose program is strongly political, was made to come off as conniving scum.”
The opening was packed; collectors buzzed incessantly. The exhibition consists of fifty medium-to-large-scale works on paper; the more complex ones look like smaller versions of Mehretu’s paintings, reveling in skeins of topographic and calligraphic lines that imply, however indirectly, some sociopolitical comment on our perilous global situation. The pencil drawings are rather more intimate. “Money on the wall!” as a dry-as-bones German curator of my acquaintance would say, but very handsome all the same. Lehmann’s lawyers attempted to prevent the exhibition but this time the judge disagreed. A swank blond hairdresser who had come along with a sassy art consultant said of one pencil drawing, “That looks like a really dirty pussy.” The consultant shrieked at me, “I didn’t say that! Don’t you dare use my name or I’ll cut your balls off.”
The party was held in a tent erected on the roof of the Hudson Hotel; a helpful sign directed guests to “Julie Mehretu’s apartment tent.” Not your usual gallery event: At least half of the guests were not white people! I went outside to the terrace for a smoke, where I immediately found myself in the company of P.S. 1’s Alanna Heiss and Klaus Biesenbach, two of the minds behind “Greater New York 2005,” which I gave a tepid review in the current issue of Artforum. It was slightly but not terribly awkward, as Alanna assured me she had read my review, but passed on making excessively pointed comments. Biesenbach was the picture of cordiality but appeared almost sheepish. “Oh, I haven’t read your review, David,” he remarked repeatedly. “Don’t,” Alanna insisted. “I have.”
Inside, Heiss exuded conviviality, introducing me to Mickalene Thomas, a painter whose work I had admired in “GNY 2005”; Thomas then invited me to meet her friend Deborah Grant, another painter featured in the P.S. 1 behemoth. We’re having fun. I regaled them with the tale of yet another “GNY 2005” artist who, definitely in his cups, complained that Thelma Golden was an influential black curator who ran the Studio Museum in Harlemhistorically a neighborhood with a substantial African-American populationand yet one who only wore black Prada clothes. The unintentionally cuckoo humor inherent in this critique of Golden’s attire wasn’t lost on Thomas and Grant. “How is she supposed to dress,” Thomas queried, laughing. “In Kente cloth robes with a huge African head wrap, like Erykah Badu?”
Left: Eungie Joo, Daniel Birnbaum, and Martha Rosler. Right: The cocktail party after the panel discussion.
An announcement for “What Now? Art Practice and Public Institutions Today,” a panel discussion held last week at the Guggenheim Museum, listed several promising questions to be discussed: Do today’s artists impact institutions in the same way that artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s did? How can institutions balance artistic ambition with limited production budgets? Where can we find new models for public institutions? The discussion was held to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Etant donnes, the French-American Fund for Contemporary Art, a grant-giving organization that has sponsored over 100 exhibitions in France and the United States. Given Daniel Buren’s grand spectacle upstairs it seemed a particularly relevant topic. But, like most panel discussions, it proved to be a missed opportunity.
With no moderator, it’s hard to fault the six panelists, Daniel Birnbaum, Boris Groys, Eungie Joo, Martha Rosler, Philippe Vergne, and Anton Vidokle, all of whom have urged us to reconsider the roles of artist, curator, and criticor, as Groys intoned, the continual blurring of all threevia a cavalcade of nontraditional projects. But Vidolke’s provocative opening salvo, asking whether the “criticality” of Buren’s ‘60s and ‘70s works has been de-fanged by institutional acceptancethe very question I was hoping to hear discusseddisappeared into the ether as the panelists launched into the de rigueur individual presentations, which, all told, went on for more than ninety minutes. Birnbaum discussed projects he had organized for Portikus in Frankfurt, where he is director and rector of the Stadelschule Art Academy, including a 2003 installation by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset that literally pulled the walls off the white cube, and one in Sweden for which Olafur Eliasson dyed a river green; Rosler breezed through a series of out-of-focus slides of students in T-shirts and piles of books on the floor documenting her participation in “Utopia Station” at the last Venice Biennale; Joo outlined the artist residencies and exhibitions at REDCAT in Los Angeles, where she is director and curator; and Vidokle, an artist and founder of e-flux, discussed the organization’s projects and the idea for Manifesta 6, which he is organizing with fellow curators Mai Abu ElDahab and Florian Waldvogel and which proposes the founding of an art school in Nicosia, Cyprus. Only art historian Groys and, in an indirect way, Walker Art Center curator Vergne (who, in a breathless, “life is short”-style presentation, claimed curators have “a responsibility to our time” to “re-complexify discourse”) attempted to answer the instigative questions.
A sizable portion of the audience jumped out of their seats the moment the last Power Point slide show concludedperhaps headed toward the more festive environment of the Yves Saint Laurent party for Sylvie Fleury on Madison Avenue. Several notable curators (some on the current Etant donnes “Artistic Committee”) remained, but their presence did little to liven up the anemic Q&A session. At the very end, an audience member piped up to reiterate Vidokle’s question about Buren: Do “critical” or avant-garde gestures have a shelf life? Given the right context, I suspect that Rosler, who during her presentation contrasted the institutional red tape and other difficulties she encountered organizing “If You Lived Here…” for Dia in 1989 with the logistical seamlessness of her “Utopia Station” project, has much to say on the topic. But by this point, with cocktails and a giant birthday cake waiting upstairs, it was too late to say much at all.
Gang Gang Dance, a percussive quartet featuring young old-hand musicians (from avant-metal bands Cranium and Angel Blood) and young old-hand artists (from the stables of Kenny Schachter, American Fine Arts, and Rivington Arms), has been together more than five years but is at a peak right now with its tribal, screechy kind of energetic funk. The band’s London debut took place in the basement of a pub at 2am on the Saturday night of last October’s Frieze Art Fair. I was drunk, and the night stays with me as a jumbled dream of transatlantic assimilation. Band members Lizzi Bougatsos, Brian DeGraw, Tim DeWitt, and Josh Diamond waited as long as possible before beginning their set; a dozen New York dealers blocked the bar; Ryan McGinley zipped around; Dan Colen towered above the crowd; and Oliver Payne and Brian DeGraw warmed everyone up by playing anthemic major-key house music to a crowd willing to sweat and smile, in a London pub, long past last call (11:00). A complete community of creative New Yorkersat their most cheerful and familialpartied in an environment far removed from their own. Gang Gang Dance was the perfect soundtrack.
The milieu had changed somewhat for their second act in the capital last week. For one thing the engagements were ostensibly more chic: They played the Vincent Gallo-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival at Camber Sands resort; occupied a support slot for revived No-Waver James Chance at the Garage in Highbury; and headlined at the Spitz, a tony Brick Lane venue with a capacity of about 300. For another an audible buzz surrounded the Spitz show and record-company suits were milling around in muftinone too slimy, but nevertheless present. The place began filling up and some brittle girls appeared, hovering diaphanously on the arms of unearthly As Four-ish dudes, who were faintly European and palpably unburdened by gainful employment. The nymph aristocrat look may be old in New York, but it’s newly (and lamentably) arrived in London. Fergus Purcell, the beloved and prolific young designer, artist, and king of homemade tattoos, stood patiently and without pretension at the side of the stage. Young gallerist Ash L’Ange, co-owner of the Herald Street gallery with former Sadie Coles HQ man Nicky Verber, had slipped away from the ICA. The winner of the Beck’s Futures Prize (Christina Mackie) had just been announced there, and L’Ange chose a loud and anonymous evening with Gang Gang Dance over a drunken whirl with Samantha Morton on the Mall, despite the fact that he represents Mackie. Gang Gang Dance once again tore the house down and bashed my brain to pieces.
Twenty-four hours later I took a corner seat in the Boogaloo, a cozy rock ’n’ roll pub with an OK jukebox near Karl Marx’s grave in Highgate, North London, to see a panel discussion on the post-punk years 1978-84. It was a release party for Rip It Up and Start Again, music critic Simon Reynolds’s doorstopper history of the era. Much like Sweet Soul Music, Peter Guralnick’s history of rhythm and blues, Rip It Up is a dazzling, rich, definitive work, and I am certain that it will serve as both encyclopedia and bible on the subject for many years to come. Reynolds captained the shambolic proceedings as if we were sitting over pints in the boozer, which of course we were, but a coherent and powerful political theme gathered steam as the panelists warmed to the rapt, mostly middle-age audience. “When I came to London, I wasn’t interested in music,” said Gina Birch of the Raincoats. “I only cared about Conceptual art. The first thing that inspired me was [Anthony Howell’s] Ting Theatre of Mistakes. They did these performances outside the Serpentine Gallery . . . Someone made a mistake. The next person copied the mistake, and on it went. It wasn’t about slickness then. We enjoyed seeing the way things were made.”
“The problem with technology,” opined Gang of Four’s Jon King, “is that we correct ourselves as soon as we fuck up. We’re aiming for perfection.” Referring to the fact that any sound or spirit can be effortlessly reconstituted to tap in to the contemporary pop audience, Reynolds added, “It’s very easy to make a cool record today. It’s not easy to build an entire popular culture that can replace the one you’re being given.” But for now it is easyat least at a Gang Gang Dance gigto tell the difference between those who want a glassy, wiped-clean shine to their daily doings and those who believe in the wild mess generated by the search for a new, needed, form of expression.
Left: Harry Mathews, Lynne Tillman, and Geoffrey O'Brien. Right: Glenn O'Brien (at microphone) and the TV Party Orchestra.
The downtown underground resurfaced in Manhattan last Wednesday, though (sigh) only for the night. At 192 Books in Chelsea, the line between fact and fable grew dim as Harry Mathews read the sex scenes from My Life in CIA (Dalkey Archive Press), his new autobiographical novel.
Mathews, author of Cigarettes and other gems, has been a part-time Parisian for many yearslong enough to have been suspected of being an American agent by the French intelligentsia. His new book chronicles his life in the 1970s as a frog version of the unwitting spy in Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana. Arriving at the bookstore in a trench coat and brown fedora, the debonair dean of experimental fiction certainly looked the part.
Alex and Ada Katz were in the front row. “Painters are my best readers,” Mathews noted. “They don't get hung up on the significance of content.” The reading was as droll as its author, and it did nothing to dispel lingering suspicions that Mathews was actually a spook. Things got especially complicated during the Q & A when a man identifying himself as “Winthrop Dulles” insisted that his grandfather, Allen Dulles (founding director of the CIA), had always wanted to thank the author for the “extraordinary job he had done in Laos.”
And the evening was still quite young. Nonetheless, the sonic youth, Kim Gordon, left the opening of “Afterall” at apexart shortly after Jutta Koether concluded a performance that painter Charline von Heyl affectionately described as “Schönberg on acid.” British-born Charles Esche, director of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, and the show's curator, thought it more like “the return of Nico.” Koether, with a gold “bio-shield” on a chain around her neck, interspersed spoken excerpts from the recent novel by the Reena Spaulings collective with painfully loud trills on an electronic keyboard. It was, said performance pioneer Joan Jonas, “just like a performance in a gallery.”
Esche imagined the exhibition, which also has stuff by Jeremy Blake, Kenneth Anger, and Richard Wright, as a 3-D version of issue seven of Afterall, the semiannual art journal he coedits with Thomas Lawson and Mark Lewis. Though it was Cay Sophie Rabinowitz's brown and yellow “love” slicker that diverted people's attention, Esche advanced the belief that only the darkest, most degenerate art could possibly hope to effect any change in the winds prevailing now.
Left: Glenn O'Brien, Christopher Wool, and Charlene von Heyl. Middle: Joan Jonas. Right: Jutta Koether.
That theory seemed to bear itself out at the Glenn O'Brien/Paper Magazine party for TV Party: The Documentary, screened earlier that night at the Tribeca Film Festival. “It was so amazing,” said Gina Nanni (Mrs. O'Brien). “Jerry Stiller stood up at the end and yelled, ‘This movie should be in the Smithsonian!’” (Like Stiller.) Graying hipsters came to NA on West 14th Streetthat's not Narcotics Anonymous but the new name for the old Nell'sto celebrate their original appearances on O’Brien’s TV Party, his punk-era cable-access show.
Broadcast from 1978 to 1982, and directed with amateur-hour stealth by Amos Poe, the weekly show was one of the first live call-in shows on cable. (But who had cable then?) It was the first to feature downtown personalities like Chris Stein and Debbie Harry, Fab 5 Freddie, and the still-dewy-eyed Jean-Michel Basquiat as regulars (with fabulous musical guests); the first to feature on-air pot smoking and really foul language; and the only “cocktail party that could be a political party,” as the deadpan O'Brien put it. This was, in short, anarchist central, recording the downtown performance scene as it happened. See it and weep.
Watching the TV Party Orchestra (Walter Steding with Stein, Lenny Ferrari, Armand, James Chance, and Robert Aron) at the NA party, not just alive but playing better than ever, evoked more than nostalgia for a darker New York, where the bottom line never got in the way of raw talent. Yet DJ Spooky (Paul Miller), who arrived from the Chris Ofili opening at the Studio Museum with two art babes on his arm, heard only “a simulation of a simulation.” But hey. Isn't that what happens when you come so late to the party?