Left: “Printemps de Septembre” artistic director Jean-Marc Bustamante. Right: “Printemps de Septembre” president Marie-Thérèse Perrin. (All photos: Nicolas Trembley)
It’s autumn, but that didn’t stop “Printemps de Septembre” from opening in Toulouse last week, and I ventured from Paris for the festivities. Started fifteen years ago in Cahors, this three-week festival/exhibition is quite popular in France. Traditionally oriented toward photography, it emancipated itself from medium specificity when it moved to Toulouse five years ago. Nevertheless, I was accompanied by a photographer, Mario Palmieri, when I boarded the shuttle plane that took me from Orly to rainy Toulouse, where I stepped into a shuttle minibus chartered by Claudine Colin Communication, one of Paris’s biggest PR agencies. The bus was necessary, as the event is spread across ten locations throughout the city. At the behest of artist Jean-Marc Bustamantethe festival’s artistic director for the past three yearstogether with Pascal Pique, director of contemporary art at Les Abattoirs, the local contemporary art center, and Mirjam Varadinis from the Kunsthaus Zürich, this year’s edition is clearly more international.
As is the tradition, before the marathon began we ate lunch by the banks of the Garonne River, on a boat moored beside a bridge decorated for the event by artist Peter Kogler. Festival president Marie-Thérèse Perrin (Mathé to her friends) greeted the artists who had completed the installation of their work, among them Lawrence Weiner, Joe Scanlan, Erik van Lieshout, and designers M/M (Paris)inventors of the “Alphaline” alphabet used in the catalogue and in promotional material throughout the city. But it was soon time to reboard our minibuses and tour the festival’s sites, some historical and magnificent, like the Hôtel Dieu and the convent, some more recent and problematic, like the buildings owned by two sponsors, La Caisse d’Epargne and Electricité de France. Regarding the latter, even John Bock, who’s usually more than happy to fill up gigantic spaces with odds and ends, couldn’t make his mark on this uninspiring provincial “cultural” space. We roved about, sitting beside charming stars like Sarah Lucas, who was exhibiting a huge photograph that reads “Complete Arsehole.”
Under the thematic banner “Broken Lines,” the shows, which are “a project articulated around the notions of order and disorder,” present some monumental installations. Several of those are well known and not necessarily very recent; almost all have never before been seen in France: Anish Kapoor’s My Red Homeland, 2003, originally shown at the Kunsthaus Bregenz; Alex Hanimann’s gigantic cage filled with birds, produced by the MAMCO in Geneva; Andro Wekua’s revamping of a piece he first exhibited at the Kunstmuseum Winterthur and now owned by Greek collector Dakis Joannou; and Julian Rosefeldt’s Asylum, 2001, an outsize multiscreen projection initially presented at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof. Solo exhibitions also dotted the city map, including Olivier Blanckart’s, in a water tower, and Cathy de Monchaux’sher first exhibition in quite a whilein an abandoned house.
Some more discreet works are well worth the detour, like Lonnie van Brummelen’s wonderful films, screened in 35 mm, which use a documentary approach to report on the complex political situations surrounding some border crossings. Bustamante told me he had discovered van Brummelen last year in Amsterdam, when he was a jury member for the Prix de Rome, which she won. Elsewhere, with the help of the city’s symphony orchestra, French artist Laurent Montaron created a captivating site-specific piece about the wavering “La” that serves as a tone for mobile phones. Last but not least, Nedko Solakov laid siege to Les Abbatoirs' restrooms with witty graffiti as he did at P.S. 1 in 2001.
We were done with the tour just in time for the official opening, complete with mayoral speech, but I decided to skip the fanfare, including the performances organized by Isabelle Gaudefroy of the Fondation Cartier. (Cartier is one of the luxury-goods-company sponsors of the festival, as is Pommery champagne.) I later regretted the decision, as everyone was impressed by Forced Entertainment, one of the performers.
At 9 PM, we were treated to a cassoulet dinner under a tent. This year, the heads of many foreign institutions had been invited, and I ran into Simon Rees from the CAC in Vilnius, João Fernandes from the Serralves in Porto, Philippe Pirotte from the Kunsthalle Bern, and Nicolaus Schafhausen from the Witte de With in Rotterdam. Schafhausen is in charge of the German Pavilion at next year’s Venice Biennale, and he told me he was looking forward to having three women representing three important countries down the alley: Sophie Calle (France), Tracey Emin (Britain), and Isa Genzken (Germany).
At midnight, the artists stepped out into the graduation-party atmosphere of the crowd, comprising mostly students, enjoying a sound-and-light show. As for me, I was on my way to bed when I passed by the Saint-Sernin Basilica, the biggest Romanesque church in the Western world. I’d never heard of it, to the great dismay of Véronique Bacchetta from the Centre d’Édition Contemporaine in Geneva. “Ah, those Frenchmen, no culture at all!”
Left: Artist Vanessa Beecroft. Right: Flavio Del Monte, artist Paola Pivi, and curator Massimiliano Gioni. (All photos: Sarah Thornton)
“We have no museum of contemporary art!” was the refrain of my recent trip to Milan, which began with espresso at the Trussardi Alla Scala Café, a well-air-conditioned bar that acts as a second office for curator Massimiliano Gioni and artists who are working on exhibitions commissioned by the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, such as Paola Pivi. When I asked them how Milan’s art world is different from other art worlds, Pivi responded laterally: “That’s like asking: How is my mother different from other
women?” But Gioni had a theory. A complete lack of public support had resulted in fashion companies opening foundations. “In Italy, we suffer from gerontocrazia‘government of the old’so many people are out of date. The word curatore is not recognized by Italian spell-checkers. As an act of modesty, we curators should recognize that our job is new and probably just a fad.”
As I left the cafe, I ran into four impossibly tall, wafer-thin girls and enjoyed a Fellini-esque moment; the models, here to audition for the fashion-week catwalks, looked like circus freaks. Galleria Francesca Kaufmann was a short walk away. In Milan, the rivalry between art and fashion is a delicate subject and most dealers are cagey, but Kaufmann spoke her mind: “Fashion is a secondary art, even though I respect it. Shoes are not going to change your vision of the world.” As if on cue, in teetered Mariuccia Casadio, the art consultant of Vogue Italia, who chose to highlight continuities: “The maximum level of luxury is art. . . . Both are wonderful glossy ghettos.”
Later, I met couturier-friendly dealer Giò Marconi at his gallery in a three-story building that he shares with the fondazione of his father, Giorgio. We talked about the difficulties of exporting work by local artists. The Castello di Rivoli in Turin is a prestigious “bridge to abroad,” but without organizations like the Goethe Institut and the British Council, Italian artists are disadvantaged. Importing foreign art is a different matter because Italians “are travelers, like Christopher Columbus. They’re curious; they buy early.”
Left: Dealers Giorgio and Giò Marconi. Right: Critic Mariuccia Casadio and dealer Francesca Kaufmann.
Milan’s galleries are inconveniently spread out but wonderfully diverse. Set in the back of an eighteenth-century barracks (where Maurizio Cattelan still keeps an apartment), Galleria Emi Fontana was difficult to find. An African guy in a crimson fedora, loitering like an extra in a blaxploitation flick, gave me accurate directions, and I eventually encountered S&M artists John Lovett and Alessandro Codagnone installing their show. I admired the couple’s sculptural performance props (which included their carefully crafted pecs) and was treated to a short lecture on their genealogical relationship to Antonin Artaud, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
The following day, Friday, was bound to be frenetico because some thirty galleries were opening shows as part of a cooperative effort called “Start.” Claudio Guenzani was showing Stefano Arienti, a well-respected Italian artist who teaches at academies in Bergamo and Venice. I sat down with Guenzani, and we settled into the topic of Los Angeles. Just as Hollywood dominates LA culture, so even Milanese slobs are highly fashion literate. Unlike LA, however, the art schools here are not validating gatekeepers, and Guenzani looked aghast when I asked him whether dealers in Milan attend degree shows.
I was running late, so the good dealer offered to drop me off at the kitschy Diana Majestic hotel, where I was scheduled to meet artist Francesco Vezzoli. Guenzani handed me a helmet, and, moments later, I was on the back of his motorino, living out a Roman Holiday fantasy.
Vezzoli looked unexpectedly wholesome, particularly given that he’d just flown in from New York. He let slip that he was about to start work on a documentary funded by Miuccia Prada. “Just imagine me as a slimmer, more glamorous Michael Moore. I want to do a visually over-alluring Kinsey Reporta scientific survey of contemporary sexuality, a film with nail-me-to-the-wall politics and nail-me-to-the-couch images.” After that, we talked about the relevance of the art press, and the famously flattering Vezzoli delivered this gem: “In terms of the way the art world functions today, ‘Scene & Herd’ is the new October.”
My next stop was Vanessa Beecroft’s “South Sudan” show of photographs in which the figures assume classic Christian poses at Galleria Lia Rumma. When I introduced myself, Beecroft immediately took me aside. “My dealer in the US refuses to show this work!” she said stridently. I confirmed that she was referring to Larry Gagosian, then she continued: “Images of black people are too loaded in the US, but this work is based on a true story. I went to the Sudan and nursed three newborn babies in the orphanage. They were malnourished, and I fed them. They thought I was their mother. But my husband said there was no way we could adopt them . . . so I am thinking of leaving him!”
I welcomed the long taxi ride out to the industrial suburbs of Lambrate. Once back on foot, I hooked up with Flavio Del Monte (press officer for the Trussardi Foundation and all-around promoter of art in Milan), then whizzed through a makeshift complex of artists’ projects called Lambretto and a series of good-looking galleries before taking a deep breath in Paolo Zani’s Galleria Zero, a small but special space with wraparound windows and a roof terrace, which featured Jeppe Hein’s uplifting fountain works.
Next door, Massimo De Carlo’s bright and airy converted coffee-machine factory offered three solo shows, one of which was the reason I’d flown to Milan: Chris Burden’s first performance-related work in thirty years. Neck-high in water and wearing swimming goggles, there was Burden in a tight close-up, his face six feet wide, reciting a paranoid rant in schoolboy French about the threat of “des chiens sauvages.” Funny and scary, the two-minute video loop was part of a four-room show, which included six of Burden’s famous “LAPD uniforms” from 1993. While standing among the blue suits, Burden explained that the works here didn’t bear the original guns because Italian customs refused to believe, despite much written evidence on museum letterhead, that they were art.
It was time to make our way to an unassuming restaurant called Piero e Pia, where De Carlo was hosting his three-artist dinner for Burden, London-based Ryan Gander, and local star Roberto Cuoghi. De Carlo is a well-known gourmand, and the Italians at my table were excited that it was porcini season. As the night unraveled, Gander talked about “faux conceptual art,” curator Andrea Viliani entertained us with his theory of “the Peter Pan syndrome of the post-Cattelan generation of Italian artists,” and thirty-three-year-old Cuoghi protested, “I'm more like the sick grandfather of Peter Pan!” By the time we stumbled out of the restaurant, I’d concluded that the Milan art world may be small but is actually less provincial than New York or London, not only because everyone is always traveling but because no one is under the illusion that they occupy the center.
Left: Dealer Larry Gagosian, artist Rachel Feinstein, curator Dodie Kazanjian, the New Yorker's Anne Stringfield, and Steve Martin, with artist John Currin in front. Right: Studio Museum director and chief curator Thelma Golden with artist Richard Prince. (All photos: Julie Skarratt)
On Thursday, I attended a cocktail party and dinner inaugurating a new contemporary-art gallery within the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. The gallery is the felicitous brainchild of Peter Gelb, the new general manager of the Met. Gelb asked Dodie Kazanjian, editor at large for Vogue, to act as the Met’s curator at large for the gallery. She invited ten artistsCecily Brown, George Condo, John Currin, Verne Dawson, Barnaby Furnas, Makiko Kudo, Wangechi Mutu, Richard Prince, David Salle, and Sophie von Hellermannto submit artworks inspired by heroines from the six new productions that the Met is mounting this season. Christoph Willibald von Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice was the choice of Dawson, Furnas, and Mutu. I spent some time contemplating Dawson’s picture: Euridice beckonsmore accurately, she points atOrfeo from her netherworld domain on the sad side of an oddly sunlit River Styx, garbed in what looks like a customized version of the Scream costume. As she seems here rather like a flesh-eating zombie, I took her gesture to mean, “No! Go back. It’s just not going to work out,” which, in fact, it doesn’t, in both Gluck’s opera and the Greek myth on which it is based.
I quite liked Prince’s “Joke” painting apropos Madama Butterfly. The joke reads: “I went to the opera. It was Madame Butterfly. I fell asleep. When I woke up the music was by Klaus Nomi and Cio Cio San had turned into a lesbian and refused to commit suicide. It was a German ending.” Above and below the painted text, Prince has collaged hundreds of pornographic pictures of girl-on-girl hanky-panky. If only there were a contemporary composer as passionately vulgar as Puccini who could carry off the artist’s inspired revision of the all-too-well-known story. Richard Strauss, no stranger to operatic perviness, could have done so with élan. Die Äegyptische Helena, a lesser-known work by one of my favorite composers, was the choice of Currin and Salle. Currin represents a somewhat chunky Helena, her head thrown back in (orgasmic?) ecstasy. Salle’s large-scale painting, a good example of his recent “vortical” style, is also porn-oriented, featuring at its center, as far as I could ascertain, a ménage à trois between a man and two women. Queer theorists–cum–opera buffs beware: Salle and Prince's representations of sapphism are unmistakably heterosexist!
Left: Conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson with Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb. Right: Artist David Salle with Dodie Kazanjian.
The event was exceedingly well attended: All of the artists save for Mutu, Kudo, and Hellerman were there, as well as numerous dealers, curators, and artists. The list is long, but I spotted Maurizio Cattelana close friend of Kazanjian’s who apparently acted as an unofficial advisor to the projectChristo and Jeanne-Claude, Jeff and Justine Koons, Chuck Close, Clarissa Dalrymple, Barbara Gladstone, Carol Greene, Neville Wakefield, Yvonne Force Villareal, Thelma Golden, Roland Augustine, and Larry Gagosian. I chatted with Rachel Feinstein, who was wearing an extremely pretty dress that she described as “vaginal japonisme,” I suppose referring to the large “pubic” pleat that ran down its center. An homage to Madama Butterfly, which opened the Met season the following Monday, I wondered? Many of these eminences were also at the dinner, held in the Met’s Opera Club. I was fortunate in my placement: Steve Martin was at my table. Surprise, surpriseMartin said many exceedingly witty things, but a rudimentary, one might say medullary sense of etiquette prevented me from pulling out a pad and writing them all down. Speeches by Kazanjian and Gelb were easier to listen to than speeches at events such as this usually are; for one, both erred on the side of relative brevity. Gelb gave Deitch an especially enthusiastic shout-out“I would like to thank Jeffery Deitch and all the other dealers,” etc. Perhaps this comment did not sit too well with “all the others”; I did notice at least one prominent dealer shift uncomfortably in her seat, but possibly she was adjusting her hemline. Deitch later explained to me that Kazanjian is an old friend, and that she had asked him to be on the advisory committee for the gallery. He also recommended the fashionable South African architect Lindy Roy, who designed the modest but attractive and attractively understated (rather than annoyingly architectish) gallery, the entry to which is conveniently located on Lincoln Center Plaza.
It is perhaps churlish to find fault in any aspect of this otherwise charming and well-intentioned endeavor. Nonetheless, one wonders how much actual progress is to be made in bringing together contemporary art and fustian opera. Is opera somehow to ride the coattails of “wild” art and glamorous, or at least fashionable, artists? Simply hanging opera-inspired paintings in the gallery doesn’t go very far in bridging any sort of gap. Apparently, it is being considered that artworks exhibited in the gallery might be reproduced in the Opera's playbills, but beyond this modest proposal is the notion that in the future artists might design curtains and even stage sets. I’m certainly not an expert in operatic scenic design, but offhand I can’t think of many notable modern/contemporary art–opera synergisms. David Hockney’s sets for Ravel’s Les Enfants et les Sortilèges (a Met production, 1981) is the only one I can recallvery pretty. At best, perhaps the new gallery at the opera heralds future collaborations of similar brilliance.
Left: Eteam's Hajoe Moderegger with Chaplain Henry J. Right: Art in General programs manager Sofia Hernández Chong Cuy. (All photos: Michael Wang)
Wearing a modish flight-attendant uniform, Art in General programs manager Sofia Hernández Chong Cuy distributed packaged toiletries, an “airport map,” and vouchers for food, coffee, and shuttle rides to a group of seven arts patrons, curators, and writers packed inside the chartered plane headed for Las Vegasby way of Montello, a small town in northeast Nevada. “This is a travel kit, compliments of AIG airlines, because the layover might be rather extended,” Hernández warned. Once on the ground last weekend at the closest working airfield, Wendover Air Force Base, participants in AIG’s travel program headed to the site of a weekend “layover” at the International Airport Montello, the latest project by the artist collective eteam, German-born and Queens-based artists Franziska Lamprecht and Hajoe Moderegger. Funded by Art in General’s 2006 commissions program (and developed in part during a residency at the Center for Land Use Interpretation), IAM’s fictional terminals, transit lounges, and runway occupy a ten-acre plot, purchased on eBay for less than five hundred dollars, and an abandoned airstripbut it doesn’t end there. Working in cooperation with the residents of nearby Montello, the “airport” includes the entire town, its convenience store temporarily housing a gift shop of hand-decorated IAM merchandise, its two bars (the Saddle Sore and the Cowboy) servicing stranded travelers, and its wind-battered plateaus, outfitted with a few folding chairs, doubling as less-than-cozy airport lounges. “This whole trip to Vegas was created around the layover,” Hernández admitted; its participants would complete a cultural tour of the state in the coming days, including visits to the Las Vegas Museum of Art, the Neon Boneyard (where Vegas’s landmark signs go to die), the Liberace Museum (in a converted strip mall), and Michael Heizer’s Double Negative. “I want to see the International Airport Montello in relation to land art in the area,” Hernández clarified. “Not in the context of relational aesthetics.”
On deplaning at Wendover Field (the base once housed the Enola Gay), we were met by the eteam, in German military jackets and caps; Brooklyn-based artist Jason Dean, in a jumpsuit, as “IAM Layover Support”; and a bevy of filmmakers wielding cameras and booms making a documentary with development money from the Sundance Channel. “Everyone has defined their roles,” explained Hernández, referring not only to the artists involved but to Montello’s residents as well. “I decided to be the stewardess.” Loading us into a van, “shuttle driver” Anthony Marcellini (AIG’s curatorial assistant) drove us through the penny-slot casinos and golf courses of Wendover, UT, and into the open desertcrossing the state line into Nevada en route to “another terminal”our first stop in Montello. After parking in front of a twelve-wheeler hung with a red wooden cross (Montello’s mobile chapel), we were greeted by the town leaders. “Welcome to Montello, population sixty-six. Sorry, sixty-seven. We had a baby born last week,” announced chaplain Henry J. Casolini.
Shuttle service was, for the most part, off-road, taking us to the Sky View Dinner Club, operated out of a trailer home by former casino-lighting technician Nevada Red (whose rhinestone-studded belt buckle also boasted an LED display) and Darla (Skyview’s chef), and to the overgrown airstrip, marked only by an “International Airport Montello” sign. Surveying the dinner club, circumscribed by rocks around a cinder-block fire pit, Red contemplated the benefits of living off the grid: “I pay fourteen dollars in taxes a year for ten acres.” When we made a stop in town before heading on to the airstrip to await our connection, “airport manager” Dr. Ron Abbott informed us that the rapidly degenerating weather would entail yet another delay. (Easy to believe with a dust storm blotting out the surrounding mountains and pummeling us with fine grit.)
Killing time in town, we met with local musician Ron Tello, who had pasted up a “Transit Lounge” sign outside his home, which was hung with Marlon Brando and Rocky Horror Picture Show posters, photocopied pictures of his gun collection, and dangling strips of flypaper heavy with quarry. Lamprecht introduced him as “building the largest drum set in Nevada.” Curator Elizabeth Thomas observed, “Because of the kit and the flies, he reminds me of Dave Lombardo from Slayer in the Matthew Barney film.”
As we toured Montello’s desolate downtown, video artist Kristin Lucas, driving a Volkswagen sporting an antenna constructed from a fishing net and a colander, unexpectedly pulled up and, distributing hand-stenciled bingo cards, began to broadcast numbers (intercepted, she claimed, from alien radio signals). When we finally arrived at the airstrip, Modregger handed out distinctively saffron flags, and, amid coy whispers of “The Gates,” we filed down both sides of the runway in an attempt to direct our missing plane. Explaining the ephemeral nature of the installationand of IAM in generalModeregger spoke of a desire “to create something emerging temporarilythat is what a town is. There is nothing here, but in a way there is everything here.” High winds forced us back to the Cowboy Bar, where resident Jodie Mueller had organized “the first annual Taste of Montello,” for which she sought out visitors to act as judges. We sampled down-home dishes from meat loaf to meringue; first prize went to a cake shaped like a jet liner and frosted with the initials ”IAM." The grill was fired up outside, and the whole town descended on the bar as Hernández alerted us that we had to leave immediately or we would miss our flight. We piled back into the van as a man on horseback cantered down the road and trotted through the bar’s front door. As the euphoria of Montello’s AIG-funded party-of-the-year wore off, cinematic memories of ghost-town isolation and eccentric characters took its place. “It was like Grey Gardens,” Bronx Museum director Holly Block put it. Collector George Mills was quick to qualify: “But the zombie version.”
Descending from the dark closet where I hang upside down coated in a thin layer of Vaseline, I ventured out for a doubleheader of openings by two of the bestest artists to emerge ca. 1990—the last time I went out regularly. I arrived at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, my first stop, early. Not many art appreciators were there to block my view of Rob Pruitt’s hilarious installation: big fancy abstract paintings twinkling with the artist’s signature glitter, innertube objets encrusted with more sparkly “action painting,” and (literally) heavy-duty floor pieces composed entirely of cement-filled jeans (Levi’s, Sasson, brands from every price point): Five stuffed pairs “sitting up” created a starfish; a snakelike lineup of several more doing splits straddled the floor like a team of torso-free cheerleaders; denim couples, oozing cement cellulite, spooned, mounted each other, and/or tempted one to sit on them like furniture. It was like a casualwear version of Richard Serra. It all struck me as very American (“The Levi’s HQ in SF should buy it,” John Waters helpfully suggested later) and droll, despite the disturbing dismemberment references. I wondered whether all these half bodies, like the whimsically styled remains of a bomb site, would disturb the gallery’s feng shui? Your diarist loitered, hoping to recognize someone, even Pruitt, who wasn’t there yet—but the only semiengaging creature was a basset hound (I didn’t catch its name). So I headed up to 303 to the Karen Kilimnik opening.
Here, too, I didn’t recognize anyone—except Kilimnik and gallery owner Lisa Spellman. (I should get out more.) Kilimnik is the queen of girly installation stuff, which still looks great, and one of those artists, I’ve noticed, who consistently omit their year of birth from their bios. She’s an ageless ingenue—tonight, in jeans, no makeup, and an untucked white tuxedo shirt. I soon spotted Sofia Coppola and was immediately occupied with whether I would/could stalk her or not—a tricky operation, since the place wasn’t big and I had to stick around until the dinner. Plus she made eye contact and seemed weirdly normal, though she was flanked by a pair of PR minders: a perky gay guy and an aggressive-looking gal with a Fendi logo bag, both of whom chatted with her intently while eyeing everyone around them eyeing her while Sofia herself seemed oblivious. I wanted to tell her I loved her in Godfather: Part III (her casting was a genius, meta-, Coppola-as-Corleone-dynasty moment) but decided just to get a good look, discreetly or not. For a superconnected rich person, she has great personal style, which is surprisingly not usually the case. Plus I like to see ethnic-looking petites pull it off. She was prim but not stiff in a steel blue, shape-hiding—the fashion press informed me she’s pregnant—sheath (Marc Jacobs?), black ballet flats, classic Chanel shoulder bag, and intense red lipstick on a bare-ish face. Her hair wasn’t too done. She must have been pooped (Fashion Week just ended) but pored over each piece intently, flanked by the handlers.
Like Coppola, with her recent film Marie Antoinette, Kilimnik was having a French-history moment with a rock sound track. Was this a coincidence? In the front room of the gallery was an installation of a Napoleonic campaign tent. Striped fabric with fleur-de-lis enclosed the general’s crib: a mise-en-scène that featured an Empire desk styled with plastic toy soldiers, old maps, and a neoclassical helmet. I plotzed in the old leather chair and watched people peer at an antique sword, a dear painting of an ocelot, and a rare candid portrait of an Empire-era officer laughing that looked like a handmade paparazzi shot. Strauss marches and the Who emanated from speakers inside the desk in the mishmash of period flourishes and rock ‘n’ roll that Sofia, too, is working this season. Someone wanted to buy just the ocelot painting, but was told the whole “tent” was for sale for like three hundred thousand dollars.
The dinner afterward, at the Russian Samovar, was subdued, despite the many flavors of vodka. “These dinners are boring,” said one collector’s wife, appreciating that I had bothered to engage her. “People are doing business.” “I saw Baryshnikov holding forth here once at a long table,” shared one curator, as we enjoyed gobs of smoked salmon and discussed unhelpful colleagues. “I wonder if this is where they shot that scene in Sex and the City?” Indeed, in keeping with the meta-ness of the evening, I recalled that Aleksandr Petrovsky, Carrie Bradshaw’s superserious artist paramour (played by Baryshnikov), was perhaps the only character ever to read Artforum on TV. He made “light installations.” Looking over the private room of museum people, gallerists, and a few collectors, Karen’s mother noted, as if surprised, “There aren’t any African-American people here.” She was expecting a mix, “like back in Philadelphia.” I wanted to ask all kinds of nosy questions. Instead I chatted with John Waters about Anna Nicole Smith’s recent mishap. He was dismayed by her druggie train wreck of a “reality show.” Anna Nicole Smith is every couch potato’s dream: a total vegetable with an unlimited budget. Her lawyer spoke for her. Bobby Trendy shopped for her. She did absolutely nothing but consume. Like Edith Massey, I observed, the “egg lady” in Waters’s legendary Pink Flamingos, but with money. Waters was genuinely moved, he said, when Massey’s brother wrote in a recent, self-published bio that Edith had always wanted to be a glamorous, Marilyn-like movie star, but couldn’t “of course”—because of her weight—until Waters came along and made her dream come true! Even better, according to Waters, Massey’s dying wish was to have her ashes flung on Marilyn Monroe’s grave in Westwood Village Cemetary. Another wish granted. “Trespassing!” he chuckled, delighted.
“I do believe that LA is one of the great art capitals of the world,” pronounced Eli Broad to the donors, dignitaries, and artists attending the suitably pompous opening of UCLA’s new Eli and Edythe Broad Art Center, the munificent billionaire’s latest attempt to secure his legacy as a city father. Fresh from his latest bid for the Los Angeles Times, the former land developer and insurance executive bequeathed $23.2 million to the Art Center that bears his name (less than half his $50 million gift to LACMA, but who’s counting?). The unseasonably cloudy day did not dampen the enthusiastic spirits of the architects of this new boosterism. Assembled on an outdoor platform in the large plaza in front of the majestic but chilly Richard Meier–designed structure were the Broads, Meier and his architectural amanuensis Michael Paladino, artist Richard Serra, and the First Lady of California, Maria Shriver. Los Angeles, merely a century and a half old and only a metropolis since World War II, is still fertile soil for groundbreaking bids at immortality. Marking a decisive victory in the ongoing war of the LA art schools, Christopher Waterman, dean of the UCLA School of Arts and Architecture, declared, with a warm glance at Broad, that this was another milestone in the relationship between “enlightened benefactors and public institutions.” Other milestones perhaps include Broad’s substantial donations to UCLA’s rivals, like CalArts’ Broad Studios and Claremont College’s Broad Center and Broad Hall.
Although I anticipated hearing about the importance of UCLA’s art department amid this fanfare, I did not expect to hear “UCLA is the greatest art school in the world” three timesmost notably from Richard Serra, whose 42.5-ton Cor-Ten steel sculpture, T.E.U.C.L.A., graced the plaza behind the podium. (It may be the heaviest piece of institutionally branded artwork in America.)
“I don’t see anyone I know. This isn’t for us. Inside is for us,” said the affable artist Mark Bradford, surveying a sea of suits and pointing at the Art Center itself. As the crowd around the dais dispersed, I followed the slow-moving heads of white hair into the Center.
Remarkably, the work of the UCLA faculty displayed in the galleries (which in the future will show mostly student art) buttressed the university’s enormous ego. Recent works by John Baldessari hung next to Appliance House, 1998–99, a lighted steel box by Jennifer Bolande, and not far from James Welling’s abstract light-screen photos that oozed orange and yellow magma. Chris Burden enjoyed a prominent video projection that showed excerpts of selected performance works from 1971–75. Despite his abrupt and not altogether happy departure in December 2004, UCLA still proudly exhibited his work and listed Burden, alongside Nancy Rubins and Paul McCarthy, as distinguished emeritus professors. Mary Kelly’s Mea Culpa: Beirut 1982, 1999, a piece of compressed lint marked with words describing the death of a laundress during a bombing of the city of Beirut, offered powerful, though lamentable, contemporary resonance.
I headed out of the galleries and wandered through the sterile white hallways examining a fraction of the eight stories of offices, studios, and classrooms. Not wishing to be late for a potential free meal, I scurried across campus to the private lunch at the chancellor’s mansion. I managed to mix with the crowd sipping white wine on the front driveway, where I overheard artist and UCLA faculty member Christian Moeller complain, “This is the most boring event.” While attempting to enter the luncheon, I was given an irritatingly well-mannered and icy brush-off by a wall of smiling PR people. Demeaned but not defeated, I lingered glumly in the driveway, wondering whom I might spy on the way out. The grand impresario himself was one of the first to leave, and I was dumbfounded to see the esteemed collector struggling on his own to put a unwrapped, framed picture into the trunk of his shiny black Cadillac. Evidently, it didn’t quite fit, so he shoved it unceremoniously into the backseat. Then, climbing behind the steering wheel, he clipped on his shades and disappeared into traffic on Sunset Boulevard.
Left: Artist Stéphane Dafflon. Right: Samuel Keller and Jens Hoffmann. (All photos: Nicolas Trembley)
This year, the opening of the fall season was marked by a slew of Asian biennials. Singapore, Shanghai, and Gwangju all opened within five days of one another, bringing to this side of the globe swarms of jet-lagged art professionals, journalists, and VIPs who would soon be suffering the heartburn caused by too-spicy kim chi. To ward off indigestion, I decided I would confine my tour to Korea.
I’m always amazed by how many familiar faces one encounters on these trips. Checking in at Roissy, I ran into artist Stéphane Dafflon, who was just getting back from Geneva (and skipping the biennials), and then Armin Linke, in transit from Milan. On board the plane, I sat near Claude Allemand-Cosneau, the director of the FNAC, who sneaked me some Ambien. This insured that on arrival in Gwangju, I fell asleep immediately in my room at the Prado hotel—which, sad to say, is nowhere near as impressive as the Spanish museum—and was fully rested for the next day’s press preview.
That morning, artistic director Kim Hong-hee explained how “Fever Variations” (nothing to do with SARS), the sixth Gwangju biennial, is made up of two large sections, roughly summed up as 1) what happens in Asia; 2) what happens in the rest of the world. Divided into subsections that function according to dual themesechoing Korea’s political position, split into North and Souththe well-designed exhibit was curated by Wu Hung (Chicago), Binghui Huangfu (Sydney), Shaheen Merali (Berlin), and Jacquelynn Baas (Michigan), the last responsible for a show of Fluxus archive material. The presentation of Chinese propaganda photographs, doctored before the advent of Photoshop and presented by Zhang Dali alongside the originals snaps from which they came, was a big hit. The second section shows art made elsewhere, mainly in Europe and the Balkans. Designed by Cristina Ricupero (Paris) and Beck Jee-sook (Seoul), this part is far less zen-kitsch, so to speak, and much more political, as illustrated by the subsection titled “Exhibiting US Imperialism and War,” conceived by Chris Gilbert and Cira Pascual Marquina in collaboration with activist groups focusing on Latin America.
Left: Artist Bruno Serralongue and Gwangju Biennale curator Cristina Ricupero. Right: Gwangju Biennale director Kim Hong-hee.
Once they’d looked around, the talk between people on their way to/from Singapore and/or Shanghai centered on establishing comparisons involving complex equations of art, food, crowds, weather, and the like. A simple summary: Shanghai is better than Singapore but worse than Gwangju. Somehow, these discussions passed the time, and we were faced with a choice of two dinners: one for the press, the other for the artists. I chose the press dinner, naturally. At the end of the evening, tradition required that everyone meet up at a karaoke bar booked by Samuel Keller, who was in a jubilant mood. Even a rendition of Nirvana’s “You Know You’re Right” by curator Jens Hoffmann, critic Marc Spiegler, and artists Sean Snyder and Erik van Lieshout couldn’t sour things.
Cristina Ricupero, less confident about her singing voice (“I haven’t slept for a week”), suggested delicately that we end the night in an absolutely extraordinary club where the performances of singers/contortionists/strippers clad in ’80s-style glitter held up well in comparison with those we saw at the biennial. We were all speechless with admiration, especially Elmgreen & Dragset and Runa Islam (who, to her surprise, was booked into a love hotel).
The next day, during the official opening, there were as many police officers as guests at the awards ceremony held in the local ampitheater (yes, Gwangju also has its awards). Given out by Mori Art Museum director David Elliott and his jury—Ute Meta Bauer, Charles Esche, Ra-Young Hong, and Kim Hong-hee—the thirty-thousand-dollar biennial award was split between Chinese artist Song Dong, for an incredible installation that displays all the inconsequential knickknacks his mother saved during the past few decades, and Michael Joo, for his not-so-convincing video installation in which surveillance cameras are trained on a Buddha. “Well, there had to be a Korean winner,” said someone in the know. Two additional five-thousand-dollar awards were given out, to Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas (from Lithuania) for their protest-lab archive and to Lim Min-ouk (Korea) for her women-only club. I wonder how the jury—50 percent male—was able to judge the piece. (I heard that girls had the opportunity to make photocopies of their buttocks in there, and apparently they weren’t shy about
it . . .)
Left: Ute Meta Bauer, head of the Visual Arts Program in the architecture department at MIT. Right: Gwangju Biennale Ex Aequo Prize winner Song Dong.
I didn’t really have the patience or the time to sit through the inevitable open forum on the “role of international biennials and significance in particular of Asian biennials” (featuring Hou Hanru, Yuko Hasegawa, Fumio Nanjo, Sung Wan-Kyung, and more). From the little I heard of it, everyone ended up concludingperhaps because most of the panelists were Asian-biennial directors?that these biennials are a new breed, much better than the older ones, and they should continue to be held. (Great! A reason to come back.)
On my last night in the city, I just had time to make it to the traditional Korean dinner held in honor of the artists and attended by Bruno Serralongue, Thomas Allen Harris, Superflex, Michael Beutler, and Gimhongsok, among many others. I sat on the ground, enjoyed the tasty barbecue, and momentarily forgot not only about the party taking place nearby, in the rain, but about going to Busanyet another biennial!as well.
Left: Dealer Patrick Painter with artist Won Ju Lim. Right: Dealer Tara Sandroni Hirshberg with artist Hernan Bas and dealer Kristin Rey. (All photos: Andrew Berardini)
The Los Angeles art world opened last Friday and Saturday with a volley of bangsand a whimper or two. While Chinatown exploded with openings on Friday night, I started my weekend sniffing cryptic fish dishes at the low-key dinner thrown by Sandroni Rey for artist Hernan Bas. We convened at the Social, an overpriced lounge usually infested with the Hollywood B-list but populated that night by a crowd familiar from Bas’s paintings: young, delicate, and mostly gay. Gallery director Nu Nguyen reluctantly admitted that the artist’s age was “twentysomething” when I noted that his CV revealed no birth date but proudly recorded the name of his high school. After dinner, I shared a cigarette with artist Paul P., in town for his opening at Marc Selwyn. We talked about his impending move to Paris with his boyfriend, artist Scott Treleaven. “Toronto’s so provincial. I almost moved to Los Angeles, but who wants to drive everywhere?”
The next night, the comment ricocheted around my car as I made the grisly crosstown trek to that art amusement park in Santa Monica called Bergamot Station. During a brisk walk-through, I saw no less than three different galleries hawking Ed Ruscha pieces. I stopped by the inaugural opening of Patrick Painter’s new gallery, where Jim Shaw had a show of dream sketches and bronze vices in the form of disembodied girls’ heads. Catching up with Painter, who was pounding Diet Cokes and chain-smoking on the front patio, I asked about his recent cameo on the HBO television show Entourage: “The last time I acted was in I Woke Up Early the Day I Died, Ed Wood's final script. I was Matt Dillon's roommate, you know. Art and HollywoodLA is fucking mixed up."
Left: Anthony Kiedis with Gagosian's Martha Otero. Right: UCLA Hammer director Ann Philbin with Marc Foxx gallery director Rodney Hill.
My next stopthe Hiroshi Sugimoto show at Gagosian in Beverly Hillsbore out Painter’s quip. There, Red Hot Chili Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis was midtransaction with Gagosian salesperson Martha Otero. “Does the price include the frame?” asked the musician, as gray-haired patrons shuffled through the cavernous gallery with the eighty-dollar catalogue, waiting for Sugimoto’s autograph like teenyboppers at a rock show.
Back on the road, I shot down Wilshire Boulevard to the 6150 gallery-plex, and then elbowed my way through another multitude (where were all these people coming from?) to catch a glimpse of Sterling Ruby’s show of magazine cutouts on glimmering metallic backgrounds. Working the door, gallery partner Rodney Hill enjoyed a what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation chat with tanned Hammer director Ann Philbin. Ten feet away at ACME, I squeezed into “Cheerleaders and Bandwagons,” Katie Grinnan’s aptly named show, where the throng engulfed her fantastical sculptures.
Left: Norton Family Foundation curator Kelly Barrie with artists Ruben Ochoa and Edgar Arceneaux. Right: Artist Jim Shaw and Marnie Weber
Even though I was feeling saturated, thoroughness compelled me back into the car to close out the evening in Culver City, where the crowds were thickest and not seeing art was a foregone conclusion. The exception was the show of young Chicano artist Ruben Ochoa, whose re-creation of a freeway overpass filled the newish nonprofit LAXART. To cross the gallery (and pass under the work), one had to sign a liability release. With blurry visions of collapsing Serra prop pieces, I signed on the dotted line and headed in. Ochoa, clad in Miami Vice chic, could recently be seen driving a tortilla van–turned–art gallery to LA events, but now, rather than taking the gallery on the road, he’s taken the road to the gallery.
Time for the after-partya poolside affair at the Avalon in Beverly Hills with more unassuming intimacy, curious-smelling food, and a gaggle of well-educated curators, including the California Biennial’s Rita Gonzalez, LAXART’s Lauri Firstenberg, and the Norton Collection’s Kelly Barrie (son of artist Mary Kelly). Chris Kraus wrote in Video Green that nobody talks about art in LA, but Barrie does. Lounging on a divan, the cool blue light from the pool washing over us, he anointed Rodney McMillian’s performance at Susanne Vielmetter the best show of the evening. With regard to the LA art boom, we agreed the big-market bang couldn’t last. “All economic indicators point toward an imminent collapse. But what makes LA great are the artists who choose to live here, not the marketplace.” Then, pausing to look over the party in full swing, he added with a rakish grin, “We're here now and we're having fun, right?”
Left: Artist Jockum Nordström. Right: David Zwirner with son Lukas. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)
For thirty years, I’ve heard the art world described as small. Small in its incestuous relationships, personal and professional; small as to who and what matter at any given time. Over the past weekend, however, anyone with half an eye could easily observe that the New York art world, with its hundreds of galleries and thousands of postgraduates eager for the sex of a New York Times review, is anything but small.
In Chelsea, the already impersonal galleriessome, like David Zwirner, of astonishing new girthare now jammed between some of the dowdiest high-rises in town. These blank, brick-and-glass monsters give the area the look of an upscale prison compoundKafka, come home!and this is only the beginning. Yet architecture was on few people’s minds. At the top of the season, everyone just wants to see everyone else. (“Everyone,” by the way, is now under thirty. I knew it would happen one day, just like it did when I was twenty-five.) This was a weekend when art was merely the backdrop to the mapping of a community that has to stay whole against long odds: war, disease, fashion, real estateeven art school. Younger artists seem to have figured out that the quickest way into the system isn’t to question it but to grease it. In this day and age, everyone must be friends for fifteen minutes.
“Could you introduce me to Dennis Cooper sometime?” asked Whitney curator Carter Foster at collector Beth Rudin DeWoody’s posh party for Rob Wynne, the Conceptualist who opened Craig F. Starr’s new Upper East Side gallery on Thursday night. Like everyone else forty and under, it seems, Foster is a devotee of both Cooper and YouTube, where he discovered “a teenage boy sitting on a toilet and masturbating to Nirvana’s ‘Rape Me’the best video art I've seen!”
“Can you please introduce me to Carter Foster?” pleaded painter Deborah Kass, the latest addition to Paul Kasmin Gallery. “You have to meet this man right here,” Adam McEwen told me at his crowded opening at Nicole Klagsbrun, pulling aside Alexander Heinrici. “This man did all of Warhol's printing in the ’80s,” he said. (The ’80s?) “Would you like to meet Steve Martin?” asked PR specialist Sara Fitzmaurice at the party her husband, Perry Rubenstein, threw for the Danish noirist Jesper Just, to whom I introduced myself. “You really have to meet Tony Podesta,” RoseLee Goldberg whispered. “He’s from Washington.” In fact, he is one of the Democrats’ leading lobbyists, but at this point I don’t know what that means.
“Here’s someone I want you to meet,” said Warhol Foundation chief Joel Wachs. He was speaking of the very cheerful Wayne Baerwaldt, who left the directorship of Toronto’s Power Plant last summer for the Alberta College of Art and Design. Baerwaldt had a flash memory card loaded with Just’s new film trilogy dangling from a lanyard around his necka new trend about to break? (You can take it on a plane.)
At Zwirner, I wasn’t sure I wanted to meet John McCracken after Neuberger Museum director Thom Collins told me that the artist builds those glossy monoliths to communicate with extraterrestrials. (So it's not about the finish after all?) Instead, I collared the genial Jockum Nordström, who introduced me to his painter wife, Mamma Andersson, and their two teenage sons, after which I scampered over to Friedrich Petzel and found myself in conversation with an old-timer, Georg Herold, who puts beluga on canvas instead of on blinis (“Caviar is so scarce these days, it took me a year to get enough to paint,” he said).
Left: Alberta College of Art and Design exhibitions director Wayne Baerwaldt. Right: Artist Georg Herold.
At Anton Kern, I found Brian Calvin hiding in the front office, where he introduced me to London dealer Tommaso Corvi-Mora. “I know you!” he said. Flattering! “I met you before,” Aaron Young reminded me at the mosh pit of an after-party that Klagsbrun, Rivington Arms, and Harris Lieberman threw for Adam McEwen, Dash Snow, and Young at B Bar. Really? “We’ve already met,” Michael Portnoy told me a minute later. Was I getting senile? “By e-mail,” he added. Thank God. “You know, it’s strange,” said Matthew Barney, sitting on the sidelines between McEwen and Neville Wakefield. “There are an awful lot of people here and I hardly know a soul.” McEwen nodded. “Me neither,” he said. In fact, hardly anyone even noticed them. What does it say about a scene when three of its hunkiest stars are the wallflowers?
Still, the most striking aspect of the whole weekend was the inescapable sense of an art world that has grown smaller than ever. There is something distinctly provincialmusty, quaintabout a lot of new art, and art-world attitudes, too. Shouldn’t our Next Big Thing bring us something objectionable? Something with nerve? What was mostly on display last weekend was good behavior. The most provocative show of all didn't make much claim to art and was partly the work of a critic. I am speaking of Gareth James's collaboration with David Joselit at Elizabeth Dee, on view for just a week. Ostensibly addressing artists whom Dee represents but implicating artists everywhere, the puzzled Joselit said it straight out: “Why do you do it? I mean make art.” Why do we have to ask?
Left: Dealer Alison Jacques and Patti Smith. Right: Hayward Gallery director Ralph Rugoff. (All photos: Sarah Thornton)
Last Wednesday, on an exquisite Indian-summer night, London was ringing with hyperbole: I heard more than one dealer proclaim that their young artist was “the next Damien Hirst” and several people declare that London was “the new curatorial capital of the world!” With too many openings to attend, I had to be choosy. First stop, the new Simon Lee Gallery. Beckoned by the giant pineapple sculpture depicted on their invitation, I wanted to see the architectonic work of British artist Toby Ziegler and get the scoop on Lee’s recent emancipation from his business partners Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers. Lee said that the split was “amicable” and pointed out that they will be sharing a stand at next month’s Frieze Art Fair . . . and I heard later that relations will undoubtedly remain cordial, thanks to the bifurcation of the booth by a Berlin-style wall.
After that, all roads led to the Hayward Gallery for an uncharacteristically bustling party thrown to mark the opening of “How to Improve the World: 60 Years of British Art.” With performances, fireworks, and Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs from pop group Saint Etienne spinning vinyl 45s, not to mention huge queues outside and hordes of artists sipping rum cocktails inside, the Hayward looked like it had finally escaped the doldrums of overlooked exhibitions. I attributed this in part to Ralph Rugoff, the evening’s affable host and the gallery’s new director, who stood sentry at the entrance for hours, shaking hands and air kissing. With around 1,600 living artists in the Arts Council Collection but only 124 represented in the show, Rugoff joked that their next project would be an exhibition of all the letters they’d received from artists who were miffed at their exclusion.
Left: Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs of Saint Etienne. Right: Artist Toby Ziegler with dealer Simon Lee.
The next night, I started out at Alison Jacques’s Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition, hoping to encounter the living icon Patti Smith. The gallery was swarming with some twenty photographers (almost all male, and all wielding their mine-is-bigger-than-yours technology), and even though Smith has a teenage spirit, there was no mistaking her authority when she silenced the greedy paparazzi with an “All right, that’s enough, you’ve taken more pictures than Robert did.” I asked Smith what it was like to see Still Moving, 1978, the film they’d made together, here. “It doesn’t feel like someone else’s work. Robert and I really collaborated on it,” she replied. “It makes me feel happy to see our film, but I’m also very sad because we would have turned sixty together at the end of the year.”
The evening’s second act was Christian Jankowski, who was unveiling new horror-themed films, photographs, and sculptures at Lisson Gallery. Jankowski made two of the works at a horror convention in Chicago, where he invited a monstrous crew of extreme people who dress up as characters from cult movies to describe the worst betrayal they had sufferedand their plans for revenge. Jankowski told me that the strangest character he’d met while making the works was a Starbucks barista by day and a Boris Karloff look-alike by night. “The trouble,” he explained, “is that he is absolutely convinced that he is Boris Karloff’s doppelganger, but he looks nothing like him.” Yet, true to Jankowski’s collaborative and improvisational practice, the artist invited the man to engage in a Duchampian round of chess, which he filmed for Playing Frankenstein, 2006, also on view.
At the after-partyin a purportedly haunted wine cellarLisson owner Nicholas Logsdail was hanging out with Guardian art critic Adrian Searle, who was celebrating his tenth year at the national newspaper and partaking in a healthy dose of tomfoolery. When I asked Searle if we could snap his picture, he cried out “Is it for RatForum?!” then offered to put his tongue in Logsdail’s mouth just for us. Logsdail, putting on a professional face, offered his opinion of the Hayward show, noting that “it’s the first time the Arts Council Collection has been looked at intelligently.” No lip locks here, but there was some action nearby, when Jankowski’s Berlin dealer, Martin Klosterfelde, planted a wet one on his bosom buddy, dealer Henry Allsopp. At the other end of the bar, Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla were just having a drink. They’d been in Cologne, installing at the Museum of Applied Art for the Nam June Paik Award show, and were leaving for New York in the morning, so would miss seeing their work at the opening of the Serpentine’s “Uncertain States of America.” With the reminder that I had yet to celebrate another nation-based curatorial endeavor, I decided that it was high time to drag my Belgian-American ass out of there.
Left: Megawords' Anthony Smyrski. Right: Philagrafika's Caitlin Perkins with Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks curator of contemporary projects Robert Wuilfe.
With the scent of five hundred sticks of Nag Champa floating down the wide pavements of Society Hill, the Philadelphia art season got off to a weird but ultimately heartening start on Wednesday evening. An unusual assembly of forces old and new had come together with the noble ambition of presenting a weeklong event with surprise and a bit of heat as the city cools. Sponsorship came from Philagrafika, a new umbrella organization engaged exclusively in the promotion of printed matter with enough brains and funding to merit international ambitions. The art, a video and sculpture installation occupying the entirety of Powel House, an immaculately preserved Georgian manse once inhabited by Philly’s Revolution-era mayor Samuel Powel, was made by Dan Murphy and Anthony Smyrski, a tough local pair who have received much praise of late for Megawords, their free, advertising-free, self-funded magazine of explanation-free pictorial poetry. Strange bedfellows already, the two parties’ elected bed was nuttier still, for this was not at all the sort of vibrant urban environment in which these young Philadelphians thrive. It was an unusual pooling of resources, and nobody, least of all the organizers, knew quite what to expect.
Left: Artist Steve Powers and author and publisher Mattathias Schwartz. Right: Megawords' Dan Murphy.
Joining mobs of kids from the neighborhoods where the artists came up were a spread of shore-tanned downtown art players and delicate older ladies in fluffy tweeds who are probably Powel House regulars, all of whom mingled in several rooms of white cake-frosting sconces and polished Chippendale decorated with wobbling disco lights, priceless VHS dubs of Fox’s Cops episodes showing crack-epidemic mayhem in a local corridor now comfortably bohemian, or silent 8-mm rock footage so blown out that it was impossible to tell whether it was the Exploding Plastic Inevitable or a garage of local nobodies. The pruned garden was crammed with a cellular mass of a dozen dirty tents, suggesting very well-organized campers. It was a compact distillation of high and low city flavor, and as I stepped out for air I passed a prissy sign announcing the “special art exhibition” at the national landmark’s entrance. “How about this neigborhood, huh?” asked the laconic Steven Powers, in from New York to support Murphy, his longtime graffiti acolyte and sometime assistant. “Needs a Starbucks.”
The panel discussion at the center of the event helped the crowd sort out how it came to be. Moderated, in theory, by Shelley Langdale, the Philadelphia Musem’s associate curator of prints and drawings, the roundtable essentially amounted to a string of political tirades. Alex Baker, contemporary curator at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, did a bashfully Red rant on the co-opting of youth culture, citing corporate sponsorship of ANP, a hip art quarterly, as proof that “there’s no safe sector under capitalism. Everything is gray. But Megawords is proof that there are solid ways to navigate it.” The ghosts of American freedom fighters stirred the room. “Printed matter like this is the beginning of something, not the end,” explained ascendant local photographer Zoe Strauss. “It is the beginning”a long pause“of doing whatever it is you want to do!” The packed room came close to cheers, then settled for a polite, well, nothing.
Left: Alex Baker, curator of contemporary art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Right: Espers' Meg Baird and artist Kate Abercrombie.
By the end of the long chat, the panelists were loose and confident. Smyrski got tangled up and laughed his way out of an exchange with an old dear in the audience about what he meant when he said “we were trying to do something cool.” Murphy, whose main financial racket is carpentry, asked another, bluntly, “Do you want to know what we do for money?” as she nervously beat around the bush about how the magazine was supported. The elastic tension between young artists and old audience, both bemused, began to lend the event a real surreal feel. Powers reined it in and wrapped up with measured words about Philadelphia and the terrain, aesthetic and concrete, trodden by all the artists on the panel. “If you want to see rock bottom, man, I got a place for you. If you want to see the best the world has to offer, it’s the price of a subway ride away. That’s what Megawords is about. There is a heartbreakingly beautiful current that runs through this city, and it is not in the upper echelons.” It may have been a little difficult to get behind this point in the room in which George and Martha Washington danced their twentieth wedding anniversary, but he had their collective ear, and for the length of an evening it did seem that everyone was keen to work together. Hours later, I bumped into Murphy in a bar with his girlfriend and the Nag Champa man, who apparently goes by the professional name of DJ Nag Champa. “I’m real happy, man,” he opened up. “I kinda wanted things to get ugly in tent city, but, you know, I think it went real well.”
Left: David Byrne. Right: Sufjan Stevens, David Byrne, Eric Bogosian, Dave Eggers, Ben Karlin, Sarah Vowell, and John Roderick. (All photos: Jennifer Snow)
Luckily, it was an unseasonably cool August night, or the Coalition Provisional Authority treatment attendees received outside the Beacon Theater last week would have thoroughly scotched the vibe of an otherwise benign benefit. Given that will-call lines largely consist of friends and press, putting only one incompetent woman in the boothprotected by clueless gorillasis sinful. The upshot? Many missed the first twenty minutes of the fundraiser for 826NYC, the local branch of 826 Valencia, a chain of free tutoring centers across the country that help children develop their creative writing skills. Founded by Dave Eggers in San Francisco (the name is its Mission District street address), 826 now has locations in Brooklyn, Seattle, LA, Chicago, and Ann Arbor, often with whimsical storefront themes like “Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co.” and useless-but-fun merchandise that furthers the theme and allows the nonprofit to get around retail zoning laws.
As I entered the darkened Beacon, I saw that it was a full house, and the laughter emanating from the crowd for Jon Stewart, the first act, told me there was a lot of love in the room. Stewart, reading from his best-selling book about America, was periodically interrupted by an older man to his left. The man was Ben Karlin, executive producer of The Daily Show and coauthor of America: The Book, playing the part of an American-history professor, there to add punch to Stewart’s slightly warmed-over routine by correcting him on incorrect assertions in the book. This went over well. The crowdwhite twenty-through-thirtysomethings, devotees of NPR and The Onionequally enjoyed Stewart’s original satire and the spectacle of a brilliant political gadfly being held to the facts.
John Hodgman (The Areas of My Expertise author and Daily Show contributor) and musician Jonathan Coulton then took the podium. Hodgman, a former high school debate champ if I ever saw one, wore a conservative suit. Coulton wore a perilously large coonskin cap and wielded an acoustic guitar. They introduced a goateed Eggers, who delivered some impromptu comments about 826 and thanked the crowd for coming. A newly prepared video about 826 was charming, and a subsequent slide show featured some wonderfully disturbing collages by Alex, a prize student at the Brooklyn location, that involve Jessica Simpson traveling to other dimensions, and some strangely transmogrified men and animals. Alex will surely give Elizabeth Peyton a run for her money someday.
Next up were the musicians, starting with Long Winters frontman John Roderick, a Seattle songwriter who looks every bit the beefy northwestern logger. Roderick is known for his wry, writerly lyrics, and in the three songs he played, his booming voice made the most of them, stretching his vowels to the breaking point. He is, perhaps, the burliest sensitive singer-songwriter I’ve ever seenHodgman called him a “hulking man-beast”and I suspect he won more than a few new fans with his performance.
Then, boy wonder Sufjan Stevens took the stage with banjo, piano, and several horn and string players. Given the audience response, it seemed that he was the biggest draw on the bill. A tiny indie-Christian songwriter, Stevens is on a quixotic quest to record an album about each of the fifty states; his entries on Michigan and Illinois have already met with high critical acclaim. He and his band played several winsome chamber-pop songs, and I sympathized as he counted beats on his thigh to keep himself grounded in his odd time signatures. He also talked about a memorable writing teacher from his elementary school and the novel he wrote at age ten or so. Somebody give the kid a MacArthur.
The lights came up for an intermission, which was really an excuse for Eggers and his minions to pass the hat for further cash donations. Hodgman and Sarah Vowell stood at the podium, joking about how déclassé it was to have punters pony up for a benefit ticket and then hit them for more cash once they were in their seats. But this questionable move required no ironic self-abasement. The crowd gladly handed over twenties (for a hug from Eggers) and hundreds (in hopes of winning superhero gizmos). As I said, there was a lot of love in the room. And yes, I gave.
After roughly $15,000 was gathered and Coulton sang a couple verses of “Oh Death,” the lights dimmed for Vowell, who introduced surprise guest Eric Bogosian to help her read a newly finished comic essay centered on the dispirited diary entries of a real-life explorer/cartographer of the American West. Vowell’s piece received big applause and neatly furthered the theme explored by most of the evening’s performersthe dark, wacky America. Who better, then, to cap off this event than Mr. True Stories himself, David Byrne? A longtime supporter of Eggers, having published two books with McSweeney’s, Byrne emerged with a Jim Jarmusch–like shock of white hair and a postmodern Nehru jacket to deliver a “country set,” including versions of some later Talking Heads songs, backed by a small band. The crowd ate it up, Byrne receiving as much applause as Stevens. It’s appropriate, then, that he closed the circle by inviting Stevens back onstage for a rollicking duet on a Lefty Frizzell song about Saginaw, MI. I would have preferred “Jackson,” with Stevens as June Carter, but, as with the rest of this unusual, disarming benefit, it seems churlish to quibble.