The biggest news at this weekend’s Art Chicago did not involve the fair—or at least that fair. Whispers during the Thursday-night preview spread further on Friday and were confirmed at a press conference on Saturday: Merchandise Mart Properties, which purchased the ailing event last year, had invested heavily in both the Armory Show and Volta (the latter is a three-year-old emerging-art fair held in Basel). Subsequently, nearly every conversation began, “Did you hear that the Mart bought the Armory?” A Monday phone conversation with Armory cofounder Paul Morris clarified things: The deal is a “strategic partnership for now but is on its way to being an outright purchase of the fair by the Merchandise Mart.”
Deliberately or not, the announcement served in part as a useful smoke screen. In an attempt to win back dealers and collectors wary of Art Chicago’s decline, the Merchandise Mart spent a rumored four to six million dollars on this year’s fair. But according to most people with whom I spoke, the outlay—on countless elevator operators, promotional Web videos, and radio commercials, for example, and a flashy symposium held in the Frank Gehry–designed pavilion in Millennium Park—was not entirely effective, and the fair, while efficiently managed, is not yet ready to compete with fairs in New York, London, Basel, or Miami.
This was evidenced in part by the conspicuously low number of out-of-town collectors noted by several dealers from New York, Los Angeles, and Europe, though dutiful Chicagoans shopped with a sense of hometown pride and graciously opened their homes to VIPs. The Merchandise Mart runs hundreds of trade shows and conferences (Art Chicago was held alongside four other art fairs, collectively titled Artropolis), but there’s no more fickle buyer than the art collector. It was fairly clear that for all its efforts the Mart had “neglected its base.” One New York–based artist echoed the sentiment during a Thursday-evening taxi ride: “It’s painful to see so much energy and money spent in the wrong direction.”
Left: Artist Adam Pendleton. Right: Symposium C6 organizers Victoria Burns and Lynne Sowder.
That’s not to say that there wasn’t some good art on view: Toronto dealer Susan Hobbs brought photographs by octogenarian Conceptual stalwart Arnaud Maggs, long overdue for Stateside attention; Galerie Karsten Greve had an elegant booth, one side of which was given over to white monochromes by recent Italian masters like Piero Manzoni; and Paul Kasmin brought a cotton-candy-pink Jules Olitski canvas and two small new Frank Stella sculptures. But still, the pickings were slim, a sentiment most easily demonstrated when you measure the booths against those at the fair the Mart just bought: Of the roughly 130 exhibitors at Art Chicago, I’d hazard that no more than a dozen would be accepted if they applied to next year’s Armory.
Much of my weekend was spent at an attendant symposium, titled “C6: The Art World Is Flat: Globalism—Crisis and Opportunity.” Organized by Victoria Burns and Lynne Sowder, two art advisers long active in the city, the discussion kicked off on Thursday with a rousing, gospel-revival-style presentation from theater director Peter Sellars, who advocated the ameliorative power of art in the face of poverty, injustice, disease, rampant incarceration, and the “sad triumphalism of American culture”—a rhetoric whose fever pitch was rivaled only by Sellars’s comically upswept hair.
If Thursday suffered from overlong individual presentations and truncated group discussion, on Friday panelists began breaking the mold: Artist Adam Pendleton’s talk strayed quickly from monotone factual delivery toward a prose-poem scat about the potential of magazines and the laboratory as a working model, and curator Erika Dalya Muhammad led a practical, relevant discussion with designer Stephen Burks and artist Simone Aaberg Kaern. Curator Bruce Ferguson delivered a fascinating afternoon keynote, less showy than but just as wide-ranging as Sellars’s. To the accompaniment of Brian Eno’s ambient music and visuals, Ferguson forecast an imminent “postliterate” age in which facility with images will trump facility with words. (I doubt the irony was lost on him that his well-constructed argument was its own counterargument.)
Left: MCA Chicago curator Dominic Molon with artists Jack Sloss and Siebren Versteeg. Right: Designer Bruce Mau.
On Friday evening, after a brief stop at a private collector’s lakefront home (offering an undifferentiated smorgasbord of recently purchased art), I joined the throngs in the West Loop gallery district, where several exhibitions opened and Kavi Gupta was hosting a well-attended party in his Washington Boulevard gallery building. (It still smelled like beer on Saturday afternoon.) I enjoyed a nearby dinner for forty hosted by Monique Meloche to celebrate artist Carla Arocha and her collaborator Stephane Schraenen. There, between bites of pillowy chocolate baklava, I chatted with Art Institute assistant curator Lisa Dorin and artist Kerry James Marshall, who is nervously expecting the South Side real estate boom sure to accompany Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics.
The after-party was at Wicker Park’s Debonair Social Club. Social, perhaps, but not quite debonair. By that point, well after midnight, more rumors of the Merchandise Mart’s plans were in samizdat circulation. Three confidants outlined the possibility of a Volta show in New York and a megascale real estate deal that would give both fairs a permanent space in Manhattan. (“All I want is a stable home . . . two hundred thousand contiguous square feet,” said Morris.) Last year, the New York City Economic Development Corporation put out a call for proposals for piers 92 and 94, suggesting that the space between them be filled and the site turned into a midsize trade-show center. There were three bidders: The current leaseholder for piers 90 and 92, the current leaseholder for pier 94, and the Merchandise Mart. A decision has not yet been made; a call to the EDC went unanswered before press time.
Should the Mart’s proposal be accepted—and owning a marquee property like the Armory Show can be seen as a strategic strengthening of the Mart’s proposal—it will be fascinating to watch how this affects other fairs. If the art world views these events as an aberrant but inescapable exhibition model, what happens when two of the largest are run by a company that sees them, however open-mindedly, as but items in an expanding portfolio of corporate trade shows?
Given rumors of billion-dollar real estate deals, it was a pleasure to spend part of the weekend at galleries that operate on a completely different scale. On Saturday night, Jamisen Ogg opened “Theoretical Nail in Your Art Coffin,” his new exhibition at duchess, a gallery run by Rhona Hoffman directors Katie Rashid and Kat Parker out of Rashid’s apartment. And on Sunday afternoon, I joined a gaggle of artists, dealers, and critics lolling on artist Michelle Grabner’s front lawn in the western suburb of Oak Park, celebrating solo exhibitions by Katharina Grosse (at Grabner’s gallery, The Suburban) and Michael Phelan (at Shane Campbell) with homemade pineapple upside-down cake. After seventy-two hours spent gathering information passed in shadows, it was an immense pleasure to simply revel in the artists’ psychedelic palettes and relax in the sun.
Left: Dealer Monique Meloche. Right: Curator Erika Dalya Muhammad, dealer Kim Light, and Richard Berle.
“What goes on in there?” an exasperated woman wondered aloud as she passed the neoclassical slab of prime real estate that is the Puck Building, in Soho. On Monday evening, the question was more pertinent than usual, as members of the Hungry March Band blurted and blatted their Balkan stomp music outside the front door. Having been dispatched to cover the Paris Review’s Spring Revel, a benefit dinner with guest of honor Norman Mailer, I was positively atwitter about gaining admission to this most inscrutable of downtown venues. My gratification, however, was delayed. Arriving at 7 PM for cocktails, I was officiously rebuffed by a clipboard-wielding gatekeeper, who, when I said, “Press,” a word that clearly dripped icicles in her mind’s eye, said, “You’ll have to come back at nine for the event.” “Oh,” I said, deciding not to get all up in her grill. It’s so stressful being a party planner.
After some sake with a friend in the East Village, I returned to claim my rightful place. Making my way into the Grand Ballroom, where dessert was being served, I scanned the broad expanse of festive wear for familiar faces. Seeing none, not even Mailer, I retreated into the anteroom, where the free booze flowed and my friend the novelist Gary Shteyngart passed through. A “writer host” for the evening, it was Gary’s job to amuse the uptown swells who had ponied up five hundred dollars a person for their evening with Norm. Finally, there was action on the makeshift stage, as the famously pugnacious Mailer was escorted to his honorary seat above the crowd. Philip Gourevitch, the current editor of the Paris Review, ascended to the dais and grunted into the mic to check the sound.
Gourevitch welcomed the patrons and introduced E. L. Doctorow, who was to toast Mailer. Doctorow was there “to give Norman the bird,” he deadpanned, a somewhat strained double entendre. Mailer was receiving the Review’s Hadada Award, an annual honor bestowed on “a distinguished member of the literary community who has demonstrated a strong and unique commitment to the literary arts,” and so named after George Plimpton’s favorite bird, an ibis. Plimpton himself resembled a graying ibis in his later years, so the icon preserves the absent figurehead’s spirit. Doctorow described Mailer as a writer who came out of World War II “with his dukes up” and how “he’s been fighting ever since.” He mentioned Norman’s tangles with feminists, his pioneering sense of self-promotion, his machismo, his parallels with Jack London. He called Mailer a “prince of truculence” and his corpus “the most comprehensive reportage on the second half of the twentieth century.” Claiming that this would be the “strangest award” Norman would ever receive, Doctorow asked Paris Review cofounder Peter Matthiessen to stand and deliver the cry of the hadada, a rare song that the famous nature writer has ostensibly heard. Matthiessen ululated convincingly, to mild applause.
Left: Author E. L. Doctorow. Right: Author Joan Didion.
After pleas from Mailer to turn down the spotlights, Gourevitch settled in for a brief interview. “What is a novel?” he asked. Mailer called it “a Cadillac question,” demanding 2 percent effort from the asker, 98 percent from the answerer, but cleared his throat and took a swing. “A novel is history,” he said. Actual history books are biased and inadequate. “Histories are made of rotten bricks,” he said, “novels lay straw in the mortar.” Asked to dilate on his statement, in a 1964 Paris Review interview, “Style is character,” Mailer said: “Style covers the waterfront. Style is charm, but it limits the writer’s ability.” This is a bit oblique, even for an old man. Then, as nervous laughter rose from the crowd, I swear I heard Mailer say, “If you have a small penis and a mean character, you can write a two-hundred page book and get away with it.” (I was later assured by Gourevitch and others that he actually said, “If you have a small mean spirit . . .” but really, this was Norman Mailer.)
Mailer said that he was most influenced by Picasso—the artist’s many different approaches to capturing reality. He then compared novelists to athletes, but grew impatient, saying, “But this is so lugubrious, what else?” Turning to Mailer’s latest novel, The Castle in the Forest, about the young Hitler’s grooming by an assistant to the devil, Gourevitch tried to land a jab on the old pugilist, asking Mailer whether it doesn’t let the historical Hitler off the hook to ascribe his actions to Satan’s influence. “No, it doesn’t,” Mailer answered. But this got his dander up, and he launched into a provocative spiel that the paying punters were no doubt expecting: “There’s a bit of Hitler in all of us. I have 5 percent of Hitler in me. When someone does something that pisses you off, you want to kill them. That’s the Hitler in us.”
With that, the Hungry March Band, now inside, kicked off a raucous set that emptied the ballroom of bankers and blue-hairs but quick. One aging matron, plugging her ears, said to me, “It’s like they’re trying to drive us out of here!” It was rather rackety. Perhaps the band was supposed to conjure the carnivalesque vibe of Plimpton’s legendary parties on East Seventy-second Street, but it felt forced. It was Monday night, and those who could afford a thousand dollars for a pair of tickets most likely had to work the next day, moving sectors of the stock market around to suit their whims. After all, there’s 5 percent of Hitler in each of us.
The food was awful and the company mixed (from uptown and down-) at Sunday’s Earth Day benefit gala for the New Museum of Contemporary Art. The evening was very nice, as was the setting. Nice weather accompanied 670 friendly guests to the princely precincts of Cipriani 42nd Street, the former bank opposite Grand Central Station. Inflatables, or their approximations, were in the air. Not only did strings of foam pearls resembling round balloons (arranged by Jes Gordon) dangle from a black-and-white fabric canopy two stories above our expensively coiffed heads, but one of the evening’s two guests of honor was Jeff Koons, king of the cast inflatable. Richard Prince, whose print Drawing is currently featured on Marni Balloon handbags, was his cohonoree.
This slam-dunk duo of artist celebrity helped draw just over two million dollars to the hungry coffers of the new New Museum headquarters on the Bowery, which are slated to open in November. That’s eight hundred thousand dollars more than the annual gala raised last year, certainly a nice way to celebrate the once-scruffy museum’s thirtieth anniversary—the pearl one, in case you didn't know. Seven months before its scheduled completion, the building has already transformed its surroundings, once the right address only for derelicts (and the odd artist). Not only is Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn racing to move her Upper East Side gallery Salon 94 to Freeman’s Alley, behind the new building, but the neighborhood is now bourgeois enough to boast new high-rise apartment houses ugly enough to thumb their overscaled noses at sensitive citizens like you and me. It also has several exclusive nightclubs (none as racy as the old Sammy’s Bowery Follies) and the biggest Wholefoods Market in Manhattan.
All the same, you'd think there would be more excitement to the event’s atmosphere, instead of a sense of obligation. People were there to show support. Certainly, they did not come for the meal. (We could all smell the Chilean sea bass coming long before it reached the tables.) Hopefully, the New Museum will hold future fundraisers in its own building, with some more reliable company to do the catering. (Wholefoods crudités, anyone?)
It didn’t matter. At such humongous affairs, it’s the cocktail hour that counts. That’s the benefit-goer’s best chance to talk trash to power and check out the outfits. I learned that Glenn O’Brien and Gina Nanni had flown directly from the Menil Collection’s twentieth-anniversary celebration in Houston—a masked ball attended by far fewer artists than those in the crowd before us. Clifford Ross and Mike Starn were quick to sing the praises of collectors Shelley and Philip Aarons. And Marianne Boesky showed off Liam Culman, her husband. “I'm not in the art world,” he said when I asked them to pose. “You are when you're out with me,” she retorted.
When the blini-and-caviar hors d’oeuvres ran out, the table hunt began. Rachel Feinstein and John Currin were placed at Dianne Wallace's; Nate Lowman wasn’t. Neville Wakefield was seated with Richard Prince; Barbara Gladstone wasn’t. Indeed, there were many odd couples about. John Waters drew Simon de Pury; Jeffrey Deitch got Thelma Golden. Laura Hoptman entertained Urs Fischer; Andrew Lord squired Aggie Gund. Mary Boone appeared solo; Jane Rosenblum arrived with Rob Wynne and left with Curt Marcus.
I lucked out as a guest of Rachel and Jean-Pierre Lehmann, who seated me with Sant Ambroeus restaurateur Gherardo Guarducci, art adviser Raphael Castoriano, and Public Art Fund director Rochelle Steiner. The Miuccia Prada table was next to ours, though instead of Prada it had Amanda Sharp, Vik Muniz, and Tom Sachs. To our left was Year of the Dog star Molly Shannon and her artist husband, a nice man with a wonderful name: Fritz Chesnut.
During the first course, an unsightly tangle of prosciutto and dessicated baby pear, New Museum curator Richard Flood gave his buddy Prince a spirited introduction, calling the artist “a combination of Howard Hughes and Frank Sinatra—the wizened recluse and the coolest kid on the block.” Prince gamely thanked the museum “for keeping me in the picture,” though he had told me earlier he was “too drunk” to make a speech.
In his hagiography of Koons, collector Dakis Joannou limned all the hard times the artist had weathered in years past. Coming during the week that Calvin Tomkins’s peckish New Yorker profile noted Koons’s studio payroll of eighty-plus and put his expenses at several hundred thousand dollars a month, the hardship theme seemed ill timed, to say the least. Odder still was that Koons cited New Museum founder Marcia Tucker three times in his remarks and ignored Lisa Phillips. Nice one!
At my table, the presentation inspired talk of art, the exposure afforded by art fairs, and the ups and downs of art careers like those of Prince and Koons. Rachel Lehmann spoke proudly of the artists’ works in her collection, how long it took Prince’s joke paintings to find an audience, and the fact that she's now priced out of his market, currently the province of manipulators who have made important art indistinguishable from expensive art. (Not so nice!)
Taste was again put to the test during a live auction (conducted by the indefatigable de Pury) of remaining works from the New Museum's commissioned editions. (A Jim Hodges glass tree branch brought the biggest price, forty-eight thousand dollars). As Nicole Atkins and the Sea took the stage to belt out a few ear-banging rockers—making further conversation impossible—the room began to clear. “If this were my wedding, I would shoot myself,” said Castoriano, glancing at the empty tables around us. Peeking in our goodie bags, I found temporary tattoos that included a winged heart inscribed with the words FOREVER NEW—a nice touch. If only it were true.
Left: Artist Fritz Chesnut with actress Molly Shannon. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky) Right: Artist Cindy Sherman with musician David Byrne. (Photo: Patrick McMullan)
In São Paulo, everything is upside down: eighty-six-degree autumns, dinners at midnight, ubiquitous smokers, gracious people. It all proved that, even in the most inverted worlds, ever-increasing fairs are an existential necessity; in addition to its well-known biennial, São Paulo now has another cultural attraction: SP Arte, which in its third year is rapidly establishing itself as another essential event in any contemporary-art globe-trotter’s diary. Still, some dealers didn't even bother: According to gallery director Cristina Candeloro, Luísa Strina was “in Miami working on the next Miami Basel.” With almost no other openings that week, the city’s cultural institutions seemed strangely apathetic. Nevertheless, the fair served up an excellent survey of Brazilian artists and galleries (only six of the fifty-nine booths were from abroad), from Fortes Vilaça, Brito Cimino, and Casa Triângulo to Ernesto Neto, Rochelle Costi, and Lúcia Koch—the latter presenting, in a parallel program, a large installation evoking, in her own words, “a booth, a garage, and a cell.”
Arriving at Niemeyer’s famous pavilion in Ibirapuera park directly from the airport, I rolled in just in time for the opening-night festivities. Portuguese dealer Mário Sequeira was delighted: “I already sold most of what is on view!” Eyeing his roster of European superstars, including Franz West and Douglas Gordon, I wondered at the hint of surprise in his voice. Dealer Luciana Brito confirmed that she, too, had seen a boost in sales, thanks to a rising generation of collectors. During a late dinner at renowned Pizzaria Bráz with, among others, curators David Barro and Paulo Reis, artist José Bechara, and dealers Lúcio and Flávia Albuquerque, discussion turned to the fair's crucial role in bridging the gaping chasm between contemporary art and the public. Fair director Fernanda Feitosa touched on the same idea, saying, “We are young but already appeal to new audiences. The fair will grow and everybody will ask how Brazil could have lived for so many years without it.”
Feitosa made her comment as she drove me back from a party at dealer Fábio Cimino's Paulista Avenue apartment (a sort of private museum with amazing works by, among others, Nelson Leirner). This was on Friday, my third-consecutive night out—par for the course for many of the guests, who stayed out until 5 AM dancing, keyed up on chopp, a light beer, or the country’s celebrated caipirinhas. There, as at previous events in the posh mansions of dealers Regina Pinho and Raquel Arnaud, a mix of young artists, curators, and collectors mingled to the sound of Brazilian electronic music coming from—where else?—iPods. If, at Arnaud’s house, Madrid-based collector João Teixeira Gomes held court for a rapt audience by describing his long car journey through Africa, at Cimino’s I was the one being noticed. Curator Inês Raphaelian and friend Bruno Assami played the role of my personal hosts, even warning me of the menacing photographer making the rounds that evening. Raphaelian explained: “It's for Glamourama, a website featuring celebrities.” I didn’t even know there were any.
Conversations that evening were dominated by issues surrounding the biennial—reports of financial misconduct were going into print in the city’s major newspaper, yet the president of the promoting foundation had just been reelected on Thursday. These heady topics also figured in an earlier engaging tête-à-tête with curator Adriano Pedrosa at his charming triplex apartment on the seventeenth story of a Jardins skyscraper. Chat was also refreshing at Galeria Vermelho's intellectual soiree with artist Ana Maria Tavares, curator Martin Grossman, and dealers Eliana Finkelstein and Eduardo Brandão, among others, where we discussed the conservative programs that have marked São Paulo’s museums in recent years.
On Saturday morning, I skipped a collector’s brunch at Galeria Fortes Vilaça to pay a visit to artist Sandra Cinto at her studio in the popular borough of Vila Madalena, where she offered me her latest self-published book. After seeing José Leonilson’s ironic drawings at the Estação Pinacoteca and attending a crowded opening of Antonio Manuel’s survey show at downtown’s Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, I made a last-minute trip to the fair, where I witnessed dealer Márcia Fortes’s daughter hanging out at the gallery's booth, looking inordinately pleased every time a featured sound sculpture emitted its funny loud noise. At 8 PM, Feitosa’s personal driver arrived to pick me up. While taking me to the airport, I noted the city’s uncanny lack of advertising, a result of the mayor's recent ban on “visual pollution.” Listening to Tribalistas’s “Já sei namorar” (I Already Know How to Date) on the plane, I left Brazil armed with four bottles of duty-free cachaça and affirmations of my initial impression that Brazil is different—better, perhaps: Even the rain of a tropical storm, which on Saturday had caught me unprepared, was warm.
Left: Curator Gianfranco Maraniello with artists Tobias Rehberger and Olafur Elisasson. (Photo: Roberto Arcari) Right: Dealer Burkhard Riemschneider and friend.
Standing alone on Thursday evening, barefoot in the garden grass, I was giving my bloody blisters a rest from their hot-pink instruments of torture when Berlin dealer Burkhard Riemschneider approached. I asked: “Who’s the blonde babe whom I took a photo of earlier? Pilar something?” “She’s with Haunch of Venison in London,” said Riemschneider, then, throwing me a red herring: “The gallery that was just bought by Christie’s.” I jested that if he didn’t stop dragging that hard silver suitcase around there’d be rumors that he’d come to Milan to buy out Gió Marconi. But the real topic of the evening’s celebration, held in the private residence of Muccia Prada, was On Otto, German artist Tobias Rehberger’s most recent megacollaboration, a “backward film.” The piece isn’t played backward but was, rather, made in reverse, beginning with the advertising poster and proceeding to the credits, the sound, the editing, the sets, the storyboard . . .
The opening reception preceding the dinner was packed: Lines to enter the four pavilions the artist had constructed were worse than those at Epcot Center in the '80s. Rehberger wowed viewers once again as the maestro of dark mazes of intent, like Berlin Philharmonic architect Hans Scharoun with a wild streak. He let the reins loose, then put together the pieces as they returned. Each maker was given three weeks to create their part of the exquisite corpse, with successive participants allowed to see everything that had come before. Ennio Morricone’s score was based on the film’s credits alone, a sweet series of comiclike bones arranged in a tic-tac-toe grid by French design duo Kuntzel & Deygas. This apparently suited him: Morricone had told Rehberger that he never needed to see a film before deploying his trademark, universally lauded sound.
Who turned out to inspect the results, besides a sea of unfamiliar Italian faces? German collectors Thomas and Annette Grässlin had flown in (Thomas once produced a Rehberger Japanese teahouse–cum–film project), as had old-school friend-of-Kippenberger Hanno Huth. Peu à peu, the unknowns became known: I shared a taxi home with production designer Jeffrey Beecroft and met Sylvie Landra, the film’s editor, in the hotel elevator.
Left: Collector Annette Grässlin and artist Carmen Gheorghe. Right: Collector Thomas Grässlin and film producer Hanno Huth.
No Hollywood celebrities were in sight, but the art stars made up it with their own personal dramas. Olafur Eliasson, on whose coattails I grasped tightly in order to gain entrance to the private dinner for twenty, had left his life in the taxi: laptop, cell phone, calendar, and tuxedo (in case the dinner was black-tie; he couldn’t remember). The widespread panic attending to a scatterbrained moment convincingly proved that galleries, which seem to hold limitless power, are always beholden to their artists. Riemschneider stood on high alert. Marconi was glued to his cell phone, his charm the life jacket ensuring the uninterrupted operation not only of Olafur’s practice but also that of his galleries across the world. Joep van Lieshout, whose new exhibition at Marconi’s grand gallery had just opened, asked, “Do you think we should call Tanya Bonakdar and advise her to stay calm?” Last word before leaving was that the driver was in Bergamo; no doubt he’d charge a pretty penny for an overnight bag containing Eliasson’s future.
The scenario spurred on the thought: Could you run a gallery backward? The imaginary first step—convincing a collector to buy an as-yet-unknown work by an unnamed artist—seemed so unlikely that my already significant respect for Miuccia Prada increased to an Italianate rispetto-one. She had taken a leap, trusting Rehberger to produce a “film” for which no visual proposals could be made. Rehberger introduced me to the producer Lisa Feinstein—whose name didn’t register—who then introduced me to another behind-the-scenes mover I didn’t know, despite her stellar credit list (including working with Bernardo Bertolucci and David Cronenberg). The on-set gossip seemed straight out of a '50s-era guidebook on how to be a diva: Rumor had it that Mickey Rourke’s heavy demands for clothing (some €100,000 worth of Prada) got him dropped from the film, and Kim Basinger had mistaken Rehberger for the porter on their first meeting. Cut to the martini shot—as I left the party, Rehberger and Prada had broken out a deck of cards. Such harmless fun! With nothing harder than Viagra on offer, I tumbled back to the hotel at an unusually respectable hour.
Left: Artist Michael Portnoy, New Museum director Lisa Phillips, and Swiss Institute director Gianni Jetzer. Right: Artist Michael Bell-Smith and Rhizome.org director Lauren Cornell. (Unless noted, all photos: David Velasco)
Am I the only one disconcerted by the decor at Chelsea megaclub Hiro Ballroom? Any flat surface that isn’t wood-paneled is embellished with either kanji characters or questionable pseudoerotic tableaux. Otherwise, it’s a lovely space, and Rhizome.org, the New Museum’s new-media affiliate, which curates both real-world and virtual art exhibitions, made the most of the intimate lighting and cozy booths for its benefit on Monday evening. Organized by director Lauren Cornell, the event featured three bands with legs in the art world—Gang Gang Dance, Professor Murder, and YACHT—and multimedia artist Cory Arcangel as MC.
VIPs received a pair of chopsticks from the desk and a welcome from Cornell, who was surprisingly warm and equanimous given that an Artforum staffer (who will remain unnamed) had rear-ended her boyfriend’s rental car the day before. We ascended to the mezzanine, where attendees—mostly thirty- and fortysomething friends of the New Museum—adopted the hunched posture characteristic of people eating noodles from take-out boxes. “Oddly enough, I’m nervous,” said Arcangel, who sat in a corner next to curator Hanne Mugaas. He was preparing for his stage duties by hastily reading a printout of Wikipedia’s entry on “Master of Ceremonies.” “I wouldn’t be nervous if I could take a computer up there with me,” he added, shoring up his geek-chic status. As Arcangel climbed up on stage and introduced the evening, the slightly richer guests bought drinks from the bar (it was decidedly a fund-raiser) and the slightly richest took part in the silent auction. Artist Leo Villareal bid frequently and enthusiastically on Rick Silva’s Recap, but lost out in the final hour to philanthropist and Eyebeam founder John Johnson. One quirky inclusion on the block was a Conceptual piece by artist Lee Walton, who promised to dedicate each of a future golf game’s eighteen holes to corresponding high bidders. “I love the idea of being pressured to land a hole in one for a collector,” explained Walton.
From stage, YACHT—Jona Bechtolt’s one-man band—chanted, “If you say it out loud, you can make it happen!” The flashing, fluorescent video screen that served as backdrop to his set drew a comment from curator Nick Hallett: “I have friends who call this ‘seizure art.’ They wouldn’t be caught dead at this. They’re ‘upstanding’—you know, book deals and the like.”
Next to take the stage was Professor Murder, fronted by Foxy Production video artist Michael Bell-Smith, whose set was driven by the taiko-drumming-on-speed sound that has recently characterized so many of the best Brooklyn bands. While they rocked out, I exchanged hellos with Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky, who found a way (in thirty seconds!) to weave together the words “Karl Marx,” “Angola,” “Venice Biennale,” “Chinese community,” and, if I indeed heard correctly, “era of the documentary.”
Brian DeGraw, Gang Gang Dance’s synth player, had predicted backstage, “None of our fans will be here. It’s the $35 ticket.” But that wasn’t the only reason they seemed subdued; drummer Tim DeWit explained, “We’ve also been recording for days at our studio. I didn’t get any sleep last night.” Still, the four-piece group put on an energetic show, layering their signature reverb and effects over inexorable sixteenth-note-based drumming. They enthralled an audience that ranged from Cameron Bird, the frontman of Architecture in Helsinki (an Australian indie-pop band), to Craig Konyk, an actual architect. Now and then, frontwoman Lizzi Bougatsos would punctuate her wordless ululations with a coltish kick of her heel, and everyone’s hearts would melt.
Just as Bougatsos and DeGraw (both currently exhibiting work at the Swiss Institute) have no compunctions about crossing disciplines, neither does celebrated artist-of-all-trades Brian O’Doherty, whose alter ego Patrick Ireland has been a regular feature of his art since he adopted the persona in 1972. That same evening, O’Doherty presided over the opening of his retrospective at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery. He spoke about his novel in progress: “It’s called Cross-Dresser’s Secret and is about an extraordinary man who lived half his life as a woman.” And when will it be published? “Give me a couple more years.”
Left: Critic and curator Rachel Greene, Whitney curator Shamim Momin, and artist Sue De Beer. Right: Artist Leo Villareal with Rhizome.org founder Mark Tribe.
While MoMA’s John Elderfield chatted with dealer Frederieke Taylor, Carlo McCormick turned up, revisiting the site of “The Downtown Show,” the nostalgic blockbuster he curated last year. Surveying the graying guests scattered among the crowd, I wondered if his ruefully humorous comment—“Well, we all left ‘The Downtown Show’ alive”—was meant to sound as portentous as it did. Though O’Doherty said it felt like he’d made all the work on display in “a long afternoon,” the show, spanning sixty-two years and five of his personae, offered a broad overview of his playful but erudite art. The show is titled “Beyond the White Cube,” but it was striking that, as with Rhizome’s experimental benefit, neither event ventured much beyond its respective white-cube-laden neighborhood. The Rhizome event fell just a couple blocks short of Chelsea’s gallery district, while the veterans celebrating with O’Doherty were within spitting distance of the East Village of yore. It was almost as if, after all the discipline-crossing, no one wanted to stray too far from those very galleries they’d finally managed to escape.
A giant sign made of flowers reading SMILE, YOU’RE IN SHARJAH greets visitors at one of the city’s busiest intersections. But on the drive over to the smaller emirate from Dubai International Airport, I saw little to smile about. The area is bloated on oil steroids, evidenced by a stark increase in pollution, congestion, and chaotically dispersed buildings since my last visit two years ago. Against this backdrop, the eighth edition of the Sharjah Biennial—presided over by Princess Hoor al-Qasimi and titled “Still Life: Art, Ecology, and the Politics of Change”—opened with a provocative question regarding art’s efficacy vis-à-vis environmental damage. With over two hundred guests flown in at the biennial’s expense and catalogues and folders printed on nonrecycled paper, the exhibition’s organizers hardly seemed to have taken the show’s thematic concerns fully to heart. One exception to the inconsistency was artist Tea Mäkipää, who shamed us all with her hard-won artistic contribution: a twenty-four day ground journey to Sharjah from Weimar, which she religiously documented on her blog.
The two-day opening festivities began on Wednesday, April 4, when H. H. Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi, ruler of Sharjah, opened the exhibition alongside Rolf Schnellecke, the mayor of Wolfsburg (Sharjah’s twin city and a potentially important economic partner). In the evening, over three hundred invited notables had the opportunity to experience Middle Eastern hospitality at the gala dinner and awards ceremony. Following a long and sumptuous halal dinner, thirsty revelers rushed to Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club, lured by the prospects of a not-so-halal open bar sponsored by Dubai gallery the Third Line and Bidoun magazine. (Though strictly illegal in Sharjah, alcohol is tolerated in Dubai’s numerous licensed venues.) The following evening’s program offered even more contrast. After a formal alfresco dinner at the Radisson hosted by the city’s commerce department, artists, curators, and journalists enjoyed the assorted shabby nightclubs and bars in neighboring midnight oasis Ajman. After a pint with higher-ups at two other biennials, Marieke Van Hal (Athens) and Paul Domela (Liverpool), I repaired to low-key joint the Baywatch, where a tame erotic dance performed by a group of teenage Filipinas was received in good humor by a crew of artists, including Marjolijn Dijkman, Kasper Akhoj, Tue Greenfort, and Tomas Saraceno.
Left: Artist Kasper Akhoj and perfomer Namik Minter/ Donelle Woolford. Right: Manifesta International Foundation director Hedwig Fijen, Athens Biennial director Marieke Van Hal, and art adviser Victoria Anstead.
Despite my initial misgivings, the exhibition featured a number of site-specific works made in response to the local context and the concept of art and ecology. These included newly commissioned pieces by Lara Almarcegui, Greenfort, Dan Perjovschi, and Peter Fend, as well as the first-ever staging of Gustav Metzger’s Stockholm, June (phase 1), featuring 120 cars simultaneously blowing combustion fumes into a large plastic cube. Equally compelling was a community-specific project by e-Xplo (comprising Rene Gabri, Heimo Lattner, and Erin McGonigle) and Ayreen Anastas. Using recordings of migrant workers singing, the artist created a parcours of sound installations, literally offering a voice to the deprived laborers.
The multifaceted relationship between art and ecology was further articulated during a three-day symposium organized by Michaela Crimmin of London’s RSA, Latitudes (Max Andrews and Mariana Cánepa Luna), and the American University of Sharjah, as well as during an accompanying film program curated by Mark Nash. A surprise appearance by Rem Koolhaas riled some spirits. His cameo prompted a fervent set-to between the Dutch architect and members of e-Xplo, who were irritated by Koolhaas’s refusal of architecture’s moral responsibility, as well as by his skeptical reactions to Mike Davis’s texts denouncing the unglamorous reality behind the UAE’s recent economic success. Koolhaas responded that, unlike contemporary art, his profession makes less room for institutional critique.
Before heading back to London, under the pretense of environmental correctness I shared a 110-mile cab ride with Manifesta International Foundation director Hedwig Fijen to Abu Dhabi to see the master plan of Saadiyat (Arabic for “paradise”) Island. The mockup of the twenty-seven-billion-dollar cultural district—which includes Frank Gehry’s new Guggenheim and Jean Nouvel’s design for a franchise of the Louvre—turned out to be a devastating showcase of neoliberal attitudes run amok, in which culture becomes synonymous with the leisure industry. I was even more appalled by the Biennale Park project, comprising nineteen pavilions situated along a canal (sounds familiar . . .), bolstered by a detailed economic-impact analysis conducted by international management consultants Booz Allen Hamilton. While it’s no secret that today’s biennials frequently serve as many economic considerations as they do artistic ones, never before have I seen one so cynically instrumentalized to serve nonartistic interests. Suddenly, the Sharjah Biennial appeared as innocent as a grassroots initiative, its clumsy eco-activism and genuine commitment to contemporary art making it appear a quaint, frail species.
Left: Rolf Schnellecke, mayor of Wolfsburg, with H. H. Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi. Right: Artists Carey Young and Christine Sullivan.
Left: Artist Karen Kilimnik accepts flowers following the performance. Right: Dancer Matthew Hart as James in Sleeping Beauty + Friends. (All photos: Benedict Johnson)
On the evening of Wednesday, April 4, at the New Player's Theatre in balmy, spring-struck London—a former music hall next door to a walk-in teeth-whitening-and-body-waxing shop in a cheesy little mall on the Embankment called the Arches—I attended a one-time-only performance of Sleeping Beauty + Friends, a whirlwind of a ballet conceived and co-choreographed by the artist Karen Kilimnik. Kilimnik’s exhibition of paintings and thematically related mise-en-scènes was in the closing days of a deservedly well-attended, well-received six-week run at the Serpentine Gallery, which produced this event. The mood in the theater lobby was festive.
The instant I asked for my ticket, I was handed a flute of champagne and shuttled from one fetching and enthusiastic young Serpentine press person to another, until I found myself looking up at the high and convex brow of the peripatetic Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the gallery’s codirector of exhibitions, who had shepherded the Kilimnik exhibition through London and an earlier Paris incarnation. He was thrumming with excitement about the performance soon to begin: “It’s the perfect analogue to the rest of her work. I think you’ll see what I mean!” Agog with interesting notions, fun facts, other projects, polite questions, and pertinent information, he swept me through the now-crowded theater lobby for further introductions, among them to Julia Peyton-Jones, the Serpentine’s suave director, and public programs head Sally Tallant, something of a den mother (or so I gathered) to this elaborate and all-but-impromptu theatrical, who seemed to be quite beside herself.
Kilimnik’s ballet, a rigorous and turbo-charged pastiche (or “collage,” as everyone seems to prefer) honoring Marius Petipa, August Bournonville, and other demigods of the classical dance canon, lasted a little under an hour. It seemed equally to charm and to bewilder the sold-out house of two hundred and some souls, most of whom were probably not balletomanes, but rather artists and art students and art dealers and art consultants and arts administrators and curators and Kilimnik fans and—you get the picture. I managed to kiss the artist Georgie Hopton as she headed for the last seat available, but I could only glimpse her husband, Gary Hume, in the front row; I hugged dealer Detmar Blow but only saw his wife, the égérie Isabella, as the lights were dimming; and I lost track of the lot of them after the performance when I headed backstage to snoop: That was that for my after-theater prospects. When, just as the lights dimmed and the tinny music struck up, there was a ten-minute-long, unexplained technical breakdown, one could sense uncertainty amid the scattered titterers: Was this going to be some sort of neo-avant-garde ordeal after all, perhaps with long silences punctuated by onslaughts of, you know, sound? But, of course, it was not.
The sweetly tatty red curtains finally parted to reveal the most traditional of ballet moments: The opening scene of La Sylphide. Against the picturesque backdrop of a craggy Scottish landscape with castle, a melancholy James (danced by the ebullient Matthew Hart) sat in a wing chair wearing a red tartan kilt (claret-colored dance briefs underneath, answering that question), lost in reverie. The Sylph (a long-waisted and -limbed Kimberley Rawson) appeared, fawned, fluttered, and feinted, soon after which point the pace picked up, way up, and stayed there for the duration. Sleeping Beauty + Friends drew on the high points and nothing but from five warhorses—none of which included the actual Sleeping Beauty. In addition to Sylphide, there were grand solos and pas de deux from Swan Lake, Diana and Acteon, The Pharaoh’s Daughter (recently revived by the Bolshoi), and Don Quixote. The leading characters from all those ballets got to mingle and mix, as did the familiar musical strains. By the end of the performance, the dancers, never breaking character or poise, were all panting through their rib cages.
In addition to the three ballerinas en pointe (the precise and ferociously energetic Hannah Rudd merits mention), and the three danseur nobles, Sleeping Beauty + Friends involved the choreographic participation of Tom Sapsford; a recorded, scratch-and-mix-and-splice-and-you-name-it sound track by Kaff Matthews; and costumes by Stevie Stewart, cofounder of the influential '80s fashion label Bodymap, longtime Michael Clark collaborator, and, most recently, responsible for much of the look of Kylie Minogue’s “Showgirl” tour. The costumes were just great: ready and able to pick themselves up and trot on over to Covent Garden. The production as a whole was pulled together in only a few months for less than five figures (sterling). I was given the impression that Sleeping Beauty + Friends was in some sense a parting gift to the artist, a longtime student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet. (As she told me after the show, she had always wanted to create a ballet of her own.) This, then, was what you might call a billet doux with legs, a Kilimnikian construct—with its implications of romance and residual melancholy—if ever there was one.
Left: Dealer Adrian Rosenfeld. (Photo: Brian Sholis) Right: Dealer Emi Fontana and artist Diana Thater. (Photo: Donato Sardella)
Last Thursday afternoon, I was enjoying listening to Pritzker Prize–winning architect Thom Mayne wax nostalgic about Los Angeles in the ’70s when he suddenly cut to the chase: “So, why are you here?” The answer? New York–based art dealer Adrian Rosenfeld and PR virtuoso Brian Phillips had organized the meeting as part of Los Angeles Art Weekend, an annual tour for out-of-town critics, curators, dealers, and artists. The pair cited a desire for “cross-pollination” and an interest in exploring creativity in a “wide-open landscape,” but it was ultimately a networking trip (no shame in that!), a fact betrayed by their final assertion: “It’s as much about the conversations in the cars”—a pair of BMW sedans borrowed for the occasion—“as the visits.”
Sampling only a portion of the compelling, prearranged drop-ins, and following along in my rental—dubbed the “Candor Corolla”—I inevitably missed out on some of that traffic tattle. But the duo had done serious behind-the-scenes legwork, and our posse, which included Fantastic Man and Butt head honcho Gert Jonkers, the publishers of Visionaire, art dealers Chris Perez and Sabrina Buell, Walker curator Peter Eleey, and Modern Painters editor Claire Barliant, among others, was met with warm welcomes throughout the journey.
On Friday morning, before unlocking the Broad Art Foundation’s first-floor gallery (currently holding an impeccable selection of works by Ed Ruscha), director and chief curator Joanne Heyler gave us a pep talk about LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum. Slated to open early next year, the building will be inaugurated with a special exhibition and three floors of collection works, most drawn from the Broad Foundation and installed by LACMA director Michael Govan and curator Lynn Zelevansky. With seventy thousand square feet of gallery space to fill, Heyler’s biggest logistical problem at the moment is finding works to replace those leaving Eli and Edythe Broad’s house.
I broke away from my companions for lunch with artist Alex Klein, who has organized “Around Photography,” a conference—featuring Tacita Dean, Thomas Demand, and Jonathan Crary, among others—to be held at the end of the month at the Hammer Museum. I rejoined the group later at Regen Projects, where we admired Elizabeth Peyton’s winsome letter-size portraits. Shaun Caley Regen walked us around the corner to her new space at 9016 Santa Monica Boulevard, formerly a Cappellini boutique, set to open May 5 with a single, quixotic artwork: Charles Ray’s long-rumored, forty-five-foot-long hand-carved re-creation of a felled tree trunk. (It apparently gets its own jet for the trip from Japan, where it was fabricated.) “We’re leaving the space raw for the piece,” Regen explained. Looking at the seamless poured-cement floor and gleaming white walls, it was obvious that we had different understandings of the word raw.
After a quick costume change, the group reconvened in Westwood for Emi Fontana’s newest West of Rome project: Diana Thater and T. Kelly Mason’s film installation relay, featuring a band put together by Mason playing outdoors. Joining Govan and Hammer director Ann Philbin for the low-key affair were curators Eva Meyer-Hermann, who co-organized the touring Allan Kaprow retrospective and is now working on a show with Mike Kelley; Russell Ferguson, who discussed his major Francis Alÿs survey forthcoming this autumn at the Hammer; Gary Garrels, who brought the Vija Celmins show to the US (“It was my first phone call after accepting the job here”); and Shamim Momin, in town to do studio visits (ostensibly for the 2008 Whitney Biennial).
Garrels and I had to skip the Fontana dinner, having instead reserved seats at Javier Peres’s fete for painter Matthew Greene at Yamashiro (described to me as both a “kitschy faux samurai palace” and a “great date place”) in the Hollywood Hills. Fifty of us filled the Skyview Room, perched over a slice of glorious west-side landscape, where I discussed squatting in Berlin with video artist Stanya Kahn and Amy Sillman’s new paintings at carlier gebauer—also in Berlin—with Garrels. (“They’re like exquisite lost canvases from 1955—they shouldn’t exist,” he gushed.) Knowing another full day was ahead of me, I excused myself, Cinderella-like, as the clock approached midnight.
Left: Matthew Marks's Sabrina Buell and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' Adriane Lee. (Photo: Brandon Herman) Right: Black Frame's Brian Phillips. (Photo: Brian Sholis)
At 1 PM Saturday, we descended upon the Little Tokyo studio of artists (and partners) Lara Schnitger and Matthew Monahan. Schnitger, at work on a commission for Keanu Reeves tentatively titled Fucking in the Kitchen, discussed how her new baby informed her practice, offering as evidence a series of graphic collages hilariously pairing the acts of sex and giving birth: In one, a crying newborn pops out of a porn star’s vagina at the same time as her costar’s dick makes its way in. Monahan, whose studio is separated from Schnitger’s by a curtain, talked about his sculpture as “chaotic piling” and Nietzsche as a time-traveling pundit before admitting to an iconoclastic urge. “I’m struggling with how much I should tear down the institution,” he said, eyeing a twenty-five-foot-tall gilded sculpture of an upside-down figure. To his credit, MoCA assistant director Ari Wiseman, who is curating Monahan’s upcoming “Focus” series exhibition, didn’t balk at the claim.
After a quick visit to Sterling Ruby’s studio in Hazard Park, where we saw the monumental sculpture that will anchor the artist’s Metro Pictures debut opening in a few weeks, the city’s casual bonhomie was emphasized once again as I toured Chinatown galleries and bumped into old friends—and made new ones. Painter Bart Exposito, whose studio sits on the Chung King Road drag, invited a crowd in for an impromptu preview of his upcoming show at Black Dragon Society. Photographer Walead Beshty was equally welcoming, riffling through lush prints and talking ’80s-era postapocalyptic films. But there were openings as well! Kirsten Stoltmann has a challenging new show at sister, and Greene’s canvases occupied not one but two Peres Projects spaces. A poet friend astutely described standing in the newer one, with its white-tile floors and eye-searing fluorescent light, as resembling “being inside a really clean tooth.”
Our goal of cross-pollination wouldn’t have been complete without a fashion event, so I scampered off to Hollywood for a party celebrating the new outpost of beloved New York–based boutique Opening Ceremony. Standing around “like art nerds” (in Eleey’s words) gave way to playing dress-up, as we were plied with tiny appetizers (a fashion-world “dinner”) and Sprinkles cupcakes. The crowd—uniformly tall, willowy, and better dressed than Eleey and me—made off for east-side club Echoplex for DJ sets by designer Benjamin Cho, et al. I didn’t dally long, and according to Rosenfeld I missed the chance to dance with Drew Barrymore. But after two and a half days of breakneck art and fashion tourism, I almost didn’t mind.
Left: Butt and Fantastic Man publisher Gert Jonkers. Right: David Selig and Visionaire cofounder Cecilia Dean. (Photos: Brandon Herman)
Information was deliberately scarce on Sunday, when Chinatown gallery Reena Spaulings hosted an event to mark the opening of a show called “Dead Already,” a spur-of-the-moment collaboration between Kim Gordon and Jutta Koether. Dance (“a return to”); Deadwood, the HBO series; and the last name Graham—as in Martha and Dan (the latter was present and showing work)—were involved, but who knew exactly how?
At 3 PM on the drizzly afternoon, the pallor on recently awakened faces—there were many—was uncomfortably similar to the gray light filtering through the gallery’s rear windows. Precarious wooden sawhorses were set up as the participants in the Cynthia James–led dance workshop, among them Gordon, Koether, Emily Sundblad, and artist Ei Arakawa, mingled unselfconsciously barefoot, wearing an incongruous mix of American Apparel catsuits and semidiaphanous, tattered pastel dancing robes.
The ensuing workshop—dedicated to the work of Isadora Duncan, considered by many the mother of modern dance—elicited from the audience hearty laughter, quizzical looks, and the occasional frantic dodge as twenty-odd uncoordinated novices tripped through the air. Words fail. Degas by way of an NFL yoga class? Toward the end, it could have been a postmodern graduation ceremony: Each dancer presented him or herself through an arch of iridescent scarf (held up by two colleagues) to a tune suspiciously like Pomp and Circumstance.
The dancing, which prompted fond (and not-so-fond) reminiscences of ballet classes, gymnastics, and ice skating, continued while a DVD player and projector were balanced on a stool. Then Dan Graham played excerpts of a 1972 Lisson Gallery performance, titled Past Future Split Attention, in which two friends create a kind of feedback loop from spoken predictions and narrated histories. “It’s pretty hard to understand unless you’re British,” admitted Graham, noting the accents. The rhythm of the two speakers’ ums, ahs, and breathing mirrored the ebb and flow of the crowd; fuelled by endless free beer and tested by the heat, restlessness eventually set in. Graham played a second video, the better-known Performer/Audience/Mirror, 1975. Perhaps realizing that a 2007 audience was unlikely to be as reverently mindful as the enraptured crowd in the video, the artist kept his subsequent remarks brief.
As any stalwart ’60s survivor (or child of one) knows, it’s not a happening without music. So to the bemused horror of a mostly art-world crowd (artists Cory Arcangel, Ann Craven, Joan Jonas; critic Bettina Funcke; omnipresent MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach) and to the joy of an excited minority of rock stars (Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis, Alan Licht), the powerhouse noise-rock outfit Magik Markers reclaimed the dancers’ sawhorse barres, penned themselves in, and went to work.
With faint light still trickling in, Markers drummer Pete Nolan snacked on an apple. His bandmate, Elisa Ambrogio—perhaps in homage to Mascis, nodding his head not ten feet away—collapsed on top of her guitar, pumping feedback and chaotic jazz out of a formidable, looming amplifier. Next to me, Graham shook his hips just a little as Ambrogio ventured out into the crowd to finish the set, and the afternoon, in a squirming pile of her friends.
Perhaps I just haven’t been out enough lately, but Thursday evening in Chelsea had the freewheeling, celebratory feel of a new season. After stopping in at Yvon Lambert’s new space for a quick view of the dense Joan Jonas show, Cheim & Read for a glass of wine and a side order of Jonathan Lasker, and a surprisingly hectic Betty Cunningham Gallery for a reminder of Philip Pearlstein’s continuing popularity—at least among the over-seventies—I eventually made my way to my assigned destination, Casey Kaplan Gallery, for the opening of Jonathan Monk’s “Some Kind of Game Between This and That.”
Monk is a Kaplan regular—this is the British artist’s fifth solo appearance—and his comfort level with the space is obvious. Using a wide variety of media, he has presented a broad range of likable, accessible takes on classic Conceptualism, augmented by shades of autobiography and pop-cultural play. Two crowd favorites were The Cheat, 2006–2007, a 16-mm film loop extracted from an old black-and-white comedy, accompanied by random sound from a connected boom box, and Light, 2006–2007, an installation in which a red laser beam hits a photograph of a Stetson-wearing René Magritte at the right spot to light his cigarette.
Dinner afterward was an intimate affair at cozy standby La Luncheonette. I enjoyed chatting with Onestar Press publishers Christophe Boutin and Mélanie Scarciglia about their past and current projects and with gallery manager Chana Budgazad about the time we competed for the same job (she got it). Also in fine form were gallery artist Nathan Carter and his wife Miko McGinty, and a not-very-shy-at-all Douglas Gordon, who performed a curious “Scottish dance” for the edification (or was it to the bafflement?) of those assembled, then drew on the tablecloth (I should’ve made off with that piece), and later rode a Tenth Avenue traffic barrier as if it were a bucking bronco. As the night wound down for most of us, it stayed young for Carter, who led a hard-core coterie of celebrants onward with a barely reassuring “I know where we’re going, but not what the place is.”
Left: Onestar Press's Mélanie Scarciglia, artist Douglas Gordon, and Onestar Press's Christophe Boutin. Right: Artist Nathan Carter.
The following evening, I found my way downtown for the first US performance of British artist Martin Creed’s Variety Show, at the Abrons Arts Center. As I took my second-row seat, I found myself behind inseparable pranksters artist Peter Coffin and gallerist Andrew Kreps, as well as editor and writer Priya Bhatnagar. Those familiar with Creed’s deadpan wit wouldn’t have been surprised by his delight in such deliberately unspectacular “stagecraft” as “bringing down all the things that come down” (lighting rigs, curtains), or by perhaps the least showy use of dry ice ever, or by his punctuation of the action with such helpful Brechtian announcements as “That was the sequence at the start of the show; this is the bit before the middle section.”
In the show’s most overt concession to conventional entertainment, Creed’s band performed a number of songs including—to a distinctly muted reception—“Fuck Off” (the lyrics of which are contained entirely within the title), “Nothing” (ditto), and the delightfully nihilistic “What’s the Point of It?,” which successfully preempted the more skeptical reactions. We were also treated to a string quartet and a couple of videos, including a delightful sequence of a woman throwing up (“Play it again!” shouted an audience member. Creed demurred. “Backward!” came the immediate response). Though characterizing himself as “naturally reticent,” Creed’s spoken interludes were the glue that held the hour-long event together, even, or perhaps especially, when they consisted of pronouncements (punctuated by giggles and halting corrections) such as “You don’t have to clap ’cos we’re gonna do it anyway” and “You can decide, if you want to, to leave now. Although you have been free to leave all along.” Despite the invitation, we waited until curtain to take this most literal of artists at his word.
Left: MoMA's Cara Starke with Creative Time's Maureen Sullivan. Right: Douglas Gordon.
Left: Performance view from Freelance Stenographer. Right: The Kitchen director Debra Singer with artist Kelley Walker. (All photos: David Velasco)
On Thursday evening, artists Seth Price and Kelley Walker presented their first-ever collaboration, a performance titled Freelance Stenographer, to a capacity crowd at The Kitchen. Receiving special permission from director Debra Singer to “not share very much about the work in advance,” many audience members wondered—perhaps nervously—whether their participation might be required. The performance, an exercise in instant archiving and accelerated obsolescence, paired a video with an unassuming stenographer who quietly recorded the evening’s dialogue (on-screen and off-) on a machine, which transmitted the results to a nearby laptop. Cutting between band-practice footage of artist friends Emily Sundblad (of Reena Spaulings), Cory Arcangel, and Stefan Tcherepnin captured in a Manhattan recording studio, found clips of the Manhattan skyline, and documentation of an Oskar Schlemmer performance restaged by Debra McCall at The Kitchen in 1981, the artists interspersed readymade aftereffects redolent of their signature work as individuals (Price: picture-in-picture, lens flares; Walker: a decidedly Aquafresh-hued fog). Their manipulations “might look hip or hot today,” as Walker told me afterward, “but won’t look so good in ten years.”
The video evidences the artists’ Benjaminian infatuation with the recently outmoded, at one point incorporating an entire music video for a démodé Alice Deejay dance anthem that Arcangel finds on YouTube. “I’ve watched this like six hundred times,” he marvels. At another point, Sonic Youth’s “Teenage Riot” serves as the sound track to the salvaged Schlemmer performance (Gen-X audience members involuntarily mouthed the lyrics). “‘Teenage Riot’ is particular to a moment that we have moved on from,” Walker explained. “And it sounds good when you keep recording it from lower and lower sources,” added Price. Singer suggested that, perhaps unbeknownst to the artists, Sonic Youth’s Kitchen performances probably overlapped with the Schlemmer restaging.
Left: Cory Arcangel and Hanne Mugaas. Right: Artist Seth Price.
After screening a few outtakes (featuring the bandmates singing and beating tambourines while drinking beer and Perrier), the artists previewed a work in progress by filmmaker (and friend) Jason Spingarn-Koff that documents the virtual-reality community Second Life, typically used by homebound gamers to create alternate personas in a fantasy world of computer-generated beach bums and clubbers. Cyber-babe Tee-Dye, Spingarn-Koff’s ethnographic subject, is narrated by her single-mother real-world counterpart and navigates Second Life’s virtual galaxy on a trip down memory lane. Directing her avatar to a pulsing dance floor and arming her with nunchakulike glow sticks, the unseen gamer indulges in the same nano-nostalgia as the earlier video’s stars when she muses, “We used to rave up here, back in the day . . .” (Indeed, Arcangel appears—as himself—in both works.)
When the lights came on, the performance, in a sense, really began. (“The Q and A was the performance,” Singer assured me later—a concept clearly lost on those audience members who made for the door while the credits rolled.) First question: “Why did you pick this title?” Second question: “Is that a stenographer over there?” With her presence formally acknowledged, Price admitted to “feeling uncomfortable” and offered the stenographer’s name (Casey Klavi) while she continued to type, smiling wanly. The stenographer served to “demystify” (as Walker put it) the art world’s dual modes of hype and criticism by publicly recording a process (the Q and A) and producing the transcript as an artwork. During the ensuing reception, while the artists and the on-screen protagonists Arcangel and Tcherepnin mingled with the audience, copies of the transcript were run off on The Kitchen’s own Xerox machine and distributed. “There were two actors,” Singer explained, “the stenographer and the copy machine. But no one asked about the copy machine.”