Left: Performance view of ERASE. Right: Artist Alessandro Codagnone and playwright Tom Cole. (All photos: David Velasco)
If Performa 07 kicked off with Francesco Vezzoli’s well-heeled, celebrity-fueled bang, it went out with a well-bundled flurry of parkas, scarves, and sensible shoes. Last Monday, on the festival’s penultimate evening, I attended the premiere of ERASE, a thoroughly degenerate theatrical collaboration between artist duo Lovett/Codagnone and playwright Tom Cole at Participant Inc.’s new Lower East Side digs.
Before entering, visitors were asked to sign a daunting waiver: “I understand that my presence in the space may result in physical or emotional injury, paralysis, death or damage to myself, to property, or to third parties.” Visions of Abramovic and Burden danced in my head as I scanned the room for loaded guns, but I saw only silver emergency blankets on the seats. Participant’s dogged owner, Lia Gangitano, put to rest thoughts of pierced arteries spurting blood or other suitably GWAR-esque carnage, noting, “They’re just to keep you warm.”
The waiver had less to do with the performance than the in-progress state of Participant’s new Houston Street headquarters, which, in keeping with the nonprofit’s irreverent programming, was once the sex club El Mirage—the kind of cozy institution whose minions would buzz you in, pat you down, and then make you expose yourself to “prove you weren’t a cop.” Or so I’ve heard. The space officially opens next January, but for now there’s an elegance to its disrepair, with dented antique tin ceilings and spavined plaster walls (“Very pre-Giuliani,” as one guest observed). There’s also a massive hole in the floor, which was covered over for the occasion with an equally massive, treacherous-looking slab of wood. (They told me it was “reinforced.”) Sadly, some interim tenants had already looted the place. “Only a stray dildo here and there to remind us of its former glory,” Gangitano said.
Left: Participant Inc. owner Lia Gangitano with artist Ellen Cantor. Right: Artist John Lovett with Ethan Shoshan.
The hour-long play, a speculative, schizophrenic meditation on the psychic world of Jürgen Brandes, the young German man who famously consented to his own cannibalization and murder by another man in 2001, was actually subdued and disappointingly bloodless—at least physically. But the (willfully stiff) dialogue was anything but. Weaving together such priceless imagery as snuff porn, choking to death on one’s own blood, and “peeling skin from swelling babies,” the show made at least a few audience members blanche. An exploration of acts so marginal, they “erase”—hence the title—their subjects (literalized in the play’s unique mise-en-scène, which eschewed frontal visibility, instead placing actors by the walls and behind a large partition, from where they were seen only via a large hanging mirror), the performance also paradoxically highlighted the ways in which abject deeds and their doers come to be celebrated or, to put it in the show’s terms, “un-erased.” After all, isn’t one of the (many) allures of marginal behavior the notoriety that accompanies stepping beyond the purview of the kosher?
The next night, I attended Performa’s “Grand Finale” at the Hudson Theater, though “grand” seemed a bit of a stretch. (Pomp was one thing Vezzoli had down pat.) I was not the only one surprised to find that the finale was seated and that it essentially consisted of a lineup of bands (including crowd favorites Dynasty Handbag, Stars like Fleas, and artist Ingar Dragset’s Asia Today) interrupted by very short DJ sets (by the likes of Baby Bitch T and Vanille Putin). Some grumbled that for a biennial of “visual art performance” it was unusual, even trite, to close with a musical showcase, especially one comprising performers for whom aesthetics weren’t really a concern. (One possible exception was the campy yet entertaining HK119, a London-based electroclash derivative that recalled an Oskar Schlemmer repertory troupe auditioning for a remake of The Hunger.) Most apropos given the events of the preceding weeks was musician and impresario Nick Hallett’s reprising of Meredith Monk songs, but even still, the evening seemed incongruous to the festival as a whole. It may be interesting to imagine the obverse scenario—trotting out Matthew Barney’s Cadillac-humping bull at the end of Coachella, perhaps—but given the dearth of performance-art venues, do bands really need the extra airtime?
As I deliberated, DJ Cory Arcangel seized the decks, launching into an arch, train-wrecked mix of Kylie Minogue and Madonna. It was the happiest sound I’d heard all night, and I sank back in my seat to enjoy it.
Left: HK119's Heidi Kilpelainen. Right: Artist Cory Arcangel and Rhizome director Lauren Cornell.
What with fire-breathing auction bidders burning holes in their bottomless pockets for Richard Prince nurses and Jeff Koons hanging hearts, and Damien Hirst planting carcasses by the dozen in his school for scandal at Lever House, excess became the keyword last week for what Bob Dylan used to call “suck-cess.” By Friday night, it was a relief to touch down at White Columns and be greeted by fish out of water (not formaldehyde).
Said fish are jumping in a 1955 painting by Haitian folk artist Peterson Laurent that is hanging just inside the gallery door, their outside-the-mainstream status an apt metaphor for Clarissa Dalrymple’s curatorial style and for the undersung artists in “Looking Back,” her iteration of the White Columns Annual.
In Dalrymple’s case, looking back also means looking ahead, and sure enough, I arrived just in time to see Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs glom on to Mark Barrow, a new Dalrymple find who makes colorful tapestry-like dot paintings—and sells them for under four thousand dollars. (Wachs glommed on to one of those, too.) Jay Heikes and Adam Helms, two other young men in the Dalrymple coterie, are also in the show, which ceramist Andrew Lord characterized as “affectionate,” though “revolting” came to mind when I saw the wall Helms plastered with photos of dead terrorists downloaded from the Internet. It makes you want to look away, and then you can’t. “Well, yeah,” Helms said. “That’s the idea.” Lord also called the show “poetic,” though he might have been referring to the pair of crossed ceramic legs dangling from another wall, part of his own contribution to a show that is nothing if not quirky.
So was the opening, where gaggles of inside-art types kept things down to a genteel murmur amid the silent Sadie Benning animations; photographs by Shannon Ebner; Ryman-like white thread drawings by Nancy Brooks Brody; a short, quiet film by the very quirky playwright Richard Maxwell; and a pair of gray monochrome squares by Blinky Palermo. I didn’t see him at the reception, of course, or any of those artists, but their work must have said something to me or I wouldn’t be sitting here now wanting to talk back to it.
By Sunday, I felt primed for a day of Performa 07, RoseLee Goldberg’s earnest citywide conglomeration of performance art, and tiptoed into a small room at P.S. 1, where about seventy-five scruffy people who all seemed to be under thirty sat on the floor in rapt silence. Min Tanaka, who is sixty-two and best known as a Butoh dancer, made a tortured entrance, hugging the doorjamb for dear life. For nearly an hour, in tiny, painstaking steps, he wrenched his barefoot way along a diagonal path from the hallway door to the opposite corner of the room as if experiencing a sudden and serious attack of palsy, then returned to center to perform a chorus of grimaces. He shook like a leaf at some unseen horror, arms extended, hands gripping the air like claws, fingers splayed, toes curling; eventually rolled onto the floor in slow, convulsive movements; inched his way back to the door—and finally relaxed!
Alarmed by the agony of his movements, I can’t say I found Tanaka’s dance uplifting, only intense. What did the rest of the audience feel? Some looked amazed. But no one shouted, complained, or made faces at Tanaka, or asked questions, or even whispered “Hello?” Audiences have a role to play in a performance, and if they just sit there in unquestioning reverence, they are not doing their job. Perhaps it is up to the performer to direct the action, but in this case it looked as if Tanaka was having all the fun while the rest of us did nothing but look dumb.
Left: Critic Douglas Crimp with collector Christophe de Menil. Right: Architect Charles Renfro and artist Ricci Albenda.
This sobering atmosphere gave way to gaiety at the Hudson Theater, off Times Square, where irreverence was the very subject of MacArthur Fellow Yvonne Rainer’s choreography for RoS Indexical, a droll new dance piece based not on Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (which provided the music) but rather on the loudmouthed sound track of a BBC re-creation of the legendary outrage expressed by the audience attending the 1913 Paris premiere.
Here, the audience included Joan Jonas and Chrissie Iles, film critic Amy Taubin, artists Terry Winters, Nancy Grossman, and Seton Smith, writer Lynne Tillman, collector Christophe de Menil, and filmmaker Babette Mangolte, but they all stayed in their seats when Rainer blew a whistle and Los Angeles artist Catherine Lord led several claques of live shouters onstage to surround and berate the four dancers.
They were Sally Silvers, Pat Catterson, Emily Coates, and Patricia Hoffbauer, ranged in age from thirty to sixty. Costumed in chic rehearsal sweats (by Elizabeth Hope Clancy), they made the whole thing fun, donning Kleenex boxes for dance shoes or simply rolling onto a big chintz sofa and waiting for the din to die down. It was refreshing to see the old avant-garde stick pins in the balloon of avant-garde pretense. The whole event was something of a reunion of first-wave feminist artists, really, the ones in Connie Butler’s touring “Wack!” show. Rainer had traded dancing for filmmaking ages ago and only returned to choreography in 2000, when Mikhail Baryshnikov commissioned her to make a piece for his White Oak Dance Project. I asked her if RoS meant she was back to choreography for good. “I’ll keep doing it as long as I can work with these dancers,” she said. I guess even the coolest personalities bow to sentiment now and then.
Left: Artist Louise Lawler. Right: Barbara Sukowa performing with the X-Patsys.
I could have called it a night by then, but I would have missed the X-Patsys appearing in Devouring Time, the band’s program at the Highline Ballroom in Chelsea. I arrived midset to find Robert Longo onstage with Jon Kessler, both playing guitars. Barbara Sukowa, who fronts the group, was declaiming a Shakespeare sonnet in German while an English translation appeared on a screen behind her. The music, as artist Kathe Burkhart noted later, was “kinda Joy Division,” though the songs, not counting the Shakespeare, were pure country. Sukowa, who is also Mrs. Longo and a star of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Lola and Berlin Alexanderplatz (currently installed on monitors at P.S. 1), gave every word of Patsy Cline tunes like “Walkin’ After Midnight” a new sense of melodrama. She really wailed, in a droning kind of way, on Willie Nelson’s “Crazy.” With Knox Chandler (a former Psychedelic Fur who now tours with Cindy Lauper) also on guitar, Anthony Coleman on keyboards, onetime Lounge Lizard Anton Fier playing drums, and Sean Conly on bass, the band sounded great, like a Teutonic Velvet Underground crossed with Siouxsie and the Banshees.
I could really have called it a night by the end of this, but I followed Goldberg to the backstage dressing room, where Louise Lawler and Elizabeth Peyton were already making appreciative noises. “I really liked the acting,” Lawler said. “Especially the parts without the words.”
On most Mondays—especially in November—there’s little reason to leave the house. But last week, porn director–cum-artist Bruce LaBruce rose to the challenge with the world premiere of his play Cheap Blacky. Presented on the HAU 2 stage of the Hebbel am Ufer theaters, the nine-part saga—with the heavy-duty subtitle The Nine Stages of the Death and Dying of the Bourgeois Family—marks LaBruce’s theatrical debut as both director and dramatist. In moving from behind the camera to behind the scenes, LaBruce—affectionately known as BLAB to friends, fans, and those in a hurry—mixed race, class, gender, and sexuality to make an explosive combination of the nuclear family.
Far from telling the story of one brood, Cheap Blacky explores archetypes through characters based loosely on those from four oddball film classics: Fassbinder’s Whity, John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, Joseph Losey’s Boom, and Pasolini’s Teorema. In LaBruce’s amalgamation, a mother, father, and son terrorize their servant—a black maid in “whiteface” played by Vaginal Davis—before becoming unsettled (and sexually awakened) by a sexy hustler passing through town. Davis stole the show with such unforgettable lines as “Are you fucking me or tickling me?” (delivered in a group sex scene), “You’ll never eat pussy again in this Ttwn” (from her solo song), and “I just love cooking, cleaning, singing, and dancing for the white people” (her motto). Indeed, in the play, as in life, whiteness depends on alterity—racial, sexual, economic—to produce its master narratives of “purity,” usually with murderous results. With a band playing directly onstage—and even getting in on the act—the play seemed like a musical version of Toni Morrison’s brilliant critique of white narratives “Playing in the Dark,” albeit with lots more romp, pomp, and Pop.
Afterward, I congratulated Christophe Chemin, the hustler, who sang the most haunting version of Marie Laforêt’s “Je voudrais tant que tu comprennes,” from Godard’s Weekend. Chemin was sporting yet another emblem of history tattooed right across his chest: NOUS NE SOMMES PAS LES DERNIÈRES (WE ARE NOT THE LAST), a line censored from the original publication of Anne Frank’s diaries and revived, in a series of drawings, by artist Zoran Music, perhaps the only painter to survive Dachau. It seems like LaBruce found a cast that could catch his unique subversion of murderous purity narratives through polymorphous perversion. Leaving Chemin, I caught up with Davis, who was taking a well-earned rest, although walking around on high heels while cajoling a mainly white audience all night was not the main source of her fatigue. “I’ve been wearing heels since I was thirteen years old,” she roared. That must be some kind of record.
Left: Actor Christophe Chemin (right) with a friend. Right: Peaches.
There were other kinds of records at the after-party in the WAU bar downstairs from the theater, where the DJ for the evening was none other than Peaches—like LaBruce, a Torontonian in Berlin shamelessly promoting the sheer fun of perversion. Her selections constituted a brilliant archaeology of her own distinctive electro-punk blend, a ’90s-style techno sound track to which she adds voice, performance, and her own confident female strut. Who else could so adroitly string together the likes of Punjabi MC, the Breeders, Prince, MIA, and her own devilish remix of “Wild Thing”?
Spotting the sexy Manuela Kay, editor of lesbian publication L-Mag and codirector (with filmmaker Jürgen Brüning) of the Berlin Porn Film Festival, I thought I’d check out what insiders think about contemporary art’s recent forays into porn, from the Neville Wakefield and Mel Agace–produced Destricted, last year’s collection of short art-house “blue movies,” to Texte zur Kunst’s special issue on the topic. A big fan of LaBruce’s films, Kay was disappointed by the art world’s angle on skin flicks. “They talk a lot about porn, but they don’t watch it publicly. They try to present themselves as pro-porn, but it’s just an attitude of mind fucking. Their real lives are pornless.”
Ouch! Taking Kay’s assertion as a challenge, I decided to go for the real thing at the Kit Kat Klub, where gender benders of all orientations mingle while wearing as little clothing as possible. A hunk sporting nothing but black body hair and leather chaps gave me a once over. “You can’t be interested in me,” I said, trying to keep my eyes above his waistline. “Well, not exactly,” he purred. “But I’d really like to know where you got your underwear.” Since they were a gift—and I’m a firm advocate of market liquidity—I handed them over. I'd rather be pantyless than pornless.
Left: L-Mag editor Manuela Kay with Björn Pätz. Right: Vaginal Davis in Cheap Blacky. (Photo: Claudia Esch-Kenkel)
Every two years, Venice reluctantly opens the Giardini’s rusty gates and claims its place as the art world’s momentary polestar. But at other times, Turin is the quiet capital for new art in Italy—at least according to the city’s vigorous marketing crew. (To be fair, few I met would dispute this fact.) Indeed, the city has an impressive artistic legacy: It features several internationally significant art spaces (such as the Castello di Rivoli and the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo), it’s the birthplace of arte povera, and it even boasts the world’s most famous photogram (the controversial Sacra Sindone, or Shroud of Turin). Home to more than a few important collectors and curators, the city also hosts Artissima, Italy’s premiere art fair, now in its fourteenth edition.
The fair was the occasion for my trip to the city a week ago, though a chance to experience Pepino’s legendary gelato and Guarino Guarine’s celebrated spires admittedly sweetened the pot. Parched and diminished after an intercontinental red-eye, I arrived on Thursday at the Golden Palace Hotel and—already running late—repaired directly to the fair’s preview at the vast grounds of Lingotto Fiere, the city’s main exhibition center. Inside, I was relieved to note both the leisurely attitude of VIP attendees (no collector set-tos here) and the general quality of the booths on display. In the wake of an apparently dreadful turnout last year, the local authorities (who took over the fair in 2004) gave it a face-lift, soliciting Art Basel director Sam Keller last December for ideas. Keller reportedly told them, “You don’t need a traditional fair manager, you need an art critic,” and recommended Andrea Bellini, former US editor of Flash Art, for the position of Artissima’s new director. In a display of anti-bureaucratic bravado, one of Bellini’s first official acts was to slash the roster from 172 to 131 galleries and limit the invitees to solidly contemporary dealers.
Left: Collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. Right: Castello di Rivoli chief curator Ida Gianelli.
This made for a number of fresh and unusual faces, though a few groaners (perhaps capped by Liu Ding’s sculpture A Man Fucking a Chicken, 2007, which depicted, well, exactly that) found their way into the lot. But the admitted galleries seemed to fare well, with Turin native Stefania Bortolami, participating at Artissima for the first time, joining those who sold out their booths by the end of the first day. By Saturday, the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo had added four works to its collection, including Robert Orchardson’s tightly referential installation Melnikov, 2007, from Wilkinson Gallery in London and a hanging sculpture by Alice Cattaneo from Suzy Shammah. Raising the stakes even higher, some dealers buzzed that Tate Modern director Vicente Todolí and former Whitney director David Ross were floating around with one million euros for acquisitions for the Castello di Rivoli burning a hole in their pockets.
Most galleries eschewed the cocksure architectural statements typical of Frieze and Miami, but a few did trick out their booths: Turin’s own Galleria Franco Noero commissioned artist Pablo Bronstein to cut an irregular doorway for its stand, while Moscow’s Regina Gallery turned its space into one big black box for Victor Alimpiev videos. Most unusual was New York’s Fruit and Flower Deli, which won this year’s Carbone Prize for new entries. Initially, the directors, who run their gallery according to mysterious spiritual guidance, wanted to seal their booth from the public entirely—an idea quickly nixed by the fair organizers. “So instead we decided to consult our oracle,” explained co-owner Rodrigo Mallea Lira. “It told us to put our bed in the booth.” A tempting method for relieving hotel costs if anybody’s still scouring for budget options in Miami.
Following a performance by Japanese experimental-music legend Merzbow in the center of a spiral parking garage (Guggenheim, eat your heart out), nearly nine hundred guests swarmed Eataly—a nearby slow-food, gourmet grocery that makes Whole Foods look like a corner deli—for the fair’s mother of an official dinner. Numerous familiar faces milled through the bewildering maze of goodies and smiling caterers, with a few New York dealers chaperoning their artists through the aisles. (Elizabeth Dee with Ryan Trecartin and Lizzy Fitch, and Bellwether’s Becky Smith accompanying Anne Hardy.)
Early—too early—the next morning, I made the trek to the breathtaking Castello di Rivoli to see Tate Modern’s traveling Gilbert and George retrospective and to hear Bellini dish on the fair. As a fellow critic noted, Bellini, with his good looks and relaxed demeanor, has all the markings of a budding art-world impresario, but the full extent to which he can reinvigorate Artissima remains to be seen. “Turin isn’t Rome or Venice,” Bellini said. “Of course, Kassel isn’t Rome, and Minneapolis isn’t Venice, but you can attract attention by producing high-quality cultural events.” Building on this year’s heightened profile, next year’s fair will coincide with the second Turin Triennial, and Bellini is planning to cut another thirty or so galleries for the 2008 edition, as well as to bring in some satellite entities (such as a Palais de Tokyo outpost called “Chalet de Tokyo”). But it will surely require ambition from (and coordination with) Turin’s respected art institutions for the fair to become a mandatory stop on the international circuit. While this edition was accompanied by a compelling list of exhibitions around the city (G&G at the Rivoli; Bellini’s years-in-the-making Gino De Dominicis exhibition at Fondazione Merz; “Collage/Collages” at the Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea; Francesco Bonami’s video exhibition, “Stop and Go,” at Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo), most had opened last month and few had originated in Turin.
Friday night culminated with another buffet-style dinner for art-world power players at the impressively chic digs of collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. (“Our little Peggy Guggenheim,” boasted a local.) With no assigned seating, we were blessedly free to float and mingle, hunting and gathering amid the mountains of delectables. Peppered throughout Rebaudengo’s home were works by her favored artists—Maurizio Cattelan, of course, but also some Allan McCollum cutouts and Charles Ray sculptures and photos. In one room, a large screen showed selections from “Stop and Go,” such as Fiona Tan’s seductive documentation of young female Japanese archers, Saint Sebastian, 2001. I chatted with Bellini and future Art Basel codirector Marc Spiegler, who happily recalled convivial times in Shanghai just last year, before either had been approached about joining the dark side. The strength of this year's Artissima gives hope that perhaps this new constellation of critic-directors (Bellini, of course, but also Basel’s Spiegler and Cay Sophie Rabinowitz and Frieze’s Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover) will pave the way for brighter, more discerning fair programming. Or better yet, a NetJets raffle for freelance writers.
Left: Dealer Massimo De Carlo, photographer Giulio Buono, and future Art Basel codirector Marc Spiegler. Right: Dealer Amanda Wilkinson.
Left: Sotheby's Tobias Meyer and Anthony Grant. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: Sotheby's Helyn Goldenberg. (Photo: David Velasco)
Larry Gagosian was sucking a red lollipop as he walked to his seat at Sotheby’s on Wednesday evening. Others tossed their silver spoons and settled in by biting their nails. Sotheby’s stock had plummeted 37 percent after last week’s disastrous Impressionist and Modern Art sale, so the pressure on the postwar and contemporary department had rarely been higher.
After the usual “Ladies and Gentlemen” introduction and a reading of the rules, auctioneer Tobias Meyer announced Lot 1, an untitled work by Robert Ryman from circa 1960–62. It was the first of a dozen pieces scattered through the evening sale that were described in the catalogue as “Property from a Distinguished Private Collection.” While the list was illustrious (two Rymans, two Mardens, two Kellys, one Serra, one Stella, a Twombly, a Lichtenstein, a Calder, and a late Warhol), it seemed a tad misleading given that the unidentified consignor was actually long-standing Sotheby’s employee Helyn D. Goldenberg. In a restrained beige cardigan and outgoing orangey-red hair, the sweet seventy-four-year-old sat in her usual spot with the Sotheby’s sales staff (though, unlike them, she refrained from fielding telephone bids on this occasion). Goldenberg had lived with much of the art for twenty years. Of the Warhol painting that had hung in her dining room—Self-Portrait (Green Camouflage), 1986—she told me, “Andy was almost a member of the family. He was very good company, and he didn’t eat a lot. We have dinner with Ellsworth now. Don’t worry, there are no holes on the wall.”
The sale’s first eleven lots, all but two of them unsullied by previous appearances at auction, went for strong prices, with Sol LeWitt’s white wood Corner Piece No. 2, 1976, and John Chamberlain’s Big E, a crumpled-car sculpture from 1962, nearly doubling their artists’ previous auction records. But the atmosphere was still tense when Meyer called out Lot 12, a rare Warhol silk screen on paper titled Suicide, 1964, which depicts a figure free-falling from a skyscraper. I’d heard that “scary Warhols are much hotter than pretty Warhols” and that “everyone wants a disaster,” but this work’s evocation of 9/11 wasn’t obvious living-room fare. Nonetheless, real demand was evident, and the work sold to super-high-end dealer Doris Ammann for $5.2 million, nearly double the previous auction record for a Warhol work on paper.
Lot 14, Jeff Koons’s Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold), 1994–2006, brought the assembled to the edge of their seats. The painted stainless-steel sculpture conspicuously adorned the front and back covers of the Sotheby’s catalogue. It was the acknowledged “anchor” of the sale and certainly one of a handful of works that could single-handedly sink it. Ironically, the sculpture weighs over thirty-five hundred pounds, but Sotheby’s portrayed the icon’s weight problem as “the purest, plumpest and most glorious of valentines.” As one dealer assured me, “There are so many rich people supporting Koons that the buyer can build a house around it.”
Left: Collector Peter Brant. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Dealer Ivor Braka. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)
While Adam Lindemann, the Heart’s seller, either hid in a skybox or, uncharacteristically, didn’t attend, the third party who’d underwritten the Sotheby’s guarantee—Greenwich, Connecticut–based publisher Peter Brant—was sitting in the sixth row in a pin-striped suit, next to a gum-chewing Tony Shafrazi and within spitting distance of many of the other men who provide “liquidity” to the art market. Brant is said to have one of the biggest contemporary art collections in the world, with an unrivaled selection of Warhols, Basquiats, and Koonses—not to mention a rarely seen ensemble of fifty Julian Schnabels. As the bidding ascended in half-million-dollar increments from the $10 million opener, Brant looked imperiously over the top of his black frames. He clenched his lips at $16.5 million. He half-raised his eyebrows at $18 million. He cracked a broad grin at $19 million, then laughed and clapped when the work sold to Larry Gagosian for $21 million hammer ($23.6 million with buyer’s premium)—a splendid sum given that Diamond (Blue), a sculpture of the same size from the same series, had commanded only $10.5 million at Christie’s the night before.
$21 million hammer, however, was exactly the price that a discerning dealer (who may or may not be bidding on behalf of a collector) had to pay if he wanted his boy to hold the world record for the most expensive work by a living artist. For eighteen years, Jasper Johns was the title holder (for False Start, 1959), but Damien Hirst’s stainless-steel pill cabinet Lullaby Spring, 2002, sold for $19.1 million on June 21. What makes the Koons’ “win” outlandish is that the Hanging Heart is in an edition of five “uniquely colored” sculptures, and this “Magenta/Gold” one was produced only last year. The red one is in the collection of Christie’s owner François Pinault. Apparently, the yellow one swings from reinforced rafters somewhere in the UK, and the blue one sits in a crate in Los Angeles. But one has to wonder: in whose penthouse-size closet is the fifth Heart?
Lots 19 and 29, both Francis Bacon paintings consigned by the Germany-based Langen family, provided the next two high points in the sale. First up was an exquisitely tortured self-portrait from 1969. Multiple bidders took the price well past its high estimate, and Meyer happily banged his hammer at $29.5 million ($33 million with premium). After a string of snappily sold lots, the audience hushed for the larger, more controversial Bacon, Second Version of Study for Bullfight No. 1, also from 1969. The auction house had marketed the painting with the Bacon quote “Bullfighting is like boxing—a marvelous aperitif to sex.” Indeed, Bacon had inscribed his sexual identity into the dynamic composition of a matador wrestling with a bull. As one Bacon fan explained, “The painting is about something, and it ain’t bullfighting. It’s all about that animal’s ass.”
Left: Collector Adam Lindemann with his daughter at Christie's on Tuesday night. Right: Tobias Meyer auctions Cy Twombly's Untitled, 1959. (Photos: David Velasco)
Sitting in row E between Brant (in F) and Gagosian (in D) was longtime Bacon dealer Ivor Braka. Bidding for Bullfight opened at $32 million, and Braka, who reminds me of a good-natured Afghan hound, was rubbernecking in his seat to keep track of the action. The lot climbed steadily to $36 million and might have been about to sell when dealer Philippe Ségalot, sitting at the edge of the room, snapped his fingers with an outstretched arm, as if beckoning “Garçon!” to Meyer, whose gaze was concentrated elsewhere. With his cell phone pressed to one ear and his hand covering the bottom half of his face, Ségalot bid forcefully, eventually buying the work for $46 million. It was the highest price in two weeks of auction-house trading. When I later asked Braka about the Bacon bidding, he exclaimed, “Totally justified! It’s the triumph of intelligence and art history over fashionable status collecting!”
In the end, the sale brought in a shocking $315.9 million—the highest grand total in Sotheby’s history. Only six works went unsold, and thirteen artist world records were achieved (even more if you include records by medium). The Sotheby’s crew were jubilant. Specialist Francis Outred affirmed, “The sale had something for everybody: great postwar, quality Chinese, sensational Warhols.” Certainly, the sale bore witness to many terrific works, but let’s not fail to acknowledge the tremendously skillful engineering. For some insiders (who refused to be named), the happy truth of the matter is that the art market probably peaked last May.
A blue-haired Marc Jacobs waved a cigarette outside Christie’s on Tuesday night. He didn’t have any predictions about the evening sale, but he did admit to loving Liz Taylor. “She’s one of my favorite Warhols,” he enthused. “I love her more than the other gals, but I won’t be bidding—unless I get a huge raise in the next half hour.” This turquoise Liz, one of thirteen made in 1963, was estimated to fetch between $25 and $35 million—a sum that many thought was hazardously high. “She’s a dog with heavy lips and thin hair,” said one dealer. “She isn’t fresh to the market,” said another, referring to the fact that actor Hugh Grant had bought the canvas at Sotheby’s for $3.5 million and only lived with her for six years. The Warhol portrait was just one of several lots over which “Adam Smith’s invisible hand was hovering,” as John Good of Gagosian Gallery put it. “This is the last bastion of laissez-faire capitalism, and it’s kinda fun, but the auction houses have got to stop pushing B material for A+ prices.”
At 7:10 PM, as stragglers squeezed into the jam-packed saleroom, Christopher Burge whacked his hammer, and despite all the jitters in the American financial markets, seven of the first ten lots—an international lineup that included Rudolf Stingel, Fred Tomaselli, and Zhang Xiaogang—sold swiftly for record prices.
At least six bidders strode into battle for Lot 6, Richard Prince’s Piney Woods Nurse, 2002, which was being cast off by Norah and Norman Stone of San Francisco. Many new buyers have come into the Prince market since his retrospective, “Spiritual America,” opened at the Guggenheim. In the end, Jay Jopling, owner of London’s White Cube gallery, beat a bidder on the phone with Pilar Ordovas (the head of Christie’s London department) for the bloodstained blond nurse. The hammer price of $5.4 million ($6.1 million with buyer’s premium) doubled the artist’s previous auction record and reminded those in the room that dollars are funny money for those who trade in pounds. A few lots later, dealer Perry Rubenstein walked by and whispered: “I guess these people aren’t holding subprime mortgages.”
Left: Hugh Grant. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Gagosian Gallery's John Good. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)
Lot 12, Untitled (Red, Blue, Orange), 1955, was the first of three Mark Rothko paintings to hit the block. “Rothko is an emotional market,” one dealer told me. “It’s solid but choosy, and gets thin at high prices.” One of my press-pack colleagues muttered ominously, “This is a test,” as Burge began the bidding at $14 million. Three telephone bidders took it steadily up to $24.5 million. The crowd went quiet, and a chorus of BlackBerry messages chimed. Finally, the price leveled off at $34.2 million with premium, not a record for the artist, but a healthy precedent for the next two Rothko paintings being sold by Valentino, the couturier known only by his first name and described in the catalogue as a “distinguished European collector.” Untitled (Black and Gray), 1969, one of the last paintings Rothko made before committing suicide in early 1970, sold for $10.6 million, while a smaller work from 1954 entitled No. 7 (Dark over Light) went for twice that, at $21 million. Artist Subodh Gupta, who had never attended a major auction and was sitting in the eighth row with Philippe Ségalot, was disappointed that one of his favorite works in the sale, the depressed Rothko, had sold for so much less than the others. “I like people spending money on art. I like numbers, but there were surprises,” he said, shaking his head. “The most meaningful is not the most expensive.”
Lot 28, Burning Gas Station, “signed and dated E. Ruscha 1965–66,” is the kind of small-scale masterpiece that would dignify many living rooms. Kent Logan (described by a Los Angeles dealer as “one of the original members of the contemporary art club—he’s philanthropic, but, like everybody, he occasionally trades”) was selling a potent synthesis of coveted Ruscha traits—in this case an adventurous diagonal composition and the word STANDARD half-covered in flames. There was no shortage of interest in the room, and Burge relaxed into the genuinely deep demand. The work sold for a record $6.2 million hammer ($7 million with premium) to Larry Gagosian, who sat in his usual seat on the aisle.
Burge then took a deep breath. “Lot 29,” he said slowly. “Andy Warhol’s Liz as seen on the turntable to my right and in your catalogues.” After another breath, he began. A telephone buyer and Alberto Mugrabi, a reliable underbidder on anything Warhol, had a very polite back and forth until the work sold for $21 million hammer. Word had it that the one Liz with whom Grant has trouble parting, Ms. Hurley, was sitting with him in a private skybox. Later, a London-based dealer on the inside track suggested: “Burge is so good that he should go independent and charge a million dollars per evening sale.”
From thereon in, the auction rolled along with what looked like relative ease. Diamond dealer Laurence Graff, sitting in his favorite spot in the front row, was feeling carefree. He bought Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Sugar Ray Robinson for $7.3 million and Warhol’s Elvis 2-Times for $15.7 million and underbid on Warhol’s Muhammad Ali, which soared past its $2 to $3 million estimate to $9.2 million.
In the end, the event brought in $325 million, the second-highest total in the department’s history, with 82 percent of the lots sold achieving over a million dollars. Only five lots were “bought in,” and world auction records were set for sixteen artists, including Lucian Freud, Gerhard Richter, Jeff Koons, On Kawara, Thomas Struth, Yoshitomo Nara, and Liza Lou. After the sale, looking much relieved with a glass of white in hand, International Co-head of Post-war and Contemporary Art Amy Cappellazzo said, “We held up the sky for another whole day, but we didn’t do it alone. Everyone at the sale tonight was a believer in the value of art.”
The London art world would starve to death these days but for the culinary ministrations of Caprice Group’s Mark Hix, the chef of the moment and the man behind the menu at the Artangel Dinner, held on Saturday evening in the Great Hall at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. Hosted by an anonymous “pair of angels,” the event celebrated Artangel’s artistic labors of love and the people who “inspire and support” them. Guests included the father of Pop art, Richard Hamilton, who delivered the evening’s keynote speech, as well as artists Ruth Ewan, Alan Kane, Clio Barnard, and Roger Hiorns, the latest beneficiaries of angel benevolence: Each was selected from last year’s Jerwood/Artangel Open, a new two-million-dollar commissioning initiative conceived as a platform for hitherto “unrecognized artistic potential.”
The first of these commissions was realized in October, when Ruth Ewan’s Did You Kiss the Foot That Kicked You, a performance piece based on composer Ewan MacColl’s “Ballad of Accounting,” enlisted more than one hundred London buskers to incorporate the song into their repertoires. These random recitals slipped quietly into the subconscious of frazzled rush-hour travelers. Hiorns’s in-progress project will likely have the opposite effect and will take his work to a dizzying new scale: He plans to cover an entire house, inside and out, with homegrown crystals. Both Kane and Barnard will present artworks as programming on Channel Four.
As Saturday night unfolded, the tireless and benevolent Artangel patron Judith Greer hosted the proceedings with military precision while codirectors James Lingwood and Michael Morris were everywhere at once, meeting and greeting guests. Among the first to arrive were Hamilton and his wife, painter Rita Donagh. Age has barely withered Hamilton, an engaging octogenarian who gamely held forth, fortified by a bracing glass or three of the free-flowing Perrier-Jouet champagne. By 8 PM, the stately venue was crawling with artists, some whose projects had already been lifted by angel’s wings, others whose paint-stained fingers remained firmly crossed.
Left: Artangel patron Judith Greer with artist Zarina Bhimji. Right: Curator Aileen Corkery with artist Michael Craig-Martin.
The seated dinner for 165 was had by candlelight at three endless tables laden with huge antler-shaped candelabras. Though it is terribly fashionable to “cook British” these days, as an American who barely survived “prefood” Britain in the dark ages before celebrity chefs, my hungry heart sank a bit at the evening’s retro fare: black pudding with mushrooms on toast followed by Lancashire hot pot (with or without meat) with pickled raw cabbage, and apple and quince pie for dessert. Dilettante vegetarian and author Geoff Dyer, husband of Saatchi Online editor Rebecca Wilson, gave up waiting for his veggie option and made a desperate but aborted attempt on my plate. Later, a famished Dyer was delighted with the unexpected compensatory gift of an entire pie, boxed and ready to take home—or devour in the taxi.
In the interlude between courses, the debonair Hamilton held everyone’s attention with a talk that bore an undisputed authority, founded as it was on six decades in the belly of the beast. As he described the Pop-art movement as “transient and expendable,” artist Richard Wentworth, intent on drawing something of grave importance on the back of his menu, looked up from time to time to nod vigorously in agreement. Hamilton went on to proclaim Marcel Duchamp “the wittiest person I ever met.” (I’m fairly certain I heard him say “sexiest,” too, but an uncooperative microphone makes me loath to commit it to the record.) Suggesting that virtually all art is Pop art, he shrugged philosophically and noted, “At one end, you’ve got Elvis Presley. At the other, Picasso.”
Given that past Artangel endeavors have catapulted more than one artist onto the international radar—witness Jeremy Deller and his reenacted Battle of Orgreave, Michael Landy’s Breakdown, and Rachel Whiteread’s controversial House in East London—it will be fascinating to track the trajectory of Artangel’s latest wards. And, for that matter, the organization’s international presence as well: As I scanned the dark horizon for a taxi going my way, I overheard chatter about a major new project in the offing in, of all places, Detroit. Yet despite my best efforts—and the champagne—my discreet sources wouldn’t budge. Watch this space.
Left: Collectors Anita and Poju Zabludowicz. Right: Artist Jeremy Deller and John Hare.
Left: Performance view of Waiting for Godot. Estragon (J. Kyle Manzay) and Vladimir (Wendell Pierce). (Photo: Donn Young) Right: Photographer Amanda Weil and Creative Time director Anne Pasternak. (Photo: Frank Aymami)
Two images, bookends really, stand out from Creative Time’s presentation of the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s (CTH) production of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward last Saturday night. The first image was celebratory—at precisely 7:30 PM, Rebirth Brass Band kicked off a typically raucous secondline, and the steady flow of five hundred attendees through the front gates and into the bleachers marked the first occasion since Katrina that the crippled neighborhood has been a cultural focus for the rest of the city. The second image was considerably more somber. After taking their final bows, cast members turned their backs on the audience and walked briskly into the inky nighttime panorama from which most had made entrances: a nondescript backstreet leading ominously toward the same levee whose breach two years ago nearly transformed this neighborhood into a ghost town.
Today, life in the Lower Ninth Ward is infused by the grassroots politics of postcatastrophe housing, a local movement focused on the homes of thousands of families displaced by the floods that followed Katrina, who would like to come back to their old neighborhood but lack the means to rebuild or relocate. Stripped of some 80 percent of its prestorm habitation, and with experts warning locals that their homes are all but guaranteed to flood again, the Lower Ninth Ward is a neighborhood whose bereft residents, after waiting patiently for the government to help them, are now engaged in the remarkable (or, if you insist, foolhardy) struggle to take back their weed-choked empty lots on their own. A better locale for Godot could hardly be imagined, an assertion borne out in local housing activist Robert Lynn Green Sr.’s short but heartfelt preshow benediction. More eloquent still were the scattered gasps and applause when Vladimir (played by New Orleans native Wendell Pierce), having been asked by Estragon if he recognizes the place where they are standing, turns toward a field of weeds with outstretched arms and bellows with indignant sarcasm, “Recognize it? What is there left to be recognized?”
Left: The Rebirth Brass Band. (Photo: Frank Aymami) Right: Jenisa and Isaiah Washington with artist Mark Bradford. (Photo: Brendan Griffiths)
The masterstroke of Creative Time’s production was not simply staging Godot in the Lower Ninth but presenting it outdoors, at night, on a once-thriving street corner so pulverized by the 2005 floodwaters that barely a visible trace of a house remains. In the middle distance, a pair of FEMA trailers huddled forlornly, while the faraway hum of cars crossing the bridge and the nearby rustling of wind through dried weeds blended eerily with the visual accompaniment of boats gliding slowly and soundlessly up and down the river, which hovered invisibly in the background. Under Christopher McElroen’s brisk direction, Beckett’s famously verbose play, which is equally revered for its long and weighty silences, generated fevered monologues and existential retorts that would sometimes hang in the air for several moments, while ghosts whispered noisily in the adjacent fields.
The spellbinding two-and-a-half-hour production was largely the brainchild of artist Paul Chan, who visited New Orleans a year after Katrina and couldn’t shake the impression of so many people waiting for something or somebody who would probably never appear. After securing the collaboration of McElroen and the CTH, Chan began the slow process of befriending artists, educators, clergy, and neighborhood leaders throughout the city, eventually attaching himself to the art faculties of UNO and Xavier University, and otherwise weaving a diverse network of supporters that enabled him to bring together a remarkable cross-section of New Orleanians—along with a sizable contingent of out-of-towners—for an open-air, world-class production of an avant-garde play in a neighborhood where few have ventured since the floodwaters receded. As if to burnish the Lower Ninth’s growing significance as a festering symbol of Bush-era cronyism and ineptitude, hundreds of would-be spectators had to be turned away the first two nights due to lack of seating, resulting in a third night being added, and the production’s success will no doubt precede it when it moves to the nearby Gentilly neighborhood this weekend. With his stunning one-two act of creative jujitsu, Chan has succeeded in giving the people of New Orleans an unforgettable night of theater and has provided the art world with a tangible platform for connecting with New Orleans’s meaning in the coming post-Bush era: living witness to the failure by the US government to provide its citizens with even the most basic protection and recovery during and after the largest natural disaster in our country’s history.
Left: Walker Art Center curator Peter Eleey, artist Rodney McMillian, and Cara Starke. Right: Artist Willie Birch. (Photos: Frank Aymami)
Left: Artist Wang Qingsong, a friend, and Guy Ullens, cofounder of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. Right: UCCA cofounder Myriam Ullens. (All photos: Mathieu Borysevicz)
Late last Friday morning at At Café, the place to be in Beijing’s 798 art complex, someone murmured,“I hear that Tony Blair is supposed to come.” Certainly, the Chinese art buzz has spread far and wide, but this was a fascinating possibility indeed. At the next table, Hammer Museum curator James Elaine was struggling to make use of years of Chinese lessons in conversation with photographer Liu Zheng. He eventually leaned over and confessed that he’d received a grant from the Asian Cultural Council and will soon be moving to China for a year. But as one old China hand warned later in the weekend, it’s hard to get out of the abyss once you’re in. China’s an addiction.
Certainly, the opening of Belgian collectors Guy and Myriam Ullens’s nonprofit contemporary art center last weekend was a dose that might lead to harder stuff. “It looks like it’s New Year's at 798,” one perplexed visitor remarked. Indeed, as the International Center of Photography’s Christopher Phillips reminded me, this convergence had been anticipated for several years, and at that moment people were flying in from several continents. Phillips, a China regular, opted to hole up in Shanghai while the storm raged in Beijing.
A few hours later, basking in the diffuse light of Xu Bing’s classic installation Book from the Sky and the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art’s GPS-controlled window-blind system, Guy Ullens recounted his China story. Anxious members of the international press corps fidgeted in an attempt to stay warm; somehow, despite its rapid modernization, the country’s thermostat seemingly remains in the miserly hands of the old guard. Ullens’s encounter with China began with his father’s stint as an embassy employee at the turn of the century, was reinvigorated by business exploits in the 1980s, and soon thereafter reached its climax with his love for China’s art and artists. As one journalist observed, Ullens looked like the archetypal billionaire with his caramel tan and neck scarf, and as if on cue, the Belgian collector recited his I-want-to-give-back epiphany: Having amassed fifteen hundred contemporary Chinese artworks, the couple decided it was time to return something to the country they loved.
Left: Serpentine codirector of exhibitions Hans-Ulrich Obrist, artist Sarah Sze, and Victoria Miro director Glenn Scott Wright. Right: UCCA artistic director Fei Dawei.
What did Beijing get? The Ullenses assembled a team of experts—with curator Fei Dawei as artistic director—and proceeded to transform a dilapidated Bauhaus-era factory building into a glimmering cathedral for contemporary art. Occupying a whopping eighty-six thousand square feet at the center of the 798 art district, the UCCA contains a library, screening rooms, a store, a café, and, of course, plenty of space for exhibitions. Manned by an international staff, the venue aims to be the most comprehensive art institution in China—and just may deserve the title. “Finally! Beijing has something that can be called a museum,” commented artist Bai Yiluo as he emerged from the opening reception.
While UCCA’s inaugural exhibition, “’85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art,” wasn’t applauded by all, its backward glance helped to set the tone for the weekend. The show presents some early highlights from China’s still-young contemporary art scene and emphasizes the fervent idealism, resistance, and experimentation that formed its backbone. Simon Groom, director of modern and contemporary art for the National Galleries of Scotland, observed that UCCA couldn’t have mounted a more sobering counterpoint to the money and hype now driving Chinese contemporary art. A Sotheby’s representative from London, who himself couldn’t make sense of the astronomical prices that Zhang Xiaogang’s paintings have fetched recently, was pleasantly surprised to see the artist’s earlier, naive works. The opposite reaction came from a Western art critic, who said she couldn’t understand why the curator decided to include “so many horrible paintings.” Others thought that exhibiting something historical (read: dull) ultimately wasted a good opportunity. The Chinese art world’s reaction was generally supportive, but not without the inevitable squabbles about the accuracy of UCCA’s interpretation of this history.
At Friday night’s dinner for 700 invited guests (including around 250 VIPs flown in at the organizers’ expense), Rebecca Horn decided to make an impromptu performance as a gesture of thanks to Guy and Myriam. “It has to be political. Everything I do is political,” she said as I helped her gather a stack of white cloth napkins, some red wine, and many candles. I couldn’t help but think that her inspiration came from the scores of red-streaked canvases inside the nearby exhibition halls. But before she could begin, a stomach bug—which she attributed to dinner the previous evening at Le Lan, a Philippe Starck–designed Beijing hot spot—precluded her presentation. Horn is apparently one of several artists who have been commissioned to produce an installation for UCCA sometime in the near future. Glenn Scott Wright, director of Victoria Miro Gallery, introduced me to artist Sarah Sze, who has also begun discussions about a commissioned piece.
With Sze was curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist, who, in his typical ahead-of-the-crowd fashion, was trying to direct the mainland buzz toward Hong Kong, claiming that the scene is beginning to generate interesting performance work. (The next day, Obrist would launch a Chinese-language version of his Do It book, produced in conjunction with Vitamin Creative Space, at Timezone 8 Books.) Luc Tuymans, who is planning a new version of “Forbidden Empire,” a group exhibition he recently cocurated with Yu Hui (and which was, according to the artist, “messed up” by Chinese officials), claimed that this time he was “gonna fuck them.” As I pondered what precisely he meant, La Fura dels Baus, the Spanish performance-art group, began a dull recital about birth. Artist Caspar Stracke reminisced about seeing them perform at the Berlin Wall in the '80s, bringing their work in line with what was on view in the nearby galleries. That a new institution set itself in motion with such a backward glance was, if only for a weekend, a brief respite from a culture relentlessly pushing forward.
This year’s Editions/Artists’ Books Fair, the tenth, was staged at The Tunnel, formerly a legendary New York nightspot, now a smart multipurpose venue that adjoins Chelsea’s newish Twenty-seventh Street gallery strip. The runwaylike interior gave the event, which featured sixty exhibitors, a nice democratic feel, no one suffering from a disadvantageous position or enjoying pole position—with the possible exception of Brooklyn’s PictureBox Inc., which sat front and center, an unsurprising placement given the company’s 2005 Grammy Award for the packaging of Wilco’s album A Ghost Is Born. Arriving on the early side for last Thursday’s gala preview (a benefit for P.S. 1), I had ample time for a few laps before things got busy. A performance from Eric Singers’s League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots (LEMUR)—a group of musicians, robotics experts, artists, and designers—was promised but failed to materialize in time for me to catch it. Instead, I was party only to some muted beats courtesy of WPS1.org radio DJ Jeannie Hopper and a glimpse at LEMUR’s eccentric-looking mix of mechanical and organic gadgetry (no guitar/bass/drums/vocals for these guys).
An abundance of white gloves and supersize portfolios spoke to the seriousness of the dealers in attendance but soon left me hankering for something a little less precious. Pleasing though it was, then, to see On Kawara’s multivolume One Million Years at Brussels’s mfc-michèle didier and early editions of Ed Ruscha’s similarly classic photo books at New York’s Anartist, slightly scrappier-looking editions ultimately fared better. Raymond Pettibon was everywhere—he produced the cover image for the fair’s catalogue, and his work cropped up in a number of booths, but his most striking appearance was at Specific Object/David Platzker, in the form of a cluster of original fliers for early-1980s Black Flag shows, complete with incidental ink stains and pinholes. London dealer Paul Stolper also went the rock-’n’-roll route, showcasing—in timely fashion, given the current hoopla over Anton Corbijn’s Ian Curtis biopic Control—prints from Kevin Cummins’s moody late-’70s Joy Division shoots.
After exchanging hellos with British artist Graham Parker, who was en route to Stolper’s booth; noting painter Kathe Burkhart hovering by her work at Regency Art Press Ltd.; and passing dealer Matthew Marks, I quit the scene for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, arriving just in time to negotiate a polite throng of sensitive young men and women and to take an orchestra seat in the imposing Howard Gilman Opera House. The occasion was the world premiere of Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens’s “symphonic and cinematic exploration of New York City’s infamous Brooklyn-Queens Expressway,” The BQE, commissioned by Next Wave Festival producer Joseph Melillo. Expectations among the indie-kid community—bolstered by profiles of Stevens in New York, the New York Sun, and elsewhere—were running high. Trailed as a rare affectionate take on the geographically divisive, confusingly marked, endlessly potholed road, Stevens’s half-hour, seven-movement magnum opus turned out to be part Koyaanisqatsi-style audiovisual meditation on human folly (specifically that of the BQE’s notorious architect, Robert Moses), part self-indulgent venture into faux-classical composition, and part excuse for a hipster reclamation of the hula hoop.
As the house lights dimmed, a tripartite screen above the stage lit up with 16-mm and Super 8 footage (taken by Stevens with friend Ruben Kleiner) of the thoroughfare and its immediate environs, while an orchestra (with help from Stevens’s regular band and My Brightest Diamond singer Shara Worden) struck up an appropriately busy tune. Initially concealed behind a scrim, the players were revealed as Stevens, sporting a baseball cap and the tightest white jeans I’ve seen in some time, bounded onstage and took up his seat behind a concert grand. Five hula hoopers also made strategically timed appearances, their circular gyrations mirroring the endless cycle of traffic but contrasting nicely with its workaday purpose. “As a symbolic construction,” writes Stevens in “The Hula Hoop vs. the BQE,” an essay printed in BAMbill, “the hoop is an existential goldmine.” Perhaps recognizing that some might not share his enthusiasm for such relatively esoteric concerns, he devoted the post-intermission part of the show to “the hits.” This, coupled with an endearing anecdote about his attempted escape from bassoon camp, revealed a lingering discomfort with his new role as composer. But warm applause and a well-attended after-party at the theater’s upstairs space suggested that he had retained a firm hold on local affections—even if those forced to take his road of choice home may wonder at his latest muse.
Left: A view of Sufjan Stevens's The BQE. (Photo: Rahav Sagev) Right: WPS1 DJ Jeannie Hopper. (Photo: August Goulet)
The risks and the benefits of social engineering by a Conceptual artist went on furiously naked display last Saturday night, when upwards of eight hundred invited guests assembled outside the Guggenheim for Francesco Vezzoli’s staged reading of Luigi Pirandello’s 1917 play Right You Are (If You Think You Are). Suffice it to say that everyone thought exactly that, uniting in one big hissy fit to greet the opening of Performa 07, RoseLee Goldberg’s performance-art biennial, which clearly entered its terrible twos just as the evening began.
Veteran art-world scenemakers like Calvin Tomkins and Dodie Kazanjian, Cindy Sherman and David Byrne, Stephanie French, Donna De Salvo, and Lauren Taschen waited outside with the hoi polloi for an hour past the scheduled 10 PM start time, while personae grata like Brooke Shields, Uma Thurman, Thelma Golden, Isaac Julien, Marina Abramovic, and Klaus Biesenbach were ushered into the check-in area beyond the velvet ropes. Some people, denied a chair on the rotunda floor, skulked out just after the doors opened; others waited till intermission; and a few, like Salman Rushdie and Laurie Anderson, napped almost throughout.
“This is such a New York moment,” I heard Whitney curator Chrissie Iles say as Mary-Kate Olsen, wearing a long white robe with red embroidery, took a seat in front of Lou Reed and Anderson, across the aisle from Marion Cotillard, the movies’ most recent Edith Piaf, who was seated beside Hollywood superagent Beth Swofford, who rubbed elbows with New Museum director Lisa Phillips and arts patron Anne Bass. Dealer Marian Goodman had a front-row seat near Lauren Hutton, Helen Marden, and Shields, ahead of Maureen Dowd. I had to look up at all the regular people on the ramps to reassure myself, at least temporarily, that I was indeed at the wackiest art museum ever, and not back at Studio 54 circa 1977.
Left: Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky) Right: Dealer Marian Goodman and Vogue's Eve MacSweeney. (Photo: David Velasco)
Actually, I don’t have the stamina for dropping all the names relevant to this Pirandellian nightmare, whose fate was probably sealed when the museum gave Vezzoli and a video crew led by Doug Aitken’s right hand, Daniel Desure, a mere five hours to install a circular stage and a multiscreen live projection system. This while rehearsing the marquee cast of Ellen Burstyn, Natalie Portman, David Strathairn, Elaine Stritch, Dianne Wiest, Peter Sarsgaard, Little Miss Sunshine star Abigail Breslin, and Marcus Carl Franklin, currently appearing as a young Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There. That film also features Cate Blanchett, who was the big draw here as well, not that anyone present would admit it. (Her entrance came so late in the evening that those who decamped early never saw her anyway.)
Selected not for their acting skills, which were not much in evidence, but for their celebrity (the rickety construction of fame being the nominal subject of the play), the actors gamely took seats facing one another on a shiny black gazebo set dead center in the rotunda and began to read the script, cold. Seldom has an art audience’s tolerance for experiment been so severely tested. The sound was so bad, the actors so detached, and the reading so tedious, we could make out very little and eventually cared even less.
“It has been truly a great success,” Pirandello wrote to his wife following the play’s 1917 Italian premiere. “Not for the applause, but for the astonishment, the bafflement, the exasperation, and the dismay I caused the audience. You don’t know how much I enjoyed it.” Vezzoli, on the other hand, spent most of the performance “vomiting in the bathroom,” later pronouncing the event “a magnificent failure.” He had that just about right. Then again, perhaps he brought the play the audience it had always deserved.
Left: Brooke Shields. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Anita Ekberg, Cate Blanchett, and Dianne Wiest. (Photo: Paula Court)
All was certainly not lost. Unbeknownst to those of us seated under the bright lights near the stage, the disenchanted exiting the museum were directed to join the overflow crowd in the basement theater, where they caught every word and nuance of the show from live images of the actors projected on a grid of eight screens, while getting a good gander at Blanchett, her face swathed in tulle and the rest of her extravagantly attired in a drop-dead John Galliano trench coat and gown from Dior Couture, who sat onstage watching until it was time for her mother of an entrance.
“The whole thing was an inversion,” said architect Charles Renfro (of Diller Scofidio + Renfro), who had fled the rotunda. “The space of the museum, usually about visual art, became a backstage space, and the theater the real visual presentation venue. Small reward,” he added, “for a piece that wasn’t so great to begin with.”
But he didn’t see what I saw. Seated on a hot-pink, lip-shaped Dalí couch was no less platinum an eminence than Anita Ekberg, looking less like the sex goddess of La Dolce Vita than Divine of Pink Flamingos. I could hardly take my eyes off her, partly because she was more visible than the actors nattering onstage but also because there was more going on in her ravaged face than in the play. (It involves a group of provincials obsessed with a mysterious neighbor whose identity is up for grabs.) As the embodiment of the price of fame, the former Miss Sweden got through the performance by fanning herself, snoozing, sipping a drink, and talking out loud to a handler.
“I am not a theater director, and I was not trying to make a statement in that sense,” Vezzoli said later. “I was just trying to turn the whole rotunda into a stage.” That was only clear during the grand finale, when Blanchett, making an entrance with even more melodramatic flair than Gloria Swanson at the end of Sunset Blvd., descended to the stage from the top tier of the museum amid flashing strobes and the camera crew preceding her. “I am whoever you believe me to be,” she thundered to the dolts wanting a piece of her onstage. “Are you happy now?” And then she disappeared.
All the same, during Miuccia Prada’s after-party at Bemelman’s Bar in the Carlyle Hotel, Brooke Shields was more enamored of the separate applause that Stritch had earned with her lagging departure from the arena. “Anyone can make an entrance,” Shields squealed as Stritch passed by. “There’s a woman who knows how to make an exit!” That didn’t make me want to go home, not with Ekberg sitting at the bar alone. “I hate parties!” she confessed, and I found myself wishing for the first time in thirty years that my mother were still alive so I could tell her where I was. Just then, Danilo, the celebrity hairdresser, came by to say good-night and Ekberg’s hand flew to her long blond extensions. “Don’t worry,” Danilo told her. “You can keep the hair.”