Thursday morning, on the elevator ride up to the eleventh floor of midtown’s Merchandise Mart tower for the preview of Volta NY, one prominent art dealer offered her appraisal of Pulse, another of the nine satellite fairs orbiting this year’s Armory Show. “It’s too pretty,” she claimed. “Not enough grit.”
Fairs can’t get a break these days. Either they’re untamable, Babylonian beasts or pat, familiar beats—cynical snapshots of the market or traveling circus museums. At least they seem to be making money, dire forecasts of a correction appearing, on the surface at least, to be premature. “This is the best Armory Show ever!” enthused Darren Flook, of London gallery Hotel, at one of the week’s many dinners.
Many dealers expressed similar ardency at Volta, the Basel-based fair whose inaugural New York edition was organized by Amanda Coulson and Christian Viveros-Fauné. The fair, which mandated that each gallery exhibit the work of only one artist or collective, was easy enough to navigate. This didn’t necessarily ensure better art, but at least there was a measure of civility to the affair. At Copenhagen’s V1 Gallery, former photojournalist Peter Funch presented uncanny color photographs of pedestrians taken at various New York street corners—a bit like Bill Cunningham’s photo essays interpreted by Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Around the bend, art collective International Festival was throwing a party (replete with confetti, smoke machine, and an open bar) at Fruit and Flower Deli. Are there any occasions left for sobriety? Deli co-owner Rodrigo Mallea Lira produced another of the artists’ works, a receipt for three thousand dollars, equivalent to one month’s rent at their Stanton Street location. “The artists are paying our rent for a year. It’s about the love between an artist and their dealer,” he noted. “You can buy the receipt for six thousand dollars.”
Left: Kavi Gupta Gallery's Kristen VanDeventer with photographer Melanie Schiff. Right: Volta curator Christian Viveros-Fauné. (Photos: Brian Sholis)
Further downtown at Pulse, the art may indeed have been pretty, but the fair’s new digs at Pier 40 were gloomy at best—spacious, true, but about as inviting as a parking garage. Still, a few welcome faces flecked the crowd. Photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya held court at Envoy, standing kitty-corner from his new video project Subject-Object proof #2, and described his favorite fair attendee thus far: a cross-dressing Russian billionaire carrying a stuffed poodle escorted by an ex-KGB officer in full uniform. Dealer Edward Winkleman later clarified that the former was one of Pulse’s sponsors, Malgorzata Romanska—“perhaps the best performance-art piece in a decade . . . if it is one.” At Winkleman, Yevgeniy Fiks had a winsome installation featuring a series of earnest letters from various corporations responding to the artist’s donation of a book, Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, to their corporate libraries. (From Wendy’s, on declining the gift: “We . . . appreciate your thoughtfulness and have included a coupon for you to enjoy during your next visit . . .”)
Over at USM Modular Furniture in SoHo, DAP was hosting the launch of Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s series of slim artist-interview transcripts. Delayed by traffic, we missed architect Enrique Walker interviewing Obrist but arrived just in time to catch the start of Obrist’s talk with artist Paul Chan. Thankfully, late was also fashionable; waves of curators (including MoMA’s Barbara London, Roxana Marcoci, and Klaus Biesenbach) followed in our wake. Björk was already there, looking at home with socked feet propped up on the seat in front of her (the only empty chair in the house). Chan’s an unassuming but articulate speaker, leaping handily from Hegel to Adorno to Valéry. Pointing to Henry Darger, Chan argued that “escape is a legitimate form of engagement” and then, a bit later, spoke against the “terrible connectedness” of our times. The talk’s message, such that there was one, seemed to be: “Get lost.” Sound advice, given the weekend’s seemingly inexorable busyness. Afterward, artist Olafur Eliasson leaped up to give a surprise toast to Obrist. “I just want to thank Hans for all of his dedication to . . .” A champagne cork popped prematurely. Eliasson quickly finished, the other corks followed suit, and the party commenced.
Left: Artist Matthew Buckingham. Right: Performa director RoseLee Goldberg with curator Okwui Enwezor.
Sometimes the fairs sound less like cafeteria politics than street fighting. “If anyone asks me about the market, I’m going to head-butt them,” boasted David Kordansky at an intimate dinner hosted by London galleries Stuart Shave and the Approach in an austere Chelsea loft. Food was small dishes prepared by the apartment’s owner, a young disciple of celebrity chef Mark Hix: seafood-and-mashed-potato stew, pumpkin risotto. Plenty of artists and dealers were present: Collier Schorr, David Altmejd, and Ricky Swallow joined 303 Gallery’s Lisa Spellman, Mari Spirito, and Barbara Corti, along with curator Clarissa Dalrymple, art consultant Rob Teeters, and others. Anticipating a busy weekend, I retired early.
Friday was all gray skies and blusters, a far cry from spring. Following a turbulent jaunt on a water taxi—during which Creative Time presented a film by Matthew Buckingham—I walked over to Harris Lieberman to catch the beginning of Thomas Zipp’s opening. Zipp wasn’t around, apparently off recuperating from the setup of his giant, canted wooden missiles before the dinner in his honor at Tribeca’s Blau Gans. Around the corner at Maccarone, a massive crowd navigated Nate Lowman and Dan Colen’s installation, a sprawling slacker paradise. Apparently, the artists hadn’t quite finished the work. Lowman pointed to a long chain of chrome wheels: “Those are supposed to be standing, but we didn’t want to kill anyone. It’s not like we’re Richard Serra or Christo.” The show itself is something of a reprise of Lowman’s manic installation at Peres Projects during the Athens Biennial last September. As is often the case, though, it wasn’t all about the art. “I’m here to party!” hollered a young gallery lackey, while the Champs’ golden tune “Tequila” blared from one of the works: a cream 1972 Jaguar XJ6 with California plates zealously cluttered with videos, wires, and ephemera. They’re less Warhol’s children than Richard Prince’s, retooling the joke paintings into ebullient joke installations.
It seemed as though every dealer in town was there. Buried deep in the West Village, Maccarone is essentially international waters. Javier Peres was present, of course, but so were Tim Blum, David Zwirner, Anton Kern, Andrew Kreps, Jeffrey Deitch, Carol Greene, Gagosian’s Sam Orlofsky, Gladstone’s Maxime Falkenstein, and Massimo De Carlo—to name a few. An astute friend noted that the dealers simply smell Peres’s involvement and think money. Soon the Rubell clan arrived, followed by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, and the scene began to skew toward the absurd.
Left: Marianne Boesky's Annie Rana and Elisabeth Ivers at the Dark Fair. Right: Swiss Institute director Gianni Jetzer with assistant curator Piper Marshall and Ray.
Looking to augment the absurd with a taste of the surreal, I set off with a few friends to the Swiss Institute for the inaugural Dark Fair. Institute director Gianni Jetzer played bouncer, holding back a swarm of devoted art fans wrapping well around the block. Since most forms of electric and natural light were prohibited, the gallery upstairs was decked out with candles and black light, giving it the vibe of one of those caliginous chill-out rooms obligatory at raves in the ’90s. A massage circle wouldn’t have seemed out of place. Instead, wandering the aisles, I found Spencer Sweeney dressed up as a ghost selling forty-dollar dildo candles at Gavin Brown’s “booth” and two Sue de Beer zoetropes (props from her video The Quickening) going for a few grand each at Marianne Boesky. Something for everyone, a friend enthused.
Afterward, we departed for the Rusty Knot, the freshly minted nautical-themed lounge featuring windows facing the Hudson—and the West Side Highway—where Lowman and Colen’s dinner was winding down to the afterparty. The revelry continued on to Agathe Snow’s capacious third-floor walk-up on the Lower East Side. Amid the derelict, beautiful space, Snow and the usual suspects lounged on the floor and danced ecstatically, while a small stereo played a song lifted from an old Kenneth Anger film. Strangely, there was no furniture—or belongings of any kind, really—to get in the way. A friend noted that the building had been sold to developers and that Snow and the other tenants were being evicted: the latest victims of the neighborhood’s gentrification. Although I’d never been there before, I was flooded with a sudden, momentary mourning for the party, for a scene I never knew.
Armory Show week in New York got off to a deceptively heady start on Tuesday night with a party that Sotheby’s Tobias Meyer and art consultant Mark Fletcher threw in their assume vivid astro focus–enhanced apartment sixty-six floors above Columbus Circle. Spirits were high as guests floated through the living room like the dancers in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1930 film Madam Satan, much of which takes place at a cocktail party in a blimp drifting over Central Park. In the movie, lightning strikes, forcing everyone to parachute into the Central Park Reservoir. Painters Lisa Yuskavage and Matvey Levenstein replayed that act in slightly less dramatic fashion by bailing early, ostensibly to avoid the mesclun-and-goulash dinner—and not Yuskavage’s former dealer, Marianne Boesky, who was deep in conversation with Friedrich Petzel on the other side of the room.
In fact, the number of gallerists chowing down in such unusually friendly fashion gave the entire soiree a slightly unbecoming wholesomeness. There was Barbara Gladstone with Team’s Jose Freire, Tomasso Corvi-Mora with Cornelia Grassi, Stefania Bortolami and Javier Peres. Jeffrey Deitch came by, as did Frieze Fair codirector Amanda Sharp, who, though not a dealer, sure is helping to sell a bunch of art. After a while, though, the dealers gave way to a phalanx of night-owl artists: Slater Bradley, Adam McEwen, Terence Koh, Jessica Craig-Martin, John Currin and Rachel Feinstein, Ashley Bickerton, and of course avaf’s Eli Sudbrack, dressed up in Navajo/Carioca duds. (Don’t we love those who still bother to make an effort?) “This is the suavest crowd I’ve ever seen,” Bickerton said, following Koh into a bathroom. “Nothing but freaks!”
I found Studio Museum director Thelma Golden by the floor-to-ceiling windows looking east over midtown Manhattan, telling Francesco Vezzoli about her sudden marriage in January to London’s sustainable-fashion designer Duro Olowu. “Basically, we eloped,” she said. There was some talk of the Whitney Biennial performances at the Park Avenue Armory, and how good it felt to visit museums late at night. “Sometimes I think we should just stay open till midnight,” Golden said, sounding wistful. “Is it true Gavin Brown is opening a nightclub?” Vezzoli asked.
Left: Artist Mary Heilmann. Right: Filmmaker John Waters. (Photos: Linda Yablonsky)
That would be a logical next step from the owner of the soon-to-be-defunct bar Passerby. Brown certainly could have brought some pizzazz to the Armory Show’s VIP preview on Wednesday, when I spotted a number of dealers sitting in their booths, staring out at the aisles and hoping new clients would notice them. Out here on the river, hard by New Jersey, the pier felt more like a trading post than usual. Perhaps it’s assuming the personality of the enthusiastic new owner, Merchandise Mart Properties of Chicago, which also runs Art Chicago and the Volta and NEXT fairs, among other trade shows. Paul Morris, an Armory Show cofounder who is now the fair's vice president, was busy taking Dolce and Gabbana for a tour (he must sniff out a new sponsor around every corner), so I slipped into the VIP Lounge to meet Chris Kennedy, who was more or less born into the Mart (once owned by his grandfather, Joseph Kennedy) and who looks very much like his father, Robert F. Kennedy. “Art fairs are the future of retail,” he said flat out. The reason? Because they’re so social. Kennedy’s right.
An art fair isn’t just about the flow of money. It’s about schmoozing. Art fairs are the high school dances of the international set. Photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders spoke of his new HBO documentary about prominent black Americans—what timing!—and, in the VIP room, I met Peter Rosenthal, one of the founders of First Creative Bank, a new entity designed expressly to serve the “creative economy.” Still, this Armory, which once admitted only the freshest works, may be the least challenging in recent memory. I heard one artist call it a fair that “only a decorator could love.” More than one passerby compared it—unfavorably—with the current Biennial. Alienated by the hodgepodge, I longed for a little curatorial muscle, some celebrity outrage, a soupçon of sensuality. “Let me ask you something,” Kennedy said. “Why isn’t there more political art?”
A fair question. At Pier 94, you would never know that this was an election year, that there are new eruptions of violence in Iraq, that homes are being foreclosed, that the Chinese are killing Tibetans, or even that the US dollar is sinking. (Remember when art was sold in dollars?) In this context, the focus of the few single-artist booths (Jenny Holzer at Cheim & Read, Eleanor Antin at Ronald Feldman, Annette Lemieux at Paul Kasmin, Martin Creed at Hauser & Wirth), some of which wore politics on their sleeves, came as a major relief. Still, by the end of the day, the Armory aisles were veritable schmoozefests and the dealers were going home happy. “Art fairs shouldn’t run more than a day and a half,” dealer Rachel Lehmann whispered later.
In the last five minutes, I found collectors Don and Mera Rubell with Takashi Murakami, who makes no distinction between art and commerce, in Victoria Miro’s booth, admiring an unusual iron sculpture of a Japanese warrior by Grayson Perry, of all people. It came in an edition of five, with two left unsold. Strangely, Murakami seemed to be wondering whether he could afford one. The Rubells work faster. “Let’s just get it,” said Don to Mera, while speaking into a cell phone, though perhaps he was talking about something else.
Left: Armory Show executive director Katelijne De Backer. (Photo: Brian Sholis) Right: Artist Jenny Holzer with Sir Norman Rosenthal. (Photo: David Velasco)
Twenty minutes later, I found them already seated at the dinner Andrew Kreps and Anton Kern were hosting at Malatesta on Washington Street. Outside, film agent and collector Beth Swofford was re-creating for anyone who would listen the scene she had made the night before to get a last-minute room at the Mercer Hotel. “Not this story again!” moaned Gavin Brown. “Let her tell it!” hollered CCS Bard Hessel Museum director Tom Eccles, who must have flown uptown soon after to Iwan Wirth’s bubbling party for painter Mary Heilmann at the dealer’s multistory pad above Zwirner & Wirth. There I found Eccles in the stairwell, planting a kiss on Martin Creed’s cheek.
John Waters left early, but Rufus Wainwright came late, showing up with another heartthrob, Jörn Weisbrodt, Robert Wilson’s right-hand man. Wirth’s decorator, Ricky Clifton—“the Billy Baldwin of the art world,” quipped Vezzoli, for whom Heilmann is a new diva—gave personal tours of the house. “That Chinese table was Marlon Brando’s, those urns were Barbra Streisand’s, that moose head was Warren Beatty’s,” he said. Upstairs, in the bedroom, Heilmann was meeting some of her collectors for the first time. “I know you have something of mine, I’m just not sure what,” she told Omaha entrepreneur Phil Schrager. “I have three works by you,” he told her. “Oh,” she said. “You are a good man!” For this good woman, these days, they’re not so hard to find.
Left: Merchandise Mart properties President Christopher Kennedy. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky) Right: Artist Robert Barry with dealer Yvon Lambert. (Photo: David Velasco)
On Easter Sunday, for the final Whitney Biennial performance at the Park Avenue Armory, bewigged artists Rita Ackermann (frizzy blond bob) and Agathe Snow (Orange Crush Afro) hosted a much-buzzed-about “gypsy-themed feast, in which . . . the guests themselves become materials in the work of art.” Titled Abat-Jour, the piece “refers to bajour,” explained the Whitney website, “the traditional gypsy confidence game. Using barter and chance as central themes, Ackermann and Snow explore issues related to gender, community, and celebration.” Softly humming Cher’s classic ditty “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves,” I entered the Armory ready for fortune-telling, swindling, and, as advertised, vintage Dom Pérignon. You know, an art-world dinner.
In case you haven’t been, the Armory is a paragon of the American Aesthetic Movement and a veritable moose Treblinka loaded with mounted game, arcane club rooms, memorial plaques, busts and oil portraits of military types, lavish paneling, Tiffany flourishes, and, on two of the top floors, a women’s shelter (!). On the bottom two, behind peek-a-boo blackout curtains, a Biennial art piece was installed in each room. Most seemed to be plugged-in gadgets of some sort.
Reached through these anachronistic halls, the mise-en-scène of the dinner was Fellini-esque: a lo-o-ong table dramatically beached in the middle of the Drill Hall, a vaulted, cavernous space the size of a football field. Along with the champagne glasses, the bar area started to overflow with the art-slash-fashion “community,” as the hostesses and their helpers cavorted giddily in gypsyish frocks and head scarves, hugged guests, and posed for pictures.
Left: C&M Media's Angela Mariani with Art Production Fund cofounder Yvonne Force Villareal. Right: Jessica Weiner and Danielle Weiner with Art Production Fund cofounder Doreen Remen.
You know, sometimes you just don’t feel like chatting. But the great thing about these events is that everyone there is a pro: They wouldn’t show up to such a thing if they weren’t willing to work, so they’re always ready to meet you halfway in the chat department. I adjusted my social autopilot and scanned the room: the Three as Four guy, a wee Bob Dylan gadding about in a cape; Björk, cute and tiny in a not-flattering vintage-y silvery dress; the Soy Bomb guy, Michael Portnoy, in a dandyish suit; Biennial curators Henriette Huldisch and Shamim Momin. Jeffrey Deitch, always dapper, with his signature cat-that-ate-the-canary expression, surveyed the scene approvingly. Cynthia Rowley admitted she was nervous. (“We’re expected to perform?” she asked.) Artist Rob Pruitt had news: He had ridden a mitzvah tank from Grand Street to Saint Mark’s Place doing shots for Purim last week with the Lubavitchers (“They were cute!”). On her way in, Yvonne Force Villareal looked gypsy glam in a fur jacket and head scarf, purposefully schlepping some bags.
The “feast,” food-wise, was kinda gross (to this vegetarian) but mercifully sporadic (pig rolls, sweets, tasteless cocktail pumpernickel with spread I later found out was chicken fat and aioli. Blech). There was an open bottle of Dom Pérignon at every place setting. A whimsical centerpiece of Hummel-esque and crafty tchotchkes was scattered along the length of the table. When I saw an esteemed colleague glide by coolly eying which ones to pocket, I quickly slipped a crude ceramic ornament into my purse, signed: HOME SWEET HOME, LOVE BERNARD.
Manic facilitators in Rhoda Morgenstern head scarves periodically rushed around the feasters. Wildly emoting, they waved cue cards: LOOK AROUND YOU!, YELL!, CHANGE SEATS!, and, finally (inspiring my favorite image of the evening—Yvonne Force standing on the table in her fur, kerchief, and best hostess smile, hollering), GET THE HELL OUT! People were tipsy enough to oblige—the “interactive” part—but it felt contrived. If art is the constant process of emptying stuff out, mused my inner geek, it is nevertheless possible to experience bogus absurdity. Beyond the random seating (each guest drew a card deeming them a SWAN, a DOLPHIN, or a SHE-WOLF and was placed accordingly), if this was supposed to be about “bartering and chance” and “issues related to gender, community, and celebration,” then maybe that was the swindle? One smarty-pants observed: “It all seems like some sort of cynical comment on Rirkrit Tiravanija's dinners. I wonder if buzz and no content is simply the donnée these days. Curse you Warhol.” I was disappointed there was no tea-leaf reading. But on the plus side, my pockets weren’t picked!
Left: Designer Cynthia Rowley. Right: Rivington Arms's Melissa Bent, artist Marina Rosenfeld, and Ange from Three as Four.
A view of Ikue Mori's performance at the Japan Society. (All photos: Tom DiMauro)
In 1977, Ikue Mori moved from Tokyo to New York. She was in her early twenties, spoke no English, knew no one, and was due back—she’d promised her mother—in three months. Wandering around the Lower East Side, she met a guitarist, Arto Lindsay, and a keyboardist, Robin Crutchfield. While her mother waited in Toyko, Mori and her new friends formed the epochal No Wave act DNA; within a year, her abstruse, sculptural playing—her bandmates taught her drum parts via pantomime and diagram—had made her a downtown goddess. The Brian Eno–curated No Wave document No New York followed; so did a cameo in the infamous Basquiat vehicle Downtown 81. In ’82, the band dissolved, but Mori stayed in the city.
Their math may be fuzzy, but by any measure, the Japan Society’s “Ikue Mori: Celebrating 30 Years of Life, Love, and Music in NYC” was a long time coming. In 2006, Mori found herself on a Japan Society stage, as part of composer John Zorn’s “Tzadik Label Music Series.” She marveled at her luck and seemingly far-fetched trajectory. In the audience was Yoko Shioya, the society’s artistic director; hearing her, Shioya decided she could come further still, and so—after years of solo and collaborative performances downtown, after a decade of forays into dance and installation art in places as far-flung as Tate Modern and as close to home as the Kitchen—the Zorn-curated Mori tribute was born.
A two-night affair in the minimal confines of the Japan Society’s Forty-seventh Street building, the festival was designed with a contemporary bent—no DNA, no early-’80s metal machine music. Instead, Zorn chose only ongoing endeavors: Friday showcased Mori’s burgeoning animation project, inspired by Balinese temples and scored by the gamelan ensemble Bhima Swarga, and a world premiere of Mori’s newest collaboration with the Japanese avant-pop collective Hikashu’s Makigami Koichi, a vocal-improv artist and stage director.
I held out for Saturday, drawn to the program for its promised US debut of Mori’s live sound track to two of Maya Deren’s silent films (Witch’s Cradle, starring Duchamp, and the sublime At Land), originally commissioned by Tate Modern. Also scheduled were Phantom Orchard, Mori’s project with the harpist Zeena Parkins, and Mephista, her all-female improv trio. Not coincidentally, the Japan Society presented both nights as installments in their current season’s theme: New York Woman.
A view of Ikue Mori's performance at the Japan Society.
Phantom Orchard has to be one of a very few acts to be considered for both a Prix Ars Electronica and inclusion in the annual New York noise gathering No Fun Fest. But this high-art/low-art tweak is a Mori signature, going back to her send-ups of Japanese court music in service of DNA’s raucous non-songs. Halfway through their set on Saturday, she and Parkins—whose atonal, growling harp might be another new-music joke—brought the percussionist Cyro Baptista onstage. As the crowd looked on intently, Baptista unveiled a clown car’s worth of instruments that resembled nothing so much as trash: a saw blade, two deflated spheres that looked like melting bowling balls, and half an NBA championship trophy (played with a bell). On the screen behind the deadpan trio, a kaleidoscopic animation eventually resolved itself into a familiar silhouette: Behold, the New York City cockroach.
Mori’s Maya Deren piece had a ghost of the same high/low feint, a tongue-in-cheek re-creation of long-gone low culture—the nickelodeon, the silent film, the piano player. Mori emerged in black, bowed, and sat down at a laptop. Witch’s Cradle, one of Deren’s more overtly claustrophobic films, lingers over thumping hearts, stray appendages, yards of rope; Mori’s score took as its basis the metronomic pulse of the body Deren plumbs in such depth, using it as a ground from which to take intricate flight.
But it was the second Deren film she showed, At Land, that was as close to a summa as the artist might cop to. At Land depicts Deren, in its opening shot, washing up out of the ocean and onto the shore. Right before the end of the reel—before Deren takes off running down the beach toward the water and the horizon, leaving an unbroken line of footprints behind her—the projection flickered, then died. Mori shrugged, and the show went on.
Afterward, I ran into Suzanne Fiol, artistic director at the Brooklyn new-music venue Issue Project Room. “At the end, she goes back into the water, right?” Fiol asked. Deren might, but Mori—not yet.
Last Tuesday morning, during the Art Dubai press conference, I was thinking about the night before, when the New York air would have been cool and heavy, the US dollar worth a record fraction of the euro, and I had been in a cab doing 100 on Sheikh Zayed Road, where it was 77 degrees at 9 PM and money seemed to grow on hydroponic trees. Virgin, Canon, Crown Plaza, and the Metroplex streaked by. The Mall of the Emirates (“the world’s first shopping resort”) and the rising Burj Dubai (“the world’s tallest tower”) did the same amid light-box billboards of sheikhs and perfume and floodlit buildings with South Asian construction workers inside. We drove into Dubai Internet City, then Dubai Media City, two of the city’s industry-organized neighborhoods. So now sitting outside the fair halls in the Jumeirah Madinat, a resort “styled to resemble an ancient Arabian citadel” (with a souk, two “boutique” hotels, and courtyard summerhouses), I couldn’t help but think that all this added up to nothing but a franchise, something like Dubai Art City.
Just another Pfizer or IBM stationed in this magical city in the desert, I thought, as teacups clinked and cameras flashed while fair codirector John Martin (a London-based dealer) and education director Savita Apte (an art historian and Sotheby’s consultant) seated themselves with fellow speaker Frederic Sicre, executive director of Abraaj Capital, the private equity firm partnered with the fair. What followed was a hard sell. Artists are entrepreneurs. The fair is a gateway between “the East and the West.” Sicre spoke of Abraaj’s deepening interests in a region spanning the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia that the company has labeled, he shared proudly, MENASA. (The original acronym, SAMENA, was scrapped when it was revealed to translate in Arabic as “fat lady.”) Sicre noted: “Where the Western economies seem to be going through a few difficulties, emerging markets,” like those of MENASA, “are really the call of the day.”
Left: British Museum curator Venetia Porter. Right: Sheikh Mohammed, ruler of Dubai, with dealer Kamel Mennour.
The subsequent question-and-answer session had just begun when an excited press agent interrupted: His Highness Sheikh Majid bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai’s culture minister, had arrived. Audience members clamored for a photo op, and then a beaming Martin led the sheikh through the maze of booths—the former pointing to this or that object, the latter occasionally exchanging words with dealers and artists—as photographers and journalists maintained a tight ring around them, some shuffling backward to snap pictures and bumping into sculptures that dealers scrambled to guard.
“It’s called Flying Carpets,” artist Alex Flemming said to the sheikh about his airplane-shaped Oriental rugs hanging in the Bolsa de Arte booth: “What do you think?” The sheikh: “I think I could fly away on it.” The crowd chuckled nervously. A journalist noted that Contrasts Gallery was organizing a fair in Hong Kong to open this spring and passed him her business card. He accepted it without looking down. Having made its way through the Credit Suisse exhibition—titled, predictably, “Art and Entrepreneurship”—and out the main entrance, the crowd took more photos at Wim Delvoye’s outdoor installation of a rusty rickshaw. Then it ended as quickly as it had begun: The sheikh and his companions stepped into a taupe Hummer and disappeared around the bend.
The fair had three significant projects apart from the main halls: the Pakistani-pavilion exhibition, “Desperately Seeking Paradise”; the Art Park, a video lounge (organized by the editors of Bidoun and curators Tirdad Zolghadr and Nav Haq) housed in the parking garage below the main fair; and the Global Art Forum, a series of lectures in a tent on the Arabian Gulf beach. Of the works in “Desperately Seeking Paradise,” Huma Mulji’s Arabian Delight, a taxidermic camel from Pakistan stuffed into a black suitcase with a palm-tree pattern on its interior, stood out most (which is perhaps why the government ordered its removal). Mohammed Ali Talpur’s drawing-in-space, a cube of various Plexiglas planes painted with black lines, looked good but not as strong as his fine ink-on-paper works exhibited in the Green Cardamom booth. Soon after I had begun to explore the Art Park, my phone vibrated with an incoming message: COME TO THE FRONT NOW.
Left: Artist Ai Weiwei with dealer Christine Koenig. Right: Artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Serpentine codirector of exhibitions and programs.
The mass had again congealed on the red carpet at the entrance, their obscene lenses focused on two parked Hummers and any man wearing a kandura. A group of robed gentlemen dispersed as a third car pulled up and Sheikh Mohammed, ruler of Dubai, stepped out to be greeted by Martin. Another chaotic tour ensued. “Beautiful,” the sheikh said of Reena Kallat’s picture of a young girl composed of rubber stamps; “I like the movement,” he said of Sung-Tae Park’s wire wall sculptures of horses (a predictable choice, perhaps, given his much-publicized equestrian hobbies). He ran his hand along Valay Shende’s Gun of Counter-Revolution, a nickel-plated sculpture of a firearm whose two barrels point in opposite directions, and along the artist’s nearby gold-plated motorcycle. A pretty journalist stopped the sheikh at the top of the escalator to the Art Park and asked: “Do you like contemporary art?” He laughed and stepped onto the descending stairway. On entering the video lounge, he looked back: “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”
The next morning, bleary-eyed from the lively patron’s preview and the rooftop afterparty sponsored by London gallery Albion, the press-junket participants were driven to the building of fair shareholder Dubai International Finance Center for two talks: one by Anders Petterson, of ArtTactic, a market-research company, the other by Louise T. Blouin MacBain, founder of the eponymous media empire. “It’s not actually the work itself, it’s who’s supporting it,” Petterson said and passed around a spreadsheet on the Indian art market, a “heatmap” meant to provide a “snap-shot of the current psychology in the market,” with the summative headline “Optimists Outweigh Pessimists.” For her part, MacBain took the microphone in hand and stepped away from the podium: “I must say that it’s so wonderful to go and experience start-ups, especially in these regions, we need it so much. Dubai needs it. The Middle East needs it. We need to discover the art.” She conceded, about her new website, MyArtinfo (“a Facebook with artists”), created to help ease the discrepancy between “local governments” and “global issues,” that “poor people, they have to have a computer to get onto the Internet, and that’s a big challenge,” and, of people in refugee camps, “feeding them” takes priority.
Left: Artist Huma Mulji with Arabian Delight. Right: The Museum of Modern Arab Art's Wassan al-Khudhairi with the Third Line's Claudia Cellini.
This convoluted scenario—in which art is likened at once to entrepreneurship, to luxury, to the great social solvent—was cut through by Lawrence Weiner during his Global Art Forum talk with British Museum curator Venetia Porter, whose exhibition “Word into Art,” which features two word sculptures by Weiner, was being hosted by the DIFC. Porter’s show follows the use of calligraphy in Middle Eastern art (hewing to no country’s specific history) from its religious beginnings through “abstraction.” Porter saw “calligraphy,” whereas Weiner saw “typefonts.” Porter saw her exhibition as an objective “presentation,” whereas Weiner saw it as a “framed environment” fostering exoticism. Porter saw the art as a window onto a Middle Eastern sensibility, one deeply rooted in Islam, whereas Weiner posited art as a “material fact” about “passing on relationships of human beings to objects.” The language is beside the point.
Porter: “I’m trying to tell a story.”
Weiner: “They’re not characters in a story.”
It went like this until it ended with no common ground charted.
That night was a party at the house of Claudia Cellini, one of the three founders of Dubai gallery Third Line. The popping corks sounded particularly loud, perhaps because they signaled the violation of the daylong dry period mandated for the Prophet’s birthday. I spoke with Bidoun’s Lisa Farjam and art historian Murtaza Vali about the South Asian labor system in Dubai and with Tehran-based artists Shirin Aliabadi and Farhad Moshiri (the first Middle Eastern artist to sell at auction for more than one million dollars) about the Internet firewalls in their city. Charlie Koolhaas and Art Asia Pacific editor H. G. Masters chatted in the driveway. Weiner stopped by, and Hans-Ulrich Obrist headed to the bar. We stayed up late and ate curry in the back and all seemed well in this new Gulf town as English words floated out on shisha smoke into the night.
Left: Artists Shirin Aliabadi and Farhad Moshiri. (Photo: Kyle Bentley) Right: Bidoun's Negar Azimi with critic Shumon Basar.
Left: A view of Doris Salcedo's pavilion at Inhotim Park. Right: UCLA Hammer Museum curator Gary Garrels (center) with Inhotim founder Bernardo Paz (right). (Photos: Bruno Magalhães)
Picture one thousand people crowding a dilapidated country road in the midst of a record-shattering tropical storm and you will have some idea of the mise-en-scène for last weekend’s celebrations at Brazil’s Inhotim Contemporary Art Center. There are no shortage of reasons to fly to Belo Horizonte, the sadly overgrown capital of Minas Gerais, one of the country’s twenty-six states, and then spend another hour driving to Bernardo Paz’s eighty-seven-square-acre Shangri-la, but this was an occasion more special than most: the introduction of two new pavilions to the park’s already impressive repertoire, one dedicated to the work of Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo, the other to that of the Brazilian painter Adriana Varejão.
If you’re throwing a party for the Brazilian elite, here is how, as a seasoned event planner explained to me, you estimate your congregation. Take the number of people who bother to RSVP, then throw in another half so you can stock the right amount of caipirinha ingredients. Brazilians are notoriously commitment-phobic, so you can only count on them coming once they’ve shown up.
And show up they did. As the epic storm rocked the procession of hired taxis, buses, and minivans, the guests—dressed down to communicate affluent ease with scientific sartorial precision—were treated to the natural performance of falling trees and overflowing rivers. On reaching Inhotim’s entrance, most resigned themselves to donning the white hooded rain ponchos being distributed by park employees. First stop, the elegantly designed restroom—yes, even the restrooms were eye-catching. Inside, a young woman stared at the lineup of uniformly dressed women reflected in the mirror and exclaimed, in casual Portuguese, “We look like the Ku Klux Klan!” Here, some four thousand miles south of where such a reference might ruin an evening—or at least ruffle a feather—the remark went unnoticed.
How do you spot VIPs when everyone’s dressed in white plastic bags with holes? The cross-dresser Patrício Bisso, an Argentine-born actor who made his career in Brazil, once survived a challenging television assignment. Told to scout for Rio de Janeiro celebrities during a carnival parade, Bisso, an outsider, proceeded to stick the microphone in people’s faces, asking point-blank, “Are you somebody?” Not even Bisso would dare be so cheeky with Salcedo, who at that moment looked prepped for an appointment with her dentist. The famously press-shy Colombian grimaced through the opening of her pavilion—an austere edifice that houses her lyric steel and plasterboard installation, Neither, itself a reference to the architecture of concentration camps, seen once before at London’s White Cube gallery—then quickly retired.
Varejão, far more congenial, bore the brunt of the celebration, playing host to an unwieldy hodgepodge of dealers, curators, journalists, and friends from three continents. Varejão’s pavilion houses three new works, including Celacanto Provoca Maremoto (Coelacanth Provokes a Tidal Wave), which evokes the manner in which tiles are replaced in old baroque panels. Thus far, thanks to its artful marriage of architecture, landscaping, and painting, her pavilion is the most breathtaking of Inhotim’s many shrines to contemporary art. Varejão is married to Paz, Inhotim’s soft-spoken bwana, though to obviate suspicions of curatorial nepotism, it should be noted that they met when both were married to other people and Paz invited the talented young artist to survey the park for her site-specific works. The result of that first meeting, their sunny, gorgeous two-year-old Catarina, was also present.
Having amassed an impressive collection of post-1960s works by artists such as Matthew Barney, Hélio Oiticica, Cildo Meireles, and Tunga, Paz has planted them in gardens laid by famed landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx, far from the madding crowds of the art world’s nervous centers. The park’s proprietor, whose passions are financed by a fortune made in mining and metallurgy, doesn’t want to be called a collector, “because it reminds me of accumulation.” How does he want to be remembered, now that Inhotim has attracted more than 140,000 visitors in its third year, evolving into a nonprofit foundation with ambitions ranging from biological research to education to tourism and the performing arts? “Can you call me a conceiver?” That would be like calling Peggy Guggenheim a socialite with taste. As he continues to lavish commissions on artists like Doug Aitken, Janet Cardiff, and Pipilotti Rist, it’s easy to understand that Bernardo, as he prefers to be called, enjoys, for the moment anyway, being the primary curator of his reputation.
There are many minor cities in China with populations of six or seven million, so perhaps it is natural that Hong Kong always feels like a small town. A tiny circle of storied capitalists and their socialite spawn sits at the center of a node in the global economy unlike any other. The local art scene does nothing better than organize panel discussions about its own shortcomings. Vague apparitions of the future—stalled plans for the West Kowloon Cultural District, a controversial Herzog & de Meuron design for an arts district amid a redeveloped police station and prison compound in Central—play to the idea that this is a city where big things could happen. For now, though, it’s a place where one goes to bemoan how global capitalism has made the world into a giant mall, but also to buy a really fabulous suit or bag.
And oh, the shopping! The late critic Jonathan Napack once noted how the town “went directly from feudal poverty to postmodern consumerism without an intervening stage of ‘modernity.’” So perhaps there was no other place for Karl Lagerfeld and Zaha Hadid to kick off their plan to bring “mobile art” to five global cities, with a traveling exhibition installed inside a reverie by Lady Zaha herself, easily collapsible and transportable from one stop on a jet-setting trajectory to another.
If anything, the Chanel container, which opened to the public on February 27 for visits at rigidly enforced fifteen-minute intervals, provided a chunk of cultural capital that natives and visitors (never an easy distinction in Hong Kong) could play off each other. The production values are as high as one would expect, and the theater of the container’s vaguely Eurasian hostesses in matching black Chanel knit cloaks and white pants regulating entry, then presenting as fetish object the MP3 player that contains the exhibition sound track, was priceless. “Which language would you prefer?” they asked each visitor. “We have English, French, and four Asian languages.” Inside, Yang Fudong’s two-screen still video depicting a pair of aloof beauties seemed to capture and satirize the desired aesthetic, although Wim Delvoye’s no-holds-barred fabrication of a Chanel quilted bag (supposedly Hadid’s inspiration for the container itself) from his Beijing-bred tattooed pigs came in at a close second. Looking into an animated pit by last summer’s Venice star Tabaimo, one was warned by the husky baritone of Jeanne Moreau on the MP3 player: “There are secrets lying at the bottom of a well, just like in the bottom of a bag.” Not that I had higher hopes, but it was at this line that I had the Vestals switch my player to Mandarin, resigned to anthropological curiosity about how such inanities would be rendered in the language of the brand’s biggest, newest market.
“What did you think of the Chanel exhibition?” and “Are you going tomorrow?” were the parlor questions of the evening before the opening gala, as I sat on the fifteenth-floor roof deck of the China Club late last Tuesday, glimpsing out toward the Star Ferry car park where the container was installed. Artists and curators began to appear—Michael Lin, Loris Cecchini, Fudong, Fabrice Bousteau, Wu Shanzhuan, MASS MoCA’s Joe Thompson—and mingled with daughters of the major families, girls with American first names and surnames like Woo and Chou. There were four eminent lacquer craftsmen on that roof, three members of the Koolhaas family, in from Guangzhou (“A great town, full of pink buildings and African clubs,” exclaimed Charlie), and even leading 1980s critic Pi Daojian, now better known as the father of Beijing gallerist Pi Li. In a nearby room, club founder Sir David Tang held court with Hadid and Project Runway’s Nina Garcia (in town to promote—at Lane Crawford, of course—a new book urging women to be less brand-conscious). The latter duo was complemented by a rotating cast of notables shepherded in for individual audiences by Tang’s longtime collaborator, the dealer Johnson Chang. For a brief moment, the club’s dynamite collection of Chinese contemporary art, assembled by Chang and Tang in the early ’90s as they essentially wrote the playbook that the auction houses still follow today, seemed worth every dollar it would bring if put on the block tomorrow.
Fashion parties happen every week in Hong Kong (by all accounts, the Louis Vuitton event two nights later was “so much better”), but fashion parties with the veneer of art—that is another story entirely. And for Chanel, art was as good a reason as any to enforce that key brand attribute: exclusivity. Just ask the executive director of one of the city’s major art institutions (herself also a fixture of local party rags like Tatler and Prestige), who was invited explicitly sans husband (the Asia director of a competing brand). “It was all just a little too precious,” she said on the roof of the China Club. Another friend with deep family ties to the fashion industry got her invitation only after a guilt-tripping call from a publicist explaining that she would be allowed in—but only in place of a Chanel executive who had flown in just for the event from Paris.
Left: Artist Michael Lin and critic Beatrice Leanza. Right: Ferrari Koolhaas Xiao and United Nude's Rem D. Koolhaas.
It was this friend with whom I arrived, walking unsuspectingly before the paparazzi with her and an Artforum colleague—until we two guys were kindly asked to move over so that the dogcatchers (as they’re called in Cantonese) could shoot “just her look, please.” Hand-stamped and inside, we were reminded of Akbar Abbas’s pithy formulation about Hong Kong as the land of the déjà disparu, a place with no visible past, or even Napack’s idea of the city as the “apotheosis of the bogus.” Why was it so empty? Had people been already and left? Had Chanel gone so far in the name of brand exclusivity that no one actually felt like showing up? We mitigated this curiosity by frequent vertical moves from the party scene downstairs to the container-bearing rooftop, exchanging empty champagne glasses for full ones with every climb. At one point, Lagerfeld and Hadid arrived, but it seemed the only people left to notice were photographers paid to do so. Charlie and Rem D. Koolhaas ran downstairs to say hello to their old family friend, as we blew kisses and agreed to meet again a week later in Dubai.
More than a thousand people made their way to what one visitor termed “the Mount Olympus of the art world” on Thursday night to attend the opening of “California Video” at the Getty Museum. The crowd included nearly all of the fifty-eight artists in the exhibition, many of whom recalled making work in the 1970s at the Long Beach Museum of Art, a creative hub for video when the now-ubiquitous medium was still a burgeoning art form. Collector Pam Kramlich, curator Steven Seid, and curator and author Rosanna Albertini were among those gathered to celebrate the first museum exhibition to survey video art from California and many of the pioneers who created it, including Ant Farm, the Kipper Kids, Tony Labat, Jay McCafferty, and Tony Oursler. At a more intimate reception held earlier that evening for the artists in the Getty’s restaurant, artist Hildegard Duane surveyed the room with a smile and remarked, “This is the reunion to end all reunions.”
The familial vibe reverberated throughout the evening. Service included numerous buffets and several bars; surveying the spread, a curator from Dallas observed, “We reserve this kind of food for donors!” But it wouldn’t be Mount Olympus without platters of ambrosia. The Getty appeared more than happy to roll out the red carpet for artists, an enthusiasm echoed by staff in the evening’s few short speeches. Welcoming guests, Getty director Michael Brand noted the presence of many “living, breathing artists.” Later that night, staffer Chris Jacobs elaborated: “Usually you have to be dead to be on these walls.” Actress Jo Harvey Allen surveyed a crowd that included Skip Arnold, Bill Viola, Suzanne Lacy, Howard Fried, and Nancy Buchanan and marveled, “You see people you haven’t seen in years. It’s like, just the other day you had been wondering about someone, and now you turn around, and here they are!”
Introduced to enthusiastic applause as “the hero of the evening” was curator Glenn Phillips, the man largely responsible for sorting through box after box of aging video tapes and crumbling documents in the Long Beach Museum of Art Video Archive, acquired by the Getty in 2006. The impressive contents of these sagging cartons included little-known works from the Women’s Building and early videos by Paul McCarthy, Bruce and Norman Yonemoto, Bruce Nauman, William Wegman, and Eleanor Antin, together with performance tapes and audio recordings, many of which have found their way into “California Video.” At the artist reception, Chip Lord, of Ant Farm, remarked that the various elements of that collective’s iconic video installation The Eternal Frame, 1975–76, “were likely in a Dumpster somewhere” before arriving at the Getty. With graciousness typical of the evening, Phillips thanked the artists, his staff, and colleagues from Long Beach, several of whom, including Carole Ann Klonarides, David Ross, and Kathy Huffman, were present.
Not all guests actually made it up the marble staircase to see the exhibition. The time-based nature of the work, not to mention crowds of artists reminiscing and guests queuing up for space at consoles, created a situation in which, as artist Terry Allen observed, “We saw other people seeing the show.” But the night was more about reconnecting with old friends and celebrating a medium that, although currently in vogue, was once relegated to second-class status.
Left: Artist Norman Yonemoto with curator Carole Ann Klonarides and artist Bruce Yonemoto. Right: Artist Nancy Buchanan.
With many revelers still gathered under the stars, the numerous, polite Getty staff began efficiently folding up the patio umbrellas right above our heads, prompting Los Angeles dealer Angela Jones to warn a still-chatting New York dealer, Ed Winkleman, “Be careful, they’ll snap you right up in that thing!” He wasn’t convinced, but this is Los Angeles, and the event was already running over its scheduled 10 PM end time. Sure enough, the umbrella snapped shut and guests headed back down the hill to the city below.
With all due respect to the cantankerous Dr. Ž, I was more attracted to last Wednesday’s event—“They Live! Hollywood as an Ideological Machine” at the New York Public Library—by its title than by its star. John Carpenter’s They Live is one of my favorite cult films, a tacky sci-fi gem that built on David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and made The Matrix’s point a decade before the Wachowskis hipped gamers to “the desert of the real.” A withering satire of Reaganite America, They Live boasts perhaps the longest fight scene in cinema history and is certainly the only leftist critique with a professional wrestler (“Rowdy” Roddy Piper) in its leading role. The movie is understandably beloved by film theorists of a certain stripe, Slavoj Žižek among them, so I was eager to hear his take. Admittedly, I was also curious to get a closer look at a man who resembles a Slavic plumber but somehow managed to marry an Argentine lingerie model half his age. Sure, her parents were Lacanians, but really.
NYPL Public Programs director Paul Holdengraber welcomed the full house and read aloud Žižek’s self-penned bio, which identified everyone’s favorite Slovenian as a “philosopher and psychoanalyst with three basic orientations: a Hegelian in philosophy, a Lacanian in psychoanalysis, a Christian materialist in religion, and a Communist in politics.” (That’s, um, four, but who’s counting?) I doubt this cleared anything up for NYPL season-ticket holders, and, as perhaps the world’s most famous public intellectual now that Baudrillard and Sontag have passed, Žižek required no introduction to his fans. On Holdengraber’s exit, the twin screens bookending the stage came alive with a clip from the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, in which Groucho has his belated Lacanian “mirror moment.” Žižek’s prerecorded voice boomed from the speakers, positing the brothers as incarnations of Freud’s holy trinity—superego (Groucho), ego (Chico), and id (Harpo). Filmed segments showing Žižek from a distance, standing in a white void (a nod to The Matrix) were intercut with the brothers’ antics.
Having flashed his virtual calling card, Dr. Ž appeared, characteristically schlumpy in brown pants and a black T-shirt bearing a tilted C (Cinergi Pictures? Communism?). Taking his seat in front of a lectern, Žižek cryptically dubbed the NYPL a “mix of spiritual obscenity” and began his talk in a sibilant, heavily accented voice, further impeded by audible sniffles. Now, Dr. Ž is an intellectual heavyweight. His breadth of reference, high to low, is admirable, if at times absurdly diffuse. But his thesis this evening—that disasters, attacks, and upheavals in Hollywood films serve to unite romantic couples and reinforce nuclear-family ties—was kid’s stuff. You don’t need critical theory, psychoanalysis, or even Leonard Maltin to recognize that in a Hollywood happy ending, the boy always gets the girl and the splintered family always reunites.
Nevertheless, aided by the relevant clips, the scales fell from our eyes as we learned that ET was really about a missing father figure, that Jurassic Park’s velociraptors transformed a remote patriarch into a loving dad, that Schindler rediscovered his sense of paternal duty with his list, as did Tom Cruise while tangling with illegal aliens in War of the Worlds. Accusing Spielberg films of promoting family ideology is like calling Hitchcock films suspenseful. I expect more complexity from a Lacanian Christian Communist, and you should, too. Things improved slightly when Žižek compared the iceberg that sunk the Titanic (and Leonardo DiCaprio) in James Cameron’s blockbuster to the Soviet tanks that crushed the 1968 Prague Spring. Both catastrophes preserved the idealistic illusion of what might have been—Cameron’s “fake Marxism” and Prague’s “liberal socialism” each obscuring the “vampiric exploitation” lurking around the corner.
After a pat riff on Warren Beatty’s Reds, which equated the October Revolution with a sex scene between Beatty and Diane Keaton, we were treated to the highlight of the evening, a clip from the rarely screened 1949 Soviet film The Fall of Berlin, in which a dopey Russian steelworker, right before the Nazi bombs begin to fall, solicits dating advice from Stalin, played by an actor so identical to the Georgian dictator that he could have been a security double. According to Žižek, Stalin cowrote his character’s lines, cried at the performance, and forbade the actor from ever playing another role. The film stock had the quality of watercolor, and the (roughly translated) dialogue featured such immortal lines as, “Can I give you a kiss, Comrade Stalin?” Then it was back to Planet Platitude, as Žižek informed us that disaster films create couples, though he displayed his flair for provocation by saying, just as Deep Impact’s tidal wave was about to engulf the Twin Towers, “Enough of fun, let’s move to the serious stuff.” This was Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which, alert the media, created a couple.
Tarkovsky’s Mirror and Jia Zhangke’s Still Life rolled in the background as Žižek rambled inconclusively, at one point saying that “all good Holocaust films are comedies.” Finally, Žižek addressed They Live. Running the scene where Piper first dons the sunglasses that reveal the modern world in its true form—a grayscale cultural wasteland, populated by yuppie aliens, in which billboards read OBEY, CONSUME, and MARRY AND REPRODUCE, magazines read NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT, and dollar bills read THIS IS YOUR GOD—Žižek quipped that the glasses allowed one to see Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown knowns.” Of the famous fight sequence, in which Piper is forcibly trying to get his friend to put on the shades, Žižek said, “the fight dramatizes the resistance to being liberated from ideology—liberation hurts.” I knew I should have taken the blue pill.
During the Q&A, Dr. Ž demonstrated why he is (in)famous in academia, engaging in rapid-fire rhetorical combat with his interlocutors. Chestnuts included: “The Book of Job is the first critique of ideology”; “The death of Christ was God’s way of saying, ‘I can no longer guarantee meaning for man’”; Zen master Suzuki was an imperialist war apologist; “The real Western cultural imperialism is believing that Eastern religion promotes balance and harmony”; Sontag was wrong about proto-fascist content in Leni Riefenstahl’s pre-Nazi films; and German industrial rock band Rammstein aren’t Nazis, but critics and parodists of Nazism.
Outside the library, I overheard some grad-student types speculating about whether Žižek was on crystal meth. I always thought speed was Virilio’s poison, but given Dr. Ž’s manic marathon of a performance, it’s possible. By the end, even his disciples were exhausted.
Left: Artist Ai Weiwei with dealer Mary Boone. Right: Artist Liu Xiaodong. (All photos: David Velasco)
Hours before Ai Weiwei’s opening last Saturday at Mary Boone, some wondered: Who exactly would be in attendance? I found myself hoping that Ai would jet in a bevy of Chinese compatriots, in a reprise of his 2007 Documenta piece. Perhaps he would stow them on cots behind the gallery’s reception desk or between catalogues raisonnés on Mary Boone’s shelves? In the end, this didn’t come to pass, though a large percentage of the well-wishers who turned up had ties to the Chinese and Chinese-expat art scene. Indeed, many were direct or indirect products of Ai’s influence, like Zhang Huan, who was smoking outside the gallery entrance, wearing something like a bad-boy do-rag. If Marina Abramovic has taken to calling herself the “grandmother of performance art,” Ai is more than entitled to claim a similar rank in the genealogy of Chinese contemporary art.
“Many of us are moving back to China,” said New York–based artist Cui Fei soon after my arrival, as she surveyed her fellow Chinese-expat artists mingling in the entrance room. Why? “It’s cheaper there. And more opportunities. Unless you’re Xu Bing or Cai Guo-Qiang, many of us get overlooked in New York.” As we rounded the corner into the main space, we encountered the warm red glow of Ai’s romantic pièce de resistance, parked smack in the center of the room: a red multitiered chandelier—a form he’s played with previously—this time laid on its side to resemble a squat cornucopia. The two-story-high sculpture is composed of lightbulbs mounted on a framework of brass hoops, lined with sections of vermilion beads.
“There were beads everywhere this morning,” bemoaned gallery director Ron Warren. “I spent all day picking up beads and vacuuming in corners. They even got into the bathroom—don’t ask me how they got there.” According to associate director James Salomon, at least twenty-five people each worked four sixteen-hour days, handling the installation and hand-stringing the beads that made up the chandelier. Add to that a minor mutiny over food—by the second day, the gallery’s usual Bottino take-out lunches met with a plea from the Beijing team: “Can we please get Chinese food instead?”—and the installation process surely didn’t go down as one of the easiest in Chelsea’s history.
Left: Artist Zhang Huan. Right: Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, and architect Steven Holl.
It does, however, make the record as Ai’s first major solo show of new works in New York—notable given both his wide-ranging influence in China and his extended sojourn in New York in the 1980s (which Ai agreed was “another world” compared with the New York of here and now). With the openings of this show and the one by Liu Xiaodong at Boone’s uptown site, one might say this week inaugurated Boone’s move toward contemporary Chinese art, though Boone herself by no means let on to having any of Chelsea’s recent colonialist impulses vis-à-vis the East: “I don’t care what country they come from, I just want to show great artists,” she said. Karen Smith, the curator for both shows, was initially asked to put together a group exhibition but concluded that “it wasn’t quite time yet. Many of the artists wouldn’t want to show with each other; they were all doing very different things. They wouldn’t see their work sharing space.”
Ai certainly isn’t one to avoid confrontation—at least with the government. After collaborating with Herzog & de Meuron on their Olympic stadium, he has recently made headlines for criticizing the one-party state’s “disgusting” political conditions and vowing to be absent from the Olympic’s opening ceremonies. According to Warren, when Ai was asked about his boycott after his talk at the China Institute the night before, he said, somewhat circumspectly: “It’s not a boycott. I have no interest in sports. I just design the building. Why would anyone who designed the toilets comment on the Olympics?”
Left: Curator Karen Smith. Right: doArt China's Mia Jin, Lu Qing, and Brooklyn Rail publisher Phong Bui.
Ai, it becomes clear, is occasionally given to epigrammatic, sometimes mysterious responses. When he withholds, it seems to come not from a desire to weave an inscrutable veil, but more from a playful sense that his words will never be quite adequate—an endearing quality in an eminent Chinese artist whose frame and demeanor recall Beijing Opera’s Guan Gong crossed with Danny DeVito. When Ai asked me to photograph him and Boone in front of his glowing red chandelier, his camera was set to black-and-white. Was he sure he wanted this setting? “Yes. I don’t like colors,” he claimed. “I don’t like music, and I don’t like color.” Even Ai’s given name is rather odd; it might best be translated as “Not Yet Not Yet”—unusual even in a nation of people with names that seem poetic by Western standards. How did he get his name? He didn’t know—or if he did, he didn’t quite let on. “I think it has something to do with my father’s hard times,” he said, alluding perhaps to poet Ai Qing’s days in a Communist labor camp.
“He certainly keeps a mystery about him,” said Warren, over dinner. Held at Bottino, the event was a cozy backroom affair attended by the likes of artist Terence Koh (in a fur coat the size of two small bears) and Sarina Tang, a Beijing- and New York–based curator and director of Currents, a nonprofit art and music space just outside the 798 district in Beijing. I asked Ai about his newer projects; word has it that Ai, with Herzog & de Meuron, is supervising one hundred architects who will design an entirely new residential district in Mongolia. Ai said that it’s a supermodern development for the “three hundred hundred-millionaires” now in that country and also that the unifying factor will be disparity. “If there are three different designs, that’s weird. But with a hundred different designs, it will be unified.”
As dinner wound down, and the usual postmeal patter of conversation replaced the clanking of silverware, Ai and Boone shared a silent exchange with each other from across the room, one that went largely unnoticed in the midst of the mingling. They locked eyes and raised their glasses to each other. It was a good long minute, as if they were drinking to the fact that Mr. Not Yet Not Yet’s moment in New York is finally coming to pass.
Left: Artist David Salle with Susan Kappa. Right: France Pepper, director of arts and culture at China Institute.
Left: Whitney Biennial cocurator Henriette Huldisch. Center: Biennial artists Louise Lawler and Olaf Breuning. Right: Biennial cocurator Shamim M. Momin. (All photos: David Velasco)
Given Carly Berwick’s branding in New York magazine of the 2008 Whitney Biennial as the exhibition’s Facebook installment (a characterization prompted in part by cocurator Shamim Momin’s legendary predilection for what she terms “the embrace of locality”), it was perhaps unsurprising that Tuesday night’s VIP opening was packed not only with boldface names but also, seemingly, with all their old classmates. Advance word directed me away from the museum’s main door and toward a lesser-known way in on Seventh-fourth Street (dubbed the “Jane Seymour Entrance” by a friend who’d once observed the actress being shepherded through it), and while even this was mobbed, it was at least mobbed by a slew of recognizable faces. An overheard comparison to a Grateful Dead parking lot was entirely accurate, given the reunionlike atmosphere. One glance around took in Yvonne Force Villareal (later spotted wearing, in a move fairly dripping with irony, a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan THE DAYS OF THIS SOCIETY IS NUMBERED), 1995 Whitney Biennial curator Klaus Kertess, dealers Elizabeth Dee, Sara Meltzer, and David Kordansky, Fruit and Flower Deli “keeper” Rodrigo Mallea Lira with painter Ylva Ogland, and artists Julie Mehretu and Bozidar Brazda. The list, like that of the eighty-one artists in the show, goes on.
Once inside, the choice was between an already hectic lobby, an already hectic bar, and the already hectic show (which, at this point, had been open for roughly half an hour). A pack of photographers in the lobby were having a blast capturing the ever-changing moods of enthusiastic posers like artists Marilyn Minter and Terence Koh, while the bar scene was similarly spotted with past, present—and undoubtedly future (Jen DeNike? Ellen Altfest?)—Biennial participants. Passing artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster on the stairs from the bar, comparing early notes with artist Nathan Carter and Biennial catalogue designer Miko McGinty back in the lobby, and clocking the show’s cocurator Henriette Huldisch across the room, I finally made a break for the galleries. Momin, networker extrordinaire, was, as yet, nowhere to be seen.
Left: Art Production Fund's Casey Fremont, Yvonne Force Villareal, and Doreen Remen. Right: Eunice Graham with Biennial artist Rodney McMillian.
Dominated by sculpture and lacking much in the way of color, the show looked at first glance formally cohesive but felt, well, a bit grim. A preponderance of quasi-architectural forms and raw-looking industrial materials made for an experience that was at times more like a site visit than a gallery tour. When it worked, the effect was elegant (if notably academic), but on this celebratory occasion at least, it was hard not to miss the trashy pizzazz of the 2006 show. The exhibition also lacked a memorable clincher along the lines of that year’s Rudolf Stingel/Urs Fischer face-off, though installations by Jason Rhoades and Mika Rottenberg were already enthusiastically being discussed. Among those doing the discussing were artists Rirkrit Tiravanija, Anna Gaskell, Banks Violette, Liam Gillick, and Sarah Morris, dealers Andrea Rosen and Andrew Kreps, and Whitney director Adam Weinberg.
Around 10 PM, I accompanied a small crew—including artist Jordan Wolfson and V magazine editor Christopher Bollen—from the museum to the Park Avenue Armory, the Biennial’s satellite venue. After the hot, jammed museum, the older building’s hangarlike main space (empty, save an installation of neon lights on the far wall by Gretchen Skogerson) and network of smaller—though still grand—side rooms, was refreshing. But as visitors gradually arrived, and Eduardo Sarabia’s artist-staffed tequila bar got busier, the only hint of respite came in the form of DJ Olive’s tented room upstairs, in which a row of beds provided the perfect environment for absorbing a drifting ambient sound track.
Left: Rebecca Robertson, president of the Park Avenue Armory, with Whitney director Adam Weinberg. Right: Fruit and Flower Deli's Rodrigo Mallea Lira with Biennial artist Fia Backström.
Rejecting the convenience of Stefania Bortolami and Kordansky’s party at nearby Serafina, I elected to join a posse headed downtown to Florent—in no small part because of the prospect of a decent meal, but also in partial tribute to the beloved late-night eatery’s imminent demise—and I hopped a cab to an otherwise-hushed meatpacking district. Seating myself between tables presided over by artists Walead Beshty and Heather Rowe, my companions and I came close to solving the Problem of Criticism (if only we could remember the answer . . . ), before a mass exodus prompted the evening’s final relocation. Arriving at subterranean Lower East Side lounge Bacaro around 2 AM, we braved an entrance guarded by a fearsome cadre of smokers in the charge of artist Hanna Liden. Inside, the scene appeared relatively laid-back, certainly a far cry from the expected debauchery. Among those holding court in the cozy cellar were a number of familiar faces, including artists Adam McEwen, Dan Colen, Rita Ackermann, Agathe Snow, Nate Lowman, Gardar Eide Einarsson, Eli Sudbrack, and dealers Kelly Taxter and Eivind Furnesvik. Then, at 3 AM, a loud “Hey!” It was Momin.
Left: Whitney curator David Kiehl with Whitney chief curator Donna De Salvo. Right: Biennial artist William E. Jones.
Opening last Friday in the middle of Paris fashion week, Austrian collective Gelitin’s first museum exhibition (at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville) was not to be missed. Just when it seemed that the idea of fusing art and fashion was played out, the opening of their exhibition “La Louvre—Paris” effected a veritable return of the real. (A new trend for the coming season?) Sometimes the real can be too much: The poster for the exhibition, which features, among other things, Gelitin-ites Wolfgang Gantner, Ali Janka, Florian Reither, and Tobias Urban in the nude, did not make it past officials in charge of the city’s museum programs. But rather than change the image, the group simply had their galleries—Emmanuel Perrotin, Massimo de Carlo, and Meyer Kainer—do the promo work for the show.
The exhibition offered a chaotic, ghostlike version of the museum that housed it, complete with all the amenities necessary at today’s houses of culture, from washrooms to a bookstore and cash registers. (Note that in the exhibition’s title, “Le Louvre” is feminized to “La Louvre.”) In an act of recycling, everything was constructed with what remained of the preceding exhibition, by Mathieu Mercier, which the collective made their own by slathering it in caramel. But as is often the case with Gelitin, not everything brown smelled sweet: On one wall near the entrance was an enormous text by the artist Karl Holmqvist, rendered in excrement.
Left: Dealers Massimo De Carlo and Emanuel Perrotin with Fabrice Hergott. Right: Artist Sara Glaxia (on wheelchair). (Photos: Nicolas Trembley)
The artists, who spent eight weeks in Paris preparing for the exhibition, had plenty of time to make new friends and invite them to collaborate on the show, which contains over three thousand works. The pièce de résistance borne out of this frenzy of activity was a room of Mona Lisas, each version trashier and more hilarious than the last. Minimal hardcore and trumpet concerts? Check. Adults hugging baby dolls in the corner of one room? Yup. Guests stuffing Camembert down their trousers? That, too. Glancing about the galleries, it became difficult to tell what had been organized by the artists and what was being improvised by the army of freaks in attendance.
Novel odors were around every corner, from a giant foot made of cheese (reminiscent of classical statuary fragments) to a smoked shark, which several guests were bravely attempting to eat, to the bird droppings that dotted a cage whose base consisted of a model of Gelitin’s New York dealer Leo Koenig’s gallery. The one place from which smells didn’t emanate was the artists’ handmade lavatories, which no one dared use. (Had they, they might have discovered that, through a clever trick with mirrors, you could see your asshole from the seat.) None of this seemed to faze elegant T magazine editor Stefano Tonchi, who, along with the International Herald Tribune’s Suzy Menkes and Stephen Dunbar-Johnson, had opened the week’s festivities with an Oscar party at the Grand Palais.
The atmosphere at that party and at Gelitin’s opening could not have been more different. But the strength of this exhibition rests with how the anarchic group have imposed their way of functioning on the institution; the museum seemed obliterated by their madcap universe. Since no one was asked to show an invitation card at the door, and since there were free drinks and all-you-can-eat Camembert until 3 AM, the evening was impressive, to say the least. Most of the VIP attendees, including photographer Ari Marcopoulos and collectors Barbara and Bob Cottle, decamped early for an intimate party hosted by the Swiss fashion company Akris, where Swiss sausage (the famous bratwurst of St. Gallen) was served, and I met German TV stars I didn’t know existed.
Only an over-the-top fashion soiree could counterbalance Gelitin’s extreme production at the Musée Moderne, and at the end of the week, the magazine Self Service and the boutique Colette came through with a party at Lup, where a group of extraordinary Canadian performers led the way to the dance floor for sets mixed by actresses Chloë Sevigny and Ludivine Sagnier, fashion designer Stefano Pilati, and Dior jewelry designer Victoire de Castellane. But there were few artists among the sweaty bodies; instead, I saw the Olsen twins and Kanye West. I had to wonder what they would have made of “La Louvre.”
Left: Chloë Sevigny and designer Ben Cho. (Photo: Ami Sioux) Right: Ludivine Sagnier. (Photo: Christian Badger)
It’s difficult to work an evening gown in London unless you’re the queen. Without footmen, a scepter, and the odd lady-in-waiting, evening gowns look just plain wrong in this climate. It was therefore royally unfortunate that strapless, ankle-skimming frocks were de rigueur last Wednesday evening at “Figures of Speech,” the Institute of Contemporary Art’s annual fund-raising gala. Held at the drafty Royal Horticultural Society’s conference center in darkest Victoria, the multifaceted money-spinner involved an exhibition, dinner, and auction, punctuated by a series of five-minute presentations by special “celebrity” guests.
The first port of call was a champagne reception and stroll through “One Object, One Lifetime,” a design exhibition featuring products by Tom Dixon, Timorous Beasties, and several others commissioned by the ICA and sponsors Veuve Clicquot—the single proviso being that the bubbly brand’s signature color (yellow) had to be incorporated into each design. A dressed-up branding exercise no doubt, but an increasingly necessary symbiosis in the current jungle of public-funding cutbacks.
Corralled photographers were desultorily snapping away as VIP guests floated in, when suddenly a collective camera flash erupted so explosively, it looked as though a mass paparazzi electrocution were occurring. Nigella Lawson, the porcelain-skinned kitchen princess who gives welcome new meaning to the term zaftig, had arrived. Smiling beatifically for the cameras, she embraced fuzzy-faced ICA chairman Alan Yentob, who was clearly besotted. (According to a reliable journalistic source, Lawson later politely declined a photo op with the rather less round and fuzzy supermodel Elle Macpherson.) In stark contrast to über-feminine Lawson was female impersonator Jodie Harsh, the self-styled “Real Queen of England,” who, thankfully, unlike the other ladies, wasn’t wearing a floor-length prom-style confection.
Comedian Harry Enfield leaned on the bar chatting with Yentob and Lawson, while officious PR people hovered nervously and smooth playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah and Smack the Pony’s Sally Phillips mingled easily with patrons. Artist Gavin Turk was valiantly on hand, serving not only as representative of the visual-artist demographic, a group curiously missing from the event, but as one of the evening’s featured guests and generous donor of lot 4.
Comedian and TV personality Graham Norton, in rampant rare form as master of ceremonies, introduced the “Figures of Speech” speakers, who were invited to spend a maximum of five minutes talking about an object of great personal significance. While Kwei-Armah produced the voyage ticket that first brought his immigrating mother from the West Indies to the UK, Lawson spoke poignantly about the significance of a battered and bulbous Algerian couscoussiere, a family heirloom to which she likened her own famous figure, referring to both as “serviceable but beautiful . . .”
Sotheby’s auctioneer Adrian Biddell had no sooner begun ramping things up with a zealously spirited auction than Jerry Hall crashed in, playing the celebrity trump card of “Fashionably Late Arrival” wearing enormous dark glasses and looking every bit the drag queen she was always meant to be. Trailed closely by wild-eyed dealer Ivor Braka, the statuesque Texan took her (or someone else’s) seat to maximal dramatic effect.
The auction was a roaring and raucous success, raising over two hundred thousand dollars with which to feather the coffers of the ICA’s New Commissions Fund. Lot 12, “All Tomorrow’s Pictures,” a collection of eighty-five photographs by various artists (including Tracey Emin, Dinos Chapman, and Peter Blake), raked in the chips for the ICA when it sold for an impressive sixty thousand dollars.
There were, alas, notable absences. We may never find out, for instance, what “significant object” Jude Law “holds most sacred” as he bailed at the witching hour on account of being unavoidably out of reach and unattainable, or some such celebrity-specific malady. And speaking of stellar thespians, Kevin Spacey was also in absentia, as were almost all of the peripherally placed Table 1, which seemed to serve primarily as a halfway house for those sneaking out for a smoke. But all in all, the evening was well attended and a terrific success, thus ensuring the ICA’s commissioning muscle for the coming year along with the hopes and dreams of a handful of lucky artists—despite Texans, absentees, and evening gowns.
Left: Chef Nigella Lawson. (Photo: Lynne Gentle) Right: Immodesty Blaize and Jodie Harsh. (Photo: Nick Harvey)