THE ART-FAIR “SNEAK-PEEK” undoubtedly carries a certain attraction—attempts at backstage access are the subject of a whole body of fair lore. But when I was invited to an early view of Art LA’s installation last Wednesday—twenty-eight hours prior to the third edition of the fair’s opening gala (benefiting MoCA)—my instinct was to delay gratification. If you’re not shopping, what’s the point? By the time Thursday’s preview rolled around, there were plenty of polished displays to browse at the Santa Monica Airport’s Barker Hangar, a new venue that seemed an obvious improvement over last year’s stiff civic-auditorium setting. As a handful of galleries put the finishing touches on their booths, an intimate crowd of collectors, artists, curators, and reporters began trickling into the fair, which again played host to nearly sixty galleries comprising both locals and out-of-towners. Some noted the significant drop in New York and London participants (Gavin Brown, Anton Kern, Andrew Kreps, Salon 94, Hotel, and Wallspace were among those that didn’t make the trek out this year), though Berlin galleries seemed to be keeping up their presence, and a few stalwart additions from Mexico City were a welcome sight. “There’s a real sense of camaraderie among the LA galleries,” said Art LA director Tim Fleming. “We’ve really built up anticipation to buy on opening night.”
I wasn’t fully sold on the anticipation part, though excitement did seem to follow the handful of celebrities who showed up, such as David Alan Grier, Ty Pennington, Rachel Griffiths, Albert Brooks, Jeff Garlin, Brittany Snow, and John Hensley—admittedly, I didn’t know who the last two were. In front of two arcane Francesca Gabbiani works on paper at Patrick Painter, Neil Patrick Harris hinted to his partner, David Burtka, “Your sister would love that!” Although most stands were offering a similar sampling of safe and lucrative art, a few of the larger or more experimental galleries took chances on less-object-based works. Two worthy examples were videos by Los Angeles–based artist Vishal Jugdeo at LAXART and, at Blum & Poe, Hirsch Perlman, who presented the simple 1994 piece Shoving, a looped projection of two men perpetually pushing each other that remains surprisingly captivating, even fifteen years later.
Left: Dealer David Kordansky with director Natasha Garcia-Lomas. Right: Daniel Hug, director of Art Cologne, with dealers Joel Mesler and Marc Foxx. (Except where noted, all photos: Brian Bress)
Around 9 PM, the benefit gala opened to lower-ring ticket holders; judging from the crowds, MoCA raised some substantial funds. But as the complementary (and absurdly large) bottles of Grolsch beer and honey- and skim-milk-infused vodka cocktails became increasingly difficult to order from the in-hangar re-creation of Chinatown’s beloved Mountain Bar, I thought it best to get a head start on the official afterparty at Royal/T. At the Culver City “maid cafe,” artist Dave Muller and writer Andrew Berardini spun vinyl oddities from their respective record collections while waitresses dressed as maids served miniature cupcakes. Collector and Royal/T owner Susan Hancock mingled with the crowd of Angelenos (artists Erika Vogt and Eve Fowler, ForYourArt’s Bettina Korek, dealer Lizabeth Oliveri) while proudly describing her collection of Japanese pop.
I cut myself off at two ginger soju cocktails in order to make it over to the “unofficial” afterparty, which artist Samantha Magowan had organized at the new, speakeasy-like Hollywood bar H.Wood. “There are always so many parties at Miami Basel,” said Magowan. “Why should they have all the fun?” Although the partygoers—artists T. Kelly Mason and Taft Green, as well as a handsome clique of postpunk Hollywood club kids and publicists—seemed to have energy to spare, I checked out just before last call to save fuel for the following night’s concert at Largo. Buying out the house at the vaudevillian theater, Art LA had arranged a special performance by local favorite Jon Brion (with a guest appearance by Margaret Cho), whose music might best be described as a prog-rock-inflected mix of Thelonious Monk, Roy Orbison, and Wilco. Needless to say, this year’s opening ceremonies were the most eclectic on record.
Saturday morning’s winter rain put a damper on things when a deluge on the east side of town impeded my route to Edgar Arceneaux’s tour of his Watts House project. I reluctantly rerouted toward the Santa Monica fairgrounds, arriving just in time for a reading by Richard Hertz from his new book The Beat and the Buzz: Inside the L.A. Art World. Placing himself in the vein of Giorgio Vasari and Calvin Tompkins, Hertz read quotes from his subjects—Emi Fontana, Javier Peres, the late David Askevold, Dagny Corcoran, and Skip Arnold among them—pausing frequently to remind the audience, “This is supposed to be funny, folks.”
Embracing the uncanny gestalt of my own trip inside the LA art world, I set off for yet another stop on the Art LA circuit, the private residence of Eugenio López. Though López himself was out of town, the Colección Jumex founder had opened his Beverly Hills bachelor pad for a VIP collection tour. Although the midcentury home was undergoing construction (López was building a cabana in the backyard), the space was clean, bright, and comfortable, a perfect backdrop for his elegant domestic assortment of Judds, Warhols, Lawlers, Basquiats, Twomblys, Ruschas, Koons, Hirsts, Gobers, and, interestingly enough, pre-Columbian artifacts. “Is that Steve Rubell?” one onlooker queried, gazing at a Vik Muniz chocolate portrait. Wrong collection, I thought. The art and the surroundings seemed hazily familiar––was it simply déjà vu? Then it came back to me: I had attended a birthday party there for John Baldessari a few years back. (The in-progress cabana must have thrown me off.) And in fond tribute to that palmy June afternoon, I kicked back and enjoyed a mai tai by the pool.
Left: Getty Research Institute curator Louis Marchesano and artist Lisa Anne Auerbach. Right: Writer Richard Hertz.
Left: Art historian Rune Gade. Right: OCA Norway director Marta Kuzma with Pablo Lafuente, OCA associate curator and managing editor of Afterall. (All photos: Vegard Kleven)
“WHATEVER HAPPENED TO SEX IN SCANDINAVIA?” is not nudge-nudge, wink-wink, dirty-old-man innuendo, but rather an ambitious exhibition and series of public events at the newly relocated Office of Contemporary Art (OCA) in Oslo. Having lived in Scandinavia since the 1980s and having witnessed massive changes in sexual culture since I moved here, I eagerly caught a short-hop from Stockholm last Wednesday to attend the two-day symposium marking the show’s conclusion.
The exhibition’s titular question inevitably invokes the famous 1962 film starring Bette Davis. Her character in that film, “Baby” Jane Hudson, has gone from being a spritely ingenue to a grotesque madwoman. A key scene has a gorgonlike Davis staring into a mirror, searching in vain for any remains of her former grace.
That unsettling image is arguably an apt one for what has in fact happened to sex in Scandinavia. From being admired and envied by many as beacons of sexual enlightenment in the 1960s and ’70s, the Scandinavian countries today have some of the most repressive sex laws in the Western world. Sweden is the most draconian. The country that gave the world Anita Ekberg, I Am Curious (Yellow), and the racy phrase “the Swedish sin” has been actively discussing how it might limit or ban pornography for over a decade. Its policies regulating HIV and AIDS seem devised in Pyongyang, not Stockholm: Everyone in Sweden who tests HIV-positive is officially registered, legally obligated to disclose their HIV status to anyone with whom they have any kind of sexual encounter, required to report to a doctor regularly and answer detailed questions about their sex life, and liable to forced, indefinite internment if they refuse to meet with that doctor or if their doctor believes that they are having or may have unprotected sex. Sweden was also the first country in the world, in 1999, to pass a national law criminalizing only the clients of sex workers—so selling sex remains legal (for the moment), but buying it is not. Norway recently followed Sweden’s example, but went even further—it is not only now illegal to purchase sexual services in Norway but also a crime for a Norwegian citizen to purchase sexual services anywhere, even in places like the Netherlands or Germany where prostitution is entirely legal. The message conveyed by a law like that is clear: Your sexuality is the property of the state, and the state will claim its right to regulate and punish that sexuality, wherever you may be.
So whatever, indeed, happened to sex in Scandinavia? The Oslo exhibition, curated by OCA’s dynamic director, Marta Kuzma, emerged from an essay with that title that she published in the journals Afterall and ISMS. The essay, which also forms the basis of the pocket-size catalogue distributed at the entrance, discusses the social, political, and artistic context of the Scandinavian sexual revolution. The groundwork for said revolution had been laid earlier in the century through social-reformist movements, welfare policies, and campaigns promoting sexual education, contraception, and voluntary motherhood. By the ’60s, that earlier history had been supplemented with postwar affluence, an unprecedented growth in access to higher education, a growing dissatisfaction with the conservative basis of many of the earlier sexual reforms (which were heavily influenced by eugenics, traditional gender roles, and the desire to produce a robust, sturdy, “healthy” population), and, importantly, the Vietnam War, which created a vortex around which the baby-boomer generation could organize and stage mass protests.
Left: Art historians Rune Gade and Wencke Mühleisen. Right: Artist Elsebet Rahlff and art historian Knut Ove Arntzen.
The exhibition is sprinkled throughout OCA’s gorgeous new gallery space in a former textile factory and is an eclectic and entertaining collection of paintings, prints, sculpture, newspaper clippings, films, and comic books from the height of the era of “sexual liberation.” Many of the works are Scandinavian, but quite a few are not, thus reflecting Kuzma’s goal both to illuminate what happened in Scandinavia during those years and to contextualize Norway, Sweden, and Denmark within larger international trends. The exhibition is dominated by two works: a section of Barbara T. Smith’s fiberglass-resin sculpture Field Piece, 1968–72, which resembles giant grass or hair and into which visitors are invited to step if they remove their shoes (but not, alas, their clothes, as it seems from the archival material was Smith’s original plan), and Lee Lozano’s 1964 untitled painting of a massive phallus in the shape of an elongated nut and bolt.
The symposium occupied much of the OCA’s project room. It brought together artists, academics, students, and interested laypersons and focused on the avant-garde of the ’60s and ’70s. The topics discussed ranged from the processes and provocations that led to censorship laws finally being abolished in the late ’60s to a historical account of how Situationist action art came to express itself in Scandinavia. Those more academic discussions were complemented by panel discussions with and presentations by artists like Elsebet Rahlff, Kirsten Justesen, and Morten Krohg, who were active in influential movements like Bergen’s Gruppe 66, Copenhagen’s Kanonklubben, and Oslo’s Gras Group. The discussions with artists were framed mostly as reminiscences, not analyses, but they nevertheless provided some poignant insights into the gender dynamics of the time. That feminism had not yet been articulated in the early years of the avant-garde was evident in Rahlff’s remarks on how she felt about being the only female member of Gruppe 66. Sounding more like Simone de Beauvoir or Margaret Mead than Gloria Steinem or Andrea Dworkin, Rahlff told the audience she was very happy and proud that none of the male members of Gruppe 66 had ever treated her like a woman.
Several films were screened during the symposium. Gunvor Nelson’s remarkable deconstruction of a striptease, Take Off (1972), showed just how avant-garde the best avant-garde work of the time really was. But the film that best captured the era’s zeitgeist was Öyvind Fahlström’s Du Gamla, Du Fria (1971)—the opening lines of the Swedish national anthem (a sort of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee”). Du Gamla, Du Fria is an overlong I Am Curious–like documentary of the activist antics of a group of young artists who want to overthrow the state. The forms of protest they devise seem embarrassingly puerile today—for example, repeatedly shouting “Mao Tse-tung” in front of the Swedish royal family’s castle or smearing their clothing and a few ten-kronor banknotes with human feces and standing outside a bank to call attention to the “shittiness” of capitalism.
Left: Art historian Gertrud Sandqvist. Right: Artists Dan Graham, Barbara T. Smith, and Thomas Bayrle in the audience at the symposium.
That film, and the discussions during the symposium that detailed the political sympathies of many of the artists of the time, ended up being important clues to understanding whatever happened to sex in Scandinavia. What emerged—more between the lines than explicitly during the two days of talks—was that the political movements to which many of the artists were committed were ultimately not particularly interested in sex. In fact, those movements—most of which were Maoist or Marxist-Leninist of the most dogmatic sort—could never be termed sex-positive by even the most sympathetic apologist. Although the artists who produced lithographs of Mao as the rising sun and who supported the Baader-Meinhof Group enjoyed the provocation that the depiction of naked bodies and sexual activities allowed them, they were clearly more committed to ending capitalism than to furthering a sexual revolution. (A scene in Du Gamla, Du Fria in which a female group member is bullied into going along with the shit-smearing demonstration is a painful reminder of just how intolerant of difference those movements were.)
Historians have shown that the real force behind the sexual-liberation movement in Scandinavia was not the Maoists or the Marxist-Leninists but the political liberals, who protested the government’s involvement in what they saw as private areas of life, like how one sought erotic pleasure. Those liberals were largely young, middle-class men who rejected the radical politics of the artistic avant-garde. These men ultimately succeeded in their efforts to abolish censorship and even in liberalizing abortion laws. (Scandinavian women’s rights’ groups were at first largely opposed to the liberals’ call for abortion on demand because they argued that if it were too easy for women to have an abortion, they would be more vulnerable to male demands for sex.) But as soon as second-wave feminism arrived in the late ’60s, those men and their defense of pornography and sexual liberation were the objects of a backlash.
The most influential feminist groups in Scandinavia arose out of leftist political organizations. They rejected the liberal perspective as being irreparably patriarchal, and they emphasized the danger, rather than the pleasure, of sex. During the late ’70s and ’80s, as both those feminists and many of the male activist/artists represented in the Oslo exhibition moved into positions of political and cultural power in what by then had become the mainstream culture, their disinterest in or even hostility to sexual liberalism came to be the new norm. And so we end up with a renewed reassertion of state investment in its citizens’ sexual behavior and with the concomitant efforts to ban cable channels that broadcast pornography; laws that empower the internment, without a criminal trial, of people with HIV who have unprotected sex and that criminalize consensual sexual activity between two adults if one of them receives remuneration. In this light, the art exhibited in the OCA exhibition, and the discussions held during the two-day symposium, formed a kind of mirror into which one could peer to catch a glimpse of a dynamic past, but in which it was also hard to avoid seeing the reflection of a much grimmer and altogether less attractive present.
THE CHATEAU MARMONT is the best of the worst of Los Angeles. Somehow its Spanish Revival style, permissive attitude, and proximity to trashy but expensive nightclubs make it a favorite locale for a certain class of carpetbagging Angelenos: Actors doll up for premieres while would-bes and has-beens belly up to the bar. I hate to admit it, but all things frivolously LA to the side, I rather like it there: For this, Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. Though the area’s traffic is always brutal, it was hard to turn down an invitation last Wednesday to a launch of Doug Aitken’s latest art book, Write-In Jerry Brown President, which takes as its subject the liberal California governor’s campaign against eventual Democratic presidential nominee Jimmy Carter.
On the cusp of the inauguration, it seemed fitting if also dissonant for Aitken, who has the gentle air of Laurel Canyon circa 1976, to celebrate this Buddhist firebrand once snidely dubbed “Governor Moonbeam.” “I wanted to break from the linear,” said the soft-spoken Aitken. The book’s odd construction clearly evinces that sentiment; placed in hand-cut boxes, the contents are hexagonal cells that fold out like a very handsome, if not entirely useful, road map. The book lay unfolded on a piano in the center of the clipboard-guarded lobby on the Marmont’s second floor as gusts of warm winter air suspired through the open patio doors. I hung around, enjoying (and shooting) the breeze with hostess Bettina Korek and a distinctively LA smattering of money and art, including designer Rosetta Getty, UCLA art-school dean Russell Ferguson, embattled (but rakish) MoCA deputy director Ari Wiseman, and a well-preserved Vidal Sassoon. The intimate afterparty extended well beyond the advertised 8 PM end-time, with guests moving on to the more hospitable (and louder) environs of the Bar Marmont. But I checked out early so as to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for the anticipated circus surrounding “She,” the Wallace Berman and Richard Prince exhibition—built around the artists’ representations of women—opening the following night at Michael Kohn Gallery.
My precautionary measures seemed prudent when, the next evening, I walked by a scantily clad Pamela Anderson leaning against one of Prince’s El Caminos, which was vinyl wrapped, with rephotographed snaps of biker babes. “I love Richard’s work,” she fluttered. The rather surreal mise-en-scène made the gallery resemble a showroom for an ugly-car contest—or perhaps a prelude to a Matthew Barney extravaganza. I scooted past the paparazzi surrounding Anderson and beyond Prince’s book-cover collages of busty nurses (who struck an uncanny chord vis-à-vis Prince’s current showgirl), eventually making my way into the adjacent gallery, where a series of Berman’s black-and-white photographs of women were juxtaposed with some sexy classics from his transistor-radio series. The Berman-Prince pairing was odd, to say the least (almost as odd as the pairing of Prince and Kohn). Even the exhibition’s guest curator, Kristine McKenna, admitted that “Prince’s work is so aggressive when seen next to Berman’s.” Tosh Berman, Wallace’s son, was staked out in the second gallery, keeping an eye on his dad’s work. A longtime fan of TamTam Books, the press published and edited by Tosh, I wasn’t that surprised to hear him note that his “life’s work is for people to discover Boris Vian”—Vian being one of the very few authors (including Guy Debord and Serge Gainsbourg) in TamTam’s offbeat stable.
On my way out to the patio, I passed a strange amalgam of art-world and mainstream celebrities. Dealer Irving Blum standing not far from rocker Anthony Kiedis, collector Eugenio López passing one-hit wonder (and onetime Bruce Conner muse) Toni Basil, and of course Anderson getting a serious amount of face time with LA art godfather Ed Ruscha, who was looking every bit the elegant aging cowboy.
Left: Editor Karen Marta with curator Kristine McKenna. Right: Dealer Larry Gagosian.
After the opening, a group of us caravanned to Lucques for the gallery dinner. Anderson regaled her tablemates over plates of salted cod and lamb shank with tales of her genius preteen son, apparently being “recruited by the Pentagon.” Anderson dominated Prince throughout the dinner, though she wasn’t the only power player at the table. Wherever Prince is, Larry Gagosian isn’t far behind.
Bret Easton Ellis finally broke from his seat, bookended by Anderson and James Frey, to join editor Karen Marta and me over a couple of glasses of wine. Ellis’s latest tale of ’80s hedonistic excess, The Informers, premiered at Sundance days before amid some controversy, a topic that seemed to bore Ellis to no end. He was much more excited about his most recent project, a screenplay on the mysterious suicides of Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan, two onetime Angelenos who died in New York. Having recently said good-bye to all that to return to the West Coast, he still seemed to be suffering ennui. “I moved back and live here now permanently,” he said, looking askance at the glamorama crowd. “But somehow I thought it would be different.”
SINK OR SWIM. Since art nonprofits (and downtown art nonprofits in particular) have dealt with those looming conditions for ages, it felt only natural that last Tuesday night, during several events feting such institutions, conversations about community would trump those about the economic downturn. White Columns celebrated its prestigious history with the opening of “40 Years/40 Projects,” and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project held its fourth annual “Small Works for Big Change” auction at the Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation. The latter, a benefit that is supported by donations and volunteers, raises funds for free legal services for low-income transgender and intersex people. Pressed to catch the 7:30 PM SRLP fashion show, and hoping to make a pit stop at the Swiss Institute for Marlo Pascual’s opening, time and space seemed to collapse as I rode a wave of giddy, infectious cheer, post–season of giving, pre–Obama inauguration.
First up was White Columns, where ever-gracious curator Amie Scally pointed out a few highlights––a 1970 New York Times review by Peter Schjeldahl, Lovett/Codagnone’s 1995 video Samurai Love, and the newspaper exhibition catalogue from the 2004 “Gloria” show. Did it come as a surprise to see the august critic and artists meandering around the galleries? Not really. Maybe it was all the ephemera going to my head, but already the art world seemed a little smaller, more tightly knit—1970s redux. Salvaged from basement archives, the show includes a 1988 checklist from Cady Noland’s exhibition, with works priced at two and four hundred dollars. Amid chatter about those now-bargain-basement prices, director Matthew Higgs elaborated on the archive’s poor condition, as we gazed fondly at the three remaining documents from Kim Gordon’s 1981 show and discussed the potential for a panel featuring all of the White Columns directors—a disparate clan, to be sure. Clocking the time—nearly 7 PM—on Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Perfect Lovers, I squeezed through the by-then-bustling crowd and caught a taxi to SoHo.
Left: Swiss Institute director Gianni Jetzer and artist Marlo Pascual. Right: Artists John Lovett and Alessandro Codagnone.
At the Swiss Institute, wistful new works by fresh-faced Pascual were reminiscent of her show last year at White Columns––everything comes full circle. The hallways were crowded and the elevator packed, but the large main gallery, featuring a mammoth steel sculpture by Pierre Vadi and Christian Dupraz, was relatively empty, perhaps because no one wanted to step on the frail, barely there glass rings on the floor (although by the looks of it, several already had). During a few quick New Year catch-ups, I tried to persuade friends to tag along to the final destination of the night––it was, after all, a good cause. “I don’t like art that has an obligation,” one asserted. “You killed Proposition 8!” I heard someone retort. And off we went.
En route to the benefit, as we navigated the nearly barren streets, my mind wandered back to the early ’70s again. (Last year, the auction was at Sara Meltzer Gallery, and the year before at Orchard; its flight to SoHo seemed perfectly timed.) This quasi-nostalgia was in full effect once I arrived at Leslie/Lohman, where a few hundred participants were having the loudest art party I’d ever seen. Tacked above the entrance desk, a large handmade sign—the sort familiar to protests and DIY celebrations––welcomed visitors to the auction, while T-shirts and posters for sale at prices from two to ten dollars suggested that no one would leave empty-handed.
“How bad do you want it?” someone screamed above the blaring hip-hop as I made my way toward the stage, shouldering through the sea of radical––and radically different––people. I tried to find out what “it” was––the art, the clothes, the drinks, or something more lubricious––but the show was just ending. Or at least, I thought it was, since the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were prancing around all night, selling raffle tickets for a two-hour “Kink Session.” Playing name-that-tune with some friends, I caught up with a few of the benefit’s organizers (full disclosure: I helped out over the summer) and checked the works lining the walls, taking second glances at Isabelle Woodley’s and Lisa Ross’s contributions. “I’m just relieved my work was bid on!” exclaimed another artist in the show, while one more told me he was just as relieved there were no bids yet. “Saving the best for last,” he said as I nodded, lip-synching to Madonna’s “Lucky Star.” It seemed hardly any time had passed before MC Jennifer Miller was screaming over the music for everyone to bid. On command, the pages appeared to fill up. During those fleeting moments, in the midst of joyful and jostling bodies, downtown seemed immune to the downturn.
IT’S HARD TO THINK OF A SINGLE WORK—let alone a work in progress—that got more play in 2008 than RMB City, Cao Fei’s community-building project in the online world of Second Life. Surely boosted by its double-edged benefit of introducing the art-world mainstream to the dark continents of China and the Internet simultaneously, RMB City took turns on display in (physical) exhibition spaces around the world. Meanwhile, an animated tour of Cao’s twinkling confection of a digital city was available on her YouTube channel, and anyone who had a computer with a free gigabyte of memory could download Second Life and visit. But users could only get as far as RMB City’s outer limits until last Friday, when Cao, along with a few dozen friends and fans, celebrated the grand opening. I decided to drop by, too, a few hours after registering a Second Life identity, scrolling through menus to select a name (Petrolhead) and an avatar (a strapping brunet).
Traffic and train delays are unheard-of in Second Life, where you can fly or teleport to your destination. That doesn’t help, though, when you’re still learning to read the map. I figured out how to zap myself to the People’s Palace just as China Tracy, Cao’s avatar, was finishing her address: “[W]e are looking forward to your visit and your continuous attention and intervention to RMB City.” China Tracy’s pixelated mouth didn’t move, but her fingers tapped at an invisible keyboard as her prepared lines passed across the bottom of my screen. “Please make yourself home at RMB City, and let us ignite the wisdom and dazzle of it.”
The project’s CEO, who has the unappetizing handle Freeway Mayo, announced that the next speaker would be the city’s first mayor, UliSigg Cisse, avatar of Swiss collector Uli Sigg. Even here, vernissages are marked with the pedestrian ritual of opening remarks by sponsors and dignitaries. But there is no way to silence avatars in the same room or otherwise set a VIP’s words apart from the general feed, and so the speechifying mingled with stale chat-room icebreakers (“so where’s everybody from”) and non sequiturs like “Mayer Mayer Mayer many Mayers.” Guyullens Skytower—the Second Life representative of Guy Ullens, who opened Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in 2007—blurted: “couldnt find my trousers this morning.” Loftier discourse didn’t seem forthcoming, since the avatars of the curators who included RMB City in the Yokohama Triennale—Danielbirnbaum Quan, Beatrixruf Shinn, and Hansulrichobrist Magic—didn’t show.
Left: Revelers at the Waterpark. China Tracy and UliSigg Cisse. (Photos: Brian Droitcour)
I moved in to get the obligatory snapshot of China Tracy handing the “Certificate of Mayorship” to UliSigg. A screen-capture function is built into the Second Life interface, but it takes skilled maneuvering and zooming to get a decent angle. Navigation was complicated by hiccups in the program; the convergence of a few dozen users and their bandwidths slowed Second Life’s animation to a series of stiff jerks. I kept impatiently tapping my arrow key, only to find myself nearly standing on China Tracy’s feet. “May we request some avatars to move back from the duo, thanks!” shouted a member of the development team. I retreated to the bar and clicked on a Champagne glass.
After the remarks, festivities began in the People’s Waterpark outside. As giant goldfish somersaulted and an elaborate fireworks display animated the sky, I took an exterior look at the ceremony’s venue. The People’s Palace of RMB City is modeled after the Forbidden City in Beijing, but a picture of a panda hangs on its red gates instead of a portrait of Mao, and it is unguarded and empty, save for a few consoles broadcasting local news—a friendly site for distributing information rather than an awe-inspiring monument. The layout of RMB City shifts the horizontal order of urban center and periphery to a vertical axis; while the Forbidden City is in the middle of Beijing, the People’s Palace sits at RMB City’s highest point, overshadowed only by the Bicycle Wheel—a conflation of the world’s biggest Ferris wheel, set to open in Beijing later this year, and Duchamp’s readymade.
Beneath the wheel, the party raged. There was no music but lots of dancing—by touching a “pose ball,” guests could launch their avatars into a sequence of acrobatic moves. To chat about the construction of RMB City with fewer distractions, I let myself be teleported away by Rodion Resistance, a programmer from Avatrian, the Philippines- and San Francisco–based company specializing in Second Life content design that Cao contracted to build most of RMB City. Rodion took me to the People’s Park. The green field there is ringed by a jagged nest of rusty, broken pylons—a dystopian shadow of the National Stadium designed by Herzog & de Meuron for the Beijing Olympics.
Other avatars ambled over shortly after; as the only flat, open space in RMB City, the People’s Park seems destined to become its default site for congregating. There were a few minor “SLebrities” present, including members of Second Front, the artists’ collective that stages performances around Second Life. I talked to member Eshi Otawara, who first captured my attention at the Waterpark when she announced: “omg i am sticking out like a turd in a punchbowl.” She was referring to her ostentatious violet gown, one of a limited edition of ten that she intends to sell on Second Life’s bustling marketplace for forty thousand lindens apiece—approximately $150.
Suddenly, a giant birthday cake appeared in the middle of the park, in honor of a member of the development team. Unfortunately, she was already offline, celebrating with her colleagues in Beijing. But the party went on. A panda arrived to hand out giant birthday candles. For most of the other users it was lunchtime, but it was after midnight in New York, so I excused myself to take a final flight around the island. Gliding between sloping high-rises with birthday candle still in hand, I glimpsed an object that looked like an upturned Chinese detergent bottle erupting in a cascade; beyond it was a billboard advertising the Yokohama Triennale, splashed with the visage of Hans Ulrich Obrist. I steered toward it for a closer look but got stuck between a bridge span and the corner of an apartment building. Trying to escape, I fiddled with the arrow keys, perhaps overzealously, then a pop-up message suggested I drop the candle, and Second Life stuttered, stopped, and crashed.
Left: Development team members Lovelette Yifu and Steve Memotech with Eshi Otawara. Right: A panda. (Photos: Brian Droitcour)
IN THE DRAB OF WINTER, poised between presidents and teetering on the edge of a financial abyss, who can afford to be afraid of the red, yellow, and blue? Certainly not Imi Knoebel. This onetime monochrome minimalist began the uncertain 2009 season in Chelsea last Thursday by attracting some of the more vivid art-world personalities to his opening at Mary Boone. Julian Schnabel, in bright yellow scarf and tinted glasses, was quick to anoint Knoebel’s primary-colored paintings on aluminum panels as modern altarpieces. A rosy Matthew Barney and Björk had daughter Isadora in tow, under a pink knit rabbit cap. Red-headed Dia director Philippe Vergne was dressed in optimism—the new armor under Obama—and spoke of his mission this week to save Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty from contamination by oil companies planning to drill into Utah’s Great Salt Lake. “We’re going to win,” he said. I believe him.
Outside in the blustery streets, intrepid gallery-goers bent into the wind as they tumbled toward DJ Spooky/Paul Miller’s debut at Robert Miller, where he was showing a sampler of videos, prints, and posters derived from a trip to Antarctica to capture the sound of ice. “My laptop is my studio,” he explained. Miller was talking fast, and soon I knew why: He had just come from Zanzibar and was a full day ahead of the rest of us. Slipping out of his wake, I sped by Richard Aldrich’s first New York solo show, at Bortolami, which was worth a closer look, and Janet Biggs’s video at Claire Oliver, which is all about obsessive people transcending their limits.
Visiting Robert Barry’s exhibition at Yvon Lambert, I spied a text work in the window that read SOMETHING ONLY YOU CAN REALIZE. So it’s up to us, is it? All I knew was that I couldn’t make it uptown in time for Alex Bag’s opening at the Whitney if I was going to get to SoHo in time for the Louis Vuitton “tribute” to the late fashion designer Stephen Sprouse at Deitch Projects. What to do? Art or fashion? Fashion or art? I stayed downtown, where the line between is too thin to make a difference.
Left: Dealer Jeffrey Deitch. Right: Whitney curator Chrissie Iles and Dia Foundation director Philippe Vergne.
Bouncers kept minions of gallery-goers huddled behind velvet ropes set up for “Rock on Mars,” the exhibition of Sprouse’s wildly Day-Glo graffiti-printed clothes for men and women (as if anyone there would insist on gender specificity). For newbies slow to realize how deep into cool they had stepped, the show included silver paintings, suspended by white chains from the gallery rafters, of a nearly naked Iggy Pop as a crucified Jesus. “Iggy actually came to Stephen’s studio to pose for that,” Deitch said, identifying the bright orange, ZAP-POW patterned silk pajama suit on a nearby mannequin as the property of artist Kenny Scharf.
We heard whispers of famous faces that bouncers would not let in. Maurizio Cattelan was more accommodating. “Let’s find you some celebrities!” he said, cheerfully picking his way through a crowd that included art beauty Alba Clemente, performers Casey Spooner and Adam Dugas (in sexy fleece pajama suits), artists Terence Koh and Kembra Pfahler, MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach, dealer Andrea Rosen (one of the few dressed in vintage Sprouse), architect Peter Marino (in leathers), and supermodel Agyness Deyn. “Where is Donatella?” Cattelan bellowed. He’s a funny guy.
I looked for Marc Jacobs, who had just unveiled his new Sprouse-inspired line around the corner at the Vuitton store and was nominally the host of this evening, which also celebrated a thick Sprouse monograph packaged—instead of published—by the Padilha brothers, Roger and Mauricio, fashion publicists. They were there, but no Jacobs, who had already moved on to the afterparty at Bowery Ballroom. Instead, I found designer Anna Sui. Admiring the hot-pink wig on the large drag clown heading to the black-light room below a bevy of stylists, photographers, makeup people, and Paper-magazine editors, I had to ask, “Is this an art-world party or a fashion party?” “It’s a pupu platter,” Sui observed. “No difference.”
Hired yellow cabs topped with light-box WELOVESPROUSE.COM ads ferried guests to the Delancey Street club, where an even larger copse of pupu people was corralled between roped corridors on the street. “Come on,” said a man who sidled up to the door. “Gene Pressman,” he said. “From Barney’s?” Fashion has its privileges. But art has more staying power. I stood my ground and was waved inside just in time to catch Deborah Harry, wearing purple and black Sprouse, give full throat to “Rip Her to Shreds,” one of three Blondie songs she sang to recorded music in a spirited performance. It felt very Mudd Club in there. Maybe it was the music; or maybe it was the presence of Annie Flanders, founding editor of Details when it was the chronicle of downtown society; or maybe it was onetime fashion muse Edwige Belmore downing Champagne in yellow silk Sprouse trousers. “We were just so awesome,” she marveled. Aren’t we still?
“This is the new way to do an exhibition,” Deitch said, pointing to the pink neon Vuitton signs and slick videos of Sprouse and his kick-ass runway shows. The marketing way? “These people are going to roll this show out in cities all over,” he said. “They really know how to get the word out.” And the bucks.
Back on Wooster Street Friday night, I stopped into the Art Production Fund’s storefront lab for the debut of the reality TV show Delusional Downtown Divas, an art-world spoof by art-world offspring Lena Dunham, whose parents are Laurie Simmons and Carroll Dunham. (The show itself is a commission from newly revived Index magazine.) I had to elbow my way between dealer Barbara Gladstone, Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs, and novelist A. M. Homes just to get some standing room. Nate Lowman was on-screen, playing himself during a studio visit with Dunham, acting the part of an art-star wannabe eager to jump-start a career. What could she be thinking?
Left: Artists Paricia Coffie and Billy Sullivan. Right: Architects Peter Marino and Juan Carlos.
From there it was just east of the sun and west of the moon to reach the Park Avenue Armory for a workshop production of Last Dance, hosted by theater director Brennan Gerard and choreographer Ryan Kelly’s Moving Theater. In a fourth-floor room, three dancers, one of them just crazy enough to seem dangerous, took turns limning the last moments of their virginity or their last day of school or their last supper with a parent, when suddenly a tall, bearded man seated in the folding chair beside architect Charles Renfro started singing the show’s title song, by disco diva Donna Summer, in the most pristine countertenor voice imaginable. Remember this name: Jason Abrams. He is going to be big.
Saturday night brought snow to New York and that color genius Mary Heilmann to both 303 Gallery locations. One was a show of brilliant new paintings and the other a group show curated by Heilmann featuring younger artists from the personal cult she has fostered with an unusual degree of affection. Paula Cooper brought curator Bob Nickas back to her temple with another of his thematic group exhibitions. Though titled “Every Revolution Is a Roll of the Dice,” he had left little to chance. “I think it’s all about form and balance,” ventured John Miller, whose gold-leafed plastic knights and weapons sit on Carol Bove’s carpet of peacock feathers. Louise Lawler contributed an unfamiliar 1993 text work painted on a wall by the reception desk. It read: ONCE THERE WAS A LITTLE BOY AND EVERYTHING TURNED OUT ALRIGHT. The End.
Which always puts us back at the beginning.
Left: 303 Gallery's Lisa Spellman. Right: Artist Kembra Pfahler with Art Production Fund cofounder Doreen Remen.
BARRING JOHN FAHEY, curmudgeonly master of American-primitive fingerstyle guitar, whose gnomic, self-penned liner notes mythologized the Takoma Park, Maryland, of his childhood, no artist has done as much for suburban Maryland as Jeff Krulik, underground video documentarian, obsessive chronicler of obsessives, and maker (with John Heyn) of one of the funniest docs of the past thirty years (maybe ever), Heavy Metal Parking Lot (1986). Having no affinity for the state besides a love of Fahey’s music and a repulsion-fascination with the central-Atlantic accent (Philly, Baltimore, and environs—listen for words like Coke and bowling), I was mildly surprised to find myself hoofing through freezing rain and under the Gowanus Expressway to Light Industry, an empty room in a massive converted industrial building in Sunset Park, to see a minifestival of Krulik’s works-in-progress. Ever since I saw a Krulik retrospective in San Francisco years ago, I’ve been on the lookout for this amateur auteur’s compellingly geeky docs wherever I may find them.
Shot outside the Capitol Center in Landover, Maryland, before a 1986 Judas Priest concert, Heavy Metal Parking Lot offers all the mullets, spandex, feathered perms, central Atlantic o’s (“I’d jump his bones”), and real-life Beavis and Butt-head behavior any aging student of ’80s America could want. It’s impossible not to laugh at these people, but the video avoids arch condescension through Krulik and Heyn’s honest idiot glee and unabashedly nerdy interest in the mysteries of fandom. For years after its making, HMPL circulated through an ad hoc network of friends and mondo videotape traders, winding up in many a touring band’s bus VCR, notably Nirvana’s. Its “success” led Krulik to make a number of other “parking lot” docs, of which the best is Neil Diamond Parking Lot (1998), shot ten years later outside the same arena and featuring overweight, middle-aged, utterly normal women exhibiting a dedication to their musical god that would shame the most ardent Deadhead.
Sadly, neither film was on the bill on Tuesday, nor were some of Krulik’s other peaks: Public Access Gibberish (1990), King of Porn (1996), and Ernest Borgnine on the Bus (1997). For this was his “Nuggets”—unreleased, unfinished works with an overarching rock-'n'-roll theme. After a brief introduction (“Jeff is the missing link between Errol Morris and Allen Funt”) by Thomas Beard, one of Light Industry’s young proprietors, Krulik appeared, bald and gray, but with a fresh face and irrepressibly boyish energy. The standing-room-only audience, mostly twenty-something hipsters and film students, welcomed him warmly. The space heater was fired up and the lights turned off.
The first offering, The Leisure World Comedy and Humor Club, was one of the few that didn’t concern rock. Shot at a weekly gathering of geriatrics who recite (often off-color) jokes to each other from a lectern, it felt like a living Drew Friedman cartoon and charmed the pants off the audience. The next, Meet James’ Parents, followed a youngish mom and dad who have been ditched by their achingly self-conscious teenage son at an outdoor pop-punk concert as they unintentionally get backstage passes and meet James’s heroes. When James hears what he missed for thinking his parents hopelessly uncool, he says (naturally), “That sucks!” Also charming as hell.
Then we moved to relatively unstructured segments of what is clearly Krulik’s current obsession—’60s rock in the Maryland/Washington, DC, region. Including Ambassador Theater Psychedelic Memories (an oral history of DC’s short-lived Fillmore-like psychedelic music hall) and Led Zeppelin Played Here (an investigation into the truth behind the legend that Zep played their first DC-area gig at the tiny, unglamorous Community Center in Wheaton, Maryland, in 1969 on the night of Nixon’s first inauguration), the amorphous project became tedious at times, with rambling anecdotes by aging local rock fans, record collectors, and former garage-band members. An extended shot of a telephone on a desk as the director interviewed Nils Lofgren about Hendrix at the Ambassador was typical no-budget Krulik but also awkwardly exposed the limitations of limitations. Some of the audience snuck out between sections.
We were on more familiar, amusing territory with Heavy Metal Picnic, a film Krulik edited from hours of video shot by an amateur cameraman/metalhead at an all-day outdoor party in a Maryland field in 1985, featuring third-rate local metal bands and more onion-skin shorts, pubestaches, and devil-horn hand signals than anyone ever thought possible. (The next time a twenty-something openly envies me for being an adolescent during the ’80s, I will hand him/her a DVD of HMPL and HMP. Trust meit was pure hell.)
After a very short short about a middle-aged “throat guitarist,” the lights came up and Krulik was interviewed by Our Band Could Be Your Life author and Kurt Cobain biographer Michael Azerrad. “I didn’t breathe the whole time” the films were playing, Krulik admitted; he seemed generally nervous, if flattered. Azerrad noted that he’d first seen HMPL in Nirvana’s tour bus and tried to link Krulik’s practice—and its viral distribution network—to ’80s hardcore and indie-rock DIY subcultures. Krulik is clearly someone who doesn’t think too deeply about what he does, giving the impression that his many short films are merely the result of mild OCD. “A collector mentality,” he said. “Madness.” Over one hundred films into his oeuvre, he is still preserving the castoffs of pop fandom and creating his own version of John Ford’s Monument Valley in the tract homes, minimalls, and McMansions of Maryland. He loves YouTube. You can find him there.
ARRIVING AT THE CAIRO AIPORT somewhat late on December 17, I barreled through the thick, anarchic traffic of Heliopolis in my friend’s desert-worthy Land Rover Defender and arrived miraculously at my downtown hotel within an hour. Navigating the few blocks to the Townhouse Gallery, one of the fourth Photo Cairo’s venues, however, was not so simple. The concierge had run out of maps, and by the time we arrived at the space, after exploring every dark side street between the hotel and our destination, the exhibition’s title, “The Long Shortcut,” seemed all too appropriate. Set in an alley lined with auto-mechanic shops and tables filled with men sucking on hookahs, the illuminated gallery compound was a welcome sight.
Inside the Townhouse, the most evocative installation easily belonged to Hala Elkoussy, who constructed a sort of shrine—decorated with ornate mirrors and lamps, red curtains, and old photographs—in one of the palazzo’s rooms. In the factory space, Ahmed Kamel mounted a series of photographs critiquing the fetishism of Egyptian wedding ceremonies. Of course, any art exhibition in Cairo must compete with the mesmerizing dissonance of the streets—an onslaught of noise and other sensual stimulations. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, I thought. Down in the alley, a neighbor’s door was thrown open to expose a room that would have been at home in the exhibition: makeshift cabinets stacked with pieces of wood and cardboard, an ancient TV and a photographic portrait, a box of Marlboros, a child’s toy car. Adjacent to the gallery’s entrance, a man prepared to paint a vintage Volkswagen Beetle, taking advantage of a rare functioning streetlight next to the building.
Left: Townhouse Gallery's William Wells with Ed DeCarbo, chair of the department of art history at Pratt Institute. Right: Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosni (left).
I snagged a ride from artist Basim Magdy to Photo Cairo’s next venue (and also the exhibition’s organizing institution), the Contemporary Image Collective. The space was flush with works nostalgic for the imagined glamour of the past, including faux film stills by Larissa Sansour as well as Maha Maamoun’s Domestic Tourism II, a video montage of movie clips using the pyramids as a backdrop. (An homage, perhaps, to Egypt’s recent decision to copyright the wondrous monuments.) Back on the street, I gawked at a fantastic truck piled with several bundles too many; the driver gawked back and called me a piece of candy.
From there, I made my way to the Garden City Club, a decadent midcentury building where the Friends of the Townhouse reception—which served as the Photo Cairo afterparty—was in full swing. I interrupted a card game between the three doormen, one of whom ushered me to the fickle elevator leading to the penthouse. It was like stepping into the setting for a novel: the apartment of an Anglo expat living an incongruously luxurious life amid the ruins of history. After a stop at the intimate wainscoted bar, I walked onto the crowded terrace and straight into a cloud of cigarette smoke. Visiting from Istanbul, Rodeo Gallery’s Sylvia Kouvali gushed, “You’ve got to see Doa Aly’s gorgeous video—it’s the best work in the exhibition,” referring to a work at another of the four venues, the Downtown Apartment, a rented space in a dusty old office building. Notoriously elusive Townhouse director William Wells, organizer of the first Photo Cairo, lived up to his reputation and failed to make an appearance.
For a Mediterranean city, Cairo is surprisingly colorless, a quality exacerbated by the gray pollution spewing from the crush of dilapidated taxis. However, the plain building facades conceal rich ornamentation, producing a striking dichotomy between exterior and interior. Once you enter an opulent mosque or Coptic church, the buildings come alive. Such was the case the following evening at a party given in honor of artist Jennifer Steinkamp by the US ambassador, Margaret Scobey, at her residence in an enormous gated compound on the Nile. I had entered the Old South, where a famous Egyptian opera baritone sang “Old Man River,” drawing a connection between the Mississippi river and the Nile, according to our hostess. Across the smorgasbord feast, laden with a huge turkey, I spotted the members of performance collective My Barbarian, in town to hold workshops for their Christmas Eve performance, Eleven Human Senses, at Townhouse.
Left: Artist Jennifer Steinkamp with MAK Center director Kimberli Meyer. Right: US public-affairs officer Haynes Mahoney.
Once our car made it past the perfunctory dog sniffing, we arrived at the Marriott (formerly a palace built for a French queen), which was extravagantly decked out with white Christmas decor. At a dinner held nearby at Abou El Sid with the US delegation, which included Steinkamp and MAK Center Los Angeles director Kimberli Meyer, My Barbarian’s Alex Segade noted how surprised he was at the abundance of alcohol: “I expected it would be impossible to get.”
On Saturday morning, over at the Carlton Hotel (where I was being hosted), I awoke to the five o’clock call to prayer, apparently emanating from a speaker right next to my bed. I bided my time until a little before noon, when I set off across the river to the main venue, arriving at the Art Palace (on the grounds of the Opera House) along with seemingly everyone else. Gathered at the entrance in front of Lebanese artist (and winner of the biennale’s grand prize) Lara Baladi’s Tower of Hope were Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosni and his bodyguards, the US embassy’s Haynes Mahoney, biennale prizewinner Adel El-Siwi, My Barbarian, and artist Khaled Hafez. Hafez told me that this edition had been completely restructured to promote a more cohesive vision. In the past, artists were selected by their respective countries; this year, all but those from Spain, Italy, and the United States were chosen by a panel of artists.
The show seemed both fairy tale and nightmare. Just inside the entrance was Paman Pereira’s installation of household furniture and objects suspended from the ceiling. A roomful of giant “corporate” wolves in suits made up Wael Darwish’s Team Work, while a striking video by Adel Abidin depicted a mosque made of sugar cubes being devoured by ants, questioning the relative strength of spiritual and physical impulses.
Left: Artist Moataz Nasr and dealer Nabil Shamma. Right: Artist Kimsooja with curators Bisi Silva and Lars Bang Larsen.
That night, Austrian curator Felicitas Thun-Hohenstein hosted a dinner party at the famous Greek Club, on Talat Harb Square. Formerly an intellectual haunt, the restaurant is located below the headquarters of the liberal El-Ghad party, which was firebombed just over a month ago. Sentimentality reared its head again as a group at the next table broke into a chorus of the patriotic Sayed Darwish song “Ahu da el-Li Sar” (This Is What Happened), led by curator and chanteuse Lana Mushtaq. Just after midnight, the hordes arrived from a party hosted by the Spanish delegation, and we fled the smoke-filled club.
On Sunday night, in the Fustat neighborhood, artist Moataz Nasr opened his beautiful new space Darb 1718 with the exhibition “Crossings,” made up of selections from a show held last spring at Art Paris. From the party on the terrace, we watched Lebanese artist Ninar Esber’s spectacular fiery apparition sing “I Wanna Be Loved by You” in Arabic from a roof in the distance. A whirling dervish performed on a lower terrace; meanwhile, the gender-bending male belly dancer in Kader Attia’s video provoked horror on the part of a macho Egyptian banker. “It is a shame!” he cried. “And he is even smiling!” Esber’s atmospheric sound piece, in which a seductive female voice pronounces words from Arabic erotic literature, emanated from a ceramic kiln in the garden. In a dark room, another Abidin video showed Iraqi boys training to be barbers by shaving cream off balloons—which inevitably blow up. Children from the neighborhood wandered in; the vibe was nonchalant. “There is so much happening in Cairo now,” Jakob Myschetzky, a Danish activist, argued in between bites of hors d’oeuvres. “Politics is dead, so art is one of the few ways to engage.” Absorbing the Mediterranean winter breeze on the rooftop, I contemplated my day at the pyramids, only recently secured by barbed wire. A few days later, Gaza would erupt in violence, underlining again the fragility of politics.