IN MEXICO CITY, the custom is to smile and never say no—unless, that is, the tequila is yellow, green, or blue. Last Wednesday night, before swine flu hit town, those suspicious drinks were a winking detail of the big bash that collector and fruit-juice heir Eugenio López threw for fifteen hundred guests to celebrate the opening of “Nothingness and Being,” the exhibition that Whitney Museum adjunct curator Shamim Momin has culled from the holdings of his Jumex Foundation.
Unlike the bright lights and hot colors of the feathers and flowers inside the big party tent, Momin’s austere show was mostly a silver and black affair that evoked the dark tidings promised by her title. “The collection is so strong that I was able to do a show about things I’ve always wanted to say about the world,” Momin said, standing beside a beaming López. “You know what I mean?” I didn’t, exactly, but López seemed to. “What she is saying is true,” he said. “It’s an important show.”
It included almost a hundred works—by artists as disparate as Francis Alÿs, Jim Hodges, Louise Lawler, Gregor Schneider, Eva Rothschild, Mike Bouchet, Nayland Blake, and Tracey Emin—that were all about sex, narcissism, death, consciousness, cynicism, and beauty: in other words, life. A molded chair lying on its side was perpetually in flames, courtesy Banks Violette. A creepy video by Moris was installed in a pitch-black room filled with the sound of a wild animal growling, while its eyes glowered on-screen. Another video, by Knut Asdam, focused on the crotch of a man’s jeans and the dark stain that spread as he peed into them. “Every man’s dream,” observed James Brown, the American expat painter who was in town for a show of his new watercolors opening at Hilario Galguera Gallery the next day.
Left: Philanthropist Lulu Creel and Colección Jumex's Victor Zamudio. Right: Collector Jose Noe Suro.
The Jumex event was pitched to coincide with the first day of business at Zona Maco, the six-year-old art fair hosting eighty galleries, mostly from Mexico but also Spain, Brazil, Los Angeles, Copenhagen, and New York. With López’s 10 PM helicopter arrival at the juice-factory grounds, the party tent filled with dealers, collectors, artists, and art students bused through end-of-the-world traffic jams that stretched from the convention center to the Jumex warehouse housing the show more than an hour away. Inside the tent, the dance music was pounding, the drinks were flowing, and waiters were laying out a buffet of grilled shrimp, ravioli, and salad—distinctly un-Mexican fare meant to please the foreigners.
Of which there were plenty. Momin headed up a table of Angelenos who included Christine Kim, the curator who is Momin’s partner in LAND (Los Angeles Nomad Division), a public-art agency the two are establishing in Hollywood. With them were former Works on Paper proprietors Maynard Monrow and Christine Nichols, who are about to start a residency studio in Venice with Maya Lin.
So many projects, so little time! Miami’s Bass Museum director Silvia Karman Cubiñá and Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center director Raphaela Platow are presenting another Jumex Foundation show set to debut during Art Basel Miami Beach in December. That will be the collection’s first appearance on American soil. Mexico City philanthropist Lulu Creel spoke about Mexico Vivo, a Jumex Foundation beneficiary that helps the growing number of women with AIDS in Mexico and raises money through art auctions. I wanted to hear more, but Momin nudged us outside for the lighting of Cerith Wyn Evans’s Gertrude Stein–inspired sign, which apparently only gets to shine once every decade or so, at least at Jumex. It reads, BEFORE THE FLOWERS OF FRIENDSHIP FADED FRIENDSHIP FADED, but the moment itself faded as López submitted to television cameras for interviews and negotiated a phalanx of eager hangers-on. López should get credit for waking up the new rich in his town to contemporary art. Where once there was only Jumex, now there are at least twenty private collections, and López himself is planning to build a new museum within the city limits.
Left: Alexandra Brown with artist James Brown. Right: Artist Gabriel Orozco.
Mexico City already has contemporary art institutions, such as MUAC, its new university museum, and the equally impressive Rufino Tamayo Museum. (Mexican architecture is far too undersung.) On Wednesday night, the Tamayo took advantage of the moment to put on a five-thousand-peso-per-person benefit (that’s about $450) that attracted visiting dealers like Massimo Di Carlo’s Ludovica Barbieri and a troop of Mexican collectors, including Ramiro and Gabriela Garza. For the dinner, the energetic nightlife impresario Rodrigo Penafiel carved a twinkling black-and-white club out of one exhibition area and flew in DJ Rawdon Messenger from the Chateau Marmont for the afterparty on a terrace. I stayed only long enough to note that the affair was just a tequila-fueled version of the same museum functions taking place in any other part of the world, all smiling men in suits, tottering women in painfully high heels, and an exhibition that few were noticing—in this case, a handsome Liliana Porter retrospective.
From there, it was off to join the crush at James Brown’s “Formas de Pensamiento” (Thought Forms) show at Galguera. The magnificently long-haired dealer, also Damien Hirst’s representative in Mexico, had outfitted the courtyard of his white-on-white townhouse gallery with golden poufs, a DJ, and a copiously stocked bar where a number of attractive young things rubbed elbows with seasoned museum curators and José Noe Suro, who relieves the humdrum manufacture of tubs and toilets at his ceramics factory in Guadalajara by commissioning international artists to make work there.
Brown, who has been one of them, was leading Mexican magazine editors through the sequences of his eighty-four abstractions on paper, a show inspired by John Cage’s 84 Pieces for Piano—music, Brown said, “that preys on your imagination.” He insisted that the sound could “nourish that part of your brain that allows you to produce something you desperately want.” Small wonder people want to be artists.
Friday afternoon, the surgical masks that were to become commonplace as swine-flu fatalities increased made their first appearance in public. It was unnerving to see people sitting in restaurants pulling off their masks long enough to eat. Odder still to drive up to a hotel to be greeted by masked valet parkers and bellhops. Museums and schools were closed, but deadly disease doesn’t stop the art world, especially when there is money at stake: The Zona Maco was just as busy as it had been on opening day, and the big parties went on, though I-20 Gallery’s Paul Judelson sent word that, with the building closed, artist Eduardo Sarabia’s tequila salon had to be moved outside the Natural History Museum, where Cyprien Gaillard orchestrated one of his signature video screenings just before artist Miguel Calderón took over as DJ.
None of this was as surreal as the story Galguera told during a late-night taco dinner that architect Manolo Mestre was holding for friends and artists in his collection, like Ariel Orozco and Emilio Chapela. Galguera was about to leave for Leipzig, where he was opening a new gallery with a group show featuring Hirst, Daniel Buren, Jannis Kounellis, and fifteen others. For his installation there, Kounellis charged the dealer with finding twenty-six used prosthetic legs. Though he cast a wide net, Galguera could get only twenty-five—until the night prior, when his brother, a bullfighter, won the final leg in a poker game with a former picador who had lost a limb in a bullring. The man actually left without his leg? Said Galguera, “Everything is a gamble in Mexico.”
LAST FRIDAY, the PinchukArtCentre in Kiev delivered its “Requiem,” a sprawling selection of Damien Hirst’s recent works, largely culled from private collections. After a year of planning and an eight-week-long install (running up to the final hour before the opening, when assistants were busy hair-spraying a giant ashtray), the exhibition is the culmination of the close friendship and creative collaboration between Hirst and collector Victor Pinchuk. The private view took cues from Bulgakov, with a beaming Pinchuk—playing the part of Margarita at the Midnight Ball—welcoming the glittering procession of artists, oil magnates, and other affluent guests filtering through the institution’s single staircase. Over the course of the evening, more than two thousand visitors would brave the crush of the tiny stairwell, among them curators Hans Ulrich Obrist, Sir Norman Rosenthal, and Suzanne Pagé, artist Michael Craig-Martin, and of course Hirst’s London dealer Jay Jopling. Conspicuously absent was Hirst’s other dealer, Larry Gagosian. (“I think he had a head cold,” shrugged one art adviser.)
If the artist’s spectacular auction at Sotheby’s last September had meant to perform the inner workings of the art world, “Requiem” offers a subtle revision, blurring the boundaries between earnestness and irony. The same could be said of the surreal program of events around the opening, which ranged from a performance by child prodigies in a puppet theater to a “make-your-own-spin-painting” session supervised by Hirst and Pinchuk, conducted the following day in the outdoor mall adjacent to the institution (also the site of a temporary pavilion affectionately referred to as “the shark tank”).
In press notes, the exhibition is loosely termed a retrospective, but the majority of the works on display are new paintings, many making their world debut—and potentially final stop, if rumors are to be believed—in Kiev. The show is not without its share of cutesy curatorial moments and good-natured self-consciousness. It opens with A Thousand Years, a work from 1990 that features a bisected glass chamber containing tin pans of sugar, an “insect-o-cutor,” and a cow’s severed head, which oozed a glossy puddle of blood onto the floor. Dead flies littered the ground in both chambers, with the occasional fly on its back fluttering its wings or executing one last death drag across the tiles. The few that could still fly made stunted, short-lived ventures, inevitably ending up against a glass wall.
On the fourth floor, the figure of Saint Bartholomew, fully exposed with his skin draped over his arm, presides over the entrance to an installations of vitrines, butterfly pieces, and a series of smaller figurative paintings that depict the C-section birth of Hirst’s son. A Child’s Dream, the photogenic unicorn from the September auction, nestles in a nook in the garretlike fifth floor, tucked away with the polka-dot paintings like outgrown toys. And in the “tank” Hirst pairs his Death Denied with Death Explained, a bisected shark divided between two tanks, each of which is separated by a space large enough to give viewers a fuller appreciation of the animal’s inner workings (and the oddly gratifying sensation of people-watching through formaldehyde).
In the sixth-floor SkyArtCafe, Ukrainian art stars (and PinchukArtCentre regulars) Ilya Chichkan, Masha Shubina, Zhanna Kadyrova, and Sergey Bratkov offered tips for avoiding the irrationally stingy champagne pours. (Bratkov ordered two glasses at a time, while Kadyrova simply grabbed the bottle, flashing a sweet smile at the dreadlocked bartender.) Curators Daniel Birnbaum and Francesco Bonami were perpetually “just here a minute ago,” as was artist Andreas Gursky, who has developed something of a following in Kiev since his own exhibition in the space last September.
Soon after the SkyArtCafe hit capacity, guests were bussed to a dinner at Kiev’s Puppet Theatre, a hilltop palace that combines display windows of creepy wooden puppets with a grotto-themed garderobe and a ritzy rooftop patio. It took several loudspeaker announcements to redirect guests from the open bar on the roof to the small theater for the evening’s entertainment. Even then, guests were reluctant to commit to a seat, and people congregated in the aisles so as to better calculate which row Pinchuk might choose. (For the record, the collector took a PR-friendly seat in the very center, between Jeff Koons and Ukrainian enfant terrible Chichkan.)
The PinchukArtCentre has hosted concerts by Paul McCartney and Kraftwerk, and this round rumors were rampant that George Michael would perform—or perhaps at least the pop band the Hours, who had earlier been spotted hovering near the rooftop bar. With the austere announcement of a selection of classical requiems, the audience swallowed their disappointment (and the last of their champagne) and settled into their seats, putting on serious symphony faces. The first act, introduced as the Duo Gurfinkel, was a pair of adolescent twins who sported flowing locks and matching clarinets; they performed Prokofiev while bobbing up and down in their baggy suits. (“Big in Israel” was the word.) This act was followed by an unsettlingly emotive eight-year-old dressed in a pink chiffon princess dress singing “Ave Maria.” Despite her age, the accomplished little prodigy was clearly an old hand onstage, as indicated by her sweeping gestures and the wrought expressions troubling her tiny face in the pauses between trills.
Soon after, a full choir dressed in white and gold robes took the stage to perform Mozart’s Requiem, the evening’s final number. Projected behind them was a promotional video for Pinchuk’s charity Cradles of Hope, recently boosted by the sale of a painting donated by Hirst. Through some imaginative computer animation, Hirst’s skulls and iguana skeletons morphed into premature babies stretching out their limbs in the IC-unit cradles. This interpretation of the artist’s catalogue may not have had quite the intended effect, but it did render the audience speechless.
The crowd eventually dispersed for dinner, dancing, and further distraction. Tate director Nicholas Serota, Gagosian’s Victoria Gelfand, and Stedelijk Museum director Gijs van Tuyl were all spotted skirting the edges of the dance floor, where a pop band put Ukrainian folk accents (read: lots of kicking and whooping) to covers of songs like “Hotel California.” Bianca Jagger chatted amiably with Koons and GCCC founder Dasha Zhukova, while onlookers cast covert glances to see whether Daniel Craig (whose arrival had triggered a wave of whispered “It’s Bond, James Bond!”s—which apparently never gets old) would try his hand at the whooping. Alas, no such luck.
As the official afterparty packed up, the truly steadfast bypassed familiar nightspots like Buddha Bar and Decadance and continued on to the Premiere Palace Casino. Following Hirst’s lead, Jopling, dealer Harry Blaine, artist Mat Collishaw, and curator Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst ponied up their passports and the five-hundred-dollar deposit required for entry, while those lacking foresight (or fortune) clustered in the bar outside, angling for unwanted passes from the disenchanted. For most, the process of getting in took longer than the time spent at the tables. One London dealer returned within five minutes, pushing his visibly diminished stack of chips toward one of his artists. “You can go ahead and try, but the only ones making any money are Jay and Damien.” He paused, then added, smiling: “No surprise there.”
“I AM PARTICIPANT,” exclaimed artist Kathe Burkhart as we navigated the expanding crowd, a few hundred strong, at the nonprofit’s annual benefit on Sunday. “Well, really Lia is,” she finally allowed, giving credit to the institution’s founding director, Lia Gangitano. Burkhart gestured across the room toward the announcement card for her 2003 solo show, and I skimmed the crowd, spotting other artists who might also “be” Participant. The card, as well as some works by those artists, was amid a makeshift time line that stretched across one of the black-painted walls: the institution’s exhibition history in a rainbow-colored row. One of Burkhart’s works drew attention from passersby and underscored the playful pitch of the night—FUCK THE UNDERGROUND it declares, in bold scarlet type over a picture of a cemetery.
Around 7 PM, the crowd began to hush and push toward the rear of the space as the deathly Kembra Pfahler, lead singer of the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, took to a small stage, without her band. “I’m a little nervous,” she admitted. Sporting her signature ghastly look––complete with a white bow drowning in the large tussle of her wig––Pfahler seemed perfectly posed once the music started, and she belted out a pop-punk song, “Actresstocracy,” karaoke-style. Afterward, she bantered with the audience like any good rock star, remarking, “Today is the first day of the rapture, or the ‘new depression,’ according to Lia,” to raucous cheers.
Parked to the left of the platform, Gangitano stood surrounded by artists she’s worked with for years, including Charles Atlas, Lovett/Codagnone, Laura Parnes, and Burkhart. As the band Beaut took the stage, its lovely front woman, Marti Domination––sporting a look halfway between Tammy Faye Bakker and Tammy Wynette––coyly observed, “I love this gallery, they let us do anything,” and lit a cigarette before starting the three-song set.
The $150 ticket didn’t seem to deter too many people from attending the reception, but the $500 donation for dinner wasn’t everyone’s speed. Post-Beaut, artist Carrie Moyer noted that she was there “for the part with the young artists, curators, and writers.” To be sure, there were many of those, eager to help out an organization that’s fostered countless careers through solo shows, book launches, readings, film screenings––and let’s not forget the inimitable artist-curated group exhibitions (with “Blow Both of Us,” organized by Shannon Ebner and Adam Putnam in 2007, being a standout in my mind).
At 9 PM, as the crowd began to thin, a few hangers-on sipped one last drink (Hornitos tequila or an Izze soda?) from the open bar. I chatted with Robert Boyd about “Xanadu,” his own show at the gallery, as a fraction of us began to make our way toward dinner at East Village stand-by Lucien. When people dawdled, 303 Gallery’s Mari Spirito spearheaded the move, while Gangitano teased, “Some of you bitches need to eat tonight.”
Over the French fare, I talked with artists Ellen Cantor and John Bratten, while dealer Elizabeth Dee spoke with collectors Barbara and Howard Morse. Everyone seemed to have a story to tell. Digging in, Bratten warmly shared his spotty history of the gallery and noted that even our friendly waiter, artist Brandon Olson, had performed at the space. “Lia lets us do things that commercial galleries won’t,” he said. Cantor nodded, adding, “She makes progress happen.”
Left: Artists A. L. Steiner, Ryan Harman, and Justine Kurland. Right: Artists Laura Parnes and Derrick Adams.
IF THERE IS METHOD IN MADNESS, there may be money, too. Witness the first volley fired in this season of fund-raising hell by the Drawing Center’s gala benefit last Wednesday, April 15, not coincidentally the annual deadline for payment of income taxes. How better to greet the spring than with a ready-made deduction?
Here is how: Mount an exhibition detailing the fascinating, troubled life and art of Unica Zürn. The author of a few violent sex novels and hand behind the masklike automatic ink drawings on the center’s walls, Zürn is the undersung Surrealist whose obsession with Henri Michaux and partnership with Hans Bellmer doomed her to madness and suicide. The exhibition, pried from the clutches of various estates by curator João Ribas, includes more than just intricate drawings of Zürn’s private gods and monsters. It also has photographs in which her masochism in modeling for Bellmer’s twisted “Poupées” is on telling display.
Patrons seemed drawn to these dark matters. The SoHo nonprofit raised $375,000 with the benefit. It included a dinner for 270 honoring painter Pat Steir in a TriBeCa party room overlooking the new towers of Lower Manhattan, once a low-slung bohemian savanna where the deer and antelope of art and theory played.
The evening was characterized by an elegant modesty, an elusive trait that has become the necessary armor to defend against these troubled fiscal times. It must work, because no one at the Drawing Center, not board cochair Frances Beatty Adler or artist Brice Marden or architect Steven Holl or any of Steir’s many artist, collector, and curator friends who applauded her—Kiki Smith, Jeffrey Weiss, Tom Otterness, Eileen Cohen, Betty Woodman, Marina Abramovic—displayed any concern. “It takes a hydra to run a nonprofit in this economic environment,” director Brett Littman told the guests, who talked over him.
Steir is, of course, famous for pitching paint at canvas, but she is also an ace at drafting what poet Anne Waldman, in a spirited toast, called “accidents of the magic of the pour.” Reading from prepared remarks, Waldman said, “Things are symbols of themselves. We don’t have to look for meaning. It’s there.” I wondered whether we could say the same for love? Perhaps if I read more poetry I would know. Steir herself waxed sentimental: “Drawing is the backbone of everything we make. For me it is smoke and rain and young children crying.” See? Poetry.
In its interviews and stories, Bomb has been a stalwart promoter of contemporary poets, playwrights, novelists, artists, and filmmakers for twenty-eight years, and on Friday night it drew many of them to its own benefit at the National Arts Club. “We deliver the artist’s voice,” said founder and editor Betsy Sussler, announcing Bomb’s new association with the Smithsonian, which will share its oral-history database with the magazine’s, creating, Sussler said, “a library of American culture,” and introducing three sets of honorees—Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, Carroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons, and P.S. 1 founder Alanna Heiss.
Each received little pink bomb awards (a Bomb gala tradition) and testimonials from artist Clifford Ross, New Museum director Lisa Phillips, and Abramovic, respectively. Abramovic donned her signature lab coat for her performance, during which she sat at a lectern and proceeded to call Heiss an artist’s friend for life. “OK, some of them are dead—LeWitt, Matta-Clark—but she’s still a friend,” she said, and then read off a dazzling list of all the artists whose work had made their first-ever public appearance at P.S. 1.
Now the ruling thumb at the Clocktower, for which only an hour earlier she had been granted a ten-year lease for her new radio project, Heiss said, “If there is anyone here who has never had a show at P.S. 1, please leave your name at the door, and you will get one at the Clocktower.” I didn’t see anyone running for the sign-up sheet. But I did see plenty of paparazzi, especially around Reed. “I never smile for the camera,” he announced, pulling on a dour face. “You never smile?” asked Phillips. “I didn’t say I never smile,” Reed said, looking grim. “I don’t smile for cameras.” Again she asked why. Strobes flashed. The dinner bell sounded. The scene changed. History is like that. It goes by in a flash.
Saturday night found me at the Guggenheim Museum for KOOL—Dancing in My Mind, a new video and dance piece by director Robert Wilson, choreographer Carla Blank, and videographer Richard Rutkowski. The museum commissioned the work, performed by six dancers, for “The Third Mind,” which was closing the following day.
For those who believe in dance, KOOL is indeed a cool experience. The work is essentially an homage to Suzushi Hanayagi, a classically trained Japanese choreographer who did some of her most important work at the Judson Church in the 1970s and who now suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Nonetheless, Wilson, who collaborated with her on fifteen of his productions, found a way to communicate through small gestures of the hands and feet, and these became the basis for the piece.
Left: Collector Christophe De Menil. Right: Dancers Illenk Gentille and Jonah Bokaer.
On the screen behind the dancers, Hanayagi, now eighty, appeared in a new video portrait by Wilson, but also in fascinating archival footage of her dancing some of the moves taking place live onstage, but with even more concentration. One section, featuring a kind of duet between choreographer Jonah Bokaer and Illenk Gentille (in real life also an Indonesian prince), was especially dazzling, even hypnotic.
Still entranced, I drifted upstairs to a small reception that Gentille nearly missed, it took him so long to remove the mask of his whiteface makeup. There’s the difference between men and women. When Steir arrived at the Drawing Center dinner wearing sizable, Vermeer-style pearl earrings, which she claimed never to take off, even to sleep, Waldman understood. “That's right,” she replied, admitting to reapplying mascara before bed. “You never know who you will meet in your dreams.”
RARELY ARE CULTURAL EVENTS so fortuitously mirrored by their venues as Monday’s group reading in honor of Library of Dust, David Maisel’s recent book of photographs of psychedelically corroded copper canisters encasing the ashes of unclaimed Oregon lunatics. Inside the Angel Orensanz Foundation for the Arts on Norfolk Street, formerly one of the oldest synagogues in New York, the images—hung on the cobalt-blue peeled-paint walls and projected on-screen behind the altarlike stage—seemed to have always been there, matching their surroundings in hue and vibe, twin testaments to the stubborn efflorescence of decay. Sponsored by the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU, the long, contemplative event applied layers of interpretation to the work as varied, inconsistent, and occasionally brilliant as the corrosion adorning the canisters. In tribute to the mental hospital’s nameless dead—whose identifying labels have been obscured by time—I will efface some of the thirteen participants.
NYIH director Lawrence Weschler took the podium and gave a pocket history of the building—built by immigrants in 1885 who, “being good German Jews, based it on the Cologne Cathedral”—and then introduced Maisel, a compact, balding man of muted sprightliness. After reading a quote from W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Maisel said the Library of Dust project was “about loss of memory—and its recovery.” He rushed to document the cache of canisters after hearing of it in 2005, as the Oregon State Hospital (formerly known as the Oregon State Insane Asylum, also the place where Milos Forman shot One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) was shutting down and clearing its archives. The vibrantly colored corrosion was, he said, the result of trace minerals from the cremains that had seeped through the lead seams of the copper canisters after years of water damage. He called the radical transmutation an “alchemical equation,” the canisters “clocks, asserting the possibility of the soul’s existence.” Eerily, a faint computerized female voice (probably from the lectern laptop) could be heard intoning “Good evening, and welcome to . . . ” several times as Maisel spoke. He appropriated the name of the project, he said, from a prisoner whose work crew was helping close down the hospital, who saw the bland, officelike room housing the canisters as “a library of dust.”
Geoff Manaugh, who runs Bldgblog and contributed an essay to Maisel’s book, followed, comparing the project to William Blake’s mystical cosmology, which was partially inspired by chemicals and elements the poet used to fashion copper printing plates. Next was novelist Jonathan Lethem, who read a short, fanciful piece called “The Ballad of Henry Anonymous, Actually an Octopus,” that turned out to be stitched together from sentences by Emerson, child psychotherapist Adam Phillips, and several scientists.
Left: Writer Jonathan Lethem. Right: Lawrence Weschler, director of the New York Institute of the Humanities. (Photos: Nick Hunt/Patrick McMullan)
Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan, said he had known Maisel since he was a student, and recalled that the last institute event he’d attended was a 1980 Foucault seminar on the history of sexuality. Citing the philosopher’s Madness and Civilization, Roth asked, “How do we pay attention to crazy people?” and read a fragment of an 1886 Oregon newspaper article about children decorating the graves of the insane dead. Decasia auteur Bill Morrison then showed The Film of Her, a collage film culled from photographed celluloid reels from 1894 to 1912, an era when movies weren’t protected by copyright law but photos were, so film reels were photographed and printed on paper to secure authorial rights. Manic, grainy images of machines, factories, mills, nature, and a nude woman (the titular her) were underscored by Bill Frisell’s music and a voice-over narration by an old black man, telling how he saved the Library of Congress’s archive of photographed movies from this period from destruction. In theme and tone, a perfect complement to Maisel’s work and the highlight of the evening.
Doubt: A History author Jennifer Michael Hecht followed with a lively ramble comparing the colors and forms of Maisel’s aerial photos of mined and polluted landscapes to the corrosion on the “cans of crazy.” “When the mad hallucinate after death,” she said, “they produce maps—lands and seas.” Photojournalist Gilles Peress couldn’t attend due to a back injury, so his female partner lip-synced to a filmed close-up of a woman’s mouth reading his critique. Noting that the canister images were enlarged by Maisel, Peress condemned the “intrusion of design on meaning.” “We are here witness to death by design,” the disembodied photog said by proxy. Harsh. Very French. Also reminiscent of Dr. Brian O’Blivion in Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Luc Sante came next with a brief, piquant essay about the project, recalling how he first saw the images in a New York Times article and thought they resembled cans of mystery food in ghetto bodegas. Then they reminded him of bullets; then artists (Klimt, Kandinsky, Warhol’s soup cans “transformed into suppurating flesh”); then NASA photos of Earth from space. “Cosmic metaphors always become hollow,” he said, “but not in this case.”
Maisel returned to the stage and read an e-mail to him from a woman whose family had, on learning of the canister archive through Library of Dust, located their long-lost dead relative Ada, who had been abandoned to the hospital not for insanity but because she was an “inconvenience” to her parents. In forty years of residency at the Oregon State Hospital, she received no psychiatric treatment. The e-mail concluded by noting that when the family arrived at the hospital to collect Ada’s ashes, they saw that her canister had, in a final effacement, been buffed and polished, removing the colorful corrosion that expressed her identity. With that, an old man to my right fell off his chair, and this elegiac marathon came to an end.
Left: Artists Ryan Trecartin and Liz Rywelski. Right: Whitney Biennial curator Francesco Bonami with “Generational” cocurator Massimiliano Gioni. (All photos: Ryan McNamara)
I ARRIVED TUESDAY EVENING at the New Museum’s inaugural triennial, “The Generational: Younger than Jesus,” an appropriately Eastertide roundup of fifty vernal artists, to the sounds of stomping feet, shattering glass, and the twangs of Shahzad Ismaily’s noise performance—all part of artist Liz Glynn’s 24 Hour Roman Reconstruction Project. The hullabaloo marked the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths, which, according to Glynn’s accelerated history—her cardboard and hot-glued Eternal City had been “founded” the previous evening—was timed to occur precisely as the “Generational” opened its doors for the invite-only vernissage at 6:30 PM. I walked in just in time to see the fiberboard model of the first-century BC “Castra Praetoria” that I’d assembled earlier in the day, as a member of Glynn’s volunteer construction crew, battered to pieces by a couple of overeager adolescents.
While the exhibition’s premise provocatively assured no artists over thirty-three (Christ’s age on the Cross), the teenagers trashing Glynn’s miniature city installed in the ground-floor Joan and Charles Lazarus Gallery looked to have been half that age and were safely led out of the museum before the festivities really kicked off. They took their hormone-fueled angst with them. While in the past few years, the youth-infatuated art world has thrilled to a certain brand of marketable hooliganism, this exhibition’s young artists did their best to look grown up (with the prominent exceptions of Ryan Trecartin and AIDS 3-D’s Internet-inspired infantilism: the former represented by his gigglingly virtuosic DIY costume extravaganzas and the latter by a monolith in which had been inscribed the neon letters OMG). The most auspicious model is the appearance of the global flaneur—more researcher than rebel—promised in Cyprien Gaillard’s video of European housing projects and Liu Chuang’s catalogue of items bought off anonymous subjects encountered in the streets of Beijing.
Bars set up on the first and seventh floors sandwiched the exhibition spaces and forced a steady stream of short-of-breath opening-goers to discard their Campari cocktails and climb the museum’s narrow staircase or huddle into the two elevators. I worked my way through the galleries from the bottom up, past Brendan Fowler stationed in front of his prints and posters at the entrance to the second floor (explaining the “voodoo stress” embedded in the work), by the bare limbs and shock of red hair of Chu Yun’s drugged model tucked under a white duvet, and up to the third floor, where the nu-rave crew clamped on headphones to watch their own performances in Trecartin’s sprawling video installation sans the distractions of opening-night chatter and oblivious to the sleeping middle-aged visitor in a pink chaise longue—whom many, peering closely, mistook for an element of Trecartin’s suburban-inspired set. I finally made it to the Sky Room, where the post-thirty-three crowd had assembled (Jeffrey Deitch, Clarissa Dalrymple, and David Salle had all dropped by to scope out the show), as well as the “new” old guard—with “Generational” artists Cory Arcangel and Josh Smith assuming the role of elder statesmen among the recent art school grads. The lineup included new arrivals like twenty-two-year-old Mark Essen, who just finished his undergrad at Bard last year. He designs video games, an artistic genre—post-Arcangel—now in its second generation. I futilely tried my hand at Flywrench, Essen’s lo-fi outer-space game navigated by an old Nintendo controller. Essen, of a generation reared on PlayStations and GameCubes, assured me that the game’s simple, geometric graphics belie its difficulty.
Exhibition cocurator Lauren Cornell directed me to the basement as the musician Koudlam took up a microphone as part of a collaborative performance with Gaillard. The artist screened found footage of the construction of the Crazy Horse Memorial while Koudlam played with his Ray-Bans, fiddled with a laptop, sipped white wine, and, occasionally, sang. With TNT blowing up the Black Hills behind him, he reached for a bottle of spring water at the lectern and, garnering only scattered audience cheers, poured the contents over his head in a final flourish. This wasn’t a rock-show crowd, though. Only half-joking, Foxy Production’s John Thomson observed, “The artists’ parents are all here.”
Left: Artist LaToya Ruby Frazier with “Generational” cocurator Laura Hoptman. Right: New Museum director Lisa Phillips.
ERASED JAMES FRANCO, a sixty-three-minute film by the New York–based artist Carter, borrows its title from Robert Rauschenberg’s infamous Erased de Kooning, 1953, a Willem de Kooning drawing that the younger artist painstakingly erased, leaving a ghostly trace of the original, and claimed as his own. The Rauschenberg work was a pointed and poetic act of negation, a Dadaist stunt with an Oedipal edge. Carter’s film, in which the actor James Franco, confined to a minimal set, alternates between channeling a pair of iconic Rock Hudson and Julianne Moore performances and reenacting scenes from his own less than iconic movies, is altogether murkier and more mysterious in its effects and intentions. “I don’t quite know if it’s erasing or it’s building up,” Carter himself acknowledged in an onstage conversation at the Museum of Modern Art on Monday night, after the film’s North American premiere.
Franco, who also appeared at the event, was swarmed by teenagers on his way out. (The capacity crowd skewed younger than the average MoMA film audience.) And whether or not the gathered Franco-philes appreciated the willful, repetitive tedium of a conceptual exercise that brought to mind Warhol and Beckett, they were surely grateful that its star appears in every scene.
Erased James Franco’s central theme of identity—or more to the point, identity breakdown—comes across most palpably in the two films it quotes. Both are existential horror movies: John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966), in which an aging bank manager (John Randolph) is transformed into a bohemian painter (Hudson) by way of a Faustian arrangement and advanced plastic surgery, and Todd Haynes’s Safe (1995), with Moore as a blank-slate Southern California housewife suffering from environmental illness and a disintegrating sense of self.
Carter, Erased James Franco, 2008. (Three-minute excerpt.)
Franco pitches these re-creations in a specific register—paranoid disorientation for Hudson, numb fragility for Moore—but the scenes of Franco doing Franco are, perhaps by design, a bit of a blur. It’s not just that it’s hard to pick out or recall quotes from the likes of James Dean (2001), City by the Sea (2002), and Spider-Man (2002). (Carter’s film was shot in a single day last summer and stops short of Franco’s two 2008 hits, Pineapple Express and Milk.) Carter has also gravitated to what he calls the “in-between moments” in Franco’s filmography. And so we get plenty of shots of the actor eating, drinking, pushing a chair around, scribbling in a notepad, walking through doorways, answering the phone. (He has some cleverly spliced-together “conversations” with the Hudson and Moore characters.)
At MoMA on Monday, Carter and Franco suggested that the idea was to give both a metaperformance (a performance that refers exclusively to other performances) and a nonperformance. (Carter, who has experimented with self-portraiture in his sculptures and paintings, told Franco to hold back, and the actor estimates he was operating at half speed: “I wish I could act at 50 percent in all my movies.”) All of which seems like a pretty labored way to arrive at a truism about the artifice of acting. Erased James Franco has less to say about identity and performance than the great dramas on the subject (John Cassavetes’s Opening Night , Arnaud Desplechin’s Esther Kahn , any number of Jacques Rivette movies). But not unlike Warhol’s Screen Tests, it becomes a de facto study of screen magnetism. Franco, even in this oddly muffled mode, retains his drowsy, goofy charm; far from a tabula rasa, he’s not erased so much as distilled.
One surprising corollary for Erased James Franco can be found in the “Acting With James Franco” series, created for Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s Funny or Die website, in which Franco and his younger brother Dave explore the mysteries of his method, even reenacting a scene from Rebel Without a Cause. (“Actors sniff jackets if they need to sniff jackets,” James tells a reluctant Dave.) The artiest member of the Judd Apatow frat pack, the thirty-year-old Franco is turning out to be one of the more intriguing Hollywood stars of his generation, certainly the one most willing to lend his bankable, Gucci-endorsing face to an experimental art project. (See the current edition of Wholphin for a Dave Eggers collaboration that consists entirely of Franco trashing a room.) He’s a filmmaker, an MFA candidate, and soon to be a published author (his short-story collection is due out from Scribner next year).
Erased James Franco never quite settles on what it means to erase a performance or a persona (as opposed to a drawing). But for its star, at least, the film constitutes a meaningful act of negation, a kind of personal exorcism. As he put it, it was a way to “live through these bad movies I did, act them badly, and put them behind me.”
“AT HOME HE’S A TOURIST / He fills his head with culture / He gives himself an ulcer.” The words from the Gang of Four song kept rattling around my head as I made my way through last week’s rambling Los Angeles Art Weekend. The event, ostensibly an open house for LA culture but originally conceived by New Yorkers, was quickly latched on to by Angelenos for its salubrious marketing opportunities. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the framing makes me feel a like a tourist in my hometown; there might be such a thing as too much culture.
The “weekend” stretched somewhat amorphously over four days with numerous parties, artist talks, and sundry other events. That first night, it was either a walk-through with artist Elliott Hundley for his most recent show at Regen Projects or a book launch for the carrot-colored designer Valentino. I was more than glad to kick of with Hundley. Discussing his collage and sculptures’ connection to Anne Carson’s translation of Euripides’s Hekabe, the boyish artist took on a clipped pace, and the walk-through was over before you could say “Agamemnon.”
After a quick dinner, I set off for the LA Art Weekend launch party at the Standard’s Purple Lounge, a swanky bar populated with almost as many photographers as guests. The venue is as intimate as a hotel lounge gets, but I only ever seem to go there when someone’s promoting something. Michael Stock from Part-Time Punks put on the haunting Gang of Four song and seemed to rile a few dancers with a sign he hung outside the DJ booth reading, WARNING: TONIGHT NO HIP-HOP / JACKSONS / MADONNA / PRINCE. Miranda July (who Venice Biennale curator Daniel Birnbaum apparently claims is “big in Germany”) and Mike Mills didn’t seem to mind as they toasted the launch of Mills’s newest book, Mike Mills: Graphics Films. “I like that they put my books between the bottles,” said Mills. “It’s a place I feel very comfortable.”
The following day, I battled ubiquitous LA traffic to arrive just in time for Dave Muller’s artist talk at Blum & Poe. As he went through a gallery filled with ten-foot-tall diptychs arranged like dominoes, he riffed on the works’ multitudinous threads: A pile of stones connect to Terry Riley–inspired squiggles connect to cows connect to a loose array of records connect to a Pollocklike splatter; about the last example, Muller said he felt it was finished when it looked “Jackson Pollock-y enough.”
No one I asked was heading to the afterparty, never a good sign. Nonetheless, I made my way to Royal/T, a J-pop café housing an art collection hung behind ghetto-thick Plexiglas. Mungo Thomson and Kerry Tribe were in the back drinking Japanese beers, taking a night off from their baby and work. The artists had recently toiled for exhibitions on different coasts that either just opened (Tribel’s at 1301PE) or were about to close (Thomsonl’s at John Connelly Presents). “When we were students, there was nothing here—no galleries, no decent restaurants,” Tribe noted. “And now there are waitresses in maid outfits.”
I kicked off Saturday night yet again in Culver City, this time at Timothy Hull’s opening at Taylor de Cordoba, then skipped around the corner to Kehinde Wiley’s Culver City debut at Roberts & Tilton’s newish digs. Wiley’s latest stop in his “World Stage” series takes his franchise to Brazil, limning the natives in statuesque poses atop wallpaper of pretty designs and flowers. To quote Martha Schwendener in a recent review: “I wish I liked Kehinde Wiley's paintings more than I do.” As I headed out, I saw publisher Benedikt Taschen heading in. Between us, he’s the better chance at a sale.
Most of the Chinatown openings were off the official LA Art Weekend schedule, and I’m not sure whether it was because of or despite this that it was the most fun I had all weekend. At Henry Taylor’s opening at Mesler&Hug, I cut through the exhibition—which is set up like a living room with some paintings casually worked into the pad—and made my way onto the crowded back patio, where LA MoCA curator Bennett Simpson and artists Eric Wesley, Ry Rocklen, and Erika Vogt made lively banter. The sounds of the jamming blues band followed me (along with the aromas of barbecue and pot smoke) as I headed around the corner to Chung King Road. I stopped in at The Box to catch one of Stan VanDerBeek’s ’70s films playing in a one-night event in conjunction with the late artist’s exhibition. In between films, I sneaked to the back; scanning the crowd, I saw people I’d been looking for all weekend: MoCA curator Ann Goldstein, artist Paul McCarthy, dancer Simone Forti, and writer Benjamin Weissman, to name a few. Here was the intellectual ballast to the pomp and circumstance on the other side of town.
I popped into Erik Frydenborg’s exhibition at Bonelli Contemporary before heading over to Candice Lin’s solo debut at Chung King Project. The streets were packed with revelers, a ton of them artists, like Nathan Hylden, Carter Mull, and Amanda Ross-Ho. Looking around the swaying red lanterns, I felt for the first time in three days like I was at home in Los Angeles. With a few closures and moves in the past six months, there have been rumors circulating that Chinatown is dead. I asked Chung King Project owner Francois Ghebaly what he felt about the impending “demise.” “Chinatown’s like a cockroach,” he told me. “You can try to stomp us out, but we always come back.”
Left: Oulipian Anne F. Garréta. Right: The panel of Oulipians. (All photos: Dawn Chan)
IF THIS WERE A TEXT generated by the OuLiPo, or Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature), which, founded in France in 1960 by novelist-poet Raymond Queneau and engineer-mathematician François Le Lionnais, dedicated itself to the playful pursuit of constrained writing (e.g., a novel that eschews the letter e or a palindromic poem), I might have bound myself to the rule that I name the participants of Wednesday’s group reading at the New School only once. This, it turns out, happens to be a not entirely arbitrary conceit, because while Yale associate French professor Jean-Jacques Poucel’s affectionate introduction was otherwise informative, it failed to clearly identify the six individuals seated, panel-style, onstage at Tishman Auditorium.
So, here they are, for the record (they will be assigned nicknames for the duration): Marcel Bénabou, Hervé Le Tellier, and Jacques Roubaud made up the Frenchmen, who, in not necessarily corresponding order, will be referred to as Frenchman A, B, and C. Then there was Ian Monk (the Brit); Daniel Levin Becker (the Boy Wonder); and Anne F. Garréta (Dr. Strangelove), whose uncanny resemblance to Peter Sellers’s Nazi rocket scientist in hairstyle, eyeglasses, and facial structure was mildly disturbing.
As noted by poet and memoirist Honor Moore (the Host), the six readers are Oulipians for eternity. One of the tenets of OuLiPo is that, once elected to the society, you remain a member in good standing even after death. You can only resign by committing suicide with the specific purpose of resigning from OuLiPo. Some of the more famous inert Oulipians include Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, and Marcel Duchamp. The most prominent living American member, novelist Harry Mathews, was on the bill but sadly absent.
As I entered the hall, the crowd was getting seated to the strains of the appropriately perverse Serge Gainsbourg. The Host soon ascended the stage and called the reading the start of a “once-in-a-lifetime week” (further OuLiPo events were scheduled around New York in the days to come) and read fulsome endorsement of the society by John Ashbery. She recounted a multiyear e-mail correspondence she’d had with the prominent American Oulipian, the constraint being that they had to address each other with names beginning with the letters H and M (which, of course, were already the initials of their real names). As they passed missives starting “Hunka Munka,” “Her Majesty,” “Henry Mancini,” etc., the Host was indoctrinated into the ways of OuLiPo, which the novelist called “a sect.”
She then introduced the associate French professor, who explained that the OuLiPo’s “arbitrarily conceived constraints” must be “verifiable,” or perceptible, and that oral readings of the work made this more difficult. “The nature of tonight’s reading is to be tricked,” he said, and this seemed in line with OuLiPo’s general air of literary pranksterism. With that, the Brit, who functioned as a sort of moderator throughout, announced that the group would begin with a “collective reading” of an iconic text by the prominent American Oulipian: a series of cheeky variations on “To be, or not to be” (e.g., “Antonymy—Nothing and something: this was an answer”), of which my favorite has always been, “Another point of view—Hamlet, quit stalling!”
The Boy Wonder, a recent Yale graduate and the youngest member of OuLiPo by far, read a 160-word story that he “wrote for a 160-word story contest.” It was clever and brief. The Brit followed with “Iris,” a bawdy tale of a bar hookup and sloppy copulation that had an i in every word. During the remarkably detailed (considering the constraint) sex scene, the oldest Frenchman held his head in his hands in apparent embarrassment. Frenchman C then read a story that had been translated into English by the Brit in which every sentence began, “I was thinking . . . ” Another Frenchman (A or B; I’m not sure) read from the well-known Oulipian text Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, in French. A number of audience members chuckled knowingly after the first few lines. Sophisticates. The Brit then read the same story in English, which begins with a Borges epigraph about how tiresome it is to write long books when ideas can be orally expressed in a fraction of the time. The piece, unsurprisingly, is something of a manifesto for literary minimalism.
One of the Frenchman (not C), read an amusing, hyperliteral deconstruction of the standard epistolary opener “I received your last letter.” The Boy Wonder, uniting OuLiPo’s twin passions for literature and math, followed with a series of microstories whose subjects were determined by the prime factors of their word counts. This was one of the less “verifiable” offerings, but impressive nonetheless. Frenchman C read fragments of a novel about various couples and their couplings, each scene capped by the Brit, who read the last few lines of every segment. C’s thick accent caused him to mispronounce vowels—clitoris had a long i; penis a short e—but his story did contain the priceless lines “He muttered a Georges Bataille quote into her ear” and “She noticed that the Chlamydiae he had given her were not decorative plants.”
Dr. Strangelove, saying, “Let’s be serious for a bit,” read a long, memoiristic fragment about how books proliferate, colonize, and overwhelm her life, which ended with a series of Oulipian constraints intended to limit the amount of books in the world and, hence, in her apartment. The Brit concluded with a “serious limerick sequence,” which “chopped and butchered” the rhythm and rhyme scheme of the form into a flowing series about a romance gone bad. Then, unceremoniously, it was over. The audience was invited to the stage to have their books signed by the authors. For a group as gnomic and experimental as the OuLiPo, some Q&A elaboration would have been welcome, but perhaps this lack was the event’s overarching constraint.
AS HISTORY HAS IT, cosplay, or costume play, was invented by American Trekkies and refined by Harajuku girls. The trend was a liberating one for subcultures across the board as nerds realized that they, too, could be dandies. While it’s not unusual, so to speak, to encounter middle-aged Klingons, the Japanese-accented strand of cosplay is dominated by teenagers who for one reason or another are drawn to fantasy worlds where the heroes’ costumes are as tight as in American comics but the boundaries of gender are looser.
Last Saturday, the Japan Society opened its doors to cosplayers in conjunction with “Krazy!,” an exhibition about comics that originated at the Vancouver Art Gallery and arrived in New York in a truncated, Japan-centric form. The kids bounded around the society’s elegant lobby, loudly rehashing the gossip of previous cosplay conventions and exchanging compliments on accessories like red contact lenses. (“My uncle is an optometrist!”) Pretending to be someone else brings its own brand of adrenaline, here amplified by the free-flowing Coke offered to wash down the complimentary Cheetos and Doritos. Gallery director Joe Earle seemed flustered by the underage chaos, though he had gamely dressed up as a half-boy, half-puppet villain from the action saga Naruto. I chatted with Renee, who sported the shiny turquoise jumpsuit of Giorno Giovanna, a Japanese man with an Italian woman’s name who jumps erratically between historical periods and countries in the series JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. At twenty-three, Renee said she felt like an old-timer and was beginning to tire of cosplay gatherings because of the “obese thirteen-year-old girls who dress like boys and make out with each other.”
Shortly thereafter, I learned that Renee was a member of Team USA at last August’s World Cosplay Summit in Japan, and as such had been tapped to judge the costume contest here, along with the two delegates who will represent America at this summer’s meeting. (“All girls,” complained a samurai behind me, as they took their seats onstage.) Contestants and spectators assembled in the auditorium, and Reni, a singer in a baby-blue French-maid dress and bunny ears, warmed them up. Her Japanese songs were peppered with simple English sentences. (“My favorite thing to eat is strawberry shortcake.”) Then the “cosplay parade” began. Contestants walked across the stage and posed in the middle. Many would crook their elbows and flash a sideways peace sign. The seventy-some contenders were primarily action figures with cardboard swords (Cloud Strife, a warrior from the Final Fantasy gaming franchise, was a popular guise for cosplayers of both sexes) and shy girls in racy getups—most frequently Misa, a character from a supernatural noir series called Death Note, who favors short hemlines and lacy stockings. My favorite was the girl who came as Kirby, the cute-but-lethal pink bubble from the eponymous Nintendo game. She made a spherical tunic, and when she crouched, her slight body vanished into it, leaving nothing but bubble. The crowd went wild. The judges, however, privileged a more refined aesthetic. First prize went to a high school senior headed to the Fashion Institute of Technology (the alma mater, incidentally, of two of the three judges). She sewed her pink hoop dress in homage to Black Butler’s Ciel Phantomhive, a twelve-year-old nobleman in Victorian London who attends courtly functions in drag.
Afterward, in the lobby, the judges posed for photos with fans and signed autographs. As I approached them, I heard cries of “Yaoi, yaoi,” the word for PG-13 homoerotica. A sturdy girl in a tie, sports jacket, and pageboy wig lunged at a similarly attired boy. Just before they locked lips, I turned to Renee, whose jaw tightened into a grimace. “I’m so, so sorry,” she said.