Chit Chaat

New Delhi
08.27.09

Left: Lisson Gallery director Michelle D'Souza. Right: Art India editor Abhay Sardesai with artist Subodh Gupta. (All photos: Aqdas Tatli)


AS I SPED into the dusty Delhi precincts of the Pragati Maidan for last Wednesday’s VIP preview of the India Art Summit, I realized that the four-day event was going to be, quite literally, a big deal. The Sculpture Park surrounding the spacious building in which “India’s only art fair” was gleefully kicking off was littered with massive installations. A giant metal Dalmatian puppy (courtesy of sculptor Ved Gupta) stood beaming at the gate, while one of Ravinder Reddy’s ubiquitous gilded Heads—this time his black-haired damsel had ruddy cheeks instead of a gold face—welcomed us at the front door.

Now in its second year, the annual Art Summit was certainly bigger and—I’d have to admit—better than the 2008 edition. To eradicate past impressions, the organizers of the fair, members of the PR company Hanmer MS&L, pulled out all the stops. Stepping into the foyer, I encountered the good and the great of the Indian art world: The well-known artist Bharti Kher, her even more well-known husband, Subodh Gupta (whose swanky new studio everyone is angling for an invite to), and the Bombay-based artist couple Jitish and Reena Kallat mingled delightedly with the hordes of well-heeled collectors and admirers. Meanwhile, Nataraj Sharma and Mithu Sen (sporting a hibiscus in her hair) were busily examining their respective artworks: a vast steel cage, in which were trapped metal mini-airplanes, and two large pink thrones smothered in a pink, gummy substance encrusted with yellow fiberglass teeth and flowers. Both installations were part of the Summit’s “curated” section, titled “The Purple Wall Project,” put together by Delhi-based critic Gayatri Sinha. Also on display were a sprinkling of European curators and critics: “Altermodern” proponent Nicolas Bourriaud, theorist Thierry de Duve, and (surprise!) Hans Ulrich Obrist had all made the trek. (They had been invited to participate in the daily seminars on aesthetics, Asian art, and the art market.) Conspicuously absent, however, were works by India’s most (in)famous painter, M. F. Husain, which had been banned due to the risk of attacks from religious extremists.

Left: Artist Nataraj Sharma. Right: Artists Jitish and Reena Kallat.


The excitement was palpable—and you could tell it was more than the sum of all the free-flowing alcohol. Last year, Mumbai’s big-wig dealers largely boycotted the fair, opting instead to “wait and watch,” but this round they turned up en masse, putting their best (if more casually shod) feet forward. Sakshi Gallery showed off a glittering El Anatsui installation featuring bottle-caps woven to resemble silk. Sharmistha Ray of Bodhi Art sat determinedly next to Hujoom, Gargi Raina’s wooden sculpture of a decapitated horse, and staved off rumors of closure. International galleries making forays into the Indian art market were out in full force, too. London’s Lisson Gallery arrived with two metal discs by Anish Kapoor: One ice blue, the other fire-engine red, they resembled giant sequins.

Not everyone was bubbling with good humor (or sparkling wine). “It’s a bad year,” grumbled one disgruntled dealer. “People are just putting a good face on things.” Others were disappointed with Sinha’s section, which they argued, privileged trendiness over artistic merit. Subodh Gupta’s comment on war, Gandhi’s Three Monkeys made up of three massive heads—one of a soldier, another of a burka-draped person, and the third of a man in a gas mask—built from the artist’s signature pots and pans, was probably not selected for its subtlety. And Sinha’s much-anticipated video lounge consisted mostly of shorts by artists better known (quite justifiably, it turned out) for their work in other media.

Bangalore’s GallerySke took an aggressive approach with sales: For the duration of the fair it turned itself into a variety shop. Store Ske was a roaring success. Wares (priced between one hundred and fifteen thousand rupees) consisted of, among other knickknacks, a pair of spectacles by Sudarshan Shetty, rimmed with a gooey tearlike substance, and black T-shirts by graphic designer–turned-artist Abhishek Hazra. Was Store Ske a tongue-in-cheek comment on the insipid commercialism of art fairs or an unabashed targeting of “new collectors”? Probably both.

Left: Dealer Peter Nagy of Nature Morte with the artist-designer duo Sumir Tagra and Jiten Thukral. Right: Bodhi Art director Sharmistha Ray.


Critiques of conspicuous consumption flew swiftly from my mind on Thursday evening, when collector Anupam Poddar warmly welcomed guests to his Devi Art Foundation. Bourriaud, the ubiquitous artist-curator (and soon-to-be dealer) Bose Krishnamachari, and Chanel Mobile Art curator Fabrice Bousteau were all gathering attention on the dance floor. As Poddar encouraged us to “see the shows,” attendees were duly equipped with glasses of wine and maps of the cavernous building. The most affecting exhibition was a suite of paintings and eldritch installations on the first floor by Bangladeshi artist Mahbubur Rahman. One part was dedicated to a seated audience of “women,” shrouded in black head scarves, watching a film of a cow getting its throat slit. In the gloom, the fiberglass figures were eerily lifelike, and guests could be forgiven for preferring the less macabre seductions of the cocktails and chaat proffered on the lawn. A bevy of satellite shows opening the next night provided more aesthetically satisfying (if marginally less hospitable) experiences: Water-obsessed Atul Bhalla’s photographs and sculptures at Anant Art Centre in Noida considered the Yamuna River and its importance to “old Delhi,” while A. Balasubramaniam’s white-on-white sculptures at Talwar Gallery offered serene inducements for meditating on existence.

For many, the final day was passed in hazy euphoria. Notwithstanding mutterings of “Let’s see whether our new collectors pay up,” the fair was largely deemed a success. By the end, Sunil Gautam of Hanmer MS&L guessed that nearly forty thousand people had walked through. Were they buying? At the very least, we know the two Kapoors were snapped up. “Expectations were surpassed,” reiterated Mortimer Chatterjee, co-owner of Chatterjee & Lal. Most of the fifty-four galleries jubilantly professed to having largely sold out their booths. Gautam himself could be spotted ecstatically shaking hands and promising an “even better” fair next year. The Summit might have been cautious in its scaling of artistic heights, but it provided a much-needed boost to the Indian art scene in recessionary times. “The tide is turning,” yelled New York dealer Thomas Erben as he whizzed off to a celebratory dinner.

Zehra Jumabhoy

Left: Sakshi Gallery director Geetha Mehra. Right: Dealer Thomas Erben.


Blood Bathos

Los Angeles
08.22.09

Left: The line outside Vampire-Con. Right: MCs Count Smokula and Scarlett Rose.


THE LINE OUTSIDE Hollywood’s Music Box theater last Sunday morning for the first ever Vampire-Con contained a smattering of the freaky, goth-nerd miscreants that one expects to see at a Bauhaus reunion tour or in a Tim Burton daydream. Perhaps the only difference was that these folks were less festive and inappropriately tanned by the California surfer sun.

There is something wonderfully Los Angeles about swarthy “vampires” congregating across the street from a sold-out performance of Legally Blonde: The Musical. A few teenage girls did their best to satisfy the fishnet-stocking and black-patent-leather quotient. One guy sported a leather trench coat and carried a horned staff. But in general, hard-core devotees were conspicuously absent, presumably hiding in some lair or looking through dusty scrolls for a spell that would summon something almost never seen at such a gathering: dignity.

Inside the convention, we made the rounds of the desultory vendor booths that lined the lobby and main room’s perimeter, some selling black lace corsets, others Vampirella paraphernalia, gothy purses, and vamp DVDs. A blood drive and free HIV testing were conducted in the adjacent parking lot. (For the health-conscious undead.) When the two costumed and cloyingly cheeky MCs—Count Smokula and Scarlett Rose—took the stage before a sparse and unresponsive crowd to tell vampire-themed knock-knock jokes, Scarlett let slip a foreboding moment of sarcasm-cum-truth: “This is going to be a lo-o-o-ng day.” Scarlett’s unenviable task of drawing chuckles from the mirthless proved to be one of the day’s most captivating dramas. It was like watching Sisyphus push his boulder up a mountain, in heels.

Left: Vampirella Nella Swan. Right: The merchandise.


The convention sputtered to life (or whatever) around noon with the first of three panel discussions, titled “Why We Love Vampires: A Brief History of the Undead.” Unfortunately, the panel, made up of the field’s fringe authors and scholars (no Laurence Rickels here), was more interested in discussing Twilight and kissing Bram Stoker’s ass (his grandson/half nephew/second cousin or other was on the panel) than in debating the myths and folklore that gave the genre its original contours. A second panel, devoted to “Vampires and Sexuality,” sounded juicy but was about as bland and lustless as the tepid gray Vampire Coffee that one vendor was giving away gratis.

Vampires and sex: Surely the panel would be packed with heavy hitters from the comic, television, and film worlds. But no. Apparently, organizers felt the “sexuality” element was best served by the unfocused ramblings of no fewer than four cast members from Here! TV’s gay-vampire show, The Lair. We know—we hadn’t heard of it, either. We suspect that no one in the audience, and probably only some of the actors, had seen the show. (Though at least it offered evidence—as if we needed any—of the field’s general homophilia.) Aside from some mentions of Stoker’s Dracula, there was virtually no substantive engagement with the genre’s history. Even the vampire aficionados that side with Joss Whedon or Anne Rice seemed to surrender to the current wave of pasty youth that sees Twilight as the gospel, and Buffy, Lestat, and Nosferatu as mere footnotes.

Left: A Vampire-Con staffer. Right: Line for the Vampirella Ball.


One would like to say that it was the daylight that scared the vampires away, but it’s more likely that the convention’s general lack of star power and failure to highlight the genre’s more important pop-culture creations were to blame. Taking place in the heart of Hollywood and ostensibly modeling itself on Comic-Con (and sister undead gatherings like Zombie-Con), Vampire-Con blew a great opportunity to bring together directors, screenwriters, and casts from any number of vampire-related juggernauts of years past. The giants of the field were either uninvited or uninterested in attending. Panels on Buffy/Angel, True Blood, Anne Rice, Let the Right One In, Lost Boys, The Hunger, Dark Shadows, etc. would have infused the convention with much-needed blood. Instead, the real vampires went hungry. Only the newly crowned (and nearly naked) Vampirella managed to quicken the pulse. Later that night at Vampirella’s Ball, weak attendance again stymied what should have been a theater of eye candy.

As we left the theater and walked to the car, a billboard overhead advertised The Vampire Diaries, yet another new network show cashing in on the trend—or sucking it dry. Wait a minute, did we just pass James Franco and Kathryn Bigelow heading for the ball? Nope. Just two brooding schlubs with lip piercings and purposefully mismatched socks. Better luck next year.

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer and Jeff Hassay

High Society

Aspen, Colorado
08.17.09

Left: Artist Fred Tomaselli with Aspen Art Museum director and chief curator Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson. Right: Kyle MacLachlan with artist Jason Middlebrook. (Except where noted, all photos: Clint Spaulding/Patrick McMullan)


THERE ARE FEW THINGS more scenic than cruising at twenty-five thousand feet over the green and white Rocky Mountains of Colorado’s high country; but as my Bombardier Turboprop approached Aspen’s tiny airstrip last Wednesday, it was the views of the private ranches, man-made lakes, and sprawling vacation homes that caught my eye. Though the picturesque (and hard-to-reach) community is famous for its exclusivity, it has garnered a new reputation as a fund-raising powerhouse, and the three days of events benefiting its own Aspen Art Museum were proof positive. I arrived in town with just enough time to find my way to the modernist mountain home of collectors John and Amy Phelan, who were hosting a benefit wine tasting and four-course meal as a kickoff to the fifth annual “ArtCRUSH” events.

Guests included Creative Time’s Anne Pasternak and artist Mike Starn; dealers Jim and Jane Cohan, Marianne Boesky, and Perry Rubenstein, who remarked at the lack of phallic symbols among the many objects and paintings in the Phelan’s decidedly sexy collection; and Sotheby’s Lisa Dennison and Anthony Grant, who hosted a barbecue with bluegrass quartet on Thursday night. There were also Aspen locals and collectors, namely Paul and June Schorr; Nancy and Bob Magoon, who generously opened their own home the following day for an intimate collection tour; and Debra and Dennis Scholl, whose Betts & Scholl wine was a highlight of the tasting. By the time the third course (elk) and the ninth wine (bordeaux) were served, I realized the high altitude (and likely the ninth wine) was taking its toll, and I began to weigh the possible repercussions for next morning’s exhibition walk-through with Fred Tomaselli, who, in addition to being awarded for his achievements, is having a midcareer retrospective at the museum.

Left: Anna Hansen and Lance Armstrong. Right: Collector Mera Rubell with dealer Perry Rubenstein.


Around 9 AM, Tomaselli and I, both a bit bleary-eyed, met at his impressive exhibition, which features around forty works produced since the early 1990s. (It will travel to the Tang Museum and the Brooklyn Museum in the coming year.) The show offers many of Tomaselli’s unreal landscapes made from layered and loaded materials like psychoactive plants, bugs, and pharmaceuticals. Between anecdotes of his work being seized by French customs and his punk days in ’80s LA, I asked Tomaselli about his first impression of Aspen. “I don’t know if I’m qualified to comment,” he replied, “but Aspen seems like a parallel universe. There is definitely a culture around pleasure and pleasure seeking here.” The night prior, a handful of local collectors had also described Aspen as an “an adult Disneyland,” “an alpine amusement park,” and a “fantasy land”; I was beginning to wonder whether this culture of escapism had anything to do with the museum selling all of the twenty-five stout, psilocybin-like sculptures donated by artist Jason Middlebrook and dealer Sara Meltzer as part of the fund-raiser.

My suspicions were confirmed the following evening when I arrived at the psychedelically festooned tents (inspired by Tomaselli’s chemical sublime) that had sprouted across the museum lawn. At a tent holding yet another wine tasting and silent and live-auction artworks, I spotted Lance Armstrong, who was no doubt doing some post-Tour escaping of his own. But Armstrong vanished quickly as the well-heeled crowd of locals and émigrés began filing toward the tent that housed a Willy Wonka–esque bar decked with jars of candy and little plastic toys redolent of the kind you might have found at a mid-’90s rave. There was even a flavored-oxygen bar that I happily saddled up to (having found Aspen’s altitude more than just figuratively breathtaking).

Left: Collector Amy Phelan with MoMA trustee James Niven. Right: Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's head of contemporary art.


Narrowly locating my table before the start of the live auction, I took my seat next to Don Rubell, whose editorials throughout the bidding revealed both an incredible wealth of art knowledge and a good-natured sense of humor. The bidding wars were intense—a Tomaselli fetched $110,000, and works by Peter Coffin, Robert Mangold, Rineke Djikstra, and Raquib Shaw also fared well. An Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin–commissioned portrait prompted one onlooker to note that “vanity is a powerful force.” Director and chief curator Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson took the stage with trustee president Nancy Magoon to offer thanks for raising one million dollars over the week’s events. (Keeping in line with the week’s numerous drug references—this could have doubled as a sequel to the opening for LA MoCA’s 2005 show “Ecstasy”—the feisty Magoon offered that “the generation that took acid is now on antacid.”) As the revelers headed out for the afterparty (billing a Prince tribute act, Purple Reign), I took one final look at the full moon silhouetting the rocky peaks and decided that this indeed had been a very good trip.

Catherine Taft

Left: Aspen by Gondola. Right: Purple Reign. (Photos: Catherine Taft)


Rhys’s Pieces

New York
08.11.09

A view of Rhys Chatham's A Crimson Grail (Outdoor Version) on August 8, 2009, at Damrosch Park Bandshell, New York. (All photos: Stephanie Berger)


NEVER HAVE I RUN INTO as many friends and acquaintances at a New York event as I did last Saturday at the band shell abutting Lincoln Center, where Rhys Chatham’s orchestra of two hundred electric guitars, fifteen basses, and one hi-hat graced a perfect summer evening with oscillating ambient bliss. Maybe I knew so many people there because my friends are cheap and the concert was free, part of the institution’s long-running “Out of Doors” series. Perhaps it was because I know my share of rock critics, and many—including Michael Azerrad, Will Hermes, and former Blender editor Rob Tannenbaum—were surrounding me in the press section. Most likely it was due to the broad reach of Chatham’s work, which corrals indie rockers, avant-garde composers, rave kids, art trash, and aesthetically curious civilians into one big tent.

Chatham is a guitarist-composer with an impeccable pedigree: He studied with electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick and hipster minimalist La Monte Young, played in Tony Conrad’s Dream Syndicate (other notable alumnus: John Cale), founded the music program at the Kitchen, underwent a stylistic Damascus at an early Ramones show, and influenced Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, and hordes of younger experimental rockers. His 1977 composition Guitar Trio remains a landmark for minimalism, guitar music, and genre-bending alike.

A 1989 work for one hundred guitars, An Angel Moves Too Fast to See, eventually led to 2005’s four-hundred-guitar epic, A Crimson Grail, which premiered at the Basilique du Sacré Coeur in Paris. The latter was the work, revised and trimmed to a sensible two hundred guitars, that was to make its New York debut in August 2008 until a heavy rainstorm forced its last-minute cancellation. With long, shallow tents protecting the guitarists and their amps, Saturday’s performance was the rain check, so to speak, though the weather was remarkably beautiful.

Left: Rhys Chatham. Right: Musician Ryan Sawyer and Rhys Chatham.


After taking my seat and fending off nonpress punters from the empty chairs beside me, I was relieved when the Asphalt Orchestra—a marching band created by Bang on a Can—made its way from the back of the crowd to underneath the stage, where they played several commissioned pieces. Chatham was then introduced and emerged onstage, an avuncular middle-aged man with a full head of white hair, wearing a white shirt, black vest, and black pants. (The two hundred guitarists, arrayed in a squared-off U underneath the stage and to the left and right of the audience, also sported waiterlike white shirt/black pants ensembles.) Accompanied by a younger man with a very long beard (the hi-hat player), Chatham gave the crowd a Buddhist prayer bow and signaled his four “directors” (subconductors under tents near each corner of the audience) to begin.

Using unconventional gestures, some of which resembled semaphore signals, Chatham transmitted arcane instructions to the directors, who in turn conducted their quadrants of musicians. The three-part piece began quietly, with pleasant ambient washes of open-tuned guitars panning left to right and back again. The guitarists appeared to be conjuring this major-chord drone by quickly strumming the lower strings of their instruments like mandolinists.

It was hard to discern the relationship between Chatham’s movements and the music. Even after the bearded man started playing a steady 4/4 beat on the hi-hat, Chatham’s conducting seemed unconnected to any rhythm or harmonic motion. With the basses kicking in, the midtempo music took on a processional feel, slowly and inexorably building. A dragonfly flew over my head. An old Eastern European couple to my left looked nonplussed but not unhappy. Various elements reminded me, alternately, of John McLaughlin’s Eastern-scale plinking on Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way and Cale’s viola drone on the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.” The first section ended; on cue, a warm, strong breeze blew over the crowd.

Beginning the second section, Chatham made more strange gestures. A friend whispered into my ear, “He looks like an air-traffic controller trying to get UFOs to land.” During the entire piece, the massed guitars often sounded like other instruments (wind chimes, synthesizers, mellotrons) as well as calls of the wild (elephants trumpeting, a swarm of tenor bees). Several times, Chatham bafflingly held up a piece of printer paper with a large asterisk on it. This had no discernible effect on the music.

A view of one of the quadrants of Rhys Chatham's A Crimson Grail (Outdoor Version).


The third section opened with the guitarists playing repeated fifths, with the basses dropping one sustained bomb at the end of each measure, reminding me of the intro to the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” stuck on auto-repeat. Then, each quadrant of guitarists started playing a climbing major scale in chords in a round structure (each quadrant would start the scale two beats after their neighbors), sounding like the coda of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control.” This built into a huge crescendo, then, finally, it was over. A few more McLaughlin plinks, and Chatham took another Buddhist bow. He asked the musicians to stand and hold up their guitars, graciously calling them the “real stars of the show.”

After a hyper set by guitarless, percussion-heavy No Wave band Liquid Liquid (best known for the song “Cavern,” which Grandmaster Flash nicked for “White Lines”), the audience slowly dispersed. I swear I saw Box Tops/Big Star legend Alex Chilton near the back, cheering loudly for Liquid Liquid as they left the stage. At that point, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see my dead relatives. Chatham’s grail seemed to be nearly everyone’s.

Behind the Music

New York
08.06.09

Left: Musician Morton Subotnick. Right: Issue Project Room curators Stephan Moore and Suzanne Fiol. (All photos: Michael Wilson)


“THESE SOUNDS ARE MADE by Curtis Rhodes’s granular application, which was modeled after the way I patched the Buchla Box.” “To get the ‘pingy-y’ tones, I frequency-modulated the pitch of the oscillator from zero to maximum.” If Morton Subotnick’s explanations of his innovations in computer-generated sound occasionally resembled a geeky version of Spinal Tap guitarist Nigel Tufnell’s immortal claim, “These go to eleven,” his Friday-night performance at Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room confirmed him as an altogether more serious artist than his mock-rock counterpart. That said, the cherubic seventy-six-year-old composer was far from po-faced, and he clearly relished the opportunity to reinterpret some vintage material for a younger crowd.

Subotnick’s slot was the last in Issue Project Room’s Floating Points Festival, an annual monthlong series designed around its custom-made fifteen-channel hemispherical speaker system (other performers included Hisham Bharoocha, Stephen Vitiello, harpist to the stars Zeena Parkins, and the omnipresent Tony Conrad). Manipulating (“what they nowadays call ‘remixing’”) his 1967 debut recording, Silver Apples of the Moon, and 1978’s A Sky of Cloudless Sulfur, Subotnick also made sure to provide exhaustive context for the newbies. Recalling at length his first encounter with the boss of Nonesuch Records (“I threw him out. I thought he was making fun of me!”), and the incongruous commercial success of his 1969 quadraphonic disc Touch (“It sold a lot because there was nothing else to play on that system at the time”), he radiated an amused awareness of the unpredictability of a career defined by journeys into uncharted waters.

“This is my third attempt at this,” Subotnick revealed, introducing Silver Apples. “I have a year to figure it out before I take it on tour. You’re the guinea pigs.” But after fifteen minutes of beguiling music that snaked around the room, continually splintering and reforming as its maker tweaked some sounds and interjected others, we felt like more than mere test subjects. “I sort of understand why people were writing me letters saying they saw little green men coming into their houses after hearing that,” the composer chuckled. A Sky, to these ears, was better yet, a symphony of drips, rustles, clonks, and tweets that built to a steady pulse before trailing away to enthusiastic applause. For a man once dismissed by Time magazine as “a tone-deaf mute,” it was a quiet triumph.

My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher.


Such are the pleasures of the art-world off-season: One night you’re at an intimate gathering of fifty-odd cognoscenti, the next you’re among a reported 71,500 souls packed into All Points West. And at the three-day rock binge, which reached its midway point at New Jersey’s Liberty State Park the following evening, hearing damage was a real possibility. But the danger didn’t end there. Trudging through the mire toward the main arena, my companion and I were nearly mowed down by a van containing a deadpan Adrian Grenier, then a couple of minutes later found ourselves in the path of Courtney Love, leaping from a trailer in the direction of a nearby taco stand. Once equipped with the requisite rainbow of plastic wristbands, we followed My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields self-consciously onto the stage, the guitarist joining his bandmates front and center for a characteristically immersive set as we secreted ourselves in the wings. And even with the benefit of earplugs, it was clear that they really could play “one louder” than ten.

Dancers and the Dance

New York
08.03.09

Merce Cunningham, Event, 2009. Performance views, Rockefeller Park, New York. Presented by River to River Festival and Joyce Theater. August 1–2, 2009. Dylan Crossman, Daniel Madoff, Andrea Weber, Silas Riener, and Brandon Collwes. (All photos: Ryan McNamara)


ON AUGUST 1 AND 2, less than a week after Merce Cunningham’s death, members of his company gathered in Lower Manhattan to perform their first scheduled piece since his passing: the last, presumably, of the legendary site-specific Events to have been overseen by the choreographer. Over the course of those two days, in a small wedge of park between the gleaming postmillennium luxury condominiums (with names like the Solaire, the Riverhouse, and—perhaps appropriately—Tribeca Pointe) and the glistening waters of the Hudson, more than a thousand people sat in the grass around two small stages—one farther northeast, the other closer to the river—to partake in what had become, by default, an impromptu Cunningham memorial.

A number of former Cunningham disciples—many now major choreographers in their own right—were present for Saturday evening’s performance, given under an appropriately estival clear blue sky. Yvonne Rainer had staked out a space in the grass between the two stages, while Steve Paxton sat a bit north. Karole Armitage was there, as was the artist Charles Atlas, who got his start as Cunningham’s videographer. Younger choreographers, such as Sarah Michelson, Jack Ferver, and Jonah Bokaer (also a former Cunningham dancer, and the founder of the dance space Chez Bushwick), came to pay homage over the course of the two nights (a third performance in between the two had to be canceled due to the rain), as did art dealers Carol Greene and Janice Guy, artists Vera Lutter and Matthew Buckingham, and the art historian Douglas Crimp.

Left: Daniel Madoff and Melissa Toogood. Right: Silas Riener and Marcie Munnerlyn.


The dancers performed on both platforms, moving in between the two via a long path cordoned off in the grass. It was impossible to see everything; the split stages (with the northeast devoted more to solos and the southwest largely to ensembles) thwarted scopophilia, just as the multidirectional dancing destabilized any illusions of omniscient viewing. If dance is already an ephemeral medium, the dismantling of traditional sight lines makes it infinitely more so. “The Cunningham challenge,” as Lutter sagely put it.

The Event rose to the occasion; could it have been any other way? “Indescribable,” Paxton accurately described it. The characteristic Cunningham tics—if such a relentless innovator could be said to have any—were prevalent: the isolated, often incongruous choreography for different bodies (or even different parts of the same body); the unexpected shifts in style and tempo, executed according to a logic known only to the dancers; the swift, stage-consuming lateral movements. There’s a great deal of running—or an approximation of running, quick and utilitarian, often with arms slightly raised but parallel to the body (sometimes, to me, evoking action figures). There are frequent moments in relevé, and though the dancers are always extraordinarily composed and purposeful, strain is never obscured. Cunningham’s style influenced everyone, but here was evidence that the style itself remains inimitable. (Much of this may have to do with his dancers; he left behind an incredible company—perhaps the best in the world.)

Left: Melissa Toogood. Right: Andrea Weber, Melissa Toogood, Brandon Collwes, and Silas Riener.


Because of the fleetingness of it all, I found myself clinging to certain phrases harder than usual. (A favorite, which I remembered from the final Beacon Event in May, featured Andrea Weber in demi-pointe, with one hand extended above and one below; she held it for an excruciating amount of time, until Brandon Collwes, the tattooed perfectionist, arrived at her side to relieve her, beginning their own intimate partnering.) Sitting up close, just a few feet from the stages, it was impossible not to fall under the sway of individual dancers; everyone’s a soloist, each one impossibly gifted. When Weber isn’t smiling it looks as though she is, and when she is she’s practically beaming; the chiseled Silas Riener often has a stoic, faraway look, and at least once Weber patted him as she left the stage, as if to console him.

Roughly two-thirds of the way through the Event, the dancers paused to perform the three “still” movements of 4'33", which Cunningham planned as a memorial to John Cage but which became an uncanny tribute to Cunningham as well. The choreography was indeterminate, which meant the dancers could choose any pose they liked—Riener said that he had known only that he simply wanted to “face the water”—and at the end of the final movement, as dancers took to the warm-up area adjacent to the stage, many were crying.

Rashaun Mitchell, Jamie Scott, and Daniel Madoff.


According to Calvin Tomkins’s 1968 New Yorker profile on Cunningham, Alice B. Toklas had approached the choreographer after a 1949 recital and told him she liked his dancing “because it’s so pagan.” This comment came to mind while watching the movement on the westernmost stage, which at times did seem to exude a peculiar jocularity, featuring numerous ritualistic and presentational gestures. Near the end of the performance, on that same stage, Weber, Emma Desjardins, and Marcie Munnerlyn performed a mesmerizing adagio trio, which was followed by three male dancers—Riener, Collwes, and the new Dylan Crossman (one of two fresh-faced but exceptional dancers who joined the company a mere two weeks ago)—who leaped around variously like mantises, their arms curving inward, or exuberant cranes, arms extended. The dance ended, as Crimp noted, with the same, climactic sequence that marked the conclusion to the fourth Beacon Event, with all eleven dancers—eight on one stage, three on the other—dancing in unison. (“A finale worthy of Petipa or Balanchine,” he wrote last year.)

On Sunday, the loss seemed doubly painful; there would never be another new Cunningham Event. Seated on a platform to the east, next to Cunningham’s longtime archivist David Vaughan, was Alastair Macaulay, the Times’s chief dance critic, in tears. “Bravo,” he mouthed. Bravo. The dancers filed solemnly out of the park, and the crowd dispersed in the gloaming.

David Velasco


Eye for an Ai

Tokyo
08.01.09

Left: Mori Art Museum chair Yoshiko Mori with artist Ai Weiwei and Hara Museum of Contemporary Art director Toshio Hara. Right: Mori chief curator Mami Kataoka with Yokohama Museum director Eriko Osaka.


POSTERS PRONOUNCING AI WEIWEI THE MOST EVOCATIVE CREATOR IN CONTEMPORARY CHINA greeted me as I alighted through the Roppongi subway station last Friday at the end of a long journey from New York, having arrived in Tokyo just in time for the opening of Ai’s exhibition “According to What?” at the Mori Art Museum. As I checked into my hotel and changed, I pondered whether evocative had been a last-minute substitution for provocative—the latter would have been appropriate given Ai’s recent troubles with the law—or whether Japanese English just skews toward these sorts of poetic declarations. As with many things about Ai Weiwei, it’s an ambiguity best preserved.

The exhibition, organized by chief curator Mami Kataoka and spread across the Mori’s entire exhibition space, chronicles the breadth of Ai’s work more completely than any other to date. Mutations of Chinese “cultural readymades” like furniture and pottery lead to original riffs on those same forms, which lead to architectural models and grueling Warholian films in a familiar enough progression. The only major new piece was as much political manifesto as aesthetic investigation, and more provocation than evocation: An assemblage of backpacks hung from the ceiling in commemoration of the schoolchild casualties of last year’s Sichuan earthquake.

Ai huddled in the final gallery, receiving well-wishers until museum staff herded the crowd downstairs for a long round of speeches in translation. (For all their professed animosity, Japan and China share a common love for such prelection. In China, however, such ceremonies take place before the exhibition, and certainly not over champagne.) The crowd would erupt in waves of rowdiness, prompting the Mori’s dedicated shusher to action, a cause-and-effect familiar to anyone who had attended the opening of Francesca von Habsburg’s collection show a few months prior.

If you’ve never been to the Mori, or to the Roppongi Hills complex that it crowns, don’t believe the bit in Rem Koolhaas’s Content about the place titled “Pure Evil.” “A project of unmitigated awfulness that embodies, with seeming deliberation, a recapitulation of everything bad about twentieth century architecture,” he called it back in 2003, the year it opened. Sure, it’s a bland triumph of site-unspecific commercial architecture that harks back to an optimistic world in which lots of time was spent looking for wi-fi hot spots. But these days, that’s not such a bad moment to revisit, and as a staging of the anxieties (and guilty pleasures) of the globalized cultural-industrial complex, you really can’t beat the view from a museum on the fifty-third floor, in a building in which the opening dinner, conference, and hotel are all in spaces owned by the same family and accessible by the same elevator.

The scene at the Italian buffet dinner (Roppongi Hills Club, 51/F) that followed resembled a night in Ai’s now-shuttered restaurant, Qu Na’r, circa 2005. Each impromptu table constituted an orb of affinity and interest, with groups falling into and out of alignment as the night wore on. Everyone wanted a piece of the bearded master, who in turn preferred to crack jokes in Chinese to his lieutenants, all of whom were outfitted in Issey Miyake purchased during a “thank-you” shopping spree at the end of twelve days installing. Around the room were Ai’s dealers—Urs Meile, Christophe Mao, Cheryl Haines, Marc Benda—and auction-house folks like Phillips de Pury’s Chin Chin Yap and Jeremy Wingfield and Guardian’s Xiaoming Zhang. A few collectors were there, too—Uli Sigg, Hallam Chow, Larry Warsh, and Greg Liu—along with some museum people, including a MoMA delegation, of which newly minted curator Doryun Chong was a part. With unflagging precision, Kataoka announced the party’s imminent end at the fifteen-, ten-, and five-minute marks, giving just enough time to down an espresso and regroup for another outing on the plaza below, in the shadow (cast by a perfectly calibrated spotlight, twenty stories above) of a giant Louise Bourgeois spider.

Sunday (Academy Hills, 49/F) saw an eight-hour “interview marathon”—yes, it seems the Obristian coinage has entered the public domain—as six interlocutors (myself included) tag-teamed the artist with interpretations of his work, exhortations on their own, and, sometimes, good questions. Sigg led off with a condensed history of Chinese contemporary art, illustrated with images drawn entirely from his encyclopedic collection. Architect Kengo Kuma posed questions of “craftsmanship,” an issue that seemed to haunt the curatorial premise of the show upstairs. Artist Hiroshi Sugimoto, like Ai a self-taught architect, closed the day’s events with a lengthy encomium to his own recent projects, including a museum he designed and the first show—“naturally of my own work”—to be staged there. “Will there be a second show?” Ai rejoined.

Not surprisingly, the conversation often came back to Ai’s recent brush with the law that led to the closure of his much-loved blog in early June. He jovially recounted a tale of calling the Caochangdi village police station to report the secret agents who were staking out his home and studio and who refused to show him their badges. (One of the plainclothes turned out to be the brother of the local patrolman—so much for that plan.) Many speculate that the troubles owed ultimately to the “citizen’s investigation”—staffed by volunteers and mobilized via his blog—that canvassed the Sichuan disaster zone throughout the spring, collecting names and vital statistics on fifty-one hundred of the earthquake’s youngest victims. For Ai, the unresolved carnage—60 percent of parents have not been able to reclaim their children’s remains—owes much to shoddy school construction, and thus to party corruption. Under this pressure, the government released a figure of 5,335 dead schoolchildren just before the one-year anniversary of the May 12 quake. Asked point-blank by architect Shigeru Ban why he bothered to pursue this seemingly self-destructive personal campaign, Ai looked around at the hundreds of eyes fixed on him and replied bluntly, “If I don’t use my social privilege to do this, I feel ashamed.”