TRYING TO SQUEEZE into an elevator next to a bone-thin, mangy white dog right out of the landscape of Julien Donkey Boy seemed utterly apropos in anticipation of “Shadow Fux,” the first collaborative exhibition by New York downtown staples Rita Ackermann and Harmony Korine. The combination of Ackermann’s gritty, multilayered painting and filmmaker Korine’s ever-expanding cast of off-the-grid characters made a perfect pairing at last Tuesday’s opening.
Though the two have been casually collaborating since meeting seventeen years ago in (then still artist-friendly) SoHo, they had been looking for a space in which to show their large-scale paintings and works on paper, made over the past year during Ackermann’s trips down to Nashville and Korine’s up to New York. By 6:30 PM, the Swiss Institute was filled with young fans dressed in early-’90s uniforms of plaid, leather, and knit caps. The crowd seemed especially riveted by the compilation of deleted scenes from Korine’s most recent feature film, Trash Humpers. (The film served as the starting point for the “Shadow Fux” works.) Shot on VHS to approximate an especially dysfunctional home movie, Korine’s camera follows a group of overstimulated “elderly” men (really, young men wearing old-man masks) who are seen crying into the naked bosoms of bemused women in a motel room, vigorously shaking dildos, and rhythmically humping stuffed animals. Korine himself was of course among the clan, who slept under highways and wandered parking lots in the environs of Nashville to get the best, most unsettling footage.
The audience was largely attentive to the sinister display, the silence interrupted only by some older guy (appropriately attired in a long trench coat) who yelled “Give ’em some Viagra and let ’em rip!” on his way out. As the opening wore on, I noticed the absence of prominent faces (including the artists’). It turned out that a line of a hundred people was stuck outside on Broadway, and the Swiss Institute’s Piper Marshall had to repeatedly scramble down three stories of steps to retrieve the guests. Eventually, the poster children of downtown—both new and old—were assembled: Aaron Bondaroff, Nate Lowman, Ari Marcopoulos, Terry Richardson, Aurel Schmidt, and Olivier Zahm among them. But almost as soon as they arrived, the crowd began to decamp to the dinner cohosted by the Swiss Institute and Ackermann’s longtime gallery, Andrea Rosen, at another downtown stalwart, Indochine, now lauding itself for twenty-five years of continued service to artists and their storied parties.
I grabbed a corner booth with Marshall and Printed Matter’s new executive director, Cat Krudy. We were joined by artists Fabian Marti and Emanuel Rossetti, who together with artist Piero Golia started THE DOR, an online library of scanned, rare art books touring Zurich, Venice, and now New York in the Swiss Institute’s Reading Room. THE DOR’s installation, with its clean lines and heightened sense of order, was an über-Swiss counterpoint to the chaotic Americana next door; not much else was included other than an imposing book scanner and poster-size prints of a few of the dozens of books already included in their library. “We spent most of our time here obsessing over the table,” explained Rossetti. Marti added wryly, “We added two plants for a human touch.” Around us, tables of supporters now included Rosen herself, dealer James Fuentes, curators Matthew Higgs and Shamim Momin, and artists Josephine Meckseper and Josh Smith. Richardson and Zahm arrived fashionably late, of course—halfway through the dinner—leaving them no choice but to have an intimate candlelit dinner for two smack in the center of the room. Swiss Institute director Gianni Jetzer gamely migrated from table to table, taking iPhone photos of each group with an eye toward creating more instances of memorable downtown iconography.
The restless Korine spoke excitedly about his latest projects, including a film with hyperactive South African rap-raver Die Antwoord and a zine with Bill Saylor debuting at The Journal’s NADA booth in Miami. “I want to do everything!” he exclaimed. “I want to write a romance novel!” Could Trash Humpers survive the transition to pulp fiction? By midnight, the next logical step was to head to the afterparty at the newly reopened Don Hill’s, but the general consensus was one of skepticism. No one had been there since the ’90s or college (whichever came last), and most everyone seemed reluctant to relive some vaguely embarrassing behavior once practiced there. Haven’t we earned our stripes already?
JOKINGLY, BUT WITH EARNEST UNDERTONES, the return of the Swedish art world’s lost son Daniel Birnbaum came with expectations some dubbed the Birnbaum Effect. Between the anticipatory chatter, newspaper articles, and subterranean hearsay, the Moderna Museet’s new director comes off as a nearly celestial being from whom most anticipate miracles, and the continuous question on everyone’s lips is, What is he going to do? Naturally, in light of the international status Birnbaum is enjoying in the wake of his accomplishments at the Venice Biennale and Frankfurt’s Städelschule, a palpable suspense is alive in Stockholm, reminiscent of the time,
nine years ago, when the Museet’s former director Lars Nittve returned
here from Tate Modern. The scarcity of Swedish curators and museum directors who have become distinguished abroad is evident, and when one of the few victoriously returns from battle it is cause for much celebration and expectation. Coinciding, earlier this month, with the week when Rirkrit Tiravanija was awarded the second annual Absolut Art Award, Birnbaum’s first week on the job was an eventful one.
On his fourth day as director, an impromptu panel was organized to take advantage of all the luminaries in town. Museums don’t usually act with such spontaneity, so this may be a clue to Birnbaum’s new approach. Birnbaum and Christine Macel, chief curator of the Pompidou, took part in a conversation moderated by Molly Nesbit that drew a small crowd and centered for the most part around what museums in fact are. The exchange, which loosely addressed that persistent question of Birnbaum’s plans for his new institutional home, concerned more experimental shows, alluding for instance to the exhibition “She” curated by legendary former Moderna Museet director Pontus Hultén, and also interrogated the contextual circumstances of contemporary art in institutions blessed with prominent historical collections. The conversation indicated an openness to other, future extemporaneous events whenever an opportunity presents itself, which may now occur more often thanks to said Birnbaum Effect. Equally important, longtime Moderna Museet curator Ann-Sofi Noring was presented as the first-ever vice-director of the museum, which will no doubt be attended by its own splendid Noring Effects.
The Absolute Art Award was bestowed on Tiravanija that same evening. The private dinner inaugurating Absolut’s elegant new space on Drottninggatan was pleasant and exceedingly well attended. Distinguished guests including artists Elizabeth Peyton and Michael Joo; curators Beatrix Ruf and Nicolas Bourriaud; and dealers Chantal Crousel, José Kuri, Brian Butler, and Burkhard Riemschneider had been flown to town to face the imminent Swedish winter and to mingle with a careful selection of invited local arts professionals such as dealer Aldy Milliken, artists Fredrik Söderberg and Christine Ödlund, curator Sinziana Ravini, and Bonniers Konsthall director Sara Arrhenius. Also present were Jutta Koether and Klara Lidén, both of whom were particular foci of attention that evening, given that each would be the subject of a solo exhibition at the Moderna Museet this spring.
The following evening, the museum played host to Birnbaum’s official homecoming party, where Tiravanija, with temporary sous-chef Tobias Rehberger, cooked pad thai with meatballs; Karl Holmqvist read; Mai Ueda chanted; and Arto Lindsay played. Some of the performers were obviously better suited to the festive context than others. Holmqvist eventually overpowered most of the comparatively indifferent guests using the classic trick of, well, speaking up, yet it seemed that some of the attendees still remained oblivious to the wonderful work The Future Home of Chrome. Ueda employed similar tactics of volume to get attention from the failing crowd, but by far the most exorbitant performer was Lindsay, who, toward the end, as he and his guitar produced a spectacular pandemonium, forced some guests out of the room and, furthermore, out of the building. The party offered drinks courtesy of Tiravanija’s award provider, and the performances were, for a number of patrons, clearly less important than the cocktails, while socializing seemed to be the primary objective for almost everyone.
For some, this is simply par for the course for the Birnbaum Effect, and the interaction between the local and the international scene at parties is welcome. But does it mean that what happens in Stockholm will echo more prominently beyond Scandinavia, or does it instead suggest that the international circuit will simply come to town more frequently? It might create new prospects for Swedish culture in general. However, engaging projects with local organizations such as Site magazine and the journal OEI, a genuine interest in more experimental exhibitions, and a recontextualizing of the historic works in the collection alongside contemporary art—all tactics that were hinted at during the initial panel—might reverberate more significantly both here and abroad. Now, after the salutary kick-off week is done, and without any awards ceremonies or parties to attend, there is the opportunity to let all the potential sink in.
Left: Kathleen Hanna. Right: The Raincoats.
THE MOMA LOBBY was mobbed at the stroke of 8:30 PM. Last Saturday night’s event, a PopRally shindig featuring female postpunk pioneers the Raincoats along with a DJ set by Kathleen Hanna, was sold out, and every holder of a coveted twenty-five-dollar golden ticket had arrived precisely on time, it seemed. Goddess help that unfortunate Rallyer who, after being ushered into the atrium, needed to shove her way back to the front door for any reason. None of the copious guards in attendance were bothering to keep an upstream lane open. Despairing, I tunneled under the length of a terrarium protruding from a wall, then noticed the wall label: I had just played groundhog beneath a Paula Hayes sculpture. The guards, seeing this, blocked off the route to future burrowers. To go against the flow at MoMA, even when radical women are being feted, is not so easy.
Hanna—currently enjoying a renewed wave of recognition for her work in the bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre and her role in Riot Grrrl—was already onstage, drenched in a spotlight and wearing her trademark ballerina-tight ponytail. On a silver laptop and a single turntable, she played song after song by female musicians: the Go-Go’s, Sister Nancy, Mo-dettes, M.I.A., Bratmobile.
“This is amazing,” said Kenny Mellman (formerly known as Herb, as in “Kiki and”). “I’m in a band with Kathleen now, and I’ve been a fan of the Raincoats for twenty years. The Raincoats were the band with the violin that drove everyone nuts! And now they’re playing at MoMA—it’s like they’re the new Frida Kahlo.”
“Or Marina Abramović,” performer Neal Medlyn chimed in.
“It’s the cycle where everything that was once crazy is being coopted by the establishment,” Mellman concluded.
He laughed. “If I knew how to be coopted by the establishment, I would!”
Left: Performers Kenny Mellman and Neal Medlyn with producer Brendan Kennedy. Right: Musician Kathi Wilcox.
The room was filling up slowly, owing to the bottleneck in the lobby, so there was nothing to do but play name-that-tune, snag a cup of forgettable red wine, and dish about the room’s acoustics. An auditory travesty seemed inevitable: The stage was set up in front of a wall of windows, in a massive three-story space that was all hard surfaces and right angles, with no bandshell or baffling to be seen.
“At least we have Murakami.” Mellman’s boyfriend, producer Brendan Kennedy, pointed high up on a wall. Indeed, the three panels featuring the King of Bling’s saber-toothed mouse were the closest thing to acoustical tile that we were going to get.
Hanna’s DJ set blurred into a warehouse-boomy muddle at the back of the room. Susanne Oberbeck, aka No Bra, was stalking the premises in no pants, just some fishnets and a bodysuit festooned with dice. It was the only really radical outfit in the place. “I think it’s amazing that the show is being hyped in this way,” she said. “The Raincoats represent the best of the improvisatory, the unprepared, in music. They have this non-bullshit approach that you don’t see enough of anymore.”
A few minutes later, the Raincoats were playing, and although the oldest songs got the loudest cheers, the audience—kids jumping up and down; the DIS magazine crew doing jubilant shots from a flask and gyrating; a woman with salt-and-pepper hair who stood almost reverentially still, old memories softening her face—was loving all of it: the dub basslines and violin squalls, the guitar scrambles and vocal harmonies and bestial yelps. Perhaps some attendees felt an urge to taxonomize and tame what they were hearing (“They’re not really punk rock at all,” a young man with messy hair informed his female companion, in between noisy, smacking kisses; “they’re more like prog rock”). But the music couldn’t be contained. “We like to keep it real,” bassist and singer Gina Birch explained between songs. “We like to keep it like these wild animals where you don’t know what they’re gonna do next! Or something like that.”
Near the end of the set, Oberbeck and Hanna joined the band onstage to perform a Slits song in honor of Ari Up, who died last month at age forty-eight. Birch taught the audience to shout along with the chorus: “And I shit on it! And I spit on it!” After a false start, the song got going, and nobody could have said it wasn’t punk rock. When the instrumentalists faltered, seemingly unsure of where the second verse was meant to begin, suddenly there was Hanna’s voice piercing through, bringing the band back on track.
The concert ended only a few minutes past the mandated curfew of 11 PM, whereupon the Raincoats received their friends onstage, behind a wire barrier, while Hanna crossed over to chat with Bikini Kill bassist Kathi Wilcox, Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, and artist Becca Albee, who played in Excuse 17 with Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein in the mid-1990s. Hanna was philosophical about the ramshackle Slits cover: “Ari wrote really weird songs, it turns out.”
The guards were hustling everybody out the door with stentorian announcements. Performance artist MPA, waiting in line at the coat check, was happy to provide some institutional critique: “Take that MoMA money and put on a show somewhere else, somewhere that actually sounds good and where you can have lower ticket prices! But it was important to see those hands on guitars, on violins. It never gets old.”
As my companions and I headed toward the street, we saw the front gate descending. Were we being locked in, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler–style?
“Just go out the door,” a guard prodded, “and I’ll raise the gate again.”
Following instructions, we found ourselves trapped for a minute, neither inside nor outside, between the glass doors and the metal grille. But the whole night was out there, ready for us, full of music.
WHERE HAVE ALL THE BOHEMIANS GONE? Not to Los Angeles, a city once so jeans and T-shirt casual that it always felt like summer camp. Now even its artists are starting to look as if they live in New York. Those attending last Thursday’s opening for Doug Aitken at Regen Projects—including Cathy Opie, Walead Beshty, Laura Owens, and Thomas Demand—appeared only slightly less style-conscious or prosperous than the barbered and bejeweled collectors around them. Aitken, on the other hand, was attired in a bright madras plaid shirt with a label that said, HELLO, MY NAME IS DOUG stuck onto it.
During the reception, he stayed in the hallway under his new terrarium SEX sign, talking to friends and supporters such as Jeffrey Deitch, whose obvious weight loss since becoming director of LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art he attributed to daily uphill runs in Griffith Park, not anxiety. (That would be too New York.) So Aitken didn’t see all the stiletto-heeled women pick their way through the splintered ruins of his former home in Venice Beach, which were scattered around the gallery, to view House, the video playing on a monitor set into a long table placed at the center of the room. It is the same table that’s pictured in the video, where his parents sit motionless, staring into each other’s eyes, while the house slowly comes down around them—a demonstration of lasting love till death do them part that was as moving and delirious as it was beautiful. “I thought there had to be a better way to demolish an old house than taking it out with a wrecking ball,” he said. At the moment, he’s living in his studio. No word on whether collectors buying the installation will take the rubble with it.
It looked like the aftermath of one of LA’s earthquakes, though the dinner for 120 that Shaun Caley Regen gave for Aitken at Soho House offered sweeping views of a town steady enough on its pins to admit artists into its obsession with models and movie stars, especially when they are the same people. When I complimented Ed Ruscha on his wordless performance in Frontier, the video Aitken showed last June in Basel, he quipped, “Well, I didn’t have too many lines,” but I couldn’t tell whether he was complaining or expressing relief.
Bubbly as the evening was, it was just the first shot fired at a weekend of glittering events anchored to “The Artist’s Museum Happening,” the gala benefit that Aitken designed for MoCA on Saturday night. On Friday morning, Deitch led a very exclusive tour at the Geffen of “The Artist’s Museum,” a collection exhibition featuring work by LA-based artists. The big surprise was how many artists, including Liza Lou, had never made it into a MoCA show before. Further enhancing the tour was Giovanna Panza di Biumo, widowed by the death this year of Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, whose enormous gift to the museum gave its collection its start thirty years ago. Ms. Panza wasn’t staying on for the gala. “It’s hard to be here without Giuseppe,” she said. “And seeing everything again . . . ” she added, her voice drifting off. “So much of it used to be ours, you know.”
That evening, while Aitken held rehearsals at the museum and the new Venice branch of L&M Gallery opened a de Kooning show, MoCA invited a select group of patrons to Mike Ovitz’s new Michael Maltzan–designed house in Benedict Canyon, where a contingent of beefy security guards kept out the paparazzi and anyone with any ties to the press. Since the weekend was all about bridging the art world with Hollywood, I went to the Fox lot for a producers’ preview of Black Swan, the new psycho-ballerina film by Darren Aronofsky. It stars a bonkers Natalie Portman and dipsomaniac Winona Ryder, and has costumes by Rodarte sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy—the best element of the film, as it turned out.
The fashion pair showed up at Dasha Zhukova’s table in the big tent set up on Grand Avenue for the MoCA gala, where B-list starlets paraded the red carpet in what Barbara Kruger memorably observed as “the anthropology of procession,” outfitted by the event’s sponsor, Chanel Fine Jewelry, while Deitch led another exclusive tour of the show inside the museum with Francesco Vezzoli (last year’s gala artist) in tow as well as Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale, Anthony Kiedis, producer Brian Grazer, W editor Stefano Tonchi, and Deitch’s date, actress Paz de la Huerta. In a room hung with paintings by Kenny Scharf, Robert Williams, and Mark Ryden, Tonchi voiced some surprise at their appearance in the show. Deitch nodded. “Some people are outraged by this room,” he said. His grin told us how much he liked the high and low of it.
Left: Gwen Stefani. Right: Katharine Ross with LACMA director Michael Govan.
Inside the tent, the other nine hundred guests were already chowing down the salad course, seemingly oblivious to the inexplicable absence of every big art event’s best friend, James Franco, a favorite this year to take home an Oscar. Instead, Kirsten Dunst, Rachel Griffiths, Michael York, Will Ferrell, Chloë Sevigny, Patricia Arquette, China Chow, and Rachel Zoe were on hand to remind us that art can’t live without celebrity anymore. But there was plenty of evidence that MoCA really is an artists’ museum. Mike Kelley, Kruger, John Baldessari, Jeff Koons, Chris Burden, Nancy Rubins, Diana Thater, Mark Grotjahn, Thomas Houseago, Barry McGee, and Mark Bradford were among those scattered at tables with Eli and Edythe Broad, Gil Friesen, board cochair David Johnson, Eugenio López, Jeffrey and Catherine Soros, Frank Gehry, Benedikt and Lauren Taschen, Ovitz, dealers Tim Blum and Michael Kohn, and filmmaker Werner Herzog. A man with a shock of white hair, sitting to the side, turned out to be former governor Gray Davis.
Aitken had a theme for the event, “The Idea of the West,” the title of a handsome artist’s book funded by collector Grazka Taylor and placed on everyone’s $5,000 seat. It contained photographs by Aitken and responses from a thousand Californians asked to state their idea of the West. (“Fun,” “Nothingness,” “Free Spirits Keepin’ It Together,” and “David Lee Roth” were some.) MoCA board cochair Maria Bell began the speech part of the night with the revelation that honorary gala cochair Larry Gagosian couldn’t make it because he was at the Vatican, a part of which the superdealer had rented, incredibly enough, for the dinner following Takashi Murakami’s opening that night in Rome.
After that bomb dropped, further remarks by Broad (“the best is yet to come”) and Deitch more or less faded into the ether. Then a clean-shaven Devendra Banhart took the round center stage to perform one number accompanied by a violinist, two cellists, and a bongo player. Beck joined them for another number, followed by the Brazilian guitar virtuoso Caetano Veloso, and the three played and sang as sweetly as if they had worked together for years instead of never before. It was gorgeous.
Aitken had seen to the food as well. In California style, it was organic and came from local farmers, prepared by chef Joanna Moore of Axe, the artist’s favorite restaurant, recently closed due to a fire. People began to mill about as tables were cleared. Five were really cleared, even of their tablecloths. They were Sonic Tables, an artwork by Aitken, sold at $100,000 a pop (mostly to trustees) to benefit the museum. As the lights went down, twenty members of the drum corps that had been thrumming at the entrance started playing the tables with mallets. Suddenly the first of five farm auctioneers began wailing away like a gospel singer, except her only mantra was a litany of prices, and one by one, from different points in the tent, their voices ping-ponged against the drumming. They were the same farm auctioneers who appeared in Basel two years ago for Aitken’s part in Il Tempo del Postino, but here they moved into the crowd, the numbers rising with their voices, auctioning nothing but sound.
Four actual gospel singers from South Central then mounted the center stage to perform a number that seemed to confuse the crowd, but no sooner had they exited than they were replaced by a burly cowpuncher wielding twenty-foot-long bullwhips and doing a cracking, stomping dance that was startling and unusual enough to drop every jaw in the house. Clearly, someone’s idea of the West is to scare every critter off. Most stayed for dessert, however, still shaking their heads. “This was such a calm evening,” said Koons, taking special note of the lighting by architect Barbara Bestor as well as the whipper. “It was all just so calm,” he said again, and indeed the event had proceeded with a California ease that was, in the end, not so predictable but weirdly intimate. “I didn’t want megastars,” Aitken would tell me later. “I wanted something warmer. I wanted moments of vulnerability and aggression.”
During a VIP brunch the next day at the Gagosian outpost in Beverly Hills, where late Joan Mitchells were on display, Michael and Pat York were still going on about the bullwhipper, adding that he had come close to tearing off the head of Broad Foundation director Joanne Heyler, who had slipped into a seat beside the stage. Bell said the benefit had raised over three million dollars for the museum, which is going to post a video of the event on its website—free for the asking. That’s nice. But I left thinking of something Deitch had said at Aitken’s gallery show. “Sometimes we get into sticky situations,” he admitted. “But we also get out of them.”
AT A TUESDAY LUNCHEON following the preview of Kutlug Ataman’s midcareer retrospective at Istanbul Modern, a British newspaper critic asked the artist: “Are people constantly telling you that you look like Robert Downey Jr.?” Perhaps relieved to discuss something other than the exhibition—his first in his native Turkey, and the subject of a lengthy press conference earlier that day—Ataman answered, “Constantly,” and said that during a visit to Los Angeles a pair of teenage girls had approached him for an autograph, which he’d obligingly provided. Indeed, not only Ataman’s physiognomy but also his puckish demeanor suggest that he might be the actor’s long-lost twin. It’s likely, however, that if Downey ever visits Istanbul, he will find himself fielding the question, “Has anyone ever told you that you look like Kutlug Ataman?” Certainly, the opening of the show on Tuesday night threatened to overshadow even exiled NBA star Allen Iverson, who had just arrived in the city with all the pomp of Cleopatra alighting from a barge. The reporters who clustered in the lobby of Istanbul Modern were as frantically importunate as the scrum at the Oscars, detaining arriving luminaries for a few minutes of more or less gracious posing.
It had been less than two weeks since a suicide bomber injured twenty-two people in Taksim Square, but if there was nervousness in the air at Istanbul Modern, this was probably not due to fears of Kurdish separatist martyrs. These days, the city’s art community is more worried about teetotalers than terrorists. To explain: In late September, a riot broke out in Istanbul’s down-at-the-heels Tophane neighborhood when a crowd of knife-and-broken-bottle-wielding men descended on art lovers who were ambling among several openings at new galleries in the area. Though no serious injuries were reported, people were frightened, and the events certainly cast a pall on fledgling efforts to establish Chelsea-style mass vernissages in Tophane. Many of Tophane’s residents are conservative Muslims, and apparently the melee broke out because the attackers had taken umbrage at the cups of wine people were holding as they went from one opening to the next. Most ominously, consensus is emerging that the attack was premeditated. “They all suddenly showed up with tear gas,” one witness said.
So there you have it: a classic gentrification story with an unusual temperance-vigilante twist. But even supporters of the premeditation theory admit that the mob may have been further inflamed by the exhibition that was debuting that night at Galeri NON, where an artist named Extrastruggle showed a table in the shape of an upside-down mosque. And a sculpture that depicted Abdullah Öcalan—jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party—as a merman sprawled on a pile of cheap rhinestone jewelry. And another sculpture portraying Atatürk as a kind of bobble-headed, stubby-legged cherub lying ignominously on the gallery floor.
Unlike Extrastruggle, Ataman does not go out of his way to bring broken beer bottles raining down upon his own head—which is to say, he is not of a polemical bent. When he wants to comment, for example, on the market’s relation to artists from the Islamic world, he films himself belly-dancing in full Orientalist regalia, beguiling collectors with a come-hither stare and hips-don’t-lie gyrations. Still, many of his works, which mostly take the form of multichannel videos, have subjects that simply don’t play in Turkey. One, Testimony, 2006, features the artist’s Armenian nanny from when he was a child and alludes to the atrocities that the Turkish government still refuses to call genocide; another, Never My Soul, 2001, includes footage of its protagonist—an indomitable transsexual who models herself on movie star Türkan Soray—giving a desultory hand job to a man in a silver Lurex shirt. The artist’s grand themes—the heroic nature of self-creation and self-transformation, the fluidity and inherent performativity of gender, sexuality, and personality—are themselves politically sensitive, insofar as they are unabashedly queer.
Left: Artists Cevdet Erek and Ömer Ali Kazma. Right: Art advisor Suzanne Egeran, Sylvia Pardellas Bourne, and artist Ergin Çavuşoğlu.
So is Turkey ready for Kutlug Ataman? The gallery attacks suggested one answer, but much evidence pointed to another. As Ataman had noted on Monday night—at a party at the home of collectors and patrons Fusun and Faruk Eczacibasi, whose six-story digs overlooking the Bosphorus underscored the artist’s point—Turkey is doing well financially, having emerged nearly unscathed from the economic collapse. (True, in the most-uneven-distribution-of-wealth sweepstakes, Turkey ranks third in the world—but then, Ataman drily noted, the US is first.) The relative prosperity is, perhaps, one of the factors in what would seem to be a trend toward cultural liberalization. In September, Turks voted 58 to 42 percent in favor of constitutional reforms that affirmed the equality of women, removed restrictions on the right to strike and on foreign travel, and abolished protections for leaders of the 1980 military coup.
Art-worlders in Istanbul seem to feel liberated as well. As a postpreview gallery tour had demonstrated, the city’s contemporary-art spaces have grown more robust than ever, with established venues that opened in the early years of this decade, such as Galerist and Dirimart (hosting exhibitions by painters Mustafa Hulusi and Suzan Batu, respectively) anchoring newer venues like Rodeo (which was showing work by fashion photographer–turned–institutional critic Banu Cennetoglu). Özkan Cangüven a director of the newly opened space Rampa, said that the gallery is planning to show the work of a multigenerational group of Turkish artists, some of whom—e.g., Cengiz Çekil, a longtime practitioner of politically charged Conceptualism—would have been extremely difficult to exhibit in Istanbul until recently. As to why he has returned to Istanbul after some years in the States, Canguven cited a raft of new or soon-to-open initiatives and venues (among them the nonprofit Arter and a vast new space, SALT, that will incorporate the former activities of Platform Garanti) and said, “I feel like it’s just the beginning.” London-based art advisor Suzanne Egeran, who will open her own gallery in Istanbul in May with a roster of Turkish and international artists, echoed Canguven. Istanbul’s art world “only started to become interesting” in 2003, she observed, when Dan Cameron’s biennial “ushered in a more substantive conversation.” “It is so recent,” she said of Istanbul’s status as a viable emerging market for contemporary art, and asserted that collectors are ready to embark on a “serious investigation” of art from abroad as well as from Turkey.
Thus the general consensus on Tuesday was that Ataman’s exhibition marked a kind of ceremonial inauguration of a new epoch. Chief curator Levent Çalıkoğlu simply called it “a celebration of Kutlug’s homecoming and a very important moment,” while Ataman, who seemed euphoric as he beamed beside museum director Oya Eczacıbaşı (sister-in-law of Faruk), was even more succinct. His country is “running toward freedom,” he said.
WITH SO MUCH HAPPENING elsewhere in Istanbul—an opening at Rampa for the painter Ahmet Oran, a very VIP preview of Kutlug Ataman’s retrospective at Istanbul Modern, a new project by the critical darlings xurban_collective at Sanat Limani, Banu Cennetoglu’s first solo show at Rodeo, and a timely debate at Depo on the often violent relationship between art and gentrification—it was slightly frustrating to spend three full days stuck inside the Istanbul Technical University’s Faculty of Architecture for a “research congress” organized two weeks ago by Former West. I’m sure there were worse places to be. Built as a medical school and military barracks for the Ottoman Army, the campus is a neoclassical jewel, with four pink facades lining a leafy courtyard with a reflecting pool and a lion fountain in the middle. But still.
Like a discursive sequel to Manifesta, Former West is a peripatetic platform investigating various histories of the post-1989 period. At the heart of the project, initiated by the BAK center for contemporary art in Utrecht, is the proposition, or maybe the hope, that the fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t necessarily signal the end of communism but rather the beginning of the end of capitalism and, with it, of the hegemony of the West. Through seminars and symposia, Former West is trying to nudge that process along—or, in congress-speak, to produce the West as former and to posit that as a horizon for our time. The gist of the Istanbul gathering, titled “On Horizons: Art and Political Imagination,” was to say that the collapse of the cold war system didn’t make utopian projects bunk; they just needed to be rebranded as horizons for anyone to take them seriously again.
In her opening remarks, BAK artistic director Maria Hlavajova purred a warm welcome to the digital masses following the live stream online. But for all the delirious talk of social media, by the time the congress ended, only one question had been posted on Facebook, followed by a note from the organizers saying, in effect, sorry we missed this, but someone will get back to you soon.
Hlavajova also struck a strange note when she quoted a headline from The Economist—“Turkey, turning its back on the West?”—and then said, “Calm down, the answer from the editors is no.” Was anyone in the audience really unhinged by the prospect? At this point, an artist I know was so turned off by the organizers’ tone that he got up, walked out, and never came back. The next defection came when a curator opened his freebie bag and found a box of Dutch sweets. “Even the fucking cookies are imported,” he said, and likewise went on with his life.
Left: Philosopher Peter Osborne. Right: Ayse Koksal, Pelin Tan, and Sevgi Turkkan of Former West's host the Istanbul Technical University's Faculty of Architecture.
To be fair, Former West had set itself a difficult task with the research congress—a preposterously pretentious name for a gathering of academics, a few curators, and the odd artist reading prepared papers. Most of the talks were devoted to splitting semantic hairs and theorizing concepts of horizon, horizonal, and horizontality into being. The different approaches of philosophers (Peter Osborne, Gerald Raunig), sociologists (Caglar Keyder), political theorists (Ernesto Laclau, Jodi Dean), and architectural historians (Beatriz Colomina, Wouter Vanstiphout) were completely irreconcilable. Eventually, even Simon Sheikh, a Former West researcher who had organized the congress, said the various discourses were “totally incoherent” together.
That’s not to say there weren’t moments of drama and debate, as when Dean gave a Sarah Palin–style stump speech, albeit from the far left rather than the far right. Vanstiphout called her mocking and sneering. “I’m glad you were uncomfortable,” she said. “I’m not going to apologize.”
What was missing from all of this was any grounding in artistic practice. The anticipation for Laclau’s lecture was nearly messianic. But after giving a dense interpretation of the horizon, he shot down the idea of addressing contemporary art. “I can’t,” he said. “It’s not my thing.” Julie Ault, Shuddhabrata Sengupta of the Raqs Media Collective, Robert Sember of Ultra-red, and Dmitry Vilensky of Chto Delat? tried to redress the balance by speaking vividly of their work (as did Colomina). But the longer the congress went on, the more it seemed to fold in on itself.
Left: Artist Banu Cennetoglu. Right: Curator and critic Simon Sheikh.
“I’m a little confused,” said Ault on day one. “Why is art so central to this event? How are you connecting it to the larger political stage?” To which Osborne replied: “Art is the institutionally funded space for the displacement of political discourse.” That may be so, but it fails to recognize how or why contemporary art made that space to begin with, which is also like interrupting an ongoing conversation by giving a speech.
By then, some spiky rebellion had entered the room. On day two, Sengupta questioned the post-1989 fetish. On day three, Sember urged the organizers to reconsider the configuration of the event, arguing there were better ways of being in the same space together to work and think. “To be able to get to know one another would have nice,” he said. Maybe next time?
“GOOD EVENING! And now let’s start with Carte Blanche—Philippe Ségalot!” Kicking off a dizzy week of contemporary art sales, Monday night’s auction at Phillips de Pury & Company’s freshly unwrapped Park Avenue HQ got off at 6:14 PM, a fashionably late start for the inaugural haul. Ségalot’s Carte Blanche program of works, “curated” according to mysterious but supposedly nonfinancial criteria by the private dealer (and former head of contemporary art for Christie’s), opened the two-part evening sale. It drew a real crowd: Larry Gagosian, the Mugrabi family, Aby Rosen, Peter Brant, Maria Baibakova, Adam Lindemann and Amalia Dayan, and, as it goes, all the rest. There were no hoi polloi in attendance.
The first Cindy Sherman, Lot 14, Untitled #153, 1985, secured a new record for the artist ($2.8 million, with buyer’s premium), but it was the second Sherman, Untitled #420 from the “Clown” series, that set my neighbors off. “$1.2 million . . . I never would have guessed. Champagne and caviar tonight!” Was it theirs? “Not even—we have a better one at home.” Everyone’s a winner.
Between Ségalot’s thirty-three-lot kitty and the regular twenty-six-lot Contemporary Art Part I sale that immediately followed, Phillips de Pury raked in $137 million, more than twice the amount made for any evening sale in the house’s history. Nearly half that number came from one big Warhol, Men in Her Life, 1962, a silk screen of Liz and her exes, which sold for $63.3 million with premium, the second-highest amount ever paid for a Warhol at auction.
According to de Pury, who lingered in the auction room in the aftermath, the sale was “a self-portrait of Philippe” and had “the aura of a private collection.” (Earlier, someone had invoked Christie’s controversial 2007 sale of dealer Pierre Huber’s personal collection—a “Carte Blanche,” some argued, avant la lettre.) Ségalot himself continued in this vein in manifesto-like rhetoric: “The sale was very personal to me, telling the outside world that this is where we are, this is who I am, this is my taste, and these are the artists I believe in.” The next thing in conspicuous consumption: the statement auction.
A visibly excited de Pury contextualized his house as a sort of grand private academy. “Some of the artists from the Part II (morning) sale will someday become the artists of the Part I sale, and part of the great future blue-chip artists!” One of those Part II artists was in fact present that evening: Abdi Farah, the first winner of Bravo’s reality program Work of Art, an artist de Pury had “mentored” on that show. Part of his prize package was to have a work sent to auction (remember when Rauschenberg punched Robert Scull for putting his work on the block?), and his large work on paper Baptism was kicking off the Part II sale the next day at 10 AM. (Estimated at $6,000–$8,000, it ended up fetching an eyebrow-raising $20,000.) Farah thought it was all “pretty darned exciting.”
For those dealers and collectors impatient with $5,000 bidding increments, there were Sotheby’s and Christie’s sales on Tuesday and Wednesday evening, respectively. At Sotheby’s, Tobias Meyer hammered out four new artist records (Urs Fischer [$1.1 million], Jim Hodges [$2.1 million], Cady Noland [$1.8 million], and Larry Rivers [$1.1 million]) in the first eleven lots. They rang like the opening bars to a highly produced pop song. With Lot 12 came Warhol’s 1962 Coca Cola (4) (Large Coca-Cola) and the evening’s big moneymaker: $35.4 million, with buyer’s premium. “What you saw tonight was a single global iconic market,” Meyer later explained to the press.
After the sale, Takashi Murakami, perhaps the only artist who is a habitué of the auction circuit, was enthusiastic, a stark contrast to his crew of soigné attendants. “I really learn from this environment,” he said. (In more ways than one, no doubt. His 1997 sculpture Miss ko˛ had sold for $6.8 million to Warhol wallah Jose Mugrabi during Ségalot’s sale the night prior.) “Tobias is amazing—bam bam bam. Asia sales are much slower. Hong Kong Christie’s can go on for nine hours.”
The next night’s auction at Christie’s at Rockefeller Center wasn’t nearly that long, but with seventy-five lots on the docket, punters were grouching before it even began. “Well, this’ll be a quick one . . . ” Christie’s chief auctioneer Christopher Burge started shortly after 7 PM and ended a little over two hours later, after some fifteen Warhols, seven Lichtensteins, six Calders, five Twomblys, and four Richard Lindners (?), among others, had had their shot at art-market immortality.
“Right here is the mirage of capitalism. It proves its power by accruing around arbitrary objects,” a colleague averred. “We’re lucky that rich people like art. It’s trickle-down Reaganomics in action. They could just like yachts and cars. Then we’d all be doing something else. Making documentary movies, maybe.” Just philosophizing in the press pack.
The night’s star was also the catalogue’s cover, Lot 5, Lichtenstein’s 1964 painting Ohhh . . . Alright . . . Bidding began at 7:16 PM at $29 million and ended roughly a minute later at $38 million, or $42.6 million with buyer’s premium, a new world record for the artist. There was some scattered applause, and small bills changed hands as a guy who’d made the right bet on the price point took his pot. “Too easy,” he announced brusquely.
Thirty minutes later, with the sale not even half over, men in suits were sheepishly passing out a three-page, stapled, and color-illustrated “Media Alert” announcing that Christie’s had “made history” with the sale of this “striking and subtly and humorous” painting [sic].
In the end, Christie’s brought in $272.8 million after premiums, well within its estimate. On Tuesday, Sotheby’s reached $222.4 million with nearly a third fewer lots. Both results were considerably higher than last spring’s already dramatic rebounds, and at the nocturne sales records were set for more than twenty artists—Noland, Hodges, Fischer, Rivers, Sherman, and Lichtenstein, of course, but also Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Lee Lozano, Thomas Schütte, Wade Guyton, and Julie Mehretu, among others: the entering class of 2010.
Leaving Rockefeller Center Wednesday evening, during a week in which more than three-quarters of a billion dollars were publicly spilled on contemporary art, a bemused Mera Rubell put it best: “It’s another reality in there.” Out here, it was simply cold.
WHENEVER THE CONTEMPORARY AUCTIONS draw nigh, New York galleries greet the influx of collectors as if it were the Second Coming. Yet, to borrow from Yeats, it wasn’t anarchy that was loosed upon the world last weekend. Instead it was Larry Gagosian, who announced the addition of his tenth gallery, in Geneva, and led the smoothly coiffed slouching beast with a triple-headed monster of shows for Rauschenberg, Currin, and Kiefer.
Meanwhile, the competition offered the art pack many other ceremonies in which to drown. On Thursday night, its choices included not just new shows by Anthony Caro, Erwin Wurm, Alexis Rockman, Tomás Saraceno, and Agnes Denes, among others, but the openings of both the New York Art Book Fair at MoMA PS1 and the Editions|Artists’ Book Fair in the old Dia space in Chelsea, as well as the annual benefit gala for Dia itself.
The last event was in the nosebleed regions of northern Manhattan, where Koo Jeong-A’s Constellation Congress was debuting in Dia’s endlessly temporary home at the Hispanic Society of America. I opted for the Gagosian homestead on Madison Avenue, where John Currin unfurled neo-Mannerist portraits that are all about dewy fleshpots and lingerie with figures so perversely voluptuous he had to foreshorten limbs, breasts, hands, and feet to fit them onto each canvas. One pictured two men at a tailoring whose most attention-getting attributes were their knees and socks.
“Boring, boring, boring!” joked Uma Thurman. “I don’t know why I bothered.” Currin looked both proud and sheepish. “Does he know it’s a good show?” someone asked his wife, Rachel Feinstein. “Yeah,” she said. “He knows.”
So did everyone else, or at least everyone invited to the dinner Gagosian hosted at the Mark Restaurant by Jean-Georges, where Eli and Edythe Broad, Pauline Karpidas, Helen Marden, and Marc Jacobs were among the pals at the head table. Though it sometimes seems that writers do not count for much in the art world, the other guests included a contingent of scribes such as Tom Wolfe, Peter Schjeldahl, James Frey, Deborah Solomon, Calvin Tomkins, Dodie Kazanjian, Michiko Kakutani, and Steve Martin, whose new art-world novel, An Object of Beauty, features Gagosian and other recognizable figures that make it seem more than fiction. “Why is Tom Wolfe here?” wondered Jim Currin, the artist’s natty physicist father. “I want to meet him!” (He did.)
If Currin and Feinstein are sympathetic to writers, they are also friends of fashion, and Jacobs was not its only representative present. Gagosian curator Louise Neri presided over a table where Yves Saint Laurent designer Stefano Pilati, Vogue’s Eve MacSweeney, and W Magazine editor Stefano Tonchi all got to hobnob as if they hardly ever saw one another. John McEnroe, Tico Mugrabi, Sotheby’s Tobias Meyer, and eighty-years-young Irving Blum filled out the room, but for the most part the celebrities were artists, and there were many: Liam Gillick, Tony Oursler and Jacqueline Humphries, Cecily Brown, Richard Phillips, Sean Landers, George Condo, David Salle, Lisa Yuskavage and Matvey Levenstein, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, Leo Villareal and his very pregnant wife, the Art Production Fund’s Yvonne Force. “Hello, you reality-TV whores,” Yuskavage greeted Phillips and Bill Powers, who was with his wife, the designer Cynthia Rowley. “You have really raised the bar on what can be said about art on the tube.” Amen.
As for Gagosian, when I commented on the new space in Geneva, the jovial dealer said, “Yeah, it’s crazy. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing anymore.” Right.
Power does have its rewards. But New York does not slow down for them. Friday night’s openings for Hiroshi Sugimoto at Pace, Matthew Monahan at Anton Kern, and Monica Sosnowska at Hauser & Wirth were like the calm before the perfect storm to come. Sosnowska outdid herself with steel sculptures of “collapsed” stairwells, and her dinner at Persephone brought her dealers from Warsaw, Mexico City, Glasgow, and London as well as collector Jill Kraus, for whom the artist is embarking on a new outdoor commission that will rest in a forest amid the trees.
There was no rest for anything on adrenaline-infused Saturday, when enormous crowds streamed into MoMA PS1 for day two of Printed Matter’s fifth art-book fair, which expanded this year to take up the whole building. It was thrilling to see so many people not just thumbing through thousands of books and zines but actually buying them. Clearly all those dimwits who want to chase the printed word into cyberspace are not paying attention to the human need for personal objects that complement their intelligence and warm their hearts.
Saturday was also the day Lea Freid and Jane Lombard chose to open their new gallery on West Nineteenth Street, with a show by William Earl Kofmehl III, who spent the entire evening banging the walls inside a massive wooden squirrel. His exhibition, which included many other squirrel references and 150 embroidered text paintings, was inspired by the 1984 subway vigilante and obsessive squirrel keeper Bernhard Goetz, who insisted that corn-fed squirrels make the best pets.
Left: Artists John Giorno and Ugo Rondinone. Right: Writer James Frey.
Across the street at David Zwirner, the dour Luc Tuymans, who probably never touches corn, stood by while most of the crowd present gravitated from his humorless paintings to Raymond Pettibon’s more colorful, witty, and aggressive drawings splayed across the walls. At Murray Guy, Matthew Buckingham had two new film installations riffing on the painted portrait, particularly one Velázquez made back in 1659 and another, a self-portrait by Caterina van Hemessen, painted in 1548. Obviously the madness of the moment has been going on a long time.
It continued at Barbara Gladstone’s Twenty-first Street gallery, where Ugo Rondinone debuted seven seated, life-size earth-and-wax figures that he collectively titled nude, though they were actually dressed––in lingerie––and that brought a strange intimacy to the empty space between. There was no room to move at Gagosian on Twenty-fourth Street, however, where Anselm Kiefer was making his first New York appearance in eight years with an overwhelming and theatrical presentation of burden-of-history paintings, heil-Hitler photographs on lead, and soaring glass vitrines containing sculpture, one of which Donald Baechler anointed as “Franz West minus the humor.” Izhar Patkin compared the installation to the elevating chaos of stone gods and emperors in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, an apt allusion. But the glass cases weren’t easy to see through a posh crowd freighted with Europeans and wide-eyed students lining up to get their catalogues signed by the artist. “I can’t do this anymore,” the inundated Keifer told dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, declining to autograph another heavy book. It had taken him all of a single year, he said, to produce the work in a show that “redefines ambition,” according to Mark Kostabi, who might know a thing or two about that. The seventy-six photographs, which Kiefer discovered stowed in one of the fifty-two buildings on his French estate, hang on their lead curtains in narrow rows inside large black steel containers, only partly visible through open doors.
More exposed was the artist, who appeared in a head-wagging New York Times piece as the man who had escorted a naked and drunk Courtney Love to her hotel room the week before. But before that little tidbit came to light (in the following morning’s Sunday Styles section), there was the Red Party, the Russian Constructivist–themed benefit for Performa, for which two hundred guests at the borscht family-style dinner gamely showed up wearing bright commie red and knocked back the house drink, vodka laced with pomegranate juice. They included actual Russians, namely Maria Baibakova, who brought her mother and Payam Sharifi, her artist boyfriend, and scored a vintage 1976 dress from Yves Saint Laurent’s Russian collection, while Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg presided in a cloud of red whipped up two days earlier by Kai Kuhne. The actor Alan Cumming acted as emcee for the evening, during which the honoree, Shirin Neshat, complimented Goldberg for encouraging artists like herself to take new risks, not the least of which were with their clothes.
This was not the fantastic DIY dinner that Jennifer Rubell had designed for Performa last year—BITE did the honors this time—but Rubell did supply an inspired dessert in the form of a padded room outfitted floor-to-ceiling with bricks of spun cotton candy. Barbara Sukowa and her son, Viktor Longo, were also on the bill, but the most captivating act was Chica Vas, an all-girl drum band from Brooklyn who rocked out during the silent auction and got the crowd on its red-shod feet. On a postelection weekend when things for Democrats were threatening to fall apart, here in the red-hot art world, the center held fast to gold.
MAYBE MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE still buy sports cars, marry their secretaries, or suffer spectacular nervous breakdowns. But arts initiatives of a certain age? They organize conferences. And so it was that the “Speak Memory” symposium on archival practices commenced at the twelve-year-old Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art in Cairo last Thursday.
Taking its title from Nabokov’s memoir––which was, incidentally, published in the US as Conclusive Evidence, a name far less serviceable for this particular affair––“Speak Memory” gathered together an eclectic group of artists, curators, and researchers. Whether based in the Far East, the Middle East, or Latin America––all regional constructs that come with the asterisks of the power dynamics that created them––their projects are held together by a thin thread of pseudo-archaeological excavation into past artistic practices that have been neglected, ignored, buried, or hijacked by a confluence of different factors––ranging from the nationalist ideologies of the state to the economic imperatives of the private sector to that old, enduring bogeyman: the art market.
Townhouse started out as a ramshackle gallery in a downtown Cairo alleyway otherwise populated by car mechanics. It has since grown considerably in size, filling several floors of a grand if dilapidated building and a slew of other temporary spaces scattered throughout the city. Over the course of its first decade, Townhouse has not only witnessed but also played a pivotal role in reshaping the local cultural landscape, which has changed utterly since 1998. Back then, Townhouse was more or less the enemy of Egypt’s government-sponsored fine arts sector. Now it is the darling of both the official (state) and unofficial (independent) sides of the Cairene art scene, at a time when both are being cannibalized by the rise of private, for-profit art spaces in between.
That said, “Speak Memory” was certainly not a summit on Townhouse’s success. There was only one visual clue––a colorful Group Material–style time line of invitations to twelve years’ worth of events––to suggest that anyone was indulging in navel-gazing nostalgia. And so we were left to wonder: Why were we here at all? Hadn’t the archive as concept (and medium) been thoroughly exhausted, the references to Jacques Derrida and Hal Foster worn terribly thin? But maybe one needed to consider the Townhouse experience as emblematic of a larger cultural shift. For the anxiety that has been generating so many archival pursuits, particularly in the Middle East, must surely be rooted in the fact that artistic practices in this part of the world are gaining greater visibility and that as they find their way into mainstream art-historical and art-critical discourse, they risk losing an essential connection to the conditions that produced them in the first place. The real and palpable fear is that small, scrappy, independent archive projects are capable of containing complexities and idiosyncracies that larger, more professionalized concerns are simply bulldozing over.
“Speak Memory” furthered a specific conversation that has been ongoing since the March Meeting in Sharjah and the Home Works Forum in Beirut earlier this year. It was also preceded by three events in Cairo that contributed to the class reunion vibe. One was the workshop “Don’t Wait for the Archive, Part 2,” hosted by pad.ma at the Rooftop Studios in Mounira, part of the Townhouse network. Another was the latest iteration of the Bidoun Library, which has traveled to Dubai, Beirut, and New York since debuting in Abu Dhabi a year ago. Another still was a meeting of the New Museum’s partners in the ongoing, international Museum as Hub project: Seoul’s art space pool, Mexico City’s Museo Experimental El Eco and Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, Townhouse, and Eindhoven’s Van Abbemuseum. The night before “Speak Memory” began, pad.ma riffed on the Museum as Hub concept by throwing a party called Archive as Pub.
The conference opened the next morning amid unseasonable heat in the black box of the Rawabet Theatre. Curator Laura Carderera paced the speakers carefully and kept a tight schedule throughout the three-day event. As is so often the case, the artists’ talks were the most illuminating––from Susan Meiselas’s keynote on photographic history in Kurdistan to Celine Condorelli’s poetic account of the cotton industry in Alexandria––and also the most fun, leading to several key exchanges between the curator Barnaby Drabble and the team of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin on the virtues of being unserious. This was echoed in a presentation by pad.ma, when Sebastian Lütgert argued for the importance of playfulness amid archival endeavors that too often take themselves too seriously.
“It’s good to act within your competence,” Lütgert said, “and within your responsibility. But you also need to play.” Then he quoted a little-known proverb—“Good archives copy, great archives steal”—which picked up on another recurring theme: knowing when to let go of control over your material in the interests of making it public.
“If you’re not going to make an archive accessible, why keep it?” asked the curator Vasif Kortun, who likened the current generation of collectors to hunters and gatherers, and also to fierce competitors. “Every time new players come into the field, they think they are the best, that they are reinventing the wheel,” he said. “I was like this. But the idea now is to establish a particular kind of continuity, independent from the financialization of the field.”
“We’ve all been ripped off,” said pad.ma’s Ashok Sukumaran. “We’ve all had moments when our generosity has been abused.” For him, a key task of archival practice today is “to stitch back Hal Foster’s wound” between the display function of the museum and the memory function of the archive, noting that most of the symposium’s participants had been more influenced by exhibitions of archival material than by experiences in rooms full of state records.
Addressing the need not only to open up archives but also to use them for developing different forms of collective labor, Lütgert likened the contemporary archivist to “a collaborator, a traitor, and a parasite. Your first parasite may steal your ideas,” he said, “the next may steal your best friend, but none will do your bookkeeping, and none will do your dishes.” Anyway, “the best way to preserve your material is to give it away,” said pad.ma’s Sanjay Bhangar, offering a practical solution and a suitable conclusion.
Left: Mansour Aziz of the Jadmur Collective in Beirut. Right: Kristine Khouri of the History of Arab Modernities in the Visual Arts.
Speaking from a slightly more old-school position, the historian Khaled Fahmy told fascinating stories about reading nineteenth-century police records in the Egyptian national archives. He also described the fearsome figure of Madame Nadia, who guards this material as if it were her own private fortress, having internalized the logic of the state’s security regime to a devastating (and incredibly damaging) degree (to the extent that scholars rely on American and Israeli archives to research twentieth-century Egyptian history).
Unafraid of raising the democratic potential of the symposium’s subject, Fahmy tied archival research to participation in political life, “the civic value of reading in public,” and the pleasure of seeing people transformed by the documents they discover. In a similar vein, Miguel López, of Red Conceptualismos del Sur, characterized his project with admirable ease, and enviable confidence, as part of a wider democratic reconstitution effort.
At times, the symposium suffered from having too many presentations that merely introduced various projects. But a number of crucial questions surfaced again and again––about the complicity of funding regimes (particularly with regard to Lucie Ryzova and Hussein Omar’s project on oral history and collective memory in downtown Cairo, which is being financed by a consortium of real estate developers) and the propriety of making public material deemed personal or intimate (in an otherwise forceful presentation on SALT, a substantial new research center opening in Istanbul next spring, Kortun seemed momentarily stumped on how to explain what intimacy in the archive was, why it should remain undisclosed, or who had the power to made such decisions).
Left: Moukhtar Kocache of the Ford Foundation and artist Maha Maamoun. Right: Curator Vasif Kortun.
By the end of the third and last day, when the Ford Foundation’s Moukhtar Kocache was called upon to sum up, collate, and complicate the discussions that had taken place, everyone’s archive fever had turned into a pounding archive hangover. The art historian Angela Harutyunyan said that archives had become monsters. One of Townhouse’s artists-in-residence said that at this point maybe the most radical gesture would be to destroy those archives in their entirety. “Right? Fuck the archive. It would make a great T-shirt,” Kocache quipped, before curator Suzanne Cotter and art historian Clare Davies stepped up with some reassurance: “But we love the archive. Don’t stop. Carry on.” A seriously existential midlife crisis narrowly averted, for now.
ENTERING THE WHITNEY last Thursday night to catch the debut of Shadow, a video collaboration between artist Slater Bradley and cinematographer Ed Lachman, I was feeling underdressed. The lobby and the second floor (where the video was screening) were populated by the kind of well-heeled young aristocrats that one usually finds at, well, a charity gala for the Whitney. (Characteristically, the real socialites seemed to be huddled around the bar and potato chips downstairs.) Unfortunately, I had missed the plethora of models surrounding Patrick Dempsey at the actual Versace-sponsored Gala three nights prior. Remembering that this was the Upper East Side, I quickly determined that these fashionable hedge fund managers and their spouses were probably members of the museum’s under-forty donors club and were here for the opening of the Paul Thek retrospective and “Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time,” not the bleak, surreal short film I was about to witness.
Inspired by the unfinished 1993 movie Dark Blood (shot by Lachman and directed by George Sluizer), which was the last set River Phoenix left before OD’ing on a heroin-cocaine-Xanax cocktail outside the Viper Room on the Sunset Strip, Shadow finds Bradley continuing his obsession with breathing new life into dead stars (Ian Curtis, Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson). Here, the artist’s “doppelgänger” Ben Brock plays Phoenix playing the half-Navajo widower from Sluizer’s film during the nights and days just before the original film’s script begins. In Dark Blood, a Hollywood jet-set couple (Judy Davis and Jonathan Pryce) break down in the Utah desert where Phoenix lives alone amid dilapidated houses near a nuclear testing ground. Phoenix mourns his Navajo wife, who died of cancer from latent radiation, and, quickly falling for Davis, keeps the couple trapped on the compound so he can start a new life with her. Needless to say, things end as badly in the film as they did for Phoenix in life.
Shadow, a gorgeously shot, elliptical short, is a Möbius-strip mininarrative that could have been co-written by Samuel Beckett and Cormac McCarthy. The Brock/Phoenix character is shown walking out of the desert night with a lantern and into another lonely day in his ghost town. He kicks around, rants and mumbles to himself, finds an old Playboy in an abandoned house, discovers a little girl with a mutilated doll in a trailer, drives the girl out into the middle of nowhere, and drops her off, giving her a pistol holster containing a music box (“Strangers in the Night”) and saying, “This will protect you.” Later, he’s seen sitting by a campfire at night in another spot in the middle of nowhere, burning a Playboy centerfold (not the one he picked up earlier, interestingly), with a kachina doll at his side. He’s last shown walking into the pitch-black distance with a lantern—the beginning of the sequence that will continue at the start of the film.
After watching this three times, I emerged back into the crowd of overdressed socialites milling about the Hopper show. (Hopper himself must be rolling in his grave; nighthawks at the diner these were not.) I went downtown for the postshow dinner hosted by Team Gallery—also celebrating the opening of “The Estate of Chris Vassell”—at Kenmare (excellent cocktails and canapés) and found myself chatting with Lachman over dessert. Something of a stealth operator for such a distinguished cameraman, Lachman started with Herzog and Wenders and has since quietly amassed an impressive, mostly indie filmography, including standout work for Steven Soderbergh, Robert Altman, and the two Todds (Solondz and Haynes).
Quizzed about his favorite black-and-white cinematographers, Lachman gave props to noir master John Alton and Fellini’s genius cameraman Otello Martelli. He tries to use color the way they used black-and-white film, he said, with an eye for aesthetics that transcend realism. (Hence the Technicolor palette of Haynes’s Far from Heaven  and the equally vibrant hues of Shadow, which evoke a digital-video version of John Ford’s The Searchers .) Pressed on the second-class citizenship cinematographers endure in Hollywood, Lachman was gracious. He did allow that there’s only so much a great cameraman can do for a lousy director. Mediocre directors often hire top talent to cover for their failings, but the medium doesn’t work that way, Lachman said. While Bradley’s past efforts have been interesting and well received, if a tad ghoulish, Shadow wouldn’t have had the same impact had it not been shot by an artist of Lachman’s caliber. Near the end of dinner, someone whispered to me that the piece really was about Bradley discovering Lachman; I would agree.