THE EVENING PREVIEW OF THE RODARTE SHOW BEGAN early Wednesday at LA MoCA’s bunker outpost in the Pacific Design Center’s plaza where all attendees had to navigate their way past the monolithic tent city that was being erected to host Elton John’s Oscar party mere days (now hours) away. It might have just been the cranes and forklifts plugging away outside around the clock, but you could feel the subterranean rumbling of the industry––half of the crowd beginning to rev up for the weekend’s bigger, flashier parties to come. Oscar buzz was beyond palpable, not only because Hollywood’s spring of self-love was about to reach its fever-pitch, but because many of the finely wrought, hand-crafted Rodarte specimens on view had been designed for and featured in the awards-show frontrunner, Black Swan.
Entering through the cryptlike ground floor, previewers of the show first encountered a clustered display of gorgeous, ghoulish black dresses (Rodarte Spring 2010) and Black Swan tutus suspended from the ceiling: each a whirlwind of feathers, stamped and crimped leather, distressed cheesecloth, gauzy tulle, and crystal embroidery. We made our way up the stairs into the main gallery that had a grand hall feel, humming with fashionistas murmuring in French and overheated by the bright pop of flash bulbs. At one end of the gallery a levitating group of pristine white gowns (Fall 2010) dripped with pearls and lace calling to mind a rising ghost lit from beneath as if by the glory of God, while similar dresses (Fall 2008) on the other end were bloodied with red stains and cherry marbling that conjured a violent Carrie effect. The fluorescent tube lighting of the show (designed by longtime Rodarte collaborator Alexandre de Betak) pulsed on and off, dimming from bright white glare to black-light ambience. Faint crimson bulbs slowly glowed on periodically like HAL awaking from a dream. It played like Dan Flavin with Tourette’s, or the sinister swinging bar scene in any movie from Mean Streets to Black Swan, or a haunted fair attraction tempting teens to clutch each other tightly in some youthful “purple drank” infused haze. All the while, Jeffrey Deitch fluttered about the room like a bespectacled moth, looking softly into peoples’ souls for a flicker of flame, a pleasant quarter-smile fixed on his face.
Left: Lisa Love with dealer Shaun Caley Regen. Right: Nadja Swarovski.
Local art-world aristocracy played dress up and mixed with the high-minded fringe of the fashion world as smoothly as a crawdad dissolving into Wolfgang Puck’s paella (on the Governor’s Ball menu this year). Mostly, the demographic was cut from the cloth of LA’s patron class, the upper crust of collectors, trustees, and museum directors with all three major contemporary art institutions represented—Michael Govan of LACMA, Annie Philbin of the Hammer, and, of course, MoCA’s Deitch. MoCA trustees John Baldessari and Catherine Opie anchored celebrity to art-stardom and Shaun Caley Regen’s perennial elegance offered the surest bridge between the art, fashion, and movie worlds. But, really, no matter how understated, underdressed, and endearingly unassuming they are, the night’s spotlight was shining entirely for the talented, autodidact Mulleavy sisters, Kate and Laura, whose much-lauded Rodarte creations are being exhibited here for the first time on the West Coast.
Both received the attention gracefully, though Kate, for one, showed her heart lies elsewhere with her characteristically casual dress, sporting a Doors T-shirt and bedazzled black zip-up sweatshirt as though she just came from a Guitar Hero II all-nighter.
Stepping out for air, it was a downright chilly SoCal night, the temperature hovering near a teeth-chattering 60 degrees which meant plenty of young, skinny girls dressed in tiny skirts and goosebumps accompanied by dark-suited gentlemen with tailored black pea coats and scarves swished with dramatic flair. The best people-watching was by far the array of fancy motherhens plumed with couture Rodarte dresses in faux wood-grain print, arm cuffs, pressed leather, dyed chiffon, and avant-garde ragamuffin sweater dresses woven in the Mulleavy’s signature cobweb wool. Diane Von Furstenberg glided through the eye candy, lifted by the airy waves of her coiffed frizz and donning conspicuously large sunglasses, at once perfectly fitting into the crowd and popping out like a calico cat in a room full of albinos.
Time for dinner and off to Mr. Chow’s deep in the loins of Beverly Hills, where more than 150 guests took over the restaurant. The sexual tension in the room was so palpable you could wrap it in lettuce, dunk it in soy sauce, and take a big, crunchy bite out of it along with the other appetizers (Note: the waiters were quite diligent about keeping everyone’s wine glasses full—very full and there is a good chance we could be mistaking sexual tension for Mr. Chow’s spicy chicken, but either way the room vibed woozily electric.) Looking quite debonair in a turquoise velvet blazer, Elijah Wood waxed poetic with tablemate Kate (Mulleavy) about the politicking on American Idol while our dinner table reminisced fondly about Brian Dunkleman—What ever happened to him and when was the last time his name was uttered anywhere near Hollywood, other than at the DMV renewal desk? Keeping it real into the night, Team Mulleavy was well represented across the board by stylist Shirley Kurata, artist Elliott Hundley, Ooga Booga’s dashing impresario Wendy Yao, Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice of band Jenny and Johnny, and No Age’s Dean Spunt and Randy Randall, among others.
As dessert was served and guests began to depart, the obscure coordinates of some hush-hush afterparty circulated among the twenty- and thirty-somethings. Down a nefarious alley and behind a dumpster, we arrived at a backdoor where the starry-eyed, don’t-stop-believing contingent ended up. A snooty, pony-tailed bouncer gravely clutched a list and barred entrance to this secret, unmarked club as a few daytime models/nighttime bar-stragglers loitered and checked nothing at all on their smartphones. Lacking the energy for a check-the-list-again standoff, we left without delay. All of its back-alley mystique couldn’t overcome the mundane fact that this intersection is the exact center of the Hollywood farmer’s market and, come Sundays, this is where homeless Rastafarians play bongos and we buy organic baba ghanoush from a sullen man named Tito who smells like sauerkraut.
Left: Jeffrey Deitch, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and China Chow. Right: Collector Dasha Zhukova.
IT WAS SUPPOSED to be the best of times. A-list actor and Academy Awards co-host James Franco had chosen Berlin’s two branches of Peres Projects to launch his continental art career, and you could feel the anticipation in the air upon arriving the Saturday before last at the Kreuzberg location, where a small gathering of film fans and art sluts joined listless paparazzi and camera crews on dinner break from the Berlinale in loitering about the gallery, which was filled with burnt-out children’s play houses, a few video installations, and a scatter-art piece in the corner. With the exception of Spider Man, there were no Hollywood or even art-world elite present, save for a couple of hack scribes (three, for those who wish to count me) and Klaus Biesenbach, pale with networking fatigue.
The nucleus of early arrivers suddenly multiplied into a swarm as dealer Javier Peres sauntered in alongside the artist, whom he led, somewhat illogically, to the tiny back room of the gallery to conduct an impromptu press conference. I suspect that all hell would have broken loose were it not for the expert crowd management of Peres’s sweet and adorable bear of an assistant, Nick Koenigsknecht, who gently pushed our photographer to the center of the action just as Franco and Peres engaged in a congratulatory huddle with Biesenbach and—who’d have guessed?—Hans Ulrich Obrist.
The mob scene was even worse at the Mitte location, where a crowd queued up to do a once-over of the work, which seemed to comprise ballpoint-pen scrawlings on framed pages of a boys’ adventure book, a wooden tree house–like contraption, and several film and video works that resembled a cross between Kenneth Anger and James Benning. I would have been happy to be at an opening for either of those artists with about one-third of the crowd, honestly.
“What is this place supposed to be? A holocaust museum?” quipped Bruce LaBruce, in town to direct a Schoenberg opera—and that about summed up the spookily cavernous environs of the Lake District Recreational Authority, a club in the basement of Peres Projects’s Mitte branch, where the invite-only after-party took place. Though LaBruce was apparently the only one to pay attention to his surroundings. Perhaps that’s why he made his exit about ten minutes later—either that, or the invitation to the Berlinale soirée at the Canadian Embassy was more tempting.
We sat for half-an-hour trying to figure out who, exactly, the buxom redhead with sunglasses-at-night was—Has-been movie star? Billionaire mogul collector’s wife? Gallerist? Hag?—till I discerned that it had to be drag artiste extraordinaire Zazie de Paris, who was featured in a much talked-about short at this year’s Berlinale directed by legendary downtown actor John Heys. We were then introduced to a young Canadian critic still giddy after having moved to Berlin the week prior. She grilled us about the art world here. “It depends on which art world you’re talking about,” replied curator Michael Rade. “Of the six hundred galleries here, all but fifty of them are project spaces. If you’re disestablishmentarian enough to see this as a sign of health and vitality, you’ll like it and flourish. But most New Yorkers drawn here by the ‘cool factor’ are dissuaded after a year, when they figure out it’s not going to do anything for their careers. They pack their bags and go home.”
By then, we were ready to pack our own bags, but instead of going home, a small group—including Rade and artist Anne Guro Larsmon—convinced me to take a taxi with them to nearby Soho House for a nightcap. Since it opened last spring, the Soho House has been something of a bizarre blemish on the Berlin landscape—a social club for a city that doesn’t need one. Berlin is, after all, about as unpretentious as it gets, and anyone that fancies themselves members of some sort of creative or media elite is more likely to be an object of ridicule in the eyes of those who actually produce the city’s culture. Anyway. At least it would be an opportunity to see the former East German Communist Party Headquarters, where Soho House decided to set up occupancy in some pseudo-ironic gesture, as though willfully connecting the party hacks of yesteryear to Berlin’s newest class of status-seeking social climbers.
Once inside, I was instantly adopted by some PR lackey who insisted on giving me a grand tour of the facilities. The evening reached its zenith with us marching past the velvet ropes on the second floor, where none other than the Material Girl was said to be holding court, in town presumably to squirt lighter fluid on the embers of her filmmaking career. (I’m guessing that it hasn’t gone very far after her debut a few years back with what’s-his-name from Gogol Bordello.) When asked who we were with, I name-dropped a well-known gay escort agency. As though I had uttered the magic words, I felt two pairs of hands whisking me away, and I soon found myself… back out in the D-list gutter, where I arguably belong. Oh well. It was just another Saturday night, after all.
Left: Artist Melvin Moti; Arno van Roosmalen, director of Stroom Den Haag; artist Lara Almarcegui; Wim van Krimpen, former director of the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag; and artist Rob Birza. Right: Dealer Wilfried Lentz. (All photos: Quinn Latimer)
“WELL, ART AMSTERDAM IS SAID to be the most important fair in the Netherlands,” a Dutch artist who will go unnamed said to me with a wink and some mock allegiance at Art Rotterdam’s slow-simmering preview a little over a week ago. Whether he was slyly slamming the larger, older Art Amsterdam in that fairer city just an hour away, or affectionately undercutting his hometown project, was unclear, but I got his point. Situated in the oddly retro-glam Holland-America Line hall in Rotterdam’s former cruise terminal—I nearly expected to see portmanteaus emblazoned with stickers from the world’s grand hotels stacked near the entrance—the twelfth edition of Art Rotterdam was petite and startlingly regional. Seventy-one booths of mostly Belgian and Dutch galleries attended, with a few birds in from London, Frankfurt, and Cluj. Nevertheless, the mood was neither entirely self-deprecating nor provincial: A tangible anticipation stirred the misty North Sea air.
A late plane got me to the preview with only an hour left on the clock, so I quickly made my rounds, stopping in at Rotterdam dealer Wilfried Lentz’s wonderful booth of archaeology-related fare. Some faux-museological vitrines by James Beckett, their hilarious wall labels reading “Etruscan vases, assembled by the paraplegic son of a wine merchant,” hung across from a wall text that read MILDEW, though the D kept slipping, to Lentz’s horror. “I hope my artist doesn’t see this,” he laughed. (Sorry!) After a brief stop by London’s Rokeby, featuring a jumpy trio of stills by Doug Fishbone from his feature film Elmina made in Ghana’s film industry—the Ghaniwood to Nigeria’s Nollywood—I met up with artists Petra Trenkel and Maarten Janssen and we headed down the street to the art-house theater, where an afterparty was brewing.
Left: Rokeby's Beth Greenacre. Right: Frieze Projects curator Sarah McCrory and dealer Rob Tufnell with a painting by Joel Croxson.
There, local hero Joe Kisser (his handle an Anglo-by-way-of–New Jersey translation of his given name, Jeroen Kuster) took the stage in strange animal dress and announced that he would perform three songs in ten minutes—“Maybe eleven if things don’t go right.” His songs sampled The Simpsons and the style of 1990s-era Dutch techno called gabber, and touched on Whitney Houston: “I love her. I have everything of hers . . . Houston, we have a problem.” Afterward, over a beer, I told him I loved her too—I might have related a childhood camping trip in which her cassette tape was thrown out of the car by an irate parent—and Kuster looked thoroughly perplexed: “I just used her name for that Houston reference.” Alas. Later, trams closed, I headed home in true Rotterdam style: on the back of a bike. We rode over the sail-like Erasmusbrug and up to the Hilton, where a blur of artists and dealers were enjoying a nightcap. Ron Mandos was beaming about his sell-out booth, while Amalia Pica toasted her win of the Illy Prize. I paused and then made my exit: There were three more nights where this came from.
My late-night bicycle tour of the city proved prescient for the next day, which began at Rem Koolhaas’s firm OMA, where partners Reinier de Graaf and Ellen van Loon showed a small group of us, including Art Rotterdam director Fons Hof, models of the buildings underway in Rotterdam—the firm’s first in two decades. “Nineteen years and nothing,” de Graaf said, raising his eyebrows and elucidating how the 2008 financial crisis brought building costs down, paradoxically making insanely expensive projects like OMA’s only slightly less prohibitive. Inspired, I stopped by the Netherlands Architecture Institute to see a screening of Kutluğ Ataman’s 2009 film Journey to the Moon, occasioned by his winning the European Cultural Foundation’s Routes Princess Margriet Award for advancing cultural diversity in Europe. The film, a faux documentary limning modernism and its discontents, the space race, and a 1950s Turkish village, deserved the award in spades, but not just because of its politics: It’s fabulous.
A drizzly evening of more awards awaited: At RAiR, curator Leo Delfgaauw gleaned a mix tape of works by Rotterdam artists in residence over the past decade, including one by Susanne Kriemann, for “RAiR#3 Guest House.” Then, after an extended repartee about track pants with artist Karl Orton, which fit the casual setting to a tee, we headed over to TENT, the space just downstairs from the Witte de With, where four Rotterdam artists—Otto Egberts, Lara Almarcegui, Jasper Niens, and Aji V.N.—were competing for the biannual Dolf Henkes Award. At €20,000, it’s no joke. “What is the Turner Prize, £40,000?” someone asked me, alarmed. Joep van Lieshout of Atelier Van Lieshout (pimped out in a purple suit, marigold shirt, and creeping smile) milled about as the crowd surged. After some low-key performances, the lovely Almarcegui—showing with Ellen de Bruijne Projects at the fair—won. Dazed, she ran about with a bouquet of flowers while everyone clinked beer bottles.
Left: Artist Philippine Hoegen and NAI curator Saskia Van Stein. Right: Dealer Christina Wilson and Liste director Peter Blaeuer.
At the fair the next day I ran into Liste director Peter Blaeuer at Christina Wilson’s booth (filled with excellent works by Vanessa Billy and Alicja Kwade), and Sarah McCrory, Frieze Projects curator, at Rob Tufnell’s space. It seemed to be less a matter of sniffing out the fair competition than of catching up with friends. Though collectors such as Jean Bernard and Erika Hoffmann were present, the fair was quiet, a reprieve before the night ahead, which included a stop at Duende, where the show “Beside Itself” played Minimalist sculpture by Martijn Hendriks against Minimalist painting by Bas van den Hurk. A lovely pairing, but I hurried off in the downpour to the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen to meet critic Vivian Rehberg and Dutch artist Gabriel Lester, whose opening had brought in the masses.
The museum was thronged. As I placed my wet jacket in a locker, nearly dropping a two-euro coin in, Lester interfered. “Don’t tip the machine!” he said in mock horror, dropping a smaller coin in. After a look at his knockout show of films and objects, we swept up our stuff and made our way to the party, where I ran into artist Philippine Hoegen and Netherlands Architecture Institute curator Saskia Van Stein on the dance floor, their white shirts crisp against the fluorescent youth flailing behind. We had had dinner the previous week in Basel, where Hoegen’s collaborator Banu Cennetoglu opened a show at the Kunsthalle. Now we were here, dancing against the North Sea storm outside. Lester’s command rang in my head: “Don’t tip the machine!” It seemed a weirdly appropriate banner to wave over the art fair itself, a strange machine that one tips, and tips, and tips, until one’s pockets are empty and it is time to go home.
Left: Artist Joe Kisser. Right: Artist Gabriel Lester (far right) and architect Martine Jetske Vledder (center).
“I WAS STRUCK by the minister of culture, Frédéric Mitterrand. His speech was so heartfelt, quirky, and knowledgeable, with an undercurrent of humor, and he kept giving me sharp little looks all the way through, as if to say ‘You know whom I’m talking about!’ ” This was what AA Bronson told me right after receiving the distinguished French medal of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres last Thursday at the Canadian embassy in Paris.
It’s still unclear whom Mitterand was talking about (perhaps Miss General Idea?), but the event was sufficiently moving and drew 150 friends and admirers who were carried in on buses chartered especially for the occasion. These took them to the embassy from the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, where guests had attended the opening of “Haute Culture,” the first retrospective exhibition of General Idea, that legendary art collective of which Bronson was a founding member.
“For once Paris isn’t the last city to organize an exhibition of this stature, so now we really have something to talk about!” said Christine Van Assche of the Centre Pompidou. “At the moment, the show is only scheduled to travel to Toronto,” said David Moos, curator of contemporary art at the Art Gallery of Ontario. “But we are open to suggestions…”
Left: Artist Pierre Hugyhe and curator Stéphanie Moisdon. Right: Artist Michael Snow.
Because the minister had to reschedule the medal ceremony at the last minute, the exhibition’s curators, Frédéric Bonnet and Odile Burluraux, missed the actual pronouncement. But it was hard for them to be disappointed, given that the opening was such an enormous success. “We were afraid that there wouldn’t be a lot of people compared to the record number of visitors we just had for the Basquiat exhibition,” said Burluraux. “But that’s not how it turned out.”
The Canadian ambassador, His Excellency Marc Lortie, announced the presence of another Canadian artist, Michael Snow, but he forgot to mention that Canuck painter Paul P. was also there. “I’ve been living in Paris for five years and I’ve never come here before,” P. said, unruffled. Not that this matters for much. Pierre Huyghe, who was also there and who considers General Idea (along with Ant Farm) his “forefathers,” told us that he had never been invited to the French embassy in New York, where he moved before winning the Smithsonian prize late last year.
The ambassador’s speech was of course very complimentary, as ambassadors’ speeches tend to be, and Bronson thanked everyone, reminding them that he had shown a copy of FILE, that “alternative to the alternative press,” to the museum thirty-four years ago. Returning now for a retrospective made him extremely happy, he explained, even though his GI comrades Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal are unfortunately no longer with us.
All of General Idea’s dealers were present: Esther Schipper, Victor Gisler (Mai 36), and Frédéric Giroux, as well as longtime friends such as Lonti Ebers and Canadian socialites such as Fern Bayer. The food was absolutely fabulous, with plenty of caviar, oysters, salmon, and crabs to go around. Soigné art adviser Patricia Marshall, who has works by General Idea in her collection, told me, “The food is everything you’re looking for. Why complicate your life? Canada is where you should go on vacation.”
“The Canadian ambassador’s residence is so un-Canadian, kind of glorious and imperial, and unbelievable with our funny mixture of art types—curators, artists, journalists, and a generous helping of cute boys. None of us really belongs,” said the elegant Bronson, wearing a huge, shamanic amber necklace. (He had been spotted with his boyfriend, the hirsute architect Mark Jan Krayenhoff van de Leur, in WWD a few weeks before, occupying the front row at many shows, including Givenchy.) When I asked him where he got the necklace, he told me it was from a shop in Paris called . . . Manet? Monet? Money? I’m not sure I understood. We didn’t stay too late and no afterparty seemed to have been organized. Anyway, Bronson had to edit several articles at the new office in Paris for JRP-Ringier, which is working on the group’s catalogue raisonné. “At last, I felt like there was someone at the government level who understood what General Idea was all about,” he told me as he left. Yes, at last . . . Now could you imagine the US government getting, say, David Wojnarowicz in the same way? That “at last” has yet to come.
Translated from the French by Jane Brodie.
“MAYBE WE SHOULD DROP the word history from art history, ” declared Patricia Mainardi, a professor from CUNY’s Graduate Center. She was regaling a standing-room-only crowd last Thursday during her opening remarks for “The Crisis in Art History,” a panel she had convened for the annual College Art Association conference, which took place over four days at the Hilton in midtown Manhattan. Mainardi, an art historian recognized for her work on nineteenth-century Europe, deplored the fact that eight out of ten art history grad students are now studying contemporary. Why do they? The global economy, explained Mainardi, is like a “sun whose magnetic attraction pulls other bodies out of alignment.”
From the back of the room, I might have added that contemporary art has become part of a youth culture caught in a perpetual state of rapid technological and social change. Who can blame students for latching onto objects that might make sense of their world? Moreover, you don’t need to have studied the dynamics of hipness to see how American art history departments have become conduits of freewheeling “subcultural capital” rather than purveyors of moribund cultural capital.
Yale professor David Joselit tackled a kindred aspect of the “commodification of knowledge” in his tour-de-force fifteen-minute talk about “image overpopulation.” “I call this diagram the prison house of meaning,” he deadpanned as he pointed at a PowerPoint slide of a turquoise circle shackled to four balls and chains. I wanted to quibble with his implication that certain long-standing conditions were somehow new (haven’t “value” and “content” been “circulatory” and “situational” since the rise of easel painting?), but otherwise I found his argument unassailable. When Joselit concluded that the crisis in art history resulted from the way the discipline “fixes content by assigning a meaning” and “sees images as singular things” rather than searchable populations, I wanted to holler “hear hear,” but CAA etiquette prohibits anything but judicious clapping.
Left: Art historian Jonathan Katz. Right: Art historians Howard Singerman and Katy Siegel.
Indeed, search seemed to be a catchword at the conference. Joselit referred repeatedly to “the epistemology of search,” by which I think he meant that we need to track the mutations and movements of artworks through the world to understand them. The term came up elsewhere too. During a panel on “Re-curating,” Reesa Greenberg, an independent scholar best known for coediting the textbook Thinking About Exhibitions, discussed “installations as search rather than solution.” Focusing on a recent series of shows curated by Charles Esche that aim to “activate” the private collection of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, she welcomed this challenge to “masterpiece aesthetics and the ideology of stasis.”
Any given route through the three hundred panels and associated meetings that make up the conference is bound to be idiosyncratic. Sometimes I wasn’t sure how I had ended up at one session rather than another one in a bigger ballroom down the hall. Maybe CAA should invest in a software program like Amazon’s that sorts “Recommendations for You in Panels” based on previous participation, page views, and what a nervous job candidate addressing a Harvard hiring committee might call “affective alliances.”
Perhaps as an antidote to external “searching,” narcissism was also in the air. Tirza True Latimer introduced a panel for the Queer Caucus for Art by citing her “perverse desire to rise to the defense of narcissism.” During that session, Jonathan Katz of SUNY Buffalo (recently in the news as the guest curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s censored “Hide/Seek” show) took the podium to present a compelling paper about Yayoi Kusama’s “orgies of polka-dotting.” He argued against the frequent linkage of female creativity to psychosexual pathologies like narcissism. “Rarely has madness spawned such a coherent political program,” he affirmed. “There is no better exemplar of the 1960s than Kusama!”
Left: Art historian Patricia Mainardi. Right: Suzanne Hudson, Alexander Dumbadze, and Joshua Shannon, founders of the Society for Contemporary Art Historians.
But the narcissistic pièce de résistance came unannounced, in the midst of a panel about Lawrence Alloway (the art critic who popularized the term “Pop art”), when NYU prof Nicholas Mirzoeff offered an unexpected display of self-love by repeatedly evoking the late great Alloway’s “affinities to me.” It appeared the scholar wanted to, er, “épater art history,” as he put it, by making himself the subject of visual studies.
The rest of the Alloway panel ran with a wide range of productive “isms” that ultimately jibed with the “search” theme. For example, Richard Kalina of Fordham University saw Alloway as a pluralist who “wouldn’t appreciate being an ism” because he disliked fixed opinions. And Courtney Martin, a Yale PhD currently teaching at Vanderbilt in Tennessee, discussed Alloway’s “networks” by looking at the social constellations around Frank Bowling, an abstract painter who was born in Guyana, trained in London, and befriended by Alloway in New York.
Also on this panel was Linda Nochlin, just back from London where the granddaughters of grande-dame feminists had thrown her an eightieth birthday party (or so I overheard while queuing in the ladies’ restroom). Nochlin may believe in assigning “a meaning,” but she has done it so well for so long that it is impossible not to adore her. She gave a talk about the late Sylvia Sleigh, who was married to Alloway, arguing that her male nudes were “portraits all the way down,” in contrast to the work of painters such as Ingres, whose female faces were so depersonalized that they “could be buttocks.”
On the morning of the third day of the conference, I couldn’t attend a session featuring artists Vija Celmins and Robert Gober, as I was busy moderating a panel on Damien Hirst. Diametrically opposed views sliced up the room, then everything was expertly stitched together into an amicable summation by our “discussant,” Thomas Crow of NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. Crow defended the British artist known for his pickled sharks against the expectation that artists should be “herbivores,” and he argued that the love/hate encountered by Hirst’s work did not amount to a “tepid averaging out” but was evidence of the “irreconcilable positions accomplished by real works of art.”
As we left the session, I wondered how Professor Mainardi would have taken it had she attended. Deborah Silverman (UCLA) likened Hirst to Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Martha Buskirk (Montserrat College) drew parallels between Hirst’s vigilant copyrights and William Hogarth’s eighteenth-century print business, but our work would nevertheless––oh evil of evils––“function economically,” as Mainardi puts it. Yet, for those of us who stick to writing, researching, or teaching contemporary art, the global economy is less a motivator than an object of study. And the fast pace of change means that, like it or not, 2008 is history.
CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR…
With a touch of dramatic irony, this year’s installment of the annual SITAC conference, at the Teatro Julio Castillo in Mexico City, centered on the “Theory and Practice of Catastrophe” and began with the circulation of two competing, contradictory program schedules. The resulting bafflement, however, was quickly forgotten as the bone-chilling coldness of the poorly designed lecture hall lulled guests into a state of torpor that would come to characterize the next three days of the conference.
On Thursday, day one of the colloquium, the first speaker was the hotly anticipated author Juan Villoro. No stranger to literary invention, he proffered a sly image of the “paparazzo of hell” to knot together how the ubiquity of crises in daily life was matched by a growing number of artistic commentaries (the work of J. G. Ballard in particular) on the subject and a constant media thirst for disaster. Villoro managed to implicate both the audience’s voyeurism as attendees of a conference on catastrophe and his own simultaneous complicity. Adding a bit of (unintended) humor, conference organizer and artist Eduardo Abaroa joined the stage after the talk in full parka. The audience chuckled—camaraderie in misery, perhaps—then bundled up and settled in for the rest of the proceedings.
Left: Artist G. T. Pellizzi, MoCA Miami curator Ruba Katrib, and artist Adriana Lara. Right: The facade at the Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros.
Day one down, Colección Jumex consultant Victor Zamudio-Taylor offered to be my guide for the various openings that coincided with the conference. The main stop of the night was at Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros, where we caught two works, POSTMISERIA by Artemio and Restauración de una pintura mural by the collaborative Tercerunquinto. These displays were well up to the task of stirring reflection and emotion more rewarding than the day of theory. POSTMISERIA, which in part manifests as a lighted facade-work spelling out its title, begs audiences to move on from the tired mythology of Mexico as a place of violence—SITAC, take note. Taking a stand against forgetting, Tercerunquinto’s showcase of “restored” political advertisements was easily the highlight of the week. The central piece in this series is a painstaking cleaning and retouching of a PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) mural left over from the 2000 election in which the autocratic and long-ruling party finally lost power.
As the gallery’s inhabitants spilled into the street, I was happy to find myself in a small huddle with artists Francis Alÿs, G. T. Pellizzi, and Gabriel Cázares Salas. After some discussion, we decided our best bet was to grab a mezcal at Portal de Cartagena and spearhead the afterparty. Once there, bar mates inquired as to what I had seen while in town. Jogging my memory with the help of “a little blood” (aka sangrita) and documentarian Natalia Almada, I thought about Irene Kopelman’s exhibition at Labor.
Titled “50 Metres Distance or More,” Kopelman’s show presented reportage completed by the artist while on an expedition in Antarctica. This elegiac collection, composed at a distance from the coast, depicts the continent’s sublime, and soon to be lost, mixes of rock, ice, and ocean. Then there was Héctor Zamora’s opening at El Museo Experimental El Eco, for which the artist filled the courtyard with a group of inflatable bouncy castles. In a possible play on the expression “castles in the air,” the courtyard was locked up and thus engagement with the festive objects denied. Unfortunately, this critique of privilege and/or delusion was overshadowed by the castles’ shabby appearance—perhaps the sanction was in place to prevent them from popping?
Day two of the conference was no better than the first, and it began with a remedial yet lively talk by theorist Manuel De Landa. Basically Earth Science 101, De Landa’s presentation described how dynamic forces like high and low pressure systems collide to produce valences such as tornados, which can be seen as “discovery” or “chaos” depending on the observer. Parodying this focus on physical thresholds, composer Juan Cristóbal Cerrillo texted my neighbor REACHING THE CRITICAL POINT AT WHICH I WANT TO LEAVE. Bjornstjerne Christiansen and Jakob Fenger of the art group Superflex and curator-collector Patrick Charpenel followed with a set of prescriptive art-activist initiatives by the collective, including a gas-harvesting machine that turns manure into energy for the impoverished. As the day plodded on, the theme continued to drift away from “catastrophe” as Pablo Vargas Lugo presented a talk on finales in the Western classical music tradition. Adding comic relief, the US embassy’s simultaneous translators began to hum along to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. After this lullaby, the day’s final panel explored the sea, biological determinism, and political borders, a loose grouping if ever there was one. At this point, I spoke with curator Magali Arriola and a crowd of people gathered out front about other possible takes on the alleged topic so as to clear my head and to buck up for the final round. Alternatives aside, we all agreed that at the very least something would have to happen in the final day to justify the expenditure of the first two.
On Saturday, T. J. Demos, trying to steer the conference back on course, queried the artist Minerva Cuevas on the subject of ecological disaster, which resulted in a rather bland condemnation of capitalism by Cuevas. Going further afield, curator José Roca seemed set on reading the proliferations of biennials as some sort of catastrophe in itself, and, later, curator Julieta González talked about artists Luis Camnitzer, Gustav Metzger, and others who fled to Latin America due to the Holocaust. At this point a “surprise guest,” Felipe Ehrenberg, was Skyped in to invigorate the panel. Running outside for a preplanned breath of air, I bumped into artist Carlos Amorales, whose “shocking” presentation during last year’s SITAC on feminism featured his wife doing an onstage striptease and was still hot on current attendees lips. With this panel down, I was finally prepared to embrace the ultimate presentation, in which artist Johan Grimonprez began to beat old, dead horses with a talk on that cad, American hegemony and ideology—insert Rumsfeld et al.
Left: Artist Johan Grimonprez and writer Tom Vanderbilt. Right: Museo Tamayo curator Magnolia de la Garza and artist Carlos Amorales.
When the SITAC was said and done, I rode to the closing lunch at the Casa Luis Barragán with collector César Cervantes, who suggested that the meandering inattention to the overarching theme might have fostered an uninspired conference. Indeed, he mentioned that SITAC and its panel-laden format night have become “antiquated” (a sentiment echoed by curator and SITAC committee member Mariana Munguia, who had to go as far back as Issa Benítez’s edition in 2004 for a high-water mark). Leave it to the academy to make a conference on “catastrophe” so complacent. Maybe this apparent lethargy is symptomatic of a need for more time between each version and fewer iterations overall (it is now in its ninth edition). In any case, thankfully, there are signs of life outside the institution.
NEITHER RAIN NOR SNOW, Italian economic crisis nor Egyptian revolution, could stop Bologna’s Arte Fiera, the biggest and oldest art fair in Italy, from opening its thirty-fifth edition on the last Thursday of January. Clutches of elegantly dressed collectors chatted cheerfully in the expansive aisles of the city’s exhibition center, giving it the familial atmosphere of a reunion rather than a marketplace. Neapolitans seemed to have the majority, among them Aurelio De Laurentiis, nephew of film producer Dino and chairman of the SSC Napoli football team. A former resident offered a possible explanation for scheduling the fair in the cold of winter: “I hear it takes place early in the year because it is the perfect way to launder money just before tax season.” Young Roman collector Lorenzo Mancini added, “Exactly: You spend it on art, it becomes clean, and you get a blessing from the church.”
Artist Rainer Ganahl, whose video and bike were displayed at the RAM (Radio Arte Mobile) stand, was getting in on the action too: He begged his Bolognese gallery to give him cash so he could buy a Lucio Fontana—but alas, it was sold before he got back to the dealer. The healthy sales seemed to reflect Italy’s robust private wealth and cash economy, which in spite of its grave public debt proportions have so far saved it from the fate of Greece or Spain. Hence the bella figura reigns also in terms of the nation, if not in the antics of its prime minister.
Every year after the evening preview there is the same scuffle of fairgoers over the rare taxi to get downtown. I hitched a ride to Spazio Carbonesi, in the gutted Palazzo Zambeccari, where an elegant box dinner was being served among the installations of “Svoboda,” an atmospheric exhibition of Russian artists both established and emerging. Standing next to Alexander Brodsky’s shadowy installation, confined behind a big chain-link fence, curator Daria Khan said, “It is about the irony that repression actually inspires creativity.” Curator Andrei Erofeev talked about his attempt to discuss censorship in Russia in the form of the 2007 exhibition “Forbidden Art,” at Moscow’s Sakharov Center, over which he lost his job and was hauled into court: “Even in communist times people did not get prosecuted for this sort of thing,” he complained. As if on cue, Vittorio Sgarbi, renowned ladies’ man and controversial curator of the Italian pavilion for the 2011 Venice Biennale, rushed breathlessly in the door. He had been fired from his position as Milan’s cultural advisor in 2008, not long after an irreverent exhibition he organized on “homosexual” art—“Vade retro” (Latin for “get thee behind”)—was shut down by the mayor the day after it opened.
Bologna is an architecturally introverted city, with rich interiors and courtyards concealed by plain facades and arcaded walkways. The yearly initiative “Art First,” curated by Julia Draganovic, pierces the staid exterior by inserting exhibitions and performances into various historic buildings and museums. The next morning I joined in on a tour with Draganovic, starting with Antony Gormley’s rusting cubist statue Feeling Material in a courtyard of the Archiginnasio Palace. “It looks like the Thing from the Fantastic Four,” artist Cristian Savini noted. It was oddly both that and a perfect meld of color and sentiment with the seemingly forgotten garden and its sixteenth-century fresco. Next we marched on to “In Search of . . . ,” an excellent show of Matthew Day Jackson’s work curated by Gianfranco Maraniello at the MAMbo. Death, destruction, and spirituality were major tropes, including portraits of the artist “dead” and the ingenious memento mori The Way We Were, a series of metal skulls that devolve gorgeously into their geometric abstraction and then finally a pyramid.
That evening the soaring ballroom of Palazzo Pepoli was packed with a boisterous crowd toasting the Furla Prize. The exhibition of young Italian contenders snaked through various elegant rooms and included deconstructed furniture by Francesco Arena. I caught the artist Matteo Rubbi in a Herculean struggle to move a detached wall into a seemingly random position, the action more important than the result, before he went downstairs to claim first prize. “He forced me to perform with him once,” artist Helidon Gjergji said. “I had to play Jack in a reenactment of an episode of Lost.” I ran into jury member Christian Boltanski, who was just back from Australia; everything that happens in his studio for the rest of his life is being transmitted by video to Tasmania’s recently unveiled Museum of Old and New Art, “even when I am picking my nose or not there,” he said. “They are paying me a monthly fee for that.” A posse followed curator Lorenzo Bruni to Bolognese dealer Enrico Astuni’s house and continued the revelry with a feast. Then those with energy to spare went on to Cassero club, where the scene was hallucinogenic: Everybody was dressed as a Super Mario Bros. character, jumping around and bouncing off the walls.
The next day, after perhaps an hour of trawling the fair’s three massive pavilions, exhaustion from sensory overload set in: “We only have two hundred more galleries to go,” my companion said wearily. In the first pavilion, featuring both modern and contemporary art, a crowd dressed in formal black was cooing tenderly over Patricia Piccinini’s Litter, an installation of tender piglike babies, at Verona’s FaMa gallery: “Madonna mia, they are sleeping!” exclaimed one man. On the other side of a long hallway and the VIP lounge, we stopped at Neapolitan Alfonso Artiaco’s stand, devoted entirely to Gilbert & George’s “Postcards” of London sights or escort services dizzyingly “arranged to form an angulated version of the sign of the urethra”—basically a square instead of a circle around a single dot. “Genius!” a man exclaimed as he walked past the dealer. The best place to have a stand seemed to be at the end near the champagne bar, where Athens gallery Kalfayan moved this year. “Cultivating our relationship with Italian collectors has made it completely different,” Arsen Kalfayan reported. “We placed works by Antonis Donef, Hrair Sarkissian, and young artist Rania Bellou with important Italian collectors.” Indeed, Bologna is the place where Italians buy, so if you can talk the talk—lots of it—you are in like Flynn. On the way out we were perked up by an uncanny Berlusconi figure peering out of a can, a sculpture by Jota Castro displayed at Massimo Minini. “It looks too natural to be Mister B—he has no makeup on!” Lorenzo Mancini exclaimed.
Another palace, another party: After lunch the crowd grew beyond critical mass, and it was nearly impossible to walk, so we fled to get sustenance at the annual open house hosted by collectors Marino and Paola Golinelli. We found what we needed to fortify ourselves: every possible form of chocolate, to be eaten either under a Sissi nest sculpture or next to an unsettling depiction of hell by Entang Wiharso. A Jeff Koons ceramic Puppy peered down reassuringly from the top of a wall opposite. By the time we got our fill it was nearly impossible to move, as the crowds we had escaped at the art fair seemed to have moved en masse to the party. We forced our way outside, where a Berlusconi rally had all of ten people. They were either brave or crazy to be supporting the prime minister in Bologna, a socialist bastion in Italy’s red zone, complete with a left-leaning tower. It was by far the strangest performance of the weekend.
LOS ANGELES HOLDS SWAY as the promised land, with plenty of space for everyone’s dreams, a city always ever just about to be. When art fair organizers dream of Los Angeles, they conjure something like the intro to a soft-core porno, something beachy and free and easy with wealthy collectors trailing after cruising movie stars who are ready to deliver, offscreen, the necessary money shot. Along with the sophomore iteration of Art Los Angeles Contemporary, which ran the weekend before last, it seems that the Merchandise Mart has been having its own California dreams, materializing this September as Art Platform—Los Angeles.
It was a straight shot down I-10 that Thursday from the city’s nondescript downtown towers to the beach, out of the smog and into the sunsetting lavender and gold, one of those beautiful days in LA that makes East Coasters all weepy. (More than a few of said ECers were stuck in the snow and couldn’t actually make it.) The usually traffic-choked drive took a merciful quarter hour. I waltzed right into the Barker Hangar at the Santa Monica Airport and set to leisurely grazing the assembled wares during the vernissage.
Meandering through the booths (no churn and bustle just yet—this baby was a sauntering affair), I passed by collectors (yes, collectors) doing the same, and kind of a lot of them. Herb and Lenore Schorr were getting successfully hustled (not by a dealer, take note) to buy a piece by Paul Heyer at the Night Gallery/Eighth Veil booth. MoCA LA trustee Kathi Cypres was touring with curator Bennett Simpson, and Parker Jones was giving his pitch in front of a painting by Gerald Davis, which sold before the fair even cracked its doors. All of this occasional deal making (more than enough, I heard, if the dealers are to be trusted) was punctuated by the periodically deafening roar overhead of planes taking off and landing.
Passing one of the strongest booths at the fair—David Kordansky’s unlikely pairing of Thomas Lawson and Richard Jackson—I skipped out to a tent set up adjacent to the hanger and an amphitheater made of discarded art crates, designed by Liz Glynn to host many of the weekend’s public performances. It was also where the bar was, so Glynn and I sipped cocktails along with her LA dealer Erica Redling, lounging on the crates, until I lounged myself right off of one, crashing but with drink unspilt.
I headed back into the fair to catch a Brendan Fowler performance at the booth for Joel Mesler’s Untitled, which actually had no artwork in it at all but was wallpapered with a replica of Mesler’s booth as it had appeared in the online VIP Art Fair the week before (complete with contemplative shadow). Nothing was for sale. “I didn’t even bring an iPad,” Mesler said before launching into a description of his latest project, a “Greater LA” exhibition in New York he is organizing with the curator Benjamin Godsill and collector Eleanor Cayre, the size and scope of which is intended to rival MoMA PS1’s New York version. “We want to show that LA is better on New York’s own fucking turf.”
As the crowd dissipated, I drove the few hundred yards up the street to Anthony Pearson’s house, where the artist was hosting a party with his wife, Ramona Trent. I’m always astonished by the sheer awesomeness of the view from their Mar Vista bungalow. A twenty-six-foot-long glass wall slid away to let in the balmy night air and afford a panorama of Century City, while a coterie of mostly artists munched on empanadas. It’s one of those tropes of art fairs (or any events like art fairs) that you endlessly talk about the fair, and this was no different. Except, that is, for the question that Los Angeles–based artist Nathan Hylden asked after taking one look at my tie: “So you actually went to the art fair?”
Left: Dealer Parker Jones with Mihai Nicodim’s Luanna Hildebrandt. Right: Dealer Jessica Silverman and critic Franklin Melendez. (Photos: Andrew Berardini)
And I did again, but not the following day, when I sneaked into a visit at collector and Jumex juice heir Eugenio López’s home in Beverly Hills. He was not in attendance (even if he was in town), but his amiable curator Esthella Provas rattled through the works on view with a series of loose hand gestures. To paraphrase: “That one’s a Cattelan, the orange one’s a Warhol, those are by Donald Judd. Here’s an Orozco, a Hirst. That one there’s by Alan Seurat. This one’s by Paul McCarthy. On the coffee table is a Calder. That’s by Joel Morrison. And yes, that big one over there is Gursky.” There was a book on hand to fill in some of the blanks; the audience’s sotto voce commentary gave some more (“He got that Morrison at the Armory last year. Joel’s supposed to make us a piece, but I guess he’s got priorities . . . ”). This was just the living room.
We all trundled outside where a big, flat, yellow Jeff Koons elephant presided over the lounge area. Is it ever polished? someone asked. Esthella: “Sometimes for parties. At 5 AM, it looks like it’s sweating. It’s really beautiful.” We broke for soft drinks. Yes, Jumex was served.
After hours banging around the city from Hollywood to Chinatown, I ended the night at 3 AM at Mike Kelley’s old studio at the Farley Building in Eagle Rock, where a smattering of young artists and noise aficionados (including local legend John Wiese) were gathered to watch a mélange of musicians, including Kelley, perform. I arrived late but still managed to fall out of the Incredible Hulk bounce house (I know, it’s a theme) and catch Kelley on pipes (with Dave Muller just behind, manning a sizable tuba) marching out of the building and into the cluster of smokers gathered in the back parking lot.
Amid visions of sweating elephants and marching tubas, I woke bright and early the next day to head downtown to USC for a VIP visit to the school’s grad studios, mostly because I was curious to find out what a grad studio visit on an art fair “VIP schedule” meant. It means that a handful of ladies with Birkins and I wander around the open studios while the students eat the croissants. MFA director Charlie White was on hand, supervising with his typical warmth and dynamism. “I just like having brunch with the students,” he said.
The rest of the day felt like the usual art fair jaunt, jogging from event to event: first Glenn Kaino and Derek DelGaudio’s magic performance back at the fair, then an evening cocktail at local patrons Christopher Yin and John Yoon’s downtown loft to celebrate the Rema Hort Mann Foundation’s inauguration of a grant program for emerging artists in Los Angeles. This was followed by a trip to the Hammer for the opening of its final Hammer Invitational (to be replaced by a Los Angeles biennial) cocurated by Anne Ellegood and Douglas Fogle, and then a dinner at the Mondrian in West Hollywood. I cut through the smattering of Lolitas lounging around the lobby with their substantially older investment banker boyfriends and walked into the dinner a bit late. Many of the weekend’s cast of characters sat clustered on the outdoor patio: LA collector Blake Byrne waxed rhapsodic to the Horts about a promising young painter he’d seen at the fair (Kevin Cosgrove at Dublin-based Mother’s Tankstation). Art Los Angeles Contemporary director Tim Fleming sat next to Mesler, not far from ltd gallery proprietor Shirley Morales, who started a series of toasts celebrating everyone at the table: “To Tim’s fair, to Joel’s booth!” Each of us raised our glass in turn, till someone called out (nodding to the name of Morales’s gallery), “To Living the Dream.”
“To Living the Dream!” a chorus called back. Eyes met and glasses clinked one last time as we downed our cocktails in homage.
UPON ENTERING the New York Public Library’s South Court Auditorium on Friday for “Art / Truth / Lies: The Perils and Pleasures of Deception,” a panel on art hoaxes and “parafictions,” I was passed a survey that (I assume) was handed to every attendee of every event at the Franco-American liaison dangereuse known as the Walls & Bridges festival. Sponsored and curated by the Villa Gillet, a “unique cultural institute interested in thought in all its expressions” whose very existence points up the cultural chasm between France and America, the festival seeks to mingle writers, artists, theorists, and thinkers from the two nations. The survey solicited audience feedback, asking attendees to agree or disagree with statements like “It was intellectually challenging” and “It was very innovative.” The four-point response scale was a noble effort at multiculturalism, ranging from the very American “Yes, totally” (duuude), through the surprisingly British “Rather yes” and “Rather no,” to the mildly French “Not at all.” It ended by asking for your phone number.
I mention this because it felt like a meta-appetizer for the topic of the day—well-wrought artifacts that beggar credibility, smack of self-parody, and threaten to destabilize the enterprise in which they participate. Moderated by the voluble, intense D. Graham Burnett of Cabinet magazine, the panel paired Yanks Glenn D. Lowry, director of MoMA, and Carrie Lambert-Beatty, art historian, with Francs Pierre Cassou-Noguès and Jean-Pierre Dupuy, philosophers both.
Burnett welcomed the half-full room and joked that the postponement of the panel (due to the previous evening’s blizzard) was itself a hoax, an attempt to “make the event disappear and take the money.” He then described the seed idea for the topic: At an unrelated panel Burnett had attended on reason and rationality, one of the panelists presented an archive of materials from the “Amateur Coney Island Psychoanalytic Society,” a midcentury venture, led by one Albert Grass, to build an amusement park dedicated to teaching people about psychoanalysis.
The archive—photos, drawings, comics, plans—was fascinating. It was also completely fake, having been fabricated by the panelist. Burnett recalled discussing this with his colleagues afterward, wondering if it was “going too far.” Riffing on the malleability of history in the digital era, he allowed that there was a long tradition of this type of forgery but rhetorically asked whether the practice and its effects were changing, auguring a new era of covert inauthenticity and untrustworthy historical records. Stephen Colbert calls this “truthiness”; the panelists referred to it as “facticity.”
Lambert-Beatty moved to the lectern to deliver her presentation. Leading with a list of artists as hoaxsters and impersonators, she focused on Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s performance work Undiscovered Amerindians, shown at the Smithsonian in 1992. In the piece, the two artists presented themselves as live, outrageously adorned Native Americans from a previously unknown tribe, housed in a cage in the lobby of the museum. Half of the viewers bought the hoax, Lambert-Beatty said, and were furious at the Smithsonian when they learned the truth.
The Yes Men impersonate Dow Chemical, December 3, 2004.
She then moved on to the Nikeplatz sculpture, erected in Vienna in 2003 by Eva and Franco Mattes, aka 0100101110101101.ORG. This fake corporate “urban renewal” effort in a drug-plagued neighborhood was slickly produced and installed, bamboozling Viennese for an entire month before the sneaker company forced its dismantling. Lambert-Beatty concluded with a discussion of media pranksters the Yes Men, mentioning their parody WTO website and Dow Chemical impersonation in the wake of the Bhopal chemical spill. Such works reside in the gray area “between the possible and the plausible,” she said. I thought to myself that while some of these hoaxes involved artists, they were squarely in the dark satiric tradition of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” using sustained, over-the-top fakery to make bald sociopolitical statements.
Cassou-Noguès came next, eschewing both PowerPoint and fidelity to English pronunciation. He spoke about the case of Nicolas Bourbaki, a fake Turkish mathematician created in the 1930s by a group of French mathematicians, who published a series of books on a new way of understanding and teaching the quantitative disciplines. Based on a fundamental deception, the works of Bourbaki had real and not entirely misleading effects on pure math, and he is still cited despite the long-standing awareness of his nonexistence. Hoax characters such as Bourbaki are not like characters in a novel by “Deekins,” Cassou-Noguès said; they instead enjoy a kind of “quasi-existence.”
Dressed like an Anglo version of a stylish mafioso—black suit, black shirt, violet handkerchief—Lowry gave a cogent presentation on the parafictional aspects of several contemporary Middle Eastern artists, keyed to the work of Walid Raad. A Lebanese artist who created a fake archive of documents and visual materials documenting Lebanon’s endless civil wars, Raad has successfully transferred the Borgesian sensibility into contemporary art, and the ersatz scholarship of his invented Atlas Group has for many years pointed to larger, real-world truths about the region.
Dupuy, who is clearly vying for the spot vacated by Baudrillard in the French cultural landscape, claimed that there was nothing new under the sun with regard to fakery in art and letters. He quoted Barthes: “All literature is a lie made manifest. It can say, ‘As I move forward, I point out my mask.’ ” He cited Borges and discussed the concept of literature as an Ouroboros, the self-devouring snake. Dupuy then moved to a rhetorical set piece on the character of Madeleine in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, noting that the woman Kim Novak impersonates in the film for James Stewart is a “fiction within a fiction,” presenting a kind of philosophical paradox. How Žižek of him.
Burnett began the panel discussion, drawing a distinction between forgery—a lie that requires the viewer’s gullibility and has no life after its exposure—and fiction. Lowry built on this point by saying that, unlike hoaxes, parafictions allow viewers/readers to invest them with life and perpetuate them, even after the deception is revealed. To Burnett’s question about the philosophical tradition being about the separation of illusion from reality, Lowry responded that in repressive countries, parafictions are often the only way to air truths that cannot be spoken otherwise. Echoing his reading of Madeleine, Dupuy brought up a Derrida quote about money: “There can be no counterfeit money, because real money is already a sham.”
A brief Q&A followed, with one audience member asking, “I don’t mean to be a downer, but isn’t this stuff like Michele Bachmann asserting that the founding fathers ended slavery? We shouldn’t let artists off the hook.” I myself enjoy well-wrought hoaxes, pranks, and deceptions, in the arts or otherwise, but the lady had a point. Absent from both the tone and the content of the discussion was an acknowledgment that nonartist public figures are willfully and systematically distorting the historical record for seriously unfunny financial and political ends. Worst of all, they’re doing it without an ounce of wit or style, elements that can make even the most humiliating deception somewhat pleasurable.
As the event ended, the NYPL’s Paul Holdengräber correctly noted that the glaring omission from the day’s discourse was the word Irony. How utterly American.