THE BRUCE HIGH QUALITY FOUNDATION is nothing if not ambitious: Tuesday evening in Manhattan saw the arch collective convene at Cooper Union to launch their Teach 4 Amerika tour, a “five-week, 11-city, coast-to-coast road trip that crosses state lines and institutional boundaries to inspire and enable local art students to define the future of their own educational experience.” Parking their stretch limo—painted yellow to resemble a school bus—outside Cooper’s entrance, the BHQF had already littered the Great Hall with balloons, and one masked member was firing pennants and tie-dyed T-shirts into the audience as I arrived. Onstage, the NYU Pep Band bashed out a selection of inspirational covers, from Rihanna’s “Umbrella” to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.”
Applying their ninjalike PowerPoint skills, the Foundation gave it everything they had in this particular audiovisual manifesto. Though trailed in some quarters as a panel discussion, their Creative Time–supported “Rally for Anarchy in Arts Education” was closer to a state-of-the-art state of the union address, a lone bespectacled orator commandeering a sequence of projected images timed with split-second precision. Opening with a clip from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy and the gang standing in for an archetypal class of MFA students—the prickly text and its eclectic visual accompaniment moved on to the story of one artist—the perhaps real, perhaps imaginary “Emma Hastings”—and her struggles with the current system of art education in this country.
As a British expat, your correspondent claims no firsthand experience of the American way of learning, but the fact that recent changes to educational funding back home were controversial enough to spark riots has kept issues around tuition fees and the notion of art-as-profession firmly on my radar. It doesn’t take much to locate some serious inconsistencies in the way that art schools in both places are organized, but what is to be done? Teach 4 Amerika takes aim at multiple targets, from the dubious quotas and pay scales determined by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design to National Endowment for the Arts chief Rocco Landesman’s get-a-job “Art Works” slogan, but lays no claim to a cure-all.
Left: The Bruce High Quality Foundation rally for Teach 4 Amerika at Cooper Union. Right: Creative Time chief curator Nato Thompson with artist Judi Werthein.
Nevertheless, the BHQF message, while couched in irony, remains affectingly idealistic. “We’re not here to protest the market,” they announce, but nonetheless encourage reconsideration of an economic imperative they characterize, gently, as “a bit too strong.” The art world may offer up a range of ways to make money, but as far as Bruce and friends are concerned, “deciding what art is is the job of artists.” “Whether it’s art schools in bars or art schools on Mars,” they argue—speaking from experience in at least one case—it’s time for something new. The demise of programs overstuffed with debt-saddled students for the sole aim of generating institutional revenue is clearly on the agenda. A broader remodeling that draws energy from “the strange and difficult” magic generated by artists when gathered en masse is harder to map out, but such, they insist, is the task at hand.
A packed afterparty at the Wooly looked to be populated mainly by on-the-case Cooper students and stick-thin models (model students?). Project curator Nato Thompson made the rounds, but Terence Koh and co-organizer Vito Schnabel, who arrived together for the talk, were nowhere in evidence. Drink tickets took the form of miniature twenties, but the majority of attendees paid for their pleasure (was there a lesson there too?). From New York, Teach 4 Amerika heads to Philly, then Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis–Saint Paul, Denver, Santa Fe, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Portland. And for those off the beaten track, well, there’s a smartphone app for that. Celebrating Willy Wonka as a pedagogic role model for the age throughout the lecture, the BHQF have thrown down a gauntlet. And as Gene Wilder sang in the movie, “A little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest men.”
Left: Sharjah Art Foundation director Jack Persekian. (Except where noted, all photos: Nicolas Trembley) Right: His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, ruler of Sharjah, and H.E. Sheikha Hoor Bint Sultan Al Qasimi, president of the Sharjah Art Foundation. (Photo: Sharjah Art Foundation)
EXHAUSTED, I GOT OFF THE CATTLE TRUCK that is the new Paris-Dubai Airbus 380 at 3 AM on Tuesday, March 15. After an hour’s wait at customs, the Bangladeshi driver who was to take me to the neighboring emirate of Sharjah asked if I wouldn’t mind waiting for the second passenger, who hadn’t arrived yet. After thirty minutes, I asked who the second passenger was. Glenn Lowry, he told me. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m sure he’ll find the way on his own. Let’s go.”
And so various members of the international art-world elite began trickling into the United Arab Emirates. During the press conference the next morning, Jack Persekian, the director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, dedicated the biennial’s tenth edition to the spirit of change and to the youth of those Arab countries now battling—even giving their lives when necessary—for revolution. “Bravo! Bravo!” cried some journalists, their mouths already stuffed with petits fours. They were not raising champagne glasses, however: Alcohol, of course, is strictly forbidden in Sharjah.
Politics was constantly on the minds of attendees, many of whom wondered whether the biennial had shifted gears at all to accommodate recent events in the Menasa region (the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia). Curator Suzanne Cotter insisted that none of the programming or artwork had been altered to address recent events. What took place in Tunisia and Egypt happened at the end of the year, she explained, when preparations were already well under way. But the remarks of cocurators Rasha Salti and Haig Aivazian made clear that some of the exhibited works did deal openly with conflict, and that many of the artists in the biennial were or had been personally involved with the present revolutions, either directly or via social networks.
Indeed, some of the artists present, such as the Iranian brothers Rokni and Ramin Haerizadeh, told me that they could not return to Iran and would now be residing in the UAE. And another artist, a member of the Slavs and Tatars art collective, asked me not to mention his name since that might get him in trouble back home.
After the press conference, Cotter and I made the rounds through the biennial’s many venues. Sites included museums (there are more than fifteen in the emirate), abandoned traditional houses, and a cricket stadium. We met with a few artists, such as Trisha Donnelly, Hans Haacke, and Judith Barry. I wondered which among them was “The Traitor,” “The Collaborator,” or “The Experientialist,” since the exhibition’s title is “Plot for a Biennial,” and each artist was assigned a role in a cast of characters that included these three labels.
At 5 PM, as I was getting into the bus that was to take us to the opening of Art Dubai, one of the Egyptians attending the March Meeting—a three-day symposium on artistic practices in the region—leaped aboard and explained that the army had shot some demonstrators in Manāma. “Ach, nein. Mein Gott!” cried out a German journalist. The Egyptian gentleman explained that we had to demonstrate during the biennial’s official opening the next day; he would prepare signs with the names of those killed. More than a few asked: “Where exactly is Manāma?”
At the art fair in Dubai, the problems in Bahrain seemed far away. And at the afterparty, which was hosted by Harper’s Bazaar Arabia and held at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel’s 360° bar (as well as a supposedly gay club whose name no one could pronounce), no one, it seemed, was talking about war.
Wednesday morning was the official inauguration of the biennial in the presence of (deep breath . . . ) His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, a member of the Supreme Council of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Sharjah, and his daughter H.E. Sheikha Hoor Bint Sultan Al Qasimi, president of the Sharjah Art Foundation (which made all of this possible). The man from the bus had wanted to demonstrate against sending troops to the Bahrain emirates, but security forces were able to prevent any protest attempts.
Everyone from the international contemporary art scene was at the biennial’s gala that evening. It looked like the Venice Biennale (minus the collectors). I was at a table of powerful women including RoseLee Goldberg, Sarah Thornton, and Christie’s Amy Cappellazzo. Needless to say we talked politics, not clothes. When the sheik and his court, composed entirely of men, entered the enormous open-air courtyard of Bait Al Serkal and sat down at a very long table, we all rose (though we were not quite sure what to do). The biennial’s opening coincided with the award ceremony of the Sharjah Biennial Prize. The jury, comprising MoMA PS1’s Klaus Biesenbach, Ashkal Alwan’s Christine Tohme, and critic Boris Groys, climbed on stage to hand out the five awards (a sum total of $30,000). The sheik himself gave Donnelly a chiseled plate for the sound installation she had created in a garden. The Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi also received a plate for a work that entailed transforming the inner courtyard of Bait Al Serkal by painting red flowers on the ground; at first glance, the flowers resembled small pools of blood. Rania Stephan and Rayyane Tabet won awards for their work as well, and Jalal Toufic received a special mention for his contributions as a “philosopher, artist, and thinker.”
Left: Crowd at the Sharjah Art Prize announcements. (Photo: Sharjah Art Foundation) Right: Artist Hassan Sharif.
As the dinner was winding down, we were somewhat astonished to see all the employees rushing over to the sheik’s table to polish off the leftovers. We were herded into mini-buses to go the Sharjah Biennial afterparty, hosted by Bidoun and hip local gallery the Third Line, at the Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club. Everyone said that the party was going to be crazy, because people would drink all the alcohol they weren’t allowed to drink at the gala dinner. On the bus, Richard Phillips showed dealer Elizabeth Dee and me everything he had bought at the souk that afternoon. The party wasn’t all that great. In fact, it was rather difficult to get a drink because the line was so long.
Thursday morning a few of us visited the Barjeel collection, one of the only private contemporary art collections in the emirate, and the Kabakovs’ Ship of Tolerance. Once the biennial’s opening was over, many people from Sharjah rushed to leave to avoid the insane inter-emirate bottleneck. Curator Yuko Hasegawa and I hitched a taxi back to Dubai, where a bus was waiting to transport us to Abu Dhabi. There, Catherine David was attending the opening of the first large exhibition of UAE artist Hassan Sharif at the temporary seat of ADACH (Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage).
By Saturday, many had departed the region for other destinations. In the evening, we attended a concert of Mauritanian celebrity Dimi Mint Abba, who was accompanied by the musician Amino Belyamani. The concert wasn’t for Western art lovers, but for the people of Sharjah, who danced in front of the stage. “Finally, something authentic,” said writer Julie Boukobza, who was seated next to me. Visibly moved, she hesitated before leaving for the neighboring emirate of Ajman, where Cotter wanted to get a last drink (alcohol is not forbidden there) before we all took our flights home.
SHORTLY BEFORE 3 PM on Friday, March 12, the plane flying me to Tokyo for Takashi Murakami’s Geisai #15 art fair began its approach to Narita International Airport. Fifteen minutes later, the plane was still circling north of the city. From my window seat, I saw immense clouds of thick brown smoke rising from the ground. That is some big fire, I thought. The plane kept circling for another half hour, when at last the captain announced that Narita had been closed because of an earthquake.
At that moment I had no idea that this was not just any earthquake, or that it had brought a deadly tsunami to the coast, or that the nuclear power plant I could also see from the window was in trouble. Nor did I imagine that I would spend the next three days in a twilight zone between Hello Kitty and Armageddon.
Marika Shishido, a representative of Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki company office in Los Angeles, was waiting for me at Narita, but my plane never got there. It was rerouted twice, over the course of several hours, before landing at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. I spent most of the night stranded in the terminal with I don’t know how many Japanese travelers, who simply grabbed what blankets were available and lay down to sleep on the floor or any available chair. Their remarkable calm and orderliness made the experience even more extraordinary.
Eventually, the roads reopened and Brad Plumb, a Kaikai Kiki staffer from New York, picked me up in a taxi and deposited me, just before dawn, at a hotel above a vertical shopping mall in Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing, normally the busiest intersection in the world. Its bright lights and big-screen videos were all dark; only a few stragglers, most of whom had been left behind when the trains stopped running, were in the street. “I’ve never seen anything like this here,” Plumb said, as we discovered more people sleeping in the corridors of the mall as well as in the lobby of the hotel. Still more were seated before a TV, watching the news in silence. Laura McLean-Ferris, a journalist from London who had arrived for the fair early in the day, was in her room with a couple of other Kaikai Kiki people, thoroughly shaken by the quake and the tremors that continued throughout the night.
The Geisai fair, scheduled for Sunday, had been canceled, they told me. It was to have taken place at a convention center owned by the city, which had shut down all public buildings. Murakami was at his studio, communicating with the five hundred young artists who had signed up for the fair. We would regroup in a few hours and try to make the best of it.
While the disaster two hundred miles to the north was unfolding, Tokyo woke up to a degree of normalcy. Cell service returned, the stranded returned home, and shops reopened as usual. What could we do? The museums were closed, as were the galleries. So we went shopping. This wasn’t an entirely frivolous activity. Tokyo’s merchandisers are the quickest route to its very visual culture, and their fascinations provided a welcome distraction from the increasingly harrowing reports from the north.
Shibuya 109 is ground zero for teen acolytes of kogal fashion, the place where cosplayers go for their handkerchief-size skirts, platform shoes, sci-fi makeup, and bling. The mothership for Uniqlo was doing business as usual, albeit mostly with foreigners. At the opposite end of the style spectrum, Opening Ceremony—seven floors of distinctly American cool—had almost no other customers. Quieter still was Aoyama, a posh residential neighborhood where the impressive Prada, Valentino, Chloe, Comme des Garçons, Marc Jacobs, and other designer stores form a Chelsea-like ghetto of dazzling starchitecture on steroids.
Powered by this combustible mix of cartoon culture and high design, we made our way to the Kaikai Kiki building, where Murakami maintains a ground-floor gallery. At last, some art! In one of the two exhibition spaces, works from his private collection by Mark Grotjahn, Yoshitomo Nara, and Grayson Perry were on show with three new nudes-on-silver by Murakami—his Three Graces, as it were—that will head to London at the end of May for a show at Gagosian. (Murakami has caught the collecting bug pretty badly, especially for Nara.)
Based on paintings by the nineteenth-century artist Kuroda Seiki, one of the first Japanese to incorporate Western imagery in his work, the new Murakami works represent something of a departure from his Mr. Pointys, mushroom-cloud skulls, and flowering smiley faces. There were also a couple of modest, impressionistic paintings of a big-eyed young girl by OB, a shy nineteen-year-old from Kyoto who was in the gallery to meet us. She is one of fifteen young artists currently resident in a mentoring program that Murakami, an industry unto himself, has established in his suburban factory.
On a tatami-matted platform in the other room, three of his flowerball sculptures, in three different sizes, were paired with three figures of cute adolescent girls by Chiho Aoshima, one of the seven artists whose careers the Kaikai Kiki organization manages. We flopped on the mats between the sculptures to take stock of the situation at hand. The artworks are so adorable they were actually a comfort—at that point, the explosion of a reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, roughly 150 miles north of Tokyo, had become a major concern.
“You’re having a super unique experience!” said Murakami, when we moved upstairs to his city room–style offices, where the grandmaster of Superflat was busy writing for his forty thousand Twitter followers. Three ballot boxes intended for the public to vote on the best booths at Geisai sat on a counter, ready for storage until next season. (Murakami has held the Geisai fair twice a year since 2002, paying for it out of his own pocket.)
“Today, I’m living my worst nightmare,” he said, referring not to the cancellation of the fair but to the threat of a meltdown at the crippled power plant. He was still furious that an earthquake-prone island nation like Japan had put its faith in nuclear power, despite the devastation of radiation from American H-bombs in World War II and its consequent loss of national selfhood. As an example, he spoke of “Little Boy,” the 2005 show he organized for the Japan Society in New York, contending that his country’s infantilizing feel-goodism grew out of a collective denial of its own history.
Left: Jeffrey Lee, director of Shanghai’s Longmen Art Projects, with collector Greg Liu. Right: The Mandrake.
After a change of clothes, he took six of us out to dinner in a private room at Kikunoi, a restaurant where I had the finest dining experience of my life. Every dish of this thirteen-course meal was served in a bowl or on a plate made especially for that dish and that restaurant. The cost must have been astronomical, but what made the party feel even more strange and privileged was its surreal contrast to the continuing disaster, never really far from our minds.
Sunday morning brought news of multiple reactor problems and of the thousands who were still missing in the north. That made me wince; just hearing about it took my mind back to all the heartrending posters plastered on downtown walls in the days after 9/11, when no one could bear to admit they knew those people were gone. I felt both coddled by my hosts, who were continually concerned for my welfare, and lost. The dense crowds that normally populate Shibuya Crossing were still pretty thin and it was clear that life was not proceeding quite as usual.
Since there was no fair, the day began with a trip to Murakami’s studio, an industrial complex where a dozen of the fifty artists in his employ were working on new canvases or at computers, following the boss’s exacting directions. A couple of other Geisai orphans were visiting as well: Jeffrey Lee, director of Shanghai’s Longmen Art Projects, and San Francisco collector Greg Liu, whom Lee introduced as the man who paid $6.7 million for a Zhang Xiaogang painting at Sotheby’s three years ago. Chiang Ming-Yu, director of a year-old Geisai spinoff in Taipei, also poked her head in before McLean-Ferris and I sat down with Murakami for a conversation that took up the rest of the morning.
This was not the clowning Murakami he performs in public, but the thinking art advocate and micromanaging head of an international enterprise that operates around the clock, producing and distributing artworks and their commercial derivatives, directing careers, and organizing the Geisai. The Japanese, he said, have little interest in their own contemporary art and would rather spend their money on art from the West. The exception was manga, the first distinctly Japanese art since ukiyo-e, and he was all for promoting art made in Japan to his countrymen. “Our culture is all about marketing,” he said, adding that most people in Japan recognize him as the designer of a popular Vuitton bag rather than as a serious artist. “Everything is flat in Japanese culture,” he said. “Not deep or complex.”
I asked about a sixteen-foot-tall Mr. Pointy canvas taking shape in the studio. Barnett Newman’s “zips” inspired it, he said, naming Donald Judd, Julian Opie, and Brice Marden’s monochromes as other sources, and On Kawara, Tatsuo Miyajima, and Yasumasa Morimura as the artists who paved the way for Murakami to be “super famous.”
After meeting six of the Kyoto student artists in their basement studios, I felt desperate to see something of the larger Tokyo art scene. My first stop was Misako & Rosen, a small five-year-old gallery owned by Jeffrey Rosen, a former Los Angeleno, and his Japanese wife, Misako. Rosen is also the director of Taka Ishii, Tokyo’s most important contemporary gallery, which originally inhabited the space. They spoke of a generational shift that has produced a new class of collectors supporting their artists—an international group—which Murakami never got when he was starting out. We looked through their catalogues and artists’ books, reluctant to leave, talking idly of artists on their roster like Nathan Hylden, Fergus Feehily, and Maya Hewitt, whose work was on the walls in a show I admired. But the couple had to get home to clean up the shattered crockery, fallen books, and general shambles that the earthquake had made of their apartment upstairs.
Cheered by the pink lanterns swaying from still-barren cherry blossom trees outside—yet another incongruous sight on this strange weekend—we headed for the Nakano Broadway Mall, an older, horizontal shopping complex and the belly of the otaku culture beast. I was transfixed by the sight of the Mandrake, a vast bookstore where men of all ages stood in the corridor outside it pulling graphic novels off exterior shelves, getting a fix for their manga jones. The whole mall seemed devoted to otaku action figures and comic books. There were magazines for belly dancers, sumo wrestlers, and cosplayers, and a ton of toys. We stopped into another gallery for Kaikai Kiki’s mentor artists and looked at a window display the company also manages. It featured another subgenre of manga painting devoted to “Boy Love,” images of gay male romance drawn solely by young women.
Captivating as this underground was, we returned to Aoyama and the Rat Hole Gallery, a sleek subsidiary of the Hysteric Glamour fashion label where I was surprised to find a show by New York artist Cheyney Thompson on view, and catalogues for previous shows by the likes of Isa Genzken, Roe Ethridge, Ellen Gallagher, and Roni Horn. No one else was there, though I learned that Thompson’s opening party, postponed by the earthquake, would be the following night.
Left: Teamlab’s Toshiyuki Inoko and Pixiv’s Takanori Katagiri. Right: Dealer Andrew Kreps with artist Cheyney Thompson.
What was there to do but go next door to browse Hysteric Glamour, the Trash and Vaudeville of Tokyo, before heading to another delicious dinner at Kanesaka sushi bar in the Ginza? Two of the five new media entrepreneurs (all men) who were to have been Geisai judges joined us.
Takanori Katagiri is president of Pixiv, a social networking site for illustrators with three million registered users, up to six hundred thousand of whom are Japanese artists. It’s a hobby site for nonprofessionals, Katagiri said, though he had organized a show of Pixiv artists with Murakami at the Nakano mall. The other judge, Toshi Inoko, runs Teamlab, a studio for digital artists and Web programmers and designers. After dinner, he brought us to yet another cheap store, Don.Ki.Hoti, where I was overwhelmed by displays of sequined skull telephones; Hello Kitty socks; and bright, fuzzy animal onesies for kinky sex play. (It also had housewares and a few kimonos.) What can I say? It was super freaky.
Spent by the day’s dizzying panoply, I returned to my hotel to pack for home. The next morning, just as I sat down to breakfast with Plumb, another earthquake struck. This one was only a six-pointer, but it was enough to be scary, especially as we were on the hotel’s twenty-fifth floor. The building started rumbling and swaying to and fro. My heart jumped into my mouth. The quake stopped after a minute, but by then I was on my way out of the hotel and abandoning my plan to visit more galleries that morning.
After another tremor at the airport, I flew back to New York, where I watched the news from Japan as obsessively as the book lovers at the Mandrake, feeling shattered. This trip constituted my first-ever visit to Tokyo, an amazing place with too much to see. On a future trip, perhaps, it will hold still long enough to come into focus.
Left: Kaikai Kiki’s Marika Shishido, Nao Tazaki, Brad Plumb, and Yayoi Shionoiri. Right: A view of the Haneda airport.
THERE WAS A BUZZ in the air last week at the fifth edition of Art Dubai, with a new director, journalist Antonia Carver, and the fair’s proximity to regional regimes toppling one after another. I arrived at midnight on Sunday and my Syrian taxi driver sped us down the nearly empty multilane Sheikh Zayed Road through a corridor of skyscrapers, with the two distinctive towers, Burj Khalifa and Burj Al Arab, lit up on either side like alien beacons. Built from the desert up within the past decade—kitschy new villas, high-rises, luxury hotels, and an overwhelmingly multinational population—it looks like the future.
The next morning as I sat watching the boat traffic on the Creek, the medieval origins of the city as a major trading and commercial center, my transplanted Italian friend Tatiana Antonelli noted, “All the Egyptians, Tunisians, and Libyans with any money are here now; it’s the Switzerland of the region.” From there I set off to the industrial quarter Al Quoz, where new galleries are keeping low profiles among the warehouses, and I got hopelessly lost on the way to Traffic Gallery for the Magic of Persia prize exhibition of Iranian finalists, nearly missing a panel on “Cultural Brokering.” There, Iranian artist Shirazeh Houshiary brought it all together: “The network is powerful, but it is one person, one spark, that makes the difference.” According to Carver, it is mostly women who drive the local art scene: “It’s dominated by women—many Lebanese and Iranian—probably 75 percent of the patrons are female.”
That evening kicked off with a number of gallery openings, including the new Lawrie Shabibi gallery, partnered by former Christie’s Middle East head William Lawrie, inaugurating with an exhibition of sculptural paintings by Lebanese market star Nabil Nahas. The trick was to make the rounds in two hours, so we chose to go directly to the DIFC (Dubai International Financial Centre) gallery hub, complete with a new Christie’s showroom. As we ascended the escalator, I noted its resemblance to a shopping mall. “It is—an art mall. Dubai is a shopping paradise,” press impresario Ben Rawlingson Plant pointed out. “The culture minister said, ‘In five years there will be galleries here,’ and so it was.”
In “Hidden Love,” the XVA Gallery was featuring Halim Al Karim, one of the artists who will represent Iraq in the Venice Biennale, the country’s first pavilion in thirty-five years. The big draw was the traveling exhibition “Edge of Arabia,” meandering through a raw multilevel space in the complex. Visitors had to check in to be added to the list of nationalities on an electronic board and receive a visa stamp. Curators Stephen Stapleton and Bashar Al Shroogi were dressed in matching formal blue caftans. There was a flurry of excitement as an ex–prime minister of Pakistan came through. Al-Shroogi, director of the Cuadro gallery next door, explained: “He is a very good client of mine.”
It seemed as if there was nothing but VIPs populating the city that night. Later we were shuttled by golf cart to the dinner hosted by Canvas publisher Ali Khadra on Jumeirah beach, where the seven-star Burj Al Arab shimmered just offshore. “The economic crunch is the best thing that could have happened to the art market here. It was difficult in 2009, and then people started asking why they were buying art instead of just speculating,” William Lawrie explained. “There are even more and younger collectors now; it has really matured in the last two years.”
The guest list was a who’s who of the global art world, with nearly fifty international museum curators in town. MoMA PS1’s Klaus Biesenbach and Peter Eleey showed solidarity with almost matching baby-blue pin-striped jackets. I sat next to Saad Salaam, nephew of a former Lebanese prime minister. Surrounded by members of the ongoing Middle Eastern diaspora, I felt like we were in the eye of the storm. Alma Lawrie, William’s wife, quipped, “I am just fed up with taking holidays in war zones.”
The Art Dubai press conference started late the next morning after a surprise visit by the king, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, which caused a traffic jam outside the Madinat Jumeirah resort. It seemed that most galleries brought their Middle Eastern artists to cater to the market, and many shared the same ones. Milan dealer Nicolň Cardi—still high from the Armory Show, where he turned over his booth twice—was excited by the clientele: “There are so many curators here: Francesco Bonami, Massimiliano Gioni, Germano Celant, Sheena Wagstaff . . . ” Word was that you had to be a familiar face to gain the trust of local collectors. According to Nicole Rampa, of Zurich’s Galerie Kashya Hildebrand, the key is to get in with the royals, who feel competitive with other fairs and are invested in Art Dubai’s success. First-timer Storm Janse van Rensburg, of South Africa’s Goodman Gallery, had a major American museum put a work by Hasan and Husain Essop on hold. “But the local collectors don’t seem to know who William Kentridge is,” he reported. Never fear: Next thing I heard, a UAE museum had expressed interest in remedying the situation with an exhibition.
At the swish patrons’ preview that night, everyone was dressed to the nines (and tens). “It makes Miami look like a barn dance,” van Rensburg commented. While scoring Chinese dumplings at the buffet spread along the waterfront terraces, I ran into former Art Dubai director John Martin. “Of course it is better this year— there are more collectors!” he said. “It is the most glamorous art fair in world.” Many of us then decamped down the beach to the gigantic wavelike Jumeirah Beach Hotel, where we were taken by golf cart to the rooftop 360° club for the Harper’s Bazaar party. There, curators Victoria Brooks and Andrew Bonacina whooped it up with Charlie Koolhaas on one side of the round bar, while artists Jane and Louise Wilson hung out with Tate Modern curator Stuart Comer and the MoMA contingent on the other.
Wednesday was Ladies’ Day at the fair, but the Tenth Sharjah Biennial drew the crowds to the smaller, drier emirate for its opening. Aided by a late night at the beach, my clever strategy to arrive at the Sharjah Art Museum after the official sheikh entourage had departed meant we had the exhibition, and the fantastic permanent Orientalist collection, practically to ourselves. Then, with artists Emilia and Ilya Kabakov in tow, we made off for the Maritime Museum, where their Boat of Tolerance was ready to be launched into the water. On the way, Emilia recounted the other places they’ve done the project, including Cuba, and reminisced about meeting Fidel Castro at Siberia’s Lake Baykal in 1961, where, as a fifteen-year-old girl, she had to be whisked away when the Cuban party got too wild. We arrived just in time for a dramatic performance: As the crane started lifting the work, the vessel split down the middle. “Don’t talk to me until it is in the water,” Ilya said nervously while keeping his eyes glued on it. One of the boatbuilders, a student from Manchester College, said he was confident the gap would close as the ship settled, and when we parted it was in place, with only the sails, made by local schoolchildren, left to be raised.
Left: Art Dubai's Stephanie Sykes and Delfina Foundation director Aaron Cezar. Right: Artist Navid Azimi Sajadi and Serpentine codirector Hans Ulrich Obrist.
The next day, as on the others, there were tons of activities from which to choose at the fair alone: Michael Danoff spoke about the art of building a private collection, followed by author Sarah Thornton in conversation with collectors Susan and Michael Hort. At the underground Art Park, I caught part of the Bidoun Video screening “Sports!” moderated by Kaelen Wilson-Goldie and Negar Azimi. The fair itself had a newly curated character, with many stands dedicated to solo exhibitions and the new “Marker” section for experimental projects, and the official announcements of new Arab pavilions for the Venice Biennale added to the frisson. Of course, there was no avoiding politics, and that day also featured the declaration of a boycott against the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project, spurred by a Human Rights Watch report on the exploitation of labor.
That evening I attended a cocktail party at the residence of Justin Siberell, the US Consul General, in the tony Umm Suqeim quarter, where Sharjah’s Sheikh Al Qasimi held court on the terrace and all the embassy people were in from Abu Dhabi, the larger, oil-rich emirate. “The Abu Dhabi fair, showing the likes of Picasso and other blue-chip art,” cultural attaché Robert Arbuckle informed us, “is much more representative of the local taste.”
The final day I visited the latest Delfina Foundation artist residency, hosted by local arts organization Tashkeel in a traditional mud house in historic Bastakiya. On show were installations by current inhabitants Abbas Akhavan and Tobias Collier, as well as artists placed in other countries. Dappled by patches of shade and sun, the neighborhood was wonderfully peaceful, like an abandoned casbah, the mood interrupted only by the muezzin’s call to prayer. But the party wasn’t over yet: Curator Miranda Sharp and I headed to the other, more chic side of town for the fair’s official fete on the Madinat Jumeirah’s Fort Island, where we found ourselves amid an angry, if very distinguished, crowd that finally mobbed the gatekeepers to get in. Watching a UK foundation director doing his best attempt at a Michael Jackson imitation, designer Oliver Knight observed, “I think the art is just foreplay for getting drunk.” A global phenomenon, I suppose. A pity we never made it to the beach party.
MARTHA ROSLER KICKED OFF the events program of the Third Singapore Biennale by denouncing biennials. Not a novel activity, of course, but her keynote lecture at the Singapore Art Museum last Saturday was the most cogent censure I’ve heard, with a deft demonstration of the links between municipal policies of gentrification and the imperialist cultural movement of ideas from center to periphery. Rosler also spoke of the community garden she initiated this year at the Old Kallang Airport—built in the 1930s, decommissioned in the 1950s, now the main venue of the Singapore Biennale and a prospective site for luxury hotels or condos. Rosler’s garden reworked her proposal for a park at a Helsinki business school (omitting a video based on Profit—a monument on the Finnish campus depicting predatory birds fighting over a fish—that animated the beasts in “a range of possible roles of cooperation and exchange”). In Singapore, she said, the project “opened the biennial problem as a visible wound” and revealed the “continued suppression of the local in the face of performance of the global.” Russell Storer, the biennial’s cocurator, with Trevor Smith, said it left him feeling “hideous.” But he looked happy.
Downstairs, architect Tatzu Nishi discussed his biennial project Merlion Hotel, a rentable room on downtown Singapore’s waterfront that he built around an eponymous lion-headed, fish-bodied statue (a tourism landmark that was invented to cover the absence of suitable local legends). Nishi showed slides of his other projects that turned monumental sculpture into interior decor: a living room perched atop a German church that made a coffee-table knickknack of its patinated angel; a hotel room that encased a monument to Queen Victoria in Liverpool’s Derby Square, an area that, the architect noted, had been overrun by “junkies and homeless people.” After Rosler, it was tempting to read these projects as glib and literal renderings of the privatization of public space. But Nishi’s manner was so effusive, and the work so strange, I felt persuaded (again) that in the kind of transformations of cityscapes effected by biennials, neoliberal imperialism is a tertiary meaning, at best.
Left: Artists Simon Fujiwara and Ingar Dragset. Right: Artist Martha Rosler.
It was early afternoon on my third day in Singapore and I marveled at my alertness. I hadn’t slept since 11 PM the night before, when I awoke, seven hours after lying down for a power nap, to find myself three hours late for the biennial reception at Nishi’s Merlion Hotel. Everyone was quick to assure me I hadn’t missed anything special, reporting a bar menu of Orange Crush and bitter wine. But after a Friday spent yawning at people, I would rather have not spent Saturday’s small hours yawning into my pillow. Or visiting a twenty-four-hour food court for an anesthetic beer and watching the other patrons doze at their tables. Or staring at an unintelligible Australian cowgirl soap, pretending the Vietnamese subtitles helped me understand it. Or pondering why none of the works I’d seen at Friday’s press preview of the Old Kallang Airport were adequate to this experience of jet lag. There had been a magnetic Phil Collins video about Malay skinheads, Mike Nelson’s splintered plinths fabricated from planks that had boarded up the airport, and Arin Rungjang’s room of IKEA products that Thai construction workers were invited to swap with their own home furnishings. There was also Ming Wong’s remake of a Pasolini film with himself in all the roles, and Michael Lin’s neatly shelved hardware-store items and videos of them being juggled. The art shared a languorous mood—swelled, perhaps, by the muggy air uniting the airport’s interior and exterior through open doors and windows—and palettes matching the pastel plasters common in young Southern cities like Singapore.
While the airport site was “about” travel and Merlion Hotel “about” tourism, the art museum’s contemporary annex—where artists got separate rooms, connected by a corridor—was meant to evoke domestic life in Singapore’s public housing, while works in the museum of national history addressed the city and the marketplace. The National Museum is small (Singapore’s history is short), but I still got lost trying to find the biennial galleries when I went there Saturday afternoon and ended up in the permanent exhibition, on a sloping catwalk in a vertical tube tiled with screens showing fast-moving urban scenes: traffic, a marathon, Muslims bowing in prayer, shopkeepers stocking their shelves. “Sinnnngapoooore,” a chorus chanted on the sound track.
Left: Merlion Hotel. Right: Artist Lisi Raskin with Singapore Biennale artistic director Matthew Ngui.
Finally, I caught up with Trevor Smith’s tour at the exuberant display of colored-chalk wall drawings, souvenirs, handwritten stories, and press clippings that were the culmination of Jakarta collective ruangrupa’s research of Singaporean life. I thought of a cultural functionary’s announcement at breakfast that CNN’s travel site had named Singaporeans the second-coolest people in the world; ruangrupa offered more evidence for this conclusion than the Koyaanisqatsi airline commercial upstairs. But who knows what makes something cool to CNN?
That night I returned to Kallang Airport for the biennial’s public opening. An Australian emcee who pronounced “biennale” as “banally” announced the arrival of Singapore’s communications minister. Lui Tuck Yew took the stage as a fanfare boomed from the speaker and rows of uniformed schoolgirls and their parents rose to applaud him. “His Excellency” said some words about the importance of “placing Singaporean artists in an international context” and “fostering connections with the larger art world.”
The subsequent party was concentrated in the VIP tent, behind the big one where the speeches had been given and opposite the hangar that housed Elmgreen & Dragset’s German Barn, where local boys in brief lederhosen lolled in the hay. Though the event was billed to last “til late,” the Singaporean crowd seemed to have departed after the ceremony. I didn’t linger for DJ KFC’s set for the dance party, either, though I did hear performances by two cover bands, one with a repertoire of pop standards by Madonna and Michael Jackson, the other, Led Zeppelin and Radiohead. The latter was good, so I took a seat with the dozen other people among the few hundred folding chairs. As I listened, I tried to recall similar entertainment at other art festivals, but came up blank. Here, one form of cultural karaoke enveloped another in a way unthinkable back home in the “center.” “No alarms and no surprises,” wailed the woman with the cherry-red guitar. Where was Phil Collins?
Left: ruangrupa. Right: Models in Elmgreen & Dragset's German Barn.
IT’S BEEN A WHILE since the Whitney Museum felt like it belonged to its hometown artists. Yet on the evening of Wednesday, March 9, it was instantly clear that the opening of “Glenn Ligon: America” had brought out a major crew. Before I could even check my coat, I spotted artists Marilyn Minter, T. J. Wilcox, Joan Jonas, and Anne Collier in a single glance that also took in curators Chrissie Iles, Stefan Kalmar, and Matthew Higgs; novelist Mary Gaitskill; and New Yorker writer Hilton Als. Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg and collectors Adam Sender, Joel Wachs, and Beth Swofford melted into the crowd too, all basking in the glow of Negro Sunshine, the neon sign that Ligon had installed in the street window to announce his midcareer retrospective. “It’s really a good show,” said Wachs. “I mean, really, really good. I mean, really.”
What made the gathering feel even more like a family reunion were onetime Whitney staffers like David Ross, Lisa Phillips, and Thelma Golden, who all helped give Ligon his first big boost. They worked there in the good old days of the 1980s and ’90s, when the museum routinely set the public’s teeth on edge with its unconventional biennials and step-off-the-plank shows like Golden’s “Black Male”––the days when identity politics and art that looked like food or sex or trash made a dent in a wall of critical theory and Edward Hoppers.
Upstairs, Ligon held court in a gallery hung with three more signs, each spelling out the word AMERICA, except that one of them was nearly dark, save for a few dim points of light. I wondered whether someone in the crowd (Jack Pierson, Isaac Julien, Mary Heilmann, Anne Bass, Julian Lethbridge, Laurie Simmons, Carroll Dunham) had broken it. No, Ligon said. “Those must be the little bits of light coming out of America. We could be in the light, or in the dark. It’s hard to know.”
Perhaps Ligon is New York’s real artists’ artist, the genuine article, I thought, looking up to see Rirkrit Tiravanija, Elizabeth Peyton, Joel Meyerowitz, Douglas Crimp, James Casebere, and Lorna Simpson, while collectors Don and Mera Rubell, Michael and Susan Hort hung in the background. I found critic Jerry Saltz and designer Cynthia Rowley listening to the faint Billie Holiday music emanating from one of the plywood crates Ligon made to represent the one that a slave named Henry Brown used to mail himself to freedom before the Civil War. Bronx bomber John Ahearn was standing in a gallery where Ligon’s Malcolm X painting held the wall with other “coloring-book” canvases inspired by a project Ligon had done with schoolchildren, who drew such figures without regard to color.
At last, I came across the show’s fledgling curator, Scott Rothkopf, enjoying his first big triumph in a gallery where he had gathered Ligon’s signature early text paintings, the stenciled black-and-white ones with phrases by Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Jean Genet, and Jesse Jackson. “Isn’t this room beautiful?” Rothkopf said. “It’s like the Rothko Chapel, or the stations of the cross, or something.” Frankly, it looked much cooler.
The evening heated up with a blowout at the nearby Mark Hotel hosted by Ligon’s three galleries, Luhring Augustine, Regen Projects, and Thomas Dane. It rapidly evolved from cocktails among friends (Lawrence Weiner, Jeanne Greenberg-Rohatyn, Julie Mehretu, Eungie Joo) to nonstop dancing. Cutting up the rug with Rothkopf and Linda Norden was Donna De Salvo, the Whitney’s usually businesslike chief curator, who surprised everyone by revealing she was born to boogie. But the opening night’s brio really stemmed from the forceful way it demonstrated that the art world isn’t so all-white allover anymore. Nor should it be, least of all in America.
Left: Art historians Claire Bishop and Terry Smith, Haus der Kunst director Okwui Enwezor, and New Museum associate director Massimiliano Gioni. Right: Independent curator Barbara Piwowarska. (Photos: Sirin Samman)
THE CHASM BETWEEN DISCOURSE AND EXPERIENCE is hard to ignore: A museum director muses virtuously about the virtues of doing nothing, and then rushes off to a waiting car and driver. Curators-as-intellectuals offer glosses on the history of exhibitions cribbed from Wikipedia and return to their seats to play with their phones and trade Sephora samples (really) as others take their turn onstage. And academics whose commitment to avant-garde thinking is their currency ritually name-check the standard landmarks of the European/American 1960s. Almost all of them, in an era of collaboration and pressing politics—“the active multitude”—speak in isolation, their often overlong (and overfamiliar or underprepared) performances cutting down discussion time, their precipitous arrivals and departures creating a feeling of just-in-time production before a sold-out crowd of eager graduate students and fellow professionals.
Everyone agreed that consensus was a problem.
And yet . . . The problematics of exhibitions, institutions, and education driving the “Now Museum,” a conference last week organized by the Ph.D. program in art history at CUNY Graduate Center, the New Museum, and ICI, couldn’t be more important for art museums and the people who love/hate them. At least in New York, one has the feeling that these are the issues being discussed furiously, and always elsewhere. Claire Bishop, Kate Fowle, and Eungie Joo, the conference organizers, took turns framing the four days of panels, pointing to the different sparks for the ambitious event, including the turn of MoMA and the Guggenheim toward performance programming (possibly bad), star architecture and the specter of Abu Dhabi (definitely bad), and the “new institutional” bent of smaller European museums (presumably good). Bishop pointed to the growing numbers of private collections and new solutions in emerging art loci to ask whether we need museums at all.
On Friday, the conference’s first full day, discussion tended toward generalities. Perhaps using Rosalind Krauss’s essay “The Late Capitalist Museum” as a jumping-off point for the day’s first panel was a tactical error—for the most part, participants failed to jump. But occasionally generalities rose to the level of clarifying abstract thought. Okwui Enwezor contrasted the 1990s construction of the local/global binary with its more contemporary iterations—the unfinished business of local/national, as well as the regional/geopolitical and transnational/global. Indeed, his current project, “Meeting Points 6,” a series of events and exhibitions in the Middle East, which he spoke about informally during the coffee break, provides a tantalizing concrete glimpse into these issues.
And there were moments that were not only instructive but inspiring. Van Abbemuseum curator Annie Fletcher spoke strongly in favor of prioritizing the museum’s collection over temporary exhibition. The Van Abbe’s reconsideration of art and institutional history, working together with artists and archivists, is creative in the best sense, generating new scholarship through showing art. Manuel Borja-Villel, director of Madrid’s Reina Sofía, gave what was perhaps the best-received talk of the conference. Brushing aside Krauss, the putative subject (not to mention his former teacher), as well as the specters of both authoritarianism and publicity seeking, he offered a reflection on the value of radical education—an abundance of narratives and voices willing to learn from one another. Fletcher’s emphasis on the physical exhibition of artworks and Borja-Villel’s on structures of thinking together offered a fundamental reconsideration of the museum’s responsibilities and capacities.
Saturday was in many ways the most compelling day, despite—or perhaps because of—the less star-studded lineup. It largely comprised a series of case studies whose straightforward presentations offset the ambition of the projects. Lu Jie, Zdenka Badovinac, Gabi Ngcobo, Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, and Anthony Huberman all articulated clear programs emerging directly from imaginative thinking about material conditions—on both large and small scales. The false notes included Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong—not entirely unexpected, as he’s a nice man who regularly finds himself in the role of apologist for a monstrous project. The real surprise was Maria Lind, regarded as an innovator and a figure of integrity, unfurling a somewhat generic kunsthalle list of art projects that seemed without a real reason for being. Her tactic of “stressing” (portentously repeating) words uttered by other participants—“urgent,” “failure,” “partiality”—underlined her lack of a driving narrative.
Last and perhaps least (here I recuse myself), SF MoMA curator Dominic Willsdon and I undertook the absurd task of summarizing the entire proceedings in all their diversity and promise, fulfilled and otherwise. He delivered the shocking news that museums care little for the doings of art historians, and that perhaps trading this traditional form of knowledge for other (unspecified) knowledges was OK, a sentiment that echoed the wish for experience heard from Paul Chan, Borja-Villel, Huberman, and Massimiliano Gioni. Art historian Pamela Lee, not surprisingly, offered a sharp rebuke, positing that this kind of forgetting harmonized all too well with the bleakest aspects of the larger culture. (As for me, the histories that academics have managed over the past thirty years have been for the most part so timidly imagined that I am happy for curators to have a go at it.)
Here’s what I took from three days of talking: Regionalism is, from day to day, a more operative construct than globalism. The public sphere has given way to civic responsiveness as an institutional ideal. Audiences are not singular. Depending on institutions, the project (education + publication + cooperative art production + peripatetic exhibiting), even more than the collection, is ascendant. There is a need for new histories that are neither foregone nor definitive. These qualities all point to a vision of the contemporary that—far from being a bland and belated synonym for late, late capitalism—has serious possibilities and the beginnings of a real shape. Going forward, the charge seems apparent: not to withdraw but to help do the work of making that form.
I’M A FAN OF THE RUBIN MUSEUM. The former Barneys flagship in Chelsea has rebirthed itself, Shiva-like, from a temple of high-end schmatas to a sanctuary of Himalayan art. Seekers of retail therapy can now “transcend” by communing with a lavish trove of icons, mandalas, and ceremonial tchotchkes as rare as couture. In keeping with the integrative project of Eastern thought, fab programming animates the collection with contemporary practitioners and mavens. “To reach enlightenment in the Buddhist sense, you need to have total control over your mind,” the charming producer Tim McHenry announced at a program last Wednesday. “This week’s Brainwave puts brain scientists together with people of other walks of life.” Wednesday’s conversation, between painter David Salle and Iain McGilchrist (“Oxford-educated psychiatrist just flown in from Britain”), addressed the burning issue: “Which side of the brain controls you?”
Both sides of my brain arrived early, when “Himalayan Happy Hour” was in full swing. Live Asiatic music wafted from the lobby, and amber mood lighting created a spalike vibe where you half expected bodywork as well as a museum fix. I browsed the shop, where you can get your Dalai Lama Paper Doll book (featuring the spiritual leader and his parents “at various stages of their spiritual development” in different outfits); your Four Noble Truths fridge magnets; a wide selection of animal hand puppets; plus the expected beads, candles, scarves, and Buddhist titles.
The coat-check fellow was so happy, I couldn’t help but comment.
“I enjoy this,” he beamed.
The mostly mature crowd also seemed delighted to be there. All smiled back when I met their gaze. They all looked like off-duty therapists to me. It was upscale New Age happyland.
“Welcome to this integration where we’re going to use David Salle’s art to explain our minds,” McHenry greeted us. Fortunately, instead of the brain scientist explicating Salle’s tableaux, the evening featured McGilchrist discussing his new book, The Master and His Emissary, with Salle as a thoughtful foil, probing the scientist’s left brain–style case that we need to cultivate more harmony between the “spheres,” and adding much-needed nuance when the subject veered toward aesthetics.
McGilchrist opened by citing a vintage Salle interview: “Art doesn’t deal with issues.”
“Of course I was being a little hyperbolic,” Salle said. “My bias in that interview was partly a reaction to the flood of issue-oriented art of the past thirty to forty years. I’m mistrustful of the phrase ‘this work is about,’ a phrase you hear incessantly. My heart sinks when I hear the phrase.”
In turn, the scientist moaned about pedantic wall text. I almost enjoyed his curmudgeonliness until he started to dismiss all commentary wholesale, including psychoanalysis, and revealed himself to be Susan Sontag in drag, a brain-science version of “Against Interpretation.”
“We can’t blame the artist explicitly for the wall text. What is the compulsion to explain?” asked Salle, who was soigné in a crisp white shirt, pin-striped jacket, jeans, and elegant brown boots. Who knew he was so lucid? “It comes from the idea that art should be accessible. Accessibility, usefulness, personal expression are all confused in our culture.”
“Bach didn’t have to ‘explain’ his work,” noted the shrink.
“I don’t read academic journals,” divulged Salle. “But aren’t there some examples of embodied right-brain criticism that expand your ability to enter into the work?”
“Nothing good comes out of the academy,” McGilchrist chuckled, confessing that he had been a literary critic before going to med school. I felt for the psychiatrist. He seemed to be traumatized by early exposure to bad academic criticism. He deplored a “scientific impulse in criticism,” a misguided attempt by critics “to up their status in a culture that values science.” An excellent point. But he didn’t acknowledge that there was any other kind. This was strange, because he titled his book after an aphorism by Nietzsche, the “dancing philosopher” who was a master of embodied right-brain critique—the “poetic Socrates” who mingled art and thought.
I’m going to continue with their twirl on commentary because they raise some interesting points:
“Reading the work of art as autonomous wasn’t enough,” Salle said. “There’s nothing autonomous that exists outside the power structure that allows it to exist.” A truly “integrative” critique can’t isolate the work of art. Salle reminded us why we even turned to “theory” in the first place.
Unswayed, McGilchrist seemed to reduce all critique to the type that mistakes the map for the territory. “Discursive, dissecting minds replaced art with a bunch of ideas, concepts, and that literally happens in the brain.” The professor slyly pivoted to our topic: “The left brain’s takeover of our culture!”
“What’s the antidote?”
McGilchrist: “To raise consciousness.” Ironically, although the psychiatrist seemed to make the case for commentary that puts the artwork in context, his aesthetic touchstones were formalist and traditional. Art combines “technique” and “intuition,” like William Blake. Or requires “potent metaphors to carry over part of the reality they speak of,” like devotional art, “which at its best induces an experience in the beholder.” I’ll skip his brain hemisphere–based dash through art history as filtered by the vicissitudes of our “drive toward certainty.” (“A bit programmatic,” responded Salle. “Even a Roman sculptor has a sense of agency.”)
“I could think of pieces like Damien Hirst’s every night when I’m in the bath,” the scientist actually said.
In response, Salle told an anecdote in which he was gallery hopping in London and asked the cab driver to wait for him in between stops. He would tell the driver what he’d seen, and started having fun, embellishing: “Two potatoes and a piece of string.”
“You’re pulling my leg, mate,” the driver would say.
“But the cabbie loved Damien Hirst!” said Salle.
“Sensationalism,” scoffed McGilchrist.
Salle defended “Damien’s” work: “The theater almost shifts back again to something metaphorical . . . ”
“Damien Hirst’s art is about as nourishing as chewing on an old boot,” proclaimed the shrink.
DS: “It’s intensely literal-minded.”
IM: “In other words, it’s not art.”
DS: “It makes people feel they’ve come into some contact with art.”
IM: “That’s why it’s toxic. Because they haven’t but they think they have. Art is not just a commodity, like our trash culture. If you’re trying to mimic the trash to get them in, what have you accomplished?”
DS: “I have a great respect for Damien’s work.”
IM: “I have a great respect for nothing.”
Salle brought us back from the brink (though a shout-out to nothingness was apt in this venue): “If it’s the case that our culture has moved to literal-mindedness, or left-brain bias, one: What’s the cause? Two: What to do about it?”
McGilchrist responded that we need to cultivate “two forms of attention to the world. One: You need to be able to focus narrowly. And two: You need to have a wide vision. These are two kinds of phenomenological worlds. One is very seductive—a map—totally non-self-contradictory. Everything that’s contradictory is not on the map. We put this into our environment and it creates a feedback loop. But you’re not listening to half your brain.”
Salle: “Are there exercises to help us be more ‘integrated’? In the 1960s there was LSD. That was the program.”
McGilchrist: “Meditation. There’s also yoga. Focus on a point on the wall and, at the same time, be aware of the environment around you. Like patting your head and rubbing your tummy.”
Suffice it to say, it was a lively discussion. To be truly integrated, McGilchrist seemed to suggest, we need to be able to move freely between the narrow focus (of cognition which seeks control, certainty) and the broader context (which tolerates ambiguity, receptivity).
“But the problem is, the left side thinks everything is just fine,” the doctor declared. “In terms of cultural bias, the ‘left side’ has won. Only the right side ‘knows’ both sides need to be brought together. We might be the human dodos. We need to be far more skeptical when science tells us we know it all.”
One audience member (who looked like a shrink) cited psychoanalysis “as a practice which requires intuitive passivity.” Helpful, n’est-ce pas?
McGilchrist dismissed analysis as surely as a Hirst carcass: “Psychoanalysis can be dogmatic, rigid, disinterested in the person.” He contrasted this caricature with his own practice of “the whole person encountering the whole person. Who you are in relation to the patient and the rapport is what heals.” (Unlike psychoanalysis?)
I marveled at his left-brain “phenomenological” style and was even more impressed that he had reached the conclusion that we must work on “integrating” both sides. Physician trying to heal himself?
To close, the cheeky producer asked Salle what he had gotten from the professor’s book.
“We share a distaste for pre-Raphaelite art,” replied the artist deftly.
Shelley and Donald Rubin, the founders of the museum, stepped onstage to present each speaker with a long white scarf, like a Himalayan tallis, “to harmonize your hemispheres.”
ON WEDNESDAY EVENING, I followed the opening of the Armory Show with a dinner for Bidoun Projects. The event took over a sumptuous SoHo loft in the New Museum building on Mercer and boasted an ecumenical host committee that included Shirin Neshat, Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller, Jimmy Traboulsi, Maria Baibakova, and Chelsea Clinton. “Bidoun’s such an amazing project,” Clinton explained. “Besides, I would support anything Negar [Azimi] does.”
The festivities kicked off with a benefit auction, during which guests like Michael Stipe, RoseLee Goldberg, Cay Sophie Rabinowitz, and Jay Jopling could snap up works by artists Yto Barrada, Walid Raad, and Haris Epaminonda. In keeping with the upscale atmosphere, the bidding began politely enough but picked up when Tony Shafrazi dove in for a piece by Lawrence Weiner. Those not participating could be found scouting for second helpings of the homemade hummus and spinach triangles, which had been made based on cohost Dana Farouki’s grandmother’s recipes.
A friend and I paused to ponder whether mochi balls were party-appropriate, texture-wise, before we followed Stipe and dealer Alex Zachary on the migration to the Metro Pictures/Sprüth Magers afterparty at the Jane hotel. There the evening progressed in predictable fashion—lost coats, misplaced purses, disappearing drinks, and a dependable mix of ’80s/oldies kitsch on a dance floor that included artists Cyprien Gaillard and Aaron Bondaroff and dealer Frédéric Bugada. I started to quiz Hotel Gallery’s Darren Flook about his thoughts on the next day’s launch of the art fair Independent, but our attempt at small talk ceded to a Hall & Oates song.
Left: Independent founders Elizabeth Dee and Jayne Drost. Right: Dealers Jane Hait, Tanya Leighton, and Janine Foeller. (Photos: Irina Rozovsky)
There’s no denying that Independent is casting formidable weight for a sophomore fair. This year there was less exposed brick (Maureen Paley managed to pull off another show-stopping booth, claiming one of the walls for a massive David Salle) and a cleaner feel, no doubt heightened by the presence of galleries like Sprüth Magers, Stuart Shave/Modern Art, Bortolami, and Gavin Brown. It all gave the impression of a much older fair. “There’s always a car sculpture, isn’t there?” artist Peter Coffin remarked, reminiscing about Duncan Campbell’s DeLorean project last year for Artists Space, before the absurdity of the word “always” sunk in.
The opening was listed as starting at 4 PM; I snuck in at 2, only to find the place had been bustling since noon, making me reexamine Jeppe Hein’s neon aphorism—“Why are you here and not somewhere else?”—crowning Johann König’s booth. The VIPish crowd seemed relaxed in the open format, and clusters formed around the John Smith videos at the area shared by Tanya Leighton and Wallspace and Eftihis Patsourakis’s collection of hijacked Athenian welcome mats at Rodeo.
I vowed to return again the next day, then ducked into Tara Donovan’s opening at Pace before skipping down to Phillips de Pury for the Three Sixty Bespoke “Fizzy Water” panel, where artists Conrad Shawcross, Laurent Grasso, and Samuel Boutruche debated the state of sculpture with Simon de Pury and Zabludowicz curator Elizabeth Neilson. As I wandered the galleries before the talk, a particularly ghoulish mash-up of Michael Jackson and Andy Warhol’s Marilyn led the conversation (naturally) to Charlie Sheen’s Twitter account. “I have to follow that when I get home,” a friend mused, before fishing out her iPhone: “Or now.”
I was still blessedly oblivious to the “tiger blood” jokes; the pop-cultural reference munching would have to wait until after Armory week. After a quick pit stop for some Korean BBQ with Zurich-based Karma International, I jumped into a cab to catch the tail end of Independent’s afterparty at the Jane, where a snippy girl packing a clipboard greeted everyone with a shrill, “If you’re here for the Independent, your party ended at 11 PM. You’re late. Good night.” “She’s going to go down for turning away the Rubells,” someone muttered, before I managed to smuggle myself in with some returning smokers. Once inside, a true friend shoved a stack of drink tickets in my hand with the directive: “Catch up.”
I had flirted with the idea of stepping out earlier to Le Baron’s party at the Standard, but those who had already made the trip warned me that the soiree was “so corporate.” Yet once I was under the black light of Le Bain, the Standard’s penthouse disco retreat, the only thing that struck me as particularly “corporate” was how many people had apparently had their teeth whitened for the fair. I had been curious to catch artist Xavier Veilhan DJing, but by the time we arrived the deck had been handed over to artist Nate Lowman. The dim atmosphere made it difficult to recognize anyone else at the party, but as I surveyed the shapes on the dance floor it occurred to me that recognition was probably the last thing anyone was angling for.
The true sign of Independent’s power (besides its Rob Pruitt Award) is the fact that it has already inspired its own hip alternative: the Dependent, a four-hour-long, flash mob–style fair in the Chelsea Sheraton, which on Friday evening gave its sixteen participating galleries and artist collectives an hour to install in the hotel’s twelfth and fourteenth floors (no thirteenth floor in this building, which led to some confusion in the stairwell where Empty Room had set up its space). Unlike hotel fairs in Miami, where dealers have time to clear out the furniture, the strict one-hour limit on installation meant that video works were displayed on in-room flatscreens, posters sticky-tacked to walls, and paintings propped against pillows. In each room, bathtubs brimmed with hotel ice and PBR, and everyone made the most of it.
Left: Dealer Maureen Paley. Right: Artists Space director Stefan Kalmar with artist Leigh Ledare. (Photos: Irina Rozovksy)
“It’s a lot like the Gramercy Art Fair, isn’t it?” a silver-ponytailed patron mused as he fingered an unstretched canvas draped lazily over an armchair. “Yeah, people keep saying that, but I wouldn’t know,” the dealer sighed, adjusting his thick, black-framed spectacles. “That was a little, you know, before my time.”
While the fair wasn’t all child’s play—Specific Object boasted works by Mike Kelley, Dan Graham, and Raymond Pettibon—it certainly evinced a younger, DIY dynamism. Recess featured a live feed from the bathroom, where a visitor was receiving an impromptu haircut under blue light. Meanwhile, two girls perched on the bed playing Uno. “We have Scrabble too, if that’s more your thing,” one shrugged, nodding toward the box on the nightstand. Across the hall, Dispatch was less slumber party and more dive bar, with flashing red lights, electric guitars, and empty Doritos bags littering the bedspread.
Judging by the line of tote bags and stocking caps outside the Sheraton, the Dependent’s festivities were only just beginning. But I had wanted to drop in on newly Lower East Siders Klaus von Nichtssagend for Joy Curtis’s opening before embarking on what was sure to be a long evening on King Street. There, Front Desk Apparatus was hosting the New York debut of Balice Hertling & Lewis, a collaboration between the Belleville staple and writer David Lewis. The crowds at FDA were polite enough to make space so we could appreciate works by Nik Gambaroff, DAS INSTITUT, and Falke Pisano, to name a few. “This is the first time I’ve ever knocked over a sculpture,” a London dealer confessed, mortified. “Thankfully, it was bronze, so it barely budged. But still . . . ”
Around 7:30 PM, host Rob Teeters resorted to flicking the lights. “Not too subtle, is it?” he smiled apologetically. But they were on a schedule—the gallery still had a performance by Viola Yesiltac slated at the legendary Stonewall Inn, a brisk ten-minute walk from the space. Attendees formed a clump outside Front Desk, shifting from one foot to the other and bumming cigarettes, clearly uncertain how to get there. “Those poor children,” my friend clucked. “I don’t think they know how to find a party that’s not at the Jane or the Standard.”
Left: Joe Winter at Dependent. (Photo: Kate Sutton) Right: Artists Matt Keegan and Ricky Swallow. (Photo: Andy Guzzonatto)
But find it they did—along with what felt like hundreds of others. Upstairs at the Stonewall, artists Amy Sillman, Sadie Benning, Klara Lidén, K8 Hardy, and Kerstin Brätsch flocked with dealers Pamela Echeverria and John Kelsey to the open bar and slider buffet. There was very little space for dancing, but heads bobbed approvingly as DJ Iceberg Venus X continued to astound.
From there, the party veered south to the Financial District, where Studio Voltaire, White Columns, Herald St., and the Modern Institute were holding their own bash at the sleaze-and-tease hot spot China Chalet. Having thoroughly enjoyed the ride over—a combination of extensive construction detours, some rowdy French passengers, and quite possibly the world’s most tolerant cab driver—I couldn’t imagine the party topping the taxi. That is, until Chloë Sevigny got out of the cab in front of us. “It’s got to be a good party if Chloë’s here,” my companion reassured me, perhaps jokingly. He took my hand and led me up the stairs to the dance floor, where Nick Relph, Klaus Biesenbach, and Johann König let loose while Matthew Higgs manned the DJ booth. It would have been the perfect end to Armory week, until I remembered there was still Saturday’s opening for Rirkrit Tiravanija at Gavin Brown to go. And then there was the matter of that stash of drink tickets for the Jane in my bag.
BLADERUNNER MET PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE on the vacant thirty-third floor of a Times Square office tower last Monday night, when British collector Anita Zabludowicz initiated a week of art fairs desperate for attention with two desultory shows of new sculpture and video.
Zabludowicz Collection curator Elizabeth Neilson’s “The Shape We’re In (New York)” pitted recent and site-specific works by Sarah Braman, Sean Dack, Ethan Breckenridge, Matthew Darbyshire, and Nick van Woert, which inhabited the darkened L-shaped space, in a losing battle against the blazing lights and spectacular views drawing such personages as curators Sir Norman Rosenthal, Simon Castets, and Cay Sophie Rabinowitz; dealer Marc Glimcher; and artist Corban Walker to the windows. The battered plastic milk jugs by Michael E. Smith and salt licks seated on shabby task chairs by Dominic Nurre fared no better against the competition from the gleaming skyscrapers outside and from guest curator Alex Gartenfeld’s “Proposal for a Floor” within. As one wag put it, “At least the art isn’t obscuring the view,” though a coffee vending machine/jukebox by Breckenridge and Dack held its own better than most.
If the works on hand reeked of art school-y self-indulgence, they also underscored Zabludowicz’s commitment to the young visionaries she champions until their more mature work prices her out of their markets. Standing amid her flock like a proud mother hen, she marveled at a neoclassic fiberglass sculpture by van Woert, which she had previously seen only in JPEGs. “It’s a whole new world standing in front of the real thing!” she exclaimed with touching zest.
The rawness of both the space and the work contrasted sharply with the champagne-dream sophistication of the VIP reception that the Art Dealers Association of America held the following night for its twenty-third annual fair at the Park Avenue Armory. There, the view encompassed plenty of fur, jewels, and cosmetic enhancements among the uptown set (Agnes Gund, Donald Marron, Fran Dittmer) walking the gray carpets to peruse polished primary- and secondary-market displays that embraced early Alice Neel and late Maria Lassnig, recent Jessica Stockholder and classic Charles Burchfield. While nothing generated much electricity, the atmosphere was so pleasant and warm that it didn’t matter. Beneath the gentle burble of polite conversation, money changed hands throughout.
The Pace Gallery kept its pockets full with Zhang Huan ash paintings while Sperone Westwater waved its banner with high-priced Otto Pienes. But the liveliest action was at Regen Projects, where Barbara Gladstone, Glenn Ligon, Thelma Golden, and Amanda Sharp buddied up before handsome artworks by Raymond Pettibon, Liz Larner, Lari Pittman, and Elliott Hundley, all of which sold in the first hour.
Ten blocks south on Fifty-seventh Street, the infant fordProject Gallery hosted “Involuntary,” a trend spotter’s paradise of a sex-and-violence group show put together by Neville Wakefield. Chloë Sevigny stopped by on her way to a birthday party swinging a Chanel shopping bag past a pair of compelling slo-mo video self-portraits by Wakefield’s main squeeze, Olympia Scarry. But there was much to grab the eye and also the ear, thanks to the alarms ringing from a Claire Fontaine bell. New work by Kaari Upson, Matthew Day Jackson, Liz Magic Laser, and Mike Bouchet harmonized the awkward space, formerly a duplex apartment said to be haunted by the original tenants’ ghosts. A video by Bouchet, comprising ten thousand tiny squares containing climactic scenes from porn films obtained in ten thousand downloads from the Internet, hung in the upstairs landing. “Lotta work!” he said, still shaking his head at the magic of it all. Magic Laser, who offered the transcript of a session with a medium investigating the ghosts, had to fend off admirers convinced she was a direct route to the paranormal. Stranger still was the afterparty in the totally charmless Presidential Suite of the Surrey hotel, where a convocation of young art people in black gathered to imbibe champagne and await “edibles” from Café Boulud that never came.
Parties like this keep people busy during fair weeks, when there is so much self-promotion going on that it’s easy to forget that it is art drawing them together and not the sometimes entertaining and often bombastic display of sheer ego. At Wednesday afternoon’s VIP preview of the Armory Show, where 275 galleries held down booths on Piers 92 and 94, the fair seemed particularly full of itself, though slightly more buoyant than in its last two editions, where there was much thumb twiddling during the early hours. This time out, collectors that included Sofia Coppola, Charles Schwab, Dean Valentine, Marty Margulies, and the Rubells filled the aisles under the seedy fluorescent glare, flocking into Sean Kelly, Nicole Klagsbrun, Victoria Miro, and Lorcan O’Neill’s booths and voicing the usual complaints about the paucity of food and drink, the size of the fair, and the bald commercialism of the enterprise while spending money hither and yon.
David Kordansky appeared to be selling out his Ruby Neri paintings; Marine Hugonnier’s altered New York Times from the week of 9/11 impressed buyers at Max Wigram; and Michael Wilkinson’s brand of “cultural anarchy” made Toby Webster’s day at the Modern Institute. Kris Martin’s small pedestaled dice of God at Marc Foxx was among the most intriguing works on view anywhere. Of course, all dealers always insist that business is amazing and that the “quality” of the fair is high, though methinks they protest too much.
Left: Artist Glenn Ligon. Right: Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs with dealer Tommaso Corvi-Mora.
Overall, everyone seemed to be trying too hard to satisfy every taste with the same old same. Gimmickry, like the penny flooring by Ry Rocklen at Untitled, abounded. Iván Navarro’s neon replication of a wrought-iron fence surrounded a large empty space at the center, and that’s all there was of Paul Kasmin’s booth. Yet, as a metaphor for repression and exclusion––there was no way in or out of the space––it spoke to the way self-important fairs trap consumers into believing they are making significant discoveries among the labyrinth of merchandise on view instead of just killing time between moments of intense social interaction, the glue that holds the art world together.
Those lusting after more of that glue could avail themselves of the cocktail party for Croatian artist David Maljkovic that Metro Pictures and Sprüth-Magers galleries, both absent from the fair, threw that evening at the Jane hotel, where talk centered on the opening of the second edition of the Independent fair the following day. It’s almost endearing how art worlders never give up hope that the next big thing is around the corner, if only they can be first to notice it.
PRE-OSCAR WEEKEND and its attendant art events always amplifies rifts in the Los Angeles art community. There are those who think mixing art and Hollywood is a terrible idea, and there are those who find the whole procedure enticing. For the rest of the year, those of us who are indifferent to the entertainment industry here can ignore it, hibernating in our Eastside studios, while occasional brushes with celebrity glamour (mostly at parties for exhibitions coordinated to honor art and cinema’s connections—our unique version of Carnival) remind us that only a few boulevards separate our worlds. But this weekend’s openings, at Gagosian and Regen Projects in Beverly Hills, felt more charged than ever, with artists and critics vociferously, even ferociously expressing polar opposite opinions, and we all know why. He, the Academy Awards host himself and poster boy for Hollywood run amok in the art world, has already been slathered with attention across the board. Does he need any more?
“It would be genius if you didn’t mention him at all,” artist Stanya Kahn wrote in a letter to me about why she was skipping the James Franco/Gus Van Sant opening at Gagosian Friday night. (Like a new spin on Carter’s video work, Erased James Franco?) Of those who did attend, not many people I knew had praise for the show itself; we moved on to other pleasantries. One critic, who was stuck with me behind the hordes of photographers and wall of Gagosian assistants armed with guest-list clipboards, glimpsed the show—Van Sant’s four large watercolor portraits copied from random Internet photos and two Franco videos, My Own Private River and Endless Idaho, the latter a twelve-hour barrage of outtakes and unused footage culled from Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho era—and suggested, with some jokey exaggeration, that our art community had been “raped.” Extreme, yes—especially since we’re all here, voluntarily eating it up—but the show did seem an overt rejection of the idea that artwork should stand on its own aesthetically. Worse, perhaps, than Franco’s inability to calibrate his role in the system is that the art industry has been too obvious in its stooping to the level of the cinema machine.
As I exited the “River room,” Jeffrey Deitch smiled ear to ear and described his love of “unexpected moments” in art. But didn’t we all see this coming? Sure, the crowd was exceedingly glamorous: Gallery habitués with crossover art-cinema talent, like Udo Kier and Harmony Korine, looked like cult heroes compared with looming mainstream personalities like Robert Duvall, Ron Howard, Adrien Brody, and Michael Stipe (who was responsible for the score of My Own Private River, not that anyone could hear it). Surrounded by fans and cameras, the most many of us saw of Franco was the back of his snazzy sport coat. (One assumes that he evinced, from the front, the same stoner irony he gave at the Oscars Sunday night.) Gagosian’s press release compares Franco’s film editing to Warhol’s, but I left wondering why these videos weren’t simply added as extras to a DVD rerelease of a movie everyone I know worshipped in 1991. Didn’t Slater Bradley already do this anyway? Seeing River Phoenix resurrected in this gaudy manner made me slightly nauseous—or was that the vodka gimlet I’d enjoyed sipping in the heated, carpeted tent out back, where curators like Russ Ferguson and art writers like Sarah Douglas and ex–LA Weekly journalist Tom Christie sought respite? Obviously, I can’t claim complete innocence here.
Gagosian got one big thing right this weekend, and that was Ed Ruscha’s timely and poignant exhibition next door, “Psycho Spaghetti Westerns,” which had opened the previous night. Ten tremendous new paintings, installed spaciously throughout three large rooms, exuded their own charisma with desert horizon lines jutting diagonally across horizontal canvases, painted as flatly as movie backdrops, trash littering their grounds. Ruscha invites the viewer to face the debris, up close and personal. Don’t try to disguise it, these paintings say, or, as painter Francesca Gabbiani put it with tongue-in-cheek fondness: “Art is a form of pollution.”
While Ruscha’s opening hosted many of the same celebrities as Franco and Van Sant’s, this opening was not about celebrity. When Drew Barrymore beheld the two-foot-tall, shredded lightbulb box strewn across the landscape in Psycho Spaghetti Western #6, others in the crowd looked at the painting, not at her. Musicians including the Band’s Robbie Robertson and the venerable Van Dyke Parks took a gander too. “People ask me what I’ve been up to,” Parks said to a ring of us folk-music fanatics, including Eddie Ruscha Jr., who hovered around to pay respects. “I try to describe playing first to an intimate crowd of forty people, then to seventeen thousand the next day. But still people ask what I’ve done lately.” Parks announced that he’ll soon be releasing a series of seven-inch records, reminded us that it was a privilege to be at such a grand celebration, and handed us each a business card before literally bowing out.
Left: Valentino Garavani, Vera Wang, and Giancarlo Giammetti. Right: Director Ron Howard. (Photos: Patrick McMullan)
Friday night’s “Black Swan” opening at Regen Projects was almost tame by comparison, which is saying a lot, as it, too, was oozing with decadent style, and went lights out after one too many people intentionally stomped Walead Beshty’s mirrored-tile floor. “I’m glad we’re wearing underwear,” painter Allison Schulnik said to me as we entered the room together. I felt right at home when I saw Catherine Opie’s beaming smile amid a luscious group of alluring artworks, many of which were used on Black Swan sets. IT’S ALL ABOUT YOU, Douglas Gordon’s Mirror for Everyone spelled out in its top left corner; IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU, it said backwards reading schizophrenically from the lower right. There was also Rachel Kneebone’s biomorphically sexy, opaque white ceramic wreath, Shield III, and Banks Violette’s cast-aluminum chandelier, anchored askew like a sunken ship on the floor.
The afterparty, at the cozy Italian restaurant Il Covo, also struck a familiar chord. LAXART curator Lauri Firstenberg sat nearby while I chatted with artists Elliott Hundley and Schulnik about the qualities of oil paint and the politics of historical abstract painting. “If you don’t put yourself fully into your art,” Hundley said, “then the work is merely decorative.” Bret Easton Ellis occupied a booth in the corner, but the party, like the opening, was more an art-for-art’s-sake crowd. No surprise, perhaps, that this was the primary goal of “Black Swan”’s curator, Dominic Sidhu, an aim that he recounted as we warmed beside the restaurant’s fireplace. “Regen Projects is first and foremost about the art,” Sidhu said, and I saluted him in agreement.